Tagged: science

“Hyperloop” sounds like something out of science fiction… good.


I’ve written in the past about ideas that, while not entirely feasible, are still helping push our society forward in the direction of a better tomorrow. With science and technology, it is often just as important to be ambitious as it is practical, unless we want ours to be a country of stagnation – comfortable but lagging in every way that matters.

It seems straightforward. Innovation and progress are goals to strive for, and for a long time that’s what our country fawned over, but in the past few decades those ideals have been replaced by fear and xenophobia. Often xenophobia takes the shape of fearing people different from ourselves but it also applies to ideas different from what we know. America is now a country desperate to hold onto a perceived past – imagined more than real – of a simpler time and devoid of shades of gray. It fears what it doesn’t know and doesn’t seem to want to learn.

Conservatism, even it’s name suggests an inability to move forward, is built on fear. It’s chief weapon is fear, and it is swung wildly and ferociously in all directions. What is opposition to immigration reform if not a form of racial fear? What is opposition to climate change if not a form of environmental fear? What is opposition to gay marriage if not a form of sexual fear? Progressivism has it’s flaws, but it often in the form of caring too much, not too little. It dares to try to change things. Conservativism clings on.

I didn’t intend to write this as a way of bashing conservatives, but it is important to note their popularity in America as a testimony to how far we’ve fallen. Instead of approaching the changing geopolitical, social and environmental challenges with gusto and a will to always try to better ourselves, we’ve allowed an entire national political party to provide a giant hole in the sand for defeatists and pessimists to stick their heads in.  And that’s because fear is easy. It’s easy to be small, and isolationist, and enjoy the sense of superiority that tribalism provides no matter how objectively false it is. What is harder is doing something.

That is why, when an ambitious plan comes out by a creative thinker it is crucial that we let it thrive.

Also, he gets his fashion advice from Ricky Gervais apparently

Also, he gets his fashion advice from Ricky Gervais apparently

In many ways, Elon Musk is the best of what American capitalism can provide. When people think of that “entrepreneurial spirit” that is so often trumpeted by politicians and cited by frauds like Donald Trump to justify their wealth, it should be for people like Elon Musk that they look to as the defining argument.

Elon Musk, a South African-American inventor and entrepreneur, is bold. While still in his 20s he co-founded Paypal, that site you use to securely shop online. It was enough to make him rich, but he didn’t rest. Next he co-founded SpaceX, that privately owned space program that is still the only one that has ever launched a nongovernmental space craft into orbit and successfully docked with the International Space Station. (Musk has said in interviews that he was inspired by Isaac Asimov’s Foundation book series, so give another point to the power of science fiction as a motivator.) Finally, he went on to co-found Tesla Motors and still works as head of production design. He’s a guy who gets things done.

Now, he wants to get it done quicker by moving people from Los Angeles to San Francisco in times that conventional transportation cannot come close to matching.

Wired.com describes his plan:

Musk’s proposal to revolutionize mass transit is called the Hyperloop. It would transport passengers in individual aluminum pods powered by turbines and solar energy in above-ground tubes, cost $6-10 billion to build, and make the trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 35 minutes.

But it only exists in a 57-page alpha white paper. And if someone grabbed the idea and ran with it today, Musk says it would still be 7 to 10 years away.

It began with an idea similar to the vacuum tubes used to shuttle the check from your car to the bank. But maintaining that level of vacuum for hundreds of miles, according to Musk, was untenable. “The basic calculations for energy was enormous,” Musk said during a conference call. And it’s also incredibly dangerous. So Musk enlisted a dozen engineers from Tesla and Space X to start playing with the idea. They wanted to use to existing technology, require as little land as possible, and get the pressure down inside the tube, determining that about half-bar of pressure was the sweet spot. And now Musk and Friends have released it to the world.

Two tubes — one for each direction — would be mounted on pylons spaced between 50 and 100 meters apart, and Musk envisions the Hyperloop running alongside Interstate 5 in California. Because it’s elevated, there’s less environmental impact (farmers can still use their land), it can be built to withstand earthquakes (using the same technology as buildings in the Golden State), and would have solar panels mounted on the roof.

“There is way more surface area on the top of the tube than you need [to power the Hyperloop],” Musk says. “You would have more power than you could possibly consume.”

