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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Prison takes away what we need for a healthy life

As I was reporting on my Newsweek on the psychological and neurological effects of solitary confinement, I came to a realization. Prison in general, and solitary confinement in particular, take away the things we need to have a good chance of living a long and healthy life.

It should come as no surprise then that people who spend most of their lives in prison don’t live as long as the general population. With long prison sentences applied to a wide range of crimes, there’s more and more old people in federal and state prison in the US, and they lack the care and attention they need. Unfortunately, many people assume that anyone in prison is not worth any sympathy. That doesn’t make sense to me. (Plus, as I wrote in a new piece in Undark, some people in prison are innocent but were convicted based on flawed forensics or mistaken eyewitness testimony.)

Anyway, I learned quite a bit from my reporting, especially my conversations with Brie Williams, director of the University of California Criminal Justice and Health Project in San Francisco and an expert on geriatrics at UCSF. In order to maintain our health as we age, we need both physical and mental exercise on a regular basis, and we need meaningful social interactions. According to Williams, loneliness in older adults is associated with increased mortality, cognitive impairment, and dementia.

But people in prison are in extended isolation, with restricted movement and enhanced loneliness. Prisoners hardly get any exercise, and they have very few chances of keeping their minds limber. And their social interactions with people are extremely limited, the opposite of the way you might interact with a close friend or family member. In addition to people with decades-long sentences, nearly one in five prisoners is put in solitary confinement often for long stretches. Some people break down when they hear that metal door clang shut, while others find a way to adapt. But in the end, it’s a noxious environment that people are “exposed” to, as Williams puts it, and it takes a long time for people to recover, if given the chance.

So I feel like I’ve learned something, both for myself and for others. First, it’s important to try to keep up with regular exercise, activities that exercise my mind, and keep up with friends and my social life. Second, let’s remember that our elders need help to have those things too, and that’s what we’re here for. When we’re older, we’d appreciate that, too.

New freelance writings: solitary confinement, lost SoCal beaches, Trump science, and where’s ET?

For those of you following my work, check out this sampling of new articles and writings from the past month (in Newsweek, Hakai magazine, Slate, and Inside Science). Many of them involve important questions we need to ask as a society or have implications for policy. If I’ve done my job, these will spark new questions and discussions, and I’m happy to hear your thoughts on them. As always, I’d like to thank my editors, who help me hone my good ideas and dissuade me from my bad ones.

 

Solitary Confinement Screws up The Brains of Prisoners

They live in tiny, austere cages not much larger than their bodies, isolated from their peers. These pitiful lab rats once served merely as control groups for researchers, to be compared with rodents in more comfortable abodes with toys and fellow lab animals for interaction. But then scientists realized these unfortunate rats could be the perfect model for a bigger, uglier experiment, since their living conditions mimic those of human prisoners in solitary confinement.

Within just a few days, rats isolated in small, nearly empty cages exhibit stress-related symptoms, aggressive behavior and higher incidences of disease, and they begin to lose the ability to recognize other animals. Over time, even their brain cells, synapses, blood flow and nervous systems start to be impaired. Scientists believe this happens to humans in isolation as well. “Our brains cannot function without social interactions. We require them as much as air and water,” says Michael Zigmond, a neuroscientist at the University of Pittsburgh. He and other scientists have drawn attention in recent years to the effects of solitary confinement on people’s brains, minds and behavior…

Nearly one in five prisoners in the U.S. is put in solitary confinement, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and the majority of them are isolated for at least a month at a stretch. Prisoners in solitary often spend 23 hours of every day in a spartan concrete box the size of a parking space, and they usually have access to only a bed, a sink and a toilet.

Humans are social animals, yet in these conditions, they lack any meaningful social interactions, in addition to being kept in a state of sensory deprivation, with limited sunlight and exercise. Prisoners in solitary confinement rarely interact with staff and are fed through a slot in the door…

[Read the entire story in Newsweek, published on 18 April 2017.]

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New spacey stories: killer asteroids, stellar DNA, and rogue planets

I meant to post at least once a month, but I think you’ll understand that it’s hard to find the time while juggling new freelance science writing work with a 9-month-old kiddo at home. Anyway, here’s a couple pieces I’ve published over the past month. Enjoy! (See links below for the full articles.) As usual, thanks go to my helpful editors: Heather D’Angelo, Lisa Grossman, Lauren Morello and Jane Lee.

