Einstein to Newton: “We have to talk.”

September 9, 2015 Posted by
Einstein/Newton: A Meeting of Peers

A Meeting of Peers


 Did Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton have a secret meeting?  I was asked this question (sort of) on Quora.

Since Newton lived in the 1600s it was more of a “what if”.

Even Einstein’s far ranging intellect couldn’t have dragged him back to Newton’s time but what ifs never seem to bother anyone on Quora where the questions range from “What if we could go faster than the speed of light?” to “What if atheists believed in God?”

How would a meeting between and Einstein and Newton have gone?

If the discussion was limited to a single sitting, Newton, the father of modern scientific thinking, wouldn’t have been able to catch up to all the things that his wonderful brain had set in motion. Newton was maybe the greatest scientific and mathematical genius of the millennia but Einstein’s work pushed the envelope, even for the early 1900s. The formal stuff required field equations.

Field equations were the bane of Einstein’s existence. Newton wouldn’t have known anything about field equations or about David Hilbert, the great mathematician who’s work was required by Einstein. Hilbert basically beat Einstein to the finish line with his own paper on General Relativity but graciously stepped aside to allow Einstein to get the credit he deserved for his original ideas.

Another thing.

Much of Einstein’s work was motivated by the work of the great physicist, James Clerk Maxwell . Maxwell’s name wouldn’t have meant anything to Newton either.

Nor would Newton have heard of Michael Faraday who got Maxwell started on electromagnetism.

 That’s a lot of advanced math and physics for anyone – even Isaac Newton.

Okay, for argument’s sake, let’s say that Isaac Newton would have gone along with meeting this Jewish guy for a discussion about “natural philosophy”. He would have been intrigued, right? The “thought experiments” would have had to have kept him awake that night.

If he could accept premises for which he had no basis.

 My feeling? It is unlikely that Newton could have accepted Einstein’s conclusions without years of additional thought and study.

Let me add something.

Isaac Newton is such a deservedly beloved figure that several people on Quora felt compelled to defend him against any implications that he might have avoided a “Jew philosopher”.

There’s nothing that suggests that he had any problem with Jews. His private papers suggest he may have been fascinated by Judaism (though may have never met a Jewish person).

Great minds are a lot less prone to interpersonal stupidity than the rest of us, and yet, anti semitism was so pervasive in his time  that, even if Newton personally had no problem with a Jewish philosopher meeting him in his chambers, his peers might have been scandalized.

Newton’s views on Jews (whatever they may have been) shouldn’t distract us from his incredible contributions. Let’s not overreact to the mere mention of pervasive anti-semitism among his peers. I’m not trying to make anybody uncomfortable nor am I trying to sanitize history.

It is was what it was. I suggest you get over it.

– – – – – – – – –

Illustration? That’s mine based on some available images.

Nice weather for dying of thirst

April 25, 2015 Posted by
Climate: Not All Bad



Scientists in Zurich and in California and in North Carolina have been working to understand what the future holds for us. You’ll be glad to hear it isn’t all bad.

That business about storms getting worse and worse?

It seems  to be wrong. Scientists at ETH Zurich and the California Institute of Technology say their work shows the opposite. As things get hotter, they get more boring and less extreme. The future should have less in the way of  crazy weather variations.

That’s good right?

But Dr.  Anthony Parolari (Duke University) says sales of dehydrated water will be going up out west.

(That’s me, being witty. Don’t go looking for dehydrated water on Amazon. This is just my way of saying that water could get scarce in the western part of the US.)

Parolari says that he and his colleagues have re-run some of their models and have drilled down through some theoretical work and found a surprise. Rather than expecting things to get more and more extreme, they now expect the opposite. Things in the mid latitudes should be less variable and we don’t have to worry about so many fierce cold snaps.

They will come less often, not more often.

No one’s saying things won’t get hot. The warming trend is well established. But the expectation of increasing variation seems – for now, at least – to be off the table.

Here’s the thing. Predicting is part of how science works. If the predictions of a scientist turn out right, this supports the idea that he’s/she’s onto something; it is considered a form (more or less) of evidence. But these are just computer models. They’re only right if the assumptions that went into them are right and the model itself isn’t flawed. We don’t know that.

I wouldn’t move or stay based on a computer model.

Would it hurt to stock up on dehydrated water?

Why not?

– – – – – –

The drawing? That’s mine.

A Machine Smarter Than Me – Computers That Ignore

March 6, 2015 Posted by
Robot's Revenge



Sooner or later, robots will win. They will get all the jobs.

What will be do for money? Will we get weekly checks? From whom?

I wouldn’t worry. Our ever so smart political leaders are probably working out the details.

