Wednesday Wonders: Let’s get dark (Part 1)

Sometime between when humans discovered fire and when Antoine Lavoisier finally figured out how it worked, there was an hypothesis floated in the 1660s that things burned because of an element called phlogiston that existed within things that could burn, and letting it out created the flames.

It’s kind of chicken and egg, really — did things burn because that’s what the phlogiston in them did, or did they only burn when it was somehow let out?

But Lavoisier and his experiments ended all that nonsense just over a century later, when he proved that combustion was actually the result of rapid oxidation of a flammable material in the presence of a fuel source.

Also: some substances lose mass when they burn and others gain it. It all depends upon how oxygen deals with the reaction.

Ether frolic

Then there was also the idea of ether (or aether), the postulated medium necessary for light to be able to propagate through what was otherwise the vacuum of space. This was another product of the 17th century.

Sir Isaac Newton, to his credit, rejected the idea early, mainly based on the idea that any media that would channel and direct light would also fuck with gravity, and so the orbits of the planets wouldn’t work the way that they did. In a very weird way, this was kind of a prediction of how relativity and quantum mechanics would suffer a nasty break-up centuries later.

The more that scientists determined the properties that the ether would have to have in order to guide light the way it had been alleged to do, the more ridiculous the concept became. Newton had been right. The density of the ether required would have totally screwed every star and planet in space by making them motionless.

Einstein eventually drove the nails into the coffin of the concept of ether with — surprise — his special theory of relativity, which really changed a lot of things in science.

One of the big ones is something that’s going to come up here later.

A brief note on terminology

One of the most misused scientific terms is “theory,” because it means two really different things depending upon who’s using it. Unfortunately, far too many non-scientists of the politician/armchair pundit variety have abused the word “theory” in order to attack actual science.

So you’ll quite often hear things like people saying “Evolution is only a theory,” not realizing that the words “only a” do not belong. The problem is that to most non-scientists, the word “theory” means “an idea I have about how the world works but with no research yet,” or, more frequently, “something I pulled out of my ass.”

This makes it very easy for them to look at something like Evolution and say, “Oh, it’s just a theory.”

Funny how you never really hear people say that about gravity, right?

But what lay people like to call theory is, in scientific terms, an hypothesis. And yes, it absolutely is nothing more than an idea, or a concept, or something that a researcher in a particular field really did pull out of their ass.

Why? To do the work necessary to see whether it’s true.

The best part is that it does not matter at all how ridiculous that original hypothesis is. Why? Because this is when we pick up the scientific method, and it works like so:

  1. Determine what your hypothesis is and how you want to test it. Note: Keep it to real science. Once you start to try to measure or theorize on things like people’s behavior or ideas or whatever, you’ve veered off into social “science,” which is not science at all. Fight me, biatches. I minored in psych in college, so I know what I’m talking about.
  1. A real scientific hypothesis might be something like this: “Why can we not predict whether stars under X solar masses will either go nova, collapse into a neutron star, or become a black hole?” “Why do we still find DNA from Denisovans in modern humans when there is no evidence at all that they ever co-existed?” “Why does natural selection seem to like to re-create crabs over and over?” (Note: Humans and Denisovans did cross-breed at one point. The examples are just “what-ifs.”)
  2. And everyone of those questions then ends with, “Because… this,” and that’s where the hypothesis goes. These are still just guesses, though, of how a process might work. “Because we do not know the exact composition of the ultimate solar core, and the density of the elements in it,” or “Because Denisovans never met modern humans directly, but they did interbreed with earlier species of compatible breeders who did mix DNA with modern humans,” or “Because that kind of shelled, flat form with multiple arms and giant weapons up front provided a lot of protection on land and sea, so that’s why it kept coming back.”
  3. .. after the “because this,” it’s data collecting time, and that’s where the science happens. Observe stars with ever-increasing resolution to figure out the exact composition of their cores; keep testing that DNA, both Y and mitochondrial, and you will eventually figure out when and where the first Denisovan got horny enough to hump the first proto-human and, ta-da… another uplink on that Y-DNA chain.

And, finally, if you’ve ever had crotch crickets, you know that crabs are obviously the most evolved to survive lifeform on the planet, whether they’re zip-lining down your pubes, torturing the hell out of your crotch (and anyone it’s ever been near to in the last 36 hours), or reminding you of the real reason that Anakin hates sand. But a really good scientific subject for this would be, “How the hell do I destroy these little itch-mongers without having to shave everything and then carpet-bomb my crotch?”

