Monday, July 14, 2014

Brilliant innovators - hopeful signs

First a reminder that a number of TED-style or interview talks are up. THE FUTURE IS HERE: Science meets Science Fiction Imagination, Inspiration and Invention was a lavish event last May in Washington DC, presented by the Smithsonian Magazine in collaboration with the UC San Diego's Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination. Here’s a link to my talk: Otherness: will we supply our own new diversity? (Follow along with the slides on Slideshare!)

Also “Indignation, Addiction and Hope: Does it help to be “Mad as Hell?” My talk at TEDxUCSD finally offers a public version of this disturbing notion I’ve been discussing for years — that an unseen addiction is destroying our civilization.  (Follow along with the slides on Slideshare! )
While we're at it: You can catch more sober reflections on all the Great Big Topics on the TV show "Closer to Truth" - with episodes ranging from SETI to religion to ESP to human destiny in the cosmos. I am interviewed on some of these matters, but I am mere comic relief among the truly brilliant folks like Francisco Ayala who share their wisdom and insights with you.

Finally -- watch a podcast from the planetary Society about coming solar sail missions! There will be several important light-sail missions in 2016! Watch Bill Nye and others (yes... including me).

Now... on to those great innovators!

== Innovation will save us ==

Dean-kamen-slingshot-waterYou cynics out there had better not read this article about one of the heroes of our age, Dean Kamen, whose new water-distillation machines may provide healthy supplies to hundreds of millions of needy people, slashing disease rates and even preventing war. Kamen’s knack for making money while attacking “impossible problems” goes way back. His FIRST Robotics League has made nerdy inventiveness cool and high-status and fun on thousands of high school campuses. Guys like him — and Elon Musk and Steve Jobs and others — prove that it’s not about left-vs-right. It is about deciding to be confident problem solvers, helping us all to win positive sum games.

NEXT: What was the federal government’s role in starting the shale-gas revolution? There is much ado in the press over the arrival (long expected by some of us) of cheap natural gas and renewed supplies of domestic petroleum, developed inside North America. The prospect of U.S. and Canadian energy independence is shaking up political dynamics all over the globe and (among other effects) helping to fuel a new renaissance in American manufacturing.

What seems bizarre is how this has become a crowing point for the Right. The Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal regularly runs opinion pieces that criticize federal efforts to advance energy technologies and their commercialization… and completely ignore the past federal role in research and stimulation and infrastructure, that made the shale boom possible. See this piece in Physics Today. Can you spell h-y-p-o-c-r-i-s-y?

The gas industry itself has spoken on behalf of federal research efforts. “The DOE started it, and other people took the ball and ran with it,” said Mitchell Energy’s former vice president Dan Steward. “You cannot diminish DOE’s involvement.”

== Inheritance of acquired… nervousness? ==

My colleagues Greg Bear and Mark Anderson have been among those who for years have suggested that Darwinian puritanism blinds us to certain ways that Lamarck might have been at least a little bit right. That some acquired characteristics can be passed to the next generation. Now comes experimental validation of their suspicion… in a way that many of us always knew in our gut. That trauma can get passed down the generations.

FEAR-PARENTSSee this report: Can We Inherit Fear From Our Parents? In a laboratory experiment, traumatized mice appeared to mature normally. It was only when researchers subjected them to behavioral tests that differences became apparent. The traumatised mice appeared to be reckless, wandering into bright, open spaces that mice usually avoid. Yet they also appeared to be depressed. When placed in a tank of water they gave up and floated instead of trying to swim to safety.

“When males from the traumatised litters fathered offspring, their pups displayed similar abnormal behaviour even though they had never experienced trauma. The pups’ insulin and blood glucose levels were also lower than in normal mice – a symptom of early life stress. The offspring seemed to have inherited the effects of their fathers’ trauma. Furthermore, the next generation, that is the grandchildren of the original stressed mice, also showed abnormal behaviours. How could trauma be transmitted down the generations?

“The researchers analysed the traumatised fathers’ brain tissue, specifically in a region called the hippocampus, where memories are formed. They noticed larger than normal quantities of tiny RNA molecules called microRNA. Like tiny switches, these molecules are known to turn the activity of genes on or off.

“An abundance of this microRNA was also detected in the traumatised fathers’ sperm and in the brain tissue of their offspring. Could it be that the microRNA was somehow imprinted with the experience of the trauma, transmitting the memory to the offspring? To answer this, the researchers extracted the microRNA from the sperm of traumatised mice and injected it into embryos. The pups that developed from these embryos displayed the same behavioural and metabolic abnormalities as the traumatised fathers, while pups injected with RNA from un-traumatised fathers did not. It was strong support for the hypothesis that the sperm RNA was transmitting the experience of trauma.”

