Category Archives: Science Stuff

Bad Analogies Can Be as Addictive as Chocolate

Did you know that reading romance novels can be as addictive as pornography? And that reading romance novels can destroy marriages?

That utter silliness is being peddled in an article by Kimberly Sayer-Giles. The article prominently quotes Dr. Juli Slattery, the Family Psychologist for Focus on the Family. Focus on the Family is James Dobson’s organization fighting for “traditional marriages,” which evidently are under attack not only from gays but also from romance novels.

The romance novel weblog SBTB has a good takedown of the article as a whole, but I was fascinated by the article’s use of science.

“There is a neurochemical element with men and visual porn, but an emotional element with women and these novels,” [Dr. Slattery] wrote.

Men are very visual, and viewing pornography produces a euphoric drug in the body. This drug is the reason pornography becomes addictive. When the natural high wears off, a man will crash and feel depressed (as happens with any drug) and crave another hit.

Women are more stimulated by romance than sex, so when they read romantic stories (and they don’t have to be explicit to work) they can experience the same addicting chemical release as men do…..

Pornography addiction counselor Vickie Burress said reading romance novels or viewing pornography may eventually lead to an affair for some women.

“Women involved in pornography have a hard time keeping their family together,” she said.

That’s a whole bunch of bad logic spackled over with a thin, cracking patina of terrible science. This is like equating sex and chocolate. Having sex releases endorphins, a euphoric drug in the body. Eating chocolate can also release endorphins. People who have affairs, some of whom eat chocolate, may ruin their marriage. The implication is clear: eating chocolate will make it hard to keep your marriage together.

I eagerly await the next article from Kimberly Sayer-Giles equating romance novels and snuff films.

Help Me Pick Topics for Dragon*Con 2011

I’m starting to mull topics to talk about at Dragon*Con this year, so now’s your chance to help me decide!

How do we know where we are? Do you remember the route you took to get to your desk earlier? If so, how? In the last five years scientists have found all kinds of crazy neurons in brains. There are border cells that respond specifically to borders and edges, grid cells that divide the space around us into equilateral triangles, place cells that form a sense of place like dropping a pin in a Google map, and head position cells that keep track of where you’re pointing your head. The current theory is that our brains take all of these bits of information to build up a sense of space around us.

Let’s destroy the Earth! If we wanted to destroy the Earth, how would we go about it? And when I say “destroy the Earth”, I mean turn it into dispersed chunks of floating matter, not merely scraping the humans off of the crust like mold off of cheese.

Hunting down exoplanets. Before 1992, we’d never detected a planet outside of our solar system. We’re up to 519 now, but to date we’ve only found one likely rocky planet in a star’s habitable zone: Gliese 581 g. How are we finding these things in the first place?

Other suggestions?

Evaluating Scientific Claims

On Twitter today, Joe asked me whether two Italian scientists’ claim to have demonstrated working cold fusion was real or not. I took two minutes, did some Googling, and told him that their cold fusion device may turn out to be really producing cold fusion, but that there are too many red flags for me to accept it now. Those red flags aren’t necessarily obvious if you’re not familiar with how science works, but knowing them can help you decide how much trust to put into a scientist’s claims and make you a better-informed person. You don’t even have to know any actual science to see them. Here’s your field guide to some of these red flags, as demonstrated by this cold fusion claim.

According to the write-up on PhysOrg, Italian scientists Andrea Rossi and Sergio Focardi of the University of Bologna held a press conference to announce that they had created a low-energy nuclear reactor (similar to a cold fusion reactor) that could turn 400 W of input power into 12,400 W of heat. Their paper on the reactor’s process was rejected by peer-reviewed journals, instead appearing on a blog, Journal of Nuclear Physics, that the two researchers created. The reactor is generating heat through some mechanism that the two researchers say they don’t have a theory for, and if it’s doing so, it runs counter to earlier theoretical work on these low-energy nuclear reactions.

You don’t have to know anything about the science to be skeptical about their results: their paper didn’t appear in a peer-reviewed journal, they announced their scientific discovery at a press conference, and their discovery contradicts current theory. None of these are slam-dunk reasons for why their claims can’t be true, but taken together they make it far more unlikely that their results are real.

No peer-reviewed paper. Peer review as a system has its flaws, sometimes rejecting good papers or accepting bad ones, but it gives other researchers a chance to evaluate your work. Rossi and Focardi claim it wasn’t published because they don’t have a theory about how the reaction works. That doesn’t ring true, since experimental papers are often published ahead of the theory to explain them. I’d guess that they didn’t describe in detail how they performed their experiments or what is really inside their reactor, preventing other researchers from duplicating their efforts. As corroborating evidence, their patent was rejected for a lack of detail.

Announcing scientific results at a press conference. If they’ve truly discovered new science that they want evaluated, scientists will need to take a look at it, not the media. It’s possible that they’ve had to go straight to the media because they aren’t getting attention inside the scientific community, but it’s much more likely that they’re having to go this route because their work won’t withstand scientific scrutiny.