Inside the tubes, each pod would be mounted on a pair of skis made out of inconel — the same metal that SpaceX uses to handle high heat and pressure — with air being pumped through small holes in the skis to create an air cushion. Combine that with magnets and an electromagnetic field, and you’ve got levitation with very little drag.

Now this is years away from being a reality. That’s fine. In fact, that’s a good thing. It gives us a vision for the future that is beyond the next 140 character tweet we’ll read. It should motivate and inspire, and more importantly, remind the next generation of would be engineers that, to paraphrase Edward R. Murrow, they come from a country that is not descended from fearful men. America can still do great things, if only we have the courage to dream of them.

See, told you.

See, told you.


Republicans hate science, until they need it to make a point


Recently, a survey came out showing that American women have been gaining huge ground on men when it comes to being the breadwinners in a family (defined as making the principle income). In about 40% of American households, it is now true that it is the women who make the majority of money. While this should be lauded as another step towards true equality in domestic and professional life (after all, the number should be around 50% if gender wasn’t a factor, because in every household SOMEONE has to make more, so it should look like a coin toss), it was received by Fox Business Network as the end of the world.

On Lou Dobbs Tonight, goofball Lou Dobbs brought in a panel of three other men (you know, the experts on women’s issues), and lamented how we “are watching society dissolve around us”. The others somberly agreed to this premise as if it were a foregone conclusion. Let’s strip away the veneer and say what is truly happening: In 2013, a Republican with his own talk show on a widely watched network can essentially say that women earning as much (or working more) than men is going to “dissolve” this country. Oh and then he shoehorns in abortion somehow, because why not?

English: Erick Erickson at the Republican Lead...

Erick Erickson trying to get attention (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The person in the panel who is getting the most attention is Erick Erickson, a guy whose only real goal is to get the most attention (well done, sir). Tired of the typical arguments that many conservatives use when justifying their sexism (the Bible, tradition, the Bible, etc.), he decided to go at it from another direction. The old, tried and true, science argument. Good grief. Here’s what he said:

“I’m so used to liberals telling conservatives that they’re anti-science. But liberals who defend this and say it is not a bad thing are very anti-science. When you look at biology — when you look at the natural world — the roles of a male and a female in society and in other animals, the male typically is the dominant role. The female, it’s not antithesis, or it’s not competing, it’s a complimentary role.”

See liberals? How can you accuse conservatives of being “anti-science” when they won’t hesitate to use science (or at least the word “science”) if they think it will further their point? Unfortunately, that makes him look more anti-science. It makes him look like he doesn’t understand science. And it definitely makes him look sexist.

I’ve always been fascinated that people can feel fine using arguments long after they’ve been debunked. It’s a fallacy to argue from ignorance, but its lunacy to continue to do so after you know it’s wrong. In this case, all it takes is finding women earning the primary income and not destroying the country, which there is ample evidence of, because about 40% of households already have this happening and the country is not eroding away.

English: Television and radio host at CPAC in .

Unless you believe this guy  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They also show an amazing ability to compartmentalize. In the same breath that they are saying women need to be playing a “complementary role” in society, they can applaud Michelle Bachman as if she were the candle in the darkness of Congress. But, of course, they don’t mean Michelle Bachman, they mean minority women, they mean divorcees, they mean families having babies out of wedlock. As a fun game, I suggest sexists like Lou Dobbs and Erick Erickson do something I’d like to call “take Michelle Bachman, and replace her with another woman” and after several exercises you will have a brief glimpse of what it’s like to view the world as a socially aware, intelligent, empathic person rather than a complete scumbag. Trust me, it’s an adrenaline rush, and as a bonus, you don’t always have to feel embarrassed of your own opinions. It’s great.

