Why Astrophysicists Shouldn’t Build Things

Astrophysicist Daniel Reardon

Australian astrophysicist Daniel Reardon thought he’d turn his inventiveness to help humanity by inventing a device to help people learn not to inadvertently touch their faces.  His idea was to build a necklace with sensors which would respond to magnets worn on the wrists and buzz to alert the wearer when their hands approached the face.... [Read More]


Short Story Review: “Staking a Claim”

“Staking a Claim” by Travis J. I. CorcoranTravis J. I. Corcoran’s Aristillus novelsThe Powers of the Earth and Causes of Separation, are modern masterpieces of science fiction, with a libertarian/anarcho-capitalist core that surpasses Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress in showing how free people can turn a wasteland into prosperity for all who seek liberty and defend itself against the envy and greed of those who would loot what they had created and put them back in chains.  The two novels in the series so far won the Prometheus Award for best novel in 2018 and 2019, the first self-published novels to win that award and the first back-to-back best novel winners in the four decades the prize has been awarded.  They were jointly fiction winners of my Books of the Year for 2019.

One of the factors which contributed to the success of the anarcho-libertarian lunar settlement at Aristillus was the origin of the crater in which it was founded, which, in the story was, 1.3 billion years before the present, by the impact of a 1.4 kilometre metallic asteroid in the eastern part of Mare Imbrium.  The portion of its mass which did not vaporise on impact was thrown up into the triple-peaked mountain at the centre of the 55 km crater, where its payload of iron, nickel, and other heavy metals differentiated as the magma solidified.  The Moon’s crust, formed from a mix of that of the Earth and the Mars-sized impactor (sometimes called “Theia”), is impoverished in heavy metals, which had already sunk to the cores of the impacting bodies and were not disrupted in the collision, so the impact which formed Aristillus was fortuitous, creating a concentrated source of material otherwise difficult to obtain on the Moon.... [Read More]


Book Review: Collapse

“Collapse” by Kurt SchlichterIn his 2016 novel People’s Republic, the author describes North America in the early 2030s, a decade after the present Cold Civil War turned hot and the United States split into the People’s Republic of North America (PRNA) on the coasts and the upper Midwest, with the rest continuing to call itself the United States, its capital now in Dallas, purging itself of the “progressive” corruption which was now unleashed without limits in the PRNA. In that book we met Kelly Turnbull, retired from the military and veteran of the border conflicts at the time of the Split, who made his living performing perilous missions in the PRNA to rescue those trapped inside its borders.

In this, the fourth Kelly Turnbull novel (I have not yet read the second, Indian Country, nor the third, Wildfire), the situation in the PRNA has, as inevitably happens in socialist paradises, continued to deteriorate, and by 2035 its sullen population is growing increasingly restive and willing to go to extremes to escape to Mexico, which has built a big, beautiful wall to keep the starving hordes from El Norte overrunning their country. Cartels smuggle refugees from the PRNA into Mexico where they are exploited in factories where they work for peanuts but where, unlike in the PRNA, you could at least buy peanuts.... [Read More]


Bankruptcy Socialism: A Dystopian Tale

Bankruptcy SocialismIn September, 2008, with the financial crisis of that year triggered by the collapse of the mortgage-backed securities bubble shaking the foundations of financial institutions world-wide and an election in the U.S. looming which had the prospect of electing the most explicitly left-wing president in the country’s history, I wrote a Gnome-o-Gram titled “The AIG Takeover and Bankruptcy Socialism”, in which I introduced the term “bankruptcy socialism”.  I have appended that original article, unmodified, to this post so you can see what I was thinking at the time and how things evolved subsequently compared to what I envisioned.

