Showing posts from February, 2014

Eli Lake is Not Very Bright

A couple of days ago, Eli Lake assured us that Putin, despite his maneuvers, would not not invade Ukraine. My reaction at the time was, to borrow from Hermione, "What an idiot!" Not because I thought it was particularly likely that Putin would invade, but because I thought it was particularly stupid for a supposed intelligence insider to publicly make such a claim, and even stupider for his supposed sources to tell him such a thing. No sooner published than Putin deploys troops strategically in Crimea. Lake's rejoinder? Oh my gosh, US spies were wrong! On Thursday night, the best assessment from the U.S. intelligence community—and for that matter most experts observing events in Ukraine—was that Vladimir Putin’s military would not invade Ukraine. Less than 24 hours later, however, there are reports from the ground of Russian troops pushing into the Ukrainian province of Crimea. It’s hardly a full-blown invasion. But it’s not quite the picture U.S. analysts were p


Several decades of listening for signs that somebody out there is try to talk to us have come up empty. There are a lot of theories as to why that might be so, starting from the obvious possibility that civilizations able to communicate with us don't exist. On the other hand, they might have been observing us for a while and concluded that we are too violent or boring to be worth talking to. Or maybe we are some cosmic nature preserve/zoo. Or our name hasn't yet come up for a membership vote in the Galactic club. In any case the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) no longer looks that promising. A lot of people think that we should now settle for SETL - the Search for Extraterrestrial Life. For one things, the prospects are looking up - not that we have found any hints, but we have new tools that allow us to look in some plausible places and a raft of plausible places to look, both inside the solar system and beyond. Within the Solar System Mars is not quit


We are rapidly gaining skill in genetic manipulation. In addition to such high priority goals as creating better athletes and prettier people, what are the prospects for smarter and healthier people? Steve Hsu has some thoughts and quotes on the former: .. I think there is good evidence that existing genetic variants in the human population (i.e., alleles affecting intelligence that are found today in the collective world population, but not necessarily in a single person) can be combined to produce a phenotype which is far beyond anything yet seen in human history. This would not surprise an animal or plant breeder — experiments on corn, cows, chickens, drosophila, etc. have shifted population means by many standard deviations (e.g., +30 SD in the case of corn). ... I think we already have some hints in this direction. Take the case of John von Neumann, widely regarded as one of the greatest intellects in the 20th century, and a famous polymath. He made fundamental contributions


The revival of extinct dinosaurs was the key idea in Michael Crichton's fantastically successful book and movie franchise Jurassic Park. We don't seem likely to be able to do that in real life any time soon, or perhaps ever, but it happens that active efforts to reverse more recent extinctions are not only plausible but underway. The advantage of these more recent extinctions is that we have a good chance of recovering their actual genetic code. The NY Times magazine has a nice story on the efforts underway here. Brand became obsessed with the idea. Reviving an extinct species was exactly the kind of ambitious, interdisciplinary and slightly loopy project that appealed to him. Three weeks after his conversation with Flannery, Brand sent an email to Church and the biologist Edward O. Wilson: Reconstructing the the DNA code of an extinct species is actually the easy part. The harder part is fabricating, editing, and achieving the reproduction of the actual physical DNA

Good Advice from the Ala Carte Menu

In the comments to the previous post, rrtucci points out that that when a researcher needs to know something, he/she doesn't read chapters 1-8 to get to something that's needed from chapter 20, but just goes directly to 20. Now I'm no researcher in astrophysics, but I'm also not a complete stranger to many aspects of physics. Anyway, I noticed myself making exactly that kind of mistake in trying to understand some some aspects of stellar function. That is to say, I opened some astrophysics books and repeatedly found myself falling asleep somewhere in the first chapter or two when some aspects of transforming from from one spherical coordinate system to another, or some other such point irrelevant to my quest was being explained. I attributed this failure to persevere to senile loss of concentration, but stupidity would have been closer to the mark. So I turned to the chapter on the point in question and found that it wasn't hard at all to understand.

