Archive for category Nature

An Aardvark? Seriously???

Posted by on Monday, 5 March, 2012

A little while ago, Google’s Aardvark passed away. I wrote an obit.

Some were glad, some were sad and most were busy collecting signatures for Rick Santorum.  I even had a few people all pissed off at me. Where’s a-a-r-d-v-a-r-k??

I hope this helps.

GDE Error: Unable to load profile settings

How You Make A Universe!

Posted by on Friday, 18 November, 2011


From Nothing

Dr. Christopher Wilson (Chalmers Institute Of Technology) created light. 

He did some complicated things that that sucked up photons out of absolutely nothing (what physicists call the  “quantum vacuum”).

Yes. I know God did this a long time ago. But he didn’t have to do it on a budget.

The thing to keep in mind here is that light is a form of energy and energy is a form of mass (Einstein) . So what Dr Wilson did is he created something from nothing.

Can you do that?

It’s slightly more than a cute trick, actually. It suggests that that Big Bang (which started the universe) actually makes some logical sense. After all, if there wasn’t anything before the universe, how could it ever get started? What would it have been made of?

In other words, is it really possible to make something from nothing?


ScienceAintSoBadRating = 10 . A wonderful piece of science.



Credit for above image to Savillent’s photostream  Creative Commons License
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Posted by on Saturday, 10 September, 2011


Dear MisterScienceAintSoBad, My sister’s mad at me because she says I pick pick pick. Can’t help it though. She’s like my grandmother. God this and God that.Don’t I have a right to challenge her dopey ideas?- A-Boy.

A-Boy: (I’m hoping the A stands for atheist and not a certain orifice.) Religious people aren’t idiots. They just believe in God

It’s not a sin.

It doesn’t mean they DENY reality. They just have an extra one that you don’t see. The majority of educated believers aren’t trying to prove Darwin wrong. Mostly, they know about fossils and other stuff that show how life evolved. Maybe they even know how the earth was formed out of cosmic dust over millions of years.

What about God? What about Genesis?

That too.

Believe it or not, it is perfectly possible for an educated person to “get” the Big Bang – even string theory – and still open a bible once-in-a-while. The interior of the human brain isn’t made for consistency.

Prayer and plain geometry. They can get along. Ask Isaac Newton. Hey. Ask his spirit.

Most people believe in God or something like. Even in Europe. Why is that hard? People believe.  Maybe they can’t explain why but it has a great explanatory force for them. Besides. It’s a layer of comfort. I were you, I wouldn’t mess with it.

This makes me ScienceIsSoBad? I don’t think so. I’m just saying that it’s possible to be too literal minded. The human brain CAN have two different ideas at the same time. Most minds do. This is what we are and I’m sorry it’s messy.

This isn’t an apologia. There ARE plenty of zealots who say that the bible’s got all the wisdom we need and science just gets in the way. But don’t tell me you don’t know some uber-rationalists who wanna smack bibles out of the hands of the misguided. You think THAT’S a tolerant attitude?

Science-minded folks need to have some respect for the evolutionary process that they defend. We evolved with a strong need to make sense of the world on a personal level. For modern humans, that seems to coexist in a delicate but, often sweet, tension with rational scientific thought. MisterScienceAintSoBad says you shouldn’t pick, pick, pick.

Thanks to Eoin O’Mahony for the image. Creative Commons License
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Posted by on Wednesday, 1 June, 2011


I try to keep my writing reasonably lively so as to keep my readers awake. This time, however, you’re kinda on your own to keep your head off the pillow. Sorry. My blog, my (sometimes deadly dull) topics.


Dr. Brian Greene:

The Elegant Universe is my favorite book. It describes string theory. My copy’s old and I don’t “get” it all. But each time I read it, I learn something.

Readers of my blog should be as lucky.

Here’s what bothers me, Brian Greene. You say strings are one dimensional . Most of them are so tiny (.000000000000000000000000000000000001 meters) that they’re as small as anything can get – the “Planck length”. Nothing physical gets to be smaller than the Planck length.  Not everyone’s on board with the idea that space is “granular” (things have a minimum size) but it’s gaining acceptance.

Anyway, I’m kinda stumped. I’m a three dimensional guy in a multidimensional world. Strings don’t have width. Or depth. They have a volume of zero, right?  Nothing to grab on to. More like thought experiments. Vibrate them in the right modes, and they “real up”, each becoming a particle or a force. One of these strings accounts for each particle in the universe.

