Archive for category SO Alone In The Universe.

Harvard, Ice Cream, and Quantum Mechanics

Posted by on Saturday, 13 February, 2010



A long, long time ago, Joel, Doug, and MISTER ScienceAintSoBad were in line for an ice cream cone in Harvard Square.

I can’t remember, exactly, why, but Joel said (not for the first time) that “People are morons.”

Mister (not at that time) ScienceAintSoBad sturdily defended you.

“Not all of them.”

“That’s what YOU think. They don’t know crap!”

“You do?”

Three guys in line for ice cream.. You don’t want the whole transcript. However, it led to a “test” (we were young, remember). We decided to ask people in the line about electrons.

We would be easy graders. The interviewee didn’t have to know a lot. The answer could be “part of an atom”, “a tiny something that’s part of stuff”, “a particle”, “some small shmatta from physics” – just some indication that he.she knew what we were talking about.

So we did the survey. We asked ten customers, one by one. And this is what happened.

Nobody knew the answer.

One person – a high school girl, I think – knew it was “something in science” so she got a passing grade.

Everybody else was stumped. Most of them shrugged their shoulders or looked confused or were afraid that they were on Candid Camera.

Why bring this up?

Not because Joel was right about people being stupid. THEY weren’t making idiots out of themselves in an ice cream shop. But if this shop, which was a few hundred yards from Harvard (gasp!) University was even a little representative of the intelligent beings that inhabit our planet, then they (those intelligent beings) certainly didn’t give a lime sherbert’s damn about physics. Or abstract theories. Or natural philosophy. Or what-have-you.

You’re gonna say you have some issues with my methodology. That is wasn’t scientific.

But that’s not the point.

The point is that the “deeper” more abstract things are a hard sell with the average person. It’s just not what people think about.


MISTER ScienceAintSoBad can tell when you’re interested.

You know that little shmagegge on the upper right of the screen? It counts the visitors.

When we do an article about PRACTICAL things like the effects of salt on your health or a new cancer drug or a new breakthrough in hypnotic suggestion that turns teenagers into sweet, docile, uncomplaining saints, that thing GOES! The individual numbers get blurry and it goes whirr, whirr, whirr.

BUT when we do something really INTERESTING, something of PROFOUND SCIENTIFIC IMPORT such as the continuing effort to understand dark matter or dark energy or research into the true nature of the universe (quantum mechanics or string theory, for example), it stutters, hesitates, shivers, and staggers like it’s developed a case of frozen neuron disease.

This tells me that if I want lots of customers (and, by the way, the readership of Science Ain’t So Bad has been growing and thank you) I should stay away from deep science.

Unfortunately, because of a contract I have with myself, that’s not gonna happen so you can either go away with something new or (more likely) just skip the good stuff.

I hope you’ll, at least, give me a chance on the esoterica. It’ll make you a better person.

And, how can you be sure it won’t come up in a job interview?

You’ll be SO happy to learn that I’m adding book reviews to Science Ain’t So Bad and the first review – not finished yet – is going to be Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe.

Which doesn’t have a THING in it that’ll relieve the symptoms of a cold.

Disgruntled Burglars Quitting The Trade. Can’t Compete.

Posted by on Wednesday, 10 February, 2010

What NEXT?

Criminology: Economics Of Burglary.

According to James Treadwell’s research (University of Leicester), global price pressures – particularly “cheap labor in China” – are RUINING it for decent burglars in the UK.

Commodity pricing in consumer goods such as DVD players has gotten so crappy that you can’t even fence a good home entertainment system anymore and embittered former second story guys are turning to a life of street crime.

ScienceAintSoBadRating = 6 (Good entertainment value. Not so sure about the science).

Behaving Robotically

Posted by on Saturday, 6 February, 2010

Employee Killer (uh.. EmployMENT Killer)

Jobs Jobs Jobs

We need more jobs, right? Maybe General Motors and NASA are a little “off message” here.

They’re creating “Robonaut 2“, a humanoid robot worker that any productivity – hungry, greedy corporation would LOVE to get its mitts around.

See, workplace robots aren’t easily mistaken for somebody you went out with last year. They tend to have wrenches for arms and stuff.

Hmm.. I take it back.

Anyway, the philosophy behind workplace robots is “form follows function”. In fact, it’s kinda reassuring when they look like machines. Easier to tell the difference between a robot and a me.

But at the Johnson Space Center, they attacked the problem quite differently because they need human assistants to work beside their astronauts. If you want a robot working beside you, it needs to be compatible with its human partners who do not HAVE little sockets to accept various special purpose tools. So Robonaut 2 (the familiar form of its name seems to be R2) can swap tools with its partners and is less likely to accidentally sideswipe a hapless spaceman (or woman) and send him.her spinning into space.

