Category Archives: science

Science writing: To the point

If you’re going to write about science — get to the damn point. All I need is the highlights, the topics, the bullet points. And if there are pertinent details, make them brief and absent of flourish.

So many of the literary news outlets publish narrative science articles that I’m afraid it’s become an art. A pointless and irritating art.

Take this one for instance (don’t go here, don’t give them the courtesy):

7,800 words in that frickin’ thing. I don’t have the time or patience to burn thirty minutes slogging through some “writer’s” portrayal of science dudes’ childhoods: “When he was 11, his mother bought him a subscription to a medical encyclopedia series.” Fuck-me-Alex.

Get to the point and get out. It’s science — just the pertinent facts, ma’am. All the actual data required to deliver the concepts of brain tissue reanimation could have been provided in a tenth the words. But no, the writer had to turn it into a biography.

And this happens time and time again. 10,000 word diatribes about artificial intelligence and machine learning, or meandering missives on Neanderthal DNA in modern Homo Sapiens. It seems that every sexy scientific topic begs a “story.” Sorry, I don’t want window dressing on my low earth orbit launch technologies, or thermal depolymerization of ocean plastic…

I just want the concise, to-the-point facts about the advances or failures of the science and technology. Spare me backstories, please. If you have to, write a sweeping expose’ on some social or historical topic or event — leave the science for the fact writers.

 


BodyScale: 0 to 100

Celsius is great for science. 0 freezing, 100 boiling – perfectly logical.

Fahrenheit is just bonkers. Totally screwball with no logic behind it whatsoever.

But the problem with Celsius (we’ll disregard Fahrenheit due to irrelevance) is that Celsius has only one immediately human identifiable anchoring: 0 degrees freezing. At 100°, the boiling point of pure water at sea level—yeah, great. Not exactly relatable (not really). How warm is the human body? 37 degrees. Hmm, 37, not a number that sits well in our minds. Instead…

How about a human relatable scale:

  • 0 = freezing point of water.
  • 100 = human body temperature.

Here’s how such a scale would compare to Celsius…

CelsiusvsBodyScale

0 is 0. That’s easy. We are frozen solid at 0 Centigrade as well as 0 BodyScale.

But at 100° BodyScale, we’re exactly where we need to be (37°C).

Now, based on 0-100° degrees BS we have a natural range we can understand.

At 50° BS, we’re pretty comfortable — half way from body temp to freezing.

At -50° BS, that’s damn cold (-19°C), and that’s about our limit.

At 150° BS, that’s about our top limit, frickin’ hot. Hot to the touch; sauna hot. But still, if you were outside, walkin’ around, drinking lots of fluids, 150° BS is tolerable. See how this is working?

Zero BS to 100° BS is our natural range. It makes sense to us in our ten-fingered numerical system within our human condition. Additionally, -50° BS to 150° BS would be our natural  range extent. Again, logical extensions of our 0-100 range.

Celsius has two numbers which make human sense, 0 & 100. One is relatable, the other is “touch and suffer.”

We humans like relatable numbers. That’s why the metric system is so hard to take. (See: https://anonymole.com/2015/08/18/the-problem-with-the-metric-system/ )

A weatherman, lying about tomorrow’s sunny day, who used BodyScale as their temperature gauge would make perfect sense.

“Tonight’s overnight temperature will be 60° BS and 85° BS by tomorrow afternoon—a nice day, so go have fun!”

And medically, using such a scale would also make sense.

  • 104° BodyScale, a bit of a fever.
  • At 95° BS, you’re suffering from hypothermia!
  • 100° – spot on, mate.

Even that 100° C seems misleading, “100°C? Yeah, OK”.
But at 270° BS. 270°! Shit, that sounds hot! And it is. Hot enough to boil water…

(Oh, and the “BS” initialism is an ironic coincidence…)

Celsius BodyScale
-40 -108
-30 -81
-19 -50
-10 -27
0 0
10 27
20 54
30 81
37 100
40 108
50 135
55 150
70 189
80 216
90 243
100 270
110 297
120 324
130 351
140 378
150 405
160 432
170 459
180 486
190 514
200 541

The Day the Earth Died

I don’t often share such articles, but this one sticks out as critically important. It regards the KT moment, the end-of-days for Dino the Dinosaur. And what you’ll find is that it appears that a paleontologist has found evidence of the exact moment of the Chicxulub asteroid impact.

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/04/08/the-day-the-dinosaurs-died

— The KT event continues to attract the interest of scientists in no small part because the ashen print it left on the planet is an existential reminder. “We wouldn’t be here talking on the phone if that meteorite hadn’t fallen,”

— The Tanis site, in short, did not span the first day of the impact: it probably recorded the first hour or so.