Although I wish for nothing more earnestly than the kind of optimistic outcome from the present disruption due to the coronavirus pandemic and the measures taken to deal with it, such as those sketched by TKC 1101 in his post “So What Is the POTUS Strategy?”, I also believe it is wise to look at other, darker strategies which may be put into place by those with agendas very different from the swift and complete recovery from the present troubles for which I, and most people, hope.... [Read More]


“COVID-19 — Evidence Over Hysteria”

CensorshipAaron Ginn, a Silicon Valley technologist who worked on the digital team for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and subsequently co-founded Lincoln Network, a conservative group of technologists, posted a long (≈ 7000 word) think piece on Medium.com titled “COVID-19 — Evidence Over Hysteria”.  This is a fact-based exploration of what we know and what we don’t know about this disease and its progression so far, the steps taken to deal with it and their potential economic consequences, and recommendations for course changes.  He concludes:

These days are precarious as Governors float the idea of martial law for not following “social distancing”, as well as they liked while they violate those same rules on national TV. Remember this tone is for a virus that has impacted 0.004% of our population. Imagine if this was a truly existential threat to our Republic.... [Read More]


Discordant Data from the Diamond Princess

Diamond Princess (ship)One of the first concentrated outbreaks of COVID-19 was on board the cruise ship Diamond Princess, one of whose passengers tested positive for COVID-19 in Hong Kong on 2020-02-01.  The patient had onset of symptoms on 2020-01-19, one day before boarding the ship and disembarked at Hong Kong on 2020-01-25.  When the ship returned to Yokohama, Japan on 2020-02-03, it was held in quarantine, during which time a total of 3,063 PCR tests were performed on the 3,711 passengers and crew.  By 2020-02-20, there were 634 confirmed cases on-board, of which 328 were asymptomatic (positive on the PCR test, but with no self-reported symptoms as of that date, although symptoms may have developed subsequently).

A detailed analysis of this outbreak by eleven authors from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, “Estimating the infection and case fatality ratio for COVID-19 using age-adjusted data from the outbreak on the Diamond Princess cruise ship” [PDF] has been posted on the medRxiv preprint server.  The paper has not been peer-reviewed.... [Read More]


Patience! 1:10100 Reduction Gear Train

To commemorate his first billion seconds (31.7 years) on Earth, Daniel de Bruin built a gear train which consists of 100 gears meshed in series, each with a ratio of teeth of 10 to 1.  Thus, the first gear has to make ten complete revolutions before the second gear completes one revolution.  Since each gear in the train moves at a tenth the angular speed of its predecessor, gear n will rotate at \(1/10^n\) of the speed of the first gear or, equivalently, the first gear must rotate \(10^n\) times before gear n completes one revolution.  Thus, for the final gear in the 100 gear train to revolve once, the first gear must turn \(10^{100}\) times, or a googol revolutions.

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Saturday Night Science: Introduction to Probability and Statistics

DiceCalculation and Chance

Most experimental searches for paranormal phenomena are statistical in nature. A subject repeatedly attempts a task with a known probability of success due to chance, then the number of actual successes is compared to the chance expectation. If a subject scores consistently higher or lower than the chance expectation after a large number of attempts, one can calculate the probability of such a score due purely to chance, and then argue, if the chance probability is sufficiently small, that the results are evidence for the existence of some mechanism (precognition, telepathy, psychokinesis, cheating, etc.) which allowed the subject to perform better than chance would seem to permit.

Suppose you ask a subject to guess, before it is flipped, whether a coin will land with heads or tails up. Assuming the coin is fair (has the same probability of heads and tails), the chance of guessing correctly is 50%, so you’d expect half the guesses to be correct and half to be wrong. So, if we ask the subject to guess heads or tails for each of 100 coin flips, we’d expect about 50 of the guesses to be correct. Suppose a new subject walks into the lab and manages to guess heads or tails correctly for 60 out of 100 tosses. Evidence of precognition, or perhaps the subject’s possessing a telekinetic power which causes the coin to land with the guessed face up? Well,…no. In all likelihood, we’ve observed nothing more than good luck. The probability of 60 correct guesses out of 100 is about 2.8%, which means that if we do a large number of experiments flipping 100 coins, about every 35 experiments we can expect a score of 60 or better, purely due to chance.... [Read More]


