Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Chemicals may be making people obese

September 15, 2022

Roughly 40 percent of American high school students were overweight by the time they started high school.  An estimated one-third of American youth age 17-24 are ineligible for military service because of obesity.

Worldwide, the incidence of obesity has tripled since the 1970s.  Experts estimate that by 2030, one billion people worldwide will be obese.

This matters.  Obesity is related to high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and other serious health problems.

Part of the reason for the obesity increase is that, compared to previous generations, people nowadays are more sedentary and eat more processed foods high in sugar, fat and salt.  But this can’t be the whole reason.

In the USA, the rise in obesity affects not only people, but their cats and dogs, and rats and mice in the wild.  It affects laboratory animals that are fed controlled diets.

Mark Buchanan of Bloomberg News reported that some scientists think obesity is caused by chemicals called “obesogens,” which, even in tiny amounts, boost the production of specific cell types and fatty tissue.

An example is a chemical called tributyltin, or TBT, which is found in wood preservatives.  In experiments exposing mice to low and supposedly safe levels of TBT, a scientist named Bruce Blumberg and his colleagues at the University of California, Irvine, found significantly increased fat accumulation not only in the exposed mice, but in the next three generations.

TBT and other obesogens trigger such effects by interfering directly with the normal biochemistry of the endocrine system, which regulates the storage and use of energy, as well as human eating behavior, Buchanan wrote.

Obesogen chemicals are found in plastic packaging, clothes and furniture, cosmetics, food additives, herbicides and pesticides.  Buchanan said nearly 1,000 obesogens have been identified in studies with animals or humans.  

That would explain why laboratory animals get fat.  There might be obesogens in their food or the structure of their cages.

If this is true, it is a big, big problem.  Fixing it would require a virtual revolution in testing and manufacturing.

LINKS

Plastic Might Be Making You Obese by Mark Buchanan for Bloomberg News.  Another version.

Plastic Might Be Making You Fat by Alex Tabbarok for Marginal Revolution.

The Animals Are Also Getting Fat by Alex Tabbarok for Marginal Revolution. (2013)

Why aren’t medical breakthroughs in obesity a bigger deal? by Matthew Yglesias for Grid.  [Added 09/17/2022]

The James Webb Space Telescope

July 18, 2022

The successful launch of the James Webb Space Telescope was a great morale booster for me.  It showed that my country, the USA, is still capable of great national achievements.

It is a million miles from the earth’s surface—four times as far away as the moon.  Unlike the Hubble Space Telescope, which was 300 miles above the earth, it couldn’t have been repaired if anything went wrong.

The telescope detects stars and galaxies more than a billion light-years away, which means it sees them as they were billions of years ago.

When our civilization is no more, the Webb telescope will still be in orbit, a symbol of the effort the human species was willing to make in order to understand the universe they live in.  

Project workers overcome great difficulties.  Just one is that the telescope components were refrigerated as close to absolute zero as possible because the telescope detects infra-red rays and anything that has the slightest degree of heat gives off infra-red rays.

The PBS video gives an excellent account of the project and the challenges it overcame.  This shows, too, that PBS is still capable of great journalism.

It does note that the project was behind schedule and over budget.  There was a plausible case for abandoning it, but in this case the correct decision was to persevere and got it done right.

PBS went out of its way to show the racially diverse nature of project workers, which is fine.  I’m inspired by examples of people from different backgrounds working together for the common good.

Also, this was not an exclusively American project.  The Webb telescope was launched with Ariane booster rockets, which were developed by the European Space Agency, from France’s launch site in French Guiana.

Whether or not you have time to watch the entire PBS video, I recommend you read Lambert Strether’s and Silas Laycock’s posts about the project.

LINKS

The Incredibly Cool James Webb Space Telescope by “Lambert Strether” for naked capitalism.

James Webb Space Telescope: An astronomer explains the stunning, newly released first images by Silas Laycock for The Conversation.

Science saves lives

May 28, 2022

Feynman’s ode to the wonder of life

April 24, 2022

The following words are from an address to the National Academy of Sciences in 1955.  Get details from The Marginalian.

[UNTITLED ODE TO THE WONDER OF LIFE]
by Richard Feynman

I stand at the seashore, alone, and start to think. There are the rushing waves… mountains of molecules, each stupidly minding its own business… trillions apart… yet forming white surf in unison.

Ages on ages… before any eyes could see… year after year… thunderously pounding the shore as now. For whom, for what?… on a dead planet, with no life to entertain.