Overturning currently-established theories. Theories can, and are, overturned with regularity in science. Scientists eat their own young, devouring old theories as new evidence comes to light. But the stronger your claim to have disproved a previous and tested theory, the stronger your evidence has to be. In this case, Rossi and Focardi have demonstrated a device but provided no evidence about what’s inside that box, nor have they given enough information to let others reproduce their results. What they’ve done isn’t falsifiable at this point. Their scientific evidence is weak at best.

If you look at scientists pushing theories and experiments outside the boundaries of accepted science, you’ll see these warning signs repeated time and time again. Any one of them by themselves isn’t a death knell to a scientist’s claims, but as they add up I become extremely skeptical, and so should you. It’s possible that Rossi and Focardi have discovered cold fusion, and I’d love to be proven wrong. But with this many red flags, I doubt it.

Sometimes It Is Science All the Time Around Here

I’m often amused by the things science evidently can’t explain. The Chick Tract Big Daddy, nominally about evolution, claims that science can’t explain why an atom’s nucleus holds together even though it’s packed full of positively-charged particles.

In the tract Big Daddy, Jack Chick claims the strong nuclear force doesn't existIn the Chick Tract Big Daddy, atoms are held together by Jesus

In the version I read long ago, gluons weren’t even mentioned — the tract merely claimed that no one knew why atoms held together. At the time I murmured, “the strong nuclear force?” At some point Chick updated it to refute quantum chromodynamics, the theory that describes the strong nuclear force that holds atoms’ nucleii together, by saying “Nuh uh!”

That’s semi-defensible: QCD is a deep subject, an area of physics that you really only run into if you specialize in physics in school. More puzzling is that Bill O’Reilly doesn’t know how tides work.

O’REILLY: I’ll tell you why [religion’s] not a scam, in my opinion: tide goes in, tide goes out. Never a miscommunication. You can’t explain that. You can explain why the tide goes in —

SILVERMAN: Tide goes in, tide goes out?

O’REILLY: See, the water — the tide comes in and it goes out, Mr. Silverman. It always comes in, and always goes out. You can’t explain that.

In sixth grade my science class focused on Earth science. One of the topics was tides, where I learned that the Moon and Sun’s gravity pulled our oceans around, causing tides. I also learned that the Moon is tidally locked to the Earth, meaning that the same side of the moon always faces the earth. That should give a hint that things orbiting around each other has something to do with tides.

Let me present some new information to counterbalance ignorance: did you know that eventually the Earth will be tidally locked to the Moon? Just like the Earth now stays at a fixed location relative to the Moon, the Moon will stay at a fixed location above the Earth. As a side effect, the Earth’s rotation relative to the Sun will slow, and the Moon will move further away from the Earth. As an exercise for the reader, can you explain why this is happening? Bonus points if you can predict how long a day on Earth will then be.

Oh, and here’s the full video featuring Bill O’Reilly:

New Life in Old Planets

On Monday, NASA issued a press release announcing a news conference today at 2 PM EST on an astrobiology discovery. They gave no further details other than to say that it would “impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life” and that the journal Science had the full paper.

As you can imagine, people’s imaginations went running wild. Jason Kottke, like many others, speculated that NASA had found life on other planets, most likely one of Saturn’s moons. That was shot down by Alexis Madrigal, senior technology editor at The Atlantic.

Last night, NASA Watch announced that NASA had discovered arsenic-based life, and now Gizmodo is claiming the same thing. This is really, really exciting.

The basic building blocks of life, as drilled into me by my grade-school biology teacher, are CHONPS: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur. That’s what you find when you crack open most organic molecules, and are at the heart of everyone’s DNA, human or animal. Not the new bacteria found by NASA, though: it’s based on arsenic, a poisonous (to us!) compound. This is something we didn’t know was possible.

It’s not life on another planet, but it is life made out of completely different building blocks than we’re familiar with. If this is true, it’ll give us insight into other possible biochemistries and affect our understanding of biology. In short, it’s a very big deal.

My 2010 GMX Convention Schedule

Next weekend, October 22nd through the 24th, I’ll be up in Nashville, TN attending GMX and holding forth on several panels. Yes, yes, I appear to be turning into one of those people who go to science fiction conventions just to blather at others. What can you do.

I know: you can go to the Radisson Opryland next weekend and hear me talk about science!

Science of the Whedonverse
Saturday 2:00 PM, McGavock A
As at Dragon*Con, I’ll be talking about the actual science behind some of the ideas in Buffy, Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse. Sadly I don’t have Jennifer Ouellette and Jason Schneiderman making smart observations, as I did at Dragon*Con, but hey, how hard can it be to talk brain science when you’re a physicist?

WhatTheCast Live!
Sunday 12:00 noon, McGavock B
Crispy, Brian and I once again free-associate about various nerd topics, from recent films to Gliese 581 c, as part of a live recording of our Parsec-nominated podcast.

There Ain’t No Stealth in Space
Sunday 1:00 PM, McGavock B
It’s really, really hard to make a spaceship be invisible in outer space, no matter how hard you try. I’ll run through the science of why that is and happily debunk your fool-proof scheme for making a cloaked spaceship.

