The Skinny on Our First Interstellar Visitor

In case you haven’t heard, the astronomy community is all atwitter over the first confirmed visitation from beyond our star system

No, we’re not talking aliens, not even the kind that look suspiciously like extras wearing costumes. No, Oumuamua as this visitor is called, is an oddly elongated asteroid currently whizzing through our solar system, having made its closest approach to the sun about two months ago.

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How Did Apollo Astronauts Get Through The Van Allen Belts?

Speed and trajectory.

It is a common misapprehension that all radiation is some sort of magic death ray. It isn’t. Type, dose, and duration of radiation make all the difference. We evolved on a radioactive planet. Sunlight is a type of radiation. Nuclear radiation can kill–or be stopped by our outer layer of dead skin cell. Even our bones are weakly radioactive, and we evolved to handle the gamma rays they produce within our bodies just fine.

Long before Apollo, NASA launched a fleet of probes to map and characterize the Van Allen belts. The belts primarily consist of an inner band of energetic protons and an outer band of electrons, all trapped from the solar wind by the Earth’s magnetic field.

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Our National Bird on the Mend

As a science fiction author, I spend more than my fair share of time thinking of all the ways the world can go to hell in a hand-basket and ruin everything for everybody–that makes for dramatic stories.
But in fact, science is about understanding and progress, and we need to take time for that too.

This morning, just as I was sitting down with my second cup of coffee, a bald eagle flew past my 35th floor window, not twenty feet away

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How to Save Your Children

Sixty years ago, polio was one of the most feared diseases in the world.

Each year, warming weather brought polio season. Late summer was “polio season.” Public swimming pools were shut d

own. Movie theaters urged patrons not to sit too close together. Insurance companies sold polio insurance for newborns.

In 1952 alone, 60,000 American children were infected; thousands died; many thousands were paralyzed.

My aunt was one of the lucky ones; she might have been the girl in this photo. She eventually learned to walk without crutches, but the leg never grew again, and she wore orthopedic platform shoes and heaved through the house like Hephaestus, or through the school where she taught the next two generations

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How Fossils Happen

An archeological site in Denmark illustrates beautifully both how fossils form and why they are so rare.

Field archeologists from the Museum Lolland-Falster in Denmark have been investigating a stone-age coastal site exposed during excavation for a new tunnel. When this site was occupied over 5,000 years ago, sea levels were rising due to glacial melt. The site was a fjord on the island of Lolland in Denmark. It continued to flood with rising sea levels until construction of a flood control dyke in 1877 left it high and dry.

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How NASA saved money while saving your life.

Whoa! I DID NOT know this.

Back in the day, NASA operated a number of Apollo Program related simulators at Langley. One of them was this bad boy, the “Lunar Excursion Module Simulator (LEMS).” NASA gantry at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.LEMS was rigged up to bear 4/5ths of the weight of a test Lunar Lander to support lunar landing simulation. They even ran sims at night to help simulate lunar lighting. I knew this. In fact, I just sold a story that mentions this facility.

What I did not know…what I would not have suspected…is that this thing, which the Langley folks call “The NASA Gantry” it still in operation.

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The Post Human Delusion

Our intelligence is an emergent properly of an electromechanical system—our brain. If nature can produce an intelligent brain, we can produce an intelligent brain. There is no magic involved, and we already have a handle on much of what it invovled.

The only question is, what will that brain look like, what will it value, and how will it be motivated?

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A Radioative Wonderland

A recent social media interaction led me to a page of anti-nuclear alarmism making such wild claims as “Background radiation has increased 600 fold since 1950,”  and “Radioactive Carbon 14 From Nuclear Power Plants Causing Deforestation…Global Warming.”


For a start, the global average background radiation today is 2.3mSv, and no one really knows what it was in 1950, because by 1950 it had only been measured in a handful of places. It is certainly true that it’s higher, but it’s also true that we are all constantly exposed directly to about .3mSv just from traces of potassium 40 in our bones

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Why NASA Matters*

*Even to the most jaded, practical minded.

Asked recently on the Internet:

Why is the U.S spending so much money on NASA given that it is impractical and does not generate cash flow to sustain itself?

Because much of what NASA does isn’t immediately practical or capable of generating a self sustaining cash flow. Government has no business doing those things. Government should pay for things business can’t or won’t, like basic research.

NASA went to the moon because it was impossible, impractical, madness.

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Your Wine Is Radioactive

Liquor and wine is illegal in the U.S. unless it is radioactive.

No, really.

In the US, alcohol for consumption must be made from “natural” materials such as grains, grapes, or fruit. It cannot be synthesized from petroleum (like almost every medicine you’ve ever put in your mouth, or for that matter, most food containers and plastic cutlery.

No, synthetic alcohol is chemically indistinguishable from the products of fermentation, but it’s just too cheap to be tolerated (at least until we run out of oil.) So to reduce consumption (a goal of the anti-alcohol lobby) and reduce competition (a goal of the liquor lobby), ATF inspectors turn to the same tools scientists use to show how stupid Ken Ham is: radiocarbon dating.

Nitrogen high in Earth’s atmosphere is constantly bombarded with solar and cosmic radiation, and some of it gets whacked into smaller atoms, including radioactive carbon 14. C-14 has a half life of 5,700 years, so over time, the entire atmosphere has reached an equilibrium point where C-14 is decaying into stable isotopes at the same rate it’s being created.

Natural alcohol gets its carbon from plants, and plants get their carbon from the air, so natural alcohol contains C-14 in the same ratio as it occurs in our atmosphere today.

Petroleum contains carbon that was taken from the air by plants and plankton that lived anywhere from 70 to 400 million years ago. After that much time, it contains almost no C-14 at all.

By using extremely sensitive instruments, scientists can measure the C-14 in a sample and estimate it’s age quite accurately up to about 50,000 years–any older than that and the remaining C-14 becomes indistinguishable from traces caused by naturally occurring radiation in the ground.

So while Mr. Ham doesn’t understand this, you cannot carbon date a dinosaur (we have other methods for that) but you can radiocarbon date a paleolithic campfire, a medieval roundhouse, or a nice Merlot. The calculated age, in the latter case, should be “not much.”

Of course, you could always synthesize alcohol next to a source of ionizing radiation, but such skullduggery is best left to the young earthers.