Category Archives: Science Stuff

My 2012 Balticon Schedule

Hi! How’ve you been?

It’s been a busy couple of months. I keep meaning to write, honest.

Look, it’s not you, it’s me.

Oh, never mind. Here’s where I’ll be speaking at the Balticon convention this year. If you’re in Baltimore, or near Baltimore, or anywhere on the east coast, swing by!

Multi-Creatives. Saturday, 12:00 noon, Derby.
The demands of multiple artistic pursuits, Learning to do it all without losing your mind.

I’m really only on this one to say, “YOU FOOLS! YOU CANNOT DO IT ALL WITHOUT LOSING YOUR MIND!”

A Conversation with Physicist Bill Phillips. Saturday, 5:00 pm, Garden Room.
Interviewers John Ashmead and Stephen Granade speak with Science Guest of Honor Bill Phillips.

I am going to do my best not to go all fanboy over a man who’s a Nobel Prize winner for work that led directly to my PhD thesis. Come see if I succeed!

Comedy Improv. Saturday, 6:00 pm, Chesapeake.
Watch the nimblest minds of new media compete for glory (because we have no trophy) as they try their hardest to make you laugh.

I have no idea what this panel is really about, but I assume I’ll do my usual thing: turn off my filters, let my brain start spinning freely, and then say whatever random thing I think is funny. If this requires actual improv acting, all the better.

CUT! Perfect! Print it! Saturday, 8:00 pm, Parlor 3041.
For the last ten years, Dragon*ConTV has been filming short comedy skits to entertain SF convention-goers. One of its principals talks about teaching himself filmmaking over a decade, what he learned from his mistakes, the tricks he wishes he’d known at the start, and the challenges of zero-budget filming.

I started out knowing nothing, and now I know more than nothing. In just 50 minutes I’ll teach you how to make videos the ED WOOD WAY!

Disasterpiece Theatre Live. Sunday, 1:00 pm, Chesapeake.
Balticon The Movie. This week, Alex and Stephen tackle the country’s oldest science-fiction and fantasy convention in an effort to turn it into a Hollywood blockbuster. Bring your best pitches and let our producers give you notes!

We’ve not had a chance to record a live Disasterpiece Theatre episode, so this should be fun and possibly train-wrecky. Either way, everyone wins!

Science of the Whedonuniverse. Sunday, 10:00 pm, Salon A.

This is a solo version of the panel I was part of at Dragon*Con back in 2010. I’ll talk brain scanning, personality transfers, terraforming, and more.

Whew. That seems like enough stuff for one convention.

Talking Science at Balticon 2012

This year I decided to focus more on science outreach, especially giving science talks to general audiences. As part of that, I’ll be attending Balticon, the long-standing SFF convention in Baltimore. I’m especially excited because I’m getting to interview Bill Phillips. In 1997 Dr. Phillips won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on using lasers to cool and trap neutral atoms. That work was fundamental to my thesis research that led to my paper in Science. Without Dr. Phillips’s work, my professional life wouldn’t be what it is today.

So, yeah, I’m excited.

I’ll also be talking about podcasting and filmmaking along with science. If you’re going to be in Baltimore on Memorial Day weekend, stop by and say hi.

Have a Powerful Day!

Yesterday I tweeted a link to Rhett Allain’s fun article comparing name-brand batteries to dollar-store batteries. Rhett covers numerically approximating integrals, energy, energy density, and cost per joule of energy. As a bonus, his commenters taught me about eneloop batteries. My take-away from his article: if you’re going to use disposable batteries and you’re buying from a local store rather than Amazon, it’s worth buying the name-brand ones to minimize waste since all of the batteries he tested had roughly the same cost per joule1.

(Added later: it turns out Rhett was comparing name-brand alkaline batteries to dollar store “heavy duty” zinc chloride batteries. That doesn’t invalidate the results, but it doesn’t answer whether or not the dollar store alkalines would be better or worse than name brand ones.)