Never at rest… tortured by energy… wasted prodigiously by the sun… poured into space. A mite makes the sea roar.

Deep in the sea, all molecules repeat the patterns of one another till complex new ones are formed. They make others like themselves… and a new dance starts.

Growing in size and complexity… living things, masses of atoms, DNA, protein… dancing a pattern ever more intricate.

Out of the cradle onto the dry land… here it is standing… atoms with consciousness… matter with curiosity.

Stands at the sea… wonders at wondering… I… a universe of atoms… an atom in the universe.

The architecture of bubbles

December 11, 2021

Book note: Braiding Sweetgrass

December 9, 2021

BRAIDING SWEETGRASS: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Wisdom of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013)

Sweetgrass is an aromatic grass found in Canada and the northern USA.  Indigenous people of the Great Lakes believe it was a gift from Skywoman, a divine being who brought plant life to earth. They pluck the grass reverently, gather it into three bundles and weave it into braids.  Then they make the braids into baskets, which, according to their tradition, should always be given away, never sold for money.

Robin Wall Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and distinguished teaching professor at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse. In this book, she weaves together three strands—indigenous ways of knowledge, scientific knowledge and stories of her own life and lives of her ancestors.

She does not draw a line between humanity and the natural world; she sees them as parts of the same thing.  She does not draw a line between scientific knowledge and indigenous knowledge; she sees them as two ways of understanding the same reality.  

Indigenous knowledge has its own validity; scientific knowledge has its own beauty and awesomeness.  But both are needed.  Neither one is a substitute for the other.

She weaves her book out of many strands—myth, history, botanical lore, cultural survival, environmental and ecological issues, and her own experiences.   It is a rich tapestry, and I’ll only pick out a couple of the strands.

One strand is the Indian idea of the Honorable Harvest.  The idea is that it is permissible for humans use plants and animals to serve their own needs, but it has to be done with restraint and gratitude.

The rules are: Never take the first thing you find, because it may be the only one.  Never take more than half of what you find.  Never take more than you need.  Show respect and express gratitude for what you are given.  And give back as well as take.

This is a form of reverence for life that embraces acceptance of the fact of death.  Some sweetgrass has to be plucked or else the rest will not get enough sunlight and nutrients.  Some deer must fall to predators or hunters, or else the herd will starve.  My life and yours must end someday, or else there will be no room for new people.

Even if we get what we need from the supermarket rather than the forest, we can show gratitude and avoid greed and waste.

Another strand is the idea that plants are teachers.  Kimmerer shows the grandeur of cedar trees and the amazing tenacity of lichen and moss, but there is more to it than that.

It is a wonder and a mystery that living things can be brought into existence by the photosynthesis of light, air and water.  If it weren’t familiar, we’d call it a miracle.

Nor are plants passive entities.  They move and adapt to their environments, although at a pace of seasons and decades, not seconds and minutes.  They communicate and cooperate, using biochemistry instead of words and gestures.  Indeed, as she wrote, plants can be our teachers.

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Coffee, the modern world and me

July 24, 2021

The following is from an article called “The plants that change our consciousness” by Sophia McBain in the New Statesman.

It is no coincidence that caffeine and the minute-hand on clocks arrived at around the same historical moment, the acclaimed food and nature writer Michael Pollan argues in his latest book, This is Your Mind on Plants

Both spread across Europe as laborers began leaving the fields, where work is organised around the sun, for the factories, where shift-workers could no longer adhere to their natural patterns of sleep and wakefulness.

Would capitalism even have been possible without caffeine?  The introduction of caffeine to Europe in the early 17th century coincided with the waning of the mystical medieval mindset and the rise of the cool-headed rationalism of the Enlightenment.

Before the arrival of tea and coffee, alcohol was the safest thing to drink – or at least, safer than most water – so perhaps it is little wonder that the permanently sozzled intellectuals of the Middle Ages were prone to magical thinking.  In contrast, caffeine can intensify “spotlight consciousness,” which illuminates a single point of attention, enhancing our reasoning skills.

Voltaire had such faith in coffee’s power to sharpen his mind that he is said to have drunk up to 72 cups a day.  Balzac sometimes dispensed with drinking coffee altogether and instead ate the grounds for a more powerful hit.

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Coming up: a blood moon and a lunar eclipse

May 25, 2021

Wonders never crease.  A blood moon, a “supermoon” and a lunar eclipse will happen together on May 26.

