Tag Archives: science

Science that threatens… and promises wonders

AI-birthGeorge Dvorsky has a piece on iO9, How Artificial Intelligence Will Give Birth to Itself,  summarizing many of the worrisome aspects of a possible runaway effect, when self-improving artificial intelligences (AI) get faster and faster at designing new and better versions of themselves. A thoughtful reflection on how the Singularity might (or might not) go out of control.

Alas, George left out a process issue that makes all the difference. That issue is Secrecy, which lies at the root of every Michael Crichton science-goes-wrong scenario. (Not one of Michael’s plot drivers would have taken place, if the “arrogant scientists” had done their innovating in the open – as most scientists have been trained to prefer – exposing their new robots/dinosaurs and so on to truly public, error-correcting criticism.)

secrecyEfforts to develop AI that are subject to the enlightenment process of reciprocal scrutiny might see their failure modes revealed and corrected in time. Those that take place in secret are almost one hundred percent guaranteed to produced unexpected outcomes. And most likely dangerous ones.

The worst example of AI research that is secret and extremely well-funded, while creating AI systems that are inherently amoral, predatory and insatiable? It’s a danger that I explore here: Why a Transaction Fee Matters to You. Automated investment programs… of which High Frequency Trading is only one example… represent probably the most dangerous AI research on our planet today.

== But who needs AI, with brainy-folks like this? ==

Closer-To-Truth-David-BrinRobert Kuhn’s television series Closer To Truth “gives you access to the world’s greatest thinkers exploring humanity’s deepest questions. Discover the fundamental issues of existence. Enjoy new ways of thinking. Appreciate diverse views. Witness intense debates. Express your own opinions. Seek your own answers. Get smarter.”

Wow… that’s a pretty hefty promise! So why not check out this fabulous series, now available online? Full disclosure: I contributed a few bits to the program, on topics ranging from cosmology and SETI to religion and ESP.

But scan the impressive lists of other folks, some of them – heck, most of them – way smarter than me! Such as David Deutsch, Freeman Dyson and Francisco Ayala. Mind-blowing stuff.

== We can do that! Should we? ==

SHOULD-WEYou’ve got to wonder why this politically self-destructive course has been chosen.   Perhaps something isn’t being told. China building Dubai-style fake islands in the South China Sea. All in service of asserting extremely aggressive territorial claims.

Also. Dubai is planning the largest indoor theme park in the world, which will be covered by a glass dome that will be open during the winter months. The project will also house the plant’s largest shopping mall with an area of 8 million sq. ft., which will take the form of an extended retail street network. Oil is creating whole climate controlled cities in the middle east, prototypes for space colonies?

Meanwhile, America declines into superstition. Nation apparently believed in Science…at some point. (I guess the Greatest Generation truly was better than us boomers.) 

Stirling cycle engines have long been considered an under-developed opportunity in power generation. Using a closed gas cycle to tap energy from any substantial heat difference, these external combustion devices have been used in spacecraft. They can – at very low maintenance – draw power from burning just about anything.   Now… Segway inventor Dean Kamen thinks his new Stirling Engine will get you off the grid for  under $10,000.

== Physics and astronomy ==

solar-stormA massive solar storm — or Coronal Mass Ejection — barely missed the Earth in 2012. “If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces,” physicist Daniel Baker, about the biggest storm in at least 120 years. Looking around and taking prudent precautions in a dangerous universe is what both science fiction and sanity are for. Ostriches who stick their heads in the ground will lose everything.

Long predicted — the Age of Amateurs in astronomy! Astronomers have long known that combining the data from several astrophotographs can reveal dramatically more detail about astrophysical objects. So what will they discover by combining all the astrophotographs on the Web? They’ve developed a system that automatically combines images from the same part of the sky to increase the effective exposure time of the resulting picture. And they say the combined images can rival those from much professional telescopes.

Cool. The Curiosity lander on Mars happened to be perfectly situated to catch images of the tiny (14 miles) moon Phobos eclipsing the Sun. Wow.

Oh!  Hot off the presses… (when will that phrase lose all relation to its origins?)…  NASA has revealed the suite of instruments that will likely fly on the next (2020) Mars roving laboratory, or “son-of-Curiosity.”  A way cool set of new scientific methods… though again nothing to explicitly check for life itself.

Astronomers announced the discovery of the fifth known triple supermassive black hole system in the universe. Some galaxies have more than one central black hole — each orbiting the other in relatively close proximity — and scientists say this is probably the result of two or more smaller galaxies merging. The two closest black holes are separated by a distance of 140 parsces (one parsec equals about 3 light years). The third supermassive black hole is much farther away.

HIGGINSA very interesting and challenging and smart series of cartoons explaining tough fields of physics, like magnetohydrodynamics. Also black holes and weird geometries. I do sniff a little crack-pottery, around the edges, so be aware some of it is… non-paradigm. Still, very good tours of difficult topics!

Savoir Sans Frontieres: Scientific Comic Books

The Silence Barrier: The Adventures of Archibald Higgins

The Black Hole: The Adventures of Archibald Higgins

A Caltech prof’s new theory suggests a highly unusual class of stars — 1 in 10,000 — may be made entirely of metal. Wow. I wonder how long they last.

Microscopically structuring steel like bamboo makes it stronger yet more flexible.

Finally, I have been putting in queries to Kip Thorne and other General Relativity experts about Hawking Radiation at the fringes of a gravity well… do any of you out there know such an expert with an open mind? I really do have a physics PhD!  So a little professional courtesy? 😉

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Steering the Future: on Earth and in the Heavens

Skype founder Jaan Tallin, in conjunction with the Gruber and Templeton Foundations, is sponsoring an essay contest: “How Should Humanity Steer the Future?”

HOW-SHOULD-HUMANITY-STEER-THE-FUTURE“Dystopic visions of the future are common in literature and film, while optimistic ones are more rare. This contest encourages us to avoid potentially self-fulfilling prophecies of gloom and doom and to think hard about how to make the world better while avoiding potential catastrophes. Our ever-deepening understanding of physics has enabled technologies and ways of thinking about our place in the world that have dramatically transformed humanity over the past several hundred years. Many of these changes have been difficult to predict or control—but not all. In this contest we ask how humanity should attempt to steer its own course in light of the radically different modes of thought and fundamentally new technologies that are becoming relevant in the coming decades.”

Ponder it!  But most of all, believe that we can steer the wheel of destiny. Cynics are of no use to anyone.

== The libelous distraction that scientists are lemmings  ==

EDGE-DENIAL-CLIMATEIn The Very, Very Thin Wedge of Denial, Phil Plait discusses one stunning disparity between the blog-claims of climate change deniers and the way that actual mode-consensus is achieved by real scientists, who can read data and understand the Navier-Stokes Equations.

Fox-centered denialists claim that the 97% of atmospheric scientists who agree that humans are altering the climate (less than 1% dissent) are doing so out of lemming-like herd mentality, chasing pathetic Al Gore inspired grants — never explaining how ditto-agreeing with a standard model will get any researcher even a penny. In fact, the top atmospheric scientists already have stable incomes (thank you) from their fantastically successful day-jobs creating (for example) the miraculous ten-day weather forecasts we now rely upon (much improved from a mere two hours, 20 years ago), or successfully modeling climate on six other planets. I know these guys and gals and lemmings they are not. Rather, top scientists are the smartest and most fearlessly competitive humans our species ever produced.

Plait offers an example of how the openly questioning competitive process works: “In 1998, two teams of researchers found evidence that the expansion of the Universe was not slowing down, as expected, but actually speeding up. This idea is as crazy as holding a ball in your hand, letting go, and having it fall up, accelerating wildly into the sky. Yet those papers got published. They inspired lively discussion (to say the least) and motivated further observations. Careful, meticulous work was done to eliminate errors and confounding factors, until it became very clear that we were seeing an overturning of the previous paradigm. It took years, but now astronomers accept that the Universal expansion is accelerating and that dark energy is the culprit.

“Mind you, dark energy is far, far weirder than anything climate change deniers have come up with, yet it became mainstream science in a decade or so. Deniers have been bloviating for longer than that, yet their claims are rejected overwhelmingly by climate scientists. Why? Because they’re wrong.”

twoda-brinAlas, Plait never mentions my own strongest argument against the denialist cult.  That their smug-pat jpegs and Fox-snips are all financed by the industry that will become less outrageously profitable if humanity develops more efficient energy systems. Promoting efficiency falls into the category of TWODA – or Things We Ought to be Doing Anyway.  Even if human generated climate Change were to prove 100% false, we would all be better off for taking reasonable measures toward energy efficiency… and those so vigorously preventing TWODA are enemies of our species, no matter how many twisted ways you rationalize or cut it.