But what really bugs me is when people who consistently deny some science, choose other bits to believe in. That’s what religion is for, guys. The pesky thing about science is that it’s kind of a whole package. The only thing you have to “believe” is that the scientific method is the best way humans have of getting to knowledge. The rest of the “facts” and “theories” are derived from that assertion. So while you’re googling “ways to deny Climate Change” and you stumble across “Some animals show gender roles” you have to pick one, because they are mutually exclusive. Furthermore, when reading the “some animals show gender roles” article, you’ll notice that scientists are very careful not to stretch their findings past the facts (that’s what television is for). So just because you read an article that pointed out behavioral dimorphism in gorillas doesn’t mean you can extend that to 21st century human beings. In fact, you probably shouldn’t because you’ll probably look like an idiot (and end up pissing off Megyn Kelly)

megyn kelly

Megyn Kelly complimenting, but not dominating, the Fox News logo (Photo credit: glamourmagazine)

So instead of proving some point about the sexes, you’ve only held up a mirror to reflect your own inner beliefs, Erick. And your beliefs have more basis in the Old Testament than they do the science lab. It wasn’t science that said “women should obey their husbands”, that was the Abrahamic God (Colossians 3:18). And it’s not science that says women are ruining our society, that’s you.

It’s sad that we are having this discussion in 2013. We should be ashamed that we’ve given a platform to these men. It’s degrading to the women (also known as these men’s sisters, mothers, wives, friends, coworkers) who have overcome so much to earn a financial place at the table, and it’s disgraceful to the young girls and emerging women in this country who have to listen to their importance trivialized. Despite what Lou Dobbs, Juan Williams, or Erick Erickson think, we need them, and not in the kitchen, but in the office and in the boardroom. Our world is too complex, too important and too precarious to leave 50% of the population out of the discussion.


Know a climate change denier? Turn up the heat

ice wall

A few days ago, as I was driving home from work, I happened upon a story on NPR’s “All Things Considered” that piqued my interest. The story was about climate change. In a recent study that analyzed other studies, researchers found that 97% (yeah 97%) of scientists, when talking about climate change, agree that it is happening and that mankind has something to do with it. Keep in mind that these are the people who study climate change as a career. It was a pretty astounding figure considering the public’s general belief that climate change is a highly contested topic, subject to intense debate within the scientific community. This study suggests otherwise.

That was an interesting story, and I’m always happy when scientific literacy in America gets put under the microscope, but what they said near the end of the segment blew my mind. Here is the transcript:

MAYBACH: People’s assessments of climate change are very susceptible to what they’ve recently experienced in the weather.

HARRIS: And after this past cold winter, American opinion about the existence of climate change dropped seven percentage points, to 63 percent.

So because of it being kind of a tough winter, Americans are now more pessimistic about global climate change as even existing. That is insane. It also highlights a common problem that scientists face when they seek to inform the public about their findings: “common sense” is just way more attractive.

Shoveling Snow #2

“This means I don’t have to sell my Hummer right?”

There are numerous, numerous, (numerous) instances that we could point to that show common sense or the prevailing wisdom failing to actually be true, but for some reason, even though we’ve been burned many times before, it’s still hard for many people to accept that what is happening right in front of their eyes isn’t always the whole story. Partly, this is because there is a lack of understanding of how science works and what makes a scientific theory much better than “just a theory” (hint: there are more steps than just “hey, I have an idea and a Facebook account”). There is also the problem with a media that cannot help but run every story through a dichotomous narrative in which both sides of “an argument” are given equal air time. This leads to a false sense that both sides are equally valid. Which is a shame, because often times they aren’t even close.

It would be interesting to see if we could manipulate people’s opinions further. I envision a study that asks participants to come into a lab that has its heat cranked to uncomfortably hot levels and then gives them questionnaires on their opinion about global warming. Would just sitting in a warm room make people more comfortable with the existence of man-made climate change? I suspect it could. If you have a stubborn friend who refuses to see the facts, perhaps you could sweat it out of him.

This effect also highlights the dangers we face when we allow a scientifically ignorant congress to be influenced by a scientifically ignorant public and ignore the experts. We have got to be willing to defer some opinions to people who know better than us. Especially now, as the world is getting more and more complex and intuition is getting less and less helpful. Policy should be steeped in data driven research that can enable us to look clear eyed at the complicated and sometimes daunting problems that we face going forward in the 21st century.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but that is one of the remarkable things about Angelina Jolie’s decision to get a double mastectomy, it represented a pragmatic, unflinching and courageous position on her body and her future that said “I refuse to stick my head in the sand and get by on mere hopes and prayers when the data shows I am in harm’s way and if I act now I can give myself a fighting chance”. It was brilliant. Now let’s all do that and get a grip on climate change now, because even if our heads are protected by the nice cool sand, our butts are still roasting.

