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Vaccines are not 100% effective. But if everyone gets them then the odds of the disease propagating go down. Eventually to the point where a case of measles can't replace itself, on average, with more than one case of measles and the disease is no longer epidemic.

Stick to your guns long enough, as we did with smallpox, and the disease may become extinct - no more dead children from that cause, ever again ever. This is good.

But if enough people become overconfident and stop immunizing their kids, that ratio of new cases to old cases creeps above 1.0 again, and the disease starts to spread and may become epidemic once more. This is bad.

The good news is that the measles vaccine is highly effective after the second dose. The bad news is that the second dose is given at age four. The dose at age one is only 95% effective.

So even kids whose parents are doing their best to protect them are needlessly at risk of something that could lead to deafness, or even death (roughly 3 out of every 1000 cases). And decisions not to vaccinate, made by other parents, are directly responsible for this.

I would have to think twice about taking a baby on a New York City bus this month. And people who live there don't get a choice.
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I've been thinking about life on Mars.

When I read about critters that survive in extreme environments on Earth, I am surprised that we haven't found microorganisms on Mars already, in a fairly obvious way, at least as fossils.

But then I think about Antarctica.

"What the hell are you talking about?" you say. "There are oodles of microorganisms in Antarctica. And there are macroorganisms– penguins and all that– thriving on the coast."

Yeah, but Antarctica isn't as harsh an environment as Mars by a long, long mile. And even so, there are no large land animals that evolved in the current Antarctic environment. Penguins are survivors of a much more hospitable environment, before the continents drifted to their current positions. Once established, they were able to adapt slowly over millions of years of gradual cooling to the current environment. And even so they depend on the sea for their sustenance. Because there's next to nothing to eat on land.

Now think about Mars. While the Antarctic land mass is a friendly enough place for a microorganism, Mars is a hell of a lot harsher. It was apparently wetter once, but not for very long in evolutionary terms.

So the question is not "could life survive on Mars?" It is "could life begin on Mars." And I am inclined to think the answer is "no," or at least "the odds are agin' it."

There could be some environment underground that is more hospitable, but my guess is that life has not evolved there either, because once it is established life tends to fill the available niches, gradually creeping into spaces where it would never get started originally. Which would probably produce a lot of evidence on the surface.
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Have you ever read the Wikipedia entry on Biosphere 2? It is riveting stuff. Be patient, the interpersonal and scientific drama kicks in big time.

[ profile] ms_violet, are you aware that most of these people had fake scientific credentials and were actually part of an improv theater group?

This makes me feel better about the failure of the project. I thought it was about a lack of commitment to studying closed system ecology in general, but it was more about batshit craziness. I do think it should be tried again and often by less crazy people.
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Smurfs are superficially humanoid but they are actually monotremes.

This explains how a single female can be so prolific (she lays large clutches of eggs which she does not have to gestate internally) and Gargamel's evolutionary strategy (Smurf eggs are highly nutritious).

Smurfette lays her eggs at night to reduce the risk that they will be stolen by Gargamel. Since the children's nature program was always filmed on Saturday mornings we never saw the eggs.
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We're not going back to the moon. We're not rushing pell-mell to Mars either. Instead, NASA will support efforts to develop commercial human spaceflight to low earth orbit, and focus its own efforts on development of a heavy launcher and long-term exploration of the solar system by both humans and robots.

We made it to the moon as quickly as we did for a lot of reasons. One of them is that the moon can be visited quickly. Just as Chernobyl can be visited quickly. What matters, mostly, is your lifetime exposure. And reaching Mars takes a very long time.

We don't have a practical engineering solution to keep people reasonably safe from the levels of radiation they would encounter on the long slow trip to Mars. It's going to take time to figure out how that could be done at a sane price. And we also don't have a practical plan to bring people back from Mars. And we have no idea how to create a self-sufficient ecology on another planet, so yes, we do have to bring them back. Etc.

This is why so many plans to visit Mars seriously proposed one-way "once you're there you're a Martian" trips or even elderly "colonists," on their way to die on Mars because they were soon to die anyway and thought it would be a seriously cool way to go while doing lots of good science, etc. This is a calculation a human being is entitled to make privately of course, but for my tax dollars exploring the universe should be an adventure, something from which you might one day return. Alive.

A better plan is to continue exploration, make better use of robots, develop commercial use of low earth orbit (and find practical ways to clean up the dangerous mess we've scattered there), and work on the long term problems of groundbreaking propulsion, better radiation shielding and sustainable ecology.