== Science miscellany! ==

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) researchers are developing an electrodynamic tether designed to generate electricity that will slow down space-based debris.  Such a system features prominently in chapter one of my novel Existence, written when this notion was a glimmer in the eye of brilliant space engineer Joseph Carroll, who almost singlehandedly kept the technological doors open for this approach to solving problems in space.  It’s good to see the problem of space debris given serious attention, perhaps inspired by the movie GRAVITY.

In my fiction I have oft portrayed “gill masks” that allow a diver to extract oxygen directly from the surrounding water.  Has this miracle already arrived?  I would bet no.  But how cool if this actually works?

Ultrasound is one of several noninvasive methods that stimulate the brain. Another is transcranial magnetic stimulation, which apparently provokes more activity in the brain with magnets. A third is transcranial direct current stimulation, which uses electrodes to deliver a weak electrical current to the brain through the scalp. The new study suggests that ultrasound may be the best of the bunch.  (Though I still think reading is a more effective way to stimulate thinking. ) Oh what a brave (or interesting) new world.

cosmos-tysonThis spring will also see the premiere of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. According to Deadline, the series will debut on Fox on March 9th at 9PM, with bonus footage coming to the National Geographic Channel a day later at 10PM. Tyson’s show is a reboot of Carl Sagan’s revered Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, a short series with a broad scientific focus that first aired in 1980. Tyson’s Cosmos will explore the discovery of physics, with a promise to present complicated concepts in clear ways and with a proper dose of grandeur.

==Conquering the future==

Future Perfect - CoverwebSee The Future of Transportation, by Sci Fi author William Hertling (The Last Firewall).

The Guinea worm may be the next human pathogen to be eliminated.

Fellow author Joe Haldeman (The Forever War) on  Why the future of war will be even bloodier.  Ouch. Got… to… make… Star Trek…

For a view that progress is possible, see Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age, by Steven Johnson.

== Looking outward…to Space! ==

Terrific footage of the new Chinese “Jade Rabbit” lunar lander, at touchdown and then letting the rover roll off, putting new human tacks onto Luna.  Congratulations!

inspiration_mars_headerDennis Tito has a backup for his plan to  take advantage of a once-per-30- years opportunity for a Free Return flyby past Mars — like Apollo 8 & 13, there would thus be no need to schlepp a landing capsule or return fuel, brining a human crewed Mars mission forward by perhaps 30 years. (Tito wants to send a “qualified, older married couple” and my wife reminded me we both have PhDs in Planetary Science and the kids are almost out of the nest!)

Alas, with less than 5 years to prepare, there seems no way Tito and his Inspiration Mars team can pull this off. Especially now that NASA has begged off Tito’s request for $700M and use of the new NASA heavy launch system. Still, all may not be lost.  “There is a backup to the proposed 2018 flyby to Mars mission which envisions a 2021 launch that would feature flybys of both Venus and Mars. That would add 88 days to the just over 500 day mission and would involve more radiation hazards to the two person crew.”  Also, since $700M is kind of chump change for such a major undertaking, Tito has begun talking to the Russians and the Chinese.

Including Venus may add some radiation hazard. But Yipe. To be first living humans to TWO planets? And I would get so much writing done, while huddled inside the water tank, hiding from cosmic rays!

nasa-funding-cutsSo…. Has there been a recent “collapse” in funding for planetary exploration? It appears to be so, at least in the United States.  Have a look at a simple chart from The Planetary Society showing how our efforts to explore outward, which had been rebuilding in the first Obama term, suddenly fell to pieces amid the battles over shutdowns and health care.  This merits your attention. (Though always look at such charts to see if the bottom was chopped-off!)

Redefining the Habitable Zone: Here is good discussion of the Sun’s “goldilocks” or Continuously Habitable Zone, where water might remain on the surface in liquid form for evolutionary time scales.  And a related article on the search for “life” exoplanets. Yet again we see that Earth might be exceptional in one way… that we skate near the inner edge of our sun’s CUZ. Which helps explain why even a little human generated greenhouse gas can make a real difference… and may help to explain the Fermi Paradox.

The European Space Agency plans to re-awaken the Rosetta Probe!  It has been dormant out at more than 4 AU, saving energy till the day its orbit could approach a comet from behind at a great distance (the only way it can be done: you listening Hollywood?)  The hope?  To “land” on the comet before it gets too active and study its physical characteristics.  Then, harpooned to the surface, attempt to ride out the violent passage by the sun that we described in HEART OF THE COMET.  Hoping to learn how much my doctoral dissertation got right!

moon-express Is Mining on the Moon’s Horizon? Moon Express, based in Mountain View, Calif., just unveiled the design for a small robot spacecraft about the size of a coffee table that it says could move about the moon’s surface powered only by solar panels and hydrogen peroxide. The company hopes to build the robot and send it to the moon by late 2015, win the $30 million Lunar X Prize from Google for the first privately funded moon rover, and eventually get around to putting on the moon an operation capable of extracting valuable minerals.  

Um what minerals are they talking about?  I know of none to be found in that wasteland that we can at-present use. Sorry, you luna-tics out there, but in the near term, asteroids are vastly the better bet… though I do approve of some continuing lunar activity!  The best possibility?  Let billionaires finance it with tourism junkets.  Call it money-recycling that will have a positive outcome.

Telescopes that unfold light weight plastic optics, these may open up a new era of astronomy or earth science — or spying — in space.

Kinda weird.  Using gravitational “microlensing” — an almost-fey capability that would have given George Ellery Hale the creeps — a team thinks they have found a candidate for a pair of bodies comprising a free-floating exoplanet-exomoon system.  Wooof!

Most common exoplanets are weird ‘mini-Neptunes.’ “Mini-Neptunes dominate the inventory of 3000-plus planets discovered by Kepler,” says lead scientist and planet-hunter Geoff Marcy.  Worlds up to twice the size of Earth are dense and probably rocky, resembling our own planet. Those between two and four times Earth’s width are lighter, so are either wetter or gassy – more like versions of Neptune, which is itself four times Earth’s width.  Several observational bias effects make it difficult to make good statistical predictions based on the Kepler discoveries.  But every month we seem to have new “huh!” stuff to ponder!

Folks ask me for examples re my prediction of a looming “Age of Amateurs” in which ever-more expertise will be found in realms outside of the licensed professions… in avocations, retirees and so on. The trends are all around us, but nowhere more vividly than in amateur science.  See this especially vivid example of a passion for astronomy.  And yes, I portray this becoming dramatically important, in some fiction.

And finally. This optical illusion is so so SO worth your time.  I mean it.  You’ll thank me.

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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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Grand challenges, X-prizes and Mars volunteers: stimulating bold wonders

Grand challenges!  It’s an approach to stimulating research and technology that has been around for a while, stretching back to the British “longitude prize” of the 1700s.  Aviation medals and awards spurred rapid advances during the 1920s and 1930s and sparked breakthroughs in human-powered flight in the 1980s and 1990s.  One contest helped lead to creation of the “spaceship” sub-orbital craft that Richard Branson and Burt Rutan will soon use to offer spectacular jaunts for rich folks. (Something I portray evolving into an extreme sport, in Existence.)

xprizeNewer X Prizes – stimulated especially by Peter Diamandis of the X Prize Foundation – include Qualcomm’s contest to develop a medical tricorder and Google’s prize for the first private group to land an autonomous mobile probe on the moon, as well as Nokia’s Medical Sensing prize.

One major advantage of the prize approach is that the funder does not have to pay anything till the mission is accomplished. The allure of a possible prize… plus potential renown, of course… is often enough to make private groups, companies, teams or individuals willing to take passionate risks, investing their own time and money — a style of bold endeavor that did very well by our ancestors, during the Age of Exploration and the later barnstorming era of air flight development.  Many fail, some spectacularly… a few succeed. And we all move forward.

So let’s crowd-source this. Do any of you have ideas for endeavors or goals that would be perfect for an X Prize? It should require modest to intermediate cost, with substantial potential rewards… but with risky odds of success that are not quite good enough to draw in the normal market forces of rational investment. And cool!  It should be cool enough to attract some millionaire/billionaire — and/or NASA or the White House (I know a guy) — to propose it as a Grand Challenge.  Or else, speak up with challenges that you’ve seen and found impressive.

== Mars One: why did I volunteer? ==

I  believe that a one way Mars mission is a viable-enough idea for some people to consider it, even knowing, as I do, that “one-way” has several possible connotations.

