New freelance writings: Planet Nine or Planet Nein, climate deniers spreading influence, and the first giant black hole

In case you missed them, here’s a few new stories I’ve published recently. Thanks as usual to all my excellent editors. For the Atlantic piece, I included a paragraph (in parentheses) that didn’t make the final cut.

 

Is Planet Nine Even Real?

A year and a half after it was proposed, astronomers are still debating whether the giant mystery planet actually exists.

An artist’s impression of Planet Nine. (Credit: ESO / Tom Ruen / nagualdesign)

When Mike Brown first proposed that a hidden, massive planet lurks in the outer reaches of our solar system, he was confident someone would prove him wrong. “Planet Nine,” as the hypothetical world was nicknamed, was his explanation for the strange movements of half a dozen distant, icy planetoids that are farther away and smaller than Pluto: In theory, this huge, somehow-undiscovered planet could sway their orbits. But surely astronomers would be quick to find a more obvious explanation.

“Shockingly, in a year and a half, nobody has,” says Brown, an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology. “There have been so many claims of planets in the last 170 years, and they were always wrong. But I’m clearly a true believer at this point.”

Brown, the self-titled “Pluto Killer” who led the campaign that demoted the dwarf planet, and Konstantin Batygin, his coauthor at Caltech and a young star who plays in his own rock band, know how to spark debate. Since their proposal about Planet Nine, the lack of definitive evidence for or against its existence has divided the planetary community. Other astronomers have put forth alternative explanations, and some contend Brown and Batygin’s data are biased. Until someone clearly spots the new mystery planet in a telescope, they’ve come to an impasse…

Incidentally, both Batygin and Madigan invoke the principle of Occam’s razor, the notion that the simplest explanation is likely the correct one. But they come to completely different conclusions, highlighting that this seemingly straightforward principle is actually rather complicated, with no clear answer yet in sight.

(In a historical parallel, Brown and Batygin are about the same age as Niels Bohr, already a Nobel laureate, and Werner Heisenberg, an up-and-coming physicist trying to make a name for himself, when they famously clashed with Einstein about how to interpret bizarre observations in quantum mechanics. Bohr’s view ultimately became the “standard” one, but a few holdouts still follow Einstein’s. Nearly 90 years later, some say the dispute remains unresolved.)

[Read the entire piece on The Atlantic, published on 8 December.]

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New freelance writings: searching for aliens, avoiding space war, and virtual reality addiction

In case you missed them, here’s a few new stories I’ve published. Thanks as usual to all my excellent editors.

 

To find aliens, we must think of life as we don’t know it

Artist’s impression of a planet orbiting in the TRAPPIST-1 system. (Image credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser.)

From blob-like jellyfish to rock-like lichens, our planet teems with such diversity of life that it is difficult to recognise some organisms as even being alive. That complexity hints at the challenge of searching for life as we don’t know it – the alien biology that might have taken hold on other planets, where conditions could be unlike anything we’ve seen before. ‘The Universe is a really big place. Chances are, if we can imagine it, it’s probably out there on a planet somewhere,’ said Morgan Cable, an astrochemist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. ‘The question is, will we be able to find it?’

For decades, astronomers have come at that question by confining their search to organisms broadly similar to the ones here. In 1976, NASA’s Viking landers examined soil samples on Mars, and tried to animate them using the kind of organic nutrients that Earth microbes like, with inconclusive results. Later this year, the European Space Agency’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter will begin scoping out methane in the Martian atmosphere, which could be produced by Earth-like bacterial life. NASA’s Mars 2020 rover will likewise scan for carbon-based compounds from possible past or present Mars organisms.

But the environment on Mars isn’t much like that on Earth, and the exoplanets that astronomers are finding around other stars are stranger still – many of them quite unlike anything in our solar system. For that reason, it’s important to broaden the search for life. We need to open our minds to genuinely alien kinds of biological, chemical, geological and physical processes. ‘Everybody looks for “biosignatures”, but they’re meaningless because we don’t have any other examples of biology,’ said the chemist Lee Cronin at the University of Glasgow…

[Read the entire piece on Aeon, published on 19 September.]

