All in the Name of Science

A while back, in anticipation of America’s Favorite Holiday That Includes Encouraging the Youth of Otherwise Calm Neighborhoods in a Sanctioned Protection Racket, some chick online somewhere put up a list of ideal pairings of wine with Halloween candy.

She got it horribly, badly, wrong. My sweetie, who is exposed to these random “memes” (as the kids call them today) much more than I, decided it was time for someone to do this right. She assembled her crack research team, and off we went to buy booze and candy, focussing on the candy that typically lands in pillow cases and plastic pumpkins between 6 and 8 pm on Halloween night, along with some other iconic candies that appear on the shelves this time of year.

At the booze store, we huddled around the miniatures rack for much of the time, so our shopping cart wouldn’t set off the “Leaving Las Vegas” alarm at the cash register. We loaded up with many, many tiny bottles of booze, some that made me nervous just to look at the labels (marshmallow vodka?), and larger bottles of things that we thought might come in handy on other occasions long after the science was complete.

Oh, and I accidentally chose a very expensive bottle of scotch, rather than the usual rather expensive bottle.

After a pass through Cost Plus to find a few more exotic boozes and brews, we made our way home, pulled out all the stuff, and it started to sink in: science is not always a walk in the park. Doing this important research was going to require dedication, hard work, and more than one fuzzy morning.

Much (but not all) of the alcohol we tested. I knew the panorama feature on my phone would come in handy one day.

Much (but not all) of the alcohol we tested. I knew the panorama feature on my phone would come in handy one day.

With all the different boozes (many in limited quantity) and this array of sugary treats:

The loot from our raid on the impressive candy aisle at Walgreens (expanded for Halloween!).

The loot from our raid on the impressive candy aisle at Walgreens (expanded for Halloween!).

We knew it would be impossible (and palette-blowing) to test every possible combination. We leave it to those who follow to continue in the name of Science, and to try combos we may not have considered.

The results are exhaustively (and humorously) presented at Poetic Pinup, including descriptions of why each pairing worked, and links to some of the more obscure beverages.


Science is meaningless if you don’t show how you got to your conclusion. In our case, we often (but not always) started by choosing an alcoholic beverage. We would each take a sip, then scan over the available candy, looking for ones that our palette memories thought might work:

Zombie Zin on the test bench.

Zombie Zin on the test bench.

Naturally, we also had to try pairings that had a lower chance of success. (Side note, Skittles make a reasonable palette cleanser between tests.) By stepping outside the obvious we allowed Serendipity to stagger into the party with a package of Sugar Babies in one hand and a bottle of 100-proof cinnamon-flavored schnapps in the other, shouting a little too loudly for the room, “Hey, check this out!”

Tastes diverge, of course, and so while the light of my lab enjoyed Seagram’s Sweet Tea flavored vodka with Hot Tamales, I found the beverage undrinkable, and while I prefer Kraken to Sailor Jerry, the sea monster didn’t tickle the palette of the head researcher (she being the one who actually took notes) and I don’t remember the match I liked for that one. Guess it’s time to get back in the lab!

In the end, however, I was a bit surprised by how often we agreed. Some things simply taste good together.

The highlights for me (in no particular order):

  1. Jim Beam Honey and Baby Ruth. I didn’t even expect to like Jim Beam Honey.
  2. Peeps and Absinthe
  3. Hershey’s Special Dark and Black Russian
  4. Honorable mention: Crabbie’s Ginger Beer and More Crabbie’s Ginger Beer. Snappy!

There are a couple of things missing from the list, most notably:

  1. Super-dark high-cocoa-percentage chocolate. I love the stuff, but you won’t find that in a halloween bag in any neighborhood I’ve ever lived in.
  2. Scotch. Remember that expensive bottle? Yeah, Science doesn’t deserve that much love. Blame government funding cuts.
  3. Krackle and Crunch bars. The chocolate is different in the two, different enough that they didn’t pair well with booze in different ways, but in the end we just didn’t find a good match for either. Perhaps someone out there can pick up this loose thread.

A final note:

Always the bridesmaid: Kit Kat Bar. It was good with so many things, but there was always some other option that was even better. It was late in the game when we found Kit Kat’s One True Love, but perseverance paid off. But if you’re going to throw a candy-and-booze bash, Kit Kat will play well with a lot of the liquid offerings.


