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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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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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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