A Flabbergasting Visit to SpaceX’s Starship Factory

SpaceX Starship, Boca Chica, TexasEric Berger, senior space editor of Ars Technica, recently visited the SpaceX Starship assembly and test facility at Boca Chica, Texas.  He was given a tour of (but not allowed to photograph inside) the huge tents, just erected in January, February, and March 2020, where work on the Starship components is underway.  His report, just published, is “Inside Elon Musk’s plan to build one Starship a week—and settle Mars”, and I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it outside science fiction.  In fact, it reminds me of “Doc” Smith’s Skylark stories where things of astonishing scale were done by tiny teams on a breakneck schedule.

Here are just a few quotes.... [Read More]


The United Kingdom Lost 40% of its Domestic Airline Flights Today

Flybe (airline) logoThis may not be on your radar, but it’s a big thing in Europe.  Flybe, the largest regional airline serving the United Kingdom, collapsed yesterday, after failing to secure a rescue bridge loan from the UK government.  All of their planes are grounded and all flights cancelled.  They have defaulted on all carriage contracts, including those pre-paid.

This is a catastrophe for many small communities in the British Isles, for which Flybe provided the only feeder service to the major hubs for long-range flights.  Flybe accounted for around 40% of all domestic flights in the United Kingdom.  Imagine the consequences if 40% of all domestic airline flights in your country were cancelled for an indefinite period and with no warning.... [Read More]


Coronavirus: Just the Facts from Singapore

Singapore Health Minister Gan Kim Yong made a statement in the Singapore parliament which summarised, in less than six minutes, what we know and what steps people should take to protect themselves from this virus.  One wishes there were such calm and objective voices speaking to residents of the more excitable countries of the West.

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Freeman Dyson, R.I.P.

Freeman DysonFreeman Dyson (1923–2020), who died on February 28th, 2020 at the age of 96, was one of the preeminent mathematical physicists of our age.  His interests ranged far and wide, and during his long career he did pioneering work on, inter alia, quantum electrodynamics; number theory and combinatorics; design of small, inherently safe nuclear reactors; spaceships powered by nuclear explosions; megastructures that might be constructed by advanced civilisations (Dyson spheres); genetically engineered organisms that can survive in space (Dyson trees and astrochicken); the origin of life from non-living matter; eternal survival of intelligence in an expanding universe; military strategy and nuclear arms control; scepticism over computer models of climate; and the relation of science and religion.  It is widely believed that his work on unifying quantum electrodynamics and the interpretation of Feynman diagrams would have won him a share of the 1965 Nobel prize in physics, had the prize not been restricted to at most three recipients.

Mr Dyson (he never finished a Ph.D. and later called the system “an abomination”)  was briefly a professor of physics at Cornell University and in 1952 joined the staff of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, where he remained until his death.  He was a long-term member of JASON, the independent group of scientists who advise the U.S. government.... [Read More]


Mobile Telephones in the 1940s

Starting in 1946, with a pilot program in St. Louis, Missouri, AT&T launched its Mobile Telephone Service (MTS).  By 1948 the service was available in 100 cities and towns and along highway corridors.  The service ran on 25 VHF radio channels, using half-duplex FM; handsets on mobile installations had a push-to-talk button.  All calls were placed through human operators.  Here is a Bell System promotional film from the late 1940s about the wonders of mobile telephony and how it worked.

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Radioactive Quackery Is Back!


Radioactive symbolIn the early years of the 20th century, there was a craze of medical quackery following the discovery of radioactivity in 1896 and the isolation of radium in 1898.  Radioactive quackery quickly spawned numerous products which claimed to have a variety of medical benefits.  Many of these products were completely bogus, but some, to the detriment of their buyers, were actually genuine.  Radithor, for example, was a patent medicine composed of distilled water containing at least one microcurie of radium salts.  Wealthy U.S. industrialist Eben Byers, who ingested large quantities of the stuff, died in 1932 of a variety of cancers and degeneration of his bones.  He was buried in a lead-lined coffin.... [Read More]