Hummingbird miracle

We feed hummingbirds.

It’s an easy thing to do and provides hours of viewing pleasure. I got to thinking about the mechanics of a hummingbird and had to wonder about some of the factors that go into allowing such a creature the ability to do what they do.

For reference, a human eye-blink takes about 1/3 of a second, ~300 milliseconds of time. And this, it turns out, is about the reaction time of a human. BANG! goes the starting gun and 1/3 second later we’re off the block.

hummingbird

(Creative Commons image)

For a hummingbird, this reaction time is cut by about 100 fold. Within three to five milliseconds, a hummingbird can interpret an oncoming obstacle, a branch say, process this image as a threat, send a signal to its wing muscles, adjust its flight and avert disaster.

There are a few aspects that make this possible. One is its brain and ocular processing. A hummingbird has special processing which is especially evolved to instantly identify oncoming threats. How a thing changes observable size — the closer the bigger — is the trick there. Another, more important, is the creature’s size. Electrical signals, traveling through neurons, takes time. The shorter the distance, the faster the reaction. If a hummingbird were the size of a crow or eagle, or human, the distance to send a “TURN RIGHT OR DIE!” command would grow and take a proportionally longer time. Additionally, its size constrains its weight which being slight, allows it to instantly change course — less weight, less inertia, easier vector changes.

We don’t often think about milliseconds in nature, but the hummingbird personifies such measurement. It’s truly a wonderment of evolution, a miraclulous biological machine.

 


Butterflies and SUVs

Feedback.

Chain reaction.

The Cascade Effect.

In all likelihood, humanity has triggered calamitous climate change. Calamitous for us and millions of species that enjoyed the Holocene as much as we did.

The concept that chemical, physical, environmental changes, seemingly small and isolated that may provide self-propagating feedback resulting in runaway change in systems attached to or surrounding the original event — has been known for decades if not centuries. Remove a single log from a beaver’s dam and watch the water boil through the gap, weakening the dam, flooding the downstream dams which in turn overrun their capacity causing them to weaken and the cascade begins and doesn’t end until all the dams are busted and the entire valley is flooded.

The flooding of our valley, our atmosphere, with greenhouse gasses has no doubt started and the feedback loop is swinging into full volume.

Drive your SUV, and like the butterfly’s wings across the ocean, you start the trend, you trip the wire, you trigger the unstoppable. And once begun, the storm will rage until exhausted. In the case of global warming and catastrophic climate change — that storm will rage for centuries.

The chain reaction of increased CO2 causing massive heat, releasing methane from clathrates in the worlds cold oceans, which add even more heat trapping that then melts the Greenland ice cap which floods the North Atlantic with fresh water choking the Atlantic Meridonial Overturning Circulation killing the Gulf Stream freezing Europe, which then triggers an exodus to the south, overwhelming the Middle East and North Africa, and so on and so forth.

These feedback loops are everywhere and entangled beyond comprehension. Increased rain fall in some places leeches nutrients and degrades CH4 uptake, reducing a forest’s ability to fix greenhouse gases. The death of coral reefs around the world caused by heat bleaching sterilizing the area starving the fish in the area forcing local fishermen out to hunt other species depleting those, which then triggers yet more feedback regarding ecosystem disruption. And yada yada yada.

Soon though, today perhaps (or maybe it was yesterday), the camel’s back will snap. When it does we won’t immediately know it. There may be a year or three before scientists collect the data and point their finger back into history and say that right there, August seventh, 2018 was the day the threshold was tipped and we reached the point of no return.

The wealthy know this. That’s why many of them enjoin experts to locate the most stable locales, least likely to experience social collapse caused by the fallout of the systematic alteration of climate. Fire, flood, drought, famine, storms, bitter cold, broiling heat — take them all and amplify each by 100%. Or maybe by 200% or more. If you want to survive the next 20-50 years (or have your children survive) the wealthy know that you must have a bug-out plan.

Where are you going to head when you know, in your heart of hearts, collapse is coming?

I’ve been watching this site for years: https://neptune.gsfc.nasa.gov/csb/index.php?section=234

ArcticIceExtent

And of course the Scripps CO2 site: https://scripps.ucsd.edu/programs/keelingcurve/

ScrippsC02Full

Such charts point to one and only one conclusion: catastrophic climate change is coming.

REF:

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/aug/06/domino-effect-of-climate-events-could-push-earth-into-a-hothouse-state


Earth: galactic laboratory

Here’s an alternative “Zoo” hypothesis regarding a solution to the Fermi Paradox. We’ll call it the Lab Hypothesis.