That last one is going to pay big dividends here on Earth. You can bet that any technology that sustains life independently on another world is going to require huge insights into how to sustain life on this one.

I would like NASA to have a bigger budget and pursue bigger goals sooner, but I can't fault the Obama administration for doing the math and setting goals that make more sense. Bush committed us to return to the moon but never set a realistic budget to get there. A sustainable long-term program is much more honest.
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Hoo boy. Perhaps I should have cracked wise about a subject that does seem to worry some people.

In all seriousness, then:

So-called "cosmic rays," 90% of them anyway, are highly energetic protons coming from natural sources elsewhere in the universe. Every single day, they collide with protons and other particles in our own planet's atmosphere at energies ranging up to 1020 (one followed by 20 zeroes) electron volts or more. Every possible event involving protons of energies up to at least that level has already happened on this planet many, many times.

The Large Hadron Collider accelerates protons under controlled conditions and collides them with one another at energies not exceeding, at the most, 1013 electron volts (one followed by thirteen zeroes). In other words, it produces artificial cosmic rays one ten-millionth as powerful as many of the cosmic rays that strike our planet every single day.

So yes, we can conclude that the LHC will not bring about the end of the world.

But if this stuff happens every day, why do we need to study it in a big expensive machine in Europe?

Well, as I said, we know the large-scale consequences of two protons bumping into each other... which is to say, "not a hell of a lot." It happens constantly, all the time, and the world does not blow up, nor does it collapse into a black hole.

What we don't know is exactly what the small-scale consequences are like. And by "small" I mean very small. As in fragments that wink into existence for a infinitesimal fraction of a second and are gone again. We have to pay very close attention indeed to catch all the details.

Yes, detectors for naturally occurring cosmic rays have been built, and they have in fact taught us quite a bit. But we can't precisely control what goes into them. Or how energetic it is when it arrives. Or what angle it comes from. Or even when the collision will take place.

It's like trying to learn orthodonture by waiting for an orthodontist to walk by, coincidentally mention that he's an orthodontist, and say something enlightening into his cell phone before wandering out of earshot again. Take notes for a few thousand years and you might have a rough idea how braces work. But going to medical school— an environment in which we can expect to reliably encounter orthodontists under controlled conditions— is a lot more effective.

Now, not having actually been to medical school ourselves, we might worry that going to medical school will result in the creation of a black hole which annihilates our planet. After all, we have not personally tried it, so we don't know firsthand that this won't happen.

However, we do have an abundance of evidence that other people are going to medical school already, all over our planet, every day. So even though we don't know all the ins and outs of retainers yet, we can safely conclude that our planet will not be destroyed by attending medical school.

Going to medical school would teach us to be orthodontists, which sounds pretty lucrative. But what's the payoff of building the Large Hadron Supercollider? Well... just a chance to confirm what we think we know about the fundamental laws of the universe.

That may not seem immediately valuable to you. But to take one small example, lessons learned from quantum physics are key to the day to day operation of the computer you're using to read this. Coping with the consequences of electron tunneling and other "too weird to be real" quantum phenomena has long since become an engineering reality.

Just as important, seeking to better understand the world is one of the main joys of being human. No, we shouldn't take dumb risks as a species. But we should absolutely educate ourselves, find safe ways to learn more, and carry out those experiments. And the latter is what is happening at the Large Hadron Collider.

If you want to express your concerns about policies which endanger the survival of the entire species, I suggest investing your energy in campaigns to reduce the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the potential use of which poses a clear and present danger to humanity's existence. Alternatively, demand funding for a near earth asteroid detection and deflection research program with a level of annual funding that comes anywhere close to the amount of money spent to make either "Deep Impact" or "Armageddon."

I've tried to inject some humor here, for my own sanity as well as yours, but I'm not trying to be dismissive at all. This stuff is not that difficult to understand, or it shouldn't be. I hope this is helpful.
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The Large Hadron Collider is safe. Everything that will happen in the LHC happens every day in the upper atmosphere thanks to cosmic rays. People may remember the controversy over the decision to start launching space probes powered by plutonium— a decision that involved a very real, albeit extremely small, risk to the health and safety of millions upon millions of people. It's important to understand that the "danger" posed by the LHC, by virtue of its nonexistence, is not the same sort of animal.

Nevertheless, it kills me that reassuring quotes from CERN scientists in this article are best summed up in the words of Calvin's dad:

Calvin: "if there WERE any black holes created by the Large Hadron Collider, how big would they be?"

