Archive for category Astronomy, Cosmology, Space


Posted by on Thursday, 15 January, 2015


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.

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The drawing is mine.


Posted by on Sunday, 16 March, 2014



People fall in love with their own ideas. This is a particular occupational hazard for science writers and I apologize in advance for doing this to you but I’m repeating one of my answers to a question on because, frankly, I am in love with my own answer. It is my blog. I get to choose. Sue me if you don’t like it. (No. Just kidding. Please don’t.)

The question (on Quora) was: Is it necessary for the universe to have a beginning?

I have two completely contradictory answers. You can take your pick.

Here’s the first one:

Life has become more complicated around here lately.

A few decades ago, the universe was a less ambiguous thing (no multiverses on the agenda) and little or no discussion of pre-big-bang physics. A currently hot topic is whether “something” (stuff) could have come from “nothing” (non-stuff). If you feel the origin of stuff is the beginning, then maybe that predates our particular “bang”.

My opinion? I suspect that there was always something and never nothing. I realize that’s hard to swallow. How could there have always been something? Didn’t it have to start? Where would it have come from? But, if the alternative is that the underlying paraphernalia of physicality – the laws of physics, space-time, and quantum principles – have to be initiated out of nowhere, maybe my version – always something – is less hard on the brain.

At some later point in time, I changed my mind:

The “universe” includes more now than it used to. We have started referring to the “known” universe for the part that we can see; the “rest of it” seems to be considerable and may even be “infinite”. The quotes are because of how infinite that infiniteness might turn out to be.

Projecting everything back to a real – if somewhat mysterious – beginning, a point of infinite density, seems to have become more difficult to accept. 30^-35 meters may be the smallest allowable size. It is called the “Planck length” and it appears to shut the door on anything being smaller than that. Even the early universe.

It now seems likely that the actual beginning may have been a small period of time after the unachievable “singularity” when a few grams of energy-matter condensed out of some still undefined process. The birth of the universe has gradually drifted away from a “who knows?” shoulder shrug to a legitimate area for scientific inquiry,

There’s been lots of back and forth about the difficulties (or not) of “something from nothing”. There are many “nothing purists” who insist we start with an utter void without even the occasional virtual particle and show how such a thing could have led to our present condition. They feel there should be no defined laws of physics in that void either. It would seem we have to choose between either a total and complete null or something that’s not much but has enough of somethingness to start things with random fluctations of virtual particles. If it’s the latter, you’re stuck defining something that’s “eternal” (eternal somethingness).

My own vote is that things really did start from nothing. Absolute, absolute nothing. It’s more logical than saying that things “always were”, don’t you think?

How did we get here then? The key is that it is hard to remain perfect if you have to be that way forever. So perfect nothings foul up eventually; they spit out just enough virtual particles or burps of energy to, occasionally, “start the clock” on a universe.

There’s certainly nothing at all illogical about a “nothing” that does lasts forever. However, we know that didn’t happen, don’t we? Look around you. Obvious, right? So the story of creation is the story of a rare and minor instability which, over eternity, yields a brief flicker in a near timeless void. That flicker was mother and father to all of us.

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The drawing which has nothing to do with anything is mine.



Posted by on Sunday, 26 January, 2014
Cartoon about a world where geeks are cool




You come back time and time again to read about the latest stuff in science and technology.

And it’s  much appreciated.

You really never know what I am going to be talking about.  How could you? I don’t myself.

Some of my articles deal with medical” advances” and some deal with physics or  chemistry or astronomy. Sometimes it’s economics. Sometimes it’s the IPhone. Or Google’s Android products. When I write about abstract stuff – string theory, fusion power, or firewalls in black holes, you’re like “I would love to catch up with you and read that latest blog post but, thing is, I have to visit my aunt” .

I really don’t think you have an aunt. Am I right?

I love all that stuff about the beginning of the universe. What could be more fascinating then that tender moment when out of nothing – or almost nothing  –  an early universe appeared? In that first incredibly small fraction of a second, out of about a gram of matter, a process (inflation) began and ended much faster than the flicker of an eye and kicked off what we call the ‘Big Bang” expansion of the universe. There are mysteries within mysteries there. Where did that gram of matter come from? What was happening in the sliver of time just before that moment? What is the role of so called dark energy and dark matter? Is there more? Something out beyond the universe we can see? More universe? Other universes?

I imagine writing the  ultimate article about “The Beginning”. There’s a  nice cartoon with it. I’m thinking “They’re gonna love this!”

“Honestly?”, you say.  “If I don’t change the air filter in the car today, when will I get another chance? How about I skip that little universie deal and check in with your blog later in the week? Maybe you’ll have something to say about self driving cars.”

