NASA's Idea to Nearly Replace Rockets

NASA is facing a problem: chemical rocket engines are about as good as they will ever get by the laws of chemistry and physics. It's becoming increasingly difficult to make them any cheaper or safer, and private companies are now doing much of that work. Embarrassing, physically impossible microwave engine pipe dreams aside, what can NASA do?

When pressed for answers by the Obama administration, NASA engineers proposed something interesting: taking some of the load off of liquid-fueled rockets. The slack is taken up by two other propulsion technologies. The first stage of the takeoff is achieved by the use of a railgun. The second is accomplished via an engine called a scramjet. First, the rail gun launches the craft up to speed. Then, the scramjet takes over and pushes the ship to one third or more of escape velocity. Finally, the traditional rocket engine takes over for the final push to orbit.

The railgun stage is a simple idea. Railguns are powered by electromagnetic physics. Two thick metal rails are connected to each end of a capacitor. The capacitor is an enormous storage cell for electric charge, the "fuel" for this system. Electrical energy is stored in the electrical field of the capacitor by holding positive and negative charges close together but separated. So long as the two areas of the device containing positive and negative charge have no connection to one another the device is ready to fire.

One rail of the gun is hooked to the positive charge area of the capacitor and the other to the negative charge area. When a metal object is placed across the rails, the positive and negative areas are connected by this conductive bridge. A massive bolt of charge is immediately driven through the system, flowing from down one rail, across the bridging projectile and back down the other; the pull of the positively charged capacitor area driving an enormous current of electrons.

Flowing electrical currents produce magnetic fields. The magnetic field produced in each rail is proportional to the amount of current flowing through it. For a huge current, the magnetic field can become incredibly strong. Circling each rail in opposite directions, the two fields add together constructively in the center to produce a strong upward field. A law of nature called the Lorentz force says that a current and magnetic field flowing perpendicularly produce a force in the direction perpendicular to both of them. This Lorentz force pushes the projectile down the track at tremendous speed.

The advantage of a rail gun is that it requires no chemical propellant for its energy. The entire system is powered solely by an electrical generator that produces electrons and stores them in the capacitor. This means the first stage of the rocket will not need to load the craft down with any propellant. The second stage of the system also reduces the need for rocket fuel; the fuel is supplemented by air.

The scramjet stage takes over power at roughly Mach 1.5 . The scramjet is a type of jet engine which operates at much higher velocities. A traditional ramjet engine works by compressing air and creating combustion within it as the air flows through. While the ramjet flows this air at velocities less than the speed of sound, the scramjet produces combustion in a supersonic air flow through the combustion chamber, which is far more efficient.

The simple reason that this technology is needed is that as airspeed increases, the air being forced into the engine is moving at higher and higher velocities. This requires more and more and slowdown to drop back below the speed of sound for combustion. This in turn creates shockwaves. Above speeds near Mach 5, the shockwaves become so strong that they disrupt the airflow into the combustion area and restrict any greater air intake, limiting speed.

Scramjets can easily surpass this limit. Supersonic combustion engines have been tested by NASA in such ships as the X-15, X-43 and X-51. These rocket planes have reached speeds as high as Mach 10, roughly one-third of Earth's escape velocity. The scramjet design is theoretically capable of reaching speeds near 100% of escape velocity. Much more research and experimental testing will need to be performed before the feasibility of those speeds is known.

The challenges of this plan are very clear. First, no railgun vaguely approaching this size has ever been constructed. The Navy has built railguns capable of launching 23-pound projectiles; NASA is talking about launching projectiles of 1000 times that mass, with humans inside! Further, the rails will need to be nearly two miles long, and filling the capacitor will require a 180 megawatt power plant. On the bright side, this is mostly achievable with current technology plus research. However, it would require lots of money, initiative and a significant change in course at NASA.

The scramjet is also challenging. There are no declassified tests of a scramjet engine at speeds of Mach 10 for more than 10 seconds. Flights of even Mach 7 have never exceeded four minutes. How difficult it will be to design an engine that can run faster, longer is not at all clear.

Give NASA some credit for thinking big with this proposal. Now, let's see if they are provided the resources and can muster the gumption to really work on it, or if it's just another pie-in-the-sky dream.

Can Moons Have Moons?

Tonight, take a moment to glance up at the sky. There you'll see Earth's celestial constant, our Moon, illuminated by the Sun. Now imagine you're up there, standing in the Ocean of Storms, looking back at Earth. Our home is radiant -- blue, green, and beautiful. But that's not the only close object that specks the Moon's sky. Though it may surprise you, the Moon actually has its very own moon, and we put it there.

Right now, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) is circling the Moon, as it has done for the past five and a half years. You'll need a telescope to see it clearly, but it's there. And yes, it counts as a moon. Sure, a moon is technically a natural satellite, and the LRO is manmade. But that's a minor distinction. What matters is that the LRO orbits the Moon. So it's an unnatural satellite. A faux moon, if you will. But a moon nonetheless.

This example serves to show that moons can indeed have moons. The science behind this notion is surprisingly simple. All celestial bodies exert a gravitational force proportional to their mass -- everything pulls on everything else. Over billions of years, this has balanced out quite nicely in our solar system, as all the planets have settled into set orbits around the Sun. More specifically, the planets and sun all orbit around their mutual center of mass, or barycenter.

While any two objects can orbit one another in a stable way, adding more celestial bodies complicates the picture dramatically. Mathematically, there is no general solution for three or more objects to orbit one another. This means that systems of multiple objects can only stably orbit one another in certain special cases.

There are a handful of spots where the gravitational tug of large objects is precisely negated by the pull of another. These are the Lagrangian Points; five of these exist between any two bodies. Asteroids sometimes accumulate at these spots, and we have parked spacecraft in the ones between the Earth and the Sun. But the objects at these points aren't moons as we think of them: they stay in one point in space and don't revolve around either body.

