Scientia Pro Publica: Blog Carnival #4

I’d just like to point any readers to Eric Johnson’s Primate Diaries for the latest in what’s shaping up to be a pretty fantastic blog carnival: Scientia Pro Publica, of which this week’s edition is in memory of the venerated Stephen Jay Gould, who, in my freshman year of college, I was far too immature to appreciate. There’s a lot of really great stuff in this issue and you will really be missing something crucial if you don’t check out this issue’s offerings. One of my articles was featured and I’m a little humbled by it, honestly. So thanks, Eric, who not only shares my name, but a passion for science, and also Grrlscientist for kicking off what looks like it’s going to be a quality publication for some time to come.

The Phlogiston: Not Quite Vindicated

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Phlogiston Theory was an attempt, in the 17th century to rectify a problem in the practice of alchemy. You see, the Greeks believed that there were four elements in nature: earth, air, fire, and water. But when all you have is these four elements and everything in nature is comprised of only these four substances, then how to you explain wood burning and metal rusting? What process is taking place?

Phlogiston Theory throws out air and fire and then states that everything that is combustible contains another element called phlogiston that is liberated during combustion or oxidation. At the time it made perfect sense. When wood burns, it grows smaller and the flames might look like something released from within the wood, and when iron rusts, it crumbles into dust, possibly after having lost whatever held it together in the first place.

Phlogsiton is a massless, colorless, odorless, (etc.) substance. It is a substance completely without identifying qualities. And we know how scientists love things without qualities. It’s a lovely theory because at its outset, it is very tricky to disprove. It took over a hundred years to dethrone it as the dominant theory of combustion. Today we know, of course, that combustion is rapid oxidation of a flammable material and that rust or corrosion is a slower version of the same natural process. In Phlogiston Theory, the fact that iron oxide is heavier than pure iron was reconciled by positing that phlogiston has negative mass!

Hilarious, I know. But is it really so unreasonable?

In the most recent (double!) issue of Analog Magazine, Dr. Don Lincoln speaks out about the ludicrous controversy surrounding the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). His purpose is largely to allay fears that it’s going to destroy the world and generate some interest in the new, tasty bits of knowledge that it might allow us to discover. Throughout the article, he goes into some pretty serious depth about theoretical particle physics and what we know, what we don’t know, what we think we know, and what we want to know about it. In particular, he focuses on two things: the Higgs Boson and gravitons.

I’ll be getting back to phlogiston in a moment, so bear with me.

As you are possibly, there are four forces acting in the universe: the strong, the weak, electromagnetism, and gravity. Since we know that there is a particle associated with the first three (and the strongest) forces, it is theorized that there is a fourth particle called a graviton that is associated with the gravitational force. Now, since gravity is the problem child of the four forces, with very little resemblance to any of its associates, we are bound by the principles of science to test the royal crap out of the theory in an attempt to prove it wrong.

But it’s not so easy.

What I’m saying is, we have to entertain the possibility that the graviton is a phlogiston, which we might, for the moment, define as “something that we make up in order to fill a gap in our current understanding of some subject.”

So how does a phlogiston differ from a hypothesis?

Even more “phlogistic” than the graviton is the Higgs Boson. If it exists, we can pat ourselves on the back for unifying the weak force and electromagnetism (electroweak). In fact, the current Standard Model of particle physics depends on its existence. It’s entirely possible that we are, in essence, making it up to explain the way the world works. Granted, these hypotheses and theories are based on tremendous mountains of verified evidence and extrapolated outward from them, there is still a lot that we don’t know about the world and it’s very possible that whole other models could be constructed that would fit our current data.

Who knows? When the LHC is activated later this year, it might generate data that would topple the Standard Model completely. It seems unlikely, but it’s entirely possible. The point is, the Higgs Boson might not be a phlogiston much longer now that we can actually test it.

Perhaps the most phlogistic of all theories (aside from Phlogiston Theory) is String Theory, and it has to be one of my all time favorites. I ate Brian Green’e book like a hobo eats pork’n’beans! It’s a marvelous theory. “Elegant” is perhaps the best word for it and if the world has any sense of artfulness (think Oscar Wilde, here), then String Theory has to be correct. But is it?