 

Maybe Dark Matter Didn’t Kill the Dinosaurs after All

Artist’s impression of the Chicxulub impact. Credit: Donald E. Davis, via Wikimedia Commons

A giant asteroid or comet the size of a city smashed into the Yucatán 66 million years ago, likely causing the demise of dinosaurs and many other species. Scientists have wondered: is that a random, unfortunate event, or has life on Earth been subjected to periodic impacts from outer space?

Some researchers proposed that, if the dinosaur extinction — the last of five mass extinctions — had an astronomical origin, rather than being driven by volcano eruptions or global warming, for example, then maybe others did too. And if impacts from huge boulders of rock and ice drove these extinctions, they had to come from somewhere. It’s possible that dark matter could periodically dislodge distant comets from their tenuous orbits beyond Pluto, sending a few of them dangerously in Earth’s direction — thus linking the fates of dark matter and dinosaurs.

But a new study by a team of physicists and geologists from Durham University and Lancaster University in the United Kingdom appears to shoot down that dark matter interpretation. If it were true, extinctions would have happened in cycles. But these scientists pored over the fossil record over the past 500 million years, looking for extinctions occurring periodically, but they didn’t find any significant patterns like that in the data.

“We needn’t search the heavens to find reasons for these extinction events. The vast majority of them are due to Earth processes, not astronomical ones,” says David Harper, lead author of the study.

The dark matter idea, popularized by Lisa Randall’s 2015 book, “Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs,” might sound far-fetched. But before this study, it was more plausible. Our solar system resides in the middle of the Milky Way galaxy, which has a disk-like structure. It turns out that the solar system doesn’t just stay put; gravity pulls it up and down through the disk, like a pendulum. Lurking in the outskirts of the solar system, comets in what’s known as the Oort Cloud slowly orbit the sun, whose gravity barely holds them on their trajectories. A pass through the galaxy does change the gravitational forces on them, but not enough to let comets loose.

Instead, Randall speculates that within the same plane as the Milky Way is a much thinner and denser disk of dark matter that we can’t see. (Most astrophysicists think dark matter particles only clump up in sphere-like conglomerations, but one flavor of dark matter could form disks.) Then as the solar system passes through that disk every 32 million years or so, it’s as if the dark matter’s gravity provides a little extra tug, nudging a few comets out of their orbits.

While some untethered comets get flung away, never to be seen again, others head toward Earth. Over time, these would produce periodic blips in the Earth’s history of both craters and mass extinctions, which wouldn’t occur randomly. It’s a new incarnation of an older idea, where earlier astronomers suggested the possibility of a faraway solar companion dubbed Nemesis, which would provide the extra nudge, but it was never found.

Harper and his colleagues performed something called a time-series analysis, looking for subtle cycles in the data that would corroborate Randall’s hypothesis. After removing a background trend and running statistical tests, they found that the extinctions don’t occur periodically on any time-scale.

The risk of finding a pattern when there’s not one really there is enormous, says Michael Benton, an Earth scientist at the University of Bristol in the UK. “The fossil record is patchy, biased, and incomplete,” he says.

The structure of our Milky Way makes for another complication. The galaxy looks more like a fluffy pinwheel than a compact disk. It has spiral arms jutting and curving out while neighboring stars in the galaxy move to and fro, so as our solar system passes through the galaxy, its periodic motion will vary. Harper argues that this motion would then be too irregular to pull in more wayward Earthbound comets that result in mass extinctions.

Randall agrees that there’s more than one cause to extinctions on Earth. But she argues that if things like volcanic activity, plate tectonics, and climate change can’t explain them all, some may have been triggered by cosmic events. She and her colleagues developed a model of a dark matter disk which she says fits the crater record better than a bunch of random impacts.

As it turns out, another new study, unrelated to Harper’s, looks at the record of crater impacts with a similar kind of analysis. They come to the same conclusion: there’s currently no evidence for asteroids or comets periodically colliding with Earth.

“I actually like the idea of asteroid impacts. But from the data we have, all I can say is that it’s unlikely,” says Matthias Meier, the lead author and a cosmochemist at Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.

It would help to have more and better crater data. Meier studied 22 craters, but there are nearly 190 known craters worldwide. Many of them were dated more than 50 years ago with earlier methods and aren’t very precise, but if one limits the sample to only the most accurate crater ages, there may be too few of them. Once scientists discover more craters and estimate more accurate ages of them, they could settle the debate.

