Tag Archives: science

Book Review: The Ends of the World

I'm going to open with, this book is flat out amazing. In school, or even through popular science journalism, we learn a bit about some key points of geologic time. But these are snap shots, Dinosaurs, Ice Ages, even Snow Ball Earth. Really interesting things on their own, but they all seem a little disjoint.

This book brings an incredible visual narrative through life on Earth, by looking at the 5 mass extinction events the planet has experienced. An extinction is only emotionally meaningful if you understand what is lost, so the author paints an incredible picture of the aliens worlds that were Earth in these previous eras. Worlds without life on land, worlds of giant insects, worlds of bus size armored carnivorous fish as apex predators. He does this by road tripping to the scientists and fossil sites where this story is being assembled, talking with experts along the way. A story as old and hidden in the fossil record needs lots of lines of evidence to point to answers, and the author does a great job of doing that, and pointing out what we seem to know, and what we've only got guesses on.

The story of life on earth is the story of carbon and climate. As volcanoes stirred up carbon from the deep, and life reclaimed it, died, and sunk it back into the Earth. When this cycle gets really out of whack, the climate goes nuts, and life is paused on planet Earth, and taken tens of thousands of years to get back on track. There are many points of reflection about how our current mining and burning of ancient sequestered carbon is impacting our world today.

There are also just incredible moments that make you sit and think. The death of the land based mega fauna, 12,000 years ago, in North America, that still leaves ecological holes.

But the menagerie lives on in evolutionary ghosts. In North America, the fleet-footed pronghorns of the American West run laughably faster than any of their existing predators. But then, their speed isn’t meant for existing predators. It might be a vestige of their need to escape constant, harrowing pursuits by American cheetahs—until a geological moment ago. The absence was palpable to me as I rode a train past New Mexico’s Kiowa National Grassland, an American Serengeti, windswept and empty except for a lone wandering pronghorn still running from ghosts.

Other evolutionary shadows of the Pleistocene live on in the produce aisle. Seeds in fruit are designed to be eaten and dispersed by animals, but for the avocado this makes little sense. Their billiard ball–sized cores, if swallowed whole, would at the very least make for an agonizing few days of digestive transit. But the fruit makes a little more sense in a land populated by tree-foraging giants, like the sometimes dinosaur-proportioned ground sloths, who swallowed the seeds and hardly noticed them. The ground sloths disappeared a geological moment ago, but their curious fruit, the avocado, remains.

It will make me never quite look at an avocado the same way again.

There are so many things I learned which made me reconsider my whole view of dinosaurs. Like Dimetrodon, the creature with a large sale on it's back for temperature regulation, is more closely related to mammals than dinosaurs. And without the 3rd mass extinction, we'd never have seen Dinosaurs, and mammals might have ruled the Earth much earlier. And that T-rex showed up really late on the scene, filling the niche that that much more successful Allosaurs held as apex predators for most of the Jurasic era (the Allosaurs all disappeare in a more minor great extinction).

It's not often that you find a non fiction book that both reads fast, and dumps such an incredible amount of information on you. The jumping back and forth from road trip, chatting with scientists, facts, and painting pictures of the world that was, works really well. There is never a dull moment in it, and you come out the far end for a much greater appreciation for life on Earth in all its forms.

Collective False Memory

In the early Nineties, roughly around 1994, a now 52-year-old man named Don ordered two copies of a brand new video for the rental store his uncle owned and he helped to run.

“I had to handle the two copies we owned dozens of times over the years,” says Don (who wishes to give his first name only). “And I had to watch it multiple times to look for reported damages to the tape, rewind it and check it in, rent it out, and put the boxes out on display for rental.”

In these ways, the film Don is speaking of is exactly like the hundreds of others in his uncle’s shop. In one crucial way, however, it is not. The movie that Don is referring to doesn’t actually exist.