As a side note, it’s interesting how the Higgs Boson theory, the newer theories of gravity, and String Theory all seem to predict extra dimensions.

Anyway, I don’t necessarily mean to say that all theories are phlogistic until they have evidence to support them. Some are definitely going to be more phlogistic than others. Some, like String Theory, are likely to remain phlogistons until we can find some way of observing something tinier than the tiniest thing the human mind can conceive.

In the end, what we must understand about Phlogiston Theory, as a bit of science history, is that it was actually quite reasonable at the time. We must remember that European scientific inquiry for much of the Middle Ages was based on the assumption that the Greeks had got it right. Suddenly, the four elements idea wasn’t holding up, which meant that they were being questioned for the first time since Aristotle. Johann Becher, the scientist who first posited Phlogiston Theory, was engaging in a profoundly scientific act: he posed a hypothesis. Granted, he lacked follow-through, like attempting to test the hypothesis through experimentation, but he revised the Standard Model of the day and, since most philosophers were rationalists (he was, after all, a contemporary of Descartes), experimentation wasn’t necessarily required for a theory to become accepted. In point of fact, while it was technically possible at the time to test the theory, the techniques simply hadn’t been devised yet to test it.

The thing to take home: phlogiston was disproved a lot quicker than the Greeks’ four elements.

So let’s re-define a phlogiston thusly: a theory composed to fill a gap in understanding that is not yet possible to test thoroughly.

And let’s not judge Phlogiston Theory too harshly, because honestly, it was an improvement, but also because we might be assuming a hefty handful of phlogistic nonsense ourselves. Stay skeptical, but continue to indulge the occasional case of whimsy, because you never know just where the solution to some problem might appear. At least phlogiston got people thinking again.

Credit for pointing out Phlogiston Theory to me is owed to my friend, Jessymandias.

Discuss.

Two Billion Years From Now

You know, climate change is a problem. I once heard an argument against the burning of fossil fuels on the grounds that Earth would become like Venus. And we all know what sort of place Venus is. It’s interesting to think that Mars and Venus are completely opposite in terms of climate and atmospheric conditions, though an article in this month’s Scientific American points out that it’s possible that Mars’s rarefied atmosphere and Venus’s CO2 insulated greenhouse might have been created by some very similar processes. At the very least, they are both the result of a net loss of gases from their respective atmospheres. The crazy thing the article points out is that eventually Earth is more likely to end up like Venus than Mars. A scorching desert with rivers of molten lead.

Did you know that our atmosphere leaks three kilograms of hydrogen each second? It’s the lightest gas and so it concentrates in the upper atmosphere and just sort of evaporates off, disappearing into space. I did some further research and discovered that all atmospheres are constantly evaporating. Even the Sun is losing mass constantly. Ever consider what the solar wind might consist of? It’s material that’s being ejected off the surface of the sun. Our sun will lose probably .01 percent of its mass from evaporation throughout its main sequence, but there are larger suns that slough off some forty percent of their mass just from generating solar wind.

What I mean to say is, the universe is always in a constant state of flux. Everything is changing constantly. It’s the only thing that’s constant. In accordance with the second law of thermodynamics, that flux always tends towards a greater state of disorder or less potential energy.

Let’s say we stopped belching greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. What would happen? Slowly, over time–about a billion years–the sun is going to get brighter as its main sequence continues. This means that water vapor will not condense and rain back to the Earth’s surface as readily. This will allow that water vapor to decay into hydrogen and oxygen under the force of a brighter sun’s ultraviolet radiation. After another billion years, our oceans will have all dried up and our atmosphere will have a much higher concentration carbon dioxide as hydrogen and oxygen leach off into the ether. Earth becomes another Venus. And that’s it. Earth is finished. Two billion years.

This came as something of a shock to me. I’ve always thought that life on Earth was dependent on the sun continuing to give off energy, feeding our biological economy. I never considered the possibility that the sun itself might be our undoing. I had never thought about our own atmosphere backfiring on us. The sun’s main sequence will last another seven billion years. That’s a lot of time. But if Earth is only habitable for another two, we’ve essentially got a third of that to…what?

