Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The romance of physics

I recently streamed from Netflix (Amazon Video offers it, too) the 2013 science documentary Particle Fever. It's foremost about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), decades in the making, arguably the largest and most complex machine ever constructed by mankind. The movie is also about the long hunt for the elusive Higgs boson and the wondrous things that this elementary particle's discovery (and its specific properties, once fully characterized) might portend.

Literally awe inspiring
It's about the Standard Model of Particle Physics, one of the most successful theories in the history of science, and the even deeper insight(s) that might yet surpass it. It's also about conditions the briefest instant after the Big Bang, and -- at quite the opposite extreme -- about what the observed properties of the Higgs boson might imply about the end of the universe. And it's about whether even to speak of the universe is a misunderstanding, that (perhaps) we live, unknowingly, within a multiverse.

But beyond all these -- surely significant enough -- topics, Particle Fever is about the very human reasons why some of the brightest minds on the planet do physics. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Lock In

The past week has been crazy busy for me -- and the next week(s) looks to be no different. I won't bore you with the details (or relive them myself). Instead, I'll share a little about the terrific novel with which I've unwound the past few evenings.

You'll get sucked in
John Scalzi's latest novel, Lock In, is a little bit of many things. But before the characterization, the set-up. In the near future a plague strikes, but rather than another zombie apocalypse, in a minority of cases -- still numbered in the millions -- the patients become entirely paralyzed. Not only can't they move, they can't speak. These victims are, in the vernacular, "locked in." Through technology -- surgically implanted, neural-net, brain/computer interfaces (here's my take on neural implants, from a few weeks ago) -- the locked-in connect with both virtual worlds and remotely operated humanoid robots.

And from that premise? A few thoughts, sans spoilers ...

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The WWW (wild wacky world) of publishing

I don't care what subject material is involved, publishing is an interesting business. Even if an author is wholly committed to self publishing (I haven't yet gone down that road), it's a business to which he must pay attention.

Hugh Howey is an author who is, at least in large part, committed to self-publishing -- and he's been very successful at it. (If his name isn't familiar, check out his dystopian novel Wool. It's excellent.) A few months back Howey posted an interesting essay contrasting the economics of self-publishing with that of traditional publishing. His essay opens:

It’s no great secret that the world of publishing is changing. What is a secret is how much. Is it changing a lot? Has most of the change already happened? What does the future look like?

The problem with these questions is that we don’t have the data that might give us reliable answers. Distributors like Amazon and Barnes & Noble don’t share their e-book sales figures. At most, they comment on the extreme outliers, which is about as useful as sharing yesterday’s lottery numbers [link]. A few individual authors have made their sales data public, but not enough to paint an accurate picture. We’re left with a game of connect-the-dots where only the prime numbers are revealed. What data we do have often comes in the form of surveys, many of which rely on extremely limited sampling methodologies and also questionable analyses [link].

Of course, if books don't survive, it won't matter if the medium was print or electronic. The Washington Post had an interesting essay on that very topic, at "Books are losing the war for our attention. Here’s how they could fight back." Among other things, it speaks of new technology to make ebooks easier to read:

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

If it seems too good to be true ...

At the end of July news sites offered many breathless articles about a new space drive. And three weeks later? Not so much.

This, from Wired on July 31, was typical: "Nasa validates 'impossible' space drive." Or this, from ExtremeTech on August 1, "NASA tests ‘impossible’ no-fuel quantum space engine – and it actually works."

The (supposed) space drive at issue bounces microwaves around a specially shaped chamber, and in the process is said (somehow) to produce a net thrust in one direction. The nature of the impossibility? That the drive -- if it works as advertised -- violates conservation of momentum.

Physics has gone a long time with every bit of evidence showing momentum is conserved. Always.

Space drive: old school
Consider a traditional, chemical rocket. It relies upon Newton's third law of motion: that every action produces an equal but opposite reaction. The action: exhaust gasses streaming out behind the rocket. The reaction: the rocket itself moves forward.

Newer, ion thrusters forgo chemistry but exploit the same action/reaction mechanism. That is, they use electromagnetic fields to propel Xenon ions. In both cases, matter ("reaction mass") is expelled from the spacecraft. Momentum is conserved.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Biological bits and bites

Biology never ceases to amaze -- or, at least, to amaze me. How so? Life is hardier and more innovative than it's often given credit for. We humans included.

Time-traveling moss
To take one recent example, "Frozen 1,500-Year-Old Antarctic Moss Revived." Moss, as lowly as it might seem, is still multi-cellular. Its ability to withstand long-term freezing is a Big Deal.