  1. Ask “why” question, postulate “because” answer, compile a shitload of data and analyze it. Trust what tells you you’re full of shit, take several more looks at what tells you you’re right — then run the whole damn experiment all over again with a different group.
  1. Lather, rinse, repeat, and eventually come up with something that either completely proves that your hypothesis was wrong, or that is a study you can share, which you do, with your fellow scientists.
  2. They go out, look at your study, try to get the same results within their own group, and then report back. Sometimes, they will find the exact same things, which is “Hooray!” Other times, they will find discrepancies, which might mean that there were errors in the original data or design, but these can just lead to more scientific studies.
  3. Lather, rinse repeat, until it looks like the hypothesis does explain the process. Peer-review one last time, then publish.

And that is the scientific method in a nutshell. All of those various experiments and peer-reviewed studies eventually lead to some sort of consensus with replicable results that explain how and why a particular thing occurs.

Then, and only then, do you get to jump out and declare…

THEORY!

So, for example, going back to one of the original hypotheses, the theory might now explain “How stellar dynamics determine whether a star of given mass will go nova, collapse into a neutron star, or become a black hole.”

And this new theory will include hard data, along the lines of “A star needs to have a mass less than X but diameter of Y in order to go nova, mass greater than X and diameter between Y and Z in order to become a neutron star, and mass greater than X and diameter less than Z in order to become a black hole.

A theory can also be disproven, rewritten, or confirmed multiple times. That’s how science works. But then there are those rare occasions where two theories both seem to be true, and yet create completely incompatible explanations for how the universe works.

Big and little

You’ve probably heard of Einstein’s “Theory of Relativity,” but there are actually two. The first, published in 1905, was his Special Theory of Relativity, most famous for giving us E=mc2, giving us the idea of mass/energy equivalence. That is, for any given mass, if you convert it entirely to energy, you’re going to get a really, really big boom because the value of c (the speed of light in a vacuum) is so huge, and then you square it and use it as a multiplier.

I think that most people have an intuitive understanding that this formula is what predicted the ultimate destructive power of nuclear weapons, which don’t even completely convert the mass in them into energy.

But the real purpose of this first theory of relativity was to show how space and time are connected, and it proved why no object with any rest mass could move at the speed of light. Its mass would increase with velocity, becoming infinite before hitting the speed of light, therefore making it impossible to make it go any faster, because there just isn’t enough energy.

See, the equation works both ways. But it did not account for acceleration. It only dealt with objects moving at the speed of light. It took ten years, but then Einstein published his General Theory of Relativity.

Here, among other things, accounting for acceleration and momentum made the results even freakier because the expanded formula squares both the E and (mc2) parts, then adds the product of that mass’s momentum, also times c squared.

It also dragged (pun intended) gravity into the equation, as in the Special Theory explained how space and time were linked, and the General Theory explained how gravity could affect them — reading “affect” as bend and distort.

That was the major mind-bending idea behind it that still hasn’t been disproven. Gravity is some kind of force that works across the universe on cosmic scales, and it basically tugs on the fabric of reality — space and time — doing things like making objects with mass attract each other or making objects with mass slow down time.

This theory came with an easy test. Since Gravity actually affected the fabric of space, any collision of two sufficiently massive objects should create ripples in space itself. It took a century, but in 2016, the first gravity waves were measured, confirming Einstein — yet again.

So we have plenty of evidence showing what gravity can do, that it is probably an inherent property of mass, and it can bend space, time, and light — but we still have no idea what it does.

Attempts to come up with a hypothetical “graviton” particle that carries the gravitational force, analogous to things like the photon, gluon, and electron, have so far been unsuccessful — meaning that gravity cannot be explained via quantum physics.

This is probably entirely a matter of scale.

To be continued next week…

Image Source, European Space Agency, licensed under (CC 4.0) International

Sunday Nibble #67: Friday hangover

No, not that kind of hangover. One of the Friday Free-for-All questions two days ago was what I thought was the most significant invention of the last 50 years. Coincidentally, I noticed a new documentary series on Amazon Prime which tracks important inventions by decade, starting in the 1900s and going from there to the present.

So it got me to wondering, after watching the 1900s episode, what the big inventions were exactly 100 years ago. That is, not those invented in the 1920s, but limited to 1921.

This was the year in which Albert Einstein won the Nobel Prize for Physics, although he wasn’t awarded it until 1922. Oddly enough, though, he didn’t win this one for either his General or Special Theory of Relativity, but rather for his discovery of the photoelectric effect.

This would later go on to prove quantum theory, because reasons, and become very useful in things like electric eyes, smoke detectors, solar panels, and so forth. The very short version of why it supports quantum physics is that it proved that electrons could only exist at very specific energy levels with no in-between going on — that is, those levels were quantized, or set at fixed amounts.

Imagine it like this: You’re making instant mashed potatoes from the box, and it gives you options for various numbers of servings, like 2, 4, 8, 12, or the whole box. For each increment of servings, there’s going to be one unique number for the flakes, water, butter, and milk. There’s no sliding scale allowed.

