Category Archives: Science

A Day Long Remembered

Well, we hope that today is one that will be long remembered for the successful flight of the Falcon Heavy.

At about 10:30 am Pacific time, if weather and technical issues allow, SpaceX will attempt to flight the Flacon Heavy, which is essentially three Falcon 9 strapped together. Unlike other large rockets with large side boosters, SpaceX, as they have done on a number of Falcon 9 missions, will attempt to recover the rockets after flight, landing two of them back at the Kennedy Space Center and the center rocket on the floating barge, Of Course I Still Love You.

The upper stage, after loitering in orbit for six hours will boost the test payload into an elliptical orbit that nears, but does not intersect with the planet Mars. That upper stage will not be recovered and the payload will coast between Earth and Mars into the indefinite future.

Here’s video from SpaceX, with a hat tip to the late David Bowie, showing the planned mission.




Retire This Trope

The other night on Hulu I watched some of the movie Deep Impact. If you haven’t heard of this Earth versus Comet movie it is because it was utterly buried at the box office by that stupidly insulting example of Michael bay’s work, Armageddon. Beside show casing Elijah Wood before The Lord of The Rings, this film was a serious attempt to convey a story about a comet on a collision and the difficulty in diverting it.

Overall this film scores well in its science. It has some concept of the distances and energies involved. In fact the ship dispatched to divert the comet is powered by an Orion drive, something we had considered building; a ship that flies on a series of atomic explosions.

The movie did engage in one of the oldest trope in SF movies, the astronaut who gets separated from the craft and flies off into cold limitless space.

People, this is not the problem Hollywood would have you think it is.

Everything in space is about velocity. Velocity determines the size and period of your orbits. Go fast enough around the Earth and you are in orbit around the planet. Go faster and you may leave the planet but then you are orbiting the sun. Go a hell of a lot faster and you leave the sun’s influence and now you’re orbiting the center of the galaxy.

If you are working over the side on a spaceship lose you grip you may float away, but your velocity did not change all that much. You are still in the same orbit as the ship you left. Yeah it is out of reach but guess what you can move. With just a tiny burp of it orbital thrusters, not its main engines, and they can come and get you. The same is true if that ship is on its way to the moon, or Mars, or even the outer solar system. The difference between your new velocity and your old one, which was the same as the ships, is going to be insignificant compared to the ship’s ability to change its velocity.

But you know, I am starting to get an idea for a story…


Genes and Gene Expression: an Analogy and Some Speculations

Consider something purple displayed on your monitor. It looks purple, the color is vibrant and clear. However if you take that monitor apart and examine it down to the smallest components you will never find a purple pixel. The only pixels you will find will be Red, Blue, and Green. Where does that purple come from?

Now if you know anything about monitors, or color theory, or light, you already know the answer to my rhetorical question. Red light plus Blue light will create purple light. If both Red and Blue pixels light, then their combined color will be purple, that much is simple and straightforward.

Now for an analogy, think of genes as pixels. Each gene does its one thing; code for mRNA from which a protein is created. There are a lot more different genes then there are pixels. For full color you only need 3 pixels, but humans have an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 genes, so a directly analogy, like all analogies, can only go so far but stay with me here.

Like pixels genes are either on or they are off, and they are not always on to full intensity. Just as a pixel can be dim or bright a gene can express, that is produce, either a little product or a lot.

Most of the genes in your cells are actually switched off Livers cell have no need to produce proteins for muscles and the same if true for nerve cells acting like skin cell and so on. Critical to life and everything that it entails is proper gene expression. Just as there is circuitry that controls the pixels, switching them on, off, dim or bright, there is a control system doing the same for genes and that is epigenetics. It is the system outside of your inherited genes that controls when and how your genes express.

There is a growing body of evidence that epigenetic traits are inheritable and may be responsible for a wide range of things never before suspected, including sexual orientation.

This would explain the paradox of twins. Identical twins can and do vary in sexual orientation eve though they have identical genes. Some have tried to use the twins data to argue that orientation is then not inherent but somehow chosen. However your epigenetic settings are not under your control and many of them are determined during gestation. And even identical twins in the same womb do not have identical experiences in gestation. The search for a ‘homosexual gene’ is misguided both due to excessive binary thinking, people are not either simply gay or straight, and it’s a quest to find a non-existent purple pixel. All sexually reproductive species will need to have a sexual response mechanism. It is likely that the form of the response, activated by maturity, is a result of gene expression over a number of genes. I suspect the same may be true of gender identity.

Any species with sexual reproduction and sexual dimorphism is going to have some form on internal gender identity and if that is a result of gene expression that variation in expression may result in variation in internal gender identification.

Your phenotype may be male but if your pixels light up for female that may be your self-identified gender.

This gets very science-fictional when you consider that the epigenetic controls look to be hackable. In mice we have already changed the epigenetic settings and changed behavior.

What if we unlocked such keys and controls in humans? Is it ethical for parents to modify a child’s orientation or gender identity? If it is ethical for a person to under go treatments that alter the phenotype to match and internal model is it also ethical to allow that person to alter the internal model to match the phenotype?

