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Posts Tagged ‘Science

“There is a size at which dignity begins”*…

 

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The spectrometer for the KATRIN experiment, as it works its way through the German town of Eggenstein-Leopoldshafen in 2006 en route to the nearby Karlsruhe Institute of Technology

 

Isaac Asimov dubbed neutrinos “ghost particles.” John Updike immortalized them in verse. They’ve been the subject of several Nobel Prize citations, because these weird tiny particles just keep surprising physicists. And now we have a much better idea of the upper limit of what their rest mass could be, thanks to the first results from the Karlsruhe Tritium Neutrino experiment (KATRIN) in Germany. Leaders from the experiment announced their results last week at a scientific conference in Japan and posted a preprint to the physics arXiv.

“Knowing the mass of the neutrino will allow scientists to answer fundamental questions in cosmology, astrophysics, and particle physics, such as how the universe evolved or what physics exists beyond the Standard Model,” said Hamish Robertson, a KATRIN scientist and professor emeritus of physics at the University of Washington…

Physicists get small: “Weighing in: Physicists cut upper limit on neutrino’s mass in half.”

* Thomas Hardy, “Two on a Tower”

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As we step onto the scales, we might spare a thought for Max Karl Ernst Ludwig Planck; he died on this date in 1947.  A theoretical physicist, he is best remembered as the originator of quantum theory.  It was his discovery of energy quanta that won him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1918.

220px-Max_Planck_1933 source

 

Written by LW

October 4, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”*…

 

Beef

 

We are on the cusp of the deepest, fastest, most consequential disruption in food and agricultural production since the first domestication of plants and animals ten thousand years ago. This is primarily a protein disruption driven by economics. The cost of proteins will be five times cheaper by 2030 and 10 times cheaper by 2035 than existing animal proteins, before ultimately approaching the cost of sugar. They will also be superior in every key attribute – more nutritious, healthier, better tasting, and more convenient, with almost unimaginable variety. This means that, by 2030, modern food products will be higher quality and cost less than half as much to produce as the animal-derived products they replace.

The impact of this disruption on industrial animal farming will be profound. By 2030, the number of cows in the U.S. will have fallen by 50% and the cattle farming industry will be all but bankrupt. All other livestock industries will suffer a similar fate, while the knock-on effects for crop farmers and businesses throughout the value chain will be severe.

This is the result of rapid advances in precision biology that have allowed us to make huge strides in precision fermentation, a process that allows us to program microorganisms to produce almost any complex organic molecule.

These advances are now being combined with an entirely new model of production we call Food-as-Software, in which individual molecules engineered by scientists are uploaded to databases – molecular cookbooks that food engineers anywhere in the world can use to design products in the same way that software developers design apps. This model ensures constant iteration so that products improve rapidly, with each version superior and cheaper than the last. It also ensures a production system that is completely decentralized and much more stable and resilient than industrial animal agriculture, with fermentation farms located in or close to towns and cities.

This rapid improvement is in stark contrast to the industrial livestock production model, which has all but reached its limits in terms of scale, reach, and efficiency. As the most inefficient and economically vulnerable part of this system, cow products will be the first to feel the full force of modern food’s disruptive power. Modern alternatives will be up to 100 times more land efficient, 10-25 times more feedstock efficient, 20 times more time efficient, and 10 times more water efficient.1,2 They will also produce an order of magnitude less waste.

Modern foods have already started disrupting the ground meat market, but once cost parity is reached, we believe in 2021-23, adoption will tip and accelerate exponentially. The disruption will play out in a number of ways and does not rely solely on the direct, one-for-one substitution of end products. In some markets, only a small percentage of the ingredients need to be replaced for an entire product to be disrupted. The whole of the cow milk industry, for example, will start to collapse once modern food technologies have replaced the proteins in a bottle of milk – just 3.3% of its content. The industry, which is already balancing on a knife edge, will thus be all but bankrupt by 2030.

This is not, therefore, one disruption but many in parallel, with each overlapping, reinforcing, and accelerating one another. Product after product that we extract from the cow will be replaced by superior, cheaper, modern alternatives, triggering a death spiral of increasing prices, decreasing demand, and reversing economies of scale for the industrial cattle farming industry, which will collapse long before we see modern technologies produce the perfect, cellular steak…

A provocative look at the (or at least a plausible) future of food and agriculture. Read the full report here (email registration required).