Dad: "very small(*). Go back to sleep."


(*) Very small— and doomed to wink right back out of existence.
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Girls score as well as boys on math tests. Yes, buried in the story are acknowledgements of "miniscule" gender differences; "almost" as many girls as boys score in the top 5%. But these are differences in outcomes, not potential. Apparently girls are more likely to actually take calculus these days, a trend that seems likely to continue if jobs requiring math skills (or math scores) continue to pay well.

Apparently boys do tend to outscore girls on the SAT, but girls are more likely to take the SAT in the first place. I'm not entirely clear on how that's relevant, but I suppose it may be that girls are more likely to take the SAT even if they have doubts about their chances of getting into college, which would skew the scores a bit lower. This study is based on No Child Left Behind tests, which everyone was required to take.
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[ profile] substitute spots the funniest spellcheck-friendly typo in a good long while. There are other remarkable things about this news story, particularly a total failure to explain the innovation that prompted the article. In layman's terms, in housecat's terms, in terms of endearment, at all. It's kind of special.

The scientist in question is at the University of Delaware. I should drop him a line and demand an executive alumni explanation. They give those, right?
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Yesterday I complained that LiveScience needlessly dragged lesbians and the perceived attractiveness thereof into a discussion of a new study which suggests that heterosexual feminists have better sex lives. The phrase "ugly lesbians" was used — to describe a common stereotype of what a feminist is like.

That could be just fine, in an article having to do with stereotypical views of lesbians — there is such a stereotype, after all, or rather combination of stereotypes. Feminists are lesbians! Lesbians are ugly! Two misguided idiocies that often go together.

Except that since not another word in the article (or, perhaps, the study it was about) had anything whatsoever to do with rates of homosexuality versus heterosexuality in feminists. The article was all about the heterosexual relationships of men and women who identify as feminists versus those who do not. Lesbians were never mentioned again. In that context, the phrase "ugly lesbians" comes completely out of left field.

I suggested that "man-haters" would have been a far better choice of words. To be precise, words having something to do with the rest of the article.

Just now [ profile] purple_medusa commented. She was looking at the actual story on the site; no more ugly lesbians. Just man-haters. Where did those ugly lesbians go?

They got edited out! But Google still has the DNA evidence:

Google's summary of the article, the first and only hit when searching for "ugly lesbians" on at 6:30pm Eastern time (note that livescience articles are not cached in full on Google, perhaps for this very reason).

The edited version of the article, as seen on LiveScience at 6:30pm Eastern time.

Sure looks like somebody was reading my journal yesterday. Then again, I suggested the obvious and natural alternative, and others may have done likewise.

Thanks to [ profile] purple_medusa for pointing this out before Google re-summarized the article.

Slug Sex

Sep. 8th, 2007 02:16 pm
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No really, it's otherworldly stuff. Just watch.

The funny part is that I got this link from my daughter, who saw it in science class at school.
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Is it me, or is this experiment utterly unnewsworthy?

They found that kids liked identical food better when presented in McDonald's packaging. As opposed to plain, unmarked packaging.

Duh. Who the hell likes plain, unmarked packaging? (Fine, fine, you do. But these kids were much too young for countercultural irony.)

If they had controlled this experiment by presenting the food in a variety of wrappers— Dora the Explorer, the sistine chapel ceiling, pictures of kitties and puppies— and kids picked McDonald's wrappers over everything, that would say something meaningful. But right now, all this study says is that McDonald's marketing is not so very unsuccessful that kids actively prefer a plain wrapper to the McDonald's logo. Yawn.

In other news, people actually care about the presentation of their food, and horses are pretty.

Original link ganked from [ profile] gorillashaman.
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Philly locals who stuffer from OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) may be interested to hear that a free treatment program is available through the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at Penn. They definitely have openings, so this is an excellent time to contact them. If that is something that might benefit you, visit the site or call Jamie at (215) 746-3327.
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Reading: Why Is Sex Fun, by Jared Diamond. Writing this (relatively) little book was a brilliant idea - people get sucked in by the title and wind up reading all about how and under what evolutionary circumstances men might take over breastfeeding duties.

Wearing: random laundry day crap. Vanity precludes description. I am not wearing a breast pump.

Planning: speaking of evolution, we're hitting the Franklin Institute tomorrow... which means we get to catch the Darwin Exhibit! Fact-based initiatives are back in vogue!

