Mars Landing

Bad Astronomy Blog and countless others are all over this, but it took seeing pictures to really get me excited. We just landed something on Mars that is going to try and find out if there is or was or could be life on the planet. That’s pretty friggin’ cool. The potential for life on Mars doesn’t really excite me that much – it’s not like we’re going to meet E.T. or anything. The life we’re hoping to find is either long dead or just a couple of cells. Scientifically fascinating and important if it’s there, but not that big a deal for the average person. But Mars. It’s incredible that we can actually put a little machine on the planet, and then have it do stuff and send back information. Kinda makes you wonder why there are still places you can’t get decent cell phone reception.

Study to be taken with a grain of salt

Via Gizmodo, a new study suggests that cellphone use while pregnant will cause behavioral problems in children. I don’t buy this. Partly it’s because the article is pretty light on facts. But it doesn’t even address the possibility that maybe mothers who spend their lives glued to the cellphone are not giving their kids enough attention, which leads to the behavioral problems. Cellphone use may be the symptom of the cause, but not the cause itself. Maybe the study addresses this point and refutes it, but the article doesn’t get into that. And I’m inclined not to believe any of the “OMG excessive use of X leads to horrible result Y!” studies that always focus on some technology that’s become common in the last five to ten years and seem to explain away some horrible plague upon our society. Every generation has new technologies, and every generation has new problems. There isn’t necessarily a cause and effect relationship here. Anyway, maybe the study gets into all that, but we’ll never know. Unless you’re one of those weird people who actually research this sort of thing instead of just bitching about it.

I hate facts. And physics.

Forbes | Blues for Greens I was at the doctor’s yesterday for a routine checkup (Everything is fine, thanks – doctor says I’m healthy) and I saw this article in Forbes magazine. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything in a reputable publication that was so divorced from reality. Well, maybe Fox News. Which is reputable for some value of reputable.

Solving the energy problem is easy if you pay no attention to the laws of physics. That’s the wonder of the U.S. Congress. To pass is easy; to achieve is something else. This is where I break your green heart. Americans know that Congress passed a law ordering all cars and trucks to average 35 miles to the gallon by 2020. It won’t happen.

Writing snarky opinion articles for Forbes is easy if you pay no attention to facts.

But there’s just no way anyone subject to the laws of physics and automobile engineering can get a 5,000-pound pickup, or any mass-produced, reasonably priced sport utility near that weight, up to 35mpg.

Is anyone suggesting that should happen? Let us hop on over to the NHTSA and see what CAFE standards REALLY mean.

Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) is the sales weighted average fuel economy, expressed in miles per gallon (mpg), of a manufacturer’s fleet of passenger cars or light trucks with a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of 8,500 lbs. or less, manufactured for sale in the United States, for any given model year.

So, that means that if I’m Car Company A, and I want to sell some gigantic SUVs that get 6 MPG and not pay CAFE fines, I can just sell a bunch of little fuel-efficient cars and balance out my fleet average. Wow! That was easy. By the way, I have no idea which particular laws of physics he’s referring to. I think perhaps it might be Archimedes’ Third Law of Big Honkin’ Trucks, which states: SUVs get bad mileage. It might also be something discovered by Georg Ohm, better known for his work with electricity and resitance and whatnot: As the size of the truck approaches 5,000 pounds, the fuel economy (in miles per gallon) approaches some arbitrary number that is most definitely less than 35. It’s probably, like, 12. Maybe 13. There might be other laws being violated, too, but I’m not a physicist, and can’t possibly be bothered to look anything up before I share my opinions with the world.

The best way to increase fuel economy (and reduce greenhouse gases, too) is to reduce the weight and engine size of the vehicles. Congress could pass a law ordering that no car weigh more than 1,750 pounds (a Toyota (nyse: TM – news – people ) Camry is in the 3,200-pound range), no truck weigh more than 2,500 pounds and no engine run more than 75 horsepower. Most Americans couldn’t fit in such cars, but they would average 35mpg.

Okay, I don’t honestly know what the best way to increase fuel economy is, but there is ABSOLUTELY NO WAY that this is it.

The U.S. could also lower the speed limit to 40 miles per hour nationally. That would do it, too, since engines would shrink, and air resistance is a lot lower at 40 than at 60.