Breakfast at the Ritz

On occasion I read the postings of formerly obscure expert on the history of refrigeration , who got his 15 minutes and then some when he published an anti-MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) tirade. His latest is entitled Higher education is not available à la carte . To which I say, WTF not? When I go to my local breakfast shop, they usually don't tell me that the tomatoes are a group requirement, and that I have to eat them whether I like it or not. Professor Rees, PhD, RE: But rip faculty research out of the equation and the quality of the entire product will suffer. Take me, for instance. I teach a research methods class for both undergrads and graduate students. Don’t you think I’ll do that better if I actually have time to do research? More importantly, if Duke students are willing to pay $60,000/year to have access to faculty who do actual research, what does this tell you about the quality of higher education at an institution where professors don’t have time to do an

Teapot Dome

Warren Harding was elected President in 1920 and appointed Albert Fall, Senator from the eight year-old State of New Mexico, as Secretary of the Interior. Fall wrested control of the supposed Naval Oil reserves from the Navy (Naval Officers objecting were posted to remote locations) and leased them to a couple of oil men in return for enormous bribes by the standards of the day. Harding died as the scandal widened, and Fall went to prison. Harry Sinclair, of Sinclair Oil, one of the bribe payers, did a brief jail term for contempt of Congress, but none of the bribe payers was convicted of their part in the actual crime. The money for the bribes, it turned out, had also come from the Federal government's coffers. Republicans like Fall were not the only recipients of bribes - so were some prominent Democrats, including the early front runner for the Presidential nomination.

Can't Wait for ORO?

The human addiction to egregious nonsense seems to be in no danger of waning - waxing seems more like it. Worse, the urge to persecute, prosecute and worse in the name of that nonsense seems to be on an upward trend. Maybe the arrival of Our Robot Overlords will be an improvement.

Oil Takes Center Stage

By 1910 Germany had become the industrial powerhouse of Europe. It's interior lines and extensive railroad system also gave it crucial advantages in any potential conflict. What it didn't have was the extensive system of overseas colonies possessed by Britain and France, and it lusted after them. Since at that point, most of the colonizable world was already in one pocket or another, that meant grabbing colonies others already controlled. The biggest obstacle was the British fleet, so Germany set about building its own. At that point, oil had already become one of the worlds most valuable commercial commodities, used for lamps, motorcars, and numerous other things, but the British fleet ran on coal, and armies moved by rail, horse, and on foot. When Germany made some crude intimations of a move toward Africa, the new First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, was quick to recognize the threat, and embarked on an ambitious program to build oil powered battleships: fa

Jeans Length

Jeans is the name. Sir James Jeans. What determines the size of the structures that we see in the universe? Stars, galaxies, clusters of galaxies, and the cosmic filaments? A very prominent role is played by Jeans length (or Jeans mass, or Jeans criterion ). Suppose we have a cloud of some kind of self-gravitating matter. This cloud will tend to contract under its own gravity unless some other force - pressure - prevents it. Two numbers turn out to be central: the free fall time, or the time takes for the gravitational attraction to pull the cloud together and time it takes a sound wave to cross the cloud. If the free fall time is less, the cloud will collapse before pressure has a chance to present organized resistance. In practice, this means that clouds smaller than the Jeans size (free fall time greater than time for sound to cross the cloud) won't contract. In the early universe, the speed of sound is nearly that of light, so that the Jeans size is comparable to the


Two hundred years ago, 4 out of every 10 children everywhere died before reaching the age of 5. These numbers were likely collected mainly from advanced countries, but it would not be improbable that the death rate was even higher in nations with endemic tropical diseases. At present, it is only 2.2 out of 1000 in Luxembourg. Other rich countries, and many others are in the single digits (US, 7.1/1000). Survival has improved everywhere, but there are huge contrasts: Japan is at 3, China 14, and the fifty percent richer Botswana at 53. India is at 56, Pakistan 86, and Sierra Leone trails everyone with 182. Unsurprisingly, there is a very strong correlation with per capita GDP, but countries like Cuba and Sri Lanka outperform their GDP while the US is a significant underperformer.


Wendy Doniger characterizes her fervent opponents as Hindutva or Hindu fundamentalists. The original. Wikipedia. A critic.