Recently, I wrote an article about Prince Charles and how he’d gotten himself into the middle of the homeopathy controversy. When the article went live, to my surprise, I was swamped with readers! Was it the mention of the ever popular Prince Charles? Or was it your fascination with the wackier kinds of “alternative” medicine?

It’s hard to guess what you will find interesting because, after all, “you” is a mysterious amalgam of individuals who come and go. Some of “you” write textbooks on astronomy and some of you read science fiction while you’re waiting in your beat  up taxi for a fare. There’s only one me but – when I’m lucky, anyway – there are many of you. Sometimes I get it right. Sometimes I drop a bomb and nobody – well almost – comes.

Bill and Marion and Danny come but I sorta take them for granted.

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad writes because – actually? I’m not sure why I write. I just do. The size of my audience doesn’t change anything. I’m not poorer if you don’t come and I’m not richer if you do.

That  “counter” I mentioned? The one that tells me how many readers I get? And how many articles they read? It keeps me aligned with my readers and their interests.  Maybe it’s vanity but I feel bad when you would rather check your air filter than read my latest article.

My point (if any)?

You read medical articles. If there’s a way to beat rheumatoid arthritis or hodgkin’s lymphoma or migraine headaches, you’re interested. Something for a bad back and you’ll read me for sure. Same for hearing loss.

Balding? Heck. A guy will ignore the love of his life for a few minutes and read every word of a new and promising drug that made a mouse look like Liberace.

Where medicine is concerned, I try as hard as I can to be a good partner. I know that being sick sucks; I do what I can to call your attention to important new developments and to steer clear of the blood suckers out there. For the “business of life”, I write about electronics and computers and refrigerators, and vacuum cleaners. I should do it more often but I’m no flipping Consumer’s Union. When I do, I try to sprinkle a little scientific sauce around. Nothing wrong with that, right? It’s my job.

Here’s the thing.

I won’t stop writing about  how life began or even how the  universe  got going/will end. Or whether quarks are  the smallest form of matter or are made of even smaller things. Or whether there’s evidence for life somewhere. I know I have to work harder to pull an audience with those blog posts.  And I’m not mad at you for choosing a spaghetti dinner over me. If I lose out to good food on a science article, it’s not your fault. I didn’t use enough seasoning. I’ll do better next time, okay? You’re not obligated.

We’ll work on that bad back of yours. But stay open. I’ll hook you on cosmology yet.





Posted by on Tuesday, 19 November, 2013


funny cartoon about time travel


Time is mysterious.

So are cats but – hey! – this isn’t about cats. It’s about time. In this episode of “Five Minute Physics”, Henry Reich explains a bit about time travel. Pay attention to his second point.  Walking is traveling in time.

I bring this up because I intend to use that as a basis for Mister ScienceAintSoBad’s Time Machine.  After the video, keep reading, okay?

I’m back.

Now that you’ve seen the video, here’s my question: Does Einstein’s stuff about relativity mean that star travel isn’t practical because of the speed of light thing?

Not really.

Relativity describes the way things seem from various points of view. It describes what you see when you watch me fly off in my spaceship.

In this “observer” role, you watch me fly off in my ship and you notice that my speed starts to “adjust”  as I close in on the speed of light. You see me getting closer and closer to the speed of light but – damn! – those photons keep on passing me by. I can’t quite seem to quite reach their speed of about 186,000 mph. I’m the poster space ship for how nothing can go faster than the speed of light.

Bummer! It’s a hopeless case.

If we can’t go faster – a lot faster – we’ll never get to more than the few nearby stars. Maybe we could use cryonic suspension or wormholes or teleportation or some other form of cheating but, you know what? That doesn’t impress me because, as a form of travel, that stuff’s more fiction than fact.

So we’re left with the fact  that the speed of light, like you always heard, is the barrier. We’re s-c-r-e-w-e-d.

Here’s the thing though.

Say you, standing on the earth,  could see the clock in my spaceship. You would wonder what’s wrong with it. As the ship goes faster, the clock goes slower. As I get close to the speed of light, the clock moves so slow you wonder if it is moving at all. This is as Einstein said.

I visit my destination and return to Earth.

I land. You’re waiting for me.

Your hair is gray, you use a cane, and you have something going on with your prostate.

Me? I look pretty much the way I did when I left.

You say you’re so glad to see me after 37 years. I say it was only a 3 day mission and I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Why aren’t I older?

My clock.

As I pointed out, the faster I go, the slower goes my clock. The clock, in these examples, isn’t “just a clock”. It’s a way of showing that time, itself, goes slow.