But how does a one dimensional string trick itself out with additional dimensions? Is  it the “moving around” thing?  And aren’t strings long in one dimension and skinny in the others? Isn’t that the idea behind calling them strings? Except they don’t HAVE other dimensions. And if they DID have such things, they wouldn’t be any smaller than the Planck length, right? So a “string” would be a cube?

My poor head!

Another thing. Strings, you say, are being pulled apart by a tension force of 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000  tons. As a former structural engineer,  I worry about them breaking.

So, dividing 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 tons of force by the non existent cross section of a string, I arrive at something more-or-less like an infinite tensile stress.

This is bad.

In The Elegant Universe, you emphasize the superior nature of string theory over the prevailing “Standard Model” of physics which,  you say, suffers from too many infinities (like when the denominator of a fraction is zero?) I realize that strings, which are saved from being infinitely small by the Planck length, are also saved from “midriff bulge” (thickness across the middle) by their one dimensional nature. Maybe this vaccinates them against having to worry about internal stresses. But there’s still a big-force, small-object thing going on here that’s a little confusing, okay?

Elegant Universe

I do think I’ve answered one of my own questions which is how this tension force manages to maintain itself. After all, why doesn’t the string just  shrink till it doesn’t HAVE to shrink anymore, relieving its own internal tension?  It’s not like it’s tied to anything.  However, the string seems to be “Plancked out”. It can’t get smaller than that stupid Planck limit.

What a world!

Strings are distinguished from one another (I gather) by their modes of vibration and the way they wrap (open or closed). Except that 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 tons isn’t a small  force. It’s what  a rock  with mass equivalent to  hundreds of billions of stars  would weigh here on earth. Those pictures in your book of strings wrapped around things? Or vibrating, away in different “modes”? How do they stay so curvy with that kind of tension trying to snap them straight?

All I’ve got. And thanks for your patience,

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad


Credit, once again, to xkcd, it’s fine and funny drawings (top).
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Posted by on Tuesday, 24 May, 2011


Dear Mister SASB: My brother (who is a complete idiot, by the way) says lightning rods don’t work. Do you agree? Cause our house doesn’t have one and I’m thinking maybe it should. – Annie Blister

Annie: I’m sure you won’t feel that way about your brother when you get a little older. (Both of my sisters happen to think I’M a dope but, if you’re a regular reader, you’ll probably think they’re being too kind.)


In Colonial America, lightning rods made people nervous. It was considered an affront to the Lord. Lightning was God’s wrath.

During thunderstorms, churches (which had very tall steeples)  liked to send guys that wouldn’t be missed too much up there to ring the bell. It reminded the storm that this was a holy place. But the bell ringers had a much better record of going UP the stairs than coming back DOWN. While they were up there wackin’ away at the bell, lightning would often strike the bell tower, transforming it into steaming charcoal and molten bell. In fact, lightning seemed to FAVOR houses of worship – a clue, actually, that a different process might be at work than celestial vengeance.

The inventor of lightning rods, a guy named Ben Franklin, said lightning’s not a God thing; it is, he said, a natural phenomenon that  burns down  buildings and scares the goats. Even the old ones.  Certain citizens accused Franklin of irreverence. Blasphemy, actually. Back then, you didn’t want to be a blasphemer.

No you did not.

But Franklin was cool.  A coil of wire and and an iron stick are going to stop The Almighty? He (God) can’t  come up with a work-around? Who’s the blasphemer here?, asked Franklin. You callin’ God incompetent? (I think he also said that most lightning bolts strike trees which are, by and large, innocent of all wrong doing.)

This rebuttal was so effective that it took the thunder out of the opposition and, in no time,  lightning rods became almost as common as door knobs. It wasn’t sacrilegious anymore to use one to protect a powder magazine from being blown up in a storm.

This had a good effect, as you can easily imagine. Even churches got lightning rods. And, as a result, they  burned down less frequently. If the lightning rod business hadn’t been so successful, who’s to say what the state of religion would be in modern America?



Now lets climb back into the modern era.

In 1993, the National Fire Protection Association said the science behind lightning protection sucks. (Not their precise words). May as well rescind the national standard for lightning rods that’s been around for almost a century, they said. The standard is called NFPA 780, in case you want to look it up.

Uh oh, lightning rods!

