Monday, September 12, 2016

The Problem with Climate Change Debate

The most critical issue facing our world is the threat climate change.

Unfortunately, you can't point to a single event, or even series of events and say: "That is Climate Change".  It's far more generalized and gradual than a single event. There is no need for panic in the streets, not that you could run away from it really.

Usually when you talk about Climate Change, most people talk in terms of the misnomer: Global warming (see the excerpt from Futurama). The term Global Warming doesn't really describe the totality of the phenomena we are seeing today. Sure, the Earth is heating up at a much faster rate than we have seen in known history, but it's more than just added heat. The global scale of the environmental impact our society has is truly astounding. From deforestation around the globe to acidification which is destroying coral reefs at an alarming rate. Our planet is chemically, biologically, and physically sick.

Right now we see the symptoms of the illness: warmer weather, more severe storms, more frequent storms, widespread drought, depletion of aquifers, changing weather patterns, changing crop yields, receding glaciers, increased coastal erosion, and rising sea levels. The difficulty is altering the perception in skeptical minds. There are arguments on both sides leading to confrontations like this:

 No matter how correct Professor Cox may be, confrontation won't win a debate in the court of public opinion. I wasn't able to find the full debate, but from what the BBC posted both parties had equally valid points. Mr. Roberts' contention was that he believed the data was manipulated and faulty. Professor Cox's response was simply to chuck the data at him, not address the point of validity. If the scientific community really wishes to address the issue properly, they have to address the issue of credibility. That's a bit difficult when people point to problems with the system:

 Some of this has to do with the idea of mistaking correlation for causation, but a lot of it has to do with the funding the science receives. If the entity funding the research or the researcher has an agenda, then the data has a significant chance of being skewed in favor the the agenda. If any tampering exists, or is even perceived to exist, then it is nearly impossible to overcome the skepticism which should accompany any scientific research. This is where Professor Cox runs into problems. He believes the data is correct, but cannot provide sufficient proof to overcome the burden of proof required to sway others.
It is true that Mr. Roberts will probably never have sufficient evidence to convince him that Climate Change is real, but that stubbornness can't be debated away. He has to be receptive to the idea that his null hypothesis is wrong. Without an attitude change, there won't be any possibility of any meaningful action. 

This isn't an issue that is going away. This is something that will only get worse. While it slowly happens over the next few decades and centuries, it will cost staggering amounts of money and take a great toll on life. They won't be dollars spent on a single disaster or lives lost in a moment. It will be a slow and steady churn that will be ascribed to a storm like Katrina, or Winston. 

Of course, we could always have a bare-knuckles cage match between Mr. Roberts and Professor Cox. Somehow I don't think science would win with the skinny particle physicist taking on the lumbering conservative.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Why the Media Needs to STOP using "Earth Like".

If you keep up to date on science issues, you are no doubt aware of the latest exoplanet discovery. Proxima Centauri A has a Earth size planet orbiting it. It is at the right distance and right size to support liquid water. Unfortunately, the press uses the highly inaccurate term "Earth Like" to describe wolds like Proxima Centauri b. I'll explain why I feel this is a terrible term for these planets. Although it's exciting to have a nearby (40,000,000,000,000 km) That will still take a spacecraft like New Horizons 18,000 years to get there. Nearby is relative if you use ice ages as a measurement. I like the sound of 1 ice age instead of several times longer than humans have had civilization on the earth.

Credit: Jean-Luc Beuzit, et al. Grenoble Observatory, European Southern Observatory

 Exoplanets are planets that have been located outside our solar system. They are found using a number of techniques, but only a handful have been directly observed. Beta Pictoris b is a planet observed by the European Space Agency's telescopes in Chile using infrared telescopes. Beta Pictoris b is a small smudge on the photograph pictured above.  An annotated picture with the planet highlighted can be found here. That is about as close as we can get to seeing a small dot of light in another solar system. A pixel or two.

Most of the time planets are located using a method called Transit Photometry, which detects the planet by measuring how dim the star gets when it comes between us and its parent star. There are other ways of detecting exoplanets, and none of them are easy. Although we can learn a lot from the information we do gather, we aren't able to tell if a planet actually can support life, at least not yet.

With all we do know, there's a lot we don't. As I've discussed in other blogs, magnetic fields, atmosphere, and the type of star system have a lot to do with the viability of a planet supporting life. It's not enough to have the building blocks of life to have a habitable planet. What bothers me most is that people impart the qualities found on Earth to distant objects that we know very little about. Earth-size is more accurate in this case, but not Earth-like.