Crazy. But that’s relativity.

That’s why I only age by three days.


You were the “observer”. To you, 37 years – real years- went by. To me, only three days went by. I traveled 37 light years in three days which is a lot faster than the speed of light. For me.  Not for you.

That’s how it works. Speed is my time machine. Go fast enough, and I can go anywhere.

Seriously! I can go anywhere I want, as far as I want, out into space. All I have to do is stick close to the speed of light.  The price I  pay is back home. The faster I go, the greater the difference in our clocks – mine vs those back on Earth. Soon I’m out beyond the lifespan of anyone I know. Eventually? Generations will have passed.  Maybe all of humanity is gone.

Don’t blame this on me. I’m no Einstein.

A final note.

I wrote this to address the misconception that you “can’t go faster than the speed of light”. To explain that, while this is true for the observer, it isn’t true for the traveler. At least, not after the traveler returns to his.her point of departure – an important point to consider.

I wouldn’t want you to try this without checking with me. We don’t have any space ships that could go anywhere near that fast.  And we don’t have a way to handle the radiation which would be absorbed on such a trip. And – even if that weren’t a problem – we would risk a collision with the most minute of particles which, at that speed, would pack enough energy to blow up the ship.

The practical problems of near light speed take it off the menu for us. But don’t blame Einstein.

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The cartoon is mine.

Mysterious Unknown Forms Share Our Planet? It Seems Possible

Posted by on Saturday, 16 November, 2013


Funny cartoon about the "shadow biosphere"



We once thought there might be “people” on Venus or Mars.

It seemed possible.

We didn’t know much about planets. Maybe there were caves with lizards.

Now we know almost too much. We have equipment routinely exploring the surface of Mars, probing, drilling, sniffing, analyzing. Lizards, we would have seen.

The search for life “out there” goes on. Nothing yet. Maybe nothing til hell goes cryothermic.

The reason I bring this up is that there are people with an interest in alien life who think we missed it. They think it’s on our own planet.

Don’t look up, they say. Look down


The bugs who were our ancestors weren’t bashful. They got going as soon as there was the least little chance that they could move in. By about 3.6 billion years ago  the crust of the earth was more or less solid.   Suddenly, somehow, life popped up. We don’t know exactly how. We have some theories.  We do know that some very  simple organisms eventually evolved into the sports crazed organisms of modern day.

How many times did life get going?  Were there some bad designs that didn’t do well – more homely, maybe,  than our own DNA kind? Based on entirely different processes?  Did they hide out in isolated “niches”? And nobody bothered them? Are they in seawater maybe at low concentrations?

Carol E Cleland (Center for Astrobiology, University of Colorado), says we won’t find this parallel universe of living things if we don’t look for it. And we almost certainly missed it if it is there. It would have flunked all of our “is that thing like me?” tests.

The idea of a Shadow Biosphere is appealingly simple. It’s safe and easy. We live here. So do they, maybe. We can do the search on a shoestring without launching rockets.  If we do happen to find something really weird – something that’s alive but built along different lines than our own strand of life, we will know for a fact that 1) life is not to be denied. It’s opportunistic. It will flourish if it can flourish. 2) We will also know that it’s on other planets.  Period. If you were yearning for extraterrestrial life, you would then be able to relax knowing that it will, eventually, show up elsewhere.

How’s that for a cheap experiment?

Dr. Cleland’s article, The Search for Shadow Life, is in New Scientist.

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Regular readers will recognize the cartoonist as the author.


Posted by on Monday, 7 October, 2013
Cartoon showing Bullock and Clooney in the movie Gravity



MisterScienceAintSoBad saw the movie Gravity.

It was magic.

George Cloony and Sandra Bullock give us a view of space that should be impossible from a chair on this planet. Almost too vivid to bear. Nobody can figure out how it was done.  I looked at 28 movie reviews. Not a negative thing to say. The reviewers  loved it. So did I.  If I weren’t already so jaded , I would have fainted. Great,  great work.

And yet,  the film had no soul.

And  the physics is wrong.

Here’s the thing.

The idea was to show off how breathtaking and amazing and very dangerous it is up there.  As I say, the movie makers  know their business. But the life story of  Doctor Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) didn’t seem to interest the filmmakers as much as her emotional range when near death. The little we know about her life is because she tends to talk to herself when under pressure. The movie doesn’t show us Stone as she matures, as she falls in love, as she has a child, as she loses the child through a stupid playground accident, or anything else. In fact we see such a small wedge of  her actual life that she got away with a space suit and some underwear as her wardrobe for the whole film. We’re only interested in having her hop scotch through space from one hazard to the next, dodging , weaving, improvising, whimpering, screaming, and emoting until, ultimately, the movie runs out of pixels.