The other special case arises in a system where a planet orbits a star, or a moon orbits a planet. In this case, an even smaller object may be able to orbit either of the two large ones, but only if it is very close to one and very far from the other. For example, our Moon orbits 388 times closer to us than the Sun. In this case, the gravitational pull of the closer body is vastly stronger than the far body (gravitational force decreases by the distance away squared).

The closer the small sub-satellite is to the bigger planet or moon, the easier it is to orbit there. The region of space around a planet within which a moon will orbit on the planet and not the sun is called the Hill Sphere. Within this area, the gravity of the planet alone is king. Moons have their own, much smaller Hill Spheres where they own satellites and don't share them with their planets. Sub-moons have even tinier Hill Spheres, and so on.

The Earth's Hill Sphere extends out 1.5 million kilometers. If the moon were outside of that range, it would orbit the Sun instead! The Moon also has its own Hill Sphere, with a radius of 60,000 kilometers. It is within this range that the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter currently orbits the Moon. Even asteroids have their own Hill Spheres. The 19-mile-wide asteroid 243 Ida, which orbits the Sun every 4.8 years, has it's own little pet moon Dactyl, which is only about a mile wide.

While moons can have moons, these sub-moons often don't last long. Many moons that orbit planets are tidally locked, meaning that one side of the moon always faces the planet. This spells trouble for potential sub-moons. The tidal forces associated with tidal-locking cause the sub-moon's orbit to decay in a matter of years, sending it crashing to the surface of the bigger moon. This will be the eventual fate of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

The Hill Sphere accounts for gravitational forces alone, but no others. That's why these tidal forces, or other small forces such as the force of light from a star pushing on the body (radiation pressure) and even the body emitting photons that push on it like a miniscule rocket engine can still ruin orbits within the supposedly safe region.

While the relatively tiny Hill Sphere makes it very difficult for sub-moons to form naturally around moons, there may be one fascinating example from our very own solar system. Saturn's second-largest moon, Rhea, may have its very own rings, composed of moonlets! Their existence is in dispute, however, with the weight of evidence currently pointing to their absence. But we can still revel in the glory of possibility!

(Images: AP, NASA)

Conspiracy Theorists Aren't Who You Think They Are. 'The View' Is Full of Them.

When asked to envision a typical conspiracy theorist, what characteristics come to mind? Middle-aged, perhaps? Male? A little gray around the edges? Reclusive? Raving?

Decent guesses, but all are slightly off the reservation. As a matter of fact, to glance the average conspiracy theorist, you'd be better off looking in the mirror.

"Given previous polling data, we suspect that everyone believes in at least one conspiracy theory, and most people believe in several," political scientists Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent write in their new book American Conspiracy Theories.

That's why, when Parent and Uscinski sought to reveal the characteristics of a typical conspiracy theorist using a massive, in-depth poll, they decided to measure respondents' inclinations towards conspiratorial thinking rather than just list conspiracies and ask people to select which they believe in.

To uncover these conspiratorial predispositions, Parent and Uscinski asked subjects to complete a survey filled with all sorts of statements, to which participants would indicate their level of agreement. Among them were statements like "Much of our lives are being controlled by plots hatched in secret places," and "The people who really 'run' the country are not known to the voters." The respondents who agreed with statements like these were deemed to have a higher conspiratorial predisposition. These people are the true conspiracy theorists.

So what were they like? The answer might surprise you.

For starters, women were just as likely as men to be conspiracy theorists. While it may seem difficult at first to picture a female conspiracy theorist, Uscinski and Parent noted that the hosts of the popular television talk show The View are great examples.

"Jenny McCarthy believes in vaccine conspiracy theories; Rosie O'Donnell has espoused Truther theories; Star Jones has suggested a conspiracy theory involving George Zimmerman; and Whoopi Goldberg believes the moon landing was faked."

In terms of race, blacks and Hispanics actually had slightly higher rates of conspiratorial predispositions than whites. They might have good reason, however. Racist conspiracies against minority groups are not unheard of in the history of our country. Between 1932 and 1972, the U.S. Public Health Service studied the natural progression of untreated syphilis in rural African American men while misleading them into thinking they were receiving free health care.

When Uscinski and Parent examined how age was associated with conspiratorial thinking, they categorized the survey population by generation: The Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials. Gen Xers took the conspiratorial crown by far. Given what was going on in the world during their formative years, this sort of makes sense.

"Every age sees scandals, but Gen Xers grew up in a somewhat anomalous age of less innocence: in the wake of shocking assassinations, galling FBI and CIA revelations, Vietnam, Watergate, and Iran-Contra," Uscinski and Parent noted.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, the less educated a person was, the more likely he or she was to be a conspiracy theorist.

Now, the big tamale: ideology. Liberal figures like Paul Krugman and Chris Matthews regularly accuse Republicans of being whack jobs. Are they correct? As it turns out, Democrats and Republicans score about equally in conspiratorial thinking, and they both firmly lag behind self-described Independents. Conspiracy theorizing is bipartisan. Too bad that's about the only thing that is.

(Image: Shutterstock)

'Low-FODMAP' May Be the Next 'Gluten-Free', Except with Better Scientific Support

One week ago, friends and family members gathered around tables strewn with mashed potatoes, greasy gravy, shimmering vegetables, and juicy turkey jam-packed with gluten-free stuffing.

Wait, gluten-free stuffing?

Though it may seem sacrilege to many ardent eaters, gluten-free Thanksgiving options likely made the rounds at many festive dinners around the country. Considering that the gluten-free market has surged 63% in the last two years to around $8.8 billion in sales in 2014, that should really come as no surprise.

Three out of every ten Americans are now trying to eat less gluten, a protein commonly found in wheat, barley, and rye that's been criticized for inciting everything from gastrointestinal discomfort to autism. Three out of ten is far more than the one in 141 people estimated to have celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder triggered by gluten in which the hair-like villi that line the small intestine become damaged, leading to gastrointestinal discomfort and hampered nutrient absorption.

