Category Archives: Science

Rule Five Friday

2014_11_28_Rule Five Friday (1) (853x1280)Are we on the brink of creating artificial life?  Excerpt:

With 100 billion neurons and 37 trillion cells, the human body is simply too complex to be artificially designed by modern computers.

But in the quest to create artificial life, what if we started a lot smaller? That’s what team of scientists has done, creating a replica of the simplest form of life we know.

The worm Caenorhabditis elegans has just 300 neurons and around 1,000 cells – and now a robot has been created that mimics the actions of this simple organism.

2014_11_28_Rule Five Friday (2) (861x1280)The OpenWorm project, a global effort including researchers from the US and UK, is attempting to create the world’s first digital animal.

Earlier this year they ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the creation of a worm you can download onto your computer.

There are a couple of ways of looking at this.  First, the implications of digitizing a worm brain are far, far different than the implications of digitizing a human brain.  Ditto for the moral and ethical implications.

2014_11_28_Rule Five Friday (3) (1280x845)Fortunately, the complexity of a human brain is also far more involved than a worm brain, making the differences in the project probably more of kind than of degree.

But what if we could do it?

That’s where the two ways of looking at this come in, here where humans are concerned.  You could use the process to make a copy of your own brain – a back-up, as it were, to be activated on physical death.  On the other hand, what if you could eschew physicality altogether, and go completely digital?  A disembodied sprite, wandering the Intarwebs.  Would you be an odd sort of living virus?  2014_11_28_Rule Five Friday (4) (862x1280)Would you be able to interact with the living?  With other cyber-beings?  Would you still have rights, obligations, responsibilities?

I’m inclined to answer “no,” to those last three, because the copy of you would not be you – it would only be a programmed simulacrum of you.  It’s hard to see how a purely digital “person” could in fact be a person in any legal, moral or ethical sense.

But back to the worm; the linked article concludes:

The robot is very basic for now, and does not possess the ability to perform more complex functions such as eating.

It’s an important step, though, to creating artificial life that can think for itself.

2014_11_28_Rule Five Friday (5) (861x1280)While this worm is a very basic form of life, it may be a precursor to making much more complex animals.

This will be a huge undertaking, though – even a mouse has 22 million neurons in its brain.

‘The mere act of trying to put a working model together causes us to realise what we know and what we don’t know,’ John Long, a roboticist and neuroscientist at Vassar College in New York State, told New Scientist.

In other words, creating a simulation of any mammal brain, much less a human brain, is a long, long ways off.  Still the stuff of science fiction (of which, as all True Believers may know, yr. obdt. is a fan and an author.)

But while it may be a long ways off, it may not be too soon to start thinking about the implications.  Besides, it’s entertaining.

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Animal’s Hump Day News

Happy Hump Day!
Happy Hump Day!

Time and family presses, so we’ll just have a few quick notes  and items of interest on this pre-Thanksgiving Hump Day.

Complex Life May Be Possible In Only 10% of Galaxies.  Ours, obviously, would be in that 10%, although the jury is still out on the possibility of intelligent life in Congress.

The Delicious Science of Chinese Buffets.  We have one in the Denver area we favor, the Great Wall buffet in Lakewood, where it is not only possible but probable to eat entirely too much.  Too many Chinese buffets serve up a menu where everything tastes like it was dumped out of a can and heated, but the Great Wall serves up a wide variety of food that is obviously freshly made and piping hot.

But oh, the calories.

bears-cute-awesome1-11Breaking the boundaries of established science; what happens when you put a snail in the microwave?  Yes, really.

Finally:  Did Ben Franklin Want the Turkey As Our National Symbol?  Perhaps not, although these days one wonders if the chicken would be more appropriate.

On that note, we return you to your pre-Thanksgiving Wednesday, already in progress.

Goodbye, Blue Monday

Goodbye, Blue Monday!
Goodbye, Blue Monday!

An amazing scientific achievement was recently realized when a small probe semi-successfully landed on a comet.  But that’s not what I’m going to discuss today.

What I am going to discuss is the  silly, completely disproportionate and irrational response of some to the shirt worn by team member Matt Taylor at a press conference announcing the wondering-what-those-tatts-areevent.  For reference, here is the shirt:

It’s a custom made shirt, crafted for Mr. Taylor by a close – female – friend, and it depicts a bunch of comic-book women, some in a state of semi-dress.

Which, by the way, is nothing unusual in the comic book world.

Thanks to the screeching of humorless, vapid nonentities, Mr. Taylor was forced to go before the cameras again, to apologize for the shirt.