So come on over and listen to me pontificate! When I’m not paneling I’ll be hanging out chatting, or possibly making a fool of myself in Rock Band.

The Grue We Knew

It was about 8 pm on a Wednesday night when I realized we had a house guest. I saw a praying mantis clinging to the ceiling in the kitchen when I looked up from making Thursday’s lunches.

I pointed out the praying mantis to Stephen and we decided to let him stay inside until the next morning when we could show him to Liza. Then, we thought, we could escort him back outside using the handle of our fly swatter.

Thursday morning, Liza, being the excellent bug lover she is, thought he was awesome. The mantis did not think climbing onto the handle of the fly swatter was awesome, however. That’s when we found out he had wings. He moved to the window over the sink and began meditating.

By Friday morning, he was starting to turn brown. I thought maybe it was from hunger. I still didn’t know how to get him back outside.

Friday afternoon, I had an idea. I called Jon at work and asked him to go to Animal Trax and pick up a clear critter box and some worms before he got to our house for dinner. He said he would do it as long as I wasn’t serving the worms for dinner.

Because the little guy hadn’t had anything to eat in 48 hours, Stephen was able to easily catch him in his hands and put him into the box.

Ashley promptly named him Grue.

I dropped a worm into the box and Grue pounced. Liza stood and watched, enthralled, at our tiny predator in action. She spent most of the weekend sitting at the dining room table watching Grue in the box like most other kids watch tv.

Saturday morning, he was bright green again, I guess from all those free tasty, tasty worms. Sadly, he didn’t eat anything on Sunday. We decided on Sunday night he needed to go back outside Monday morning.

He sat on my finger for a moment, as if to say thanks for the great food while he visited.

As he flew away, Eli said, “I miss Grue already!” in his particular sad-Eli way.

As we finished our morning activities, I told Stephen that I saw a lot of critters in our future named Grue.

My Dragon*Con 2010 Schedule

Looking for me at Dragoncon? I move around a lot, but here’s where you can definitely find me. C’mon, stalk me at the con. You know you want to.

What the Cast – Live!
Saturday 11:30 AM, Hilton Room 204
Brian, Crispy, Stephen and Patrick (also of Dragon*Con TV) bring their chaotic and hilarious “What The Cast” back to Dragon*Con.

(These are always a lot of fun, since it’s us being geeky about random things and it’s far looser than our normal semi-scripted episodes.)

Physics of the Whedonverse!
Saturday 7:00 PM, Hilton 202
Picks up where Ouellette’s “Physics of the Buffyverse” left off by
covering Dollhouse, Firefly and Serenity, too.

(It’s me and three others (including Jennifer Ouellette, the author of “Physics of the Buffyverse”) trying to shoehorn physics and other science into Whedon-run shows. Come see if I play Mr. Grumpy Physicist and just shout “There is none!” before storming off!)

Make Yourself Invisible!
Sunday 10:00 AM, Hilton 202
Can we finally build an invisibility cloak via the wonders of metamaterials? Or will we never be able play Predator and sneak up on Adrien Brody?

(I’m excited about this topic. Metamaterials and transformation optics are hot hot hot right now.)

There Ain’t No STEALTH in Space!
Sunday 2:30 PM, Hilton 203
Sci-Fi is big on invisibility for space ships. We’re here to tell you it can’t happen. You just can’t hide a ship in space!

(Why, yes, I am trolling con attendees to have them come argue with me.)

Autonomous Technology in Robotics
Sunday 5:30 PM, Hilton 208/209

(There’s no panel description yet, as far as I know, but it’ll be me and a couple of other people talking about robot eyes and robot brains and OH GOD THEY’RE TAKING OVER EVERYTHING.)

I’m In the Paper!

Hey, look who was in Sunday’s issue of the Huntsville Times.

(Glenn Baeske of The Huntsville Times took that picture.)

The article touches on the Hermes system that we’ve been developing to help helicopters automatically pick up cargo and then guide them to the delivery point, which has a lot of potential applications for everything from medical heliflights to logging to resupplying soldiers in the field. I wrote our original proposal for the project back in 2005, and now, five years later, it’s on the cusp of being a real honest-to-goodness product. A lot of very smart people have put in a tremendous amount of work to make that happen, and I’m thrilled to see it all coming together.

So that’s what I saw on Sunday! How was your weekend?

NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer Takes Pretty Pictures

Yesterday NASA started releasing pictures from their latest orbital telescope, WISE. WISE is an infrared telescope that’s doing a whole-sky survey. It’s also looking for near-earth objects, asteroids, and comets. This thing is extremely sensitive — it’s about 100 times more sensitive than previous infrared telescopes — and it’s taking a lot of pictures. A lot of pictures, more than new parents who’ve just bought a DSLR. It’s taking a picture every 11 seconds, and will end up with some 1.5 million pictures over its ten month life.

So how do the pictures look?

Infrared picture of the Andromeda Galaxy taken by the WISE telescope

That’s the Andromeda galaxy, some 2,500,000 light years away. And there’s plenty more space porn where that came from.