Wendy versus the Hindus

The Bhagavad Gita is not as nice a book as some Americans think…Throughout the Mahabharata ... Krishna goads human beings into all sorts of murderous and self-destructive behaviors such as war.... That alleged quote - Doniger claims to have been misquoted - was borrowed from an anti-Wendy Doniger diatribe that Arun linked to. I don't recall having heard of Doniger before fundamentalist Hindus managed to get her history of The Hindus banned and "pulped" in India , but it seems that she is a prominent religious scholar and student of Indian religion at the University of Chicago. It seems that she has been attacked, verbally and physically, by her opponents, whom she describes as Hindu fundamentalists or Hindutva (and here). I remain unclear on precisely what they object to, but it seems to involve not only "quotes" like the above but also alleged sexualization of Hindu literature. As for the quote above, I don't know anything about the work in questi

The Winter Olympics Are (Mostly) Excruciatingly Boring

If scientists were to compile the world's most boring sports to watch, the Winter Olympics would be a good place to start.  Ben Blatt makes the case for Bobsled as the worst sport ever here , but it has plenty of competition.  One problem is that in so many of the winter sports, competition is purely against the clock, so that there is little feel for competition.  Even those that feature group competition, like cross country ski racing, mostly consist of watching a bunch of guys skiing together for an hour or so before a few seconds of scramble for the finish line. Ski jumping has a certain esthetic appeal, but scoring is obscure and most of the tension comes from wondering which damn fool will break himself/herself first.  Some of the newer ski acrobatics events are more watchable, but once again, scoring is a black art.

Time Scales of Global Warming

My friend the AGW skeptic likes to argue that the last decade and a half or so has seen about 25% of the CO2 increase since pre-industrial times, but that the same period has seen little or no increase in temperature.  Even if we don't quibble about the latter point the argument is not a good one, because the time scale is just too short, mainly because the oceans have immense thermal inertia. If my math is right, the oceans have a heat capacity of about 4 x 10^24 J/K.  The Earth absorbs something like 2 x 10^17 W from the Sun, scarfing up roughly one part in 2 billion of the big light bulb's total output, or 6.3 x 10^24 J/yr.  So even if every bit of that went into warming up the ocean, its temperature increase would only be about 1.5 K per year.  Of course almost all that absorbed energy is reradiated back into space (all of it over the long term).  A temporary heating due to an increase in greenhouse gases might drive a radiative forcing on the order of half a W/m^2.  Inc

On Second Thought

Tom Perkins, the super rich guy who thinks that there is a Kristallnacht threat to his fellow zillionaires, may be nuts, but you have to admit that he is doing his part to make the idea more attractive - he now thinks that rich people should get more votes. Matthew Yglesias, also the free market capitalist, thinks it might be a good idea to let the rich buy votes on the open market.   If you cut out the middle man and just let the Koch brothers offer to buy votes on an open market then at least some money would flow to poor people. Right now we know that  legislators completely ignore the views of low-income people  when deciding how to vote on issues and mostly just do what rich people want. Letting people buy and sell votes would thus redistribute some income without necessarily changing policy dynamics very much. I'm afraid I don't think that's such a good idea.  The Roman Republic ended a bit like that: the rich bought votes like crazy and they got their money ba

Astrobiology and SETI

The Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is a bit like String Theory - a theory without any  experimental evidence - or, more precisely, with only negative experimental evidence.  When SETI was first proposed, it was far from clear that we would ever have any tools to learn about extraterrestrial biology if it wasn't smart enough to talk back at us.  That's no longer the case, and consequently a lot of attention has been turned to the more basic question of extraterrestrial life.  Since it seem likely that extraterrestrial life would have to precede extraterrestrial intelligence, maybe we should think about that problem first.  That's the subject of astrobiology - another science that still lacks a subject. Suppose we take a look at a modified form of the first few terms of the Drake Equation , first developed for SETI, but look just at those concerned with the development of life.  When the equation was first written down, a big question was what fraction of

Harmless Nonsense?