An Esoteric Physics Question

So we’ve all heard of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, even if most of us are pretty vague on what it actually is. It’s a twist of quantum mechanics that says that you can’t know exactly both the location and the momentum of any object. The more certain you are of the momentum of a particle, the more the particle is smeared in a blur of probability.

A very cool side effect: Let’s say you have a cup of chicken soup, and you cool it way down. Colder, colder, colder… until your soup is almost to absolute zero. Absolute zero is when all the soup particles have zero momentum – they’re at a dead stop.

That’s exactly zero.

Do you know where your absolute-zero chicken soup is? No, you do not. It is quite literally everywhere.

Let’s back up a bit. As you get close to absolute zero, the soup particles start to smear out and blend with each other, until the entire cup of chicken soup behaves (in some ways) as a single, wacky chicken soup particle. I was trying to remember the name for this state of matter, but ‘wacky particle when supercooled chicken soup particles’ waveforms merge’ didn’t come up with anything useful. Maybe I should have tried Bing.

Anyway, here’s my question for the physics geeks among you. If you take a very small cup of chicken soup, and cool it down until it’s starting to smear out, then (somehow) cool it down some more really fast, so that suddenly the soup is spread over a volume the size of our solar system (it’s not a linear smear, more of a bell curve), is that change bound by the speed of light?

Christmas Time, Tool Time – Advice for Tool-Givers

I just saw an ad for a tool that didn’t interest me much, but I noticed that the neatly-bearded spokesman in his flannel shirt was standing in what was declared by the subtitles to be the “Tool Research Laboratory”, or something like that.

The set was clearly NOT a tool research laboratory, competing with CSI:Miami for “Least Practical Lighting for a Place Where People Use Their Eyes On the Job” award.

But… Somewhere there actually is a facility where people work hard to produce new, better tools. The people sitting at the workbenches aren’t necessarily wearing flannel; many of them likely have advanced degrees and spend their recreational hours reading about new alloys and fabrication techniques.

An example challenge: Make a better wrench. No biggie, it’s just a tool that has quietly matured over the centuries. But now, with math and engineering and gol-danged science, people are making better wrenches. Most of the emphasis in this new tool revolution is on convenience and one-size-does-more designs, which are all right, but then you get an ingenious device that puts the force on the flats of the bolt, rather than the corners, allowing you to apply a lot more force. A genuine improvement on an old standard*.

Christmas is the time these devices get to strut on the television, as women try to find gifts for men who don’t seem interested in things that are knitted. (Hint: many of those guys are looking forward to holiday leftovers more than they are to the gifts. Because there’s something magical about holiday leftovers. Just sayin’.)

You know, upon further review that last paragraph was pretty sexist. To the guy looking to buy tools for his husband, or the woman trying to figure out how to leave some hints as she cleans the grime from under her fingernails, I say rock on, and don’t forget the leftovers. Forgive me as I perpetuate the stereotype with my use of pronouns to follow.

Hey, remember the SnakeLight? It’s just a rechargeable flashlight with a bendy section, but many years ago when I got one for Christmas I was amazed at how useful it was. There’s a whole SnakeLight product category now. That’s a win.

Finally, the promised advice for tool-givers: beware the one magical wrench that’s as good as a whole set of traditional wrenches. It’s probably not quite as good, and your tool-appreciating gift target already has a whole wrench set and knows how to use it. When Tool User opens the package during your holiday ceremony, he will likely exclaim with happy surprise, but you will know he’s faking it.

But later, in the shop, on many occasions that every-wrench-in-one device is the one your beloved tool user will reach for rather than take the time to find the exact right wrench out of his set. Well, unless your tool user is like me. I’m a frightfully slow worker, and part of that is not just choosing the right wrench, but getting it positioned optimally. So give me a wrench that can reach a nut I couldn’t reach before. That is the one that will make he hairs on the back of my neck stand up — almost as much as a turkey sandwich with all the fixins.

Oh, and battery-powered tools are fundamentally inferior to ones you plug into the wall. The 120 seconds lost to laying the cord and coiling it up again dwarf the loss of power, the time lost messing with batteries, and the general better performance of the tool. Hippies and true craftsmen agree: batteries are no good.

Go Tool Research Laboratory! I’d apply for a job there, but I’m wretchedly unqualified.

* I’ve never seen sockets that embrace this innovation. Get on that, Tool Research Laboratory!


The Ascendant Science

Medicine, it seems, is always the last science to the dance. While one guy was establishing the principles of electricity, one of his friends was being bled to death in the name of medicine. When radioactivity was discovered, health practitioners killed countless patients with it.