Shortly after I tweeted the link, I got a reply from the Rayovac twitter account.

[blackbirdpie url=”″]

This amused me to no end: I’d posted a link to a nice analysis of battery lifetimes, complete with data and plots, and the Rayovac twitter account’s reply claimed their batteries’ awesomeness (without any data) and linked to coupons. A friend of mine and I laughed about this spamming on Twitter. Big mistake: Rayovac wasn’t about to let that stand.

[blackbirdpie url=”″]

Well. I’ve learned my lesson. Links to coupons and unsubstantiated claims of battery lifetime in response to an article with actual battery lifetime data is absolutely not spam.

Also, “Have a Powerful day!” is how I’m going to say goodbye from now on.

1There are a number of possible refinements to Rhett’s quick-and-dirty Mythbusters-level analysis, including measuring a ton of batteries’ characteristics to get a better average measurement, that might alter the final result, but that’s just me being nit-picky. And physicists are never nit-picky.

Three Very Small Exoplanets

NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, which is looking for planets outside our solar system, has found three of the smallest exoplanets yet. They’re all smaller than Earth — their radii are 0.78, 0.73 and 0.57 times that of Earth’s — and the smallest is about the size of Mars.

Kepler Tiny Exoplanet Artist's RenditionThey’re very close to their star, too close to be good candidates for life because liquid water can’t exist on them, and their star is a red dwarf. But what makes them special is that they are so small.

The techniques we use for finding exoplanets work best with large, massive planets, as I’ve mentioned before. It’s only been recently that we’ve been able to find planets of around Earth’s size, and especially those that are likely to be rocky, terrestrial planets like Earth. The three that Kepler’s found fall into that small-rocky territory. That’s crucial — we’ve mainly found gas giants, which made astronomers wonder if our solar system was an unusual one because it has so many rocky planets in it. As we find more rocky planets, we learn more about how solar systems form and help us understand if life here on Earth is a fluke or likely to be repeated across the galaxy.

Scientific America has a good discussion of why Kepler was able to find these three planets, if you’d like to know more. What’s really exciting is that Kepler may be able to discover planets as small as our Moon, and given the firehose of data coming out of Kepler, there are likely many more discoveries where these three came from.

Science Experiments for Unimpressed Kids: Surface Tension

A while back, Eli and Liza excitedly talked about water striders. “They walk on water, dad!”

As a scientist, I never miss a teachable opportunity. “You know why water striders can walk on water?” I asked them. “It’s because of surface tension. I’ll show you!”

How to Demonstrate Surface Tension

This easy and fun experiment will be sure to captivate absolutely no one.


  • Glass of water
  • Needle
  • A piece of toilet paper
  • One or more kids who will be unimpressed by your experiment
  1. Tear off an amount of toilet paper that’s small enough to fit in the glass but large enough for the needle to rest on it.
  2. After you make sure your fingers and the needle are dry, place the needle on the toilet paper.
  3. When the kids ask why you’ve taken toilet paper out of the bathroom, explain that you’re going to use it to make a needle float.
  4. Place the toilet paper and needle on top of the water.
  5. Tell the kids, “Watch! Watch what happens when the toilet paper sinks.”
  6. Wait for the toilet paper to sink.
  7. Keep waiting.
  8. When the unimpressed kids wander off, tell them, “Don’t go anywhere! It’s about to happen!”
  9. Poke at the toilet paper to try to make it sink.
  10. Poke some more, until the needle sinks and you realize that you’ve splashed water on the needle, ruining the experiment.
  11. Say to the kids, “No, it’ll work, I swear. Just let me try again.” Ignore them rolling their eyes.
  12. Dry off the needle. Repeat steps 1 through 4.
  13. This time, be more careful when you poke the toilet paper and make it sink.
  14. With the needle floating on the water, excitedly say, “Kids! Come look! The water’s surface tension is holding it up.”
  15. Start to explain that the liquid is made up of molecules that are like small magnets and pull towards each other, which lets them hold up the needle. Stop when you realize the kids aren’t listening.
  16. Instead say, “If you look carefully at the water you can see where the top of the water is being pushed down by how the lights reflect off of it.”
  17. When you move the glass to better catch the light, slosh the water so that the needle sinks.
  18. Give up and let the kids wander away.