So why are millions of Americans eating less gluten? It may be in an attempt to attain health benefits, though there don't seem to be many, or because they might be "sensitive" to gluten, even though researchers have yet to characterize the biomarkers of non-celiac gluten sensitivity which would conclusively prove that it exists. More often than not, however, they suffer from general stomach problems like cramps, bloating, and pain, and are understandably looking for some way to alleviate their uncomfortable symptoms. 

Sadly, however, everyday stomach trouble remains an enigmatic problem for modern medicine. All sorts of things can make a gut unhappy. Stress and anxiety are commonly to blame, but they rarely get much attention in the popular media or in the break room at work. Thus, dietary triggers -- like MSG or gluten -- are most often vilified, since they are "simple" fixes that engender a soothing placebo effect and fit well on a food label.

Out of the medley of marketing, blogs, and dietary advice that pervades modern society, it's difficult to determine which solutions to a sour stomach are backed by good science and which aren't. While the evidence for going gluten-free in the absence of celiac disease is lacking at the moment, another diet seems to be gaining popularity.

It's called Low-FODMAP, which is an acronym for "Fermentable, Oligo-, Di-, Mono-saccharides And Polyols." Basically, FODMAPs are substances that aren't absorbed very well in the small intestine. So when they pass into the large intestine, bacteria ferment them, creating gas that can cause pain, bloating, and flatulence. FODMAPs aren't harmful in any way; they simply make more "noise," so to speak, as they are digested. Dietary sources high in FODMAPs include milk, broccoli, apples, onions, beans, wheat, and -- glaringly -- high-fructose corn syrup, which has become widespread in the last four decades. A Low-FODMAP diet simply recommends that you eat less of these foods and more of foods lower in FODMAPS, like bananas, carrots, corn-based cereals, beef, chicken, lettuce, and rice.

Though gluten is significantly more studied than FODMAPs -- a PubMed search returned nearly 4,000 results on gluten and just 53 on FODMAPs -- scientists have still yet to conclusively determine the mechanism for how gluten could cause stomach issues in people without celiac disease. On the other hand, it's well understood how FODMAPs can trigger gut discomfort. Occam's Razor should be put to use here. FODMAPs may be the stomach irritants we've been looking for, not gluten. In fact, a well-controlled study published last year found that when patients diagnosed with gluten sensitivity went on a Low-FODMAP diet, their symptoms largely disappeared.

As a treatment for many functional gut disorders, the Low-FODMAP diet certainly deserves more attention than it's currently getting. A team of gastroenterologists recently made that clear in a review published to the journal Digestive Diseases and Sciences. Examining the diet's potential to treat irritable bowel syndrome, a gastrointestinal disorder that affects 10-15% of North Americans every year, they concluded:

"The available data are impressive and should prompt healthcare providers to include the FODMAP diet into their repertoire of treatment options."

Eating Low-FODMAP to ease nagging stomach symptoms may not be as trendy as going gluten-free. It is, however, supported by fledgling, but thus far solid science.

(Image: Shutterstock)

How Urine Led to the Foundation of Chemistry

Hennig Brand was on to something. Or rather, he thought he was.

By the 17th century, alchemists had been trying to make gold for over a thousand years. Though the search had ultimately been fruitless for his numerous forebears, Brand, a merchant and an alchemist living in Hamburg, Germany, was not discouraged. He now considered a radical, yet surprisingly simple idea: that gold could be found within the human body, itself, and the easiest way to harvest it was by distilling down a warm, golden-hued liquid widely and thoughtlessly discarded each and every day.

It was 1669, and the quest to obtain gold from urine had begun.

Brand was not as naive as one might expect. If gold was indeed produced within the human body and excreted in urine, it would be present in very tiny amounts, he reasoned. So, he was going to need a lot of urine, far more than even he could hope to produce in a decade. Brand turned to his wealthy wife Margaretha for funding, who acquiesced (undoubtedly with some reservations). With her money, and an unabashed willingness to be "that guy," he procured more than fifty buckets of urine, roughly equal to 5,500 Liters, and retreated to his basement laboratory.

Brand knew what he needed to do first: boil down the urine to remove all of the water. Fumes soon wafted out of the basement windows onto the street, and squeezed through cracks and crevices to pervade the ground and upstairs floors of his house.

"Brand must have had some very, very patient neighbors," University College London chemistry professor Andrea Sella commented in a BBC4 documentary. "I don't really know what his romantic life was like but I can't imagine he was all that popular."

After the boiling process, Brand was left with a thick paste, which he then heated at an extremely high temperature for several days. He eventually obtained a reddish, glowing liquid, which -- amazingly -- burst into flames after only momentary contact with air. When he cooled the substance in water, he found that it eventually turned white. Brand definitely didn't find gold, but what he found was just as, if not more, exciting (though at the time he definitely didn't realize it). It was a new element, the first to be discovered in hundreds of years. He called it "icy noctiluca," because even though it burned brighter than anything anybody had ever seen on Earth, it left nearby objects chilly. Today, we call it phosphorus.

"He was looking for riches, but didn't realize that he'd unearthed a fundamental notion: that elements can be concealed within a hidden world," British nuclear physicist Jim Al-Khalili remarked of the discovery.

From his immense stock of urine, Brand distilled just 120 grams of phosphorus. He used some of it to try and make gold, but couldn't make a go of it. Eventually, he sold the secret of how he made it in order to recoup some of the initial costs and probably to appease his wife. That secret eventually made its way to the alchemist Robert Boyle, who not only refined the method of producing phosphorus, bet realized that the element could be used create fire on demand. It was Boyle who first placed phosphorus on the tips of wooden splints. Today we call them matches.

Most importantly, Boyle chronicled his methods and shared them with his colleagues. He even wrote them down in a book, The Skeptical Chemist, which is today recognized by many scholars as the first true chemistry book. Through his actions, Boyle introduced a revolutionary notion into the secretive, underground world of alchemy, that ideas should be shared openly.

