Sunday, May 20, 2007

Invention I want.

I don't know if someone already builds something like this. If not, I've got dibs.

This is an idea I've had on and off for a few years. I call it the stomp charger. It is basically a wallet sized thing two plates that hinge in relation to each other, and a place for putting in a couple (maybe four?) rechargeable AA batteries. Put batteries in, bounce your foot (or anything else) up and down on it whilst you are doing other things, and, after a while, your batteries are charged. Ideally it would be waterproof, and the there would be a little door/flap that closes over the battery compartment.
I don't actually know what would work best to convert the bouncing into chemical energy in the battery, but I bet someone I know does.

I imagine this thing, if it had an efficient energy conversion ratio, would be tremendously useful to field workers, villagers and others with limited access to new batteries/wall current. The poor villagers I've met always wanted AAs.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

A note from the editor

We have received several (two) questions recently regarding commenting and posting on Blog Of Sceince.

In order to comment, simply click on the "peer reviews" link at the bottom of the post, type your comment in the comment box and click "Publish."

For those who would like to post to BoS, there are two options.
First, one can email me a piece, and if it seems apropriate for BoS, I will post it and attribute it to you.

Second, for those who might like to post more regularly, I am open to allowing other bloggers to post here. You would need to create a Blogger account (which takes maybe two minutes and is free) and then I could add you as a contributor.

I can be contacted at

Friday, May 18, 2007

Family of Science

I won't make a habit of this. But I thought posting this here would give the reader some sense of the environment that leads a young man to grow up and start Blog of Science!
For reasons unclear to me, my family has chosen to comment on my recent post "Not the end of the world" elsewhere, rather than on Blog of Science, so I have reproduced our discussion here. GML is my father, KAL my mother and JAL my brother. The following messages are in approximately chronological order:

The great physicist Enrico Fermi pointed out that interstellar travel is not very difficult for a technologically advanced and rich civilization, as long as it is designed for travel times of decades or centuries (or longer if a big colony is sent in a "generation ship". Each new colony would then grow and develop for some centuries, even a millennium, and then send out new ships (first to scout and then to colonize), and that this process would spread a civilization about our galaxy in a fairly short time, astronomically speaking, perhaps a few million years. Surely, the idea goes, at least one species somewhere would do this. This led to his famous question, "Where is everyone?" Many answers have been suggested, but the relevant one here is self-destruction, probably not by a physics experiment gone wrong, but by war within the species.
Our species has been said to need a "Moral Equivalent of War" to give us some outlet for our natural aggressive and us-them tendencies. This MEOW idea appeals to me, but I am not clear what it would be.

Dad, correct me if I'm wrong, but it was my impression that ETs wouldn't need to travel between stars for us to notice them. I thought even the level of radio noise that we currently produce would be plenty for us to notice if anyone were producing it within a few zillion light years. So the fact that we haven't heard anything (despite SETI and other projects looking for non-random radio signals) suggests not just that no one out there is traveling, but that no one out there is using radio waves, i.e., is technically advanced at all. Is that not right?

There are a lot of assumptions we are making here.
Of which these are a few:
1. We are assuming that an advanced civilization uses radio waves to
communicate. Why do we assume this? We think we are advanced, and we
use radio waves. Perhaps radio is grossly inferior to something else we
ain't thought of yet, so nobody uses it.
2. They don't care if we hear them or not. Why do we assume this? We
don't worry about ETs detecting us, so we think they don't care if they
are detectable or not. Perhaps for one reason or another, many
civilizations consider it unwise or undesirable to broadcast their
3. We assume that if they are out there broadcasting radio, we would
pick up the signal. I don't know how far off we could pick up
broadcasts from a planet transmitting like Earth, unless we
specifically targeted that point in space, but I assume it is a
relatively small section of the galaxy.
4. We assume that if we picked up their signal, we would recognize it
as nonrandom. Given that we have no idea what form life on other
planets would take, it seems hubristic to assume that we would
recognize their transmissions as a sign of intelligent life.
5. We assume that if they picked up our signals, they would then
continue behaving in a way that would allow us to detect them. Imagine
there are technologically advanced aliens 100 light years away. They
detect rapid environmental change on earth, infer a rapidly developing
early technological civilization that behaves rather voraciously. Until
they know more, do they want the aliens (us) to know they are there?
The overarching point is that we know too little to know anything
except that we don't know. If we assume we are looking for ourselves,
which is what we often assume, we are wrong. The aliens are not going
to be biologically, psychologically or technologically familiar. they
are not going to live in a niche that would be amenable to us, and they
are not going to develop all the same technologies or develop them in
the same order. They are not going to have the same weaknesses and
strengths. They are not going to be in the same phase of develoopment,
or a similar one, to where we are. They are not necessarily going to
match our current definitions of either intelligence or life. It is fun
to speculate about and make up hypotheses, but we don't know enough to
draw any conclusions or moral lessons from. We know that either there
is no one out there, or that they are undetectable given our current
technology, or for one reason or another we have failed to detect them,
or have failed to notice detecting them. Everything else is SciFi.

