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.]

Continue reading

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.]

Continue reading

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.)

Continue reading

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.]

Continue reading

Prison takes away what we need for a healthy life

As I was reporting on my Newsweek on the psychological and neurological effects of solitary confinement, I came to a realization. Prison in general, and solitary confinement in particular, take away the things we need to have a good chance of living a long and healthy life.

It should come as no surprise then that people who spend most of their lives in prison don’t live as long as the general population. With long prison sentences applied to a wide range of crimes, there’s more and more old people in federal and state prison in the US, and they lack the care and attention they need. Unfortunately, many people assume that anyone in prison is not worth any sympathy. That doesn’t make sense to me. (Plus, as I wrote in a new piece in Undark, some people in prison are innocent but were convicted based on flawed forensics or mistaken eyewitness testimony.)

Anyway, I learned quite a bit from my reporting, especially my conversations with Brie Williams, director of the University of California Criminal Justice and Health Project in San Francisco and an expert on geriatrics at UCSF. In order to maintain our health as we age, we need both physical and mental exercise on a regular basis, and we need meaningful social interactions. According to Williams, loneliness in older adults is associated with increased mortality, cognitive impairment, and dementia.

But people in prison are in extended isolation, with restricted movement and enhanced loneliness. Prisoners hardly get any exercise, and they have very few chances of keeping their minds limber. And their social interactions with people are extremely limited, the opposite of the way you might interact with a close friend or family member. In addition to people with decades-long sentences, nearly one in five prisoners is put in solitary confinement often for long stretches. Some people break down when they hear that metal door clang shut, while others find a way to adapt. But in the end, it’s a noxious environment that people are “exposed” to, as Williams puts it, and it takes a long time for people to recover, if given the chance.

So I feel like I’ve learned something, both for myself and for others. First, it’s important to try to keep up with regular exercise, activities that exercise my mind, and keep up with friends and my social life. Second, let’s remember that our elders need help to have those things too, and that’s what we’re here for. When we’re older, we’d appreciate that, too.

Election polling postmortem finds flaws in polls of Midwestern states that went for Trump

Remember the chaotic election last November? How could we forget! If you followed the polls and listened to pundits, you could be forgiven for expecting Hillary Clinton to win by a large margin. But that’s not what happened, and the outcome surprised even some established pollsters, prompting an investigation of the election polls, which six months later has now been completed.

The new report released today [I’ll include a link here] by the American Association for Public Opinion Research finds that, no, the polls aren’t “broken.” National polls fared pretty well, while Midwestern state polls missed a big segment of voters leaning toward Donald Trump. The letter from FBI director James Comey about the Clinton email probe appeared to cause a small temporary shift, and quite a few undecided voters broke for Trump at the last minute, but despite that Clinton won the national vote by 2.1%, almost as much as forecast (3%) and well within the uncertainties. But Trump’s victory in states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, where non-college educated suburban white people were politicized and turned out in large numbers, caught experts off guard. (Polls gave Clinton the edge in those three states, and had she won all of them, she would’ve won with 278 vs 260 electoral votes.)

The popular vote went for Clinton, but in the end, that doesn’t matter. Pollsters need to spend more time and effort on state polls, especially in “battleground” states, to improve those polls and more accurately get the voting preferences of all segments of the population of likely voters, including those who don’t respond as often to pollsters’ phone calls or online surveys. State polls throughout the upper Midwest seem to have missed non-college educated and working-class whites in suburban and rural areas, who turned out the vote more than expected and preferentially for Trump.

There’s a couple other findings worth noting, but I’d like to make a more important point about how polls are interpreted. Many people seem to have banked on Clinton’s narrow national lead, which did not translate into an Electoral College win. It wasn’t even close. “The horse race becomes interesting news fodder, but it’s misleading,” Michael Link, past president of AAPOR, tells me.

Continue reading

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.]

Continue reading