Blood Moon – Red Moon – Total Lunar Eclipse by Apama Kher for timeanddate.com.

A “supermoon” and a lunar eclipse are both happening on May 26 – Here’s Why by Brian Resnik for Vox.

Super Lunar Event: Supermoon! Red Blood Lunar Eclipse All Happening at Once – Here’s What It Means by Shannon Schmoll for SciTech Daily.

There are degrees of infinity

May 22, 2021

I suspect that infinity is something that the human mind cannot grasp.

I am certain that infinity is something that my particular mind cannot grasp.

The bizarre behavior of rotating bodies

May 3, 2021

I found this fascinating.  Maybe you will, too.  Hat tip to kottke.org.

Illusion, reality and perception

April 24, 2021

How the universe marches in step

April 10, 2021

What do swaying bridges, flashing fireflies, clapping audiences, the far side of the Moon, and beating hearts have in common? Their behavior all has something to do with synchronization. In this video, Veritasium explains why and how spontaneous synchronization appears all the time in the physical world.

Source: The Secret of Synchronization on kottke.org.

Existential threats to humanity, in rank order

December 16, 2020

The Chart of Doom: Ranking Apocalypses by Jason Kottke for kottke.org.

What are the elements good for?

May 3, 2020

Double click to enlarge

The deep strangeness of life in the deep sea

November 9, 2019

Hat tip to Jason Kottke.

The most impressive thing about life in the deepest ocean depths is that it exists at all.

Alternate history and ancient science

June 14, 2019

Alternate history is one of the most popular types of science fiction.  It is based on speculation as to what would have happened if history had been different from what it was – if the Axis had won World War II, or if the South had won the U.S. Civil War.

CELESTIAL MATTERS by Richard Garfinkle (1996) is a work of both alternate history and alternate science.  I read it with great pleasure when it first came out, and reread it with pleasure recently.

The alternate history is what would have happened if the ancient Greek culture had not self-destructed during the Peloponnesian Wars.  

The alternate science is what the world would be like if ancient Greek science were correct—if matter consisted of the four elements of earth, air, fire and water, if the sun, moon and planets revolved around the earth, if medical theories of the “humors” were true, if life could be created through spontaneous generation.

In the novel, the Delian League, the alliance of the Greek city-states formed after the defeat of the Persian invasion, did not become a vehicle for Athenian domination, but was an equal alliance of Athenian thought and Spartan valor that endured for a thousand years.

Alexander of Macedon, influenced by his wise tutor Aristotle, did not attempt to conquer Greece, but joined the Delian League.  He did not cut the Gordian Knot, but allowed Aristotle to gently untie it.  He conquered not only Persia but India, lived to a ripe old age and set up an enduring stable government.

The Delian League’s only rival was the Middle Kingdom, whose technology was based on Taoist principles of Yin and Yang and “xi” force.

The novel’s protagonist, Aias of Tyre, is a scientific officer on an expedition to the Sun to obtain solar fire to use as a high-tech weapon against the Taoists.  The principles of space flight in the novel, of course, have nothing to do with gravity or Newton’s laws of motion.

Alas has to contend with Taoist attacks, sabotage by a secret traitor, personality conflicts in the high command and his doubts about the possible blasphemy against the divine Apollo—not to mention his growing attraction to the female Spartan officer appointed as his bodyguard.

The Greek gods exist and speak to him and other characters, but as voices and images in their minds.  Each of the gods represents a separate aspect of life and of the good.

This is not a novel for everyone, but if this is the kind of novel you enjoy, you will enjoy Celestial Matters a lot.

The next ten billion years.

May 17, 2019

The only thing certain about the future is that this, too, shall pass away.  To get an idea of what that may mean, click on The Next Ten Billion Years by John Michael Greer on The Archdruid Report.  It’s not that his specific predictions are sure to come true, although there’s no specific reason why they couldn’t.  It’s that almost everything we think is important is just a blip in the cosmic scheme of things.

The planet closest to Earth isn’t Venus or Mars

March 30, 2019

The order of the planets’ orbits going outward from the Sun is Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.  The orbit of Venus is a little closer to the orbit of Earth than the orbit of Mars is.

But Venus is not our closest neighbor in the Solar System.  Mercury is, most of the time.

The thing many people forgot is that the planets are in motion, and are different distances from each other at different times.  Venus is somewhat closer to the Earth than Mercury when they are both on the same side of the Sun as Earth, but much further away than Mercury when they are on the opposite side of the Sun from Earth.  The video shows how this works.