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A debate for the World Conference of Science Journalists: How can we make our profession sustainable?

This is my first year as a freelance science writer and journalist, and I’m excited to meet colleagues and peers converging on San Francisco for the World Conference of Science Journalists this weekend. We’re working in a continually evolving profession though, especially as news keeps shifting from print to online. I hope that we journalists, especially freelancers, find a way to make our profession sustainable. Maybe a writers union would help, and I’m curious to hear other ideas too.

Many people read and watch the news on various platforms every day, and a decent fraction of them seek out science news, too. Even those who don’t seek it out come across science-related coverage pretty often. It’s our duty to all our readers to provide engaging stories, accurate news, and thorough investigations. I love this job, but it’s hard for writers and reporters to do it well when they’re underpaid and overworked. (We’re not the only underpaid workers though, which in my opinion include elementary school teachers and childcare workers.)

Our society values journalism, even in these fractious times with divided public opinion about the press. (That’s another story.) Freelancers and interns are at the lowest levels of the industry, but they’re the foundation. They’re also future staff writers and editors, but as newsrooms continue to cut staff and consolidate job duties, they don’t necessarily have the stablest job security either. That also goes for copy editors and photographers. Let’s support all workers in our industry.

Too many magazines and news outlets pay poorly or late. We have deadlines and expectations to meet, and so should our publishers. I’m heartened to see so many new science- and environment-related news outlets popping up, so we have more options, but as we’ve seen with Nautilus magazine, they’re not all the best for writers. Some of them also unfortunately turn out to be short-lived, such as when a supporting foundation or philanthropist gets a new hobby. You’d think that more established magazines with bigger budgets and circulations, like The Atlantic and The New Yorker, could afford to pay better, but I haven’t seen evidence of that yet. It’s disappointing.

So where do we go from here? Should we form a science writer union, so that we can work together to earn better pay and put pressure on publishers? Should we encourage magazines, newspapers and online sites to have more paywalls, so that online news becomes more highly (appropriately) valued? Every industry in the “gig economy” seems to undervalue its workers, but if we unite and develop common goals, maybe we can find ways to improve the situation.

These are just my thoughts as I arrive in San Francisco this morning. I’m happy to hear your opinions about these huge challenges, too.

New freelance writings: space policy debates, flawed flood maps, and harmful plastics

In case you missed them, check out my recent stories, from inadequate flood maps to contamination from plastics to space policy debates. Thanks to my editors for helping these pieces turn out so well.

 

Trump’s ‘America First’ Policies Won’t Work in Space

A communications satellite launched earlier this year. Some in the federal government consider space the next frontier for warfare. (Photo courtesy of United Launch Alliance.)

Space is a big place, but our upper atmosphere isn’t. Rapidly increasing numbers of satellites orbit there, in addition to innumerable bits of space debris, and rockets fly through it on missions to the moon, Mars, asteroids, and deep space. President Trump’s newly revived National Space Council will have to manage this busy region and beyond.

The council members—which include heads of dozens of agencies, including the state, defense, commerce, transportation, and homeland security departments—have their work cut out for them as they develop recommendations for national space policy. Regulating and enabling commercial space activities will likely be a top priority, and the group will likely need to address issues including space debris and potentially militarized satellites. Given the risks of weaponizing space if the US, China, and Russia take their disputes beyond earth, and considering the commercial space industry’s uncertain position with respect to national and international law, the council’s first and primary goal should be to pursue space diplomacy…

[Read the entire piece on Wired, published on 23 August.]

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New freelance writings: planetary math, marine archaeologists, underwater robots, and a movie review

In case you missed them, check out my recent stories, from the search for life on distant worlds to clues of the collapse of civilizations on the bottom of the ocean. Thanks to my editors for helping these pieces turn out so well.