The Only Talk Combining Exoplanet Hunting and My Little Ponies You Will Need Today

At last it can be seen: my hour-long talk about how astronomers find planets outside our solar system, complete with a Goatse joke and pedagogical My Little Ponies.

I gave this talk for the second time at Geek Media Expo in Nashville. I had good panel attendance even though I was talking at 9 AM on Saturday, and the talk went really well, which is nice since I was taping it for posterity. You always hope that footage of you that ends up on YouTube doesn’t make you look silly.

Well, there goes that hope.

If you want to follow along with the presentation at home, feel free to download the PowerPoint presentation and even my script.

In Which I Use Scientific Reasoning to Doubt the Thorium-Powered Car

While I was away at Dragon*Con, stories about a possible thorium-powered car popped up in the news. From the write-up at Txchnologist:

Charles Stevens, an inventor and entrepreneur, recently revealed that his Massachusetts-based R&D firm, Laser Power Systems (LPS), is working on a turbine/electric generator system that is powered by “an accelerator-driven thorium-based laser.” The thorium laser does not produce a beam of coherent light like conventional lasers, but instead merely heats up and gives off energy.

There’s a whole lot of science word salad in that paragraph — what does it even mean to have a laser that isn’t actually lasing and producing coherent light? So let’s detangle it and see if the proposed thorium-powered car makes sense.

The first thing to know is that there’s been a lot of work done on using thorium for fuel in a nuclear reactor. Thorium-232, the kind you dig up out of the ground, is only weakly radioactive and won’t undergo fission by itself. What you can do, however, is bombard it with slow neutrons from uranium or plutonium. That turns thorium into uranium-233, which is fissile and can be used in a nuclear power plant. That means you can use thorium as breeder fuel to produce the fissionable material you really want.

Thorium has several benefits over uranium-235, the usual nuclear reactor fuel. For one, thorium ore is about three or four times as prevalent in the Earth’s crust as uranium ore. For another, you can use all of the thorium you mine. Only 0.7% of uranium is 235U. The rest of it is 238U, which isn’t useful for nuclear reactors. That makes thorium far more abundant for nuclear power purposes.

There are downsides, of course. As the World Nuclear Associate fact page dryly puts it, “Despite the thorium fuel cycle having a number of attractive features, development has always run into difficulties.” There aren’t any commercial thorium reactors yet.

However, if you read carefully what Charles Stevens is saying, he’s not claiming to be using thorium in a nuclear reactor. The WardsAuto article on Stevens states, “Stevens agrees, emphasizing his system is ‘sub-critical,’ which means no self-sustaining nuclear reaction within the thorium creating significant amounts of radioactivity.” So what is he doing?

Unfortunately his two websites currently have very little information. To find out more we have to look at the 2009 version of his webpage and exerpts from that same page. Back then he talked about laser-driven cars in which a “Hybrid Solid state Free Electron laser” heats up thorium, which releases even more heat to turn water into steam and drive a turbine. Also an accelerator may be involved. And according to what he told WardsAuto, “1 gm of thorium equals the energy of 7,500 gallons (28,391 L) of gasoline Stevens says. So, using just 8 gm of thorium in a car should mean it would never need refueling.”

Right, let’s try and make sense of this, starting with one gram of thorium equaling the energy of 7,500 gallons of gas. This a question of energy density: how much energy can you extract from a given amount of fuel?

I have no clue what process Stevens is claiming to use that lets you bombard thorium with a laser and get energy out, especially since he said it’s sub-critical and thus not a nuclear fission reaction. Instead I’ll pretend he is doing nuclear fission, since that’s one of the more energy-productive reactions we can do and will set a good estimated upper bound on how much energy Stevens could extract from thorium. I’ll also assume 235U fission, since we don’t have a thorium reactor yet.

