November freelance writings: the brain science of adolescence and learning languages

In case you missed them, here’s a few pieces I’ve recently written and published for Knowable magazine and Inside Science. 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! (I had to plug it.)

Knowable: https://www.knowablemagazine.org/article/mind/2018/how-second-language-can-boost-brain

 

Age-Based Justice System Approach Overlooks That Adolescence Extends Beyond Age 18, Scientists Say

Psychological and brain development extends years beyond the end of puberty, new research shows.

In the U.S. when a person reaches 18 years old, they enjoy new rights such as voting. They also shoulder new burdens, especially in the legal system. Federal and state law can treat an offender on his or her 18th birthday very differently than they would have the day before. But does developmental science agree that an 18-year-old can reason as an adult?

Contrary to the prevailing legal perspective, a person’s brain and psychological abilities typically don’t fully mature until around age 22, according to B.J. Casey, a psychologist at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, who presented her research probing the adolescent-adult transition at the Society for Neuroscience conference in San Diego last week. Considering that 18- to 21-year-olds are in many ways still adolescents who are becoming adults, she and other scientists argue that the legal system should account for that and avoid overly harsh punishments.

Brain development “extends beyond what we typically associate with adolescence based on legal definitions — into the young adult period,” Casey said…

[Read the entire piece in Inside Science, published on 15 November.]

 

How a second language can boost the brain

Being bilingual benefits children as they learn to speak — and adults as they age

Even when you’re fluent in two languages, it can be a challenge to switch back and forth smoothly between them. It’s common to mangle a split verb in Spanish, use the wrong preposition in English, or lose sight of the connection between the beginning and end of a long German sentence. So — does mastering a second language hone our multitasking skills or merely muddle us up?

This debate has been pitting linguists and psychologists against one another since the 1920s, when many experts thought that bilingual children were fated to suffer cognitive impairments later in life. But the science has marched on. In the Annual Review of Linguistics, psycholinguist Mark Antoniou of Western Sydney University in Australia outlines how bilingualism — as he defines it, using at least two languages in your daily life — might benefit our brains, especially as we age. He addresses how best to teach languages to children and lays out evidence that multiple-language use on a regular basis may help delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease…

[Read the entire Q&A in Knowable magazine, published on 29 November.]

New freelance writings: Oumuamua, police algorithms, neighborhood violence

In case you missed them, here’s a few pieces I’ve recently written and published for Quanta magazine, Undark magazine, and Knowable magazine. Thanks as usual to all of 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.

 

Interstellar Visitor Found to Be Unlike a Comet or an Asteroid

The mystery of ’Oumuamua, the first interstellar object ever observed, continues to deepen. A new analysis argues that if it were a comet, it would have broken apart as it passed near the sun.

Artist’s concept of interstellar object1I/2017 U1 (‘Oumuamua) as it passed through the solar system. (Image credit: ESO / M. Kornmesser)

Like a hit-and-run driver who races from the scene of a crash, the interstellar guest known as ’Oumuamua has bolted out of the solar system, leaving confusion in its wake. Early measurements seemed to indicate that it was an asteroid — a dry rock much like those found orbiting between Mars and Jupiter. Then by this past summer, astronomers largely came around to the conclusion that it was instead a comet — an icy body knocked out of the distant reaches of a far-off planetary system.

Now a new analysis has found inconsistencies in this conclusion, suggesting that ’Oumuamua may not be a comet after all. Whether it’s actually a comet or an asteroid, one thing is clear: ’Oumuamua is not quite like anything seen before.

The object was first spotted a year ago by scientists with the Pan-STARRS telescope in Hawaii. ’Oumuamua (a Hawaiian word meaning “scout”) appeared to be a rocky, elongated asteroid at first, a stubby cosmic cigar.

Other astronomers quickly joined in the hunt, measuring everything they could. (One team even trained radio telescopes on it to check whether it might be transmitting extraterrestrial broadcasts. It was not.)…

[Read the entire piece in Quanta magazine, published on 10 October.]

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The Trump administration’s encouraging nuclear brinkmanship, not deterrence

[I was thinking of publishing an op-ed somewhere about these issues, but I decided to just post my thoughts in the form of a blog post here.]

President Trump recently signed a massive defense bill, and of the whopping $716 billion bill, $65 million goes to new submarine-launched “low-yield” nuclear weapons.