As to what’s happening in the meantime…

• Undocumented ship-to-ship transfers funnel illegal, unreported, and unregulated fish to market. It’s probably worse than we thought: “Clandestine Fish Handoffs.”

• With a new California Cattle Council now in play, the state’s beef producers will up the ante in research and education: “California cattle producers beef up state’s cattle business” .

• “Eat Less Red Meat, Scientists Said. Now Some Believe That Was Bad Advice

* Hippocrates

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As we dig in, we might recall that it was on this date in 1964 that Teressa Bellissimo, at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York, created Buffalo Hot Wings as a snack for her son and several of his college friends.  Her “invention”– an unbreaded chicken wing section (flat or drumette), generally deep-fried then coated or dipped in a sauce consisting of a vinegar-based cayenne pepper hot sauce and melted butter, and served with with celery and carrot sticks and with blue cheese dressing or ranch dressing for dipping– has become a barroom and fast food staple… and has inspired a plethora of “Buffalo” dishes (other fried foods with dipping sauces).

220px-Buffalo_-_Wings_at_Airport_Anchor_Bar source

 

Written by LW

October 3, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one”*…

 

Science_View-On-G2-Mirror

To look for the strange wave-like properties of quantum particles, physicists hurtle them through a long tunnel-like instrument known as an interferometer

 

Magnify a speck of dirt a thousand times, and suddenly it no longer seems to play by the same rules. Its outline, for example, won’t look well-defined most of the time and will resemble a diffuse, sprawling cloud. That’s the bizarre realm of quantum mechanics. “In some books, you’ll find they say a particle is in various places at once,” says physicist Markus Arndt of the University of Vienna in Austria. “Whether that really happens is a matter of interpretation.”

Another way of putting it: Quantum particles sometimes act like waves, spread out in space. They can slosh into each other and even back onto themselves. But if you poke at this wave-like object with certain instruments, or if the object interacts in specific ways with nearby particles, it loses its wavelike properties and starts acting like a discrete point—a particle. Physicists have observed atoms, electrons, and other minutiae transitioning between wave-like and particle-like states for decades.

But at what size do quantum effects no longer apply? How big can something be and still behave like both a particle and a wave? Physicists have struggled to answer that question because the experiments have been nearly impossible to design.

Now, Arndt and his team have circumvented those challenges and observed quantum wave-like properties in the largest objects to date—molecules composed of 2,000 atoms, the size of some proteins. The size of these molecules beats the previous record by two and a half times. To see this, they injected the molecules into a 5-meter-long tube. When the particles hit a target at the end, they didn’t just land as randomly scattered points. Instead, they formed an interference pattern, a striped pattern of dark and light stripes that suggests waves colliding and combining with each other…

One possibility physicists are exploring is that quantum mechanics might in fact apply at all scales. “You and I, while we sit and talk, do not feel quantum,” says Arndt. We seem to have distinct outlines and do not crash and combine with each other like waves in a pond. “The question is, why does the world look so normal when quantum mechanics is so weird?”…

A record-breaking experiment shows an enormous molecule is also both a particle and a wave—and that quantum effects don’t only apply at tiny scales: “Even Huge Molecules Follow the Quantum World’s Bizarre Rules.”

Read the paper published in Nature Physics by Arndt and his team here.

* Albert Einstein

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As we dwell on duality, we might spare a thought for August Ferdinand Möbius; he died on this date in 1868.  A German mathematician and theoretical astronomer, he is best remembered as a topologist, more specifically for his discovery of the Möbius strip (a two-dimensional surface with only one side… or more precisely, a non-orientable two-dimensional surface with only one side when embedded in three-dimensional Euclidean space).

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Written by LW

September 26, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Civilization is a race between disaster and education”*…

 

pre-human

 

One of the creepier conclusions drawn by scientists studying the Anthropocene—the proposed epoch of Earth’s geologic history in which humankind’s activities dominate the globe—is how closely today’s industrially induced climate change resembles conditions seen in past periods of rapid temperature rise.