There is no reason why alien "life" should be carbon-based, or have discrete "bodies," or use the same senses we do (light, sound), or be on the same size scale as we - they might be miles across or microscopic or made up of filaments - or need the same amount of ambient radiation, heat, pressure, or environmental stability. There need not even be "individuals" with separate lives and separate mortalities. Probably some relatively fluid medium is needed - it would be hard to imagine solid rock being able to assume the complexity necessary for communication and reproduction. Otherwise I think that most human thought about the topic uses way too many chauvinistic assumptions. Long, thin necks and three-fingered hands, indeed!

Interesting point. There are several factors to consider. The radio-based SETI and similar programs (mostly piggy-backing onto other equipment since Senator Proxmire made fun of it and got the U.S.Gov't to make it illegal to spend gov't money for it) make various reasonable (but not necessarily correct) assumptions about what frequencies would be used, as most free of background noise, etc., but at moderate interstellar distances such signals would be very hard to sort out, anyway. Also, higher-tech systems than radio (tachyons, gravity waves, links through space warps, etc.??) could be used, so lack of radio broadcasts does not mean lack of high technology. Another thought is that any sensible advanced species would carefully refrain from broadcasting its location, for fear of hostiles killing off possible competitors. No-one really knows, but the pay-off could be so great, technically and intellectually, that it seems worthwhile to put a little money into listening for interesting patterns; even if we do not find ETs, we may hear some natural phenomena worth knowing about. This has already happened, as when the pulsars (at first jokingly termed LGM for Little Green Men) were discovered.

Dan is quite correct in all his points, except perhaps in regard to our ability to recognize non-randomness. This is based on mathematics, mainly, not on biology or (I hope) human psychology. I certainly think that mathematics is universal; though I have no non-human examples as evidence. I believe that in some sense we discover mathematics, and do not just invent it.

Once mathematics is applied to trying to recognize patterns in real data, it becomes science, and all the limitations that come with science apply. We have to look at a particular set of time scales on a particular set of frequencies for a deviation from some mathematically defined but psychologically chosen null hypothesis. And all that means we don't really know if we could detect an alien deviation from random.
Regarding mom's point, it is very true, there is no reason to assume life on other planets would be carbon based. I wouldn't dismiss some sort of solid state lifeform though. Silicon can do amazing things.

How about my idea that "life" elsewhere may accept very different conditions re solid/not solid "body" (or no actual body at all), tolerance/requirements for temperature conditions or radiation exposure, apparent passage of time per actual time passage, inevitability of mortality, use of other senses than sight/hearing, etc? Perhaps we haven't heard from anyone because we are actually very atypical in our characteristics and wouldn't think of the more common communication modalities. Or maybe no one else is out there and we are truly unique. Sometimes I think we exist only because the universe requires at least one set of observers in order for it to exist.

Very true, that any collisions that CERN will make have happened, more powerfully, many times out in space, with no-one to register and measure them.
The Big BAng, from what I read, supposedly did not create any mass-energy, hard as that is to believe. The idea is that the expansion of the universe is, in proper physical book-keeping, measured in negative units, while the mass-energy is in positive units, and that these just cancel each other out. As you note that Stephen said, "on a minute scale the universe is a froth of energymass popping in and out of existence, but that these things were usually so small and numerous they mostly canceled each other out, leaving the energymass in the universe very close to
constant." Larger sized quantum fluctuations are shorter-lived than smaller ones, and if the universe is thought of as a nearly-zero mass virtual particle, it can last a very long time. Mass-energy versus time is one of those complementary trade-offs found in quantum physics, such as (knowledge of?) a particle's momentum vs. (knowledge of?) its position.

So we can get de novo mass-energy as long as we are willing to accept an equal amount of de novo space-time with it?