But, according to Cecil Adams (The Straight Dope), after a thorough review of what’s out there plus a heap of common sense, it was decided that the science, though sucky and pretty much out-of-date, is, nonetheless,  compelling. It would be madness to go back to the pre-lightning rod, buildings-burning-down, days merely because lightning protection has been a settled issue for so long that more recent up-to-scientific-standards studies haven’t been done.

So the NFPA 780 standard still stands. And lightning rods work.


Then, how come you can drive for miles, here in New England and see nary a home with a tell tale rod sticking up to the sky ? I’m sure some are disguised as weather vanes and such, but, overall, this region seems to have entered the “right to strike” era.  We do love a roaring fire up here, but do we love fire THAT much?

Maybe this is just a lack of public awareness. I don’t think there’s  been much discussion about lightning rods. Or, could it be that the concern about protecting high technology devices from lightning initiated VOLTAGE SURGES, has diverted attention away from the basics? Maybe the idea’s too “pre-colonial”, too quaint, to be taken seriously by a guy packing an IPhone.

Another thought? Insurance discounts. Used to be, you could get a little knock off on your premium if you stuck a lightning rod up . These days, however, the companies appear to have abandoned that practice. In a region that doesn’t get THAT much thunder and lightning, maybe the occasional smoking ruin is just  a cost of doing business?

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad, as is so OFTEN the case, doesn’t really have an explanation. Do you?

Credits for above image: Creative Commons License
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Posted by on Saturday, 2 April, 2011

Image credits: Comics at xkcd.


Just about everything that makes us human comes in small, medium, large, and extra large doses so it shouldn’t surprise you if I tell you we’re not all the same in the sex drive department.

Some people are a little over and some are under, there too.

Lots of people don’t have sex, of course.

Few of the readers of this blog do.

But are there people with no sex DRIVE? None at all? I am NOT asking (not interested, actually) in whether you are straight or gay or transwhatever. I’m asking whether ANYTHING  gets you interested, sexually speaking.


I did some research.

No not THAT kind of research. I looked for studies. Data, and such. And, well doggone! It’s true. Lots of people don’t GIVE A RAT’S BUTT ABOUT SEX AND  NEVER WILL!

Funny huh?

Anthony Bogaert (Brock University) started describing the phenomenon a few years ago.  Asexuals  constitute about 1% of the population. About 3,000,000 people in the United states. Naturally, they have an organization,the Asexual Visibility And Education Network, which is trying to increase awareness.

No reality show so far.

Media hyped groups do come in and out of fashion with regularity, of course. I guess we’re about finished Don’tAskDon’tTelling gay people, so we may have spare time for something new.  Would YOU be comfortable serving with them in the marines? Would asexuals  GET the  lusty humor? Would it be possible to behave honorably under fire without a sex drive?

Although asexuals aren’t attracted to either sex, many get married and dutifully try to satisfy their partners. No more complaints than you might expect, all things considered.

(Is this important science? You decide. I just keep the stories coming. )

More detail from Dan Childs (ABC News).


Posted by on Monday, 14 March, 2011



Yesterday an earthquake and a tsunami hit Japan.  The earthquake (magnitude 9.0) was a THOUSAND times more powerful than the one that killed 2 percent of the population of Haiti.

And  Haiti didn’t have tsunamis. Or exploding  nuclear power stations which are thought to be melting down.

As I’m writing , they’re still searching for victims so the number of injuries and deaths is still growing. The excellent planning that the Japanese do for such disasters should help. If the sympathetic hearts of others makes any difference, that’ll help too.


Probably yer thinking “What’s WRONG with those guys? If they can make something as good as a Toyota, why can’t their power plants stand being bounced around ?”

Not fair.

I especially didn’t like that little Toyota dig, but I’ll let it pass.

Here’s the thing. Engineers  don’t know fer sure the worst disaster that’ll hit their projects, do they?  So how does an engineer know how strong to make a bridge. Or a house? Or a nuclear power plant? How does he.she know what size earthquakes, winds,  waves, and so on, a power plant will have to deal with in its lifetime? This, after all, is the “loading” to which it must be designed.

You’re not gonna like this, but it’s  a game of chance.

A building, a bridge, an airplane, is designed to handle everything that gets thrown at it.


Course, no matter how tough you make the design, there’s always something worse. A 10 ton meteor will NOT bounce off of yer roof and leave it undented. Sorry to say. Honestly? Your roof wasn’t even designed for 14 feet of snow. If you and your house live long enough, you will GET 14 feet of snow. It seemed like we got that much in Boston this winter. Or, if you don’t live where it snows, your house, for sure,  isn’t designed for a category 7 hurricane.