“So phosphorus did have transformational powers after all," Al-Khalili opined. "It may not have changed lead into gold, but it turned an alchemist into the first modern chemist. Boyle had set the stage for future element hunters. Unlike most alchemists, he shared his methods, and was able to pass on the tools they needed to unlock the mysteries of matter.”

(Image: Shutterstock)

Primary Source: Chemistry: A Volatile History, BBC4

The Astronomical Wonder of Multi-Star Systems

Stars without companions, like the Sun, are common in our galaxy and much of the universe. The destiny of such a star is nearly predetermined solely by its mass. However, many stars actually live in pairs, trios, or even larger groups. These stars can live very different lives from their solitary brethren.

Of the individual specks in the night sky, 50% or more are actually multiple-star systems. Like the headlights of a car miles away, the light of the two or more stars comes from such a vast distance that it appears to originate from a single source. Two types of measurements uncover multi-star systems: A very high resolution telescope may actually see two distinct spots, such as this picture of the Sirius star system:

Alternatively, you can watch the motion of the star system. When two or more stars exist in the same system, they orbit a point between them, the center of mass or barycenter. While a star such as the sun moves very smoothly through space, these stars travel in rings, visibly wobbling back and forth. This wobble is much too weak to view with the naked eye, but can easily be seen by powerful telescopes.

More exotic systems, such as two stars closely circling with a third orbiting at a far distance around the two central bodies, also exist. An amazing example is Castor, a system which actually has six component stars. Two large central stars each with a smaller star orbiting like a moon lie in the center; these inner stars are then orbited by a pair of medium size stars which circle each other as the revolve around the four inner stars:

Image credit: Bob King

Here's a brief summary of the well-known life cycle of a star living alone. A middle-weight star like our sun will burn as it is for billions of years before ballooning into a red giant. It will successively fuse heavier elements in its core before eventually blowing its atmosphere away and gradually cooling down to a white dwarf. A smaller star will never dramatically expand. It will simmer gently for trillions of years before dying down into the same white dwarf stage. Stars with enormous mass will tend to explode in a cataclysmic supernova at a relatively young age.

A multiple-star system presents an entirely new set of life cycles for its stars. Gravitational capture of mass provides this lifestyle freedom.

Two or more stars that orbit one another tend to be pulled apart by one another's gravitational fields. An isolated single star can hold all of the matter in its atmosphere without challenge. Even an enormous planet bigger than Jupiter is a harmless speck in comparison. If another star sits nearby, the second star can pull away some of this matter with its own gravity. Two stars will often tear the outer pieces off one another, spreading the matter out in the space between them.

Most of this matter will remain in space for quite some time, swirling in the gravitational tides between the stars. Each star creates a zone of space around its core where matter is bound to it gravitationally, and thus cannot escape. Atoms pulled or flung out of this zone are up for grabs; often this matter is eventually caught and pulled in by the other star. The new matter may be pulled directly down to the surface of the receiving star, or it may remain in orbit in the form of an accretion disc.

The most dramatic effect of this refueling may come when an old burnt out heavy white dwarf pulls matter away from a companion. If the donor star is in its giant phase, it can push its outer atmosphere so far away that the white dwarf companion star begins guzzling it up.

A moderate amount of new matter accumulating on the surface of the white dwarf will cause a flash of hydrogen fusion ignition, blasting the white dwarf's atmosphere away out into space. This is a nova. If enough matter is transferred quickly, a runaway supernova can occur instead.

In this case, the piling on of new matter gives the moribund star so much energy that element after element inside heats up and cooks off in a fusion reaction. Heat and energy spiral out of control and blow apart the star in a massive explosion.

 

While supernovae of isolated stars are predictable, this type of sudden mass-capture supernova in multiple star systems is far harder to anticipate.

Another dramatic process is the bullying of matter in the opposite direction: the large star prolongs its own life by sucking matter away from the smaller star. We see this process when the larger star in a binary is still blazing strong long after its size and color would portend its doom.

A third strange process inherent to multiple star systems is the possible arrangement of planets they may harbor. A planet orbiting at a far distance from two closely circling stars will have a stable orbit. Additionally, a system with a circling star at a great distance allows a planet to circle very closely to either star. Planets caught in the middle of multiple stars without being either very close or very far from all the stars are in trouble. These orbits tend to lead to the planet's ejection from the system. Both the very close and very far orbits may actually place planets conveniently into the habitable zones of these stars. So, these crazy star systems may actually be a good place to look for life.

The solitude of stars like our sun is a very predictable life. However, introducing additional stars shakes things up. Multiple star systems fuel massive cataclysmic supernovae and stellar vampirism. But, they may also provide a gentle environment for habitable planets.

(Other Images: NASA)

How Eating 'Healthy' Can Be Unhealthy

When Jordan Younger became a vegan, she quickly fell in love with her new diet.

"My body felt nourished and fueled, I experienced no stomach problems, I was eating the most ethical and compassionate diet for animals/the earth, and my mind was clear and content," she wrote.

Younger, an entrepreneurial, flaxen-haired Californian and a self-described dream chaser and fitness freak, found she enjoyed her new lifestyle so much she had to share her experience with others. A little over a year ago, she started a blog, The Blonde Vegan. To her surprise, it took off. Thousands started following her eating and fitness habits.

But no doubt many of her loyal readers were stunned when on June 23rd of this year Younger announced an abrupt about-face via her blog: she intended to transition away from veganism.

Responses ranged from well wishes of support, to suggestions rationalizing why her vegan diet ultimately failed her, to angry outbursts.

"You are weak and an idiot jordan. You have done veganism and the animal welfare movement a disservice. You have given fuel and momentum to the critics," one commenter wrote.

In truth, Younger's decision to ditch veganism was anything but abrupt. As she described in a post and recently explained to the Wall Street Journal, she had been considering making the change for a while. Already slim, Younger had lost 25 pounds on her increasingly strict diet. Moreover, her skin had jaundiced and she stopped menstruating. Clearly, something was wrong, and it quickly became apparent that her diet was to blame. A nutritionist confirmed the self-diagnosis.