Aren’t they?

We’ll get to all that in another post.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Today’s article is about the possibility that robots, even the cute ones with big eyes, could muscle us out entirely. Take aways our jobs? Sure. But, even worse, they could take it all.

Robots one. Humans zero.

Stephen Hawking says we could screw the pooch because we didn’t think things through when we had the chance. He says robots could pass us right by in the brains department. Once they’re smarter than us, the ungrateful little clankers won’t mind chucking us into the excess baggage bin.


Bill Gates agrees with Hawking. Elon Musk agrees with both of them. Musk says artificial intelligence is “summoning the demon”. It’s potentially worse than nuclear weapons. Others who, supposedly, know what they’re talking about – experts in artificial intelligence and such – agree too.


MISTER Science AintSoBad thought he better look into this. So he read up on it – especially stuff by Nick Bostrom (Founding Director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford Martin School). Bostrom, well respected and influential in neuroscience, technology, physics, and philosophy, has written a book. SuperIntelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. Bostron’s book is serious and thoughtful.

Here’s the thing.

Bostron says we’re jaded.  There’s been so much crazy talk about computers taking over that we have tuned out.

I’m not sure.  He could be right. You don’t need proof that computers are getting smart, do you? Phones, robots, navigation systems, refrigerators, thermostats. It’s weird how they know what you’re thinking before you do.

They’re just contraptions. They don’t really think. That’s for sure.

For pretty sure, anyway.

Could they develop a “sense of self” and become conscious as these experts warn?

There’s room to worry because the way these things get programmed is changing. The traditional techniques have taken us a long way but AI (Artificial intelligence) researchers have caught on to the idea that you can’t program a machine to be be self aware. They’ve tried it and it hasn’t worked. If there’s any hope of truly cognitive machines, computers have to program themselves to get smarter.

That’s the corner that got turned.

That’s what scares the crap out of Hawking and Gates and Musk.

After figuring out that we don’t know what kind of instructions would get computers/robots over the consciousness hump, researchers are trying out new approaches – things that might  lead to consciousness. These systems include genetic algorithms, neural nets, support vector machines, decision trees, and naive Bays.

Bostron says we probably won’t know there’s been a breakthrough until it’s too late. Once computers get close to human intelligence, they aren’t likely to stay at that level very long. They will quickly pass us. The danger is that they might not turn out to be sentimental types. If they don’t see a benefit in serving the human race, they may change course and become a nuisance. Or even worse.

With computers and robots controlling so much of what we depend on, those mischievous little devils could be a very big problem. We need to figure out exactly what we need to include in those computers so that we are reasonably protected against an emerging consciousness. We need to understand our responsibilities as owners of sentient things, as well as how we can insure that those sentient things are happy to work in our (and their) mutual interest.

This is a major undertaking as it requires worldwide cooperation – something that we aren’t very good at.

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad suggests that we get on it.


– – – – –

The drawing is mine.


January 15, 2015 Posted by


Planetwide Lights Out



Solar storms come and go. Usually they’re not too bad. But a couple of summers ago we near had our heads taken off.  A double “mass ejection” from the sun’s corona smashed past us.

We were on the far side of our orbit, conveniently out of the way.

A few days earlier? It would have been brutal.

The power grid, along with most electronics and computers, would have been made useless. We would have been back to the good old days when streets were lit with oil lamps and the houses were lit with flickering candles.

Except, who’s got oil lamps anymore? Who’s got candles?

In a paper in the journal Nature Communications Dr. Ying D Lieu and Janet G Luhmann estimated how long it would have taken to recover from our “sun spot hangover”. A long time, – years probably- before the lights would be back on everywhere.

The cost? In the trillions of dollars. The effect on our world?

No matter how hard I try, I can’t imagine!

Here’s the thing.

These solar ejections happen pretty often. Once-in-a-while there’s a big one. There was one about this size in 1859 when there weren’t any computers. The worst thing was some problems with the telegraph system; some operators got electric shocks.

If this latest “big one”, the 2012 mass ejection, had caught us dead center, it would have taken out our TVs, computers, phones,  vehicles, and all the rest of our high tech equipment. Even my furnace would have been creamed. My furnace has a computerized controller board which runs the controls; it also talks to me over wifi and sends messages to my phone. A disturbance  92 million miles away on the surface of the sun would have had me burning logs. My whole life would have changed.


There isn’t much we can do to keep the sun from being the sun. Stuff will keep flying off the sun and, someday, a mass ejection will have our number on it. What we can do, is get serious about monitoring for these conditions. With sufficient warning, maybe we can take steps to minimize the damage.

– – – – –

The drawing is mine.