Earth is, as far as we KNOW, the only place where life is known to currently exist. It's thought that bacteria was once found on Mars, but we haven't found any evidence of it existing there now, or even in the distant past. Earth has life in abundance. Life has existed and survived several extinction events that have wiped out countless species over billions of years. Still this world persists in supporting life. I am certain that there are other worlds that ARE like Earth, and support bountiful life. However, people should avoid placing qualities on anything with no way of supporting that claim. To do so is sensational, inaccurate, misleading, and tabloid in nature.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Warning Fatigue

The City of New York has a new regulation for purveyors of food in the city. They are now requiring a warning label, in the form of a salt shaker icon, on menus in the city. This is for foods that contain more than the recommended daily allowance of sodium (currently 2,400 mg). This is under the guise of informing consumers about eating too much salt in their diets, with the hopes that it will curtail the number of people with high blood pressure and heart disease.

While we Americans consume far too much that is bad for us: sodium, fats, sugars, and (more importantly) calories. It's important to know what we put into our bodies, and understand how it effects us. Knowing what to eat regularly, and what to save for special occasions is one of the more important things we can learn about life, but it's typically not something we're taught well enough. It doesn't help that eating at restaurants is becoming the rule, and not the exception.

When I was young, it was a rare thing to eat at a restaurant. Big Macs were not a regular item on the menu, and generally saved for when we were traveling. Today, however, people will eat fast food several times a week. I am as guilty of this as anyone. My excuse tends to be that I'm too busy, or that I forget to take food with me. I also tend to eat what sounds good at the time and not what is healthiest. My point is not to show that I'm a fat slob (although there are people who could argue that I am), but that I, unlike most people, have learned about nutrition, yet I still choose to eat unhealthy foods.

The crux is that I get to choose what I eat and where. That choice can depend on a lot of factors like the amount of money I have, the amount of time I have, and the kinds of foods available, but in the end it's my choice.  It isn't up to government to decide what I eat, or when, or where.

However, this poses a problem for society, and that problem is the health problems caused by food. What we eat is a large part of how healthy we are. People who eat a lot of red meat, sugary drinks, and fat laden  food have a higher incidence of diseases that tend to be caused by, or made worse by the foods we eat. Diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, and the list goes on and on and on.  This isn't including all of the food borne illnesses that can range from heartburn to a severe case of deadness.  One of the most recent is the Costco E. coli poisoning. It wasn't the chicken that caused the issue, but the celery. Not every farm worker washes their hands after defecating while harvesting produce. It's cringe worthy, but true.

If you're a public health professional trying to reduce the medical costs brought on by food related health issues, where do you start? How do you tackle educating the public on making healthier choices that will reduce the amount of money spent caring for people sickened by obesity and other food related health issues?  In short, you can't.  You can't dictate how other people live their lives.  You can educate and inform, but you can't dictate.

In this case, warning the public about the sodium content is somewhat misguided.  The problem with having warnings plastered everywhere, is that people get tired of them. Despite the good intent of the regulation it will likely prove as ineffective as the soda regulation New York unsuccessfully tried in 2014. It just comes off as "the boy who cried wolf".  The problem in this case is that even when there is a wolf, unless he's attacking, you don't really care as long as it stays that way.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Why I haven't written in a long time

Sometimes things get left by the wayside.  Sometimes things just get set to the back burner.  This is true with this blog, but I have been trying to rectify that.  In addition to continuing my education (more science classes), I've been educating myself in Family History, editing the next book in the saga (I swear it's coming), refining the science behind a new series, and resetting my life to day-time shifts.  Things have gotten in the way.  It takes time to properly formulate an argument, so I haven't been diligent at getting to this rarely visited blog.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Happy Pi Day!!!!

3/14/1(4)----I realize that this isn't quite pi (not until next year), but why not celebrate with the Numberphile video on Pi.  This is a music video composed using the digits of Pi.  Enjoy!

p.s. I know I haven't posted in a while.  More on that later.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Engineering Fail