So what had gone wrong? Vegans commonly claim that a diet devoid of animal products is the healthiest and most responsible way to eat, yet clearly it didn't work for Younger. The problem actually wasn't specifically with veganism, though vegan diets can be difficult to healthily maintain. The problem was that Younger's understandable desire to eat healthy had turned into a monstrous, self-defeating obsession.

"I started living in a bubble of restriction. Entirely vegan, entirely plant-based, entirely gluten-free, oil-free, refined sugar-free, flour-free, dressing/sauce-free, etc. and lived my life based off of when I could and could not eat and what I could and could not combine." she recalled.

Younger had developed an eating disorder. But it wasn't anorexia or bulimia. Instead, it was a condition so new it has yet to be officially documented in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, psychiatrists' go-to textbook.

Younger was afflicted with "orthorexia nervosa," an "unhealthy obsession with healthy eating." Originally described back in 1997 by medical doctor Steve Bratman, the condition at first saw only limited study, but that has grown in the past decade as more and more doctors are noticing the condition. In 2005, a group of researchers developed a questionnaire to assess a person's level of orthorexia, and earlier this year, another group proposed diagnostic criteria.

Among the suggested criteria, according to the Wall Street Journal: "an obsession with the quality and composition of meals to the extent that people may spend excessive amounts of time, say three or more hours a day, reading about and preparing specific types of food; and having feelings of guilt after eating unhealthy food. The preoccupation with such eating would have to either lead to nutritional imbalances or interfere with daily functional living to be considered orthorexia."

Athletes, people with compulsive tendencies, and people of a higher socioeconomic status seem more inclined to be orthorexic. The condition may also be triggered or exacerbated by dietary fads that suggest avoiding certain foods -- GMO-free, dairy-free, and gluten-free, for example. However, more research is needed to determine prevalence and develop more rigorous screening tools before the condition will gain official recognition.

Since ditching veganism, Jordan Younger has adopted a healthier, more science-based approach to eating, one of moderation. She's also renamed her blog. She's no longer the Blonde Vegan. She's the Balanced Blonde.

(Image: AP)

The Delicious Science of Chinese Buffets, Where It's Always Thanksgiving

This Thursday, Americans from all walks of life will gather around tables beset with gobs of turkey, mounds of mashed potatoes, loaves of buttered bread, boats of gravy, and heaps of vegetables, oiled and salted, of course. And after a brief pause to give thanks, they will feast.

Such is Thanksgiving.

But there are 40,000 bastions around the country where it's Thanksgiving almost every day. Where you can eat throngs of delicious, calorie-laden dishes and gorge yourself into a gluttonous stupor. The sheer ubiquity of these places makes them distinctly American. In fact, they claim more locations than Wendy's, McDonalds's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Burger King combined. I'm talking, of course, about Chinese restaurants.

"If our benchmark for Americanness is apple pie, you should ask yourself, how often do you eat apple pie, versus how often do you eat Chinese food," leading food journalist Jennifer 8. Lee told the audience of Taste3 in 2008

Apple pie will undoubtedly be just one of the desserts on the menu for millions of Americans on Thursday. The final sweet binge is the last hurrah of a holiday meal that, when all is served and devoured, tallies in at between 2,500 and 4,500 calories for each reveler. That's some quality eating.

But if putting on the pounds is an American activity, and statistics seem to show that it is, then the Chinese buffet is actually more patriotic. The addicting blend of salt and fat make the foods they serve overwhelmingly appetizing. And the pool of vegetable oil poured into woks endows most Chinese dishes with more calories per square inch than even the most buttered mashed potatoes. According to a 2007 analysis by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a plate of stir-fried greens contains 900 calories, eggplant in garlic sauce has 1,000, six pork dumplings pack 500, and lo mein has 1,100. Time for seconds!

Speaking of seconds, Cornell consumer behaviorist Brian Wansink has found that people who seat themselves facing the buffet are more likely to get up for that second or third plate. Selecting a larger plate size may also subtly encourage overeating. Wansink has also found that the foods seen first, regardless of what they are, are the ones most selected by patrons. Moreover, if you're trying not to overindulge, learn how to use chopsticks. It's much harder to shovel in food with slim wooden sticks, compared to a fork or a spoon. You can practice on turkey and stuffing this Thanksgiving!

Of course, if you're looking to overindulge, that's fine, too. But it's best to balance the rare binge with habitual exercise and a common sense diet.

(Image: Shutterstock)

What's the World's Biggest Telescope?

In astronomy, bigger is better. So what's the very biggest telescope of them all?

The Canary Islands off the coast of Morocco house the largest glass mirror reflector telescope in the world. The Gran Telescopio Canarias (GTC) is owned and operated primarily by Spain. The surface of its concave focusing mirror eschews the parabolic glass bowl design of traditional telescopes. The reflector is actually 36 small hexagonal German glass mirrors tiled together in the shape of a single large hexagon with a missing tile in the center. This design is very similar to the slightly smaller Keck telescopes in Hawaii. GTC also employs adaptive optics to constantly fix the distortion of incoming starlight caused by its passage through atmospheric turbulence. Larger glass telescopes have been proposed, but none will be open for at least several more years.

It's worth noting that the famous Keck observatory in Hawaii also has a claim to the "biggest" title. Their two telescopes actually measure more light in total than GTC and can be used in parallel like a set of binoculars to further improve performance.

Light is just one type of wave. Radio waves are electromagnetic radiation with a much much longer wavelength. Radio telescopes look like giant satellite dishes. New Mexico houses an array (creatively named Very Large Array) consisting of 27 dishes each 82 feet in diameter. This iconically beautiful telescope is used for looking at all sorts of radio-emitting astronomical objects (black holes, quasars, supernova remnants and many others) and as well as searching for E.T.