== More science ==

Thorne-Zytkow-neutron-starred supergiant that contains, in its bowels, a neutron star? The existence of such an object was first proposed by (my friend) Kip Thorne, an astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and Anna Zytkow, an astrophysicist at the University of Cambridge, UK. Now there is a strong candidate to be an observed Thorne-Zytkow object. Amazing.

Goodbye High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP). Conspiracy theorists have accused the program of doing everything from mind control to global communications jamming. Now bulldozers await as the research program (on interesting things, not mind control) wraps up.

Exobiologists surveyed more than 1,000 planets for planet density, temperature, substrate (liquid, solid or gas), chemistry, distance from its central star and age. They developed and computed the Biological Complexity Index (BCI) suggesting 1 to 2 percent of the planets showed a BCI rating higher than Europa, a moon of Jupiter thought to have a subsurface global ocean that may harbor forms of life. With about 10 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, the BCI yields 100 million plausible planets. At a glance, it seems a shallow conclusion, in part because Kepler results skew heavily toward massive planets orbiting close to their stars. And because Europa-style moons have no need for a Goldilocks Zone and hence may be pervasive.

Neuroscientists have suspected for some time that the brain has some capacity to direct the manufacturing of new neurons. Now generative neurons that stimulate stem cell production of more neurons have been found.

TheGapIn The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals. Psychologist Thomas Suddendorf provides a “definitive account of the mental qualities that separate humans from other animals, as well as how these differences arose.” Says Ray Kurzweil: “Drawing on two decades of research on apes, children, and human evolution, he surveys the abilities most often cited as uniquely human—language, intelligence, morality, culture, theory of mind, and mental time travel—and finds that two traits account for most of the ways in which our minds appear so distinct: Namely, our open-ended ability to imagine and reflect on scenarios, and our insatiable drive to link our minds together. These two traits explain how our species was able to amplify qualities that we inherited in parallel with our animal counterparts; transforming animal communication into language, memory into mental time travel, sociality into mind reading, problem solving into abstract reasoning, traditions into culture, and empathy into morality.”

Let Phil Plait show you (and explain) the stunning and strange surface of Saturn’s moon, Phoebe.

== Amazing, if true. ==

HP’s new computer technology can manage 160 petabytes of data in a mere 250 nanoseconds.

‘There is something about the brains of high-IQ individuals that prevents them from quickly seeing large, background-like motions.’ Very interesting re differences in brain function. Interesting grist for deep pondering… or else (as I’ve seen)… we’ll see this used by dogmatists proclaiming “see? Smart people must be stupid!”

Papyrus-plant-bookfascinating article in Salon, from the book Papyrus: The Plant that Changed the World: From Ancient Egypt to Today’s Water Wars” by John Gaudet, describes how the papyrus plant gave ancient Egyptians the ability to make boats and use their water world.

Finally, a glimpse at male-female vocabulary differences showing we still have a way to go.


Alex Tolley said...

Re: Kamen's water distiller. It isn't clear to me that this is any better than filtration techniques or even reverse osmosis. I'd like to see more technical details and less self promotion. We all remember the pre-release hype about the Segway and the actuality.

Re: HP's The Machine. I can see why they are swinging for the trees on this one. Some of the technology is new, although the ideas behind are not.
But at this point it is just vaporware. The OS to make this useful needs to be built. The devices need to be built and shown to work as advertised. The cost of teh system needs to be competitive. There is a risk that legacy systems will not work at all, which will make this a very risky proposition and hard sell, unless the niches are completely new. I'll wait to see how they execute. My sense is that this early information release is being used to paper over the very bad news on their finances and the Autonomy acquisition debacle.

re: Non-genetic "inheritance". I suspect this is yet another example of epigenetics. We've seen a spate of these types of findings which are adding to teh complexity of biological systems. But I don't believe they are Lamarckian inheritance, nor do I believe these changes are permanent, but rather transient.

Tony Fisk said...

Sterilising water with UV radiation was being proposed several years ago (eg: here. You can probably achieve the same result by storing bottles on the roof for a day. Simple places need simple solutions.

The Lamarckian hypothesis now has a candidate mechanism: epigenetics. (wherein the environmental experiences of parents and even grandparents) can be passed down in the methylation of the germ DNA. Basically, several genetic strategies developed via Darwinian selection can be switched between generations, according to conditions, rather than evolving over several millenia. Clearly, the strategies would have needed to have evolved at some point.