For most of the history of humanity, doctors were quacks. All of them. The discovery of tiny creatures that live inside us revolutionized the medical biz, but compared to the physics industry and its spinoffs, medicine was still mostly chanting and waving rattles.

Early in the last century, physical science went through a boom so loud our ears are still ringing today. The second half of the 20th century saw technology go nuts as those fundamental discoveries reached market.

That wave gave us the machines we needed to finally dig deep into how we work as organisms. Allow me to tell a rather long story to illustrate.

I have been working to lose weight. If you use the Internet, you’ve seen ads that read, “New scientific breakthrough can help you shed pounds!” and shit like that. I have long made a point of ignoring those ads, but I became curious about the scientific breakthrough. One night I clicked one of the ads.

I was presented with a video. Generally, when I want the answer to a specific question, I HATE video. But in this case, I understood that the video existed for the very reason I dislike them: the producer wants me to go through a lot of shit before providing me the nugget I want. From their point of view, video is perfect.

With the sound off, I watched as cartoon people were drawn and erased, showing a variety of body forms. Finally, a word came on the screen: Leptin. I stopped the video and fired up Wikipedia, where I was offered an explanation with lots of words I didn’t know. I knew enough of them, however, to understand that leptin was created by fat cells, and when leptin levels go up enough to be noticed by the brain, you feel full, and your metabolism cranks up. Injecting leptin into obese mice helps them lose weight; it doesn’t work so well in humans. Also, leptin was found in the 1990’s.

Then there’s Ghrelin, identified about ten years ago. Ghrelin makes you feel hungry, and slows your metabolism. The Wikipedia article about ghrelin identifies exactly which gene builds it, how it’s matched with a (perhaps unused) counterpart, and where it binds to receptors in the brain. There are drawings of the damn thing.

I trust the drawings, but it all seems vaguely magic.

I think this is just the beginning. The human organism is the most complex thing in the known universe, but we’re starting to figure out how it works. Next comes how to fix it when it’s broken; how to address the exact problem without mucking with other systems. We will move from drugs to viruses — those that attack specific bacteria and those that give the host the ability to produce a particular protein. It’s pretty cool.

That technology explosion? We’re starting to feel the biology echo, and it’s going to change everything.

Something My Science Textbook Lied About

It was fifth grade. Science period. There were two teachers responsible for the entire herd of fifth-graders, so they were not specialized in any particular field. Just give the kids a general idea of all the subjects, and the specialists will fill their heads later. Our teacher relied heavily on the veracity of the textbooks we were provided.

I remember this day well. I was sitting over on the right side of the classroom. The goal of the exercise was to understand the Scientific Method. I capitalized Scientific Method in the previous sentence because understanding it is really friggin’ important. It’s how we got here, for better or for worse.

The textbook chose Bernoulli’s Principle (these days, the press would doggedly refer to it as Bernoulli’s Theory, and imply that it might not be true even as planes passed overhead) as the Nugget of Knowledge that we, as young scientists, would ferret out through a process of forming a theory and putting it to the test experimentally or through observations of the world, then revising or scrapping the theory if the test did not yield the expected results. (The revising and scrapping parts were not included in this exercise, which is too bad, because it’s the fundamental strength of science.)

For me, as the evidence was exposed in the pages of the text, it was a puzzle to solve. A race with my fellow students to get the answer. Halfway through the lesson my hand shot up, and when recognized I gave the “right answer”. I recapitulated Bernoulli. I was a little disappointed by the teacher’s reaction. I had the right answer, but the important thing was how we got to the right answer. That’s what the scientific method is all about.

But even before the glow of my triumph was diminished by the cool reaction of the teacher, I was bothered. My gut told me that one of the key pieces of evidence cited by the textbook was, in fact, bogus. But it was a SCIENCE BOOK. It was right. It had to be.

The false evidence: You know how when you’re in the shower the dang shower curtain will assault you, pushing into the tub and wrapping around your leg? That was presented in this little science exercise as evidence of Bernoulli’s Principle. Even in fifth grade, even as I read that supposed clue to bring me to a conclusion I had long since surmised, it wasn’t working for me.

For years hence I thought of mechanisms where the rushing shower water got the air moving around it, lowering the pressure on this side of the curtain. But that would have required noticeable wind.

