We are not going to escape to other planets


Why do people take Elon Musk seriously? I know he’s been successful with his car business, and SpaceX is making great progress, but every time he opens his mouth he sounds like a delusional maniac, or worse, he sounds like the Discovery “Five Year Goals” Institute. His latest extremely optimistic plans are rather unbelievable.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk has outlined his highly ambitious vision for manned missions to Mars, which he said could begin as soon as 2022 – three years sooner than his previous estimates.

He’s going to solve all the technical difficulties of that mission — and all of the expenses — in six years. I know the US made a commitment to land a man on the moon in a span of a decade (and succeeded!), but that involved a major effort by a nation, fueled by cold war competition. I don’t think Musk has that kind of clout.

Then, this is really unclear. I assume he’s only talking a small crewed mission in six years, not launching a rocket with 100 people aboard to Mars, but I don’t know — his optimism sounds like it’s going to explode out of the top of his head.

In order to achieve this goal, Musk outlined a multi-stage launch and transport system including a re-usable booster like the Falcon 9 which SpaceX has already successfully tested – only much larger. The booster, and “interplanetary module” on top of it, would be nearly as long as two Boeing 747 aircraft. It could initially carry up to 100 passengers, he said.

That can’t work as a Mars vehicle. A 747 holds 400-500 people in cramped quarters for short hops, but doesn’t need to carry elaborate life-support systems, food, water, and air, and all the fuel for a 260 day journey. But the highest capacity destination in Earth orbit, the ISS, has only 6 sleep stations and has held at most 10 people at once. So I’m not sure why he’s planning a large space bus right now. Especially when he freely states that the current cost of a seat on that bus would be about 10 billion dollars.

But at least he’s solved the really important issue of what to name his space ship already.

The first ship to go to Mars, Musk said, would be named Heart of Gold as a tribute to the ship powered by an “infinite improbability drive” from Douglas Adams’ science fiction novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

And it wouldn’t be a Musk event without some mention of the locust mindset. We’re all gonna die if we have to stay on this huge planet we’re adapted to live on, so we’ve got to get a few people to the off-world colonies, which we know are all inhospitable hell-holes. But…but…EXTINCTION EVENT.

He said there were “two fundamental paths” facing humanity today. “One is that we stay on Earth forever and then there will be an inevitable extinction event,” he said. “The alternative is to become a spacefaring civilization, and a multiplanetary species.”

We know a few things about extinction events, having caused a few for other species. We know, for instance, that a major cause is habitat destruction, elimination of the environment to which the species is well-suited and capable of independent survival. If you want to foster the survival of a species, building a big steel-and-glass enclosure that holds a few representatives that you have to feed and care for artificially is only a stop-gap measure — you want them to thrive, you have to restore their environment fully.

Face reality. If planet Earth goes, so does humanity. It’s the end. Game over. Putting a few of our people in a self-imposed space zoo does not save the species, it only prolongs the agony briefly. If you really care about the problems facing humanity, and are thinking extremely long term, you have to appreciate that a species is part of a larger system that must be maintained.

So please do explore the universe and send rockets and people to other planets — I think that’s cool, and a part of what we overgrown monkeys do. But when you frame it as “saving the species”, I know you’re an ignorant fool and will stop trusting you to be competent at whatever other goals you have.

Tonight at Cafe Scientifique

Some guy is giving a public lecture here in Morris, Minnesota. I was wondering why I was feeling a little frazzled and over-extended this week.

Event Date: Tuesday, September 27, 2016 – 6:00pm
Location: Common Cup Coffeehouse

Anyone can come to explore the latest ideas in science and technology.
The next Café Scientifique will take place on Tuesday, September 27, at 6 p.m. at the Common Cup Coffeehouse (501 Atlantic Avenue, Morris, MN 56267). Associate Professor of Biology PZ Myers and Katrine Sjovold ’18, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, will lead the discussion: “Cells in Motion: How Cells Move to Build Embryos, Create Patterns, and Cause Cancer.”

Myers and Sjovold have been studying migrating cells in zebrafish embryos as a model for how cells rearrange themselves in constructing tissues, organs, and organisms. They have focused on melanocytes, the cells that make pigment stripes in the animal, because their behavior is universal and is also important in human diseases, like melanoma.

Café Scientifique is an ongoing series that offers a space where anyone can come to explore the latest ideas in science and technology for the price of a cup of coffee. Meetings take place outside of a traditional academic context and are committed to promoting public engagement with science. Interested audiences can look forward to additional discussions typically on the last Tuesday of selected months.

Café Scientifique is supported in part by a grant to the University of Minnesota, Morris from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute through the Undergraduate and Graduate Programs. For more information, visit morris.umn.edu/hhmi.

Gary Johnson’s Idiot Quotient goes through the roof!


Gary Johnson is willing to admit that we have a climate change problem, but he thinks it is too expensive to do anything about it, so he wants to do nothing. Except for one thing: his solution is to emigrate.

Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson offered an outta this world solution on Sunday to the planet’s environmental crises.

We do have to inhabit other planets. The future of the human race is space exploration, Johnson said on ABC’s “This Week.”

This is what I regard as the thinking of locusts: burn through what you’ve got and just move on to fresh ground. Except there’s the little problem of the “what you’ve got” being the entirety of Planet Earth.

I do have some serious questions for Governor Johnson, however.

  • Which planet do you think will be more habitable than Earth after Libertarian laissez faire policies get done with it, Venus or Mars?

  • If neither of those two, which planet do you propose as the new homeworld for humanity?

  • I assume that you acknowledge that some terraforming of this new home will be required. Since that would require the investment of a substantial portion of Earth’s resources to accomplish, over centuries to thousands of years, before we see any return on the investment, do you think the free market is capable of driving the greatest public works project in all of human history?

  • Let us pretend you have a real habitable extraterrestrial planet in mind. How do we get there? By “we”, I mean the 7 billion people now on Earth. Or do you imagine this is more of an opportunity for the few incredibly rich people, while everyone else boils, fries, broils, or fricassees on Abandoned Earth?

  • How do you reconcile the fact that you oppose closing coal plants because it would cost the economy too much, while proposing a solution that is immensely more expensive, currently impracticable, and requires allowing this lovely blue planet to choke on our waste? This does not sound at all cost effective.

  • You seem to regard natural resources as fungible. Are you capable of empathizing with people who might love pieces of this Earth so much that they don’t see any possibility of substitutions? I don’t think we should surrender the Galapagos Islands, the Olympic Rain Forest, the Great Barrier Reef, or any of the millions of treasures we ought to be protecting. Do you also see your children as interchangeable, so you’d have no problem giving one up if we provided a replacement of equal or greater value?

  • When do you leave?

I have no potatoes in the house, and now I am craving potatoes

All because I read The Angry Chef’s praise for the potato.

Potatoes are quite possibly my favourite ever thing. No, fuck it, they are my favourite thing. They are versatile, delicious, cheap, and accessible. From a culinary and scientific point of view they are deeply fascinating and they form the basis of many of my favourite foods. Cooked correctly, they can make the heart sing with joy. My reputation as a chef is, perhaps quite tragically, built on a number of remarkable dishes that I make with potatoes. I have spent many working days perfecting my potato cookery and after twenty years in professional kitchens I am still learning more about them all the time. I believe that I know how to make the perfect roast potatoes, crisped the the point of near caramelisation on the outside, with a light fluffy interior, a hint of thyme and the richness of beef fat. I can make mashed potato so silky, rich, buttery and creamy that it once made someone cry. I have spent an entire week trying to make the the perfect chips (they are good, but not perfect – yet) and it makes me genuinely weep inside when someone cooks a jacket potato in the microwave. I love dauphinoise, Lyonnaise, rostis, sautéed, Bombay, crisps, waffles, hash browns (basically working class rostis), croquettes, gnocchi and Patatas Bravas. I love cottage pies and hotpots and believe that potatoes slowly cooked with meats often become more delicious than the meat itself. When made well, freshly cooked chips are as much of a cause for celebration as the flash, needy offerings of Michelin starred restaurants and superstar chefs. When eaten out of paper by the sea they are the greatest culinary pleasure I know.

But potatoes are bland, you say — not when they’re cooked with the right spices. And what better spice is there than brutal denunciations of the paleo diet and other stupid fads?

Potatoes are a delicious, with remarkable culinary and nutritional properties. So why is it that health bloggers, Paleo nuts, wellness gurus and various other dietary fools reject them so vociferously? The reasons behind this beautifully exposes the hidden and pernicious nature of dietary wellness trends. In understanding why potatoes are rejected we reveal the true face of the wellness industry, an industry built on lies and false promises.

The pseudoscience and nutri-bollocks behind fad diets is nothing but a smokescreen to disguise their true nature. The reality of Clean Eating, Paleo, Alkaline and Detox is that they are damaging restriction diets, more about thinness than wellness. Whilst they talk about a lifestyle and wellbeing, these are just euphemisms for weight loss, driven by societies permitted fat-shaming prejudice and an insatiable desire to achieve thinness without effort.

Fad diets will proliferate if they have simple rules and pseudoscience justifications to help them stick in people’s minds, but examine them in detail and the logic falls apart. Take Paleo for instance, based on the premise that we are not ‘designed’ to eat certain foods. Newsflash genius, not sure if you missed the memo about Darwin and Wallace, but we are not ‘designed’ to do anything and neither is any part of the natural world. We evolved from a random sequence of evolutionary accidents, existing only because certain characteristics keep us marginally ahead in the arms race of existence. Nature is not pure and benign, it has no wisdom and it does not exist to nourish us and help us thrive. Nature is vicious, harmful and for thousands of years has been trying to fucking kill us. In the Palaeolithic period it was far better at doing this, with survival beyond thirty being extremely unlikely. Our ability to control the natural world, to process and store foods and to adapt our environment to meet our requirements is the one thing that has kept our head above the evolutionary waters and saved us from the miserable fate that befell every other hominid species in history.