Not finding life all over the place

December 28, 2014 Posted by
Not finding life everywhere




If you’re going “Enough with life on Mars”, I’m sorry.


I know there’s too much not finding life  going on.

You lost interest in life-finding years ago, right? But who cares? We keep not finding it, right?

Recently, we didn’t find it on Mars. Also, we recently didn’t find it on Titan or on Europa or on Io.

Not to mention the exoplanets, planets circling other stars, where, it so happens, we also haven’t had much luck. Plus, very excitingly, we now know there’s a dwarf planet called Ceres. Ceres is fairly warm, probably has oceans full of water and isn’t that far away.

We didn’t find life there too.

Not finding life is pretty much everywhere these days and, you know what? We’re just starting.

No life out there? Don’t get used to it

I hate to squash the hopes of the “Not Lifers” but things don’t look that good for them, in the long run. The Mars rover, Curiosity, has finally made it to Gale Crater where it has analyzed the rocks and found organic molecules and “puffs” of methane. Organic molecules are (often) a sign of life. Puffs of methane? Same thing (although that isn’t for sure either). Philip Gillet (Earth And Planetary Sciences Laboratory) says a meteorite from Morocco (but once from Mars) has organic chemistry that is “probably” biologic.

While these latest discoveries may turn out to be another Didn’t Find It Moment, that can’t go on forever. Sooner or later – sooner, in my opinion, we will find a microbe somewhere – somewhere besides our own silly planet.

Unless something unmistakably alive walks by one of our cameras, we probably won’t have a “That’s it!” moment for life on Mars. Maddening as it is, that’s the system. As the evidence grows, life becomes “more likely”. One day, maybe the evidence for life elsewhere will be “accepted”. If you’re a Not Lifer, you’re in for a surprise, not a shock.The idea of life “out there” will, I think, just gradually work its way into our heads as the evidence grows.

– – – – – –

The drawing is mine.

New light bulbs – climate savers?

November 30, 2014 Posted by
The light bulb that will save us

The light bulb that will save us


Lights use up about a quarter of our electricity; they emit about 10% of all greenhouse gases. Newer LED bulbs, which are gradually replacing incandescents. use way less energy –  about 90% less.

If we replace everything with LEDs, we reduce greenhouse gasses significantly.

President Obama reached a deal with China that’s supposed to start lowering the actual level of greenhouse gases by 2030. New kinds of light bulbs are one way to get those levels down.

Are LED bulbs the best we can do?

You’re not going to believe this but Norihiro Shimoi. from Tohoku, University, has been showing around a new kind of light bulb that makes LED bulbs look like energy pigs. He and his team have a light that’s made from flat nanotube panels. It uses about a tenth the amount of energy as LEDs.

That’s right. a tenth of the energy of LED lights. A hundredth as much as incandescent lights.

The Shimoi light consists of ultra miniaturized nanotube diodes with phosphor screens. Not only are they ridiculously efficient, they can be made with a very low defect rate so they might turn out to be practical to manufacture. Mister ScienceAintSoBad doesn’t know how soon these things can show up on the shelves at competitive prices. For now, it’s all science, no impact.

I’ll keep one eye on these for me and the other for you.

ScienceAintSoBad Rating = FT for Fascinating and Too early to say.

– – – – – –

The drawing is mine.

Dump those dumb headlights. Here’s something better.

October 26, 2014 Posted by
The Amazing New Headlight



If you drive at night, you’re pretty much guaranteed to run into situations where your hand flies up in front of your face.

“Yikes, I can’t SEE!”.

People forget to lower their high beams, giving oncoming drivers a glaring face full of bright light. On a foggy, twisty mountain road, a high beam can be temporarily blinding. If you get down in one piece, it isn’t because of your incredible skill. It is because of your incredible luck.

Night driving is three times as dangerous as driving during the day (The National Council on Highway Safety).

Robert Tamburo (Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute) has an answer. A “smart headlight” which he will be showing off at the European Conference on Computer Vision in Zurich. Sensors in the headlight track cars, drivers,  snow flakes, and rain drops.  The system blocks light that would otherwise shine in your eyes, while lighting up the rest of the roadway. It keeps light from bouncing around on snow/rain particles. Tambur’s headlight uses fast computer processing to model the “road space”. The light doesn’t come from a bulb; instead, it comes from a DLP device with an array of “cells” which work together to make up the beam. The cells are constantly switched on or off to perfectly protect the vision of other drivers and light the road. Along with lots of other stuff that will show up soon, Tamburo “smart headlight” should completely change how we drive.

What does MISTER ScienceAintSoBad think?