MarsOneOn the surface, the claim is that eliminating the huge cost of the return flight will allow instead the establishment of full, self-regenerating and sustainable life-support systems on the Martian surface, allowing the new “colonists” to live out a normal span in some comfort. You’ll strive hard upon arriving, unfold and deploy solar powered units that can produce food and other necessities, and voila, become the first human citizen of the Red Planet.  “One way” then means you’re happy to spend the rest of a reasonable lifespan exploring, maintaining the colony, and then greeting the next wave. There is a basic reality to this, knowing that all that time at low gravity has probably left you unfit for life on high-g Earth, in any event.

But, of course, this mission would have very low margins for error or the unexpected. Even if the sustainability modules work perfectly, the odds are still strong that “one-way” will also mean “short duration.” In which case your hard work won’t be wasted. It will have set the stage for followup missions which will use your base, build on and improve it… after they bury you. And future generations will erect a monument on that spot.

You’ll want very qualified people, who can have a decent stab at setting up the life support technologies and perhaps (despite long odds) surviving to greet the second wave. But the first wave volunteers must be realistic about those odds, and willing to go, anyway.

And many call that very idea insane. I admit that may be somewhat true… so? People who cannot imagine any reasonable person making that choice simply aren’t envisioning the wide range of human diversity. Nor do they comprehend the vast drama of the human past, during which history often pivoted around risk-takers.

Consider what I told my family. By the very earliest date that Mars One might launch, I expect to be a spry 75 year old, whose kids are already successfully launched, and who might yet spend a few years doing something truly remarkable.  I think you’ll find tens of thousands of people who – under those circumstances – will at least ponder it seriously.

inspiration_mars_headerThough I still cannot guarantee I would decide to actually go.  I’d need to see competence.  Lots of it.  And I still prefer Dennis Tito’s Mars Inspiration mission!

Oh, neither one is likely to fly. We’ll go, however, sooner or later.

And this conversation is well worth having.

== Science Potpourri == 

A TV network has posted an edited snippet I gave them. Getting a bit lyrical and big-picture, I describe how we are in a race to cross a dangerous zone…into the future.

The world’s smallest flying robot has fly-like agility – stunning size and flexibility breakthrough in use of piezo-electric materials.  So far, it draws its power and computation down hairlike cable.  But we will live in the world described in The Transparent Society  (1997) – one in which “insects” will fly into any building capable of spying.  What is to be done?If we’re going to be watched, then let’s watch the watchers.  We may not be able to stop elites from looking at us.  But at least, that way, we can have a say in what they do TO us.

NASA is raising awareness for its upcoming launch of the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution spacecraft with its Going to Mars Project. The MAVEN spacecraft is scheduled for launch this November, to study the Red Planet’s upper atmosphere; and mission managers have invited the public to submit literary messages.  Haiku to Mars! 

google-timelapse-100036806-galleryNASA’s Landsat imagery goes back to the 1970s. A partnership with Google has merged this  time-lapse data into Earth Engine, a cloud-based system that makes all of these images available and comparable. A spectacular tool now available to private groups and individuals, or anyone wanting a direct view of changes over time that we have wrought upon our planet.

Read a very thoughtful essay by the Astronomer Royal Martin Rees, about our human destiny in space, colonizing the solar system and exploring the stars.

asterankAsterank has collected, computed, or inferred important data such as asteroid mass and composition from multiple scientific sources. With this information, they can estimate the costs and rewards of mining asteroids. Vivid and colorful (try the 3D version), it offers details on orbits and basic physical parameters are mostly sourced from JPL data.

Check out StarHopper, an intuitive app, similar to PlanetHopper that allows you to visually explore our universe. Soar through the star-filled void towards stars, asteroids, planets and all that our galaxy has to offer.

What does SETI stand for? What is its mission? A video I made for AskimoTV.

A quantum internet capable of sending perfectly secure messages has been running at Los Alamos National Labs for the last two and a half years.  The attraction? Any attempt to eavesdrop on a quantum message cannot fail to leave telltale signs of snooping.  Quantum-secure encryption has been around a while but only point-to-point.  A distributed system is more difficult.

In a major medical breakthrough, researchers have developed particles that can be injected into a bloodstream to keep it oxygenated even when the lungs are not functioning at all and there is no access to a heart-lung machine. The micro-particles used are composed of oxygen gas pocketed in a layer of lipids, around two to four micrometers in length and carry about three to four times the oxygen content of our own red blood cells. Beyond medical uses, imagine spies or seal who can “stay underwater for over 20 minutes? If a boat was to begin to sink, you could shoot yourself as the boat is going down to ensure you aren’t drowned in the under current of the sinking vessel.”

What do the “H” and “N” labels mean, in the designation of a flu virus? They stand for various versions of the coating molecules that the virus uses to latch onto and invade cells.  There are 144 possible combinations of coats, and this article explains that well.  What it doesn’t make clear is that there are other surface molecules that our bodies must also recognize, in order for immunity (or vaccination) to work.  Moreover, that says nothing about the core genetics of the virus, allowing it to hijack a cell once it is inside. This constitutes a whole other range of genealogies and one version of H1N1 may have a very different background than another.  Here’s to the professionals, at the front lines of this fight.

==Science and the Enlightenment==

IgnoranceThis nostrum is circulating, of unknown provenance but based upon an earlier snark by H. L. Mencken

      Philosophy is like looking for a black cat in a dark room.

     Metaphysics is like looking in a dark room  for a black cat that isn’t there.

     Theology is looking in a dark room for a black cat that isn’t there — and proclaiming, “I found it!”

     Science is like looking for a black cat in a dark room…with a flashlight. 

Is that why so many hate science? Is the amorphous movement called “the Enlightenment” in its final days?  Assailed by forces of far left and right, by impulsiveness and and romanticism and egotism and also by portions of religion, by all of those who demand that their subjective obsessions take primacy over objective reality? Here is an interesting article, The Trouble with the Enlightenment about the philosophical history – and future prospects – of “enlightenment” terminology and the ambitiously modernist project that it represents.

Alas, the author neglects one of the crucial aspects: that the continental branch of enlightenment philosophers got drawn into styles of Reason that began replicating the mistakes of Plato. Only the pragmatic/empirical/ progressive offshoot – across the water – developed new tools to overcome our human propensity for delusion and self-persuasion.  Tools that are – in themselves – the targets of attack by those who want the Enlightenment to end.  Worth a look.

== And then More science ==

Energy efficiency is often a hard sell in the US. Energy efficient devices can require a bit more money up front, which is then paid back gradually often over the course of several years. But a new study in the latest edition of PNAS suggests that the problem isn’t only a matter of economics—instead, like so much else, energy efficiency has become politicized. Because they so strongly object to the thought of climate change, many conservatives won’t spend more for energy-efficient light bulbs if their packaging contains a message about cutting carbon emissions.  “Conservatism” has so drifted from its roots in “waste-not” attitudes of the Puritans or the money-saving notions of Barry Goldwater, that (the study shows) the very words “efficiency” and energy independence and even saving money on energy rouse active hostility in those on today’s American right. Alas.

And while I’m offending 1/4 of my readers… why are so many climate change deniers also into conspiracy theories  and laissez faire (not AdamSmithian) economics?

== Final Notes ==

Security expert Bruce Schneier appears to be coming around to recognizing what matters most. Transparency and Accountability Don’t Hurt Security—They’re Crucial to It.

I am glad to see Bruce zeroing in on the key terms “transparency” and “accountability.”  These are the core goals that coalesce in “sousveillance” or looking back at authority from below.  We just won a major victory, when both the courts and Obama Administration ruled that citizens have a powerful right to record our encounters with police in public places.

I’m glad Bruce has come to see that assertive application of reciprocal accountability needs to be our main focus.

A bipartisan bill would create a new scientific figurehead: the Science Laureate of the United States. It sounds nice, innocuous, harmless. But let’s not fool ourselves into imagining this portends a shift away from the War on Science… and against all of the “smartypants” castes, from teachers and scientists to medical doctors, economists, journalists, professors, civil servants, law professionals. Don’t count Rupert Murdoch out, yet. He seems awfully determined. (And there is a smaller but just as vehemently anti-science crowd among nostalgia junkies of the far left, as well.)

Face it, folks. This is not about that stupid, lobotomizing “left versus right” metaphor. It is folks who are rational and contingently reasonable versus outright crazy. It is future versus past.

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Exciting possibilities in (and about) space!