However, VLA is blown out of the water by the size of the largest single radio telescope: the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico. This dish, made famous in the James Bond film GoldenEye, is suspended above a valley between hilltops. It is 1000 feet across and has a surface area of more than 25 acres. This behemoth has been used to take radar images of asteroids, measure pulsars and time the rotation of planets.

There's a still larger telescope, used for finding invisible particles from space. The Icecube neutrino observatory detector can't be seen from above, but the control room can. The detector itself is enormous: a cubic kilometer of ice. The enormous size of this detector is necessitated by how hard neutrinos are to see: a single neutrino is as likely to pass right through a piece of lead a light year thick as it is to hit any lead. While (very) roughly 10^20 neutrinos hit the system each day, only a handful are detected.

The telescope is really looking for the highest energy neutrinos. It sees interesting neutrinos about 10 times per year, and a very unusual one roughly once annually. Unlike most neutrinos which are created by the sun and the cosmic microwave background radiation, these high energy particles likely originate from far beyond the galaxy. Icecube has the largest volume of any telescope on earth, but its largest dimensions, scale, and expense are only second biggest.

The biggest telescope of all is right here in the US, and you probably haven't heard of it: LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory. It looks for gravity waves instead of light waves. LIGO does not collect and focus radiation. It shoots laser light roughly 186 miles and measures whether that light has traveled more or less distance than it should have. A miniscule discrepancy in distance traveled would indicate the passage of a gravitational wave, ever-so-slightly expanding or contracting spacetime along the 186 miles of travel.

Two LIGO 'arms', positioned in an 'L', can be seen by satellite. There are four arms altogether, located at two separate facilities: one in Livingston Louisiana and one in Hanford Washington. Each main arm is 2.5 miles (4 km) long!

Gravity waves may be created by far distant events such as black holes merging. As the wave travels millions of light years and passes through the earth and LIGO, spacetime along one arm or the other of the telescope will shrink or grow by that millionth-of-an-atom's width. The light in the other arm will be unaffected. When the light waves from each arm are collided together, they will interfere. Two waves that have traveled precisely the same distance will interfere without canceling any of their brightness. Waves that have travelled slightly more or less due to spacetime disturbance along their path will interfere destructively: their combined light will be a tiny fraction less bright.

LIGO is the largest and most expensive project ever completed with only NSF funding. It has not yet detected a gravity wave. Given how well Einstein's General Relativity theory has held up in all experimental tests, smart money is that they will detect one eventually.

Astronomers can't create events; they can only watch them. The larger and wider their eyes, the more they can see. Ever-larger telescopes strive to capture more and more of the limited light that we receive to help us reconstruct the universe around us.

(Image: AP)

Being Skinny-Fat May Be Worse Than Being Fat

The average sumo wrestler in Japan has a body mass index of 56 (considered morbidly obese) and eats 5,000 calories a day. But despite those inflated and alarming numbers, the "rikishis" (wrestlers) who practice this time-honored sport aren't as unhealthy as one might expect.

"They have low cholesterol, they have low insulin resistance and a low level of triglycerides [fatty acids]," Jimmy Bell, a professor at Imperial College, London told The Guardian.

How can this be? Well, while sumo wrestlers may have blubbery outsides, they have muscular insides. The training and exercise keeps their hearts strong and pumping, relegating much of fat formed in the wake of their gluttonous eating to the outsides of their bodies, where it serves as a protective layer rather than an internal roadblock. Evidence shows that sumo wrestlers do have a shorter life expectancy than typical Japanese men, perhaps due to problems adapting to normal life in the wake of their strenuous, structured careers, and blows sustained during them, much like NFL football players. Still, during his sporting tenure, a sumo wrestler is quite healthy. Maybe not as fit as a fiddle, but perhaps as fit as a cello.

For as many as a quarter of normal-weight Americans, the opposite is true. While they may have a "healthy" BMI and look skinny on the outside, on the inside, they're a mess. Dr. Neil Ruderman first recognized these individuals 33 years ago, labeling them "metabolically-obese, normal-weight." Today, they're more casually described as "skinny-fat." Skinny-fat people generally have all the hallmark health problems associated with obesity -- high blood pressure, increased levels of LDL cholesterol, insulin resistance -- without overtly looking the part.

In 1981, Ruderman lamented that these individuals would be "difficult to detect by any criteria." Thirty-three years later, doctors can see the telltale signs of "skinny-fat" from blood tests taken at a health check-up and a glancing physical exam -- a bulging belly is a key clue. For a clearer view of the condition, they can stick individuals in an MRI scanner. What they see -- displayed in the image above -- are layers of fat coating the internal organs, gumming up the works.

Alarmingly, being skinny-fat may be more dangerous than just being fat. A study published earlier this year found that people with a normal weight and high body fat have a significantly higher risk of death from obesity-related diseases than any other group.

While the health risks of skinny-fat may be worse than those associated with obesity, the solutions are mostly the same. Skinny-fat individuals don't necessarily need to eat less, but they should consider reorganizing their diet, particularly limiting the intake of sugary drinks, fried foods, and sources of simple carbohydrates like white bread, snack chips, and candy. Even more important is to begin habitually exercising. Working out doesn't just serve to trim your outside; it also trains your insides.

"Getting more exercise broadly and positively influences major body systems and organs and consequently contributes to make someone metabolically healthier," said Dr. Francisco Ortega, an associate professor at the University of Granada in Spain.

And you don't even need to pick up sumo wrestling. Regular walking is a great start. Running, playing sports, swimming, and weight-training are even better.

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Do Trees Die of Old Age?

The oldest known tree in the world is an unnamed Great Basin bristlecone pine in the White Mountains of California. At 5,064 years old, this tree has seen things, man. Though not even remotely as majestic or gigantic as the mighty Redwoods, the bristlecone pines, which claim the top three spots on the list of the world's oldest trees, look the part of their ancient age: round, wise, and a little scraggly around the edges, like crotchety old grandmothers.