ScienceAintSoBad Rating for a smart headlight =  10. To drivers in the near future, today’s cars will seem like “death traps”.

For good  reason .

NASA to send unconscious astronauts to Mars

October 14, 2014 Posted by
Sleeping to Mars




NASA needs a refresher course in being human. Its latest idea is just too “cold”.

One of NASA’s contractors, Spaceworks Engineering, has proposed turning Astronauts into popsicles. The plan would keep Astronauts on a Mars mission “on ice” – hypothermia – to conserve supplies and to shrink the size of the spaceship. The unconscious astronauts would be fed intravenously and maintained by medical equipment.  Like in sci fi movies, they would be in “hibernation”. Doctors have been doing similar stuff for heart attacks and head injuries. Believe it or not, it works well.

If it works for heart attacks, why not for astronauts?


First some background.

Up till now, “manned” space trips have consisted of stiff legging it around the moon or orbiting in space hardware like the space station. The planets were considered out of reach to humans.

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad never had a problem with the way things were. We’ve sent all kinds of “probes” to the planets. And we’ve explored the heck out of Mars while humans stayed mostly in earth orbit. There have been some deaths and injuries in our space program but we’ve done a lot of science without many casualties. Now there’s a big push to get humans out to Mars to “fulfill our destiny”.

This isn’t because people are a better deal then robots .

They’re not.

It’s much more expensive and much riskier to send people. Radiation is intense out there -really intense. A space ship big enough to carry people and supplies and provide some radiation shielding for such a long trip would be hard to create. Sending humans on a long journey makes everything more complicated.

For a while, I wasn’t worried. Let them lobby Congress about getting humans to Mars, I thought. Let’s face it, Congress will never bite. What’s bad about the “frozen astronaut” idea is that, with the lower costs, Congress might actually fall for the idea.



Look, it is is true that doctors have been succesfully cooling people who might die otherwise. It’s risky but it’s worth it. It takes a while to recover from a heart attack, or a busted head. Slowing things down by cooling the patient gives the body a chance to catch up with the healing process.

Astronauts aren’t dying though. The only thing wrong with their heads is that they take crazy risks. They’re in great shape. Keeping them chilled, asleep, and on intravenous lines for that long is dangerous. All kinds of bad things can happen to their hearts, their lungs, their circulatory systems, etc.  Induced hypothermia is okay in a medical crisis.  But it is not okay in the name of smaller, cheaper space ships.

We’ve been getting good science done on Mars with our rovers. And Robots will only get better – if we don’t use up too much robot money tossing men and women at the problem.

An analysis of the space shuttle indicated that 99 out a hundred flights would succeed. The one in a hundred that would fail? Believe me. You don’t want to know!

The shuttle was  just a space taxi. It was a complicated mess but making a shuttle is nothing compared to making a Mars mission. It’s too early to say what the “risk analysis” would be for a Mars mission but there’s nothing about traveling a zillion miles through intense radiation, relying on fragile systems to protect you for months and maybe years, that sounds safe. Nobody has explained how we would safely reduce levels of radiation to anything near acceptable. And do you know a bookie who would like the odds for surviving the trip and landing safely?

If they do get there, they will have absorbed way too many “rads”. They would still look like astronauts but inside that space gear would be people who were actually nasty medical experiments plunging into the abyss.

Irresponsible? You said it!

I’m not picking on NASA.  Well –  maybe I am – but, mainly,  I’m just pointing out that we should resist the irrational urge to “head for the stars”. It would be cool to see people in space suits up there (if they weren’t wretching and dying, of course) but robots are safer, cheaper, and better.

– – – – –

The drawing is mine.

The “Welcome to Earth” generation calls it quits

August 28, 2014 Posted by
A generation without aliens

The “No Aliens” Problem


Aliens were somewhere. Not  on the moon but probably Mars.

Maybe Jupiter and Saturn too.

Astounding Science Fiction wasn’t the greatest place to get your science but in high school, we relied on it. Astounding told us about the caves that aliens lived in,  the mean things they did,  and the methods of transport they would use to land on Earth.

Myself,  I was very pro alien. I had high confidence that they weren’t going to eat us. And –  more important – that they wouldn’t get all the girls.

By college,  Earth was still alien free. I had Dr. Medicus for physics. Aliens were the least of my worries.

Ten years later,  there was still nothing .This was a surprise. Not a single visit from a single planet. The first American had landed on the moon but no extraterrestrials had returned the favor. We were headed for space but space wasn’t headed for us.

By now, we were launching probes to the planets. The more we saw of the planets, the more obvious it was that there weren’t any cities up there. Venus was hot and shrouded in vaporous clouds of sulphuric acid. Mars was colder than Antarctica and its surface was full of craters. And Saturn was gaseous with rings of rocks and ice.