Robert said...

What would truly be useful is a use of water distillation not currently talked about: distilling (or at least filtering to a high level of purity) well and river water for use in irrigation.

The problem with irrigation of the Middle East was that salts built up in the soil until finally the soil was unable to support life. But if we start using water (and lots of it) that is cleansed of minerals and impurities, then that water can be used to irrigate regions that have saline soils... and over time reduce that soil's salinity. If we're able to do this on a large enough scale... you could turn the Sahara green.

Think on that for a second. If the Sahara were turned green with plant life, you would see lakes starting to form in regions where there are oases, and rivers starting to flow. The entire ecosystem would eventually become almost self-sustaining as temperatures were regulated by plant life, moisture remained in the region... and the region itself could more comfortably support life.

The irony is that the sociopolitical situation would i all likelihood eventually lead to terrorists targeting the water filtration system. After all, if you have plentiful water and food, then it reduces the effectiveness of the message of hate these extremists preach.

Rob H.

Alex Tolley said...

@TonyFisk - I'd forgotten about UV. Simple solutions are better. There are already simple plastic solar distillation devices (basically plastic cones) being used. They can convert seawater to freshwater. No doubt they could do the same for polluted water.

There is also a Central valley, CA farmer who has set up an ag waste water solar purification plant to reuse ag water and to compete with the escalating costs of water. This is also simple and might find application. Almost any book on solar energy will show historical examples of water purification that have been successfully run in desert areas. The problem is old, various solutions known. Cost doesn't seem to be an issue. Is the problem simply educational, or the lack of local materials?

Robert said...

Low vapor-point contaminants. It's what one of my friends pointed out - how does boiling and condensing the water filter out those contaminants?

Rob H.

Robert said...

Well. Now this is interesting... Republicans are going against the Export-Import Bank despite it being supported big-time by Big Business, the Chamber of Commerce, and other such business organizations. It seems that the Tea Party is continuing to alter the very nature of the Republican Party. And this may run contrary to Dr. Brin's statements concerning how Republican Presidents never change anything. They rest on their laurels.

Now they may start shrinking government by refusing to fund or renew certain agencies. And this may even boil over to future Republican Presidents (assuming there are future Republican Presidents, of course).

I have to wonder if the Koch Brothers and others along that line may be starting to contemplate "what is this beast we have unleashed?" with the Tea Party Movement. And might it actually have a good effect on the future of the Republican Party itself?

Rob H.

locumranch said...

I spell 'hypocrisy' as follows:

Celebrating the US federal government’s role in the shale-gas revolution & increased domestic petroleum production while simultaneously condemning fossil-fuel mediated climate change, proving (once again) that our entire society possesses the morality of the debased gambler who prefers to double-down after a loss rather than admit defeat.

The DOE says 'frack' to you, me, climate change & the environment: It endorses the Keystone XL pipeline; it predicts that US petroleum production will peak in 2030; it predicts that decreasing energy prices will increase both US Oil Consumption & US Economic Growth; and it insists that the FUTURE of our fossil-fueled society is simply more of the same.

I agree that technology is a wonderful thing yet it cannot save us from our innate compulsions (ourselves), so we will find (time after time) that it is easier to develop better & more efficient water purification methods than it is to conserve (as in 'not pollute or waste') the watery resources that we already possess.


Alex Tolley said...

@Robert Low vapor-point contaminants. It's what one of my friends pointed out - how does boiling and condensing the water filter out those contaminants?

Isn't that just simple distillation? They will vaporize first, so you let them bleed off, then start collecting the H2O when the water starts to boil? It isn't perfect for various reasons, but it is adequate. Most water in the tropics is contaminated with bacteria. Then there are particulates and then the various pollutants. Careful distillation should remove all but some of the miscible compounds.

I was recently reading that a reverse osmosis plant in San Diego can recycle black (yes!) water to levels so pure that it is far cleaner than municipal water. The cost (~ $700/acre ft) is less than ag water costs today during the drought (~$2000/acre ft). They intend to recycle sewage water for non-potable uses. It will take citizens to agree to change the law regarding using this water for drinking. They are slowly educating the population to overcome the 'yuck' factor. e.g.
From toilet to tap: Getting a taste for drinking recycled waste water

Anonymous said...

from ReproMunchkin

"The prospect of U.S. and Canadian energy independence is .."

Impossible. Sorry.

Alfred Differ said...