Architecture is perhaps the most beautiful form of engineering.  When done properly, it’s a sublime art form that can last for thousands of years.  When it isn’t, it can be disastrous.  It was interesting to read an article about a building in London that has a bit of a problem. 
The building has a rather innocuous name of 20 Fenchurch Street.  The locals refer to it at the Walkie Talkie because its shape resembles an old handheld two-way transceiver.  The problem is the building’s south facing exterior.  Like most modern buildings, it’s mostly a highly reflective glass.  That highly reflective surface has caused problems on the street below.
This isn’t the first time a building has had problems with the physics of light.  The Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles had a similar problem.  The swooping, highly polished exterior looked good on paper, but they hadn’t considered the effect sunlight has on the surrounding buildings when it is magnified by the stainless steel exterior.  The solution was to dull the finish on the building, so it wasn’t as reflective.
courtesy Wikipedia
Obviously, at this stage in construction, it’s far too late to alter the exterior to correct the problem.  It would be prohibitively expensive to correct the curve, so they will have to change the reflective properties of the windows.  It will change the overall intended look of the building, but I imagine that solving this problem could make the building more attractive.
This is the big problem of aesthetics over function.  There is a huge drive to make skyscrapers a distinctive monument.  Even though most are privately owned, they are seen as a source of national pride.  With all the emphasis placed on design, it’s tough to make a functional building that stands out from the crowd.  You hope that this type of death-ray building won’t happen again, and this will be an example to future architects of what not to do.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Why Only the Elite Go to Space

Currently there are over a hundred-thousand applicants vying for four one-way tickets to Mars.  The vetting process for getting to this point will be arduous, and only a select few will seriously be considered.  This is for a privately funded, and possible (but far from certain) mission to Mars.  NASA is hoping to go there, but won’t be opening the mission to just anyone.  There are very good reasons for this.
Space travel is extremely hazardous, and not for the faint of heart.  It is extraordinarily difficult to launch a rocket into orbit, let alone send it to another planet.  Certainly the fundamentals are rudimentary (which is why they are called fundamentals), but the devil is in the details.  Successfully sending a manned spacecraft into orbit, and returning it safely is extremely difficult.  NASA makes it look easy, and almost routine, but I can assure you that is an illusion.
You only have to look at NASA’s failures to see how difficult it is to succeed, and NASA’s history is littered with failure.  There have been three catastrophic events that cost lives.
Apollo 1(AS-204)

SS Challenger (STS-51)

SS Columbia (STS-107)

That’s just NASA.  Every other nation that has put astronauts and spacecraft orbit has suffered training accidents and loss of men and equipment.  There is a reason why “Rocket Scientist” is a synonym for an extremely intelligent person.  It takes a lot of math, science, and engineering to perfect a vehicle for launch, and even then, failure is possible.  Even the slightest defect can have serious repercussions.
There is a very good reason why NASA takes only the best, brightest, and healthiest people into space.  I know there are some exceptions to that statement (John Glen flew on STS-95 when he was 77), but there are always exceptions.  However, for a deep space mission there can be no exceptions.
When an explosion crippled the Apollo 13 mission, the three men onboard were NOT ordinary men.  Lovell, Haise, and Swigert were ALL test pilots.  Fred Haise graduated with honors in Aerospace Engineering. John Swigert had a BS in Mechanical Engineering, an MS in Aerospace Engineering, and an MBA.  James Lovell had graduated from the Naval Academy.  These men were intelligent, resourceful, and highly trained.  They were supported by the smartest and most talented ground crew that the United States could muster.  None of the people involved accepted failure as an option (probably a reason why it’s a brilliantly delivered line in the movie).

Serious space exploration is not for people who dream of being Captain Kirk.  It’s for people who ARE Lovell, Haise, Swigert, Armstrong, Glenn, Aldrin, and the others that have come and gone since.  You don’t need someone who is simply better than average, you require someone exceptional.  A successful pioneering astronaut requires ingenuity, perseverance, intelligence, competence, and an overwhelming desire to survive against all odds.  These qualities are NOT possessed by ordinary.  The average person is satisfied with mediocrity, predictability, freezes when critical situations arise, and fail to act.  This type of person is unacceptable in deep space.
As I’ve pointed out, it is extremely expensive to send people to space.  People are worth more than their weight in gold when in space.  You can only afford to send the most experienced, the most dedicated, the most committed, the most stable, the most resourceful, the best trained, and the most intelligent on missions to other planets.  Anything less is a waste of money.
A successful astronaut is the kind of person that has a family, a job they are dedicated to, a yearning to learn, and a desire to return home.  The kind of person attracted to a one-way trip does not have the desire to return to a family, doesn’t have the skills or knowledge needed, and doesn’t have the drive to survive at all costs.  That person has already given up on the earth, and everything associated with it.  They have a desire to leave everything behind in the hopes of adventure.  It is shortsighted, vain, and ultimately doomed to failure. 
I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t believe I am.  The past is the best predictor of the future.  If we have learned anything from our past successes and failures is that eventually something will go wrong, and when things go wrong you need the best people working on a solution.  It isn’t a matter of if, but when something will go wrong.  If a mission is to have any chance of success, it must have the best tools available.  The best tool on a manned mission is the crew.  That is why only the elite are eligible, and the rest of us must live vicariously through them.