Scientists were fascinated, of course.

Me?  I couldn’t BELIEVE it! Where were the damn cities? Alien life wasn’t as common as my generation had thought it would be or as Astounding Science Fiction had (more-or-less) promised.

For quite some time – since 1960 – radio astronomers on earth have been looking for signals. By 1977, we thought we might have heard from our first alien. That signal is now called the “WOW” signal because of the exclamation scribbled across the stripchart.

We never heard it again nor have we received any other credible signals since. If we do hope to find some form of intelligence, we are going to have to look harder. And further.


In the late 80s, we learned about “exoplanets.” An exoplanet was a planet that was going around some star other than our own sun; maybe we would find evidence of life by analyzing the atmosphere of an exoplanet. The first of these things was discovered in 1988 circling Gamma Cephei. We have found hundreds of them by now. They’re very common. There are hundreds of billions in our galaxy. Many, many trillions across the universe.

If you’re a fan of aliens, this makes you happy.


I am in my seventies. I have spent almost an entire lifetime waiting. Nothing has turned up and I don’t think anything will.  The horrible fact? We are completely alone in the solar system and aren’t hearing from anybody in the “neighborhood”.

Will we ever find life?

Some day we will find microbes . The hunt for “bugs” is more intense than ever but, as far as locating our “co-equals” out there is concerned?  We really haven’t heard from any other technical civilizations. Not when I was a kid. Not when I was an adolescent. And not during my ridiculously long life.

Not one.

If there are alien civilizations, radio isn’t a handy way to prove it. The nearest “civs” are probably too far away for radio round trips. It takes too long to get an answer back and the signals would probably be hopelessly drowned out by noise.

Want more?

It seems the “broadcasting era” is a short one for a technical civilization. We’ve been switching to buried optical fiber cables. The “other guys” would have done the same things too after a very short time so there are b-i-g problems capturing a signal that’s probably not even “out there”.

No signal, no contact.

Even more?

Even if, by some miracle of cosmology, we did get ourselves a signal, many experts say we would “never in a million years” be able to extract the meaning. This is because of the problems of how the signal would have been modulated, because of digitization schemes, and, of course, figuring out a (very) foreign language from a (very) foreign culture.

Here’s what it comes down to. For my generation, big eyed aliens are off the menu. If they’re out there, they’re way out there.

They might as well not exist all.

There won’t be any warm embraces with un-Earthians. No White House tours. No revelation of the wisdom of the ages.

Maybe bugs though.

Is this fair?

Doesn’t my generation deserve better?

I think so.

On behalf of my generation, this is MISTER ScienceAintSoBad bidding goodbye to the aliens who never showed up.

– – – – – –

The drawing is mine.


Self Driving Cars Of The Sea

August 16, 2014 Posted by
Funny cartoon about self driving ship




Self driving cars are already on the roads. In a few years, you’ll own one.  We’re scrambling to get the laws and insurance rules done.

What about ships?

I’m serious.

Remember the Costa Concordia?

It actually hit a rock?

Ships don’t GO that fast. And rocks? They don’t go at all.

Would a computerized pilot get lost in somebody’s baby blue eyes? Would it cruise dangerously close to shore to show off?

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad doesn’t think so.

Why can’t we at least do what several  car models already do – the ones that  “grab the wheel” to save you from killing yourself? If it works for cars at 65 mph, it should work for ships at 19 mph.

You would think.

Ship owners would like to go further. They really like the idea of self piloted “ghost” ships.

Without a crew, ships would be smaller and simpler and more fuel efficient. And what’s a ship worth to pirates if there’s no crew?  Would you pay a big ransom for a scow full of tires?

Oskar Levander, VP of Innovation, Marine Engineering, and Technology at Rolls Royce, says we’re ready to do this. Rolls Royce has a simulated system to show off to potential customers; the company (or at least Levander) sees this as inevitable.

Here’s the thing.

It’s a great idea. But ships don’t get smashed against rocks by foolish captains very often.

The big risks are bad weather and propulsion systems that explode, catch fire, or fail, leaving the vessel to founder in the waves. A ship without power is in extreme danger in the middle of the ocean. Robots still aren’t as fast and flexible and reliable as a human in an emergency.

Would an automated pilot be able to respond properly to an oncoming rogue wave? Would it know what to do if the windows got blown out on the side of the ship?

MISTER Science AintSoBad likes techno stuff. It should, in principle, be possible to replace the crew with well designed, redundant systems but labor unions and regulators will be hard to convince.

Maybe that’s a good thing.