First some exciting news about space-flight.  Then I’ll finish with a followup (and speculative) reflection on our recent multiple encounters with space rocks.
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== NASA’s NIAC: New and Innovative Advance Concepts ==

Soon I will be off to participate as an advisor in the Spring meeting of NASA-NIAC in Chicago.  NIAC is a far-out, little research program at NASA, trying to enable big things. NIAC stands for NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts. Its budget last year was $5.5M, or about 3/100ths of 1% of the $18 billion NASA budget. Its charter is to Change the Possible in aerospace. NIAC studies exciting, unexplored missions that won’t be “ready for prime time” for a decade or more. Here are a few projects they funded last year, chosen at random:

681397main_lunar_construction_astronauts_226   •    A  researcher at USC is trying to “3-d print” whole buildings with quick drying concrete. Behrokh Khoshnevis is working with NIAC to see if it’s possible to do this on the Moon or on Mars, using local soil, to build infrastructure in preparation for a future NASA mission.

•    NIAC has a researcher at Draper Labs, Kevin Duda, who is working on a space suit that would help astronauts feel a sense of “down” while in space for a long time. It might also help them exercise just by doing their regular movements. The suit has gyros on it that resist motion intelligently for that sense of “down”.

•    Kendra Short at JPL is trying to print small spacecraft. Not 3-D printing, but rather flexible printed electronics, batteries, sensors, everything on a sheet of mylar or even paper. This could be used anywhere in the solar system to rapidly design and print useful electronics.

SuperBallBot•    An interesting robotic rover is being designed with Mars in mind. Adrian Agogino is adapting tensegrity structures to make an inexpensive and durable rover, the Super Ball Bot, that you could simply drop down to Mars — no a parachute or airbags needed.

•    Here’s an example of something NIAC is funding on life support systems: Michael Flynn is developing Water Walls, Redundant Life Support Architecture, a concept to put the waste water processing into the walls of a spacecraft so that the water and waste would protect against radiation, too.

RAP•    NIAC is funding a small asteroid mining study. With the Robotic Asteroid Explorer, Mark M. Cohen is trying to figure out if mining an asteroid could ever make real business sense. If so, what might be valuable to mine in space, and how could it be accomplished?

One of the coolest parts of NIAC is how open it is: info about all their studies is freely available at http://www.nasa.gov/niac. Also, they have their projects report out to the program office at public meetings, the NIAC Symposiums. The next is in Chicago from March 12-14th. See their website for details on the Spring Symposium.

== More Exciting space news == 

The next three years will feature truly astounding announcements regarding human spaceflight: half a dozen new commercial and potentially human-crewed space vehicles, including:

lynx

–XCOR Aerospace’s Lynx suborbital space plane
–Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo
–Armadillo Aerospace’s Vertical Lander
–Stratolaunch’s Air-Launched Rocket
–Blue Origin’s Space Vehicle
–Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser Space Plane

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HedgehogA way cool concept that emerged from MIT, JPL and NASA NIAC… a Phobos mission (to replace the doomed Russian one) would start with an orbiter that then deploys several small “hedgehog” landers that fling themselves across the microgravity surface by sudden tilts driven by gyros and flywheels. I have long pushed for Phobos as a target.  It could very well be one of the most valuable sites in the solar system.

An electric sail produces propulsion power for a spacecraft by utilizing the solar wind (charged particles) instead of light. The sail features electrically charged long and thin metal tethers that interact with the solar wind. As illustrated in EXISTENCE. Now see plans for the real thing.

EmDrive, China’s radical new space drive using microwaves that seems to violate Newton’s laws by requiring no propellant mass?Professor William Napier and Dr. Janaki Wickramasinghe have completed computer simulations of our sun’s movements in its outer spiral location in the Milky Way, and determined that we are now entering a danger zone where molecular clouds might perturb the solar system — the odds of asteroid impact on Earth go up by a factor of ten.

Watch a great (and personal) tour of the International Space Station given by Sunny Williams just immediately prior to her departure from the ISS a month or so ago.  She literally gave it the day of her return to Earth… after commanding the ISS for the prior 3 months.

Not to be missed! Google has created a visualization of the 100,000 stars nearest to the solar system, based on actual astronomical data. You can zoom in all the way to the solar system to see how small Neptune’s orbit is relative to the Oort Cloud, or zoom right out to see how puny 100,000 stars is in just our quarter of the Milky Way galaxy.

600px_messenger_orbit_image20130218_1_4by3_946-710Scientists spin carbon nanotube threads on an industrial scale. This is huge – not just for a Space Elevator  but for construction in general. There’s a cool video showing how they do it – they’re not keeping it all secret…

And finally, a gorgeous false-color image of Mercury. NASA’s Messenger space probe has been mapping the surface, and has detected evidence of water ice and volatiles at the permanently shaded poles of Mercury.

== Finally: space rocks redux ==

To recap: one asteroid – about 50 meters across – zipped by Earth from the south, closer than our communication satellites, just hours after another – perhaps 15 meters across – plummeted in from the north and gave up more energy than a hydrogen bomb as it broke apart high over over Chelyabinsk, in the Russian Urals, briefly outshining the sun and shattering hundreds of windows.  Soon reports came in of lesser bollides over Cuba and San Francisco, leading one of you to write in that February 16 began featuring regular meteor showers a few years ago.  (The “Febrids”?)  So mark your calendars for next year, you northern hemisphere folks.
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All this ruckus led to my serving another stint as astronomy pundit on BBC. My job on-air was to reassure that there would be no radiation… that in fact, bollides like this one seem to strike our planet once a decade or so, but always till now over open ocean or deserts or countryside. (In the 1970s one such event, off Japan, almost triggered a rise in DEFCON alert level at the US NORAD!)  This was the first ever to perturb a city.

Anyway, we still aren’t “safe.”  Comets (my area of scientific expertise) could swoop down from almost any direction, almost any time.  So let’s become more capable of living and working out there in space!  Our proper path is vigorously forward.

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Science – nostalgia and foresight

got_civilization_magnetFirst some nostalgia for the future!  Need that gift for your nerdy sci fi friend? Underbrain offers T-shirts, mugs and caps with all sorts of logos from David Brin’s Uplift Universe – symbols of the Five Galaxies, dolphins & chimps posing for the Uplift Center, and the Terragens Marines patch! And the Eye-Q symbol for the Quantum Eye oracle computer in Existence. Got civilization? This will ensure that you do!

Ah, but the future used to be so cool! Some of us old timers recall the Sunday newspaper comic “Our New Age“, a shining example of techno-utopian idealism written by Dr. Athelstan Spilhaus between 1958  and 1975. Spilhaus, a distinguished academic whom JFK appointed to help run Worlds’ Fairs, responded to questions about his wide range of activities with the following quotation that I find especially apropos and inspiring:

“I don’t do ‘so many things.’ I do one. I think about the future.” — Athelstan Spilhaus, creator of the Our New Age series of science comic strips in the 1950s. Some of the strip’s predictions – e.g. consulting books electronically at vast distances – were on target.  Less so this one suggesting intelligent trained kangaroos as waiters and butlers by 2056!

== Distributed Science? ==

A sky-monitoring project, called SpaceView, is a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) program that enrolls the talents of amateur astronomers to help protect American space assets from orbital trash. DARPA has been becoming way, way cool in the last 4 years, sponsoring the Maker Movement and dozens of citizen-empowerment or distributed inventiveness endeavors. This has long been a focus of mine. I quoted DARPA’s  director discussing this, in my graphic novel about citizen-level manufacturing, TINKERERS.

A field that should be especially ripe for this? Distributed SETI! See how the SETI League’s Project Argus would (with help from some millionaire) get 5000 amateur radio telescopes set up around the world, watching the whole sky, instead of a tiny patch at a time.  Nothing could ever sneak up on us!  Take that you nasty UFOs.

And if we ever find nasty science-villains?  Well then. Get yer Heroes of Science action figures! Max Planck! J. Robert Oppenheimer!  Marie Curie! Alas, they’re Photoshopped, and not actual plastic … but perhaps with a Kickstarter campaign they might attain reality? We need double as many, just for starters.  Galileo and Newton and Jonas Salk and Craig Venter and Kip Thorne and Louis Pasteur…. But… but what about sci fi authors? What about scientist sci fi authors?

Take this hero, for example! In Slate: Kim Stanley Robinson shows us the path of reasonableness on geoengineering, or  “terraforming” the Earth.  It should not substitue or reduce a scintilla our determination to do better at not polluting out nest.  But KSR also wisely suggests we should explore one or two ways to have a “Plan B.”