Now, in most of the businesses in which yr. obdt. does consulting work, the now nearly ubiquitous business casual dress code would balk at such a shirt – as it would balk at a shirt showing male comic characters, as lacking the decorum required in a business environment.  But that’s not relevant here; what is relevant is how the peripatetic-ally thin-skinned are so quick to screech their outrage at the silliest provocations.

There is only one proper reply to such screeching, and it is most eloquently put by the South Park anti-hero Eric Cartman:

Mr. Taylor was wrong to apologize.  He should have adopted what I will henceforth call the Cartman Gambit in reply to the hysterical outrage – “Screw you guys, I’m going home.”

Another example, from a few years back; in 1999, an Imperial City mayoral aide, David Howard, was forced to resign his position after using the word “niggardly” in a private meeting.  (To be fair, Mr. Howard was later rehired.)  For those who do not know the word, here’s the definition from Merriam-Webster:

nig·gard·ly

adjective \-lē\

: hating to spend money

: very small in amount

Mr. Howard’s use of the term was taken by some irrational – and probably only marginally literate – attendees as a racial slur, when in fact the word comes from the Middle English words “nig” and “ignon,” which have the primary meaning of “miser.”

No racial connotation in that word.  None.

 Again, the Cartman Gambit was not invoked.  But there can be no rational response to the irrational.  Apologies, though, should not be tendered.  This only serves to feed the beast, and then the next hysterical cry of outrage will be over something even more inoffensive.

Goodbye, Blue Monday

2014_11_10_Blue Monday
Goodbye, Blue Monday!

First thing this chilly Colorado Monday, our thanks to The Other McCain for the Rule Five links!

I’ve always thought that today’s problems will be solved with tomorrow’s technology – now there is a new, fast, efficient fission reactor that may prove that axiom true.  Excerpt:

Even the latest generation of nuclear power reactors can only harvest about five percent of the energy stored in their radioactive fuel supplies, and the toxic leftovers must then be buried deep underground to slowly decay over hundreds of thousands of years. But thanks to a new breed of sodium-cooled pool reactor, we may soon be able to draw nearly 100 times more energy from nuclear fuels, while slashing their half-lives by two orders of magnitude.

The PRISM reactor (that’s Power Reactor Innovative Small Module, not the NSA’s spy program supreme) is the result of more than 60 years of research by the DoE, Argonne National Lab, and General Electric. Like other existing reactors, the PRISM harnesses the radioactive energy of artificial elements like plutonium to drive turbines which generate electrical current. The PRISM will just do so way, way faster and much more efficiently. Assuming, of course, one ever actually gets built.

That last sentence in the excerpt – that, of course, is the catch.  Between the NIMBY crowd and the NAAAT (Not Anywhere At Any Time) crowd, it may be difficult to bring any of these new, highly efficient reactors on line, even as energy costs rise.

Granted the explosion in natural gas production in North America has had a positive effect on electricity production, even as the concomitant expansion in petroleum production (carried out in spite of, not because of, the policies of the Obama Administration) is finally driving gasoline prices down some.

Out on a limb.
Out on a limb.

We can not and should not stop with natural gas and petroleum, though.  A common sense energy policy would mandate production of more nuclear facilities.

Common sense, however, seems in short supply in the Imperial City these days.  Maybe the dramatic shift in power we saw last week will make a difference – and maybe it won’t.

Goodbye, Blue Monday

Goodbye, Blue Monday!
Goodbye, Blue Monday!

A few tidbits from the world of science this morning:

How Sex Is Like Your Thermostat.   The point being, apparently, is that sex is a self-reinforcing behavioral feedback loop.

Having studied animal behavior (and no, that is not how I came to pick up the nickname that forms my user ID and the title of this blog) I can state with some certainty that almost all behavior consists of self-reinforcing feedback loops, so I guess I fail to see the point here.

Except, of course, sex.

Women’s Farts Smell Worse.  Well, I’m not going to try to convince Mrs. Animal of that.  Especially not if I want to keep a certain behavioral feedback loop in play.

Don’t Mess With The Steamer Duck.  He’ll f**k you up.

And, finally, on a more serious note, it seems DARPA is getting into the fusion energy research game.  Excerpt:

Smiling BearA US government agency has launched a new $30m programme to support alternative approaches to generating energy from nuclear fusion. The initiative has been created by the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E), which falls under the auspices of the Department of Energy (DOE). In August, the DOE invited researchers to “develop and demonstrate low-cost tools to aid in the development of fusion power”. Research teams need to outline their proposals by 14 October with three-year grants ranging from $250,000 to $10m up for grabs.