Astronauts are portrayed as a little more colorful and less serious (and a little less professional) than they actually are.  And although the introductory stuff reminds us that there are no sounds in space, being consistent about it would have wasted an entire wall of theater woofers.  Movie license, right? Every time something moved in that movie frame, my seat vibrated. Boom, boom, boom!.

That’s okay. Sci fi wouldn’t be sci fi without a little juice for  a teenager.

My problem was the premise. The basic idea is that the Russians accidentally fired a missile into their own satellite which exploded, leaving debris to ping pong off of other satellites until there was a “chain reaction” of debris that battered every space platform up there. You can see the debris “bullets” raining through the dark sky in several of the escape-from-death scenes.

The volume of space is enormous – even the small piece of it surrounding our tiny planet. Space debris is always a concern when  you’re out there, but there’s much too much space and much too little aluminum to “fill the air” with projectiles. No serious scientist has ever raised the possibility of a chain reaction of debris. It was just a convenient plot invention.

The key scene –  the one with Kowalski (Clooney)and Dr. Stone (Bullock)  trying to save themselves at the Russian space station, was gripping. In trying to implement a sketchy scheme to get themselves safely back to earth, they find their way, traveling in unprotected space suits, to the Russian space station. On their arrival, they try to grab a handhold – anything at all – as they tumble past. The gloves really weren’t meant for one handed grabs like that. If  Dr. Stone’s boot hadn’t gotten tangled in some straps, they would have been lost.

But her boots did get tangled. And as the straps slow her motion, she manages to grab Kowalski and the two buckle together. As the  straps stretch more and more under the strain, Kowalksi realizes that the straps won’t hold their combined weight. He tells her that she has to let him go. She begs him not to open his latch, but he bravely reminds her that it isn’t her choice, unbuckles, and glides heart-breakingly out of the reach of her outstretched arms.

Okay. But what was pulling them outward? What force was dragging them away from the space station? They were moving because – what’s that thing? – objects in motion tend to stay in motion unless they are subject to an external force? So their momentum was moving them. Until that strap imposed a new force. Then they snap back toward the space station, right?

Only it didn’t happen that way. Some force kept dragging them outward. And dragging Kowalski away from Dr. Stone.

Before you say it, they weren’t being flung out by some rotational force. The star field wasn’t rotating.

What was the mysterious force that doomed Kowalski? I’m pretty sure it was merely slow motion cinematography making something out of nothing. By slowing the action enough, it is possible to experience what happens as the force from the straps start to tug backward and Kowalski’s mass tries to continue forward as a simulation (more or less) of a tractor beam dragging him into the ether.

The physics in the scene didn’t exactly make sense but, look,  Dr. Stone had to come home alone and Kowalski had to go. From a scientific standpoint, I think Kowalksi died in vain. And, although I’m glad that Sandra Bullock survived as I would miss her very much, she spent the rest of the movie in a  really, really, really peculiar war with the theory of probability, overcoming enormous  odds time after time after time,  eventually saving herself by propelling herself to the Chinese space station with a fire extinguisher. When, after way too many improbable brushes with death,  she, eventually,  lands a few feet from a welcoming beach in temperatures comfortable enough to collapse with relief in her adorable but nonstandard NASA underwear, I knew for a fact that some people have all the luck.

In the end, Gravity is a smash ’em up special effects film that doesn’t mind its silly side.

Reviewers didn’t mind and audiences won’t either.

Some movies don’t need a great plot.

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The drawing is mine.






Posted by on Thursday, 26 September, 2013


Sex compared to physics



Is physics hard?

Sex would be hard if you were held responsible for the kama sutra on the final. But, like sex, physics can be a rush if you just lay back and enjoy it. That’s what I suggest you do today. This video is hugely fun but it’s not simplistic. In fact, I learned a couple of things about back when the universe was was a pea pod – some of them quite surprising. I knew about the priest who came up with the big bang theory. But I didn’t really think of the first fraction of a second this way. It’s pretty cool. Really.

This is from “Minute Physics” and has been embedded from Youtube.

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The cartoon is mine

Faster Than The Speed Of Light?

Posted by on Friday, 19 October, 2012



If this is science, I will eat my shoe.

James Hill and Barry Cox  are mathematicians from the University of Adelaide. They say Einstein’s special theory of relativity can now cover phenomena faster than light speed ( Journal Proceedings of the Royal Society A: Mathematical and Physical Sciences). Einstein missed this; they fixed it.

They say if you extend the math properly it can describe phenomena at any speed – even infinite speed at which, they say, your mass will shrink to zero.