Who knows? That wacky moss may offer clues how to freeze and revive people (outside of Futurama, that is). Some form of cold sleep is one way humanity might someday colonize the stars.

This moss can  claim credit for persistence -- but persistence is a quite different concept than eco-friendly. As an instance of persistent, eco-unfriendly life, consider that a "Methane-spewing microbe blamed in Earth's worst mass extinction." It is at least plausible that:

A microbe that spewed humongous amounts of methane into Earth's atmosphere triggered a global catastrophe 252 million years ago that wiped out upwards of 90 percent of marine species and 70 percent of land vertebrates.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

SF news, views, and reviews

"A writer shouldn't be punished for his political beliefs."

Is that controversial? Maybe so.

Before I explain further, a disclaimer: I haven't read the novel at issue. I can't say whether I'd love, hate, or be indifferent to it. I don't know whether I'd cheer its message or be horrified by it -- or whether, in fact, it has a message. I don't know (or know anything about) the book's author. I do, however, agree with the sentiment that "A writer shouldn't be punished for his political beliefs."

August 14-18, 2014
Why mention it here, in an SF post? Because the subject of the controversy is a nomination for the upcoming Hugo awards at this week's Worldcon. See "Politics don't belong in science fiction." The controversy is especially ironic given that fen often credit the genre -- and themselves -- with being open-minded.

Is it human nature to favor the work product of people with whom we agree? Sure. To shun the work product of those with whom we differ? Ditto. Can those instincts sometimes deprive of us literature, movies, TV ... that we might otherwise enjoy -- and that might even cause us to rethink our preconceptions? Also true. That's one reason I try to stay unaware of the political leanings of writers, actors, and directors.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

It's not as if this stuff matters

Oh wait. It does.

The Microsoft QA process
From last June, in the Department of Quality Software, "Patch Tuesday disaster breaks Office 2013 for thousands." Way to go, Microsoft!

Of course Microsoft doesn't hold the monopoly (heh!) on buggy, hacker-attracting software. From back in March comes this interesting statistic: "Report: Half of all exploits target Java." It could be just me, but buggy, exploitable products don't seem like the ideal way for Oracle to emulate Mr. Softy.

You practice good computer hygiene, don't you? You have a current security suite on your PC and keep its antivirus definitions up to date? Of course you do. Alas, from just last week, we read that, "Antivirus products riddled with security flaws."

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Fat chance

Have you been careful to: avoid eating too many eggs, cut back on butter, leave the cheese of your (shudder) turkey burger, substitute (for example) mustard for mayo ... in general, minimize your fat intake? Quite likely so, because, for years, the medical profession has encouraged us to eat lean. All the while, we find ourselves in an obesity epidimic.

Obesity incidence, 2010
Just maybe, the two trends aren't coincidental. See (from The Wall Street Journal), "The Questionable Link Between Saturated Fat and Heart Disease: Are butter, cheese and steak really bad for you? The dubious science behind the anti-fat crusade."

How dubious?

Critics have pointed out that Dr. Keys [leader of the influential early study; tireless advocate for the anti-fat crusade] violated several basic scientific norms in his study. For one, he didn't choose countries randomly but instead selected only those likely to prove his beliefs, including Yugoslavia, Finland and Italy. Excluded were France, land of the famously healthy omelet eater, as well as other countries where people consumed a lot of fat yet didn't suffer from high rates of heart disease, such as Switzerland, Sweden and West Germany. The study's star subjects—upon whom much of our current understanding of the Mediterranean diet is based—were peasants from Crete, islanders who tilled their fields well into old age and who appeared to eat very little meat or cheese.

As it turns out, Dr. Keys visited Crete during an unrepresentative period of extreme hardship after World War II. Furthermore, he made the mistake of measuring the islanders' diet partly during Lent, when they were forgoing meat and cheese. Dr. Keys therefore undercounted their consumption of saturated fat. Also, due to problems with the surveys, he ended up relying on data from just a few dozen men—far from the representative sample of 655 that he had initially selected. These flaws weren't revealed until much later, in a 2002 paper by scientists investigating the work on Crete—but by then, the misimpression left by his erroneous data had become international dogma.

Does it matter? Yes, because the calories you don't get from fat must come from something else. In recent years, that's tended to be carbs.   

The problem is that carbohydrates break down into glucose, which causes the body to release insulin—a hormone that is fantastically efficient at storing fat. Meanwhile, fructose, the main sugar in fruit, causes the liver to generate triglycerides and other lipids in the blood that are altogether bad news. Excessive carbohydrates lead not only to obesity but also, over time, to Type 2 diabetes and, very likely, heart disease. 

Sound familiar?