“Ice Wall” Image courtesy of Flickr, Taraji Blu

Now there’s an idea!

A West Virginia State Delegate has proposed a bill to make reading Science Fiction in schools mandatory. A refreshing idea from a surprising source (the delegate is…wait for it… a Republican). Unlike his conservative colleagues who apparently can’t wrap their heads around science in any coherent way, Ray Canterbury (no, not Bradbury but close) has a goal of promoting science and technology in the classroom as a way to encourage young minds towards thinking about science as a tool of progress.

Canterbury explains the goal of the bill:

“To stimulate interest in math and science among students in the public schools of this state, the State Board of Education shall prescribe minimum standards by which samples of grade-appropriate science fiction literature are integrated into the curriculum of existing reading, literature or other required courses for middle school and high school students.”

I love it, and it may help students get out of the scientific rut they’ve been in for the past few decades, as we’ve seen many countries pass our dominance of scientific thinking and research. I’ll let the great Neil DeGrasse Tyson show you how bad it’s gotten for America lately:

The kids aren’t really at fault, it’s adults doing adult things like going to war and cutting taxes that make doing science so hard to fund in this country, but the kids are the key because, to borrow a cliche, they are the future. Some of them will grow up to be senators, congressman, and – a few of them – will be Presidents. They need to be better than what we’ve got now (see the links above for some facepalm examples). They need to understand the world around them better than what we’ve got now.

It’s been 60 years since the heart of the Space race era. In those heady days, it was not just a nice thought but a compulsion to look at big dreams and try to find ways to tackle them. Of course, in the middle of all that high mindedness, there was the lurking, dangerous seed of nuclear warfare and global annihilation due to stupidity and competition (referred to as the “Cold War”). But surrounding that folly was a national feeling that there was nothing too big or too challenging that technology and spirit couldn’t solve. Young boys (unfortunately, it was mostly boys) flocked to careers in science and math.


Isaac Asimov, drawn poorly by me

The science fiction of the era reflected that sentiment as well. Science as progress was everywhere. Arthur C. Clark and Isaac Asimov were literary giants, writing down the future in fictive form. It wasn’t a matter of if we would colonize our solar system within a century, but when. Here we are, 12 years passed 2001 and that movie still feels futuristic. I’ve read a great deal of their books in high school and college (No, I wasn’t really the life of a party), and their visions of human ingenuity and technological utopias were always motivating me to learn more about science. I desperately wanted to be a member of a bold and intelligent space crew, tackling an impending threat to mankind through science, using futuristic robotics and computers to save the day (Trust me, I REALLY was not the life of a party).

Those kinds of stories seem quaint and naive now. Slowly, as the 60s moved into the 70s and the Space Age that culminated in the moon landing receded from memory, science and technology were viewed with a growing wariness. Soon, the artificial intelligence in movies was more likely to be terminators  than bicentennial men. Eventually, as science began more and more to conflict with conservative worldviews, science itself was cast into suspicion and accused of threatening profits with inconvenient truths. The current trend in science fiction literature and movies is to portray dystopian visions of societies destroyed by their own hubris. Technology will betray us, these stories say. Be careful. It’s an appealing and scary idea because more and more technology is everywhere. We are a creature divided: enjoying the technologies we fear.

That’s why a concerted push to reintroduce positive science fiction back into the classroom and onto the radar of our children could be so important. It could be the game changer we need. It could start to repair the damage that decades of scorn and defunding have done to our national opinion of science. If you look at the greatest achievements that mankind has ever done, all of them have been from improving or embracing emerging technology (from the wheel all the way to the Internet). I want to live in a country that builds stuff, like really cool stuff. I’d rather we have less Stealth Bombers and more Space Shuttles. I want to see us reach for the stars literally. Science Fiction at its best is a reflection of who we are and what we can be. It explores the human condition just as much as it explores alien worlds. Kids who read about floating in space, might someday want to know how it really feels. Kids who read about a problem solved with pragmatic innovation, might someday want to innovate. What perhaps is the most thrilling development in a new enthusiasm for science and science fiction is that it is no longer a males only domain. We have the opportunity to inspire ALL of our children. In the end, maybe we don’t need to wait until 2030 to go to mars, we would just need to walk to the library.

Martian Chronicles, drawn poorly by me

Martian Chronicles, drawn poorly by me