Yes, in a sense, we can get more mass-energy along with more space-time, but only in a new universe, I gather. A prominent current theory is that black holes create new baby big bangs which then expand as full fledged universes; if the characteristics of a given universe leads to lots of black holes, that kind of universe will end up with lots of descendant universes with similar (but not identical) properties, leading to universes with successful characteristics (physical constants, etc.) becoming more numerous and predominating, in a Darwinian fitness paradigm. This theory is supposedly testable by figuring out what set of physical constants, etc., should be most successful in making black holes of the right sorts, and seeing how well this matches our universe.

But Darwinian evolution requires:
1. Mutations leading to variation
2. Heritability of that variation
3. Fitness differentials based on the heritable mutations
With regard to black holes as baby universes, we have no reason to assume 1 or 2, only that if 1 and 2 were to be true, that 3 could be true.
Also, your last comment implied that in order to be stable, a big bang event would have to result in something that in some strange sort of reckoning had zero mass. Black holes are not known for having zero mass.
There also seems to be the difficulty that black holes are not closed systems. Mass can go in and through quantum variation of location, evaporate off. Universes on the other hand are generally thought to be closed.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Hurricane Season

Welcome to the 2007 Hurricane Season. Estimates I've seen predict a very active year, with 14-21 named storms including 7-9 hurricanes of which about half are expected to be category three to five, meaning winds exceeding 111 mph.

Here is a recent abstract from a paper published by a well respected lab:

Information obtained through March 2007 indicates that the 2007 Atlantic hurricane season will be much more active than the average 1950-2000 season. We estimate that 2007 will have about 9 hurricanes (average is 5.9), 17 named storms (average is 9.6), 85 named storm days (average is 49.1), 40 hurricane days (average is 24.5), 5 intense (Category 3-4-5) hurricanes (average is 2.3) and 11 intense hurricane days (average is 5.0). The probability of U.S. major hurricane landfall is estimated to be about 140 percent of the long-period average. We expect Atlantic basin Net Tropical Cyclone (NTC) activity in 2007 to be about 185 percent of the long-term average.

This early April forecast is based on a newly devised extended range statistical forecast procedure which utilizes 40 years of past global reanalysis data and is then tested on an additional 15 years of global reanalysis data. Analog predictors are also utilized. We have increased our forecast from our early December prediction due largely to the rapid dissipation of El Niño which has occurred over the past couple of months. Currently, neutral ENSO conditions are observed. We expect either neutral or weak-to-moderate La Niña conditions to be present during the upcoming hurricane season. Tropical and North Atlantic sea surface temperatures remain well above their long-period averages.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Not the end of the world

My friend Stephen is one of those physicists who built linear accelerators and EMP generators in his basement as a kid. And he can get all starry eyed talking about string theory and Mbrain theory and cosmic wormballs and other stuff biologists like me don't understand. But it is fun to hear him talk about it because he is so enthusiastic and brilliant.

I used to ask him physics questions that I didn't even know entirely what the question meant, just to get him started. One time, when we were in college, we were talking over nachos and tea at the Upstairs Cafe. It was a bit hard to hear him, given that the noise of the band in the Downstairs Cafe was shaking the floor. But I asked him why energymass (the two being the same) is conserved, and if there are any exceptions. Stephen thought for a while, rambled for a while, then said that they are not exactly conserved, because there is quantum variation. He talked about that for a while, and I got the impression that what he was saying was that on a minute scale the universe is a froth of energymass popping in and out of existence, but that these things were usually so small and numerous they mostly cancelled each other out, leaving the energymass in the universe very close to constant. Then he said something I didn't grok about the Big Bang being, at least in part, an example in which the scale was much larger and a whole bunch of energymass was created all at once.

So the next question I asked, having an environmental bent, was whether it was theoretically possible we could use all this in some way to make energy, and thereby end the need for fossil fuels. This started Stephen on a train of thought that he made me promise not to share with anyone, which is easy because I understood almost none of it. But it ended with me being somewhat concerned that if I understood even a little of what he was saying, he might just accidentally blow up the world. I made him promise that he wouldn't and also wouldn't teach anyone else how to. He saw why I was concerned, but said that he would make sure he fully understood the physics involved before he tried to tap into "quantum energy" whatever that is.

This all came back to me last night when my brother emailed me a NYTImes article about the Large Hadron Collider. The article claims they will recreate "conditions that last prevailed when the universe was less than a trillionth of a second old." Like the Big Bang all over again. Jason's commentary was, "I can't help but think of that theory that we don't see radio traces of other species because advanced species quickly kill themselves off, perhaps by creating huge toys that destroy their planets accidentally."