That’s how electrons work. The photoelectric effect is just what happens when you throw photons — which are little packets of energy with no rest mass — into matter. Depending on the energy of the photon and how it interacts, it’ll kick an electron up to the next “step” in energy levels. Think of this as the changing microwave or cooking times for those potatoes depending upon how many servings you’re making.

And Einstein described that a century ago.

The other big inventions and/or discoveries were all medical: A vaccine for tuberculosis, Vitamin D, and insulin.

All of these were a huge deal. Tuberculosis (TB) killed a lot of people and was highly infectious, and in the crowded cities of the modernized world, that was a problem. A century prior to the vaccine, it was the stereotypical wasting disease that killed the heroines in Romantic novels and operas (think Camile). It also contributed to the death of Frédéric Chopin, who wasn’t the healthiest of composers to begin with.

The vaccine in question, and the only effective one still used to this day, is the Bacillus Calmette–Guérin (BCG) vaccine, named for its creators. However, it’s only recommended to be given automatically in areas where TB is known to be prevalent. Otherwise, if someone is tested and not infected, the vaccine is optional, with only children at high-risk due to other conditions being inoculated.

In the same year, Vitamin D was indirectly discovered as science searched for a cure for rickets, which seemed to be seasonal, although Vitamin D itself wasn’t isolated and identified until 1922. What scientists did figure out in 1921, though, was the exposure to sunshine and ultraviolet light helped to alleviate or prevent rickets, which also related to the seasonal nature of the condition.

And, as is generally known now, the human body is capable of making its own Vitamin D. All it takes is sunshine.

But perhaps the biggest medical discovery and most important innovation of 1921 was the discovery of the hormone insulin, and its role in diabetes, a human disease so ancient that it was first described nearly 4000 years ago, and it was an Indian physician in the 5th century BCE who noted that ants seemed particularly attracted to the urine of such patients, said urine being sticky to the touch and sweet to the taste.

Yeah, I guess doctors went all-in on diagnosis back then.

But in 1921, researchers finally found the hormone and made the connection to the disease. There are two kinds of diabetes. Type 1 is a sort of autoimmune disease in which your body destroys the cells in your pancreas that make insulin, so that you’re incapable of producing it. Therefore, your body has no way of reducing the amount of glucose in your blood, which is bad.

Type 1 diabetes usually shows up during childhood, and requires regular monitoring of blood sugar and injections of insulin in order to treat — but never cure.

Type 2 diabetes happens when your body becomes resistant to insulin. That is, you need more insulin to get the same glucose clearing effect. However, over time, the cells in your pancreas may not be able to keep up and they burn out, so you wind up in the position of not making insulin either, or no matter how much insulin your body makes, it can never properly clear all that blood sugar.

Most Type 2 treatments involve medications that either make your body more responsive to insulin, increase your sensitivity to insulin, or cause you to make more insulin. Insulin itself is generally not a treatment. Dietary changes, however, can be very helpful.

So the big picture is that some of humanity’s most important discoveries might just be a lot older than we think but it’s also a nice reminder that, in terms of the history of humankind, a century is just the blink of an eye.

What inventions from now do you think that people will marvel at in 2121 as being so “ancient?” Let us know in the comments!

Friday-free-for-all #54: Polarizing, genius, genes, rights

The next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

What’s the most polarizing question you could ask a group of your friends?

Well, knowing my friends, it would either involve food or some nerdy fandom. So, for example, “Does pineapple belong on pizza?” would start big arguments. So would “DC or Marvel?”

“Star Trek or Star Wars?” “Is Quentin Tarantino overrated?” “Order from Amazon or boycott?” “CVS or RiteAid?”

But I know for a fact, because I choose my friends well, that there’s not a single political question that would polarize us. If I asked, “46 or 45,” I know how all of my friends would answer.

How would you define genius?

To me, genius is the ability to see patterns or mappings in very different things and then synthesize them into new and unique ways of seeing the world. However, please note that this is only a sliver away from also being the definition of madness.

That is, conspiracy theorists can see patterns and mappings, too, and synthesize them into new ways of seeing things. But to spin wildly down that path is to give us things like flat-Earthers and QAnon.

What separates genius then is the ability to either constrain all of the wild conjectures to art and keep them grounded in acknowledged what-if fantasy — and also use that to teach a bigger lesson about the world — or to do all of that synthesis, and then develop the experiments to empirically test the hypotheses that come out of the work.

Somebody like Tony Kushner is a genius because he mooshed together AIDS, Mormonism, Roy Cohn’s internalized homophobia and connection to Ethel Rosenberg, and some pretty intense references to 19th century ideas of each continent having its own patron Archangel, and he walked away with a Pulitzer and a Tony, both well-deserved.