Yet, I continued to believe that shower curtains assaulted one because of Bernoulli’s Principle. The science book said so. I tried to make the water-coupling-with-air theory work. As I showered I tried to measure air flow. I held my hand next to the curtain on many occasions, forming explanations for why I couldn’t feel the wind. If I couldn’t come up with the explanation, that was my failure, not the theory’s. Um, principle’s.

The fact is, shower curtain assault has nothing to do with Bernoulli’s Principle. It’s convection. Finally I had to accept that my Science Book had been just plain wrong. It took many years to get there.

So here’s the true lesson about Scientific Method afforded me that day, one that took me years and years to learn: Don’t invent complicated explanations for why the other guy is right, when there’s a better answer in front of your face. Then prove the better answer. Proving the better answer is a step that a lot of our ‘science rebels’ miss. The actual science part. They deserve every bit as much disbelief as the mainstream guys do.

Accuracy and Precision

I climbed on our new bathroom scale for the first time last night. 188.8 lbs, it reported. I stepped off, waited for it to reset, and stepped on again. 188.8 pounds. That made me very happy. What are the chances I actually weighed 188.8 pounds? Pretty remote, I suspect. But I don’t need the scale to be accurate, I need it to be precise.

Rewind to the old bathroom scale. When I resolved to monitor my weight with actual numbers (which can be a trap), the light of my life obliged by bringing an old-school spring-driven scale into the bathroom. Cost: eight bucks. The thing was, shifting my weight or moving a foot would change the readout. If you weren’t concerned about exact numbers, the scale was plenty adequate for measuring a trend.

Once I set goals with exact weights involved, however, the cheapo scale became a source of frustration. Leaning forward to read the dial better changed the reading. Am I allowed to drink beer today or not? Answer unclear, ask again later.

My sweetie set out once again to find a scale that could answer that question. At CVS she found a thirty-dollar scale programmed to give you terribly ill-informed body-mass advice, a twenty-dollar one that… I don’t remember what its deal was, and a simple, ten-buck CVS-branded scale that rests in our bathroom now, easy-to-read and frightfully consistent. And precise. This morning the scale told me with giant LCDs that I weighed 188.4 pounds. I stepped off, waited, then stepped on again. 188.4. I smiled. That’s 1.6 pounds below the beer threshold for this month, and roughly ten pounds lighter than I was three weeks ago. Or five pounds. Or fifteen. Hard to say.

But next month, even if I remain skeptical of the number on the scale, I will be confident of the difference. And the difference is what this whole project is about.

Tweaking the Health Regimen

The light of my life and I bought a fancy elliptical trainer a couple of years ago. She has been very consistent with it, while I’ve been, well, streaky. There are times I come home from work and I’m just too wiped out to contemplate getting on the thing. (On days I do manage to get up on it, I’m glad I did, but that lesson is soon forgotten.) I’m definitely healthier, but I’m no skinnier. In fact, I’m bigger than ever.

The obvious answer, of course, is to climb up on that bad boy first thing in the morning, before I’ve had time to start making excuses. Alarm goes off (dreadfully early), I drag my sorry ass out of bed and grind out my time. So far, I’ve been very consistent with this approach, and I think I arrive at work more alert and cheerful. And hungry. Gotta love the oatmeal bar at the little coffee place in the building. More on the hunger shortly.

One thing I have observed about working out first thing in the morning: It’s much harder to meet my goals. I’m going into max energy burn after fasting for a few hours, and I hit the proverbial bottom of the tank way sooner that I do when I work out in the evening. I’ve had to adjust my expectations accordingly.

I did some research to see if there was some food I could eat only moments before exercising that could help me power through. Turns out, not so much. But I did learn another interesting thing: What I eat right after I exercise can make a big difference next time. There is a window after exercise in which the body grabs all the energy it can out of the blood stream to convert to store in muscles as glycogen. Get the carbs (and some protein) rolling during that window and things will be better the next day. Pretty sweet!

I started comparing different foods for the right carb-protein balance (nonfat chocolate milk apparently is about perfect and has nutrients the commercial sports recovery drinks lack). I was about three days into this process when I started to wonder:

Isn’t it good when I run out of gas while working out? Isn’t that kind of the goal of all this?

All the advice I’d read, you see, was targeted at athletes. For them, high output while exercising is the goal. Not so much for me. I want to create conditions where my body (reluctantly) chooses to break down some of that stored energy in my fat cells and use that to restore the glycogen in my muscles. This process is far less efficient, and the human body really is loath to give up its precious fat, but during that same window where the body will suck every carb out of the bloodstream, if there aren’t enough carbs, it will convert just enough fat to keep things running.