“These ‘hyperthermals,’ the thermal-maximum events of prehistory, are the genesis of this research,” says Gavin Schmidt, climate modeler and director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “Whether the warming was caused by humans or by natural forces, the fingerprints—the chemical signals and tracers that give evidence of what happened then—look very similar.”

The canonical example of a hyperthermal is the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), a 200,000-year period that occurred some 55.5 million years ago when global average temperatures rose by 5 to 8 degrees Celsius (about 9 to 14 degrees Fahrenheit). Schmidt has pondered the PETM for his entire career, and it was on his mind one day in his office last year when the University of Rochester astrophysicist Adam Frank paid him a visit.

Frank was there to discuss the idea of studying global warming from an “astrobiological perspective”—that is, investigating whether the rise of an alien industrial civilization on an exoplanet might necessarily trigger climate changes similar to those we see during Earth’s own Anthropocene. But almost before Frank could describe how one might search for the climatic effects of industrial “exocivilizations” on newly discovered planets, Schmidt caught him up short with a surprising question: “How do you know we’re the only time there’s been a civilization on our own planet?”

Frank considered a moment before responding with a question of his own: “Could we even tell if there had been an industrial civilization [long before this one]?”

Their subsequent attempt to address both questions has yielded a provocative paper on the possibility Earth might have spawned more than one technological society during its 4.5-billion-year history. And if indeed some such culture arose on Earth in the murky depths of geologic time, how might scientists today discern signs of that incredible development? Or, as the paper put it: “If an industrial civilization had existed on Earth many millions of years prior to our own era, what traces would it have left and would they be detectable today?”…

The entire fascinating piece at “Could an Industrial Prehuman Civilization Have Existed on Earth before Ours?

* H. G. Wells

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As we ponder predecessors, we might recall hat it was on this date in 1974 that Nature published a paper by F. Sherwood Rowland documenting his discovery that chlorofluorocarbons (like freon in aerosols and refrigeration units) contribute to ozone depletion.

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA source

 

Written by LW

September 25, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Matter is energy waiting to happen”*…

 

matter abstractions-a-442

 

Chad Mirkin didn’t set out to discover a new property in matter. But when you’re inventing an alternative to atom-based chemistry, something strange is bound to happen…

While studying materials made from DNA-coated nanoparticles, researchers found a new form of matter– lattices in which smaller particles roam like electrons in metallic bonds: “Strange Metal-like Bonds Discovered in Customized Crystals.”

* Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

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As we muse on matter, we might send irradiated birthday greetings to Irène Joliot-Curie; she was born on this date in 1897.  The daughter of Marie Curie and Pierre Curie and the wife of Frédéric Joliot-Curie, she shared a Nobel Prize with her husband for their joint discovery of artificial radioactivity (making the Curies the family with the most Nobel laureates to date).  Both children of the Joliot-Curies, Hélène and Pierre, are also esteemed scientists.

Like her mother, Irène died of leukemia, likely resulting from radiation exposure during her research.

220px-Irène_Joliot-Curie_Harcourt source

 

Written by LW

September 12, 2019 at 1:01 am

“The rule of thumb is the more profound the experience, the longer you should wait before doing it again”*…

 

sartretrippinmane2

 

Beyond their visual qualities, mescaline’s hallucinations posed profound philosophical questions. During the mid-1930s three prominent writers and thinkers left records of their experiments with it. In 1934 and 1935 respectively, Walter Benjamin and Jean-Paul Sartre participated in the now-familiar modus operandi of private session between psychiatrist and artist, with the scientific gaze and the philosopher’s insights informing—or, more often, pitted against—one another…

Sartre wrote little directly about his experience, describing it briefly in notes that later found a place in L’imaginaire, his 1940 study of the phenomenology of the imagination. He found its effects elusive and sinister. “It could only exist by stealth,” he wrote; it distorted every sensation, yet whenever he attempted to perceive it directly it withdrew into the background or shifted shape. Its action on the mind “inconsistent and mysterious,” offering no solid vantage point from which to observe it. In contrast to previous descriptions of the “double consciousness” or état mixte, in which the normal self was able to observe its hallucinations dispassionately, Sartre found it impossible to be a spectator of his own experience. On the contrary, he felt submerged against his will in a miasma of sensations that assailed him viscerally at every turn, a world of grotesque extreme close-ups in which everything disgusted him.

