Important questions, I hope someone tries to answer them

Every four years, Shawn Otto and his ScienceDebate organization politely suggest that science, engineering, tech, health, and environmental issues deserve a presidential debate, and every four years they’re ignored — largely because our presidential candidates are never really competent to discuss science in any detail at all (can you imagine Trump trying to bluster his way through a discussion of science and education policy?). But one thing that does get a regular response is the list of 20 science policy questions. Now there are a lot of questions I’d like to see both campaigns address.

It’s a rather quixotic effort, but it’s important to keep the pressure on. Go sign the petition at

A little skepticism about an extrasolar planet is required

Okay. It would be really cool if there were an earth-like planet orbiting the star nearest us. Now there’s news dribbling out about a putative discovery of a rocky planet in the habitable zone of Proxima Centauri. Except, unfortunately, the story is grossly premature and unreliable. A few warning signs:

  • It’s a rumor published in Der Spiegel, a news magazine, not a scientific publication.

  • The discoverers are unnamed. What science publication uses unidentified sources?

  • The general source is the La Silla observatory, which previously claimed to have found an earthlike planet around Alpha Centauri B…a claim that was later retracted.

  • The story gets stuff wrong.

    Knowing that there is a habitable planet that a mission from Earth could reach within our own lifetimes is nothing short of amazing!

    Whose lifetime?

    The fastest spacecraft we’ve ever fired off, Voyager, is traveling at about 17 km/sec, which is fast alright — but it would still take tens of thousands of years to get there.

Fraser Cain, usually a reliable source, has already made a video about the ‘discovery’.

Nope, I still don’t buy it. There’s no evidence there. You could make the same video with generic science-fictiony images declaring that scientists have discovered little green men on Mars, and it would be just as convincing, that is, not.

The video also mentions Project Starshot, which would be one way of getting man-made objects to velocities somewhat closer to the speed of light. This scheme involves building 100-billion-watt laser arrays and firing them at laser sails hauling teeny-tiny chips with built-in micro-gadgets to do everything our regular space probes do and transmit the data back to Earth. Project Starshot is the baby of a Silicon Valley billionaire, so of course it must be a good idea.

You know, we’re kind of in a golden age of space exploration, with all kinds of information coming in from robots on Mars or flying around Jupiter. The real data is exciting, but these impractical fantasies are not.

Quacks & creationists: heed this

John Timmer explains some experiments in physics that have exposed some unexpected behavior by protons. Read that article to get the story, but this little bit jumped out at me as universally applicable to all science.

This may sound like a minor puzzle, but remember that the proton’s radius is tied into theories like the Standard Model, so the result suggested that there might be something wrong with our understanding of some basic physics. Theorists, naturally, responded with enthusiasm and developed some new models that added an additional fundamental force that influenced the muon’s interactions with the proton.

Show a scientist a problem, a real problem with data to back it up, and scientists naturally respond with enthusiasm. That’s the Standard Model of Scientific Behavior.

When scientists respond with a groan and a facepalm when you tell them your new theory for how humans evolved, or how chi flows through the body, or how to cure cancer with mango smoothies, or worse, announce that your scientific explanation is invalid because it doesn’t include the Bible or the Koran or the Bhagavad Gita, it’s because you don’t understand how science works. Real difficulties with an idea get us worked up and excited. Imaginary difficulties lacking in substantial evidence are uninteresting and mean we have to shoo away an annoying loon.

We’ve already confirmed that some people are irrational and ignorant. That observation has been replicated repeatedly and doesn’t enthuse anyone at all.

Related: here’s a professional physicist who consults with self-taught “theorists”.

The majority of my callers are the ones who seek advice for an idea they’ve tried to formalise, unsuccessfully, often for a long time. Many of them are retired or near retirement, typically with a background in engineering or a related industry. All of them are men. Many base their theories on images, downloaded or drawn by hand, embedded in long pamphlets. A few use basic equations. Some add videos or applets. Some work with 3D models of Styrofoam, cardboard or wires. The variety of their ideas is bewildering, but these callers have two things in common: they spend an extraordinary amount of time on their theories, and they are frustrated that nobody is interested.

She charges $50 for 20 minutes of consulting, in which she directs them towards current literature and advises them on the deficiencies in their background that they need to fill. I’ve had so many of these kinds of people harangue me with their ideas and objections to evolution, but I never realized I should be charging for the service.

Except, for $50 they’d probably expect me to be nice.