Source: The movie that doesn’t exist and the Redditors who think it does

This is a really interesting dive through a collective false memory of a bunch of folks on Reddit about a thing that does not and never did exist. It's fascinating to see the depths people will go to, and the level of completely over the top theories people believe (like a glitch in the matrix), to protect the idea that their memory is not in error. Memories feel like reality, but they are anything but.

Gamification of Open Science

Overall, it really does look like the badges help, not just with increasing sharing rates but with making sure that shared data is helpful to the research community. Of all the 2,478 articles used in the study, those without badges were very weak about sharing: “Just six of 37 articles from journals without badges and two of 10 articles from [Psychological Science] before badges that reported available data had accessible, correct, usable data,” write the authors. By contrast, of the articles with badges, “actual sharing was very similar to reported sharing.”

Source: Simple badge incentive could help eliminate bad science | Ars Technica

This is both amazing and inspiring. Just putting badges on papers if they have open data dramatically increases the papers including open data. It's not perfect, but it is clearly an incentive system that helps a lot.

The Biggest Concerns About GMO Food Aren't Really About GMOs

Everyone from Chipotle to the Food Babe rails against genetically modified ingredients, and laws to label GMO foods are making progress in some states. But the laser focus on GMOs is misguided, because most of the concerns people raise about them aren’t really about GMOs.

“GMO” is the buzzword for genetically modified crops where the plant’s DNA has been changed in the lab, typically by inserting a gene from another species. Technically there are other types of genetically modified organisms (living things), but no GMO animals are used in our food, and GMO bacteria are widespread but not controversial.

Source: The Biggest Concerns About GMO Food Aren't Really About GMOs

This whole article is a must read for anyone interested in the current state of how the modern food system works. It's pretty incredible in actually looking in depth at a slew of mechanisms used to hybridize our food, and which the GMO label actually only applies to a very narrow slice of some of the most well controlled using bacterial gene transfer. A mechanism that was recently discovered to have happened naturally, thousands of years ago, with the Sweet Potato.

Also, incredibly, the comments on that article are incredibly thoughtful and nuanced. It's one of the few internet conversations that I've seen recently where people were legitimately curious and thought provoking.


Ebola behind a paywall

MONROVIA, Liberia — The conventional wisdom among public health authorities is that the Ebola virus, which killed at least 10,000 people in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, was a new phenomenon, not seen in West Africa before 2013. (The one exception was an anomalous case in Ivory Coast in 1994, when a Swiss primatologist was infected after performing an autopsy on a chimpanzee.)

The conventional wisdom is wrong. We were stunned recently when we stumbled across an article by European researchers in Annals of Virology: “The results seem to indicate that Liberia has to be included in the Ebola virus endemic zone.” In the future, the authors asserted, “medical personnel in Liberian health centers should be aware of the possibility that they may come across active cases and thus be prepared to avoid nosocomial epidemics,” referring to hospital-acquired infection.

What triggered our dismay was not the words, but when they were written: The paper was published in 1982.

via Yes, We Were Warned About Ebola - NYTimes.com.

The information existed that Ebola existed in Liberia. However, that information was trapped behind a research journal paywall, so didn't end up in the hands of the people that really could have used it. A contributing factor to why this Ebola outbreak got so out of control.

The backstory on the Shrimp on a Treadmill

Exactly how much taxpayer money did go into the now-famous shrimp treadmill? The treadmill was, in fact, made from spare parts—an old truck inner tube was used for the tread, the bearings were borrowed from a skateboard, and a used pump motor was salvaged to power the treadmill. The total price for the highly publicized icon of wasteful government research spending? Less than $50. All of which I paid for out of my own pocket.

via How a $47 Shrimp Treadmill Became a $3-Million Political Plaything – The Conversation - Blogs - The Chronicle of Higher Education.

From the intersection of science and politics. Kind of like Ebola no longer being a thing everyone is freaking out about now that we're past the midterm elections.