William Saletan opines that creationism is merely harmless nonsense: But Nye came with a bigger agenda. He wanted to convince the viewing audience that creationism was a threat to science, technology, and prosperity. At this, he failed. Creationism, as presented by Ham and his colleagues, is a compartmentalized myth. It doesn’t prevent its adherents from functioning as ordinary people or as scientists... ... You can be a perfectly good satellite engineer while believing total nonsense about the origins of life. That doesn’t mean we should teach creationism in schools or pretend it’s a scientific theory. But it does mean we can live with it as a compartmentalized fetish. Believe whatever you want to about monkeys, Noah, and the Garden of Eden. Just don’t let it mess with your day job. The problem with Saletan's analysis is that creationism isn't really just a "compartmentalized fetish" in his words.  It's a world view, an imagined reality, to use a Harari ph


Not everybody is happy with the way the world is changing.  Kansas is in the process of legalizing discrimination against gay people.   Meanwhile, on more or less the other side of the planet, a kerfuffle has erupted in India over a University of Chicago professor's historical look at Hinduism.  It seems that some took offense at Wendy Doniger's book The Hindus, and complained effectively enough to cause her Indian publisher, Penguin India, to withdraw the book and promise to destroy or "pulp" all copies. This has caused a certain amount of outrage among Indian liberals and authors and other defenders of a free press everywhere.  Since I'm a sucker for controversy, I looked up the reviews on Amazon.  There were a number of good ones, but a very large number of one star (negative) reviews, almost all short and many nasty.  Several one star reviewers admitted not having read the book. Naturally, pirated editions are exploding, and she seems certain of a large I

Smarts, Don' It?

Tyler Cowen asks the question:  " Are Natural Scientists Smarter? " “There is sound evidence of a negative correlation between intelligence and religiosity and between intelligence and political extremism,” reads the paper, which examines existing data on academic scientists’ IQs by field, and on religious beliefs and political extremism among science professors in the U.S. and Britain. (An abstract of the paper is available  here .) “Therefore the most probable reason behind elite social scientists being more religious than are elite physical scientists is that social scientists are less intelligent.” The paper, written by Edward Dutton, adjunct professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Oulu, in Finland, and Richard Lynn, a retired professor of psychology from the University of Ulster, in Northern Ireland, who is known for his work on race and IQ, continues: “Intelligence is also a factor in interdisciplinary differences in political extremism, [with] phy

Rage Against the (Koch) Machine

The Koch brothers are pouring big bucks into Louisiana to defeat Medicaid expansion.  My suggestion for Democrats,  lots of ads that sound like: Why are two billionaire brothers from out of State spending big money to keep you from having health insurance?  Hint: they aren't doing it for your health.

Human Rights as an Unnatural Construct

For most (all?) of human history the major selection pressure on humans has been competition from other humans.  Combine this fact with the need for humans to cooperate and certain tensions are sure to arise.  Fundamentally, we need to be able to cooperate with some in order to deal with competition from others.  Many cultures have some version of the following: Me against my brother.  My brother and I against my cousins.  My cousins and I against the clan.  My clan and I against the other clans... Societies invent lots of rules that are intended to regulate in group competition, but the need to compete against other societies has dictated different set of rules for outsiders and insiders.  The rise of chiefdoms, kingdoms, and empires required gradual expansion of the in group, even while setting up internal hierarchies with special privileges.  In one sense, the notion of universal human rights is a culmination of the gradual expansion of the in groups, but in another, it is a con

What an Idiot!

It seems that I just signed up for another Astro course, this one from Princeton: Imagining Other Earths.   More imagined realities! Planetology with an astrobiological emphasis.  I don't expect to finish them all.


Djorgovski just blew through the solutions of the Friedman Equation for matter dominated, radiation dominated, and lambda dominated cases in about 5 minutes flat.  OK, so now I am reminded of how the slow kids felt back in Freshman math class. Oh well.

Human Rights and Cultural Imperialism

Despite certain precedents in many cultures , the notion of human rights is essentially a modern one, growing out of 18th Century European thought.  Central to it is the notion of natural rights, that are supposed to be inherent in being human.  Some aspects appear to have been inspired by some of the evils of colonialism, especially in Spanish America, where the contrast between the official motive of the conquistadors and their behavior was noted and reported by the missionaries accompanying them. Probably the most important propellant was the rise of the Merchant class, and their push to attain and displace the privileges of the feudal orders.  It is an interesting case study in how an imagined reality gains force and wrests itself from the control of its creators.  Once one starts declaring inalienable human rights endowed by the creator, it get harder to say except for you.  So rights that started out being really just for wealthy Western European males gradually leaked out to

Learnin' MOOC Style

I'm currently taking three MOOC courses, plus doing some Spanish.  The MOOCs all have an Astro flavor: Astrobiology from Edinburg , Relativistic Astro from Cornell, and Galaxies and Cosmology from Caltech.  The first two might be a bit easy, the last maybe too hard - actually I have probably already flunked since I started a few weeks late, and some deadlines have already passed. I had tried the G&C once before and dropped out.  It looks much better prepared this time.