This kind of concern has been raised many times, mostly in science fiction. The basic idea is that it requires a lower level of technology to blow ourselves up than to say hi across light years. Possibly true, but I doubt this is that experiment.

I'll write later on my thoughts regarding extraterrestrial life, but sticking with the collider experiment, I think that as usual, the popular media are grossly overstating their case. The accelerator may be designed to recreate something that has certain similarities to the very early universe, but is this really the first time since the Big Bang that particles have collided at these speeds? No. They just don't usually do it in a way that we can predict, control and build giant detectors in anticipation.

Clearly the power input is not on a world destroying scale. So in order to trigger Alderaan, they would either have to set off some novel sort of mass to energy conversion chain reaction, or they would have to accidentally open the taps on quantum energy. And they would have to do this on a scale that would destroy earth, but would not be obviously detectable from the rest of the universe. If colossal amounts of energy came spilling out into the universe from nowhere every time particles collided at certain energies, wouldn't astronomers have noticed something like that?

So sleep peacefully. The Swiss are not about to blow up the world. They own too much of it.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

DUDES (Diurnal Urban Detritus Eating Sparrows)

There are at least a dozen outdoor housecats on my block. And, as you might expect, not a whole lot of ground dwelling small wildlife. A few salamanders, the very occasional rat (the only times I've seen these there were at least two cats in purrsuit) and some squirells which can outclimb any of the cats. And there is really only one bird species that spends much time on the gound, a big drab brown sparrow called the California Towhee.

Today I saw two of them fighting. A frantic ball of beaks and feathers twisting crazily through the air. They were so intent on mauling each other, they crashed first into the neighbors' fence, then onto the driveway. The instant they touched down, still rolling and pecking, a cat appeared a few yards from them, coming for them at full speed. The cat pounced, and while it was in the air the towhees joined it, but as it began to come down, they accelerated straight upwards. The cat got nothing but the feathers they had torn from each other.

I've seen birds escape preditors before, but nothing quite that close or sudden. These birds clearly had practice. How could they not, given the feline density around here? But somehow, California Towhees seem to thrive, feeding on the ground, in exactly the kinds of neighborhoods that are full of cats.

Like most species able to exploit human created niches, they've got a bright future ahead of them. The cats could even be good for them, keeping out rodents and other birds that would compete with the Towhees for food.

And that is how we get from natural history observation to testable hypothesis.

Monday, May 14, 2007

On Natural History

Science, in the beginning, was a branch of philosophy. Natural philosophy they called it, meaning philosophy meant to explain the things we see in nature. To me though, the phrase suggests a contrast to supernatural (faith-based) philosophy. Or artificial (arbitrary) philosophy. Or unnatural (wrong) philosophy. In my mind, natural philosophy is thinking that is not faith-based and endeavors not to be arbitrary or wrong. And all the methods of asking, knowing and doing we call science, are simply the best attempts of the decedents of the natural philosophers to avoid being faith-based, arbitrary or wrong.

Science, despite what they taught you in school, is neither a collection of knowledge, nor a single method. There is plenty of very good science that skips one or more of those eight steps you memorized then forgot. I'm a scientist and I can't remember the version of the list I was taught.

Scientists don't even necessarily agree on what defines science. The foremost example of this, as far as I know, is natural history. The term is defined a huge number of ways, so I'll give a specific hypothetical. I go out in the woods, see a fly I've never seen before, record it's behavior and the specifics of it's habitat. Then I pop it in a bottle, take it back to my house, euthanize it, make careful drawings of it, submit the specimen, data and drawings to an expert in that group of flies. He says it is a new species in a known genus, and we publish a paper in some minor fly-centric journal. We didn't have a hypothesis, a priori or otherwise. We didn't even start out with a question. We had a sample size of one. There were no statistics done, or doable. I have heard professional scientists say that for all these reasons, and others, this type of thing is not science. But I know professional scientists who do little else.

In my opinion, it is science if it is an observation based method carefully designed to lead to knowledge that is not faith-based, arbitrary or wrong. (If a method is carefully designed to lead to knowledge that is not faith-based, arbitrary or wrong, but is also not in some way observation based, it is probably math. If all the observation is left to someone else, it might be engineering. These lines blur.)

The paper we write describes science, is the outcome of science, but is not science. The fly was the subject of science, but was not science. The science is in the doing. Science should be a verb. I scienced that fly. I scienced it real good.

Blog of Science

Welcome to Blog Of Science, the blog of science, for science and by science. Or at least that is my working hypothesis.