San Diego will find the argument easier to make next time the countryside burns... which will happen soon enough. Water discussions gets lots of attention when the smoke clouds are visible. 8)

David Brin said...

Robert, the Export Import bank mostly helps high tech industries, which are (1) hated science! and (2) tend to lean democratic.

Locum it is worthy of questioning, but not hypocrisy, to posit whether shale gas will net-benefit us by (1) killing coal, (2) making more US manufacturing local (U.S.) and hence making our good lower carbon footprint and (3) undermining China’s headlong rush into coal by reducing their exports and (4) recovering the US economy enough for Culture War to die down and the good guys who want to spend a lot on developing renewables defeat the troglodytes at the polls.

Note I favor HEAVY regulation of this new development, seeking and destroying companies that flare or leak methane, for example and banning fracking near aquifers etc. But we live in a complex world. I look for win wins. Without them, we die.

Robert said...

Ah, but here's the thing, Dr. Brin. They are targeting business. Furthermore they are targeting an organization that several big business organizations are fully in support of. Thus Big Business has just had their eyes opened to the fact their puppets, the Republican Party, have gotten off the strings and are causing mischief that they don't want.

Given that they FUND the Republican Party (and the Democratic Party for that matter), they might retaliate by pulling funding. And if those Republicans are able to remain elected because of gerrymandering, they may in turn retaliate by going after other business-related government organizations. They may literally end up "starving the beast" by defunding most of these government organizations and bring about a more libertarian aspect, all out of revenge.

In all likelihood the Export-Import Bank will not be defunded and big business will prevail. The Republicans will have their leashes yanked, Democrats given a small bone in reward for their good faith, and this will fall on the wayside. But it's still interesting to speculate as to what could happen.

After all, is not "What If?" at the heart of science fiction? Of all fiction for that matter? :)

Rob H.

Alex Tolley said...

@DB (3) undermining China’s headlong rush into coal by reducing their exports

It's the other way around. The US is exporting coal to China as gas fired power stations deliver power at lower coast than coal. The new EPA regulations, that Tennessee is fighting, will reduce coal use in the US even faster. But you can bet that coal mining companies will fight for more export orders. Both China and India are prime markets.

IIRC, China is actually ahead of the US in using renewables, especially solar. But their rapid growth is making them an ever larger CO2 emitter.

Interestingly, a carbon tax in the US would help curb China's use of coal because of their huge exports to the US, but would lose effectiveness as China's domestic consumption grows, a policy that is desirable for the global economy.

Alex Tolley said...

@DB - I misread your comment 3. I mow see you meant their exports of goods to the US would decline as US manufacturing revived, not that their exports of coal to the US would decline.

David Brin said...

interesting points

Tim H. said...

Why not license fracking tech to China at reasonable cost, so they can burn less coal? Methane burns cleaner than coal, a small step in a good direction.

Doris said...

I used to drive past a facility that used water lilies to filter the water. I suppose the contaminated lilies could be harvested to extract the contaminants for industrial use. Or they might just be dumped.

What is with this new crater?

daddyoyo said...

In regard to the research that shows people with high IQs being better able to discern small objects against a background and less able to pick out much larger objects: Is it possible that this could be another example of countervailing selection pressure, the former better for quickly identifying a food source, the latter for quickly responding to the sudden appearance of a nearby predator? The other example we have of a possible constraint on further increase in brain size would be the very wide human female pelvis required to give birth to a large headed baby, which is already up against the limits of effective locomotion and the main reason that women are at a disadvantage in running.

Jumper said...

Natural gas is a transition to hydrogen, i.e. kilowatt hours which produce less CO2 than coal. But since it doesn't solve the entire problem we should just give up and use more coal. Avoiding "hypocrisy." Did I sum that up correctly?

If two neutron stars collide with enough velocity can they be blown into pieces that scatter? what would happen if they did?

Tom Crowl said...

From The Hill and the University of Maryland:

Polarization is not driven by the people

"Most Americans reject the idea this is a natural feature of the democratic process. They believe that if members of Congress were to listen more closely to the people they are supposed to represent, they would be more apt to find common ground."

Most people do NOT contribute to political causes... they see themselves as shut out in any meaningful sense and see their limited capability as leaving them with no voice.

The apathy... or more accurately antipathy... of the duopolist Establishment to effective reform is a disgrace to their claimed patriotism. Limits, transparency... and a simplified contribution method with very low thresholds WILL be recognized as a necessary tool for better representation.

This requires both thoughtful conservatives and liberals to defy their respective parties elites and agree to a fairer system.