My muscles aren’t replenished as much, and the next morning’s workout will be tougher. But ideally the energy is coming from the right place.

By the time I get to work, that window has closed, and my insides have returned to business as usual. And I’m about ready to eat an entire pizza. Hooray for oatmeal! It’s carb-heavy, but low-fat and sticks to the ribs and by lunchtime I’m able to make more sensible choices as well.

So, with such a sensible system, the pounds must be flying off, right?

Well, not so much. Not yet, anyway. I’m absolutely certain that I’m on the right track, and like any long-term project, it’s best to keep expectations of instant and dramatic success tempered. But I have recently made one more change, a dramatic, desperate gesture of good health beyond all reason.

I have a target weight this month. Next month, the target weight goes down. Each morning as I prepare to exercise, I step on the scales. If I’m above the target, no alcohol that day. No beer after work, no wine with dinner. I like beer and wine. While cutting alcohol will definitely reduce my caloric intake, there is a second, even more powerful, indirect effect. When the alarm clock goes off in the morning and I just want to stay in bed, I remind myself that shirking on my exercise will only delay my next sip of sweet beer. On days I don’t bring lunch from home I think about the consequences of eating the wrong thing: Another meal with my sweetie, with no wine for me.

A coworker laughed when I told him this story, imagining me on a treadmill running full-speed for a beer hanging just out of reach. That’s not far from the truth. But if it works, that’s all right with me.


A Staggering Number of 1’s and 0’s

The other day, Apple published an update to iOS, the software that runs iPhones, iPads, and iWhatnot. I updated my two devices last night; the download was about 1GB for each.

Not that long ago, a gigabyte was a lot of data. Even these days, a gigabyte here, a gigabyte there, pretty soon you’re talking about a crap-ton of information.

How much? Today I spent a full ten minutes doing research for this blog episode, hoping to come up with some sort of estimate for the number of iGadgets updated over the last couple of days. I found one fairly recent article that said there were 400 million iOS devices in the wild, but that report was published before Apple sold two million iPhones in China — in a single weekend.

I’m going to throw the number 500 million out there, because it’s nice and round and makes the math easier. We have to figure in the percentage of iDevices that are sitting in drawers gathering dust; those will not likely be updated the moment a new iOS version is available. What percentage is this? It’s really hard to tell. Apple loves to point out, however, that even taking into account the huge market share they enjoy, the amount of Web traffic generated by their devices is even higher, suggesting a significantly higher usage rate than their Android cousins. I will make the logical leap that higher usage rate implies higher demand for updates to the new iOS.

So, let’s say that half of all iOS owners upgraded their gear in the last two days. Apple considers it a HUGE competitive advantage that they can provide infrastructure to update all iOS devices. Android providers simply don’t have that (Google has might, but Android updates go through the telephone companies, so the telcos can limit features and add nefarious supplements). As a result, soon 80% of all iOS users will be on the latest version. Nirvana for software developers.

But let’s think about that infrastructure. Over the last two days, by my wild-ass estimates, Apple delivered 250 million gigabytes of data to their iOS customers. 250 petabytes, on top of the regular daily traffic. I’ve been told by unreliable sources that after the Great iTunes Christmas Crush of ’09 (or was it ’10? Thanksgiving?) work was done to allow server capacity to be reallocated in anticipation of massive crunch times. If the network performance in my office is an indicator, that happened this week.

Side thought: is it possible to store more bits of data than there are particles in the universe? Not in binary, I suspect. Side side thought: I learned on a British educational TV show in roughly 1981 that the universe holds something like 1083 particles, but what with all the dark matter and so forth coming down the pike since, it wouldn’t surprise me if the estimate had moved up to 1084 particles by now. Of course, the definition of “particle” itself can be squirrelly, translated from the 1980’s, and I may just remember wrong. ANYWAY, the iOS update was only on the order of 1017 bits. Chump change when scaled against the entire universe.

But down here on planet Earth, that’s a lot of ones, and roughly the same number of zeroes, each where it belongs.


Why Being Fat and Indolent is Good for the Environment

I did some very rough calculations, once, about the actual mass of the fuel I burn when I exercise. It occurred to me today that the output of my exercise is greenhouse gasses.