I always thought it would be possible that humans might still exist on Earth in three billion years when the Milky Way crashes into Andromeda. I always thought there was a remote possibility (depending, of course, on our own ability to wise up). But there is no such possibility. Two billion years is a very small amount of time, cosmically speaking. But even beyond that event, what is there? Perhaps we find other habitable planets and generate the necessary technology to colonize them?

If the universe is expanding–which may or may not be the case–the second law of thermodynamics means that eventually the entire universe will be cold, lifeless, and dark. When? In a trillion years, our local galaxy cluster will have merged into one huge galaxy. Another trillion years later (again, continuing to assume the existence of dark energy), all other galaxies will have red shifted to the such an extent that they will no longer be detectable.

Star formation ceases at around 100 trillion years.

Slowly, all matter in the universe will be absorbed into black holes. But even black holes do not last forever. Slowly they decay. 10100 years from now, the last of the black holes will have evaporated to nothing, the tiny particles that they kicked off having dispersed throughout the eternity of space. Then comes the Dark Era.

And this is the thing that gets me. There is going to be crazy shit happening in the universe so long after our two billion years is up, and Earth won’t be here. At least, there won’t be anything worth calling life on Earth to experience it. All we have is these two billion years. So what do we do? It would be nice if we could do as much in that two billion years as possible.

I could turn this into a stump speech for renewable resources, etc. But you’ve heard it all before. I just wanted to put some shit into perspective.

Further reading: Humans Hell Bent on Mass Suicide

Discuss.

Star Trek: An Analysis

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I went and saw Star Trek. It’s good. Not great. Not even the best Star Trek film. But I liked it. And that being said, the debate about whether it is or is not Star Trek is a little absurd. The thing that really impressed me about this movie is that they did something that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a franchise like this. They managed to maintain narrative continuity while changing the past. Old Spock from the future is not from the same future that New Spock will one day inhabit. It will be a totally different future with all sorts of different adventures and, probably, a lot more sex.

This means that they can produce a number of new films (probably somewhere between three and four) set in a new alternate world that remains cohesive with the original series and films. It’s actually a pretty elegant solution to a problem with origin stories. Look at the disaster that is the Wolverine movie. They tried to make a film that outlines Wolverine’s back story but also introduce some sort of new story, and they find themselves in the position where they try to do far too many things with one film. I mean, the film I wanted to see was Wolverine in his youth, fighting all sorts of wars, living in Victorian Canada, etc. That would be interesting. Better yet, they should have had Ang Lee direct it; he’s got lots of experience with Victorian films and action films. Combine the two and we’ve got something very interesting.

“I say, Logan, those are some very sharp claws you have?”
“Why, yes, I believe they are. Why, did you know, that I can slice through metal with these?”
“Indeed? What are they made of?”
“Oh, it’s this wonderful new material called ‘adamantium.'”
“I say, that is fascinating. Will you be coming round for tea this afternoon?”
“I do think that sounds delightful.”
“Wonderful, I’ll have the butler make up some cucumber sandwiches.”

That’s the film I wanted to see. Instead we got garbage that was obviously written by fourteen-year-olds.

Instead of falling into these usual pitfalls, we got something unique, quirky, and altogether new. They rewrote the story, made it something fresh, and included some things that old Trekkies can relate to without having the opportunity to be overly critical about plot continuity. Zachary Quinto’s Spock is not Leonard Nimoy’s Spock, but he captures the same essence of what it is to be Spock. Since he’s the only one we see on screen with his future (and former) self, he’s perfect for comparison, but I’d even say that Chris Pine manages to pull out a pretty convincing Shatner without actually being too Shanter-ish. I mean, the only one who can really do Shatner and not be a parody is Shatner. He makes the character his own, while managing to convince us that he is, in fact, James Kirk.

Simon Pegg was brilliant.

Another thing that’s truly remarkable about the film is the fact that it is not a parody. It does not poke fun. Perhaps it’s the fact that Star Trek has already been parodied to death that made something like this possible. It couldn’t be a parody. It’s been done. They were forced to do something new. Something that really seemed like serious science fiction in the vein of Star Trek became inevitable. And that’s what it is: standalone science fiction in the vein of Star Trek. It is not the original series. It’s not TNG. It’s not the original films. It’s an entirely new beast and whether or not it’s actually Star Trek is beside the point. The film is damned fun to watch and has a lot of things going for it.