In fact, Mercury is the closest planet to all the other planets in the Solar System for this reason.

The failure to keep in mind that the planets are constantly changing position in relation to each other invalidates the background (though not the enjoyment) a lot of old-time science fiction.

Most stories with an interplanetary background assume, without spelling it out, that a space voyage from, say, Earth and Mars is like an ocean voyage from Nantucket to Shanghai, a journey between two fixed points.

Instead, how long it would take to get from Planet A to Planet B, and how much trouble it would take, would depend on the date.

LINK

Venus is not Earth’s closest neighbor by Tom Stockman, Gabriel Monroe and Samuel Cordner for Physics Today.

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From the Big Bang to the origin of humanity

December 22, 2018

This 10-minute history of the universe shows all the amazing things that had to happen in order for the human race—that is, for you and me—to exist.

It’s quite a story.  My question is: Where are we in the story?  Are we near the end?  Or at the beginning?  Or somewhere in the middle?

I grew up reading science fiction, and envisioned the human race spreading out to the planets, then to other solar systems and perhaps other galaxies.  I now realize this can’t be taken for granted, but I also know I don’t have the knowledge to set limits on the future.  If life is a rare event in the universe, could it be the destiny of humanity to spread life beyond its point of origin?

Or are we at the end of the story?  Is it the destiny of the human race to use its intelligence to wipe itself out—through nuclear war, through plague, through runaway global warming or just through loss of the will to live.

Or is the history of civilization is just a blip in the life of a species evolved to be hunter-gatherers?

The total weight of life on earth

August 18, 2018

A group of scientists have written a paper for the U.S. National Academy of Sciences estimating the weight of the different kinds of life on earth.

The total carbon in all living things amounts to 550 billion metric tons, they wrote.  A metric ton is 2,200 pounds.

The weight of all the world’s plants is an estimated 450 billion metric tons.

The world’s bacteria weigh 70 billion metric tons.

All the world’s animals weigh only 2 billion metric tons, of which 1 billion tons consists of arthropods (including insects).

All the world’s humans total a mere 60 million metric tons.

Put another way, life on earth is, by weight, 82 percent plants, 13 percent bacteria and 5 percent everything else, of which 0.01 percent is human life.

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Some short refreshers on climate change

August 9, 2018

Climate change is real.  It’s happening.  Here are some short refreshers on the basic facts.

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Why I like this Harry Potter fan fiction novel

June 9, 2018

I never read the original Harry Potter novels, but I have been completely engrossed in Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, a fan fiction novel by Eliezer Yudkowsky published on-line, chapter by chapter as it was written, from 2010 to 2015.

The premise is that Harry Potter’s foster-father was not the vile Vernon Dursley, as in the original novels, but Michael Verres-Evans, an intelligent and kindly Oxford biochemistry professor, who encouraged Harry to read science and science fiction.

Consequently young Harry is a committed rationalist, who regards the Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft not as a refuge from an unkind Muggle world, but as a puzzle to be solved and a challenge to be overcome.

He also is a genius, with the intellect of a Richard Feynman and the ambition of a Napoleon Bonaparte, along with the emotional maturity of an 11-year-old boy.

His plan is to use the methods of science to unlock the secrets of magic, then to combine the powers of both to “optimize” the world on rational principles  As a character remarks, this is not far from wanting to become a Dark Lord.

Young Harry escapes the control of Headmaster Albus Dumbledore and Professor Minerva McGonagall and allows himself to be mentored by the cynical Professor Quirinus Quirrell, while trying to wean fellow student Draco Malfoy from unthinking malice and Hermione Granger from unthinking goodness.

There are many adventures, in which young Harry seemingly triumphs by applying his intelligence and the rational method.  He becomes impatient with Hogwarts’ witches and wizards for failing to understand cognitive bias, Bayes’s Theorem, game theory, effective altruism and the other principles of rationality.

Then, in the end, he discovers that he has completely misunderstood his situation and brought himself, Hogwarts and Magical Britain to the brink of doom.  But he thinks his way out of his plight at the very last minute and saves the day, although not without cost.

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Jordan Peterson and the dominant lobster

April 17, 2018

I forgot to mention the most striking metaphor in Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life—the struggle for dominance among lobsters.

Hierarchy is a law of nature, Peterson wrote; it is hard-wired in our brains by the evolutionary process.  It manifests itself not only as top dogs and pecking orders, but the struggle for dominance of our distant ancestor, the humble lobster.