 

The Next Step In The Search For Aliens Is A Huge Telescope And A Ton Of Math

This illustration shows the possible surface of TRAPPIST-1f, one of the recently discovered Earth-sized planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Aliens could be hiding on almost any of the Milky Way’s roughly 100 billion planets, but so far, we haven’t been able to find them (dubious claims to the contrary notwithstanding). Part of the problem is that astronomers don’t know exactly where to look or what to look for. To have a chance of locating alien life-forms — which is like searching for a needle that may not exist in an infinitely large haystack — they’ll have to narrow the search.

Astronomers hoping to find extraterrestrial life are looking largely for exoplanets (planets outside Earth’s solar system) in the so-called “Goldilocks zone” around each star: a distance range in which a planet is not too hot and not too cold, making it possible for liquid water to exist on the surface. But after studying our own world and many other planetary systems, scientists have come to believe that many factors other than distance are key to the development of life. These include the mix of gases in the atmosphere, the age of the planet and host star, whether the host star often puts out harmful radiation, and how fast the planet rotates — some planets rotate at a rate that leaves the same side always facing their star, so one hemisphere is stuck in perpetual night while the other is locked into scorching day. This makes it a complex problem that scientists can start to tackle with powerful computers, data and statistics. These tools — and new telescope technology — could make the discovery of life beyond Earth more likely…

[Read the entire story on FiveThirtyEight, published on 21 July.]

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Sharing the solar eclipse

It was wonderful sharing the solar eclipse with my 15-month-year old kid! He won’t remember this, and he kept pulling the eclipse glasses off his face, but I think he enjoyed the experience. It may not be such a big deal to him, at least not yet, but it’s important to me.

Thousands of San Diegans thronged to Balboa Park near the Fleet Science Center to enjoy the eclipse together.

I was moved and impressed to see so many San Diegans enjoying even just the partial eclipse together. I saw thousands in just one part of Balboa Park, next to the Fleet Science Center and Natural History Museum, and I’m sure people flocked to other locations too, including the central library in town. We had our NASA-approved eyewear, which I was happy to pass around to those around me, and the marine layer burned off in time, giving us a perfect view of the whole thing.

Eclipses are rare affairs, encouraging us to stop, quit squabbling about politics and our quotidian concerns, and just look up in the sky. (With proper eye protection, of course.) Such a cosmic event, a dance of the Earth, Moon, and Sun, really puts things in perspective.

Let’s not forget what this moment feels like. We’re in this together, people. This is our planet, our one and only world, and it’s up to us humans to take care of it.

Had to feed my kid a bottle while I enjoyed the eclipse (which you can see a reflection of on the back of my shirt).

I’m happy hearing everyone’s stories and reflections on the eclipse. Feel free to share your experiences on social media, in the comments below, or the old-fashioned way — in person.

My partner and I are already planning to check out the 8 April 2024 solar eclipse, and this time we’ll do it right — in totality. My kid will be almost 8 then, or about four Martian years old. Maybe we’ll head to Mazatl&‌aacute;n, Mexico, to witness it on the edge of Aztec country.

Lessons from my first six months of freelancing

Well, I’ve made it through about a half year of freelance writing, and so far it’s been an exciting, tumultuous, stressful, and intriguing time.

It’s tough getting started, as you’re basically running your own business — you’re a writer, a reporter, a self-editor, and the boss. And it’s even tougher being a parent at the same time. Fortunately, freelancing allows for more flexible time. But that means coming to terms with all the stories and pieces you don’t have time to write.

Despite the ups and downs, I think I’ve done pretty well so far. Over the last six months, I’ve published in a bunch of outlets and magazines I had never worked with before, including Newsweek, Slate, FiveThirtyEight, Undark, Quanta, Hakai, Now.Space (now defunct, unfortunately), and San Diego Home & Garden magazine. (See my Writings page for links to these articles.)