== New Minds on the Horizon ==

The Navy is pondering retiring its program enlisting dolphins and sea lions to do sophisticated security work, finding mines, recovering objects and guarding against sneak attacks. The program is very successful and adaptable and I’ve met some of the animals who are kept healthy by a very extensive — and expensive — infrastructure of support staff. Only now the Navy is building an inventory of underwater robots that can do many of the same things at lower cost.  And yet…some very important studies  and insights have come out of the marine mammal programs. All the dolphins were born there and always come back of their own free will. There’s no program like it. And there may be long range outcomes…

Speaking of which. Ray Kurzweil’s new book, How to Create a Mind: The Science of Human Thought Revealed presents a discussion of artificial intelligence, exploring how the brain works…and how we can reverse engineer the human brain to produce a non-biological brain.

Along those lines…IBM recently announced a simulation of 530 billion neurons, 100 trillion synapses on supercomputer. Of course, all of this assumes that synapses are the only features that must be emulated in the “connectome” to simulate human consciousness. Therer are hints of intra-cellular computing within neurons and astrocytes… but let’s not spoil the celebration.

And the world’s new fastest computer, Titan, housed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, owes its rapid computing power to graphics processing units (GPUs) — developed for video games.

== Your Potpourri of Cool Advances ==

Only now, extrapolating… a little Uplift anyone? A newly discovered gene appears to have played a crucial role in human brain development and may shed light on how we learned to use tools and language. Apparently, the gene emerged fully functional out of non-coding genetic material, previously termed “junk DNA”, in a startlingly brief interval of evolutionary time. Until now, it has been remarkably difficult to see this process in action. This new molecule sprang from nowhere (or was “donated?) at a time when our species was undergoing dramatic changes: living longer, walking upright, learning how to use tools and how to communicate.

The key thing about disasters is to learn from them and plan to do better next time.  And perhaps the next time a super-storm hits Manhattan — and other urban areas — super-sized balloons will be on-hand to inflate and prevent flooding of transportation tunnels.

New battery-capacitor technology based on graphene: SMCs gets their amazing performance by using a cathode and anode that contain very large graphene surfaces. When fabricating the cell, the researchers put lithium metal (in the form of particles or foil) at the anode. Now, we can expect a lot of news items like this one and the odds are that a majority will be false leads or busts or disappointments.  But the curves are already fantastic.  Next year’s Tesla cars will have vastly improved range and the next year’s will have reduced battery weight. And within five years no one will be wanting internal combustion cars for their commute or drive-around-town car.  Get used to the idea!

Electrochromic windows promise to cut energy costs and respond to inhabitants’ needs with the speed of electric current. A thin layer of tungsten oxide sandwiched between two glass panes can make it shine as-u-like.

New artificial muscles made from nanotech yarns and infused with paraffin wax can lift more than 100,000 times their own weight and generate 85 times more mechanical power than the same size natural muscle.

Hydrogen is an attractive fuel source because it can easily be converted into electric energy and gives off no greenhouse emissions. New results now increase the output and lower cost of current light-driven hydrogen-production systems. The chemists say their work advances what is sometimes considered the “holy grail” of energy science—efficiently using sunlight to provide clean, carbon-free energy for vehicles and anything that requires electricity. Still a long way to go.

Companies that have built multimillion-dollar factories say they are very close to beginning large-scale, commercial production of these so-called cellulosic biofuels, and others are predicting success in the months to come.

Although the overall size and asymmetrical shape of Einstein’s brain were normal, the prefrontal, somatosensory, primary motor, parietal, temporal and occipital cortices were extraordinary. These may have provided the neurological underpinnings for some of his visuospatial and mathematical abilities… and his penchant for “thought experiments” projecting himself into hypothetical realms.

Recall the “OttoDogs” in EXISTENCE? Now comes a detector that uses microfluidic nanotechnology to mimic the biological mechanism behind canine scent receptors. The device is both highly sensitive to trace amounts of certain vapor molecules, and able to tell a specific substance apart from similar molecules.

Three innovative new energy technologies are explored in the current issue of Technology and Innovation — Proceedings of the National Academy of Inventors:

  • Tidal currents and ocean waves that can be recovered using ocean thermal conversion technology.
  • Infrared thermal radiation (more than half of the power provided by the Sun).
  • A new nanophosphor-based electroluminesence lighting device that caters to the exact wavelengths of light required for photosynthesis in indoor, hydroponic agriculture.

== And finally: Science weeps =

Tea Party senatorial candidates (and troglodytes) Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock were not anomalies, alas. It seems that every anti-science cultist in the U.S. House of Representatives GOP Caucus is eager to join the House Science Committee, packing it not only with Climate Change denialists, but men (entirely) who proclaim the Earth to be six or nine thousand years old, who repeat bizarre theories about rape, who decry vaccination, who rail against genetic research and who denounce sciences as diverse as geology, ecology and meteorology. Do not blame the people. The total number of national votes for the two major parties’ congressional  candidates was not won by the GOP.  Blame Gerrymandering.

As I’ve long emphasized, things weren’t always this uniform on the right.  Sure, there were witch hunts against scientists in the 1950s… balanced by the fact that Jonas Salk was the most popular man in America and soon so would be the NASA techies.  And a bipartisan consensus in Congress supported Adm Hyman Rickover’s upheaval of the US Navy to go nuclear. For every idiot decying the inherent inequality of minorities, there was a William F. Buckley inviting great minds on his show.  And not all Republicans helped Big Tobacco and Big Smog do their multli-decade obstruction campaigns. (So similar to climate denialism, today, using some of the same tactics and firms.)

This past diversity among Republicans is illustrated in a fascinating piece in The Chronicle: Why Conservatives turned against science: early environmental issues were bipartisan, by Erik M. Conway and Naomi Oreskes.

Summary: “Climate scientists came under attack not just because their research threatened the oil industry (although it certainly did that), but also because they had exposed significant market failures. Pollution is a market failure because, in general, polluters do not pay a price for environmental damage (and this includes not just polluting industries, like electrical utilities, but also anyone who uses a product—like gasoline—that takes up a portion of the planetary sink without paying for it). Nicholas Stern, a former chief economist at the World Bank, has declared climate change “the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen.”

And this: “Accepting the need to correct market failures required one to concede the need to reform capitalism—in short, to concede the reality of market failure and limits. This became increasingly difficult for Republicans during the 1990s and 2000s. Party leadership began supporting primary challenges against party members deemed insufficiently conservative, driving many moderates into retirement, and some out of the party entirely. Some Republicans who had acknowledged the reality of global warming lost their seats; others—including Mitt Romney—began to deny the problem, knowing that if they didn’t they would not be electable as Republicans….”

Ah, but there is movement elsewhere.  That core institution of international capitalism, the World Bank, has issued a major report examining the likely economic outcomes  (mostly disastrous) expected from Global Climate Change.

Remember, the recent election was not the core event, but a sideshow to the main battle. A “culture war” that was not chosen or started by those who side with science and reason and evidenc-based thinking But it has becomes clear, that kind of thinking — and a civilization that supports it — is fighting for its life. And as the great historian Arnold Toynbee said.  When a society turns its back on its “creative minority”… that is when most kingdoms, nations, empires and commonwealths fail.

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Crowd-sourcing “citizen science,” new products and ideas

Citizen engagement is essential to our fast-changing civilization. Politics could certainly use more empowerment of common citizens. So could innovative commerce, and even national defense relies on a robust citizenry. But one area with especially bright prospects, is crowd-sourced — or individual participation in — inventiveness and science.

It’s a topic I’ve discussed many times. As a teenager, growing up in Los Angeles, I participated in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO), gathering mountains of data for professional astronomers, one of countless such groups that you might learn about via the Society of Amateur Scientists. In my new novel Existence, I portray this trend accelerating as individuals and small groups become ever more agile at sleuthing, data collection and analysis — forming very very smart, ad-hoc, problem-solving “smart mobs.” But even in the months since that book was published, reality seems to be catching up with fiction.

For example, as funding dollars for science are increasingly under threat, a number of groups are offering opportunities for crowd-funded basic research, enabling citizens to interact directly with teams at the cutting edge of some topic. Envision a kind of KickStarter for science research. Dr. Jai Ranganathan, co-founder of the SciFund Challenge, asks “What would this world look like if every scientist touched a thousand people each year with their science message? How would science-related policy decisions be different if every citizen had a scientist that they personally knew? One thing is for sure: a world with closer connections between scientists and the public would be a better world. And crowdfunding might just help to get us there.”

Backers receive periodic updates on their chosen projects and direct communication with researchers. They may also receive souvenirs, acknowledgment in journal articles, invitations to private seminars, visits to laboratories or field sites, and occasionally, naming rights to new discoveries or species. One advantage to researchers is that they can receive funding in a matter of weeks, rather than months.

