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.

Thoughts on the Doomsday Clock ticking forward

[Here’s my two cents on the Doomsday Clock, building on a Facebook post I made last week.]

After the United States’s atomic bombs destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the risks of nuclear disaster and the dangers it posed to humanity became very real in the public imagination. The Doomsday Clock has drawn attention to these threats ever since, and since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has been inching closer and closer to midnight.

Aboveground Nuclear Test conducted at the Nevada Test Site on 25 May 1953. (Source: Nevada Department of Environmental Protection)

As I predicted, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists updated the clock last week by moving it from two and a half to two minutes until midnight, the nearest humans have been to apocalypse and annihilation. It would put 2018 in a grim tie with 1953, when the U.S. and U.S.S.R. developed the hydrogen bomb and heightened the Cold War.

In an attempt to make the Doomsday Clock more punctual, a decade ago the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ science and security board incorporated climate change threats in their assessments. In the following years, they have also referenced emerging technologies in the life sciences — mainly gene editing and gene drives — as well as killer robots, cyber attacks, and bioweapons.

Nuclear brinkmanship between the unpredictable governments of U.S. and North Korea, combined with the possibility of proliferation in the Middle East if the Iran nuclear agreement unravels, have helped push the minute hand farther last year. Now we have the Trump administration continuing Obama’s ill-advised policy of modernizing and expanding the US nuclear arsenal. And like his predecessor, Trump continues the Cold War-era policy of having nukes on hair-trigger alert. Then we had the false alarm of a missile alert in Hawaii, highlighting just how quickly a situation could escalate and weapons of mass destruction could be unleashed. [Update on 2 Feb.: The Pentagon today announced plans to develop low-yield nuclear weapons — “only” as explosive as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima — for ballistic and cruise missiles launched from submarines. They also said that nuclear weapons could be used in response to non-nuclear attacks.]

Simultaneously, global warming continues relentlessly, and though it’s a long-term problem, in the short term the time for action is ticking down, especially as the Trump administration retreats on efforts to combat climate change. So I think it makes sense for the clock to move forward, as we’re in more danger than before.

Nevertheless, it’s challenging to assess this dizzying array of global perils and potential threats together. Furthermore, how can we simultaneously evaluate or even rank these threats to civilization — while evaluating how well or poorly our society is currently addressing them? (One might also ask who is left out of the Doomsday Clock, since billions of people in poverty and environmental refugees often bear the brunt of disasters, but they’re threatened by smaller scale disasters than can be registered by a clock attuned to global threats to humanity.)

In any case, I don’t think we have to view all this entirely with doom and gloom. Just as a handful of people (and not just Trump) can push that minute hand forward, by working together to stop global warming and by focusing on diplomacy, we can pull ourselves back from the edge of the precipice.

First 2018 bylines: NASA’s brand-new space capsule, the rise of the Anthropocene, and my path to science writing

In case you missed them, here’s a sampling of new pieces I’ve published for National Geographic, Knowable magazine, and Nature Astronomy. 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.

 

How NASA Plans to Send Humans Back to the Moon

The U.S. space agency is rigorously testing its Orion spacecraft in hopes of launching its first mission to the moon as early as 2019.

NASA and the US Navy doing recovery tests of the Orion space capsule. (Photo courtesy NASA)

NASA has been subjecting its Orion space capsule to a battery of tests designed to tell whether the spacecraft is ready to ferry humans into orbit and beyond. So far, the capsule seems to be on track—in a series of maneuvers this week, a joint team of NASA and U.S. Navy specialists successfully recovered the spaceship from the sea off the coast of San Diego, simulating what would happen when a deep-space mission splashed back to Earth.

If all goes to plan, Orion will become NASA’s flagship technology for launching astronauts to orbit and even to deep space, including to the lunar surface and maybe Mars. Here’s what’s at stake with Orion, and what still needs to be done before it can blast off.

Wait, aren’t U.S. astronauts already getting into space?

Yes, but not on NASA spacecraft. The space shuttle program ended in 2011, and the remaining shuttles are now on display in museums around the country. Since then, American astronauts have had to hitch rides to the International Space Station on Russian rockets, and NASA has sent supplies to the ISS via SpaceX and Orbital ATK launches.

Until Orion becomes available, NASA astronauts have no other way to get to low-Earth orbit and beyond. Commercial space companies like SpaceX and Boeing are developing their own crew capsules capable of reaching the ISS. But when it comes to sending people to the moon or deeper into space, it’s not clear yet who will be first to the launch pad…

[Read the entire article on National Geographic, published on 26 January.]

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A review of 2017, plus my freelance writing resolutions for the new year

My first year of freelancing and second year of parenting turned out to be a challenging one — no surprise there! — and I think it was a successful one too.

I covered a wide range of issues and news, including debates about a hidden planet, a call for space diplomacy, goals of climate deniers, the need for reforming forensic science, an exploration of the fall of Eastern Mediterranean empires, the effects of solitary confinement on people’s brains, the risks of virtual reality addiction, a proposed alternative to dark matter, and fundamental problems with FEMA’s flood maps, to name a few. I always love writing about space, but that’s not all I can do.

I’m proud to have published in a bunch of high-profile publications too, including The Atlantic, Washington Post, Newsweek, Slate, Nature, Wired, Undark, FiveThirtyEight, and the San Francisco Chronicle. (You can check these out on the “Articles and Writings” page of my website.)

Despite this broad range of coverage and magazines and news outlets, I think there’s a theme here underlying my work. Maybe half of my stories involve scientists exploring tough unsolved problems at the edge of what science can explain, sometimes sparking philosophical debates, and the rest involve political and societal implications of scientists’ work.

If you’re a fan of these kinds of stories and if you’ve liked what I’ve written so far, then stay with me in 2018, and I hope you won’t be disappointed. I enjoy writing stories about intersections between science, politics, and societal questions, and I think it’s part of my job to make sure that they get the attention they deserve.

But I won’t be complacent; I’m just getting started. I plan to continue striving to improve my writing skills. In particular, I’ll try to develop characters better and set scenes better in my stories. With my evolving and uncertain schedule, I also need to manage my time better too. (Everyone always says that, but I mean it!) I’ll work on putting together and pitching feature story ideas more often, and I’m already formulating an idea for my first one. I also plan to continue pitching my favorite clients I’ve worked with already, and I hope to work with a couple others as well.

In the end, as long as I stick to my principles, remember my ideals, and have fun with this great job, I think I’ll continue to produce quality work that’s worth reading. And as always, I’m happy to hear your thoughts, responses, criticisms, jokes, gifs, etc. involving any piece I’ve written. Your feedback and support are important to me.

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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