Only mostly dead

Sometimes, New Scientist puts a strange twist on their stories — like this one, Universal ancestor of all life on Earth was only half alive. I got stuck on just the title. “Half alive”? What does that mean? It’s describing a paper that did a comparative analysis of genes found in 1800 bacteria and 130 archaea to identify what was common between them, which would suggest what genes were present in the last universal common ancestor.

Now we have the best picture yet of what that ancestor was like and where it lived, thanks to a study that identified 355 genes that it probably possessed.

“It was flabbergasting to us that we found as many as we did,” says William Martin of the University of Dusseldorf in Germany, who led the study. The findings support the idea that the last universal common ancestor (LUCA) lurked in hydrothermal vents where hot water rich in hydrogen, carbon dioxide and minerals emerged from the sea floor.

“It’s spot on with regard to the hydrothermal vent theory,” Martin says. He describes LUCA as half-living, because it may have depended on abiotic reactions in the vents to produce many of the chemicals it needed.

That last bit is where they lost me. I’m about 0.4% salt, which is abiotically derived…does that mean I’m only 99.6% alive? And what about water? I’m 60% water, which means I’m now 39.6% alive, or mostly dead. If you’re just talking about chemical reactions, I don’t have an autonomous power source, but rely on daily input of organic material produced by other living creatures. So by that definition, I am a mostly dead, or undead, zombie PZ that lives by ghoulishly feasting upon the bodies of the living.

When I put it that way, it doesn’t sound so bad.

But I think what is messing us up here is a continuing bias towards vitalism — there is no distinction between “life” and “chemistry”. If you just accept that, we’ll all stop wasting our time trying to figure out what part of our biology is life vs. not-life. This video is a nice simplified approach to the problem of the origin of life, but it also seems hung up on a pointless distinction between “dead chemicals” and “living cells”.

At least the story does make the case for the increasingly dominant hypothesis for the origin of life on earth — that it came from reactions that exploited electron gradients found at deep-sea hydrothermal vents.

One characteristic of almost all living cells is that they pump ions across a membrane to generate an electrochemical gradient, then use that gradient to make the energy-rich molecule ATP. Martin’s results suggest LUCA could not generate such a gradient, but could harness an existing one to make ATP.

That fits in beautifully with the idea that the first life got its energy from the natural gradient between vent water and seawater, and so was bound to these vents. Only later did the ability to generate gradients evolve, allowing life to break away from the vents on at least two occasions – one giving rise to the first archaea, the other to bacteria.

Zika and political obstructionism

Maki Naro has a very good overview of the Zika virus in comic form.



The effects of the virus are actually easy to understand: mild, flu-like symptoms in adults, but a significant chance of debilitating brain damage to developing fetuses. You don’t want to get Zika because it’s unpleasant and nasty, but your fetus must be protected from it because it’s devastating.

Unfortunately, the USA has a dysfunctional congress that can’t respond to serious problems anymore. An effort to dedicate money (to the tune of almost two billion dollars) to preventing the spread of the disease was killed because Republicans loaded it with irrelevant, poisonous addenda — baggage to snipe at Planned Parenthood (an organization that is vital to putting together a response) or to allow Confederate flags to fly, for instance.

But especially unfortunately, diseases that cause birth defects are a vector for the pro-life-at-any-cost fanatics to gallop in and wreck any process with their delusional antics. We are supposed to love that tiny slug of human fetal tissue so much that we’ll defy any attempt to combat a virus that will poison its nervous system, and don’t you dare think about abortions. A fetal slug with a deformed, shriveled brain is still to be regarded as a full human person!

If you think I’m making this up, listen to Marco Rubio.

Obviously, microcephaly is a terrible prenatal condition that kids are born with. And when they are, it’s a lifetime of difficulties. So I get it.

I’m not pretending to you that that’s an easy question you asked me. But I’m pro-life. And I’m strongly pro-life. I believe all human life should be protected by our law, irrespective of the circumstances or condition of that life.

No, he doesn’t get it. He’s lying.

He also doesn’t believe in protecting life, because he’s also in favor of the death penalty, and in fact thinks the big problem with capital punishment is that we don’t shuffle the condemned into the death machine fast enough.


Meanwhile, Donald Trump thinks we have Zika under control, and is praising Florida governor Rick Scott for how he’s handling it. His little PR helpers are arguing for inaction because birth defects are nothing new.

The United States has been paralyzed by the Republican virus. They know nothing, they do nothing, and they actively interfere with necessary responses to problems. We need to do something about that. Never vote for any Republican, ever.