So will there come a time when these sage trees die from old age?

Honestly, the question is a bit misleading. No living thing, whether plant or animal, really dies of old age. When we say that a human dies of old age, it means that he or she passed away from one of the common diseases associated with aging, like pneumonia, influenza, cancer, or liver failure. Dying from old age is not actually a scientifically recognized cause of death, there's always something more specific.

When animals senesce, or grow older, their cells may cease to divide, or the division process may grow increasingly sloppy, leading to deleterious mistakes. On the outside, this aging process shows through cognitive decline, or wrinkles in humans. One animal in particular, the hydra, actually doesn't seem to senesce. For all intents and purposes, it is biologically immortal.

While it's not precisely known whether or not individual trees are biologically immortal in the same fashion, they definitely don't grow old the same way animals do. Trees grow indeterminately, meaning that with the right conditions, they can grow and grow and grow, with only the laws of physics limiting their height. (There's a certain point where a tree cannot send enough water from the roots to the top layer of leaves, preventing adequate photosynthesis.) Amazingly, once they hit that maximum height, instead of growing taller, they grow wider! And they do so at an ever-increasing rate! That's right, trees actually grow faster as they age. Scientists reported this amazing finding in the journal Nature earlier this year, after examining the growth of over 700,000 trees worldwide.

While it's not yet known precisely why trees grow faster as they age, the secret to their perpetual growth has already been revealed. Most plant cells are perpetually embryonic, meaning they can change into another cell type at any time.

So if trees never stop growing, why is it that the oldest individual tree is just 5,064 years old? Why aren't there trees that are hundreds of thousands of years old, or even millions of years old? An enlightened Reddit stated the answer succintly:

The longer a tree is around the more opportunities it has to have something happen to it that leads to its death. This could be a lot of different things such as a storm, a disease, an insect infestation. Often a tree can survive numerous instances of potential death, but over time these instances can aggregate, or lead to a greater susceptibility to death. For example, a storm might knock off a tree limb, which might give the tree a higher risk of exposure to a disease....Or a tree might live for quite a long time, out growing trees in the area, making it more likely to be struck by lightning, or blown over in storm.

So a tree may not die of old age, but after a long enough time, simple statistics dictate that it will die of some other cause. Such is life.

(Images: AP, Dcrjsr

Is RealClearScience Conservative or Liberal?

One of the questions we are often asked at RealClearScience is, "What sort of position do you take on scientific issues?" That's a not-so-subtle way of asking, "Is RealClearScience conservative or liberal?" We are pleased to announce that we are neither.

Earlier this year, we published an article explaining our editorial position on various hot-button topics. Unlike politicians or most other journalists, however, we do not arrive at our conclusions first and find data to support them later. Instead, we are guided by one overarching principle: Data comes first, and personal ideology comes second (or, preferably, dead last). If the evidence changes, our worldview allows us the flexibility and honesty to change our opinion, as well.

Though the three members of our editorial team possess three distinct political worldviews (two of us voted for Obama in 2008, and two of us voted for Romney in 2012), we find ourselves in near unanimous agreement on what many consider to be "controversial" science topics. Why? Because when it comes to science, we put data first. Period.

Yet, despite our insistence on adhering to this guiding principle like a gecko's toe on a freshly polished window, we are still regularly accused -- in e-mails, comment sections, and on other websites -- of being conservative or liberal. Here are some examples:

• In our most recent "controversial" piece, in which we reported on the results of a PNAS paper that concluded that marijuana may adversely affect brain structure, our readers accused us of having a conservative bias. This accusation was heaved at us despite the fact that all three of us support the legalization of marijuana, a decidedly center-left or libertarian position. (I even openly admitted to voting for legalization in the pages of USA Today.)

• In a piece on the American suicide epidemic, we suggested -- based on what is known about suicide prevention strategies -- that making guns harder to obtain would lower the suicide rate. Protecting the sanctity of human life is a decidedly conservative position, but for that opinion, we were accused of being liberal gun-grabbers.

• Last year, we criticized Portland for rejecting the fluoridation of its water supply, a policy that is overwhelmingly supported by scientific data and the public health community. For that, we were called "a national lab-rat news aggregator owned by Forbes." We have no idea what that means, but considering the radical left-wing source of the ad hominem, it was probably meant to be an attack aimed at conservatives. (We were not offended, but we did take issue with the gratuitous potshot at lab rats.)

• For articles in which we have explained the science behind climate change, e.g., by busting the myth behind "global cooling," we have been indicted on charges of pushing a left-wing agenda. When we explain further that climate change is not nearly as big of a concern as poverty and infectious disease, we are accused of being Republican cronies. When we add that we believe a carbon tax is a good policy, we are part of a UN conspiracy to enrich the global liberal elite. When we ask climate alarmists and deniers to calm down, we are accused of enabling the global warming hoax. Go figure.

• It also goes without saying that for articles in which we support the excellent science that comes out of industry in any way whatsoever -- be it biotechnology or nuclear power -- we are accused of being corporate shills and right-wing money-grubbers.

• And, of course, for supporting "three-parent embryo" technology, we are Nazis.

So, is RealClearScience conservative or liberal? If we are hearing our critics correctly, we are both, and something much worse: right-wing, liberty-hating, environment-killing, gun-grabbing, Earth-polluting, corporate-loving, science-pretending socialist totalitarian flunkies who have no business writing about science.

Fair enough.

(Photo: Liberals and Conservatives via Shutterstock)

Bad News for Long-Term Pot Smokers

The short-term effects of smoking weed are obvious: An increase in giddiness, an insatiable desire for Doritos, and a casual acceptance of one's loserhood. But, after the high wears off and the smoke clears, are there lasting effects upon the brain? This has been a contentious issue for many years; competing studies claim different results.

A new study published in the very high quality journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) claims to measure three major statistically significant brain alterations caused by marijuana use. It's mostly bad news.