Always something!

Engineers try to anticipate everything that’s likely to happen. Then they throw in a little extra. But what about spectacularly awful things that only happen every 100 years? Or every 1000 years? How unlikely and how huge an event should you build for?

Magnitude 9.0 earthquake don’t occur in/near Japan very often – certainly not accompanied by a massive tsunami.   Very rare. So if you DO beef up your power plant design  for these conditions which include a 30 foot tsunami, what about the possibility of a 35 footer?

See what I mean? You gotta stop SOMEWHERE or you’ll NEVER get a mortgage on that overbuilt monstrosity.

It’s called engineering. Balancing practicality against perfection.


I’ll get back to you on that. If the designers simply failed to take tsunamis into account, you bet it was. If they designed for big, bigger, and biggerer but this was biggereryet, it’s just one of those things.


Is there a way to make nuclear power plants that can’t melt down? Of course.


Now it so happens that I have a lot to say about earthquakes. Because I definitely have an app for THAT. Our product, resQvox ( US Patent 7,839,290) will save your butt next time YOU’RE in one. We’re just in the beginning stages of looking for a licensee (interested?).

Here’s how it works.

You find yourself trapped in the rubble of a collapsed structure, right?

Talk about sucky! The first 24 hours you’re down there are the critical “Golden Hours”. After that first day, your chances of getting out alive get so poor that if they DO happen to drag you out of there with a heartbeat they will describe it as a “miracle”.

Maybe it is.

Anyway, here’s the catch. In most places where there’s an earthquake, it takes LONGER than 24 hours for  the pros to show up. They have to get notified, grab their equipment, search dogs, supplies, and whatnot, and get transport to the disaster site. While this happens, you’re down there under a filing cabinet getting weaker and weaker and weaker.

What to do?

That’s where resQvox comes in. It’s aimed at attracting the attention of the “locals” – the “guys in the neighborhood” – who’re running around trying to dig people out with anything at hand – garden spades, rakes, even bare hands. They don’t have infrared detectors or search dogs. Just their eyes and ears.

Like smoke detectors, resQvox locators are small and inexpensive and are positioned in key spots around a building. Its  sensors tell it if a building collapses (so do yours, but that’s another story) and it uses its speech capabilities to chat up survivors, reassuring, describing survival techniques, and collecting info on their condition. Then, no matter what shape they’re in (maybe drifting  in and out of consciousness or sleep), resQvox uses its “sonic beacon” to draw rescuers to the location  and to help  “triage” based on the condition of the survivors and the number in each location.

Here’s how it works . (You can contact us at

SceinceAintSoBadRating = 10 (I’m a little prejudiced).

Credits: Top photo of the earth (modified by MISTER ScienceAintSoBad) is from NASA. Cartoons’n such are my own handiwork.


Posted by on Saturday, 22 January, 2011



There’s more plastic floating in the ocean then plankton.

More than seaweed.

Take all the dumb ideas in the world, put ‘em on a scale and weigh them. Well there’s more plastic floating in the oceans than THAT.

Actually, they ARE oceans of plastic.

A little water here and there.

We’re doomed!

Aren’t we?


Not this week.

Professor Angelicque White (Oregon State University)  navigated around the oceans on a National Science Foundation funded study, surveying the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. After analyzing the data that was collected, as well as digging through the accumulating and sometimes over-the-top literature on the subject of humans strangling in oceans of plastic, the professor concluded “huh?”

Well, she didn’t actually, say “huh”. But, for sure, she thought it.

Because  we’re NOT actually strangling in plastic. There ISN’T more plastic than plankton. There’s STILL room for a row boat or two amongst the orange running shoes and plastic toys that are tossing around on the crests of the waves.


Dr. White’s not HAPPY with all the crapola in the oceans of the only planet we inhabit. It’s bad enough.

Plenty bad.

A scandal.

But, she says, the increase isn’t “exponential” and, in fact, if you take the worst of the worst estimates of the amount of plastic it’s STILL less than the size of the state of Texas.


And it really hasn’t increased since the 1980’s. So we might be doing better. Unless, of course, it’s just sinking to the bottom.