Current projects on the science funding site Petridish include: saving the Samaki fish in the world’s largest desert lake, monitoring glacial lakes, and tracking sharks with satellites. Or on Microryza, you can contribute to tracking Magellenic Penguins, or exploring the stability of neural networks. iAMscientist offers opportunities as diverse as monitoring Diamondback Terrapins with new tracking technologies, and robotic hand rehabilitation for stroke victims. Recent projects on RocketHub’s SciFund Challenge include projects to identify new drug candidates to treat Alzheimer’s disease, developing artificial photosynthesis, or saving stressed coral reefs on Kiribati. Or you can donate to specific projects, such as LiftPort, which seeks to build a space elevator.

If you’re looking for more active involvement in research projects, you might try SciStarter, Scientific American’s Citizen Science, or Zooniverse, which offers a compilation of projects for citizen involvement, such as studying how solar storms affect conditions on earth at Solar Stormwatch and identifying exoplanets at PlanetHunters. Volunteers can help classify galaxies at Galaxy Zoo, learn to map retinal connections at EyeWire, map the age of Lunar rocks with MoonZoo, or analyze extraterrestrial signals with SETILive. You can donate your home computer’s processing power to SETI@Home to help analyze data from radio telescopes such as Arecibo.

Indeed, one worthy project that could help in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence more effectively than the sadly obsolete program at the Seti Institute would be to re-ignite Project Argus, the alternative endeavor of the Seti League, that envisions setting up 5000 radio telescopes in back yards across the planet, keeping the entire sky under observation, all the time, instead of peering through a super-narrow soda straw at distant specks of space, one at a time.  A system far more likely to catch the rare blip of an alien race “pinging” us, which recent calculations show to be more plausible than the imagined tutorial “beacons.”  In any event, this is where one millionaire could help thousands of eager (and tech savvy) amateurs to become key members of a worldwide smart mob, hunting ol’ ET down!

Citizens have long participated in regional bird counts, as well as monitoring butterfly migration, wildlife, and local water quality. Technology has enabled high quality data collection and recording tools to be widely available to amateurs. You can even do science without leaving your home…the online game Foldit allows gamers to compete to fold protein structures to achieve the best scoring (lowest energy) configuration.

Whatever your level of involvement, you can have the satisfaction of participating in humanity’s greatest endeavor. In an era when political factions and media empires are waging relentless “war on science” this trend toward active participation — or providing some financial support — is the surest way to help support an active, vigorous, future hungry and scientific civilization.

Well… and vote, of course.   And show your crazy uncle the melting of the arctic…

==Crowd Sourcing Ideas and Innovation! ==

Then there’s tinkering and creating new products, new services, the sort of thing that Adam Smith (and anyone with sense) proclaimed as the heart and soul of productive enterprise. Sure, good things have happened to help stimulate creativity.  Patent law was (believe it or not) a huge advance over what came before.  Venture capitalists tend to have the imagination of Galapagos finches, but they, too, were somewhat of a step forward. Only, now, as we finally creep out of the dullard doldrums of the Naughty Oughts, there arrive dozens of new approaches that may do a lot of good, stimulating our creative juices.

Unused inventions get crowd-sourced sparkMarblar is the latest in a string of “open innovation” sites that attempt, in one way or another, to encourage inventiveness online.  It does this by crowdsourcing a simple request:find new uses for under-exploited patents.

Related endeavors? ArticleOne asks its community of users to find “prior art” – published documents that show an invention existed before it was patented – to quash patents that firms have been accused of infringing.  (It also helps good/original patents to thrive!)

Or take: Innocentive, where companies and NGOs present problems that they feel need solving – such as how to develop a portable rainwater storage system for the developing world. On the flipside, IBridgeNetwork and Yet2.com post university and corporate research in a bid to find people who’ll license their technology to commercialize it.

== Then build it! ==

And the Maker Trend builds momentum!  Read about new companies that will bring 3D printing to the home. Letting you take a downloaded or self-made template and order up a physical version. Even a sculpture made from your head-scan. Commercial 3-D printing works with only a few dozen types of materials, mostly metals and plastics, but more are in the works. Researchers are experimenting with exotic “inks” that range from wood pulp to sugar. (And stem cells! But that’s a different story…)  Some devices can extrude liquid foods, like icing and melted chocolate. Soon we’ll be able to print everything from birthday cakes to electric circuits, potentially making complex electronics from scratch.

“When 3-D printers make an object, they use an “additive” technology, which is to say they build objects layer by layer from the bottom up. (By contrast, other computer-controlled machines, such as the CNC router and CNC mill, are “subtractive”; they use a spinning tool to cut or grind away material.)”

Yes yes.  But will you (gentle reader) forgive me if I add a perhaps mysterious parenthetical? Both methods miss the real deal.  I know how to do it — create 3D objects — by actual random access of individual points in space!  But I ain’t telling.

==Programming for Everyone==

While we’re on the burgeoning topic of crowd-sourcing…  Inform the world about Raspberry Pi!  Can a $35 computer persuade kids to put down their smartphones and try their hands at programming?   Or at least explore the guts that make things work? Another part of the new Maker Movemen.

Long before I keynoted a recent Maker Faire, I was trying to throw incendiaries about this matter.  For example in the Salon Magazine article “Why Johnny Can’t Code,” which complained about the lack of a common – very basic – programming language in all computers. Something simple, reliable and universal — remember when ALL “home” computers had such a lingua franca language that all kids could fool with?  One so common that textbook publishers used to include try-it-at-home exercises in all the math and science books. Yes that language sucked.  But millions of kids got a taste of what made the pixel move — (an algorithm!) — and that does not happen anymore.

(Incidentally, that article brought me more hate mail than even my pieces dissing Star wars!)

Perhaps Raspberry Pi will help to change that, yet again.Tomorrow’s kids may know more about the “guts” of their technological world than the video-game generation does.  In part thanks to great efforts like this.

== And finally… some sci-miscellany ==

Physics wonks Uncertainty over the Uncertainty Principle? Canadian researchers have cleverly used “weak measurement” methods to glimpse the polarization of a light wave before it enters a strong measurement device, in order to appraise whether the effects of measurement are as predicted by the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle.  If verified, the results might indicate that Uncertainty caused by measurement may be but smaller and more complex than we thought.  Maybe.

Random science thought…Is science a one-man enterprise?  Diametrically opposite to fantasy’s romantic images of wizards, the best scientists publish and share as quickly as they can.  And even when they have towering egos, they know they aren’t doing it alone. The Poster Boy is a good example. Galileo is credited with a number of discoveries during the Gosh-Wow-Look! era of astronomy.  Yet very few were uniquely his.  As one of you commented recently: “Marius concluded that Jupiter had moons one day later than Galileo.  David Fabricius published a pamphlet several months before Scheiner made his meticulously documented series of observations, which in turn was a month or two ahead of Galileo.  Harriot as usual was ahead of everyone, and as usual never published.  Sure, he deserved attention as the sun around which science revolved in his era.” (See my short story about Galileo at Harvard!) “But take Galileo out of the equation, and all the same discoveries are made.  We’d be talking about Scheiner’s sunspots, Fabricius’ lunar mountains, Marius’ moons of Jupiter, or Lembo’s phases of Venus!”

== Final Notes ==

Sexiest job of the 21st Century: Data Scientist, according to The Harvard Business Review.

Should our 8 hours of sleep be divided into “firste sleep” and seconde sleep”?

Is it really about to be 2025… the home time of the Jetsons?  Here’s a contemplation of the Jetsons, and how they influenced our attitudes (and expectations) of the Future. Even more chilling, it will soon be 2015, the (back to the) Future of Marty McFly… and where’s my Mr. Fusion?

Yes, I know… this was a long posting.  But it’s about the really important stuff!  Alas, next time we’ll return to the aggravating irritation known as politics.

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The Case for a Scientific Nation: Part Two

Last time I made it clear whom I blame for 90% of the tragic collapse of American political discourse, and especially the War on Science.  Indeed, I will finish (in a bit) by quoting one of the most eloquent calls that I have seen, for a return to confidence in our future-oriented nation.

But first…

== Where democrats have sinned, too ==

Oh, I could cite figures to you. Like the fact that only around 6% of U.S. scientists are still Republicans. (And that includes folks like me, whose GOP registration is both nostalgic and “tactical.”)    Still, it’s true that Democrats do not have a blemish-free record when it comes to science.

Oh, the dems increased research budgets and ended most political censorship of peer-review commissions. They repaired the crippling damage done (deliberately) by George Bush upon our energy and efficiency research programs, goosed the now-healthy auto industry into a burst of mileage-saving measures, and steered manned spaceflight from an absurd lunar boondoggle to privatization of launch and reaching toward planetary resources. Polemically, I have reason to believe that President Obama is at least friendly to the notion that we should be a civilization propelled by curiosity.