At a time when we’re supposed to be leading the way on cutting back on nuclear arms, this comes across as a “Do as we say, not as we do” policy. The low-yield warheads are likely to backfire by contributing to another arms race with Russia that lowers the bar to nuclear war.

The name’s misleading: such nukes are about half as devastating as the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima and killed some 100,000 people. They’re still weapons of mass destruction. They’re also redundant, considering that the military already has plenty of “dial-a-yield” weapons that can be adjusted to release the same degree of explosive power.

Philip Calbos of Trump’s National Nuclear Security Administration thinks the Obama administration was weak on nuclear deterrence, according to comments he made that I obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. He believes that these new weapons will somehow deter nuclear rivals like Russia and aid nonproliferation efforts at the same time.

This new array of weapons is supposedly part of the nuclear “modernization” program, which began under Obama and actually replaces and upgrades the nuclear arsenal to the tune of more than $1 trillion dollars over the next 30 years. It also includes new bombers with new cruise missiles, new earth-shattering gravity bombs, new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and new nuclear submarines.

Are thousands of nukes in ever more varieties really necessary? Does they even accomplish what they’re ostensibly for — deter a nuclear first strike? It’s more realistic that Russia, China, and other nuclear powers will see these new weapons not as merely defensive but as something that themselves could even be used as a first-strike option. This growing supply of missiles, subs and bombers doesn’t benefit any of us, except perhaps the stockholders of Boeing, General Dynamics, and Northrop Grumman.

If we seems to have a military advantage, surely our nuclear adversaries will try to bridge that gap — and then just as surely nuclear advocates in the Pentagon and Congress will come back asking for even more weaponry, escalating the nuclear brinkmanship. The US, Russia and China are already developing hypersonic missiles that travel three times the speed of sound, as well as new missile-defense systems, and adding more kinds of nukes would just encourage others to follow suit.

“We are at our busiest since the Cold War,” Calbos said. We shouldn’t take comfort in that.

Furthermore, in a relic of the Cold War, the US military still keeps hundreds of nukes on hair-trigger alert, ready to launch from silos and subs on a moment’s notice. A false alarm or ambiguous signals from early warning sensors could lead to Dr. Strangelove-style irrational retaliation from President Trump.

More low-yield warheads will just obliterate the distinction nuclear weapons and conventional ones. The Pentagon even reserves the right to respond to non-nuclear attacks, like to the electric grid, with nukes, and low-yield weapons just makes it more conceivable for a small conflict — or a mistake or misread intelligence — to turn into a nuclear one.

This completely reverses efforts to gradually reduce nuclear stockpiles. If the Trump Administration and Congress are serious about nonproliferation in the Middle East and East Asia, they should resist adding to our own arsenal.

Many Congressional Democrats — though not California’s senators — voted for the huge military bill, despite including investments in these new low-yield nukes, which could find their way onto subs at sea within the next few years. But Democrats have the chance to redeem themselves if they retake Congress during November’s election and stop this dangerous weapon from being deployed.

July freelance writings: managing space debris, risks of seafloor power cables, and the most controversial galaxy

In case you missed them, here’s a few new pieces I’ve written and published for Scientific American, Hakai magazine, and Inside Science over the past month. Thanks as usual to all of 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.

 

Scientists Test Tiny Labels for Sorting Out Space Debris

Numerous bits of orbiting debris threaten spacecraft, so two teams propose tracking them with unique license plate-like transponders.

Artist’s depiction of objects currently in low Earth orbit, shown at an exaggerated scale to make them visible. (Credit: European Space Agency)

Thousands of known pieces of debris already clog low Earth orbit, with many more expected as research and commercial projects begin to launch swarms of small satellites known as CubeSats.

David Palmer, an astrophysicist at Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico, and his colleagues are working on a way to keep tabs on the growing space traffic. Palmer normally studies pulsars — distant celestial bodies that emit regular pulses of radio waves — but he realized that their low-power signals could be a model for tracking human-made objects in space. This inspired Palmer and his colleagues to develop postage stamp-sized beacons for satellites that are uniquely identifiable, like license plates in space. These devices, if successful, could become ubiquitous in the industry and help address the worsening problem of proliferating space junk.