Yep, each month I’m putting 2kg of CO2 into the atmosphere in my selfish desire to be healthy. And that’s nothing compared to my sweetie. She’s practically a terrorist with all the carbon she’s exhaling.

Getting Over the Hump

Now, I didn’t get my degree in futurology from a major university, but writing that last episode about one specific medical breakthrough made me sit back and think about the larger picture.

Here’s the thing: There’s some bad shit coming down the pike, but there are also some good things. Let’s start with the bad:

There are more and more people on the planet, and they have to eat. While the human population shoots upward, our ability to produce food is under stress on several different fronts.

  • Nitrogen burn — a huge chunk of farmland is at risk of becoming sterile as a result of modern agricultural practices. The nitrogen in fertilizer comes from the atmosphere and doesn’t go back. It’s building up all over the place, and is starting to affect things.
  • Running out of phosphorus — this critical mineral is in short supply. This article put the timer at 50 years. We might find more in the meantime, but China is buying all it can now.
  • Water — some of the most productive farmland in the world gets its water from the ground. The supply is finite.
  • Water, part II — changing climate patterns are likely to put too much water in some places, and not enough in others.

I had a few more, but you get the idea. Keeping everyone fed for the next few decades is going to be tough. War and pestilence will follow where food is a problem.

2050 could be pretty ugly. If sea levels rise, there will be a lot of displaced people. (I say save San Diego and kiss Miami goodbye. Topologically, it makes sense.) Agriculture will be maximally stressed. It’s going to take everything we have to get past that hump.

But it is a hump. This is just number-crunching, but so far every group of humans that has reached a certain average lifespan has stopped reproducing so much. There’s good reason to believe that after around 2050, the human population will start to decline for the first time in history.

This leads to some new problems — or at least adjustments. Consider the American Social Security system as an example of something that happens all over the place (although, most times there’s less lying about what’s actually going on). Young folks pitch in to support the older folks. THIS IS NOT A BAD THING. (Although with Social Security we’re told we’re saving for the future, and that’s patently false.) Young folks looking after the ones who came before is admirable. The problem comes when there aren’t enough young folks to carry the load anymore.

Answer: redefine “old”. By 2050, working 75-year-olds will be typical (I originally used a bigger number, but pulled back). If I were king, I’d start sliding the retirement age three months each year, starting now. I’m not king, however, and it will probably require a few major nations to default and a million pensioners to die of starvation or exposure before it is politically possible to start this adjustment. Naturally, the pension hump comes at the same time the food supply is at maximum stress. But it’s a hump, and on the other side is the recognition that people will be productive for a lot longer. There’ll still be young’uns, they’ll just be sixty years old.

And come on, young at sixty? That’s not a bad thing. You might have to delay retirement a decade or two, but you’ll still have a better retirement than folks did in 1935, when retirement age was set at 65, and the average lifespan was 62.

So, that’s two humps we have to get over. There are others. We will have to make a pretty big transition on our energy sources in the future. Bad people will have access to some really scary shit. Robots might take over (they will do this by making us so fat and lazy we don’t bother to reproduce).

But on the other side of the hump is a population gently shrinking to what the planet can comfortably support, humans productive and healthy far beyond original design parameters, and a world that does not, as ours does now, run at a deficit. Once everything runs out, we’ll have to learn to live on a budget. There will still be strife, and greed, and misunderstanding, but just get us to the year 2100 without an abrupt population correction, and I think we’ll be all right.

(Note to readers digging this episode up on Our Benign Overlord Google (may it always reign in peace) in the 23rd century: get your bitch ass in your time machine and tell me if I was right.)


Penicillin – and What Comes Next

We’ve heard about the super-killer bacteria, the ones resistant to penicillin and all the derivatives. Nasty, nasty, little guys. But consider: those super-baceria are as dangerous as every damn infection anyone ever got one hundred years ago.

I mentioned once to friends that if I were to travel back in time to live in an earlier age, the thing I would miss most is dentistry. One of those assembled brought up antibiotics. To our generation the very idea of an infection is far less malign than what our great-grandparents knew. We worry about cancer today because we don’t die of starvation or infection first.

But now antibiotics are becoming ever-less effective. We just overdid it, and the nasty little guys still standing just give penicillin the finger. Are we foolishly squandering one of the greatest tools we’ve ever developed to improve the human condition? Absolutely. Antibiotics have to number among the seminal achievements of technology.