“This study may mark the end of the speculation,” Benton says. Then after a pause, “No wait, it won’t. There’ll be plenty more, I’m sure.”

[Read the entire story in Now.space, published on 14 March 2017. Update (8 Sep. 2017): Now.space is unfortunately now defunct, so I’ve posted the story in full here.]

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My new freelance writings: climate costs, light pollution, binary stars

I set out as a freelance science writer this month, and here’s a few excerpts from my latest pieces in Slate, New Scientist, and Inside Science. (See links below for the full articles.) As usual, thanks go to my insightful editors, Susan Matthews, Lisa Grossman, and Chris Gorski, and thanks to Abigail Malate, who provided illustrations for the light pollution article.

 

Here’s One Way Trump’s Team Could Manipulate Government Data

It has plans to recalculate the social cost of carbon, which has been called “the most important number you’ve never heard of.”

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…Would Trump try to meddle with the government’s data-collection process? His transition team is interested in doing exactly that. One of the first things that might be under attack? A number known as the “social cost of carbon.”

Since 2008, the final year of the Bush administration, agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy, and Department of Transportation have been required to take the social cost of carbon into account when assessing and enacting regulations. Everything from refrigerators to cars and trucks to power plants emits carbon, which then goes on to hurt our health, our lands, our long-term viability on this planet, etc. The social cost of carbon allows more than 70 federal regulations, and even some local and state ones, to meaningfully and uniformly account for these costs while regulating. It’s sort of like a carbon tax that only applies to government decisions and is never actually paid but still incentivizes long-term good behavior over short-term economic gains.

“It’s the most important number you’ve never heard of,” says Michael Greenstone, a University of Chicago economist.

It exists thanks to a 2007 federal court case that forced the Bush administration to account for the social cost of carbon when regulating the fuel economy of trucks and SUVs. The suit argued, among other things, that the Energy Policy and Conservation Act’s “calculation of the costs and benefits of alternative fuel economy standards assigns zero value to the benefit of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions reduction” and that these benefits should be included. This was achieved by calculating and accounting for the social cost of carbon. Another court finding upheld and reinforced that decision just last year: A trade association of refrigerator companies had tried to argue that the cost of carbon estimate was just a guess and that the government didn’t have the authority to consider it. The court disagreed, upholding that the calculation “is supported by substantial evidence and is neither arbitrary nor capricious”…

[Read the entire story in Slate, published on 26 January 2017.]

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Trump Transition News in Nature: Budget Situation, Scientists Respond

Here’s a pair of stories I’ve worked on recently on the transition to the Trump era and what that means for science. The second one was written by Heidi Ledford, Sara Reardon and me. Thanks as usual to Lauren Morello for help editing. Thanks also go to my very informative sources. At the end of this post, I’ve also included links to a couple related stories by my Nature colleagues, and I recommend checking them out, too.

 

Stopgap spending bill leaves US scientists in limbo

Proposal would keep funding flat for most research agencies, but cuts could come early next year.

In what has become a year-end tradition in Washington DC, the US Congress is getting ready to approve a stopgap spending measure before it adjourns for the holidays.

The legislation introduced yesterday in the House of Representatives would hold spending flat at most science agencies, with some limited increases. These include an extra US$872 million to implement provisions of the 21st Century Cures Act, a bill that would reform drug development and biomedical research. The money would be split between the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration and state governments…

The stopgap funding bill, which would expire on 28 April, also allows for extra funding to keep a handful of major multiyear space programmes on track. These include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Joint Polar Satellite System, a series of probes designed to monitor Earth’s weather and climate, as well as NASA efforts to explore deep space and develop a replacement for the retired space shuttle.

But for most science programmes, funding would remain at roughly the same level as in the past fiscal year. And continuing to operate under a temporary funding measure means that agencies cannot start new programmes or end old ones without explicit permission from Congress.

“Every time you delay a [final] spending bill, it prevents the science agencies from doing the planning they need, and it keeps them in limbo,” says Lexi Shultz, director of public affairs for the American Geophysical Union in Washington DC…

Many researchers are more worried about what might come after this temporary funding extension, if it is approved. When president-elect Donald Trump takes office on 20 January 2017, Republicans will control the White House and both houses of Congress — and their science priorities are very different from those of outgoing President Barack Obama, a Democrat…

[For more, read the entire story in Nature, published on 7 December 2016.]

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