If you’ll recall, the Zoo Hypothesis is the idea that intelligent, space-faring cognizants exist and they, either a single species or a collective, have intentionally isolated Earth (we’re effectively quarantined) in order to allow humanity to sink-or-swim, as it were.

The Lab Hypothesis is similar, however, the determining factor is that outside intervention is not forbidden, only restricted. And that Earth is “mined” for the myriad lifeforms and organic compounds and molecules that are produced by those lifeforms.

Think, autonomous chemistry laboratory, which haphazardly creates and/or evolves millions of chemicals which are rare in the galaxy. These fabrications are collected by aliens (which might explain the errant sightings of spacecraft), and then sold/traded/used by other populations of intelligent races in the galaxy.

Consider that life is rare (so far — very rare). And that life itself is more capable when it comes to producing strange new chemicals. Even the most advanced AI-computers in the galaxy cannot calculate the working, stable combinations of elements that make up, say, vanilla, cinnamon, coffee, banana, okra, or cannabinoids, millions of chemical and drug compounds the corp-pharma industry searches for in the jungles of the world.

Life, nature, is just too good at making stuff up that works, on some level, to affect living beings, psychotropically, physically, or materially (spider silk for example).

So, Earth is a lab, and we’re lab-rats, and the thousands of spices, fragrances, liquids, intoxicants, etc. that we enjoy — our alien neighbors do too.

But they want to keep it a secret — and not risk polluting the petri-dish.

 


Changing the mind, again

I copied this from an email From Mr. Pollan. I’ll delete it (probably) when his book comes out in May, 2018. I’m a fan of Michael’s, I’ve read most of his books. And I’ll be reading this one.

I bothered to copy this here as the topic of “changing your mind” seems to be popular, one we’ve discussed here and on other blogger’s sites. Funny how society converges on the same thing at the same time. Maybe we’re already a hive-mind.

A Note From Michael Pollan
“A trip well worth taking, eye-opening and even mind-blowing.”
—Kirkus Reviews
Dear Readers,It’s been a while since I’ve written, but I have been busy reporting and writing a new book that I’ve just completed. I’m excited to tell you about it.

HOW TO CHANGE YOUR MIND: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence will be published in May. As the title suggests, the new book represents something of a departure for me—at least from writing about food.(As one early review put it, I’ve turned from “feeding your body to feeding your head.”)But as those of you who have been following my work for a while know, what unifies all my writing is a fascination with our symbiotic relationships with other species in nature, whether for food, beauty, or intoxication. I’ve had a long-standing interest in psychoactive plants and the age-old human desire to change the texture of consciousness. You may recall I wrote about cannabis inThe Botany of Desire and about growing opium in Harper’s several years before that.

The new book grew out of the reporting I did for a 2015 article about psychedelic psychotherapy in the New Yorker, called “The Trip Treatment.” I interviewed a number of cancer patients who, in the course of a single guided session on psilocybin (the main psychoactive molecule in magic mushrooms), had such a powerful mystical experience that their fear of death either faded or vanished altogether. I became curious to learn how that might be possible—how a molecule produced by a mushroom, of all things, could produce such a radical change in the mind of a human, such that death lost its sting.

So began what became a two-year journey into the world of psychedelics—LSD, psilocybin, Ayahuasca and something called 5-MeO-DMT. The book explores the renaissance of scientific research into these compounds and their potential to relieve several kinds of mental suffering, including depression, anxiety, and addiction. I spent time with neuroscientists who are using psychedelics in conjunction with modern brain imaging technologies to probe the mysteries of consciousness and the self. Several of the scientists I met are convinced psychedelics could revolutionize mental healthcare and our understanding of the mind.

But what I didn’t expect when I embarked on this journey was for it to result in what is surely the most personal book I’ve ever written. As you know, I like to immerse myself in whatever I’m writing—whether that means buying a steer or apprenticing myself to a baker. What began as a third-person journalistic inquiry ended up a first-person quest to learn what these medicines had to teach me about not only the mind but also my mind, and specifically about the nature of spiritual experience. This book has taken me places I’ve never been—indeed, places I didn’t know existed.

As you can imagine, I’m both excited and nervous to publish How to Change Your Mind this spring. I do hope you’ll check it out. I plan to post an excerpt on my website in a couple of months, and will alert you when I do. I’ll soon be updating the website with a rich array of resources on psychedelics. For now, though, here’s the advance review of the book from Kirkus, quoted from above.

I’ll be in touch more regularly in the next few months, to bring you news of the book as well as my extensive speaking schedule this spring. Hope to see you in person at one of these events.

All best,
Michael