But check this out: There are viruses that attack specific bacteria. For instance, there’s a virus that attacks tuberculosis. Seriously! Now, that virus may not be gnarly enough to completely wipe out TB in a human, but that seems like a pretty promising start to a new way to fight infection. It also strikes me as poetic to fight germs by getting them sick.

Yeah, the fact that we can now imagine a world with home build-your-own-virus kits can be a little worrying. Let’s just make sure we’re afraid for the right reasons. Often when you hear about genetic engineering, hand-wringers focus on the possibility that a created life-form that was supposed to be benign mutates into something evil that destroys the world. I’m not saying it can’t happen, mind, but it’s far more likely that a virus that’s already dangerous to humans — flu or chicken pox or even the common cold — will make that leap than some organism who just hasn’t been practicing at hurting people very long. The viruses already inside us would require a much, much, muchmuchmuch smaller mutation to get to wipe-out-humanity status, and they have a way to make a living even if they don’t get the whole mutation in one jump.

No, the reasons to be afraid are twofold: One, bad people will have the technology to make a lot of people sick. They will start with flu and do it right. Two (and this is my own personal hand-wringing unsupported by any actual research), the therapy might work too well. Every once in a while humanity wipes out a pest only to discover it filled an important niche in the local ecosystem. Kill all the mosquitoes and suddenly beetles are eating your crops. (I have a very vague recollection of a chain of events somewhat like that, but don’t go quoting me here.) We could wipe out some bacterium only to discover that it had an important role in the world that we never guessed at.

But you know what? I’m pretty stoked about this. It will be a long time before the our buddies the bacteriophages are cheap enough to change the world health outlook, but a long time isn’t as long as it used to be.

Here’s an article that talks about other applications of custom viruses, and revives my hope of getting out of brushing my teeth.


Is There Nothing Left After 2 TeV?

A little more than 100 years ago, there were a lot of physics guys who thought human intelligence had just about wrapped up the mysteries of the universe. There were just a couple of things yet to explain—the orbit of Mercury didn’t quite follow the math, for instance. Still, that was an edge case and for the most part we Knew How Nature Worked.

It turns out, we didn’t know squat. Newton did a damn fine job, but we started finding more and more places where his math didn’t work out, in the realms of the very fast and the very small. Once we got to subatomic particles things went completely wonky.

Newton! A hell of a smart guy. Was he wrong?

Short answer, yes, but let’s cut him some slack. He provided the mathematical framework needed to show that in extreme conditions he was wrong. He just didn’t have the extreme conditions to observe. It was not until centuries had passed that there came to be what I call the ‘Einstein fudge factor’, a little addition to Newton’s equations to take into account that pesky speed of light, and that helped a lot. With extremely small particles, however, the fudge factor was not enough.

Which brings us to the apparently-always-capitalized Standard Model. The Standard Model is mankind’s (current) leading attempt to bring order to the chaos we discovered when the universe refused to tie itself up in a neat bow way back when. It’s about particles — tiny dots of… ??? It’s not even stuff. Tiny dots of math. There’s a particle for everything.

NOTE: I’m Saganizing this article; simplifying to the point where it’s technically wrong, hoping to express the flavor of the mystery.

If there’s not a particle for everything, that’s a problem for the Standard Model. Out on the physics playground, the other theories are getting up in Standard Model’s grill. “Where’s your gravity particle, big shot?” they’re saying. “You math looks pretty but where’s the damn gravity particle?

Gravity, the first force to be measured (apples on heads, weights out of towers), is still a bitch to explain. Our elusive Higgs boson does some of the work.

Standard Model guys say, “The Higgs boson is real, but it’s going to take a crap-ton of energy to beak one loose to observe it running free. We need to build a ridiculously expensive piece of hardware to slam protons together at a minimum of 1.4 TeV (those protons are boogyin’) or better to bust one of these guys loose so we can measure it.”

So then we built one of those pieces of hardware. Probably the last hurrah of Big Physics for the next century, as biological sciences takes the fore. Bang-for-buck, I have to side with biology. But now we have this machine, delicate enough to be knocked out by a sandwich, powerful enough to explore the conditions of the universe when it was only a fraction of a second old. But mainly it was made to smack things into each other so hard that wacky shit comes out.

Let’s pause for perspective. The boys in charge say they want to find the Higgs Boson. While that’s not a lie, what they really want is to smash shit together so hard that the devil himself squirts out. They want to see some crazy particle coming out at energies we’ve only imagined before, that has some property that makes no sense at all.