And it requires an Internet Industry which will recognize its obligation to facilitate that capability across competing platforms via a vehicle able to serve citizens using all these avenues for Internet access. A one-click capability for citizen advocacy is central to that participation... and the core for a non-partisan home on the net.

From the piece:
"If you ask the American people, they do not think they are the problem, but rather competing special interests that are pouring ever-growing amounts of money into the political process and deploying ballooning numbers of lobbyists. They see members of Congress raising increasing amounts of money and making commitments that make them more inflexible in their positions. Since many of these influence-buying interests are at odds with each other, Americans do not find it all that mysterious how Congress ends up in gridlock."

Eventually this neglect will be recognized for the social, economic and political snobbery that it is.

Tom Crowl said...

And from Mr. Lessig himself...

"...the key to the system of corruption that has now wrecked our government is the way candidates for Congress raise money to fund their campaigns. Members of Congress and candidates for Congress spend anywhere between 30% and 70% of their time raising money to get themselves elected or their party back in power. But they raise that money not from all of us. Instead, they raise that money from the tiniest fraction of the 1%. Less than 1/20th of 1% of America are the “relevant funders” of congressional campaigns. That means about 150,000 Americans, or about the same number who are named “Lester,” wield enormous power over this government. These “Lesters” determine this critical first election in every election cycle—the money election."

Should we be surprised that wealth and power have concentrated?

locumranch said...

Good piece by Tom Crowl, the 30% and 70% time spent fundraising parallels that of the academic scientist who spends the same time proportion seeking grant monies instead of doing science, proving that the our sociopolitical system is irretrievably broken.

Also, a quick note to Jumper, who mistakenly argues that natural gas is 'a transition' to hydrogen when natural gas is (1) merely a combustible analogue for coal, oil, wood or buffalo chips (not a replacement) and (2) the preferred source material for industrial hydrogen & helium extraction.


David Brin said...

Anonymous locumranch said...
Good piece by Tom Crowl, the 30% and 70% time spent fundraising parallels that of the academic scientist who spends the same time proportion seeking grant monies instead of doing science...


The top scientist in an academic group may have to spend that fraction of her time on ALL administrative duties but her associates do not.

locumranch said...

Funding Science:


locumranch said...

And one for the road:

Paul451 said...

"If two neutron stars collide with enough velocity can they be blown into pieces that scatter? what would happen if they did?"

Pressure wave at the point of collision would be higher than the density required to form a black hole... The bulk of the colliding material would form the new black hole; material around the edges would be smeared out - which, since the collision would likely be a spiral of death, would create a spiral of material thrown out to form a disc around the new black hole, towards the end becoming a stream squirted out along the poles at relativistic velocities.

(Short duration GRB candidate. Thought to be the source of all the elements heavier than iron.)

You don't get "pieces" though. Neutronium can't exist without continuous pressure, it would revert to plasma then gas/dust.

Reason for the question?

[Turing: atabel questioned]

Paul451 said...

I haven't seen a simulation of a non-spiral-of-death collision, such as a head-on collision. It would be interesting because the radius of the new black hole in a spiral-of-death is small compared to the neutron stars, so it's mainly tidal forces that pull material in as the neutron stars spin to their doom. In a head-on collision, the pressure wave creating the black hole would occur along the whole collision front. It would create an event horizon the shape of a pancake, expanding faster than the shockwave could propagate, then collapsing back to a sphere once the collision passes.

(Likewise a (more likely) off-centre near-head-on collision, which would have elements of both the perfect head-on and the spiral-of-death.)

Paul451 said...

Or are the neutron stars metaphors for politics?

Robert said...

Does neutronium "revert" to normal matter? Or does it just decay as neutrons cannot exist for any significant length of time without associated protons to provide subatomic stability?

If the two neutron stars collided at speed, it might turn into a black hole but we'd not see much matter from it that didn't exist from the remnants of the two stars. The expelled neutronium would likely decay into energy which would likely appear like an explosion.

Rob H.

Alfred Differ said...

Independent academics might spend a large fraction of their time chasing money, but that just encourages them to band together and put the grad students/post docs to work on some of the administrivia. A good working team is going to have specialists and processes for getting the most out of members with each skill.

David Brin said...


Jumper said...

I knew stray "neutronium" of whichever flavor, if detached would revert to matter, but what type? Would that be a different path to trans-iron synthesis, in addition to supernovae? 97% H, 1% He, CNO, tiny bit of trans-iron? Trans-uranium even?