“We’re looking to get it out of the experimental phase. In the next couple years, people will want them for their own satellites. If all goes well, maybe in five to ten years, there will be requirements that everything that goes into space has to have one of these,” Palmer said.

This space license plate, called an Extremely Low Resource Optical Identifier (ELROI) by Palmer and his colleague Rebecca Holmes, uses flashes of laser light at a precise frequency and pattern to give its satellite host a serial number. It can be attached to anything and comes with its own solar panel for an independent power source, so that it can keep on running even if the satellite itself no longer functions. They’re aiming to launch the first test model with a New Mexico Tech satellite in late September…

[Read the entire piece in Inside Science, published on 31 July.]

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June freelance writings: A space arms race, space sustainability, and the damages of solitary confinement

In case you missed them, here’s a few new pieces I’ve written and published for Politico magazine, Smithsonian magazine, and Knowable magazine over the past month. Thanks as usual to all of my excellent editors. I’m only posting brief excerpts here, so please check out the whole thing using the links below. I also published a book review in Undark and an article in Quanta. If you’d like to stay up on my and others’ latest science writing, sign up for my new newsletter!

 

How Trump’s ‘Space Force’ Could Set Off a Dangerous Arms Race

The president says he wants to dominate the cosmos. But China and Russia aren’t just going to stand by.

The Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite constellation. (Credit: US Air Force)

“When it comes to defending America, it is not enough to merely have an American presence in space,” President Donald Trump said Monday as he announced the creation of a new “Space Force” to protect U.S. interests and assets in space. “We must have American dominance in space.”

Past American presidents may have thought the same, and acted accordingly, but rarely have they ever expressed this sentiment so brazenly. It’s yet another way Trump has broken with past precedent—and it could set off a dangerous arms race, potentially sparking a Cold War in space.

As one top expert on space security, Joan Johnson-Freese of the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, put it to me, “This will probably be seen as another indicator that the United States is moving towards a more militaristic position regarding space activity.”

Trump directed the Pentagon on Monday to establish a sixth branch of the military to focus on space, presumably separating personnel that concentrate on things like military satellites and their ground infrastructure from the Air Force…A separate plan for developing missile defense platforms to be deployed in space may be in the works as well, though, if Congress decides to fund it…

[Read the entire piece in Politico magazine, published on 22 June.]

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May freelance writings: Space industry oversight, plumes from Europa, and the expanding universe

In case you missed them, here’s a few new pieces I’ve written and published for The Hill, Scientific American, and Quanta magazine over the past month. Thanks as usual to all of my excellent editors. I’m only posting brief excerpts here, so please check out the whole thing using the links below.

 

Space, like the oceans, is not too big to become polluted or for ships to engage in conflict

The Dream Chaser spacecraft is one of a bunch being developed to fly people into space. (Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation)

The private space industry is poised to continue growing, from developers of space tourism and innovative satellite applications to moon developers, Mars colonists, and asteroid miners. Many of the big players so far are based in the U.S., yet policymakers (and international diplomats, too) have already fallen behind are struggling to catch up.

We’re in dire need of a single national organization dedicated to authorizing and regulating activities in orbit and beyond. Congress has the opportunity right now to take a step in that direction but only if it considerably improves upon the currently drafted American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act.

The version that overwhelmingly passed the House on April 24 promotes the industry and satisfies the Trump administration’s goals, but it lacks bite. It calls for expanding the Office of Space Commerce — which currently only has a few staff members — to license spacecraft, but it’s not clear it would be up to the task or would offer more than rubber stamps on every rocket…

[Read the entire review in The Hill, published on 15 May.]

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April freelance writings: gun violence research, suffocating marine wildlife, and water on Mars

In case you missed them, here’s a few new pieces I’ve written and published for Undark magazine, Knowable magazine and Eos magazine over the past month. Thanks as usual to all of my excellent editors. I’m only posting brief excerpts here, so please check out the whole thing using the links below.

 

Bringing Science to Bear, at Last, on the Gun Control Debate

Despite the restrictions on CDC funding, research into gun violence has actually increased in recent years. How can the findings inform public policy?

Guns and parts places on a table in a shooting range (Image courtesy: Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives)

February’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which resulted in 17 killed and 17 more wounded, horrified people across the country, spurring student walkouts and marches in support of stricter gun control laws, including universal, comprehensive background checks and a ban on assault weapons. But gun debates in the United States have proven to be contentious and intractable. Indeed, even as thousands rally for new legislation, opponents contend that such measures won’t prevent determined criminals from obtaining a firearm and that responsible gun ownership makes communities safer.