The best-known detail of Sartre’s bad trip is Simone de Beauvoir’s anecdote of him being haunted for weeks after by lobster-like creatures scuttling just beyond his field of vision. Sartre, like Aldous Huxley, was partially sighted—a curious coincidence linking two of the most celebrated intellectuals to have taken the vision-producing drug—and his poor vision may have exacerbated his anxieties about shapes lurking just beyond its reach. Later in life he claimed that it had driven him to a nervous breakdown. “After I took mescaline, I started seeing crabs around me all the time,” he recalled in 1971; “I mean they followed me into the street, into class.” Even though he knew they were imaginary he spoke to them, requesting them to be quiet during his lectures. Eventually he sought psychotherapeutic help from a young Jacques Lacan, which generated “nothing that he or I valued very much,” though “with the crabs, we sort of concluded that it was fear of becoming alone.”…

Caveat comedenti: “Sartre’s bad trip.”

* Dr. James Fadiman

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As we contemplate crustacea, we might spare a thought for Jerome Phillip Horwitz; he died on this date in 2012.  A chemist active in cancer research, Horowitz was the first to synthesized AZT (azidothymidine), in 1964, in the hope that it might retard the growth of malignant cells.  It failed at that task, and lay dormant for two decades… until Burroughs Wellcome tested– and patented– Horowitz’s development as a treatment for HIV-AIDS.  The drug company got FDA approval in 1986, and went on to reap enormous financial returns, of which Horowitz saw none.

After AZT, Horowitz went on to create many successful treatments for cancer and other diseases.

(While some believe that Horwitz was referenced in the Captain Underpants books, the Jerome Horwitz Elementary School in the children’s book series was in fact named after Curly Howard (Jerome Lester Horowitz) of The Three Stooges.

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Written by LW

September 6, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Oxygen / Everything needs it”*…

An aerial view of forest fire of the Amazon taken with a drone is seen from an Indigenous territory in the state of Mato Grosso

 

As tongues of flame lapped the planet’s largest tract of rain forest over the past few weeks, it has rightfully inspired the world’s horror. The entire Amazon could be nearing the edge of a desiccating feedback loop, one that could end in catastrophic collapse. This collapse would threaten millions of species, from every branch of the tree of life, each of them—its idiosyncratic splendor, its subjective animal perception of the world—irretrievable once it’s gone. This arson has been tacitly encouraged by a Brazilian administration that is determined to develop the rain forest, over the objections of its indigenous inhabitants and the world at large. Losing the Amazon, beyond representing a planetary historic tragedy beyond measure, would also make meeting the ambitious climate goals of the Paris Agreement all but impossible. World leaders need to marshal all their political and diplomatic might to save it.

The Amazon is a vast, ineffable, vital, living wonder. It does not, however, supply the planet with 20 percent of its oxygen.

As the biochemist Nick Lane wrote in his 2003 book Oxygen, “Even the most foolhardy destruction of world forests could hardly dint our oxygen supply, though in other respects such short-sighted idiocy is an unspeakable tragedy.”…

There are very many very good reasons not to burn down the Amazon rain forest.  Still, humans could burn every living thing on the planet and still not dent its oxygen supply: “The Amazon Is Not Earth’s Lungs.”

(Again– burning down the rainforest is bad, very very bad.  But as long-time environmental reporter Michael Shellenberger argues, if we ground our concerns in the actual details of what’s happening, we’re much likelier to find effective responses.)

* Mary Oliver (from her collection Twist)

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As we take a deep breath, we might recall that it was on this date in 1666 that the Great Fire of London broke out.  The conflagration raged for four days, mostly in the City of London, within the old Roman walls; it did not spread to the aristocratic district of Westminster, to Charles II’s Palace of Whitehall, nor to most of the suburban slums.  It destroyed 13,200 houses, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and 87 parish churches.  Miraculously, fewer than 20 people lost their lives.

Great Fire of London.jpg source

 

Written by LW

September 2, 2019 at 1:01 am

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