As far as gender is concerned, Robonaut 2 seems less likely to get tossed out of the men’s room than the ladies room with its current chestal configuration but I don’t see anything in the specs on the subject. Maybe its humanoid features aren’t THAT specific.

You may find it reassuring to note that doesn’t look cheap to make.

ScienceAintSoBadRating = 7 and we’ll watch this development.

Stick Figures Have Lives Too

Posted by on Sunday, 24 January, 2010

A follow up to my recent article on comic books as literature:

Randall Munroe studied physics at Christopher Newport University and has worked for NASA. He also writes a sparse but very funny “webcomic” with sardonic observations on life as lived in the technobulb.

ScienceAintSoBadRating = 10

Scientists: Dolphins Are Persons

Posted by on Sunday, 3 January, 2010

Image from Creative Commons:

Human - like

Biology: Dolphins are non-human persons.

A scientific consensus seems to be emerging that Dolphin’s are “non-human persons”. This very surprising article in the UK’s Times Online summarizes things.

Smarter than Chimpanzees. Lots of culture. Very communicative. And studies of their brains support the idea that they’re not quite us but WAY up on Golden Retrievers.

Sorry Dick.

A zoologist named Lori Marino and a psychologist, Diana Reiss, will be presenting at a conference in San Diego next month, making the argument that dolphins are “non human persons” and REALLY deserve a little better treatment from their supposedly more developed land bound buddies.

They’re not the only ones. Numerous researchers and others who have worked with these intelligent marine mammals seem to share this opinion.

Taking a lesson from global warming and not wanting to wind up “chopped meat” MISTER ScienceAintSoBad won’t describe this as a scientific consensus, but I will say there seems to be a lot of support for the dolphin/person view.


Sam Starlbhurst of Needham, Massachusetts, isn’t on board with this.

“They’re FISH!,” he said to Science Ain’t So Bad. “They really are just fish. They haven’t figured out ANYTHING significant.Have they discovered the wheel? Do they have fire? This is liberal CRAP!”

Sam, however, is an idiot. Just ignore him.

ScienceAintSoBadRating = 9


Posted by on Thursday, 12 November, 2009
A Planet-happy Star

A Planet-happy Star

SpaceScience: Stars Give Themselves Away

How do you know if a star has planets?


In fact, it wasn’t until 1995 that we nailed the first such planet (I’m not counting the one we’re standing around on, or its neighbors, of course).

Even “neighboring” stars are so far away and so bright that you can’t really make out their planets with a ‘scope. So two indirect methods are used to find out if a planet’s present: We look for a slight reduction in starlight as a planet passes in front of its star. Or we try to observe the miniscule wobble of the star due to the orbiting planet.

We’ve been, it seems, doing it the hard way.

An article in Nature (lead author, Garik Israelian) says that stars with planets seem to use up more lithium than stars that don’t. The authors figured this out using the European Southern Observatory’s ability to analyze starlight as well as to detect (the hard way) planets.

This is amazingly fantastic news as it will greatly speed the time that we can say, for certain, that the only Republicans in the entire universe are on this planet.*

Very, very nifty piece of work.

ScienceAintSoBadRating = 10

* I’ll make fun of liberals in my next post, OK?


Posted by on Thursday, 5 March, 2009


The only ones in the WHOLE universe..
This might not be my best post. But what’s the point of HAVING a blog if you can’t rant about intelligent life in the universe. No need to indulge me. If it’s boring, you can tune out. It’s OK.

Even MY cynical friends will have tears in their eyes when the day finally arrives and – amid plumes of smoke and dust – large ships, perhaps scraped and dented from too many light years of interplanetary traveling, start settling down by the Super Stop & Shop, displaying emblems from their own culture, intended (I hope, I hope) to assure us of their peaceful intentions. Earth has yearned for that day for a long time and, when I was a young earthling, we didn’t think it would take long. In fact, we thought they were already here. The tabloids were totally hot for UFO’s. Sausages, saucers, and all kinda’ lights, flying in formation, decorated the National Enquirer and the Star, crowding out everything but Elizabeth Taylor. Lots of ships came from Mars or Venus.

After we got ourselves into orbit and had had a look around, we realized that any intelligent civilizations in our solar system must be very shy. If they’re here, they’re hidden in planetary cores and have pulled the antennas in after them. So, pragmatists that we are, we turned the search for company outward and started a systematic radio search (called SETI) of other solar systems . This has continued for decades and has been completely fruitless; it is, frankly, discouraging.
Some time ago, Enrico Fermi asked a question. Pointing to the large number of solar systems much older than our own where civilizations should be much more advanced than ours, he asked why we haven’t had a single contact. After all, they’ve had time to send radio signals over galactic distances or to even travel great distances themselves. So why no aliens? Could it be that we are truly alone?