Still,   Go look up Science Left Behind by Alex B. Berezow and Hank Campbell…about the rise of anti-science tendencies on the far left. A secondary but very real problem, described by a founder of Science2.0.  Anyone who talks for very long with a genuine American leftist — as opposed to the vastly more numerous moderate liberals — can quickly see that romantic-nostalgic spite toward science and technology is not the sole province of Fox-watchers.

(The real difference between the far-right and the far-left? Both extremes are crazy. Both despise science. But one of them owns and operates an entire political party and ran the nation off a cliff. The other dominates a hundred university soft-studies departments, and almost nothing else. Big deal.)

In fact, let me take this farther and lay down my biggest science-related grievance against democrats. I will never forgive Nancy Pelosi for what she did not do during her brief tenure as Speaker of the House.

One move might have made clear the two parties’ pro vs anti science traits. That action would have been to restore the independent advisory apparatus that Congress used to maintain, from World War II all the way until 1995, when Newt’s radical neocons banished the Office of  Technology Assessment, kicking out every fact-checker and irritating expert who might dispute polemical dogma with inconvenient “data.”

Amid the battles over Health reform and other major fights, this would have been a trivial side matter to pass in an afternoon, funding OTA for twenty years in advance and making sure all congress-critters would have neutral bean-counters and nerds at their elbows, irritatingly murmuring “Well… actually, the facts say…”

What could be more important, as our politicians are asked to construct policies about a rapidly changing technological environment, with every issue dependent upon scientific  insight? Both as a practical matter and as a declaration of fundamental political difference, no other action would have spoken as loudly or carried as much weight with our nation’s knowledge castes.

I take Ms. Pelosi’s failure to fix this very seriously. It disqualifies her from leadership, should the dems re-take the House. Seriously. A total blow-it.  Go with someone else.

== The real problem and solution, eloquently put ==

But enough with being evenhanded.  The matter before is is fundamental.  As fundamental as freedom, or the basic laws of economics.

This needs some punch. So let me hand the mike over to internationally renowned tech-business pundit Mark Anderson, of the Strategic News Service, who wrote the following, just after watching the brilliant landing of our Curiosity space probe on Mars:

Science is reality.

At a time when a large and increasing fraction of the U.S. population does not “believe in” science (i.e., objectively provable reality) – or, worse, has bought into the idea that science is just one choice on the reality menu – NASA has again given concrete reason to understand that science works, and that science is not an option, not a theory, not a menu item, but instead represents the finest efforts of human minds in understanding, and addressing, objective reality.

Those on Earth who currently think that science is a political football should take note: not only are you endangering your own reputation, you are endangering the welfare of your constituents, and today, of the planet itself. 

Any person or party which mocks science should be considered for what he or it is: a threat to the welfare and future of us all.  Under the influence of political propagandists, misled religious zealots, and truly dangerous television and radio empires (such as Fox (Not) News and Rush Limbaugh), too many people today have been led to believe that science is in some way an option to opinion.

Science is as optional as gravity.  Ignorant delusion is the only real option.

It is time for the U.S. to catch back up to the world in this matter, and recognize the value of scientific study and theory, the use of scientific consensus in guiding public policy, and the wonders that we can achieve when we abandon self-aggrandizing political fantasy in favor of objective scientific knowledge. 

We should use this marvelous achievement to create a new cultural change in the United States, returning us to the group intelligence of past eras, when no one doubted that an experiment, done with the same result in many locations, demonstrated an objective truth.  Not an opinion, not a religious position, not a political chip, but another permanent addition to our ever-rising mountain of human scientific knowledge.

The world owes much to the people of NASA, of JPL, and to the taxpayers of the U.S., who have achieved the most important step in space exploration yet attempted.  This was done by a willing and informed government, working with private contractors, paid for with taxes.  It stands as one of the greatest of tributes to human intelligence yet achieved, shoulder to shoulder with decoding the human genome. 

I highly recommend that you take a moment to watch the scene inside JPL headquarters in Pasadena, as Curiosity makes its way safely to the Martian surface.  We owe a great deal to those pictured in their moment of triumph, and citizens of the U.S. owe it to themselves, if they wish to remain a great nation, to put a rapid end to the rise of ignorance in their country which threatens scientific endeavor, and the acceptance of scientific findings. 

Our thanks go out to all of the people who, using Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, just flew a car-sized laboratory across the solar system, landed it safely at the end of four lines under a crane under a rocket under a parachute that popped out from a targeted aerobraking shell, from a ballistic missile, to bring us yet more scientific knowledge about the world.

It is time for all Earth inhabitants to recognize the value of science.  In doing so, we will find common ground for agreeing on other important things.

Wow. I could not have said it better than Mark just did. All the way to his tone of militancy.  Because it is, indeed, time for moderate pragmatists to stoke up their own sense of militant ferocity and drive.

If you are unconvinced by the plight of the middle class, or the diametrically opposite records of the two parties at fostering economic growth or entrepreneurial startups, or the blatant oligarchic power grab of Citizens United, or the fact that all our present deficit comes from just four GOP “programs”…*

…then at least ponder science. Hated by viewers of Fox, adored by viewers of Jon Stewart.  That pretty much says it all.

——————

—– AFTER-THOUGHTS ——-

GOP “programs” that made nearly all of today’s skyrocketing U.S. debt. Two multi-trillion dollar land wars of endless quagmire-attrition in Asia, attempting futile “nation building” in places where we’re hated… plus vast tax gifts to the oligarchy, that they have not spent on the promised productive factories, not ever… plus Medicare Part D for which no funding source was ever devised, just a vast, red-ink gift to Big Pharma.  Add them up, plus the effects of Bush’s “ownership society” deliberate asset bubble….  Remove them and what do you get?  We are back to Bill Clinton, paying down the deficit every year.  And you would put those guys back in charge?  Really?

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Do Sci Fi attitudes reflect our times?

Nearly two thirds (65 percent) of Americans think that President Obama would be a better leader than Mitt Romney if an alien invasion were to happen.  Hm, well, yes… and?  So?  A survey for National Geographic finds extraterrestrial visits not that crazy an idea to most Americans. Thirty-six percent of Americans think aliens have visited Earth, and almost 80 percent believe the government has kept information about UFOs a secret from the public.

Sigh. Mr. Sci Fi and aliens here… and I am in the 12% who say “not!”  But that hasn’t stopped me from issuing taunts at alien lurkers.  Which you can laugh at (aloud!) in Existence.

Is this a sign of the times — correlated with attitudes toward science?

For Congress now speaks a full grade level lower than it did in 2005. Falling from grade 11.5 to 10.6. Using the Flesch-Kincaid test that gives your kids the “reads at a 10th grade level” score, the Sunlight Foundation has measured the vocabulary used in Congressional speeches over the years and found that the level has dropped suddenly. For both parties, but particularly amongst Republican Congressmen, particularly amongst the newest batch, such as Rand Paul (3rd worst, speaks at an 8th grade level.) Indeed the entire worst ten are Republicans (eight of those are freshmen.) And the more conservative they are, the worse their speech (dropping by three full grades from center to fringe.) Interestingly, amongst Democrats with less than 10 years in Congress, the trend is similar, those closest to the political centre have the most complex speech, while those further to the left drop by about a grade. But for Democrats in Congress for more than 10 years, the trend is sharply reversed. Are candidates dumbing down their speech, or are parties dumbing down their candidates?

And North Carolina legislators want to stop planners from using the state’s own science panel’s prediction of sea level rise (about 1m by 2100, fairly conservative). Alack! There is one potential salvation from this madness.  For the insurance companies to make clear that, in 20 years, they plan to go after all the doofuses who delayed prudent measures by squelching the reasonable advice of the scientists who actually knew what they were talking about.

Part of the hysterical incantation that “government is never good” comes from folks who actually believe we would have had jets, rockets, telecom, weather forecasting, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, the Internet, or countless other things, without the advanced R&D that we, as citizens, agreed to pay for because the benefits and ROI lay beyond any plausible Return on Investment horizon of major corporations.  (And if we – as a people – had drawn only a small “businesslike” 5% royalty on those things, all red ink in the budget would today be erased.)  HALF of economic growth in the last 60 years is attributed to Science and Technology.  And here is just one of many documents making that point.

Hence, the War on Science… and on all other intellectual or knowledge castes is a lot more than just politics.  It is a stab at the very heart of any chance for your grandchildrens’ prosperity.  Think about it.  (But then, people who come here are already thinkers.  You already HAVE thought about it. So I’m wasting breath.)