Neural Substrates of Thought and Behavior

Patricia S. Churchland was on Stephen Colbert's show the other day, flogging her forthcoming book: Touching a Nerve: Our Brains, Our Selves  .  Among other things, she told Stephen that his brain was rather like that of a mouse, and that he didn't have a soul.  I recall reading her book Neurophilosophy back when I was a student of artificial intelligence.  It had a nice discussion of the fundamentals or neuroscience, some confused thoughts on relativity, and the first use of the word "consilience" that I recall. She and her husband Paul Churchland are exponents of a school of philosophy called "eliminative materialism".   I have only a slight clue as to what that means, but I am generally sympathetic to the notion that our thoughts and behaviors have neural substrates.  They apparently go a bit further and argue that "folk psychology" with its theories of  mind, belief, and sensation is an obsolete theory about unreal objects, like the geocent

Really Deep Waters: Life in the Solar System

It seems that the hottest prospects for extraterrestrial life in the solar system may be two icy moons, Jupiter's Europa and Saturn's Enceladus.  Both appear to be covered by an icy surface that seems to recycle itself fairly frequently.  Both appear to be heated by tidal forces due to their gas giant mother planets and other moons.  It's at least plausible that there is an ocean of liquid water under all that ice. Enceladus made a big push for the number one spot by spouting some vapor plumes near its South Pole.  The Cassini probe was able to fly through the plume and measure water vapor, carbon compounds and other cool and suggestive stuff.  Of course Cassini wasn't actually designed for that kind of work so the most fascinating organic clues lie beyond our reach - for now. Europa is a bit larger than Earth's Moon, but Enceladus is tiny, only 500 or so in diameter.

When Galaxies Collide

Even though there is a whole lot of empty out there in the universe, matter likes to stick together, and most galaxies are found in small to very large groups. Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, is one of the two big spiral galaxies in our Local Group, a collection of about 50 mostly much smaller galaxies. Many other galaxies belong to giant clusters that contain up to thousands of individual galaxies. The galaxies in both types of groupings are close enough together that collisions are far from rare. Our galaxy, for example, probably collided with a much smaller galaxy some 100 millions years ago or so, and expected to collide with Andromeda, the other biggie in the local group, in 3.5 billion years. Such collisions were doubtless much more common in the early universe and modern galaxies probably formed from such collisions - the original galaxies 10 billion years ago seem to have been much smaller, for example. So how big a deal is such a collision? Even in galaxies, stars are

CRISPR Critters

The tools in the genetic engineer's toolbox are not invented by humans, but discovered. We get them all from those master genetic engineers, our bacterial friends. The newest and shiniest of these is the so-called CRISPR-Cas system. Bacteria use it as a sort of immune system, but its potency comes from its ability to do rather selective gene editing. This system has now been used to do some selective editing on monkey genes. More details from Steve Hsu here. Getting this system to work in a primate is a strong clue that it could also work for humans. In a decade or two it might well be possible for parents to have their offspring edited and revised for deleterious genes and maybe for looks, IQ, athletic ability and height to mention just a few.

Last Days of the Roman Republic

We all recall - OK, maybe I don't quite really - how the last decades of the Roman Republic saw repeated convulsions as various families of the oligarchy competed for dominance, culminating in famous plays by Shakespeare and Shaw. Crassus got whacked by the Parthians, Pompey by Caesar, and Caesar - but that's another Shakespeare play. And that was the end of the Republic, after Octavian, Caesar's adopted son, whacked his erstwhile ally Antony, and made himself emperor. Somehow, now that the 2016 election is starting to look like another Clinton-Bush rematch, the atmosphere feels grimly familiar.