Pretty good, huh?

But the math breaks down at the speed of light itself. They say that’s not a problem. It’s like breaking the sound barrier, something which was once was “impossible”.  We do it all the time now, right? With some new technology – maybe better spacecraft propulsion- sooner or later, we’ll be wondering why we poked along at a less than 186 thousand miles a second.

Here’s the thing. And where do I begin?

The special theory explains how, as you approach the speed of light, you appear to be gaining mass. The closer you get to the speed of light, the more mass you appear to have gained. (This is all relative to an “observer”.) Although your rocket engine (and your fuel) will get bigger too, you won’t be able to get ahead of the effect of your gain in mass and your speed will remain “subluminal”. Fast, yes. Light speed? Not gonna happen.

Says Einstein.

If you can’t GET to light speed, you can’t PASS light speed. And, if you can’t pass it, you can’t take advantage of the mathematics of Hill and Cox.

The authors admit that they aren’t physicists – just mathematicians having a nice day.

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Credits for the animation: to Heather’s Animations. Please note that donations are gratefully accepted in return for which (or even without a contribution) you can utilize the work you find there in your emails, articles, and what not.

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Fair disclosure: I’m not a physicist either.  And I’m having a nice day too.

Hey Einstein! What About Dark Energy?

Posted by on Thursday, 20 September, 2012

Al Einstein


Einstein’s General Theory Of Relativity has a flaw. Shouhong Wang, and Tian Ma found it,

Here’s the story.

Wang – Dr. Shouhong Wang of Indiana University’s Science’s Department of Mathematics –  and  Ma –   Dr. Tian Ma of Sichuan University – were at the candy store discussing the Yankees when Dr. Wang said, “Hey, Tian? How come energy and momentum don’t add up in that general relativity thing? Aren’t they supposed to?”

Dr. Ma said “Course they should.”

“Well they don’t.”

“You aren’t doing it right, knucklehead,” said Ma

“Here’s the slide rule, genius, “ said Wang. “You do it.”

“Geez. I see what you mean! Maybe he should have included dark matter and dark energy.”

“Holy Moly!” Wang said, “The difference between the new field equations and Einstein’s equations is the addition of a second-order covariant derivative of a scalar potential field; Gravity theory is fundamentally changed and is now described by the metric of the curved spacetime.”

“Huh?” said Ma.

This is an almost true story of the way that Wan and Ma discovered a crucially important (to about 14 physicists) thing – that Einstein’s general theory of relativity which has dominated modern science since 1915, needs modification to account for dark matter and dark energy which (as they point out) hadn’t been discovered when Einstein shocked the world with his incomprehensible explanation of energy, matter, time, and light and so on that he called the general theory of relativity.

Dr. Ma and Dr. Wang are on to something. Dark energy and dark matter constitute much too much of the universe to be ignored in the basic equations of physics and their second order adjustments appear mathematically sound. If the work is validated empirically (always somethin’, right?) they can be mighty proud.

ScienceAintSoBadRating = 9 . Still needs to be proved but a fearless effort.

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Thank you Creative Commons for the photo from Madame Tussaud’s museum, Amsterdam.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Posted by on Friday, 1 June, 2012
What Planet Are YOU ON?

What planet are YOU from?


What planet are you from? This is something people ask me all the time. Would they ask it if I didn’t have a propeller on my beanie?

The thing is, the list of planets  is growing.


According to Roger D. Blandford (Director of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at Stanford University), there could be as many as 4,000,000,000,000,000 (4 quadrillion) stars in the Milky Way. or about 10,000 planets for each sun.

Isn’t that 9,992 more than anybody’s noticed for our own sun/star? If they’re out there, where, really, could they be that they’ve gone undiscovered all this time?

Dr. Blanford’s referring to a fairly new category of planets called “rogue planets” which, unlike Mars and Venus and Earth and other civilized rocks, don’t orbit a star but, instead, roguishly follow their own independent paths. According to this theory, when galaxies collide, they disrupt the orbits of planets, sending them off hither. And thither. And yon.

No longer orbiting a star, they would have tended to escape the notice of astronomers and planet hunting satellites such as Kepler. But if life had already become established on such planets before they got bumped out of orbit, life would have a good chance of surviving its new sunless condition  (and THAT is according to  Dimitar D. Sasselov of Harvard).

Well. Let’s be careful.

There’s some evidence in this stuff. Which makes for good science. And there’s some speculation in this stuff. Which makes for fun science. Mister ScienceAintSoBad would be remiss if he didn’t dispense a pinch of salt with this study for now.

More to come.


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(The hat is from China Wholesale Town, by the way.)