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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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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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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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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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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