New freelance writings: Surveillance of truckers; clumps of stardust; religion & science

In case you missed them, here’s a few pieces I’ve recently written and published for Medium, Inside Science, and StarTrek.com. 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!

 

Robot Truckers Are Here — They Just Happen to Be Human

Electronic tracking devices and other surveillance tech monitor just about everything human drivers do, automating what was once an independent job.

Truckers drink coffee and complain about Mondays just like everybody else. Work can be a slog. But unlike what you’re probably used to in your office, many truck drivers now deal with rigorous and near-constant electronic surveillance — a camera pointed at them to closely monitor productivity, for example.

“You feel like you’re being watched all the time,” says John Grosvenor, founder of Truckers United for Freedom, a group that advocates for truckers’ rights. “Some people act out in inappropriate behaviors at times — they stick their finger in their nose or do something crass—as a form of rebellion. All in all, they hate it.”

Devices now track every aspect of a trucker’s job, including their current location, where they’re going, how fast they’re driving, and when they take a break and how long it lasts. Mostly for insurance purposes in the event of an accident, trucks often come equipped with cameras trained on both the driver and the road. They also have a variety of radar, lidar, and ultrasound sensors, as well as accelerometers and gyroscopes. The data feeds into an onboard computer, similar to self-driving vehicles. One firm has even developed a steering wheel with built-in heart monitors to monitor fatigue.

Since companies need truckers to deliver specific things at specific times, truckers don’t have regular routes like other drivers, but instead might be hauling paper towels to New York one day and motoring a haul of bolts down to Pittsburgh the next. Any delay can foul up assembly lines and supply chains. “That’s really the foundation of the day-to-day, routine monitoring of truck drivers since the mid-1990s,” says Steve Viscelli, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania and author of The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream. “[Trucking] has slowly evolved to look very much like the algorithmic management that everyone thinks is new about platforms like Uber.”

[Read the entire piece in Medium, published on 1 October.]

Continue reading

New freelance writings: apocalypses in comics, big black holes, fooling facial recognition

In case you missed them, here’s a few pieces I’ve recently written and published for Quanta magazine, Inside Science, and Physics magazine. 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!

 

Apocalypse How-To? Better Science Fiction Stories About Threats to Humanity

While plenty of apocalypses occur in science fiction, the risks could be shown more realistically, experts argue.

Which science fiction movies, TV shows, and comic books give a realistic portrayal of the consequences of “antibiotic resistance”? None, said Jessica Petrillo, a State Department senior health security officer. There’s a dearth of stories exploring how overusing antibiotics is fueling drug-resistant diseases that kill more and more people every year, she said. Her first goal is to try to raise awareness of the global problem, including through “comic book diplomacy.”

That’s an extreme case, but a panel of government agents and scientists at San Diego’s Comic-Con last Friday argued that science fiction writers and artists can craft better stories about disasters that could imperil civilization. The possibility of a coming apocalypse pervades science fiction today, but how likely are those possibilities in the next few decades or the next century? These experts tried to figure out how nuclear proliferation, killer asteroids and pandemics might actually arise.

Take nuclear terrorism. Many movies and TV programs, including “24,” make it appear almost easy to acquire or engineer nuclear devices. But countries typically hold such devices with the highest security measures, such that maybe only a terrorist organization with the capabilities of SPECTRE from the James Bond movies or The Syndicate in the DC Comics universe could get around them, said Gregory Bernard, a Department of Homeland Security officer…

[Read the entire piece in Inside Science, published on 24 July.]

Continue reading

New freelance writings: smartphone border searches, new moonshots, AI gone awry

In case you missed them, here’s a few pieces I’ve recently written and published for Medium, Inside Science, and StarTrek.com. 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!

 

Smartphone Privacy Is Under Threat at the Border

Picture this: You’re driving up from Tijuana to San Diego, and as you cross the U.S. border, agents stop you and demand to see your iPhone. With no explanation, and no warrant, they can thumb through your phone, or simply take it and extract all the data they want — every embarrassing text, private photos, even deleted files. And this happens more often than you think.

Over the past few years, with little fanfare, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers have rapidly ramped up the number of digital searches they carry out, using powerful tools to copy personal data from people’s smartphones, tablets, and laptops as they cross the border. More than a million people cross the border or arrive by airport every day in the U.S., with around 100,000 passing daily by foot, car, and bus through the Tijuana-San Diego port of entry alone. A not insignificant number of these people — now thousands annually — are being subjected to invasive searches of their devices.