Fusion reactors, should they ever prove feasible, are a major energy game-changer.  But will they ever prove feasible?  We won’t know unless we try, although I suspect (and this is a personal bias in play here) that a breakthrough is more likely from the private sector than from government.

Animal’s Daily Martian News

Martian Native.
Martian Native.

Could we terraform Mars, and make it habitable for humans?  Maybe so.  Excerpt:

Today, Mars has little atmosphere to speak of, sports an average temperature of -76 degrees Fahrenheit around the equator, and is pelted by ultraviolet radiation. It’s little more than a desert pockmarked by craters. And yet, there are some who think that Mars can live again.

“You don’t build Mars,” Chris McKay, a planetary scientist at NASA says. “You just warm it up and throw some seeds.”

It’s that simple.

Here are three easy steps to terraform Mars and make it habitable for humans.

Read the whole thing for an outline of the three necessary (and time-consuming – we’re talking thousands of years) steps.

Forgetting the astronomical cost (pun intended) and the time frame for a moment, and think about the implications of a population of humans living on a successfully terraformed Mars.  No, they aren’t likely to turn green, nor will they encounter thoats, exotic red princesses or any other boojums or boogers.  But they will change, as generations are born and grow on a planet with only a little over a third of Earth’s gravity.

The new Martians will be taller and thinner, most likely, as they adjust through growth on a low-gravity environment.  They will probably have to adjust to a colder planet, even after terraforming, but we can Silver Beardo that through technology as prosaic as coats; but gravity will have a more lasting impact.

Not least of which is this:  Native Martians may never be able to visit the home planet.  A 1G gravity field may kill them.

So, while this is interesting and may someday actually happen, any human population on Mars will probably have to be permanent.

Check out Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy for an interesting bit of speculation as to how this might actually work.

Animal’s Right-Handed (Phrasing!) Hump Day News

Happy Hump Day!
Happy Hump Day!

Is it still Hump Day when it’s a short week?  Well, close enough.

Here’s an interesting science-ey tidbit:  On The Other Hand.  Excerpt:

With almost complete certainty, I can predict that you, dear reader, are right-handed. If I were a betting man, I’d put money on it. I’d make the same bet if you were reading this in India or Iowa, Kansas or Kathmandu. And a hundred years from now, I’d make the same bet again.

I can be so sure of myself not because I am some prodigious prognosticator, but because about 90 percent of humans are right-handed. That phenotypic ratio—nine right-handed people for every lefty—is relatively stable, not just across cultures and geographic regions, but perhaps across the span of human evolution. The archaeological record suggests that hominins were predominantly right-handed as far back as 2 million years ago, and a 2010 study of the wear patterns on 32,000-year-old Neanderthal teeth found that this extinct cousin of Homo sapiens was likely about 88 percent right-handed.

Apparently since the right-to-left ratio holds up in antipodal locations like Australia, the Coriolis Effect is not responsible for the great skew in human handedness.  Go figure.

How about you, True Believers?  Yr. obdt. is among the aforementioned 90%, but loyal sidekick and hunting partner Rat is a southpaw, and I suspect he occasionally finds his right-handed 700 Remington awkward to handle in a hurry.

But there are occasional silver linings to everything.  Some years back I found a nicely sporterized 1903 Springfield sitting on a gun show table, priced at the rather unbelievable $250, and finding no takers.   It even had a rather old but perfectly clear Weaver 3X scope mounted.

“The damn thing has that left-handed stock on it,” the seller told me, “so nobody looks twice at it.”  Sure enough, it had a nice blonde walnut stock with a cheekpiece – on what for me, was the wrong side of the stock.

Smiling BearI offered the seller $150.  He accepted.  I took the rifle home, took it apart, took a big cabinet rasp and scraped every hint of that cheekpiece off.  After sanding the stock smooth and refinishing it with a nice linseed oil finish, I took the gun to the range and discovered it was a great shooter, easily putting five shots into an inch and a half with Federal 180-grain factory loads, with the old Weaver still in place.

Eventually I took the rifle back to a show along with the targets I’d shot with it and sold it for $375.

Opportunities are where you find them.

Animal’s Daily News

bears-cute-awesome1-11Well, that solves that mystery; First Observation of Death Valley’s Sliding Rocks.  Excerpt:

A dry lake in Death Valley, called Racetrack Playa, is home to the famous “sailing stones.” These large rocks, some of which weigh up to 700 pounds, leave behind long trails in the dirt, indicating that something — or someone — has been moving them. (See photo above.) But how?