You betcha.

The more we study our plight here on earth, the more we understand how lucky we have been. The parade of life-snuffers is amazing. Rocks and ice (asteroids and comets) rain down. Some of this debris is larger than a mountain and would explode with enough energy to cleans all surface life. We are quite sure this has happened before. Add gamma rays, volcanic eruptions, tidal waves, planetary wobble, and other threats that are much too numerous to list, and “miracle” isn’t too strong a word to describe the fact that we’ve had a more-or-less continuous civilization hereto. Is this the hand of God? Or luck? If it’s luck, it could run out any time.

So, generalizing from our own planet (always iffy), though there’s reasonable evidence that life can get started spontaneously and with some ease there’s also good evidence that evolution is frequently “reset” by unwelcome events. Could be lots of bugs out there in the universe. Not so many smarties.

Unless such luck is widespread in the universe, our rivals may not have made it past the last surface cleansing blast. It may be rarer than we ever imagined to survive till you figure out rockets.

Still. As we look for planets, we’re finding out they’re SO very common that at least a few of them should have some lucky survivors like us. So what’s the deal then? Where’re or buddies? Here are some thoughts on this matter that could explain “Fermi’s Paradox”:
1. We want to know if we’re alone. It’s an obsession with us. Alone, alone, alone. Where IS everybody???? But maybe other civilizations don’t think about it this way? Maybe a “normal” civilization doesn’t FEEL so lonely. Although we romanticize the concrete benefits of contacting another civilization, imagining that they will teach us about perpetual life and the meaning of existence, our first encounter’ll probably be a big fat disappointment. Could be another government boondoggle. And..

2. we might actually regret the contact. We ( again, romanticizing), think that they, being old and wise, are probably gentle and loving. But they might want to eat us. Or, at least, steal our food. Perhaps a “normal” civilization is more cautious about putting its address out all over the galactic Internet the way we do; they may not fall all over themselves to answer our signals.

3. Here’s a good one. Our progress toward becoming a technical civilization, capable of communicating with others, seems tied to our mastery of science. We tend to assume that other smarties would share this cultural feature. But science seems to have been “discovered” just once on our planet. It was “lost” for many (dark) generations and then, eventually, rediscovered (as opposed to reinvented). Is science really inevitable? Maybe smart civilizations focus on art, poetry, or philosophy. THAT’LL cut down the competition for rocket fuel. Technical civilizations may be very, very rare.

4. Maybe space travel between stars isn’t realistic – even for advanced civilizations. While there’s a common perception (Star Trek, Asimov, etc) that you need some kinda “warp drive” to scoot around the universe at great speeds, this is really a misunderstanding of Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity. As a matter of fact, you CAN keep your foot on the throttle all right, going faster and faster, and faster. While it would look to an observer on the planet from which you departed as though you can’t quite reach light speed, you could, in fact, reach speeds that would propel you across galaxies. Just don’t plan on going back . The clock on your planet of departure will have raced into the future while you’re gone and all your contemporaries will pass away before you finish breakfast. THAT’S the impact of “The Special Theory”.

So why not then? If they’re willing to cut the ties with their home planets, why wouldn’t they have shown up here?

Some reasons. 1) I don’t know what THEIR politicians are like, but imagine getting ours to fund a big, expensive expedition that has ABSOLUTELY no payback for the home planet because we vanish and are never heard from again. They pay, we play. I don’t THINK so. 2) I said relativity wouldn’t prevent the trip. I didn’t say there are no obstacles. As a matter of fact, once you boost up your speed relative to the debris you are passing by, you are in terrible danger. The collision energy is a square of the collision speed. We don’t see too many objects going by us at faster than about 100,000 mph. I wonder why? Could it be that very fast objects, inevitably, hit SOME li’l fragment of rock and get blowed up? That would be my guess. Add to this, gamma radiation and God knows what else, and intergallatic travel may be more romance than realism – even for very advanced civilizations.

As far as communications go, maybe, once again, advanced civilizations don’t see much POINT in “communications” that take hundreds or thousands of years. Could you blame them? The more I think about it, our own desperation for confirmation that we’re not alone, may very well not be common. If it isn’t, don’t look for “them” to be appropriating large funds for “radio beacons”.

There’s also the “zoo” theory – that they want to protect us from ourselves till we’re “ready”. But the zoo theory implies coordinated behavior and shared goals by beings thousands of light years away from one another – tough to believe in this. Much easier to believe, however, is the self-preservation theory. Assuming that most beings got that way by some form of natural selection, they, like us, may have some degree of surviving predatory behavior. A wise civilization might be more intent on HIDING it’s presence than advertising it.