New freelance writings: Surveillance of truckers; clumps of stardust; religion & science

In case you missed them, here’s a few pieces I’ve recently written and published for Medium, Inside Science, and Thanks as usual to my excellent editors! I’m only posting brief excerpts here, so if you’re interested, please check out the whole thing using the links below.

You can stay more up-to-date if you follow my electronic newsletter, Ramin’s Space!


Robot Truckers Are Here — They Just Happen to Be Human

Electronic tracking devices and other surveillance tech monitor just about everything human drivers do, automating what was once an independent job.

Truckers drink coffee and complain about Mondays just like everybody else. Work can be a slog. But unlike what you’re probably used to in your office, many truck drivers now deal with rigorous and near-constant electronic surveillance — a camera pointed at them to closely monitor productivity, for example.

“You feel like you’re being watched all the time,” says John Grosvenor, founder of Truckers United for Freedom, a group that advocates for truckers’ rights. “Some people act out in inappropriate behaviors at times — they stick their finger in their nose or do something crass—as a form of rebellion. All in all, they hate it.”

Devices now track every aspect of a trucker’s job, including their current location, where they’re going, how fast they’re driving, and when they take a break and how long it lasts. Mostly for insurance purposes in the event of an accident, trucks often come equipped with cameras trained on both the driver and the road. They also have a variety of radar, lidar, and ultrasound sensors, as well as accelerometers and gyroscopes. The data feeds into an onboard computer, similar to self-driving vehicles. One firm has even developed a steering wheel with built-in heart monitors to monitor fatigue.

Since companies need truckers to deliver specific things at specific times, truckers don’t have regular routes like other drivers, but instead might be hauling paper towels to New York one day and motoring a haul of bolts down to Pittsburgh the next. Any delay can foul up assembly lines and supply chains. “That’s really the foundation of the day-to-day, routine monitoring of truck drivers since the mid-1990s,” says Steve Viscelli, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania and author of The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream. “[Trucking] has slowly evolved to look very much like the algorithmic management that everyone thinks is new about platforms like Uber.”

[Read the entire piece in Medium, published on 1 October.]


Scientists Discover Star Dust in Antarctic Snow

Researchers in Antarctica turned up a large amount of a form of iron likely forged in nearby supernova explosions.

A team of scientists hauled 500 kilograms of fresh snow back from Antarctica, melted it, and sifted through the particles that remained. Their analysis yielded a surprise: The snow held significant amounts of a form of iron that isn’t naturally produced on Earth.

Other scientists had previously spotted the same rare isotope of iron in deep-ocean crusts. Called iron-60, it has four more neutrons than Earth’s most common form of the element. But the iron-60 in the crust likely settled on the Earth’s surface millions of years ago, as opposed to what was found in fresh snow in Antarctica that had accumulated over the past two decades.

“This is the first evidence that someone saw something that recent,” said Dominik Koll, a physicist at Australian National University in Canberra and lead author of the study. The team published their findings this week in the journal Physical Review Letters.

Outer space objects ranging from dust to meteors regularly fall to Earth, but they are generally made of the same materials as our planet, since everything in the solar system, including the sun itself, assembled from the same building blocks billions of years ago. Because iron-60 is not among those common materials, it must have arrived from somewhere beyond the solar system…

[Read the entire piece in Inside Science, published on 16 August.]


‘Deep Space Nine’ Revealed a Modern Balance Between Science and Religion

A balance with a core of respect, understanding, and a willingness to listen that we could all learn something from.

From the moment he stepped on board Deep Space 9, Commander (and later Captain) Benjamin Sisko grappled with his additional title as the Bajorans’ Emissary to the Prophets, a dual role that became fraught with tension. But Sisko later found that it came with benefits as well, helping him understand and connect with others he might not have been able to before— including those with deeply held religious beliefs.

The ways that Sisko learned to navigate a balanced path as both a hard-nosed Starfleet officer and a spiritual-religious figure offer lessons for those of us in the 21st Century today. We still see frequent conflicts and mistrust between science advocates and religious people, with some outspoken scientists like biologists Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne, neuroscientist Sam Harris, and physicists Lawrence Krauss and Victor Stenger, often dismissing and even disparaging religious people in their work and scientific advocacy.

These groups of people aren’t monolithic, but some science advocates can behave like fundamentalists with their anti-religion sentiments. The yawning gap between religious zealots and anti-religious people makes it hard for them to see eye to eye on many issues, such as abortion, stem cell research, evolution, and genetic engineering…

[Read the entire piece in, published on 25 September.]

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