The miracle of a billion cameras

Meteor Fall

It sounds like a remarkable story, almost unbelievable: Anders Helstrup went skydiving nearly two years ago in Hedmark, Norway and while he didn’t realize it at the time, when he reviewed the footage taken by two cameras fixed to his helmet during the dive, he saw a rock plummet past him. He took it to experts and they realized he had captured a meteorite falling during its “dark flight” — when it has been slowed by atmospheric braking, and has cooled and is no longer luminous.

via Norwegian Skydiver Almost Gets Hit by Falling Meteor — and Captures it on Film.

Part of what's amazing about so many people recording things all the time on camera is we get to see things that we know must be, but no one has directly observed before. Like rocks falling from the sky.

I think XKCD sums it up best:

XKCD Settled

A new Cosmos

Even though I was only 4 at the time, Cosmos left a distinct impression on my when I was a kid. My path into science and engineering probably can be traced back to being filled with things like Cosmos and NOVA during my formative years by my parents, something made easier by the fact that PBS was one of only 3 channels we got over the air on our 13" TV.

A few years ago I watched through all of Cosmos again. There were things I remembered, things that I didn't. And, while certain things look dated, the material surprisingly holds up quite well. More importantly, it was still inspiring, and still held really interesting ideas to ponder.

So I am incredibly excited that we're going to get a new Cosmos this spring. The teaser for this was released at Comic Con this year and is amazing

I seriously can't wait. I love the fact that they kept the starship of the mind as part of this, and the cosmic calendar. And I love that this is going to be network TV, not hidden off in a specialty cable channel.

Cicadas roundup

We're now about 2 weeks into the Brood 2 Cicada hatch, which has been covering the Hudson Valley. It's spottier than I imagined it would be, but our neighborhood is clearly good ground for Brood 2, as the Cicada chorus is now loud enough to be heard inside with the windows closed during the day now, though I've only seen a few of the beasts in the yard. I've gotten a little used to that other worldly sound, and will have to say I'll miss it a little when this is over.

Radio Lab had great episode recently on the Cicada emergence, including a nice dissection of the sounds in the swarm. It turns out the chorus is really made of 3 different species with 3 different stages in their song. As this sun goes down this evening, and the cicadas start to quiet up, I can start to hear those pieces individually coming out. Like the tuning up phase in the orchestra, except in reverse.

And lastly, I learned today that modern noise cancelling in cell phones makes it basically impossible to record these sounds with a smart phone. Which is a shame. Otherwise I'd have uploaded our chorus to sound cloud.

The Long View

It's good to step back some times and look at the really long view. Charlie Stross just did this with his new blog post on 2512, which provides a plausible look at what that world might be. I especially like the framing, about thinking what the world was like 500 years ago:

Five hundred years is a nearly unimaginable gulf from today's perspective. Five centuries ago, the Portuguese conquistadores were beginning their rampage through South America; Martin Luther was finishing his doctorate in theology and thinking about sin: the huge sequence of civil wars that racked Japan for over a century were raging: the Great Powers were still the Chinese empire and the Caliphate (although the latter was undergoing a shift in center of gravity towards Istanbul and the Ottoman empire). The great powers in Europe were Spain and Venice; the English speaking world was a few million barbarians occupying a handful of damp islands on the outer fringes of Europe. It's more than twice the historical existence of the USA to this date. Of our social institutions, very few survive from that long ago: the Catholic Church (and various orders and sub-groups within it), the Japanese Monarchy, and so on. A handful of universities, banks, and other institutions. The half-life of a public corporation today is about 30 years: ten half-lives out — 300 years hence — we may expect only one in a million to survive.

The whole post is definitely worth your time, but I do keep coming back to that half life statement. We take it for granted some time that organizations that exist today will be there tomorrow. But the reality is there is nothing magical about organizations, it's about the people. Things only get done because some decides to do them.

Contemplating the long view seems like an appropriate Sunday morning activities.