Conspiracy theorists and others with active imaginations have implicated aliens (of course), powerful magnetic fields, or just plain old magic as the culprit behind the mysterious phenomenon. More serious speculators suggested dust devils or a combination of rain and strong wind. These explanations, however, are wrong.

Death Valley is an interesting place.  Mrs. Animal, yr. obdt. and a couple of the kids visited there a few years back at the worst possible time – late July.  It was 130+ F at Badwater when we got out and walked around the big salt flats and saw the shallow, simmering waters there.

It’s hard to describe that kind of heat; at some point superlatives fail to do the place credit.  The only place I’ve felt comparable heat was in the late spring of 1991 in southern Iraq and northern Saudi Arabia.  It’s the kind of heat that makes if difficult to breathe.  Your lungs seize Science!up, crying to you “Hey!  This is way above operating specs!  Don’t you know you can’t breathe this stuff?”

Give me southern Alaska and the never-above-70 climate any time.

But it’s an interesting place, made all the more so by the fact that the mystery of the sliding rocks is due to – yes, really – ice.

Still.  If we ever visit Death Valley again, January sounds like about the right time.

Animal’s Daily News

Harp BearDo Animals Have True Language?  Excerpt:

From ultrasonic bat chirps to eerie whale songs, the animal kingdom is a noisy place. While some sounds might have meaning — typically something like “I’m a male, aren’t I great?” — no other creatures have a true language except for us. Or do they?

A new study on animal calls has found that the patterns of barks, whistles, and clicks from seven different species appear to be more complex than previously thought. The researchers used mathematical tests to see how well the sequences of sounds fit to models ranging in complexity.

In fact, five species including the killer whale and free-tailed bat had communication behaviors that were definitively more language-like than random.

Such studies are interesting because they may shed some light on how humans developed language, somewhere (probably) around the Homo ergaster/Homo erectus stage.

Uncle.
Uncle.

But there’s a big difference between a whale’s pattern of clicks and whistles and the works of Shakespeare – or Asimov.  The bigger part of that difference, one that makes it a difference of kind rather than one of degree, is the capacity to grasp abstract concepts – symbology.  Humans probably didn’t have that capacity until what anthropologist Jared Diamond calls the “Great Leap Forward,” about 30-35,000 years ago.

What’s that mean, pertaining to the study linked above?  Simply this: while animal communications may well be more complex than we thought, they are still a quantum leap away from human-type language.

Interesting nevertheless.

Rule Five Friday

2014_08_08_Rule Five Friday (2)The 800 Pound Gorilla in the room for rare earth sustainability in North America – Thorium.  Excerpt:

James Kennedy works closely with the Thorium Energy Alliance to promote US legislation for the commercial development of thorium energy systems and rare earths. And when he asked me to review a video where he presents a paper entitled “Creating a Multinational Platform, Thorium, Energy and Rare Earth Value Chain – a Global Imbalance in the Rare Earth Market” – it occurred to me that Tracy’s frequently referenced ‘800 lb. gorilla’ in the proverbial rare earth room was overdue for discussion: thorium.

2014_08_08_Rule Five Friday (3)Kennedy’s essential argument is that the rare earth imbalance is largely the result of regulations with unintended consequences: “Rare earths and thorium have become linked at the mineralogical and geopolitical level.” In other words, thorium should be considered as a rare earth mineral.

The article concludes:

There are currently two bills before the US Congress “that if enacted would create a federally-chartered multinational rare earth cooperative that’s privately funded and operated, and it would be authorized to accept monazites and other thorium-bearing minerals. The thorium would be removed and stored on what Kennedy calls a federally-chartered ‘thorium bank’ for safekeeping. This will help mining companies, which help place liability to the bank, leaving the miners to 2014_08_08_Rule Five Friday (1)produce higher value HREE’s.

My question is this:  If, in our quest to be rare-earth independent, we start upping production of thorium – why not use it in a liquid fluoride thorium reactor to generate electricity?

The country badly needs more electrical power generation.  We need to lessen our dependence on foreign sources (especially China) for rare earths.  We can accomplish both by developing thorium 2014_08_08_Rule Five Friday (5)reactor capacity and refining our own rare earths from monazite.

Or does this just make too much sense for the Imperial Federal government to buy in on?

Of course, we can always start aggressively developing our own traditional domestic energy sources as well – again, if the folks in the Imperial City deign to allow it.  A common argument states that it would take X number of years to bring these domestic sources on line.

And that common argument has been in play for thirty years or more.  It’s time to push that one into its long-overdue grave.

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