In charting a course forward, it is necessary to move beyond “people’s anecdotal opinions,” says David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. He and other researchers are analyzing data and conducting studies with the ultimate goal of informing public policy. It’s a tough task, in part because of a by now well-known piece of legislation called the Dickey Amendment, passed by Congress in 1996 with support of the National Rifle Association. This amendment prevented the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using funds “to advocate or promote gun control.” It didn’t ban federally-funded gun research, but the legislation had a chilling effect: from 1996 to 2013, CDC funding in this area dropped by 96 percent.

Against this backdrop, it can be easy to overlook an important fact: Research into gun violence has actually increased in recent years, rising from fewer than 90 annual publications in 2010 to 150 in 2014. Universities, think tanks, private philanthropy — even the state of California — have been offering support. And last Wednesday, governors from six northeastern states and Puerto Rico announced plans to launch a research consortium to study the issue. A December 2017 policy article published in the journal Science describes a “surge” of recent scientific publications. “The scope and quality of gun-related research is growing,” write the authors, a pair of researchers from Duke and Stanford, “with clear implications for the policy debate.” This research has generated significant findings about suicide, intimate partner violence, community health, and the effect of various state-level gun laws…

[Read the entire review in Undark magazine, published on 30 April.]

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March freelance writings: Quantum debates, climate vs oceans, and Steve the aurora

In case you missed them, here’s a few new pieces I’ve written and published for Nature, National Geographic, and Hakai magazine last month. Thanks as usual to all of my excellent editors. I’m only posting brief excerpts here, so please check out the whole thing using the links below.

I dedicate this book review to Jim Cushing, the Notre Dame professor who helped me learn about the intricacies of quantum mechanics and philosophy of science. He also showed me about intersections between politics and science. I never really had the opportunity to tell Cushing thank you, as he battled with depression and committed suicide in 2002.

 

Einstein, Bohr and the war over quantum theory

Ramin Skibba explores a history of unresolved questions beyond the Copenhagen interpretation.

Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein in the late 1920s. (Credit: Emilio Segre Visual Archives/AIP/SPL)

All hell broke loose in physics some 90 years ago. Quantum theory emerged — partly in heated clashes between Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr. It posed a challenge to the very nature of science, and arguably continues to do so, by severely straining the relationship between theory and the nature of reality. Adam Becker, a science writer and astrophysicist, explores this tangled tale in What Is Real?.

Becker questions the hegemony of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. Propounded by Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in the 1920s, this theory holds that physical systems have only probabilities, rather than specific properties, until they’re measured. Becker argues that trying to parse how this interpretation reflects the world we live in is an exercise in opacity. Showing that the evolution of science is affected by historical events — including sociological, cultural, political and economic factors — he explores alternative explanations. Had events played out differently in the 1920s, he asserts, our view of physics might be very different.

Becker lingers on the 1927 Solvay Conference in Brussels, where 29 brilliant scientists gathered to discuss the fledgling quantum theory. Here, the disagreements between Bohr, Einstein and others came to a head. Whereas Bohr proposed that entities like electron) had only probabilities if they weren’t observed, Einstein argued that they had independent reality, prompting his famous claim that “God does not play dice”. Years later, he added a gloss: “What we call science has the sole purpose of determining what is.” Suddenly, scientific realism — the idea that confirmed scientific theories roughly reflect reality — was at stake…

[Read the entire review in Nature magazine, published on 27 March.]

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February freelance writings: Possible alien lifeform; risks of marine energy; and big air snowboarding

In case you missed them, here’s a few new pieces I’ve written and published for Scientific American and Hakai magazine last month. Thanks as usual to all of my excellent editors. I’m only posting brief excerpts here, so please check out the whole thing using the links below.

 

Enceladus Could Be Teeming with Methane-Belching Microbes

New lab experiments suggest a particular microorganism could be the source of methane emanating from the oceanic depths of Saturn’s icy moon.

One of many images of Saturn’s fascinating moon, Enceladus, from the Cassini spacecraft. (Credit: NASA)

Scientists and science fiction writers alike have long wondered about what forms alien life might take on other worlds. Now researchers have strengthened the case that, at least on Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus, some alien life might closely resemble a specific type of microbe found deep in our own planet’s seas. Such alien organisms may even be living there now, and if so, could conceivably become the first discovered beyond Earth.

