New freelance writings: solitary confinement, lost SoCal beaches, Trump science, and where’s ET?

For those of you following my work, check out this sampling of new articles and writings from the past month (in Newsweek, Hakai magazine, Slate, and Inside Science). Many of them involve important questions we need to ask as a society or have implications for policy. If I’ve done my job, these will spark new questions and discussions, and I’m happy to hear your thoughts on them. As always, I’d like to thank my editors, who help me hone my good ideas and dissuade me from my bad ones.


Solitary Confinement Screws up The Brains of Prisoners

They live in tiny, austere cages not much larger than their bodies, isolated from their peers. These pitiful lab rats once served merely as control groups for researchers, to be compared with rodents in more comfortable abodes with toys and fellow lab animals for interaction. But then scientists realized these unfortunate rats could be the perfect model for a bigger, uglier experiment, since their living conditions mimic those of human prisoners in solitary confinement.

Within just a few days, rats isolated in small, nearly empty cages exhibit stress-related symptoms, aggressive behavior and higher incidences of disease, and they begin to lose the ability to recognize other animals. Over time, even their brain cells, synapses, blood flow and nervous systems start to be impaired. Scientists believe this happens to humans in isolation as well. “Our brains cannot function without social interactions. We require them as much as air and water,” says Michael Zigmond, a neuroscientist at the University of Pittsburgh. He and other scientists have drawn attention in recent years to the effects of solitary confinement on people’s brains, minds and behavior…

Nearly one in five prisoners in the U.S. is put in solitary confinement, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and the majority of them are isolated for at least a month at a stretch. Prisoners in solitary often spend 23 hours of every day in a spartan concrete box the size of a parking space, and they usually have access to only a bed, a sink and a toilet.

Humans are social animals, yet in these conditions, they lack any meaningful social interactions, in addition to being kept in a state of sensory deprivation, with limited sunlight and exercise. Prisoners in solitary confinement rarely interact with staff and are fed through a slot in the door…

[Read the entire story in Newsweek, published on 18 April 2017.]


California’s Surf Spots Are Heading for a Wipeout

Rising sea level is transforming the coastline and causing iconic beaches to disappear.

When powerful storms pummel the coast, strong waves erode the rock and haul beach sand out to sea. In some parts of Southern California, strong waves have already stripped some beaches, and if climate change continues on its present course, the situation will get much worse. By 2100, scientists predict that many of Southern California’s iconic beaches and top surfing spots, from Coronado Beach in San Diego to Will Rogers State Beach in Los Angeles and beyond, will be washed away.

Beaches go through cycles of erosion and replenishment. In Southern California, winter storms and heavy surf pull sand away, and summer waves and sediment from rivers gradually bring it back. But according to a new study, between 31 and 67 percent of the region’s beaches will be irrevocably lost by the end of the century.

“These model results show that if sea levels get as high as expected, it means pretty serious consequences for the coastal zone,” says Sean Vitousek, a University of Illinois civil engineer who led the study…

[Read the entire story in Hakai magazine, published on 20 April 2017.]


Trump Thinks the “Best Available” Data on Climate Change Is From 2003

His new executive order insists on making far-reaching policy decisions using old data. The reasoning he offers up is laughable.

There are many nonsensical assumptions made in President Trump’s new executive order, but one of the least defensible is the decision to calculate the “social cost of carbon” based on science from 2003.

The social cost of carbon puts a number on how much each ton of carbon dioxide emitted will cost us in the long run, thanks to its contribution to climate change. It’s calculated based on a big-picture estimation of how damaging climate change will be overall. This is obviously tough to estimate, but having even a ballpark number allows policymakers to have a rough way of comparing the potential future benefits of regulations to the small immediate savings. Currently priced at $36 a ton, the social cost of carbon is mostly used for internal calculations, but since 2008, government agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Transportation have had to take it into account when making regulations.

Trump’s team has had its eye on this number for a while—in late January I wrote that while the existence of the number is mandated, how it’s calculated is flexible. Leaked memos had already shown that Trump’s people were targeting it, even though it technically wasn’t supposed to be recalculated until 2020.

With this new executive order, Trump has officially taken it on. His plan would return the calculation to its 2003 level—a time when regulators could get away with ignoring climate costs and the benefits to avoiding them because of how uncertain they were. It also disbands the nonpartisan group of federal scientists who make the estimate…

[Read the entire article in Slate, published on 29 March 2017.]


Extraterrestrial Life Might Be Hiding in Plain Sight

Detecting signs of life on planets beyond the solar system turns out to be more complicated than previously thought.

It seems like every day that astronomers discover another possibly habitable world, like Proxima Centauri b, our closest exoplanent neighbor, and TRAPPIST-1f, one of seven recently discovered Earth-sized planets orbiting the same star. But don’t prepare for first contact just yet. It will be exceedingly complicated to figure out whether there’s actually any life or potential for it on such planets, based on new research into our own evolving world.

To a distant observer peering through a telescope, even Earth would not have shown signs of life through most of its past. Despite the fact that our planet was teeming with mostly microscopic life for three billion years, levels of oxygen and methane — gases often produced by metabolizing organisms — would have been too low to be noticed from afar. This means that today’s scientists on Earth might not be able to detect commonly assumed signs of extraterrestrial life, and they might give up on planets that are actually inhabited, according to a new study in the journal Astrobiology.

“There are huge swaths of time throughout Earth’s history during which it would’ve been difficult to see the presence of these metabolisms even though we know from the rock record that they were around. It’s a sobering thing,” said Christopher Reinhard, an Earth scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, and lead author of the study, who presented the research at a conference in Mesa, Arizona on April 27…

[Read the entire story in Inside Science, published on 27 April 2017.]

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