Read the whole thing, as they say.

The evolution of caffeine

Let us turn now to the One True God of science and atheism, the Ground State of our existence. We shall now contemplate Caffeine. Raise your cup in praise.


This morning, as I was sipping the blessed stimulant and browsing the journals, I learned a little something. I learned how caffeine evolved, and it was both unsurprising and surprising. I am not a biochemist, so it’s always enlightening to read a little out of that field. This, for instance, is the chemical precursor in the synthesis of caffeine.


Oh, I said, I certainly do recognize that — I’ve been teaching budding cell biologists about important biological macromolecules for the past few weeks, and that’s a nucleoside. Note the ribose sugar with the attached nitrogenous base, the double ring of one pentagon attached to a hexagon? That’s xanthosine, which is also a precursor in the synthesis of those purines our cells use in signaling and assembling chains of nucleotides in DNA and RNA. That’s obvious. And then you look at caffeine, and it’s also obvious how cells make it: slap a couple of methyl groups (those -CH3s sprinkled around), and presto, you’ve got a happy drug. Easy.

Except…not all cells make significant amounts of caffeine. It takes specific enzymes to glue those methyl groups onto the core base with any reliable yield, and my cells might have xanthosine around, but they aren’t making any for me. I have to raid the vegetable kingdom and tear off their leaves and beans and hit them with boiling water to extract the blessed caffeine. And then not all plants make it — I can’t get a buzz on with a bowl of peas in the morning.

And then I learn that caffeine has evolved independently at least 5 times, and that the distribution of caffeine is patchy — some species in a genus will make it, while other related species in the same genus don’t. The caffeine molecule in Coffea (coffee) and Camellia (tea) and Theobroma is identical, but it’s synthesized by different pathways.

My mind is blown. Excuse me, but I have to take a break and think about this. I’m going to take a walk down to the coffee shop and gurgle down a couple of cups to help absorb this information. I’ll resume this post a little later.

You understand, don’t you? Go have another cup of coffee or tea while you’re waiting.

[Read more…]

WTF, New Scientist? WTF?

I guess New Scientist is feeling some heat over their disgraceful advocacy of Canavero’s ludicrous head transplant scheme. They just posted a rather defensive follow-up, and they’re still getting it all wrong.

It is one thing to find the science risibly weak, but on the bigger issue of head transplants – or more accurately, full-body transplants – nobody is laughing. The surgery seems macabre but is scientifically feasible and could offer real benefits to some people.

No. That’s the whole point. It is not feasible, no one is even close to being able to do it, and risibly weak is a ridiculous understatement. You can’t claim it’s feasible while also admitting that the science is weak. This makes no sense at all, especially considering how they close the thing.

Even if head transplants prove impossible or unacceptable, full spinal cord repair would be a breakthrough of huge importance. It’s time to get serious, lest this opportunity is lost.

It’s simultaneously feasible, but may also prove impossible? Who is writing this drivel?

No one is arguing about whether spinal cord repair would be a fantastically important advance. It would be. The point is, if you want to get serious about accomplishing that, you’re not going to get there by promoting an irresponsible hack like Canavero, or by touting nonexistent advances and bad papers as breakthroughs of huge importance.

At least Canavero isn’t comparing himself to Galileo yet

Just Frankenstein. Reader blf tracked down some information about Surgical Neurology International, where Canavero and his pals are having a grand time publishing shoddy science about head transplants. The journal has a complicated, messy history, with a mix of credible scientific papers and far-right-wing fringe conspiracy theories. That ought to make you question the source right there.

By the way, Canavero has a new paper there: HEAVEN: The Frankenstein effect.

The HEAVEN head transplant initiative needs human data concerning the acute restoration of motor transmission after application of fusogens to the severed cord in man. Data from two centuries ago prove that a fresh cadaver, after hanging or decapitation, can be mobilized by electrical stimulation for up to 3 hours. By administering spinal cord stimulation by applied paddles to the cord or transcranial magnetic stimulation to M1 and recording motor evoked potentials, it should be possible to test fusogens in fresh cadavers. Delayed neuronal death might be the neuropathological reason.

He sounds like he’d be fun at parties, doesn’t he?

I don’t get the point of this experiment. The question isn’t whether you can get an electrical current to jump the gap, crossing a lesion in the spinal cord; that’s trivial. The question is whether his fusogens promote active, specific regrowth of nerve fibers across the lesion, and you won’t get that by shocking corpses. It might have been an interesting observation 250 years ago when Luigi Galvani was shocking dead frogs, but it’s not something that needs to be tested now.

It’s also a rather pointless paper. He hasn’t done any of these experiments, but is just arguing that we should do them. Save that for the IRB. It shouldn’t count as a publication.