“We had speculated about the possibility of life outside the ‘habitable zone’ in our solar system,” says Simon Rittmann, a biochemist at the University of Vienna, referring to the limited orbital region where starlight-warmed planets can host liquid water on their surfaces. “Now we’ve found in our modeling that some of the methane produced on Enceladus could be of biological origin.” Enceladus, of course, lies far outside the habitable zone, but nonetheless boasts a deep liquid ocean beneath its icy crust.

Rittmann led a team performing a series of experiments and modeling to determine if any three methane-producing microbes could grow in the crushing depths of the ocean’s cold, briny and alkaline waters. They argue one of these so-called “methanogen” species could indeed live there, encouraging more detailed research and missions to find out for sure…

[Read the entire article on Scientific American, published on 27 February.]

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It’s dangerous to idolize Elon Musk

Here’s the Roadster heading into interplanetary space as if it were some kind of DeLorean. (Credit: SpaceX)

Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, CEO of Tesla, co-founder of SolarCity, and proposer of Hyperloop, holds many titles. He isn’t a superhero or a savior, but you might think otherwise as you see the fawning coverage he continually receives.

Musk and his SpaceX colleagues have accomplished great things, including successfully launching the Falcon Heavy rocket on Tuesday, currently the world’s most powerful rocket (until NASA’s competitor comes online next year). Musk said he felt “giddy” before the launch, and space journalists appeared to feel the same way, gushing over the rocket and the man behind it. Space exploration is indeed exciting, and SpaceX plays an important role in it, but it serves no one well to idolize Musk and put him on a pedestal.

SpaceX’s achievements have arguably encouraged NASA in the development of their Space Launch System and their reusable space capsules. And with his other ventures, he has spurred the electric vehicle market and the solar panel industry, and he has pushed high-speed rail advocates in California and the East Coast to improve their plans. But he is only human, his budgets and schedules are often unrealistic, and his visions for the future are not shared by everyone.

Nevertheless, many people imbue him with great powers, as if he will single-handedly combat climate change, solve urban traffic problems, right the world’s wrongs, and explore the galaxy at the same time. Even journalists have gotten caught up in Musk’s cult following, but this attitude is neither accurate nor healthy.

Space exploration involves thousands of hard-working scientists and engineers and a dozen space agencies worldwide. And NASA and the European Space Agency and all the others are accountable to the public and Congress in a way that Musk never is. If he changes his mind against exploring Mars or advancing solar power, or if his ideas to terraform the Red Planet or transform public transportation raise major concerns, no one can stop him or vote him out of his position. But no one should have that kind of power.

Furthermore, though a darling of the left in the US, Musk is not exactly a progressive leader. He boarded the Donald Trump ship for half a year before finally abandoning him over the Paris climate accord. He gave Trump more legitimacy in the process while not really accomplishing anything — other than pushing for a tax repatriation policy that would benefit him and other Silicon Valley CEOs hoarding billions in profit overseas. He has also opposed Tesla’s pro-union workers and dismissed employees’ claims of racial and sexual harassment in the workplace.

He may not be a visionary, but like Steve Jobs, Musk has shown his savviness at marketing, especially promoting his personal brand. He has cultivated a cool image, and every issue he comments on and every word he utters becomes major news. If, on the other hand, rivals like Jeff Bezos or Richard Branson fired a massive rocket with an expensive car lashed to it, it would be criticized as lavish excess. But Musk wins more praise than Iron Man.

Musk is no villain, but through his wealth and achievements, he has arrogated to himself massive power, with an ambition and arrogance to match. Anyone with such power should be held under scrutiny and accountable for their actions. They certainly should be viewed through a critical lens, but that so far is rarely done.

I think many people don’t exactly share Musk’s vision of space. At times, he seems more like a capitalist playboy, and he’s more concerned with his image and bottom line. For me, however, encouraging humanity to unite in the enterprise of space exploration and discovery — rather than line up behind one or a couple rich white men — should be our top priority. The future of space shouldn’t be led by him alone, and if we cheer too enthusiastically and embrace his SpaceX program wholeheartedly, celebrating rocket launches becomes tacit support for his, and not our, vision.