==Politics & Economics for 2012==

What is Bain Capital?? Co-founded by Mitt Romney in 1984, Bain would buy a company and increase its short-term earnings through firing workers and shuttering plants in order to borrow enormous amounts of money. The borrowed money was used to pay Bain dividends, however, those businesses needed to maintain that high level of earnings to pay their debts. When they couldn’t, that meant plant closures, more layoffs, bankruptcies, and in many cases, the end of the business. Yet these bankruptcies still meant huge profits for Bain’s investors. Furthermore, Bain continued to collect management fees even as companies failed.  As the New York Post reported, during his 15 years as head of Bain, Romney “made fortunes by bankrupting five profitable businesses that ended up firing thousands of workers.”

Our Wall Street friends are offshoring even their own subordinates’ jobs…

David Cameron held his first meeting with Francois Hollande and threatened to veto the new French president’s plan for a European tax on financial transactions. The Prime Minister made clear he will block any French move that would harm the (banker-financiers) of the City of London. Many of you have seen how firmly I support the transaction fee which – at 0.1% – would scarcely be noticed by humans like you or me, but shift power away from a few brokerage houses doing High Frequency Trading (HFT) which inflates bubbles, creates wild speculative swings, dashes in to rob buyers and sellers of the “price difference” they count on… and may (as I explain elsewhere) lead to the “Calamity of Skynet.”  I have lived in both London and Paris. I know the quirks of their inhabitants.  In this case, the London quirks add up to — wrong!

On NPR I listened to an interview with Arthur C. Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute, about his new book The Road to Freedom, which is clearly a take-off from Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom Now, I started out hostile, since I consider the AEI to be one of the core nexi that gave us neoconservatism and almost every rationalization for the monstrous hijacking of American Conservatism, turning it into a force that has done indescribable harm to America and the Western Enlightenment Experiment.

Those of you who know me can attest that I parse this denunciation not from any “leftist” position, but as an acolyte of Adam Smith and a believer in the proved creative power of fair and vigorous human competition.  As Smith declared – and as 6000 years of history have shown – the worst enemy of markets, freedom, and (yes) capitalism has always been monopolistic oligarchy.  The very force that pays AEI’s bills and bribes its boffins to concoct a rationalizations for a return of feudalism. And yet…

And yet, listening to Brooks, I got a sense of a rather reasonable fellow!  An intelligent person who believes in nuance and even something anathema on today’s right — the possibility of negotiation and mixed/pragmatic/innovative solutions to modern problems.  Fr example, he takes the attitude that government should be working to prepare us for a world of climate change, whether or not the worst fears prove valid.

How much of his stance is feigned?  Perhaps as part of an effort to keep despairing smart-conservatives from bolting the GOP, as nearly all the formerly republican scientists, teachers, journalists, economists, medical doctors and others already have?  Or else, is he the real deal?  An archetype for the dreamt-of return of the Goldwater-Buckley conservative?  That nearly extinct species who spoke with gentility and calm willingness to negotiate with their neighbors? How I miss em.

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My Top Choices in Science-Oriented Webcomics

We all need a break from time to time. Where can you turn for a bit of lighter Science online? It’s elemental: Here’s a look at some of the best, totally nerdy online science-oriented comics, listed in no particular order. This is only a sampling of the phenomenal work being posted online.

Xkcd: A Webcomic of Romance, Sarcasm, Math and Language by Randall Munroe, is probably the most widely known. A cast of stick figures addresses topics ranging from science research to philosophy to relationships and the absurdity of daily life. The illustration to the left mocks Frank Drake’s infamous Drake Equation, which attempts to calculate the number of ‘intelligent’ extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy — a topic I’ve discussed quite a bit.

phd Comics: Piled Higher and Deeper: an ongoing chronicle of the life (or lack thereof) in Academia. This comic focuses on the complications of modern scientific research, and the difficulties of graduate school. Written and drawn by Jorge Cham. The selected comic shown charts the perennial ups and downs of graduate student motivation. I spent a lot of time on the down side of that graph!

Strange Quark Comics by Dalin S. Durfee, featuring Dr. Ingenio, his nerdly son and assorted grad students. An insightful look at the quandaries of life in the laboratory, from someone who’s obviously been there.

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal by Zach Weiner Sometimes about science and research, but more generally about God, superheroes, dating, the meaning of life…and much more. The cartoon to the left questions how scientific research is translated into the real world. I’ve gotten many a laugh out of the unexpected punch lines and spot-on insight from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.

Lab Bratz This cartoon offers geeky science humor focusing on laboratory mishaps and disasters waiting to happen, with a cast of hapless professors, frazzled lab managers and sleep-deprived graduate students. Written by Ed Dunphy. Drawn by Helber Soares

Tree Lobsters! You can’t prove they don’t exist! by Steve DeGroof The illustrations are consistently and incongruously of (guess what?) red lobsters sitting in trees. The humor is in the captions and conversation – of the inexplicably wise tree lobsters. One comic read: For a good time call 6.02 x 10 23 Ask for Avogadro. Tree Lobsters takes on big topics such as Creationism: one lobster asks, “So you think the universe was created by this invisible space pickle? “ A second lobster answers, “Our intelligent pickle theory is just as valid as your ‘scientific theories’” To which the first responds, “Well, if the pickle created everything, what created the pickle?”

Abstruse Goose: a cartoon about math, science and geek culture. One of my favorites is: How Scientists see the world, shown to the left. Does an understanding of the equations underlying light make a sunset less beautiful? Or, did Newton “unweave the rainbow” by reducing it to a prism, as Keats contended? The tools of science, from the first microscope to the Hubble and Spitzer telescopes have so vastly expanded our ability to perceive the universe in all its breathtaking beauty. Science has only enhanced our ability to see and appreciate the marvels around us.

Girl Genius, offers gorgeously detailed steampunk technology, set in an alternate-history where mad scientists rule the world. It follows the adventures of the flamboyant and brilliant girl genius, Agatha Heterodyne, in the city of Mechanicsburg. This beautifully drawn comic, by Phil and Kajo Foglio, has twice won the Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story.

Schlock Mercenary, The Comic Space Opera, by Howard Taylor This science fiction strip, twice nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story, is set in a distant future that has achieved faster-than-light travel and artificial intelligence, and made contact with aliens. It follows a band of space-faring mercenaries as they travel through wormgates, loosely following a handbook of rules, “The Seventy Maxims of Maximally Effective Mercenaries.” A vivid exploration of far-out futuristic technologies and their implications for humanity.

Scenes from a Multiverse: A colorful (in more ways than one) comic about life in an ordinary Multiverse, by Jonathan Rosenberg. In one recent strip, set in the “Psychcloaked debris belt of the Third Foundation”, an alien claims, “Using my brand-new science of neurofuturism, I can predict overall historical trends of the multiverse for the next ten thousand years!” He describes a series of disasters, finishing with, “After that it’s mostly apocalypses and bank holidays. Not very interesting.” Har!

Electric Sheep & Apocamon: The Final Judgement, by my friend, the talented Patrick Farley. Apocamon is an insightul and hilarious look at the Book of Revelation.

But this is only the tip of Farley’s iceberg. He is by far the best artist and the one taking on the deepest issues. His “Spiders” online graphic novel has been seriously studied at the Pentagon, to try and understand how citizens might get involved in defense, if we enter a transparent society.

Sci-ənce! is a  wonderful new webcomic that addresses the difference between science and pseudoscience, with a constant reminder to bring a sense of skepticism to our search for knowledge, The sample shown here mocks the between the build-up and the reality of the big NASA press conference about “microbial extraterrestrial” life. By Maki Naro and Nadir Balan.

And Dresden Codak is an award-winning science fictional webcomic written and illustrated by Aaron Diaz, who describes it as a “celebration of science, death and human folly.” Its highly intellectual humor, not for the faint of heart, ranges from physics to philosophy. A beautifully imagined vision that deals with the far future and the results of a technological singularity and humanity’s role in the cosmos.

Calamities of Nature, by Tony Piro, provides piercing insight into the scientific mindset, and how science research trickles down to influence the general public. The sample strip pokes fun at scientists for their questionable imagination in naming the wonders of the universe: supernovae, superconductors, supersymmetry…

Here are a few more suggestions for sci-fi comics:
Space Trawler Sample comic at left
Drive
We The Robots
The FlowField Unity
Freefall
The Abominable Charles Christopher
Quantum Vibe

And finally, a few Math-oriented Comics:
Spiked Math Comics
Math Bunnies: Mathematically Enriched Hares
The Twisted Pencil
Brown Sharpie

Have a laugh or two, or many — and follow some of these talented (and under-appreciated) artists.

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