The first time I encountered the idea of alternate realities was Back to the Future II. You know, the one where Michael J. Fox goes to the future and buys the sports almanac and then future Biff Tannen (not unlike future Spock) steals the Delorean and brings himself the sports almanac in the past so that he can get rich and not be an old loser. In fact, it’s pretty much the same plot as Star Trek, now that I think about it.

In many ways, by making this an alternate reality film, they’ve freed themselves of the constraints of a franchise held in the clutches of legions of anal retentive fans and fact-checkers.

As a parting word, I think it would be best to say up front, that while I am not a “Trekkie” I did once go to a Star Trek convention and found myself sitting right next to John Delancie. Yes, that John Delancie. But that’s a story for another day. Suffice to say, I was too star struck to say hi, but I did get his autograph.

The film is not without its logical flaws (why exactly did they send Spock with quite so much of the doomsday goop?), but it just goes to show that a solid narrative style, reasonably good acting, and a fun tone can keep any story from falling flat.

Discuss.

Carbon-Negative

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The purpose of the above image is not necessarily to draw attention to any specific comments by the eminent republican. In fact, I wanted an image of just some average dude purchasing some carbon offsets and then being confused about their purpose. But when I spotted this image, it was just begging to be further photoshopped. C’est la vie.

I live in Minnesota. We have beautiful summers and hellish winters. But that’s not all. We also happen to have perhaps the best public radio station in the country. Minnesota Public Radio is about all I listen to. This is due to two reasons:

  1. Every other radio station in my town is terrible.
  2. MPR is actually very, very good.

So it’s not usually a complicated process to find anything to listen to. That said, they are currently running their member drive. I don’t know how much you know about PBS or NPR or any other public service like this, but since they are not commercial, but are instead a sort of consumer co-operative, the vast majority of their funding comes from donations. And twice a year, they spend a week begging for money. It’s pretty obnoxious, but it’s just something you have to get through. The plus side, of course, is that if you do decide to donate money they often send you some pretty neat stuff. Books, mugs, duffel bags, that sort of thing. Sometimes CDs of past quality programming.

Tonight as I was listening to the radio, they offered a free gift with a donation that I hadn’t expected. They are offering a carbon offset with every donation. This immediately struck me as weird because I had assumed that carbon offsets were stupid. I’m still not convinced that they’re not, but since MPR was endorsing them, I decided to do some further research. The folks begging for money were telling me that one of these offsets was the same (as in equal to or identical to) as not driving your car for ninety miles or not throwing away six hundred aluminum cans.

This is what always struck me as strange about carbon offsets because wouldn’t it be easier to just not drive for ninety miles? In my experience, it’s always easier to not do something than to do it. Entire corporations have managed to be supposedly carbon neutral through the practice of purchasing these carbon offsets.

My understanding of how this works is that when you purchase carbon offsets, that money goes into a pool of cash that goes towards the planting of trees, retrofitting power plants, and a whole slew of other things that reduce carbon emissions. The idea is that despite the fact that a huge corporation that is not actually carbon neutral can pretend to be carbon neutral because they are funding a bunch of carbon-sequestering activities that would not have been performed otherwise. Supposedly, this earns them the right to belch out more greenhouse gases.

Perhaps it’s better than nothing, but it presupposes the notion that there’s already a ton of CO2 in the atmosphere. What I mean is, they are not being penalized for all the CO2 that’s already there. That’s nobody’s fault because we didn’t know better forty years ago (that’s a lie, but let’s roll with it). So by selling these carbon offsets (by planting a few trees) these companies or people–in the case of members of MPR–get to burn petro-chemicals and drive their cars guilt free for a period of time. Does this strike you as odd?

Wouldn’t it be better to buy these offsets and drive your car less?

It’s hard to be carbon-neutral. We all realize that. But the real challenge and the thing that we actually ought to do is be carbon-negative. You think that’s crazy? Well, at least I tried. Now it’s on your head.

Discuss.