My panels at #CVG2016


I’m leaving for Minneapolis later today, and I’ve been planning out my panels, like a responsible participant. Here’s what I’m doing:

The Reproducibility Problem: How Serious is it?
Thurs 12:30 Atrium 2

There’s been a lot of discussion about the ability to reproduce experiments, especially in the social sciences. How serious is the problem? What can be done? Panelists: PZ Myers, Vernon McIntosh, Laura Okagaki-Vraspir, Peter Larsen, Topher Hunter (mod)

This one could get heavy: it’s all about statistics. Contrary to the description, I’m going to focus on the cancer reproducibility project, because this isn’t just about those fuzzy social sciences — it’s about any field with an extremely complex data set and a fair amount of individual variability.

What Does God Need With a Starship?
Thurs 2:00 Atrium 4

From the Christ-like figure of Superman to the metaphysical adventures of the Enterprise, fantasy and science fiction have long explored religious and philosophical questions. What is it about SFF that touches our spirituality? Panelists: Amanda Larsen, Cetius d’Raven (mod), PZ Myers, phillip andrew bennett low, Kristina Halseth

My role on this panel is to cross my eyes and make gagging noises every time someone says “spirituality”. No, not really, I’ll be nice. My points will be a) science fiction celebrates naturalism, and effectively undermines religious myths, because every time a supernatural being is invoked, they’re treated as a complex material phenomenon rather than magic, and b) SFF doesn’t touch our spirituality, it touches our humanity. Humanism FTW.

Twin Connection: Myth, Science and Confirmation Bias
Thurs 3:30 Atrium 3

Cultures worldwide have different myths and legends about twins. How much can science explain? Do twins share a special connection that transcends scientific understanding? This panel will explore myths and facts about twins. Panelists: PZ Myers, Kathryn Sullivan, Windy Bowlsby

The answer to the first question: all of it. Twins are a simple, entirely comprehensible phenomenon. The answer to the second question: NO. Won’t this be fun?

The mention of confirmation bias in the title suggests to me that we’ll all be resonating on the same wavelength (like twins!), so really, it might be fun.

Our Place in Space
Fri 2:00 Atrium 4

What are the dreams and practicalities of colonizing space? How might humanity reach beyond our planet? We’ll discuss the science of human spaceflight in reality and fiction. Panelists: Emily Finke, Ryan Consell, Nicole Gugliucci (mod), PZ Myers

As the biologist on the panel, I’ll be there to bring everyone down to Earth. I don’t think “colonizing” is at all likely or practical — we’re not going to establish stable, self-sufficient human populations on other moons or planets in our solar system. We’re just not that adaptable, and the environments are just too hostile. The only possibility is radical genetic modification, in which case the ‘colonists’ won’t be human anymore, and they’ll probably reveal other defects in human potential.

But I still think we ought to be out there: exploration and temporary scientific colonies are a good idea. There is also the possibility of extracting useful resources, but the economics of that seem a little far-fetched.

If somebody suggests that we need colonies to ensure the future of the human race in case of catastrophe, I might just explode, which would be entertaining.

Look at that, though: I get all the work done on Thursday and Friday, leaving the weekend totally free for fun. I’d take credit for my genius, but I didn’t plan out any of the timing, so it’s all by chance.

It’s also science-heavy, which is great. I thought about signing up for some of the more bookish fiction panels, but man, there were a lot of people volunteering to get up on the stage for those (some had a dozen people vying to get up there, and that’s just too many for a good discussion).

See you there!


  1. robro says

    What is it about SFF that touches our spirituality?

    Isn’t this “it” (whether you call in spirituality, humanity, or the heebie-jeebies) the same thing that any well-crafted, artistic creation touches in us? I believe Aristotle wrestled with this question long ago. We can imagine that cave paintings and story tellers “inspired” pre-literate humans in the same way. James Joyce elicited this feeling in me at the transition point in Ulysses between the Leopold narrative and the Molly narrative where he deftly segues between one dreamtime consciousness to another. Frankly, I don’t see anything special about SFF in this regard.

  2. brett says

    @PZ Myers

    If somebody suggests that we need colonies to ensure the future of the human race in case of catastrophe, I might just explode, which would be entertaining.

    DO IT. That’s absolutely going to come up at some point. Although I suppose a temporary scientific colony could turn into a more permanent one, if the population is large enough and the colony gets more self-reliant on local resources over time (which is what you’d be aiming for in the first place, since sending stuff through space is so incredibly expensive).

    I wish I could see those panels. It’s too late now, but maybe I’ll come for a future one – I like traveling to Minneapolis.

  3. Reginald Selkirk says

    As the biologist on the panel, I’ll be there to bring everyone down to Earth.

    This could be grim. I would leave the design of re-entry vehicles to highly-qualified engineers.

  4. frankg99 says

    At last! Someone who realizes the harsh and unforgiving realities of spaceflight. I am a huge proponent of humans going to Mars but only if it has a reasonable chance of success. On a 6-8 month ballistic trajectory we’ll be lucky to get back the bodies. Kiss a goodbye another attempt for several generations after such a failure.

    I look askance at the blithering nonsense posted by sci-fi kiddies that we’ll just go build cities or mining colonies on the Moon, planets or asteroids. It’s fatuous nonsense and when NASA subsidizes, at any level, studies for silliness like space elevators or rocket fuel manufacturing using water trapped in the perpetually dark polar craters of the Moon, they do their extraordinary ‘brand’ some serious damage. Stop it, NASA!