“The government’s national security powers are strongest at the border,” says Catherine Crump, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley law school and director of the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic. “But this just gives the government an incredible opportunity, a situation ripe for abuse. The government has untrammeled access to people’s most sensitive information.”…

[Read the entire piece in Medium magazine, published on 7 June.]

Continue reading

New freelance writings: space arms race, scientific racism, women in physics

In case you missed them, here’s a few pieces I’ve recently written and published for Medium, Nature, and Smithsonian magazine. 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!

 

Are We at Risk for a Space Arms Race?

The Pentagon’s space-based missile defense plans could escalate tensions with rival space powers.

On March 27, India tested its first anti-satellite weapon, an interceptor missile that blew up an Indian military satellite in space. The test put India in an exclusive club of nations — including the U.S., Russia, and China — that are building the capacity to shoot down both missiles and satellites. And the other members of the club aren’t happy.

On April 1, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine criticized India’s test, angry that the resulting debris may have reached the orbit of the International Space Station and other satellites.

“That is a terrible, terrible thing, to create an event that sends debris in an apogee that goes above the International Space Station,” Bridenstine said at a town hall meeting that was livestreamed on NASA TV. “And that kind of activity is not compatible with the future of human spaceflight that we need to see happen.”

Yet the future of human spaceflight looks increasingly militarized. The Department of Defense has declared its own plans to attach missile-detecting sensors on satellites, and more menacingly, to seriously consider building interceptors that could be deployed in space. If Congress approves new funding for these projects, the technology could encourage rivals to ratchet up their own space weapon capabilities, triggering an arms race that could make orbital wars with lasers and satellites a reality…

[Read the entire piece in Medium magazine, published on 18 April.]

Continue reading

New freelance writings: women in engineering, Arctic climate impacts, and planets’ tectonics

In case you missed them, here’s a few pieces I’ve recently written and published for Smithsonian, Inside Science, and Undark magazine. 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!

 

At Major Engineering Conferences, Women Are Still Hard to Find

At the Optical Fiber Communication Conference and Expo last week, most of the participants — and nearly all of the high-profile speakers — were men.

Society of Women Engineers (2018). Other engineering conferences are often rather male-dominated.

More than 15,000 attendees and 700 exhibitors descended upon downtown San Diego last week for the Optical Fiber Communication Conference and Exposition (OFC), presenting and talking about the latest developments in the field, such as new kinds of integrated circuits for mobile phones and quantum computing technologies. As with many conferences, there was much to see and discuss, but one topic in particular became something of a sore spot with engineers in the field: Nearly all of the high-profile speakers were men.

“We are very concerned. There are few women here,” said Alba Vela, a postdoctoral researcher at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia in Barcelona, Spain. She joked that a conference photographer seemed to be following her around, given that there were relatively few women to highlight with photos on the conference website…

For years, engineers and advocates for women in engineering and science have talked about gender disparities and tried to educate the community in hopes of changing the dynamics and achieving gender parity. “We thought it would happen organically,” said Elizabeth Rogan, chief executive of the OSA, “but it didn’t.” And as it relates to the Optical Fiber Communication Conference and Exposition, it still hasn’t…

[Read the entire piece in Undark magazine, published on 13 March.]

Continue reading

December freelance writings: From Iceland to Mars, simultaneous wildfires, and white Christmases

In case you missed them, here’s a few pieces I’ve recently written and published for Hakai 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!

 

The Search for Life on Mars Begins in Iceland

NASA is sending a rover to Mars in 2020 to look for signs of life. To know which signs to look for, scientists are studying geothermal sites in coastal Iceland.

Photo courtesy: Sarah Black

On a misty day near Reykjavik, on Iceland’s west coast, Bethany Ehlmann hiked along the edge of the fjord Hvalfjörður. Nestled between the steep cliffs and vertical veins of lava, she found what she was searching for: a rock with signs that showed water once flowed here.

The marks in the rock were subtle—little more than speckles and banding—but they suggested much more than the presence of an ancient trickle of water. They were earthly clues that would help Ehlmann, a planetary scientist and geologist at the California Institute of Technology, better understand the conditions in which life may have arisen on Earth. And, potentially, on Mars.

Before Mars became the frigid, inhospitable desert it is today, scientists think it looked a lot like coastal Iceland. Modern Iceland’s iron-rich rocks, glaciers, volcanoes, and hot springs reflect conditions on Mars more than three billion years ago. This makes Iceland a great trial ground for upcoming missions to Mars, including that of the Mars 2020 rover. Set to launch in 2020, this mission will, among other things, search for evidence of extraterrestrial life…

[Read the entire piece in Hakai magazine, published on 12 December.]

Continue reading

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.)

 

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.]

Continue reading

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.]

Continue reading

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.]

Continue reading