Even the proponents of the Standard Model would like to be the ones to break it. Science is about breaking things. In any branch of science, not just physics, when an experiment comes up with an unexpected result, there is excitement. (Remember that next time you hear about a renegade scientist who is being suppressed by the Establishment, but who has something to sell you. That is simply bullshit. Rebels are welcome as long as they show their math.)

Word on the street is that there’s good evidence now of the Higgs Boson. We will not be treated to the compelling pictures of the trace of a particle through a bubble chamber this time around; there will be no curlycue in black and white that somehow makes the particle real.

The Higgs boson has been called “The God Particle” by shameless motherkissers out to cash in on shit like this. The people who say things like that are like the ones who a century ago thought we were about finished with physics. Even if we do nail this particle down, there are a few loose ends to tie up. Loose ends have been mighty squirrely in the past.

Is there a limit? Can we reach an energy so high that we get to the very bottom of the universe? Newton made sense until we got to higher energies.

But now perhaps we can see the floor. We have math that brings us the smallest distance, the smallest mass, even the shortest tick of time. Will that math break under extreme circumstances, the way Newton’s math has? Personally I’m rooting for something completely unexpected flying out of a direct hit between protons going ridiculously fast.

The translation I found of Galileo says “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” That was a political statement, but in that spirit I’d like to say, I hope to God we’re not done so soon.


A Quick Science Question

How would Magellan measure latitude if the sky were filled with clouds all the time? I’m thinking of measuring Coriolis effect, but I’d hate to dive into that if there’s a more obvious answer.

The Little Comet that Could

Ah, the Internet, with its almost magical ability to give you what you’re looking for — even if you didn’t know you were looking for it. Through a series of links that started with a Web comic, I learned of a little comet that just played chicken with the sun and lived to tell about it.

The best summary is on this page, which at the top says “it’ll be interesting watching this comet flame out as it passes through the million-degree corona of the sun.” As it gets close the discussion talks about new and interesting things about this comet and what it can show us about the sun, then suddenly the author says (mildly paraphrasing here), “Holy shit! It came round the other side!” A decent video of the comet shooting out the other side is here.

The comet actually left its tail behind as it whipped around the sun, and there’s really cool footage of the comet streaking toward the sun, leaving a trail (probably) whipped around by magnetic storms. It’s all pretty cool.

Part of what’s interesting to me about all this is just how many devices were available to observe the course of comet Lovejoy. In the coming days, as more data comes in from other observers, we stand to learn a lot about our home star. You know I’ll be checking in.

[Edit] Let’s try embedding this youtube video, shall we? It’s a little wider than my format, but I think that will be all right this once.


Ig Nobel

The awards are in jest, but at the same time they’re not. The Ig Nobel awards have honored the inventors of pink lawn flamingos (yes, they were invented), and other breakthroughs of science. This year: wasabi smoke alarm, procrastination, and apples and oranges. Not to mention the bug that loves to hump a beer bottle.

(I actually started writing this episode a few weeks ago, when commentary on this year’s awards was actually timely, but the partially complete episode has been sitting, waiting for a time when I don’t have anything better to say. Welcome to November.)

This year the august panel that dispenses these awards honored a paper titled “Apples and Oranges: a comparison.” It turns out you can compare the two, and now there’s science to back it up. Keep that in mind next time you’re accused of arguing in bad faith.

In other news, A Japanese team was honored this year for a study of just how much wasabi was the right amount to emit from a smoke detector. Not enough, people don’t wake up and burn to death. Too much, people burn to death while crying their eyes out.

“A wasabi smoke alarm?” I hear you say, “What a waste of science!” The whole thing sounds pretty stupid, until you give your smoke detector to a profoundly deaf person. Wait a minute, this thing is genius. That’s how you win an Ig Nobel. Discoveries that make you laugh, then think.

With a little funding, I think I could rack up a dozen of the damn things.

I’m linking to an article at ars technica, in which the one real breakthrough of the year is taken quite seriously: The theory of structured procrastination. The author postulates that, to be a high achiever, one must always work on something important, using it as a way to avoid something even more important. Now I ask myself: Can I be wasting my life more effectively?

This principle has already had a positive effect on my life. (Although, to be honest, this last week I’ve slid a little bit.) I ask myself “can I be wasting my time better?” and the answer is almost always yes. Some of the alternative procrastination options are frighteningly close to productive.