Uranium in a reactor produces about 20 terajoules of energy per kilogram. For comparison, gasoline gives you about 48 megajoules per kilogram. That means uranium gives us about 425,000 more power per kilogram than gas. Let’s assume thorium will give us roughly the same ratio. That means one gram of thorium would be like 425 kg of gas. Gas has a density of about 2.7 kg per US gallon, so that 425 kg of gas is equivalent to 156 gallons.

That’s way short of Stevens’s claim of 1 gm of thorium being equivalent to 7,500 gallons of gas. For that to be true, his laser-induced power output has to be fifty times more energy efficient than nuclear fission. That is an extraordinary claim, to put it mildly, and he’s offered no proof and precious few details.

Looking through his other claims, it sounds as if he glued together actual science together as if making a collage for kindergarten, regardless of whether the results made sense or not. You could in theory make an actual thorium laser, though that’s not what he’s doing. You can use a particle accelerator to drive a nuclear reaction by knocking neutrons out of other particles, though again that’s not what Stevens is doing despite him adding “accelerator-driven” to the description of his process. You can even induce nuclear reactions using super-powerful lasers, but Stevens says he’s not inducing fission.

So to sum up: Stevens isn’t claiming to have made a nuclear-powered car. He’s claiming to have made a steam-powered car where the steam is heated up when he shines a laser on thorium. I don’t know of any physical process that would let you get more heat energy out of the thorium than you’d spend on making the laser go. For his process to be so awesome that it would power a car for some 200,000 miles on a single gram of thorium, he’d have had to come up with something that’s fifty times more powerful than a nuclear reactor. And he hasn’t released any papers, only press releases. That’s 3 out of 3 red flags for the research not being real.

Sorry, world. If we’re going to have a laser-powered car, it sounds like this isn’t it.

Talking Science at Dragon*Con 2011

It took me a while to realize how much science content there was at Dragon*Con, mainly because I was distracted by Steampunk Zombie Marvel Superheroes Made of Cardboard and Patrick Stewart. Now that I give talks for and hang out around the “reality tracks” in the Hilton (i.e. Space, Science, EFF, Robotics, and Skeptics), I know there’s a tremendous amount of science stuff at the convention. For instance, this year alone we had a solar telescope and a working fusion reactor. We also electrocuted a pickle for science.

All three of my solo talks were well-attended, even my one on D-Wave One and quantum computing that took place on Friday at 11:30 AM. That’s right, for the EFF track’s second panel I talked about qubits and quantum superposition. Thank goodness the audience pretended to be interested! I’ve included my slides and the scripts for my talks. In the scripts, advance the filmstrippresentation every time you see a #. Note that all of my slides use the free font Fontin Sans, and that the online versions aren’t exactly converted properly.

First up, D-Wave One! Learn about quantum computers, qubits, and how many different images I have for “dooooomed”.

(Grab the script | Download the presentation)

Next is Planet Hunting, describing our successful search for planets outside our solar system. I believe this is the world’s first science presentation to combine astrophysics and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. (Note: ponies are used strictly for pedagogical purposes.)

(Grab the script | Download the presentation)

Finally there was my robot helicopter talk. This was my busman’s holiday, as a lot of what I talked about is directly relevant to my day job.

(Grab the script | Download the presentation)

Finally I once again took part in the Evil Geniuses for a Better Tomorrow panel, which packed the Hilton Crystal Ballroom. This was something of a science variety show. I got to talk about the leukemia trial that involved patching a patient’s t-cells to replicate like mad and attack the leukeima, said patching being done via a modified HIV variant, and if that doesn’t sound like mad science, I don’t know what is. Jason Schneiderman talked about using magnets to turn off people’s ability to make moral judgements and showed videos of MRI machines sucking in wrenches and office chairs and guns. Paul Gregori electrocuted a pickle to show electroluminescence and then made people in the audience eat the pickle. Chad Ramey showed off his working fusion reactor. And special guest Phil Plait was escorted to the stage by stormtroopers, where he got to talk about death from above and accept an award for Mad Scientist of the Year.