Or… it took Albert Einstein asking a few questions about what was then orthodox theory, and why they didn’t quite seem to fit, at least not if the equations were taken to extremes, and the same thing happened. What could have seemed like total moonbat lunacy was born out as truth once the experiments were done to prove it.

What genetic modification would you most like to have?

Another nice no-brainer, but mine is a trifecta, because you can have that in genetic modifications.

First, the only reason we age is because these things called telomeres on the ends of our chromosomes keep getting shorter and shorter with each new replication, until they’re gone, and then the chromosome itself starts to degrade.

Think of them as those little plastic things on the end of your shoe laces that make it still possible to thread them through the eyes of your shoes, and keep the lace from unravelling. Once they’re gone, that lace is not going to be useful for too much longer.

So… that’s bit one of the formula: A genetic modification that keeps the telomere’s at original baby length forever. This would take care of a lot of degenerative diseases — dementia, arthritis, heart disease, and so on.

Second: Cancer suicide. We already sort of kind of have this in us, and it’s called a sunburn. What cause or skin to turn red and then get all flaky and fall off after an overdose of UV is our genes reacting to the danger and sending out a suicide signal. That is, those skin cells are instructed to die and flake off, lest they go cancerous.

Adapt this to all of the cells in the body, and voila. Part two of the cocktail.

Finally, toss in the ability to regrow almost any lost part. Short of losing something fatal, like your head, or heart, or both lungs at once, give us those salamander powers. Lose a finger or a toe? No problem. It grows back. Lose a tooth? Same thing. Lose hair? Hey, that was probably already covered in modification number one.

And yes, extend it to entire limbs, eyes, ears, patches of skin, whatever. As long as losing it didn’t kill you, it’ll grow back.

So, basically, the formula for almost immortality. But we are going to need it if we’re ever going to explore space outside of our meager solar system.

What rights does every human have? Do those rights change based on age?

This shouldn’t even be a question in the 21st century. The Bill of Rights is a pretty good start, with the exception of the 2nd Amendment, which is really badly worded. Owning any kind of arm is not a right. But protecting one’s self and one’s family from harm is. So perhaps that one should be couched more in terms of the idea that any kind of defensive weapon stays in the home for use of the residents there.

Also: You have the right to practice any religion you want, but you do not have the right in the public arena to treat other people differently because of what you believe.

But there are things that aren’t in the Bill of Rights that should be.

Everyone should have the right to an education from childhood through university, free of charge because we all pay for it. Everyone should have the right to healthcare with minimal costs based on income. Everyone should have the right to receive a universal basic income (UBI) which is calculated as enough to pay for their rent, utilities (which includes internet), food, transportation, plus an extra $600 stipend per month.

People who continue to work and make more than the UBI will still receive the stipend, or they can opt-out and donate it, either to other UBI recipients or the charities of their choice, with a full tax deduction.

Humans have the right to not be murdered by police. Period. This is why Redesign the Police is so damn important, and why “defund” is a bullshit rightwing talking point. We mainly need to reform the system so that when something non-violent happens — i.e. a store clerk automatically assumes a Black man is trying to pass off funny money — we don’t send hyped-up and armed racist white cops. Instead, we send trained social workers, who are far more used to dealing with all kinds of stuff.

Guaranteed, if that had been the case in Minnesota, George Floyd would still be alive today.

Finally, Karens do have the right to be offended. They just don’t have the right to be free of consequences.

Oh yeah… rights obviously do changed based on age — think about driving, voting, and drinking. But, so far, we’ve only set lower limits on things. Around 15 or 16 to drive, 18 to vote, 21 to drink, 25 to run for Congress, and 35 to run for President. Okay, and 50 to join AARP, but nobody is rushing for that one.

The thing we’re missing is upper limits and, honestly, I think that the pace of developments in the last thirty years shows that we need them, too. Hell, the Catholic Church prohibits any Cardinal over 80 from being nominated as the new Pope.

We have five Senators (or 5%) and 11 Congresscritters (or 2.5%) over 80.

And considering that Medicare first kicks in at 65, is it at all unreasonable to say that no one over that age at inauguration can run for office on a Federal level? Sure, let them do it at state, county, city, whatever; just not federally.

Thinking back on my own life, though — 25 and 35 are probably the best minimum limits. So, hey, you want a career as a Federal politician, you’ve got a good 30 to 40 years if you start early, and you’ll exit with a great pension.

Hell, start at local or state level, and you can run for mayor or governor at 18. Or, if your state really didn’t pay attention… run whenever. And 18-year-olds have won elsewhere.

If only OK Boomers started losing…