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We should beware the White House’s counter propaganda arm

An anti-Russian propaganda project operating under the State Department and Broadcasting Board of Governors threatens to do more harm than good, while raising the stakes of battles over truth and facts in the media.

Current Time America news anchor Ihar Tsikhanenko, right, prepares for a broadcast in the offices of Voice of America in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

With fears growing of “fake news” and Russian influence on the November election, former President Obama upgraded the Global Engagement Center two days before Christmas last year, as part of the National Defense Authorization Act. Its stated goal is to counter “foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation efforts aimed at undermining United States national security interests.” But the line between propaganda and counter-propaganda is rather thin, and now President Trump and Secretary Rex Tillerson have the reigns.

Led by veterans of Voice of America and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, the center plans to try to correct false claims from outlets like Russia Today, though it also has China, Iran, and the Islamic State in its sights. It’s targeting its messaging at foreign audiences abroad, but as popular news is global these days, some of its programming will easily reach American media consumers, too.

The Global Engagement Center’s activities include television and radio programs, online news, and a social media presence. It’s one thing though to use such tools and broadcasts to debunk false reports and unverified claims, whether about airstrikes or elections, but the organization is more ambitious than that. Its purpose includes “proactively advancing fact-based narratives that support US allies and interests,” according to a presentation obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

If they’re advocating for American foreign policy interests, that’s going farther than just presenting facts. This isn’t just splitting hairs; for an administration that not only believes in “alternative facts” and “truthful hyperbole” but also at times appears to be at war with the media, the risks of sliding into propaganda are very real. A broadcast that discourages a potentially violent recruit of the Islamic State is one thing, but if it promotes US foreign policy, that’s a different matter, and it could backfire.

Furthermore, Trump may tap Michael Pack, an ally of Steve Bannon, to head the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which is already no longer controlled by a bipartisan board. The Global Engagement Center and Voice of America could lose any semblance of independence as they continue to reach more than 100 countries in 61 languages — but potentially with broadcasts more favorable to Trump’s White House.

In the age of “fake news,” this scrutiny of anti-propaganda efforts also exposes the limits of fact-checking. When checking a fact, journalists have to consider what sources to choose and whose authority to trust. A news program that seems impartial or objective to one person may simply assume a status quo long criticized by others. Journalists should be more conscious of such assumptions.

Finally, it remains unclear if American journalists could be targeted by the Global Engagement Center. It’s focused on foreign media and audiences, but well-intentioned or not, it’s not hard to imagine American reporters critical of Trump’s policies being caught in its net. For example, let’s not forget the much-criticized Washington Post news story last November about “Russian propaganda efforts spreading fake news during the election,” according to the headline. It was based on an anonymous website called PropOrNot, whose list included disinformation outlets as well as legitimate US-based news sources.

On the road ahead, let’s hope that the Global Engagement Center strives for transparency and consults independent journalists about controversial programming. In the meantime, I’m hoping that we reporters, as well as readers and watchers of the news, more carefully pay attention to what’s said and what’s not said — and to who’s doing the talking.

Consciousness: Pushing the boundaries of science and pseudoscience

I attended a conference in La Jolla last week with the ambitious title, “The Science of Consciousness”. As it brought together neuroscientists, psychologists, biologists, physicists (like Roger Penrose), mathematicians, linguists (like Noam Chomsky), and many others, I looked forward to a variety of perspectives, including those outside the mainstream, but I got more than I bargained for. It turns out that it also included people more involved in various kinds of spirituality, wellness, meditation, and…interesting artistic interpretations.

(Image by Robert Fludd, 1619, Wikimedia Commons.)

Instead of shedding light on something as perplexing and seemingly impenetrable as consciousness, which people have been trying to understand for millennia, these other approaches threaten to undermine the whole enterprise. I worry that some of the conference could be better characterized as “The Pseudoscience of Consciousness.” And the distinction between science and pseudoscience never seemed more blurred.