    I personally believe that fragile humans can survive trips to Mars if it’s done quickly. I believe NASA should be focusing R&D on an in-space 1-g acceleration unit. Enormous speeds will be reached, creating their own issues and problems but, should such a unit be possible, a crew could arrive at Mars 36 HOURS after leaving Earth orbit. Yes, that’s 36 HOURS. It will be an engineering nightmare to design and develop but, should it become operational, we’ll truly be an interplanetary species.

  5. mykroft says

    If flight to the Moon were practical and developed, I think it could open up some interesting possibilities. Low-G manufacturing, lots of solar power (plus nuclear wouldn’t be a big environmental issue), radio telescopes on the far side away from the EM noise on Earth, plus as I get older a fall on the Moon wouldn’t hurt so bad. We’d need to make some serious advances before that happens however, and with federal funding cuts research has been suffering.

    Perhaps they’ll start getting serious about funding education if China tries to colonize the Moon. Part of the seriousness would be about national pride, but a big part would probably be concerns about having a rival nuclear power perched on top of a deep gravity well. Unfortunately, nation-state competition has always been a big factor in science funding.

  6. brett says

    The Moon’s not so great for anything other than scientific research. The raw materials available are mostly oxides, the only water is in ice at the south pole frozen in permanently dark craters kilometers down in elevation, and the Moon’s gravity is no picnic if you’re trying to send anything from its surface to anywhere else.


    On a 6-8 month ballistic trajectory we’ll be lucky to get back the bodies. Kiss a goodbye another attempt for several generations after such a failure.

    Why? 6-8 months in space is a long time, but astronauts regularly do long stints in space that are as long (or longer) than that.

  7. Rich Woods says

    @brett #6:

    Why? 6-8 months in space is a long time, but astronauts regularly do long stints in space that are as long (or longer) than that.

    Those astronauts are only a couple of hundred miles up, well within the protection provided by the Earth’s magnetosphere. Once outside that, they’d have to cope with the solar wind, cosmic radiation and the risk of getting hit by a solar flare. All those can be shielded against, but shielding adds mass to the spacecraft. The more massive the craft, the more fuel it will need to accelerate it to a suitable velocity to make the journey in an acceptable time. The more fuel it has to carry, the more massive it will be…

  8. hotspurphd says

    It seems that Elon Musk may be a genius of sorts. He has a company whose major objective is to send humans to Mars , with the eventual objective of colonizing it to prevent the eventual extinction of human life on earth, perhaps by the next large meteor strike. He is spending billions on this. Is it really so impossible?

  9. rrhain says

    “Twin Connection: Myth, Science and Confirmation Bias”

    If there was ever an example of why the Oxford Comma is important, that’s it.

    Ooh, but maybe that’s the point? After all, our Doc Ock is gonna be there. The “twin connection” is a myth, and he is gonna use science to expose the confirmation bias.

  10. frankg99 says

    @brett #6:
    Why? 6-8 months in space is a long time, but astronauts regularly do long stints in space that are as long (or longer) than that.

    A mission to Mars, as currently proposed, will be around 3 years in length. It’s not just the 6-8 month trip there. Rich Woods is correct. There are a lot of other hazards in deep space that almost trivialize the degeneration seen in the 6 month stints on ISS. And ISS astronauts that stay 6 months are manifesting some weird debilities that will be much worse on a Mars mission. Micro-gravity and flight time are the bad guys here.

    As I mentioned above, with a 1-g acceleration unit you’re at Mars in 36 hours. In reality the flight time would probably be more like several days as the trajectory will, more than likely, arc up over the plane of the ecliptic to avoid as much dust and debris as possible. At the half way point, where you turn your spacecraft around and decelerate at 1-g, you’d be doing about 9 million miles per hour. Yeah, I know … there are a lot of technical and operational issues that have to be dealt with. Indeed, it may not be possible. But it needs to be studied and a ‘GO-NO GO’ decision to pursue technology of this type made from hard facts.

    Let’s put aside the manned aspects of such a unit and look at the robotic explorer angle. Jupiter is 2 weeks away. Pluto is 30 days. Because you’ve got thrust for the entire flight you can literally drive straight to any orbit of any body in the solar system. The golden age of solar system exploration would be upon us.

    A flight to, say, Enceladus in the Saturn system could drop into orbit and spend a year orbiting the moon and grabbing samples of the geysers. Because these 1-g units would require high powered, mega-watt nuclear reactors to power them, there would be huge surpluses of power in the science mission to run significant scans of the moon. The plane of the orbit could be changed at will from equatorial to polar. Passes over the geysers could be done just a few miles above the surface. And then, when the year’s up, the entire vehicle flies home with geyser samples and possibly evidence of life.

    High speed transits should be the front-and-center technical area that NASA should involve itself with, in my opinion. Too many issues go away with a fast transit to Mars. But, in reality, you’re only swapping one set of problems for another so I reiterate that NASA should do a detailed feasibility study of the technical requirements and operational issues.

  11. chigau (違う) says

    mykroft #5
    I hope I live long enough to see China start a colony on the Moon.
    The reactions would be priceless.

  12. Meg Thornton says

    The author I’d be wanting to see on the “Our Place In Space” panel would be Charlie Stross, because he’s long been somewhat sceptical about the whole business himself. He raises the same sorts of points OGH here does – radiation, travel time, harsh conditions and so on mean that the only sorts of humans who’d be able to survive such an environment would be ones genetically modified to the point where they weren’t actually human (and probably couldn’t survive on this planet as a result).

  13. Anri says

    What Does God Need With a Starship?

    I’ve recently realized that a pretty good follow-up question to this is “What does god need with a bible?”