Beyond that: good trouble. I was going to do home improvement projects over the weekend, but there's too much good trouble. O the pain.
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It's official. Pluto is not a "classical planet." It's a "dwarf planet," not to be counted with the other eight.

I'm cool with this, I guess. It makes more sense than calling a whole mess of Kuiper belt objects "planets."

But what happens when and if we find a Saturn-like gas giant orbiting wayyy out past Pluto... in an elliptical orbit? Okay, we probably won't, but what if we did? Would we really not want to think of it as a proper planet? Are the polite orbits of our classical planets anything resembling universal, or might there be Jupiter-like planets circling other stars in elliptical orbits? Or Earthlike planets circling other stars in an orbit tilted with respect to their neighbors? Would we refuse to call those "classical planets?" Wouldn't that be kinda st00pid?

Well, I suppose we have one well-understood solar system to go on at the moment, and there's always room to change our minds if we find out it's not so typical. That's science, after all.
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I was only able to watch about half of "What The Bleep Do We Know" before hitting the stop button. This, despite the hotness of Marlee Matlin and the potentially intriguing subject matter.

I was bothered by the possibility that I might just be an uptight asshole, unwilling to accept something that conflicts with his own little paradigm and stuff. So I did a little googling and checked out the Wikipedia entry on the movie. And it makes fascinating reading. Not just the fact that most of the "experts" interviewed soundbite-style in the film are affiliated with a particular religious sect, but the fact that the most prominent exception to the rule claims to be "horrified" by the end product and the way his words were edited. And that bogus business with the effects of prayer on water molecules (*)... oh, we forgot to mention that we also froze them! That might change their appearance a little huh!

No, quantum physics does not predict that any amount of positive thinking will result in walking on water. (**) Yes, there is an objective reality, unless you're a full-on solipsist and you don't think anyone else's past experiences are relevant evidence. You can "create your day" all you want; if this is your day to get hit by an asteroid, you're still outta luck.

The objectivity of the Wikipedia entry has been challenged. I'm sure that's fair. I'd be hard pressed to remain 100% objective about such a misleading film. Besides, why bother being objective about anything? You can create your day! Right up until the moment I steal your wallet.

For those who wonder why I didn't just suspend disbelief and enjoy the movie... a good film has to be true to its own universe, its own contract with the viewer. This movie asserted quantum physics as the field of play. That's a high frickin' bar and it didn't even get close. The film also aims to convince people that this stuff is real. And that also raises the bar.

I take such a combative stance because the movie paints a very misleading picture and does it under the guise of science. When in fact most of the experts they talked to are affiliated with or friendly to the Ramtha School of Enlightenment. Scientists are entitled to their private beliefs but talking almost entirely to scientists from one sect, and not disclosing that up front, sure ain't objective. It makes this film is about as intellectually independent as "Battlefield Earth."

It is, I'll readily admit, more convincing and more fun to watch.

The best thing about the movie is probably that it introduces some of the fundamental surprises of quantum physics to a receptive audience. The overwhelmingly crappy thing is that it paints a completely misleading picture of what that means for our lives. One that lines the coffers of sham artists like Deepak Chopra. And thereby discredits any genuine connections that may turn out to exist between the visible world, particularly the cognitive world, and the quantum-mechanical world of the very small.

People who claim to possess intellectual rigor and demand that we trust them-- "listen to me, I'm a scientist --" and then proceed to knowingly mislead us belong in a particularly unpleasant circle of hell. I'm visualizing it right now. Mmmm, roasted chestnuts.

[Opens eyes] Rats. I still live in the real world. Unlike some people.

I feel like a jerk here, because I got my copy of this movie from a friend who really liked it. But I gotta call a spade a spade. So please accept the above solely as a criticism of the movie and the dishonest intentions of the filmmakers. And as an expression of anger toward people who would attempt to mislead smart folks like yourself in order to "prove" something they have already decided to be true.

(*) Yes, really, this is "shown" in the film.
(**) Yes, really, this is alleged in the film.
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[ profile] manfire just stumbled across a car belonging to someone known only as Fundamental Physics Girl. And he took many pictures!
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Lost in the madness of my summer: astronomers find a planet drastically more earthlike than anything found previously orbiting a star not unlike the sun, 50 light-years away. It's still not all that earthlike, but so far astronomers are finding planets of smaller and smaller sizes about as fast as they can invent ways to spot them. Does Toyota make a hybrid Firefly yet?

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