Anyway, Dr. White’s not making light of the problem. (nor, hopefully, is MISTER ScienceAintSoBad ). Dr White’s point is that it’s bad enough without exaggerating it to the point that nobody believes a durn thing you say.


Credit for above photo: This is Alvin and her support ship Atlantis and the photo is from the NOAA photo library.

Monkeys Aren’t Such Bad People

Posted by on Tuesday, 16 February, 2010



You figured bonobos were tightwads.


This study in Current Biology describes bonobos with GREAT food, taking a key and unlocking a door to share it with a buddy.

Would YOU do that? MISTER Science Ain’t So Bad sure ain’t givin’ away HIS bananas.

Don’t even ask.

ScienceAintSoBadRating = 6

Probably a good study but the earth didn’t shake.

Photo attribution: / CC BY 2.0

Einstein’s Musical Career and The Clever Octopus

Posted by on Sunday, 27 December, 2009


Physics: Notes.

Albert Einstein.

I realize he didn’t exactly invent the Universe. But SUCH a scientist! They don’t make ’em like that anymore.

Just walking around in his own mind (“thought experiments”) he could see the way things MUST work. What others thought were the rules, were only a special case. He took a few inches off of the height of Isaac Newton, his only real rival for the Great-God-Of-Science prize, showing that Newton’s achievements, amazing as they were, were only a door to the true mysteries of the universe.

Einstein guided us through that door.

I have to recyle my “Newton Spinning In His Grave” drawing here (below).

Still Spinning

Still Spinning

Einstein came to realize that light has special properties. For some crazy reason, when you measure its speed, it is always the same. No matter how fast or slow you are going.

So he thought about it.

And the ramifications.

When he worked it all out, he saw that the sizes and masses of things follow unexpected rules, depending on how fast you’re going (Special Relativity). He looked at time differently too. And he found an explanation for how gravity works (General Relativity). And he described atoms. And photons (the photoelectric effect) and helped kick off Quantum Mechanics, a bastard child which he had some second thoughts about later in life.

I’ll stop. You can read the Wikipedia article. But what’s funny about this funny guy is that he liked things or he didn’t like them based on some inner aesthetic. If it was beautiful it had to be right.


So that’s interesting, isn’t it? Our greatest modern scientist was an aesthete. He played the violin. And the piano.

He loved Mozart; he loved Bach.

Indifferent to Brahms.

He began playing the violin as a little child. Real serious.

Once, he was supposed to give a physics lecture to his students (Geneva University). Instead he decided to play his violin for them. He figured they would like it better than a physics lecture.

And understand it a LOT better.

No doubt.

So would he have become a musician if he hadn’t become the greatest physicist of modern times?


He already had a job in the patent office. Maybe he LOOKED like a dreamer with his long flowing hair, but Einstein wasn’t THAT dumb!

After all. He was Einstein.

BehavioralEcology: Tool Use By Octopuses

What has eight legs and.. eight hammers?

Used to be that we had a franchise on intelligence. We were the smart guys. Apes and monkeys chattered mindlessly in trees. Elephants munched at the bottom of them. And octopuses were too dumb to grow a proper set of arms and legs.

Used to be.

We used tools. We had language. We wore clothes. We did karaoke.

The creatures we ate didn’t do any of those things.

But observation by observation, study by study, our distinctions over other species have shrunk.

We still out gun our nearest biological competitors when it comes to dumping carbon into the atmosphere, but we now know that chimpanzees can sign and understand extensive human language as can various apes, dolphins, and parrots. Even walruses.

And the use of tools is definitely out there. We’ve seen it in chimps and other primates as well as birds and even elephants (which have very large brains, as you might expect, with very large “thinking surfaces” as you might not expect).

Now a paper in Current Biology describes the use of tools by Octopuses.

Octopuses are Cephalopods which means non hat wearing ink squirters. If you follow their comings and goings, you know already that their dopey looks are deceptive. They have good memories and are good learners. They routinely solve their way out of mazes and Dr. Maury Schlaffer (University of Teheran) claims he has observed them scavenging old electronic components on the ocean floor and reassembling them into devices such as OPhones and OPods for their own uses.

We would LIKE to believe Schlaffer’s work but, unfortunately, the evidence is kinda weak and we have to give it a ScienceAintSoBadRating of less than 2. The Current Biology paper, however is good. It’s got the “pusses” dragging around shells which they use for protection (“tents”).

That’s thinking ahead.

If I ever DO become a vegetarian, it’ll be because of a scientific study – one like this.