Lobsters, it seems, compete for the best nesting places where they can be safe when they are shedding their shells.  The winners are lobsters with the biggest claws and a level of confidence produced by a substance called serotonin.   Sub-dominant lobsters not only fail to get good nesting places, but their level of serotonin drops so they can adjust to their lowly status.  Not only that, lobsters respond to Prozac.

So don’t be a loser lobster, Peterson says; stand up for yourself.

Illustration from 12 Rules for Life

It’s true, as he says, that human beings compete for dominance in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.  Everybody can see this.  I’ll never again observe a certain type of (usually) male behavior without forming a picture in my mind of a giant humanoid cartoon lobster, waving its claws.

And it’s also true that the human body produces serotonin.  But current thinking is that serotonin has little to do with mental states.  In human beings, its main function is to aid digestion.   Also, even though lobsters respond to Prozac, there is no evidence that it makes them happier.  Also, the lobster species is not the ancestor of the human species.

Peterson, to his credit, does not advocate being at the top of a dominance hierarcy as a life goal.   That way lies fascism by way of social Darwinism.  What he says is that life is tough and you need to be able to stand up for yourself.

Where he goes wrong is to claim dominance and hierarchy in the animal kingdom have any relevance to current arguments about economic inequality.

It is true that, within any group, there will be one or more persons who are more competent and confident than the others, and they will emerge as leaders.

But that has nothing to do with questions of the power of money in politics, the abuse of power by government or the growth of income inequality.  The current distribution of wealth and power in the USA and other countries does not reflect constants of human nature; it is the result of governmental and corporate policies during the past 35 years.

12 Rules for Life is inspirational, and Peterson mostly speaks good sense when he is dealing with matters of which he has personal experience or has studied deeply.   But on issues of economics and politics, he seems not to know what he doesn’t know.

LINKS

Psychologist Jordan Peterson says lobsters help to explain human hierarchies – do they? by Leonor Gonçalves for The Conversation.

Three More Reasons for Wealth-Deprived Americans to Take to the Streets by Paul Buchheit for AlterNet.  The real issues in the inequality debate.

 

The problems that won’t go away

January 10, 2018

Double click to enlarge.

 

Economic injustice is a matter of human relations.  So is the question of war and peace..  They are matters of how we human beings decide to live with each other.

Other problems, such as population growth, climate change and exhaustion of natural resources, are different.  They are questions of how we human beings relate to an external world that is governed by the laws of physics, chemistry and biology, and not by human desires.

The Union of Concerned Scientists published a series of charts 25 years ago (in 1992) about ominous trends in the external world that affect human survival.   Now scientists have taken another look at these trends.  A couple have gotten better.  Many have gotten worse.

One success is the recovery of the ozone layer, achieved by regulation of ozone-depleting substances.   A great achievement not shown on the chart is elimination of famines and extreme poverty in many parts of the world.

Another is the reduction in the birth rate.  In many nations, it is at or below 2.1 children per couple, the replacement rate.  This was achieved by means of the spread of birth control information and the empowerment and education of women.  But birth rates are still high in some parts of the world and, even if this weren’t true , it would still take a generation or two before world population levels off..

In other ways, things have grown worse since 1992.   The concentration of greenhouse gasses continues to increase.  As a result, average temperatures continue to increase.   Deforestation continues.  There is a continued increase in ocean dead zones, where oxygen depletion kills all fish and aquatic animal life.   This means the world fish catch is declining.

This is a great challenge to humanity because there is very little than can be done that will have any impact in the lifetimes of adults now living.  Can we human beings unite?  Do we care enough about coming generations to put their interests first?  Is there still time to act?  I wish I knew the answers to these questions.

LINK

World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice in BioScience for the American Institute of Biological Sciences.

Winning Slowly Is the Same as Losing by Bill McKibben for Rolling Stone.  [Added 1/13/2018]

A 94-Million-Year-Old Warning About the Ocean’s Future by Peter Brannen for The Atlantic.  [Added 1/13/2018]

Apollo 17 – I hope it was the latest, not the last

December 27, 2017

The story of the Apollo 17 mission of 45 years ago should not be forgotten.   It is a story of herosim and competence, two qualities we Americans as a nation can’t afford to lose.

At the present time, we as a nation need to give priority to the basics—long-term survival goals more than aspirational goals.  But I hope Apollo 17 was the latest, and not the last, American venture to the moon and beyond.