I had a great time with all of those panels, and I hope that attendees both enjoyed them and learned a bit of science at them.

Talking Science to Romance Novel Writers

A few weekends ago I had the opportunity to give a talk on science and technology to the Nashville Romance Writers of America chapter. Yes, yes, laugh all you want, but romance novels often touch on other genres. I met writers whose books had strong science fiction or suspense elements, and you can bet that they’re interested in science and technology.

I focused my talk on recent technologies and trends that are affecting how we relate to each other. I started with how our sense of privacy is evolving. We’re more willing to share details of our lives than before, and online tools like Twitter and Facebook both encourage that behavior and spread what we say to a much wider audience. Heck, thanks to this blog you know more about my views on parenting than some people who see me multiple hours a day. Much of what we share is innocuous, like what we’re having for lunch, but over time you can learn a lot about someone who’s sharing openly on line.

Now mix that trend with gamification, in which the trappings of games are added to non-game activities. Gamified applications are encouraging us to share even more information online. Foursquare is an excellent example of this. Foursquare lets you use your mobile phone to check into locations like the Five Guys near me. As you check in to places, you earn badges. If you check in at a place more than anyone else, you become the mayor, which encourages other people to check in more there to dethrone you. Being mayor and having badges doesn’t actually net you anything but it doesn’t matter — the net effect is that you’re driven to broadcast your movements to the whole world because the app is exploiting the same psychological quirks that make us pour money into casinos. Ian Bogost has called this trend exploitationware with reason; here, we’re being exploited to share more than we might otherwise do.

Now imagine what happens when two people meet cute. After they get home, do they look up the other person’s profile on Facebook? Do they peruse their Twitter stream? See where they’ve been checking in on Foursquare? All of this raises near endless possibilities for personality-driven conflict and misunderstandings, which serve as fuel for romance novels.

Even when we’re not sharing information with others, our technology is doing that for us. We’ve long been trackable via our cell phones, but to get that information you had to talk to the cell phone company. Now our phones are quietly recording where we’ve been and storing them on the phone. Want to know where your boyfriend or girlfriend have been? You might only need five minutes alone with their phone to find out.

Right now a lot of what we share is manually entered. We upload and tag pictures, identifying the subjects. We write about our day and what we ate. Data mining and improved computer processing power will automate much of that, with the knock-on effect of taking some control out of our hands. Facebook has a giant database of people’s pictures that we’ve given to them and labelled with the name of the people in the pictures. Facebook now uses that information to try to identify people’s faces in new pictures. You don’t have to upload a picture of you drunk at a party; instead, a friend may do so and Facebook will automatically tag it and add it to your feed. Google Goggles draws on Google’s vast database of indexed web pages and pictures to identify items you take a picture of. Researchers are working on apps that, when you take a picture with your smartphone, uses information from your phone and the phones around you to figure out where you are, what you’re doing, and who’s in the photo.

If you put all of this together, you’re much closer to what the science fiction writer Charlie Stross called the lifelog. Imagine recording every word you say and everything you see. Computers translate your speech to text, identify who you’re looking at and what you’re seeing, and index it. Voila, you’ve got a searchable database of your entire life.

Now imagine that information being broadcast. Companies will offer incentives for viewing their products, let alone using them. Social apps will want us sharing our information with our friends and will use the trappings of games to encourage that behavior. The judicial system will use what we record in courts, and employers will want to watch what we do during work hours. A future Google will aggregate all of this information and make much better statistical predictions about how people really behave. Partners can check up on each other. You think we have boundary issues now with Facebook and Twitter? Just you wait.

All of that is going to make how we relate to each other different in weird and somewhat unpredictable ways. And as I said earlier, that’s key to romance novels: how do two people learn about one another and eventually come to fall in love. Now they’ll just do it under the unblinking eye of everyone’s cameras.