I am not proposing answers. These are big big questions, but they are questions we may very be faced with sooner than we think.


Very Nearly Done

So my YA SF adventure novel is nearly ready for the beta readers. My lovely sweetie-wife is proofing the final chapter and I have gone through and retitled most of the chapters.

If you know me you know titles and character names bedevil me, but I wanted the final chapter to have a particular title and that means all of them need titles. Oh well, it’s good to work where you are weak.

In other news I ran my first 5th Edition D&D games this past weekend. I have run a 3.5 games for quite a number of years but the system soured for me and I was happy to bring that campaign to a close. At first I was just going to use the free material to start a new game and experiment with the 5th edition rules, but I changed my mind, took the plunge, and bought the core rulebooks. (And That is ALL I will buy. One of the things that burned me for 3.5 was the endless splat books and the exponential complexity they introduced.)

The game we went, I think people had fun, and the ease of the new rules is better suited to my style of play.

I also have an essay in mind about genetics and epigenetics. I think I have found an analogy that makes the distinction very clear and illustrates why something can be inherent and not genetic.


A Fantastic Image

This week NASA release an image from the Deep Space Climate Observatory. This is a satellite positioned at the L1 point, about a million miles away, between the Earth and the Sun. This point, while dynamically unstable, if a position in space where a satellite can be in one position relative to the Earth and the Sun with a minimal expenditure of fuel. This is an excellent spot to observe the Earth and make measurements about our climate.

Being a million miles out, it is about four times as distant as the moon and so the moon passes between the satellite’s cameras and the Earth producing a sight never before seen my the eyes of humanity. The Earth and the Moon both fully illuminated by the sun and clear for us to marvel at, the farside of the Moon. the side that never faces the Earth.

This image is striking and I adore it.



A lovely image

After a more than nine-year transit the spacecraft New Horizon this week achieved a historic fly-by of Pluto.  Pluto, planet or dwarf planet depending on your passion, has been a mystery for decades. Seen through the Hubble Space Telescope as barely more than a smudge, this world has been a favorite and an unknown lurking at the edge of the solar system.

Now we have wonderful images taken by the spacecraft and in my opinion Pluto is one of the loveliest worlds in our system. The scientific data continues to pour in and understanding it will take years, but this week it is all beauty and excitement.



Rand Paul thinks you’re stupid

In the video above Senator Rand Paul, considered by many to be a viable and serious presidential candidate for 2016, plays both sides of the street. On one hand be pays homage to the scientific breakthrough of vaccines and their importance to public health, and on the other hand he spreads falsehoods and disinformation about vaccines that suppress their use.
When some uses the word ‘but’ you need to pay close attention. In most cases what follows that word is a negation of what went on before. Several times in the video Rand Paul praises vaccines and then with a ‘but’ turns on them in his friendly, folksy ‘gosh, I just love freedom’ manner.
There are three major flags in his discussion of vaccines in this piece.
1) He insinuates that simultaneous vaccinations are a bad thing, referring to spreading out the scheduled for his own children. There is NO evidence that multiple or simultaneous vaccinations are unsafe or compromise the immune system of the vaccinated. Spreading out the vaccinations creates no benefits and leave gaps for possible infection.
2) Senator Paul stress that Hepatitis B is transmitted by sexual activity and blood transfusions. This is true, but is a prevarication. There are multiple methods of transmission and infection for Hepatitis B that place children and new borns at risk. It is typical of a social conservative to show reluctance at vaccines that interact with a person’s sexual life, such as the HPV vaccine.
3) His worst offense and the one that has generated a bit of a media controversy from this interview is the senator repeating the idiotic and ignorant canard that vaccines can cause mental retardation. The day after this interview he has tried to ‘walk back’ the comment by asserting that he did not says that vaccines caused mental retardation merely that they were, his words, ‘temporally related.’ Instead of manning up and talking the heat for saying a damn stupid thing, he’s insisting that you should believe him and not your lying ears,

It is true that he praised vaccines in the interview; it is true that his children are vaccinated, and it is also true that he repeated and insinuated anti-vaccine myths, either because he himself believes them or he believes that it plays well to people who matter to him.

Either way it looks like Rand Paul thinks you’re stupid.


A Bad Idea

Anyone who knows me is aware that I hold anti-vaxxers in the same sort of contempt that I reserve for creationist and anti-evolutionist. Recently I spotted a proposal that parents should be required to confer with a physician before being allowed to opt out of getting their children vaccinated.

No! This is a terrible idea.

When justice Alito was up for confirmation to SCOTUS one of the things that troubled me from his judicial history was upholding a law that required married woman confer with their husband before obtaining an abortion. Granted it gave the husband no legal standing, he had no way to legally forbid the process, the woman merely had to inform and confer with her spouse on the matter, the decision was still hers. It was a terrible idea for the exact same reasons as this proposal about vaccinations.

Freedom of speech and expression is not just a positive right. In addition is have the freedom to express your ideas, you are free from having to participate in expression of ideas. Compelled speech is not free speech.

Ban unvaccinated children from schools. I support that.

Require the vaccinations for public health. No trouble with that at all.

But for heaven’s sake do not infringe on freedom of expression to get there.