But what do I know. Science hasn’t really given us that much of an understanding of the murky concept. What is consciousness and do only humans have it? What about babies and the elderly and people with debilitating mental illnesses? Exactly what parts of the brain are involved (just the frontal cortex? microtubules in neurons everywhere?) and how did it appear in evolution?

Science is only getting us so far, and consciousness is a fundamental conundrum of the human condition, so why not consider other avenues toward probing it? But some people aren’t doing that argument any favors. There’s people like Deepak Chopra (who was at the conference) who add the word “quantum” to their speculative if not fanciful ideas to try to make them profound or something. That’s B.S. (And anyway, the interpretation of the quantum behavior of particles and waves remains disputed and poorly understood since their discovery some 90 years ago, so that’s not the best reference to make!)

I’m glad people continue to speculate and investigate different facets of consciousness, such as how we’re conscious about our perceptions of language and conversation, music, making and retrieving memories, etc. Some scientists are also studying the kinds of neuronal activity that are dampened by anesthetics and enhanced by psychoactive drugs, which sounds weird, but it might illuminate, just a bit, what’s going on in our parts of our complex brains.

I’m also glad that people aren’t limiting this endeavor science. After all, poets, philosophers, musicians can make insights no one else has thought of before, and we need to listen to them. But when there’s the risk of pseudoscience being passed off as science and gaining legitimacy at the expense of it, then we have a problem.

Maybe this sort of thing is inevitable when you’re pushing the frontiers of something unknown while answers remain illusive. For example, think of interstellar space exploration, which also naturally captivates the imagination of a wide range of people. At times the consciousness conference reminds me of parts of the “Finding Earth 2.0” conference organized by 100-Year Starship that I went to back in 2015. While some impressive people like Jill Tarter and Mae Jameson focused on space travel technology and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), other people worked on things like “astrosociology.” I was expecting people to talk about what it might be like for a handful of people to be stuck in an enclosed spaceship for years or a slightly larger planetary colony for decades. Those are important and tractable questions—and scientists at NASA and elsewhere are studying them right now. But instead a handful of people spoke about giant ships at least a century in the future, like it was Battlestar Galactica or the starship Enterprise or something. Yes, let’s think about what things might be like in the 23rd century, but all that’s premature unless we figure out how to get there first.

New freelance writings: forensic science reform, planet impacts, earthquake forecasting

Check out my latest articles and writings this past month, for Undark, Nature, New Scientist, and Now.Space. As always, thanks go to my editors. If you read just one, I recommend the Undark piece, which I’m particularly proud of and took a lot of work to write and report on.

 

Bite Marks and Bullet Holes

The Attorney General ended the National Commission on Forensic Science, suppressing an opportunity for reducing convictions based on faulty evidence.

Forensic scientists working in the crime laboratory located in Ridgepoint House. (Source: West Midlands Police – Forensic Science Lab)

Keith Harward spent more than three decades in prison on the presumed strength of forensic dentistry. No fewer than six forensic dentists testified that his teeth matched a bite mark on a 1982 victim of rape and murder. But in April of last year, after serving more than 33 years in a Virginia penitentiary, new DNA evidence prompted the state Supreme Court to make official what Harward knew all along: He was innocent, and the teeth mark analysis was unequivocally, tragically wrong.

“Bite mark evidence is what the whole case hinged on and ultimately had me convicted,” Harward said. “But,” he added, “this stuff is just guesswork.”

Today, many forensic scientists would agree — and they’d say the same, or nearly so, about a menagerie of other techniques that are used to convict people of crimes, from handwriting analysis to tire track comparisons. And while some techniques fare better than others, everything short of DNA analysis has been shown to be widely variable in reliability, with much hinging on forensic practitioners with widely varying approaches and expertise.

[Read the entire story in Undark, published on 2 June.]

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