1. GRrrrr part 1.

    So they've found gravitational waves. Damn.

    This post is not a report about that; I don't understand it well enough to report. This post is the first in a two-part report about my confusion and chagrin.

    Let's start with the chagrin; I'd been hopping without hope that gravitational waves would never be found. Like all good scientists should I had been hoping the accepted wisdom was wrong. The tackling of such errors is how science progresses.

    But why pin my hopes on gravitational waves in particular? They seem innocent enough as consequence of the central equation in general relativity -- the Einstein equation, which relates gravity to space-time curvature, and that to energy and hence to mass and thence back again to gravity. When you squint at the Einstein equation the right way it turns into perfectly good wave equation.

    The doubts creep in when you consider the energetics. Like all waves, they should carry energy away from their sources, and indeed our first observational evidence for gravitational waves was of two block-holes loosing energy as they orbited each-other.

    But defining gravitational energy is a tricky and fraught issue -- you can even write down the law of conservation of energy in ...

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  2. A life as sex.


    This post is about snails, but I hope won't be bored an introductory digression all about sex. After all, I've heard that lots of people are interested in it; and happily for this blog, even just the science of sex is fascinating. But for those with short attention spans: here is picture of a snail.

    A creeping thing from Zealand
    New Zealand Mud Snail, Potamopyrgus

    The science of sex is fascinating largely because we don't really know why [sexual reproduction][wsrevo] is so popular in nature. We don't lack theories; rather, we have too many. Suggested purposes include preventing mutations, increasing genetic diversity, and keeping germs on the hop. But we do not know if any of these, or all of them put together the just enormous cost.

    What cost is that? It is the cost of the entire male sex. Think about it; about half the resources available to any sexual species are used up by organisms that eat, and drink and fight -- but usually don't do much towards the serious Darwinian business of getting the next generation up and running. Biologists call this ...

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  3. Going to the Moon?

    The European Space Agency has made a beautiful and surprisingly informative movie about exploring the moon.

    In just eight and a half minutes, it says interesting things about the history of lunar exploration, about the scientific questions that can be answered there and about the plans of the ESA and other players to put humans and robots there in the nearish future, and even to build a permanent facility. You should watch it!

    Ars Technica frames this as a kind of jilting of NASA, which plans to go to Mars. Whether or not that is correct, I am glad to see attention paid to the Moon instead of Mars. Any attempt to put humans on Mars would be like a second Apollo program, the human race extending so far outside its comfort zone that it can't hope to do much more than do a symbolic space-walk.

    Paradoxically, the Moon is a more ambitious goal. Any attempt to go there needs to do more than Apollo. We should be going there to explore water resources, to try putting scientists there on long stays and doing other things that are at least potential precursors to real colonisation.

    But even that is a ...

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  4. Ancient Arteries

    This one is old news, but I only just found out about it.

    We are told that heart problems are a modern lifestyle disease caused by rich food and lack of exercise. There is even a "peleo" diet fad urging us to eat like ancient hunter-gatherers. But now it seems ancient mummies show just as much artery clogging (aka atherosclerosis1) as modern people -- even though many of them seem to have had healthy "natural" diets and active lifestyles.

    These studies use computed tomography (CT) scans of the whole mummified body to look for calcium deposits around arteries. Initial research was done on Egyptian mummies and found atherosclerosis to be common -- but this is hardly surprising among wealthy aristocrats, whether modern or ancient.

    The real surprise is that more recent work published in The Lancet finds similar results in naturally preserved mummies from varied societies around the world, including hunter-gatherers. In addition the famous neolithic mummy of Ötzi the Iceman has similar calcium deposits.


    Jo Marchant and Nina Lincoff have good posts on the topic, and Daniel Weiss has an even better one (which also has best title). Do read some or all of them, but I want to concentrate ...

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  5. Flappy Feet?

    Here is something I saw in The Economist:

    This is breaching, not tailwalking

    Consider Billie, a wild bottlenose dolphin which got injured in a lock at the age of five. She was taken to an aquarium in South Australia for medical treatment, during which she spent three weeks living with captive dolphins which had been taught various tricks. She herself, though, was never trained. After she was returned to the open sea local dolphin-watchers were struck to see her “tailwalking”—a move in which a dolphin stands up above the water by beating its flukes just below the surface, travelling slowly backwards in a vaguely Michael Jackson manner. It was a trick that Billie seemed to have picked up simply by watching her erstwhile pool mates perform. More striking yet, soon afterwards five other dolphins in her pod started to tailwalk, though the behaviour had no practical function and used up a lot of energy.

    Do read the original article, which has lots of intelligent stuff to say about Science and stuff. All I have to say is that this is kind of like the movie Happy Feet; but also kind of the opposite.

    As you can see, I have had the intellectual equivalent of ...

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  6. The Myth of Linear Science

    Matt Ridley, author of "The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves" has caused a small stir with a Wall Street Journal article arguing, among other things, that scientific research does not drive technological innovation and therefore should have less public funding. Not surprisingly, basic scientists are unimpressed. Here is a rebuttal by theoretical physicist and blogger Sabine Hossenfelder.

    There is some editorial click-baiting at work here. Ridley's article bears the headline "The Myth of Basic Science", but his main point is about innovation. He argues it is a spontaneous and largely autonomous process where lots of nameless people drive technology forward every day by solving real world problems thrown up by the existing technological world. In this view, lone geniuses are not very important but neither is there a predictable linear process where scientific results get turned into new technologies.

    But Ridley's dig at fundamental science is real. I think his argument is that:

    1. Technology moves forward spontaneously by real-world tinkering.

    2. In the processes, it throws up scientific insights; e.g. 18th & 19th century physicists had to learn from, but did not teach, steam engineers about thermodynamics.

    3. When it needs to, industry will fund whatever fundamental research that is actually useful ...

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  7. The Linked List (5.11.2015)

    I just scanned 200 science posts, so you don't have to.

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  8. Highlights: Emergent Quantum Mechanics 2015

    Weekend before last, I went to the 3rd Emergent Quantum Mechanics Symposium at The Vienna Institute of Technology (TU Wien). This is a picture of what other people at TU Wien were doing Car

    The symposium was even more exciting than the car racing. Or at least it was first conference I'd been to since I stopped being a physicist; and perhaps as a result I was a lot more excited about it than I was at any of the conferences where I had any actual business.

    As its name suggests, this conference was about the foundations of quantum mechanics. Moreover, it was motivated by the search for a deeper reality that explains the mathematical rules of quantum mechanics (QM). This is not the kind of thing you would feel an itch for if you think no such reality exists; thus the symposium was dominated by scholars who either have such a realist itch or at list had something to say about how it might or might not be scratched.

    I don't have the journalistic skill to write a fair report of the whole thing; there were too many good talks. But I can briefly describe, and link to the things ...

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