Air resistance? AIR RESISTANCE? Is this man honestly telling me that he thinks that air resistance is the primary cause of bad fuel economy? Maybe we should ban air. He says some more stupid things about biofuels that I’m not going to get into. I actually agree with him that mandating more production of corn-based ethanol is a bad idea. However, I’m pretty sure this agreement is just coincidence – I don’t want to mandate more corn-based ethanol because we’re already starting to see problems stemming from this practice, and because corn is a stupid thing to make ethanol from. He doesn’t want to mandate it because OMG PHYSICS!!!! What makes this article even more ridiculous is that there are arguments to be made against setting CAFE standards. One could argue that these regulations hurt the automobile industry by interfering with the natural supply and demand. One could argue that it’s not the responsibility of the auto industry to force people into smaller, more efficient cars. One could argue that this unfairly targets American auto manufacturers, who focus more on the big, heavy, inefficient vehicles, and therefore helps the Japanese and Korean manufacturers, who tend to make smaller cars. One could argue many more things, and I would say, “Yes, you have a point”. Then I would proceed to talk to you about changing habits (Driving less, living closer to work, promoting walking and public transportation). I would talk to you about changes in technology (Do you really have such little regard for American ingenuity that you can’t imagine a breakthrough technology?). But this guy didn’t make any of these points. He just made up some “facts” and then complained about the big bad government pandering to the whining of California hippies.

I dont want to be eaten by a lion

MIT finds cure for fear | Press Esc

Inhibiting a kinase, an enzyme that change proteins, called Cdk5 facilitates the extinction of fear learned in a particular context, Li-Huei Tsai, Picower Professor of Neuroscience in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, and colleagues showed.

This is interesting. If I’m reading the article right, they have chemically prevented a fear of a particular thing. They shocked the mice whenever they went to a certain spot until they were afraid of it. The more Cdk5 activity in their brains, the more fear. But when they cut down the activity, the mice were okay.

I’m not quite sure how this translates to humans, though. For example, I am quite rationally afraid of being eaten by a lion. I have never been close enough to a lion to really express that fear, but it is a fear nevertheless. Now, let’s say you have inhibited the Cdk5 in my brain. Will I now happily approach a hungry-looking lion?

No, I won’t. My fear of the lion, or lack thereof, has no bearing on whether or not it will eat me.

I suppose that what they really mean is that they could prevent me from being paralyzed by fear if I were ever in close proximity to a lion. But, I suspect I could prevent myself from being paralyzed by fear by spending a lot of time with lions and learning to avoid being eaten.

The article mentions soldiers with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and panic attacks, which “stem from the inability of the brain to stop experiencing the fear associated with a specific incident or series of incidents”. I guess I never realized that they were so technically precise.

It seems unlikely that they can stop rational fears. That is, I don’t believe that they can inhibit my Cdk5 and allow me to waltz through a war zone, explosions and people trying to kill me all around. But if I come home and still find myself waking up at night, screaming and remembering that experience, that seems like something they could turn off.

Anyway, I don’t mean to second guess MIT researchers. They probably know what they’re talking about.

Really old and really dead people found hugging

Prehistoric lovers found locked in eternal embrace –

“It’s rare for two young people to die at the same time, and that makes us want to know why and who they were, but it will be very difficult to find out.”

Really?  It will be hard to figure out who they were?  Maybe because they were buried 5000 years ago.  I mean, it’s not like there’s some old guy you can just go ask.

Seriously, this sounds like an elaborate pre-Valentine’s Day hoax.  Right near the place where “Romeo and Juliet” was set, a week before Valentine’s Day, we find the remains of two young lovers?  Someone better check and make sure the skeleton doesn’t say “Hallmark” on it.

And you thought you were old

Carbon globules in meteorite may have seeded Earth life – space – 30 November 2006 – New Scientist Space via Kurzweil AI

Now, analysis of atomic isotopes shows that the globules could not have come from Earth and must have formed in very cold conditions, possibly before the Sun was born.

It’s crazy to think about little bits of carbon that have been hanging around inside a rock since before the sun was born.  I mean, that’s, like, a long time ago, and stuff.

But to think that, maybe, some carbon got stuck inside this rock, where it was more or less protected, way back before the sun.  Then that rock flew around space until it eventually crashed into earth, where the conditions were right for life to emerge.  Eventually, that life became us, and koala bears, and fruit bats.

They aren’t sure that’s what happened, but it’s a good theory.  Makes you feel really small and insignificant, doesn’t it?