Most Planets May Be Seeded With LIfe
Phil Berardelli Science
The title of this article really is “Most Planets May Be Seeded With Life”. I would point out what a ludicrous construction this is, but it would be approximately equivalent to nudging the guy standing next to you at the Taj Mahal and saying, “pretty nice, huh?”. The author also drops the journalistic gem, “The new find, described this week in the journal Astro-ph, is stronger.” Which is a bit surprising, because “Astro-ph” is not a journal at all, but just the name of the astrophysics section of arXiv.org, where physicists post free preprints of their work. The paper, which can be found here, has actually been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.
The paper uses the word “life” twice in seven pages of text – once in the abstract and once in the introduction. The news story uses the word “life” five times, including in the title. I made a token attempt to skim through the paper, but I have no experience with astrochemistry and can’t really say much about the scientific merit of the work. The data sure looks pretty.
Here is the bottom line: the researchers behind this paper work hard at solving technical problems. The problem they were trying to solve here is, “how can you tell whether some particular organic molecule is out there in a given direction of outer space, when you can’t go there, can’t send a probe, can’t do an experiment, and can only passively collect a little bit of light?” Their work is astrochemistry, and it has no honest direct association with the origin of life. Also, if you want to understand what they do, you will have to devote a lot of time and energy into it.
But, the science writer is on a deadline. I know someone who interned for Science and wrote this sort of five-minute story. You probably only have one day to read about the work, get in contact with and get a quote from one of the lead scientists on the paper, then find another, independent scientist in the same field, who has also seen this particular preprint on the arXiv, and get a quote from that guy to balance the story out. Then you have to throw your story together as quickly as possible so it can go through revisions and the art people can find a relevant graphic, so you add a pun if you can detect one, and somehow make it catchy or attention-grabbing with the least possible effort. Of course “Origin of Life!” becomes the slant of the story.
I see two problems with this. One is that there are a lot more “origin of life” stories out there than there are actual breakthroughs on the origin of life. So if you’re innocently following at home what “those guys in the white labcoats” do all day, you’d at first think they’re making huge progress every week. Then after a while, you’d begin to wonder why, if they’ve been making so much huge progress, they still don’t seem to have all this figured out yet.
The second is a problem I’ve personally encountered. Science simply is not 100% adrenaline. Most of it is boring. Scientists spend much of their time waiting for gels to run, debugging their code, and fixing their lasers. (Sound awesome? It gets monotonous. But there are those few seconds every once in a while where you think, “Whoa! I play with lasers all day!” Then your thesis adviser tells you how much he’s looking forward to your presentation in group meeting on Monday. This is Friday night. You start to cry.) Having a science job is a lot like having a normal job. You just work more and get paid less.
That isn’t the picture you get coming in, though. Many of my high school students (I’ve had a couple hundred) have told me that they “love” science. I cringe a little when I hear that. (I cringe a lot when I get, “I love science, but I just don’t get the math part of it.”) Loving science, for them, just isn’t possible. They don’t know science. They might love the ideas they learned in science class. They might have loved doing their science fair project. But they probably will not love writing grant proposals or reviewing inscrutable papers. When they do finally get to the lab, they get a little confused about what it is they were looking forward to all this time. Come to think of it, maybe I was using the wrong pronoun this last paragraph, and wasn’t referring to my students at all.
Of course, seeing problems is easy. Everyone sees a thousand problems a day, mostly with other people. Then they bitch about it a bit and consider the issue closed. Not that I see a solution. But let’s leave the issue open.
Sea Change For Turtle Origins
Erik Stokstad at Science
I like this one much more than the last. Its attempt at a pun is so bad it’s simply confusing. It gives a nice picture of the “we don’t know shit” side of science. The underside of a turtle shell is apparently called a “plastron”, which is an egregiously-awesome term for such a mundane thing. Finally, there is a guy saying “The reason I’m excited about that is that it pushes the story of turtle origins even further back in time.”
Well shit yeah, baby! Now I’m excited, too. I’m so wired I can barerly acontrl my ffingers on the keybaorad.
Nikita at Monosyllables
Here’s an awful confession. I was sitting around with some other guys like myself (well, not EXACTLY like myself, but other young American nerds) on Thanksgiving, projecting the computer screen on the wall so we could watch downloaded versions of Arrested Development. A story from Google news popped up citing the number of people killed that day in the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. I jokingly calculated that because Mumbai has about 13 million people in it, and people live 70 years or so, we could calculate the daily death rate there, which is order of magnitude 500. That gives a daily standard deviation of root 500, or 20-25 people assuming deaths are independent, randomly occurring events. The attacks that day were a three or four-sigma event. Barely statistically significant, because that many extra people should die totally at random in Mumbai once every few years. Then Nikita’s post reminded me there were real people there, that I knew some of them, and that it wasn’t so great a joke.
The Toughest Man In Cairo Vs. The Zionist Vegetable
Anand Balakrishnan in Bidoun
According to my old neighbor, Kamal Hanafi, the vegetables in Israel are huge and good for only one thing. “The cucumbers,” he exclaimed, eyes lighting up, “are this long”—he stretched his hands more than a foot apart. “They are this wide”—he made a circle with his two hands. “And they taste like shit, all chemicals and unnatural fertilizers.” He spat. “No one can eat vegetables that disgusting. The only people who use them are the women, who sit like this”—he spread his legs to demonstrate. “And the men, of course.” The invisible cucumber in his hands jabbed sharply up. “And now they’re sending their vegetables to Egypt to fuck us all.”
Dancing Droplets and Spherical Harmonics
Stefan on Backreaction
Little bubbles of oil resonating as spherical harmonics. I’ll bet you didn’t know they could do that. Now you do.
Perfect athlete’s 100m sprint time calculated
Dave Robson on New Scientist
More terrible abuse of the word “science”. The article says, “fitting the data to a mathematical model that matches the other results, Denny predicts future male sprinters will at best shave 0.21 seconds off Usain Bolt’s current world record of 9.69 seconds for the 100 metres.”
It’s wrong. It’s so terribly wrong. There is really no reason to believe that just because you drew a curve through some data points, you’ve predicted the future. If it were that easy, everyone would have done it earlier, and predicted today’s world records. But they didn’t. The article itself does technically refrain from calling the work “science”. But apparently it’s actually being published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, despite containing no experiment or biology. Can’t we just take all these people and send them somewhere?
Beethoven and Borge
from In The Dark
Humor on the piano. It’s like stand up comedy, but they’re sitting down. You better be, too, before watching these wacky films!
That’s it for this week. I read plenty of other stuff, but it was just boring things. Reminded me of you.