Reduced Brain Volume

MRI scans were performed on the brains of a group of very heavy marijuana smokers. These subjects averaged roughly three joints per day and had been smoking on average roughly nine to ten years. MRI scans were also performed on a second group of non-smokers with otherwise nearly identical characteristics.

A computer algorithm processed both sets of images, dividing up the areas of the scan into gray matter (the main masses of neurons), white matter (nerve pathways which connect areas of gray matter), and cerebrospinal fluid. The computer then used some heavy math to compare the amount of each tissue in the brains of the smokers and non-smokers.

The analysis yields three very interesting conclusions. The first and biggest: the smokers had a significant reduction in the volume of gray matter in the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC). The OFC is located just behind the eye on each frontal lobe of the brain. Studies find that this area seems to be involved with correlating sensory inputs with rewards (such as a particular taste or touch being associated with a good or bad experience) and plays a part in decision-making.

Most significantly, the OFC seems to function "in controlling and correcting reward-related and punishment-related behavior." Losses in this area might not come as a surprise to those with friends who partake regularly.

Increased Connection (Initially)

There is a small positive effect of cannabis use. The brain matter calculations also show that there is an increased functional connectivity between the OFC and the rest of the brain. In their words, "greater network recruitment is engaged to compensate for OFC liability." The white matter nerve connections (forceps minor) between the OFC and the rest of the brain appeared to be strengthened to help it combat loss of volume. This is measured by looking at how fluid flows through these areas (fractional anisotropy, FA); the greater the disturbance in fluid, the better the nerve connections are working.

However, the good news only lasts for a while.

Decreased Connection (Eventually)

After a few years, subjects who continued to smoke heavily eventually lost this increased OFC connectivity. The first few years of use saw connectivity increase up to a limit; additional years of smoking saw it decrease back to initial levels, and smokers of a decade and more saw on average a net loss in OFC connectivity. So, if you smoke long enough, you'll both decrease the volume of the OFC and break down its connection to the rest of the brain.

This study has two messages. Heavy usage of marijuana has mixed and complicated effects on the brain. OFC volume shrinks, but at first it increases connections to the rest of the brain to compensate. The second message is unequivocal: long-term heavy use both shrinks and cuts off the OFC area of the brain.

But, I doubt this study will change any minds. It's always 4:20 somewhere, potheads.

(AP photo)

The Ten Million Dollar Diet

You've seen the statistics; America has a bit of a weight problem. So how do we fix it?

Purveyors of diets ranging from low-carb, to Paleo, to raw, to vegan, to Atkin's might try to convince you that their way is the true way, perhaps even the only way. The simple fact is that there is no single best diet for everyone.

There is, however, a diet that's pretty much guaranteed to work every time. 

It goes a little something like this: If you achieve your ideal weight and maintain it for at least three years, you get ten million dollars. No tricks. No games.

I call it the "Ten Million Dollar Diet."

Sadly, of course, it's not at all feasible, but it serves to illustrate a key point for successful weight loss: With the proper motivation -- say, a truckload of cash -- almost anyone can lose a significant amount of weight.

Author Matt Fitzgerald mentioned the "diet" in passing in his recent book, Diet Cults. (Though he thought $20 million would do the trick.) Such a program, he said "would achieve a near perfect success rate and prove once and for all that motivation is all it really takes for anyone to lose weight."

Fitzgerald is definitely on to something. How do we know? Because individuals who have lost a lot of weight told us so. Since 1994, the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR) has tracked over 10,000 people who lost large amounts of weight and kept it off for long periods of time, an average of 66 pounds for five and a half years. The study has revealed a feast of valuable information.

The first big finding was a lack of a finding: There was no common diet. Sure, all of the NWCR members altered what they ate in order to sheds pounds, but they achieved success through many different paths, reinforcing the notion any diet can work as long as you simply eat fewer calories.

The researchers behind the NWCR did glean three behavioral "secrets" from the registry members. The first was self-weighing. Individuals who consistently monitored their weight were more likely than others to stay slim. The second was monotonous eating. The people who consumed a smaller variety of foods controlled their weight much better than those who did not. The third was exercise, a lot of exercise. "About 1 hour per day of moderately intense physical activity."

What ties these three "secrets" together, Fitzgerald noted in Diet Cults, is that they all indicate high levels of motivation. One has to be borderline obsessive to step on the scale so frequently, disciplined to maintain a repetitive diet, and driven to work out every day.

"If the National Weight Control Registry has taught us anything, it has taught us that a person who is sufficiently motivated to lose weight is bound to succeed regardless of which diet she chooses to follow," Fitzgerald wrote.

"Eighty-two percent of NWCR members say they were more committed to making behavioral changes in their final, successful attempt to lose weight, than they had been in previous attempts... They didn't necessarily try anything different. They just tried harder," Fitzgerald added.

This is an empowering message. The key to long term weight loss isn't a specific magical diet; coupled with physical activity, any of them can work. The key is action!

The road to weight loss is long and winding, but it always leads to a healthier life, provided one stays on it. A healthier life may not be as powerful a motivator as 10 million dollars, but it's pretty darn worthwhile.

(Image: AP)

Is Teaching Psychology a Waste of Time?

Daniel Kahneman is perhaps the world's leading psychologist. A Nobel Prize winner and a professor emeritus at Princeton University, he may also be the field's foremost educator. His book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, has either been on a bestseller list, or not strayed far from one, since it was first published three years ago. And yet, despite his professorial standing, Kahneman has openly considered that teaching psychology may be a total waste of time.

What feeds this realization is not doubt or depression, but data. For Kahneman, it's one classic experiment in particular. In 1975, social psychologists Richard Nisbett and Eugene Borgida of the University of Michigan told students about the famous (and slightly unethical) "helping experiment." In that study, multiple subjects were led into individual opaque booths in close proximity to each other and told to talk to the other subjects about their lives and problems via an intercom. Each participant took a two-minute turn to share. Simple enough. Except the point of the experiment wasn't just to give participants a forum to discuss their feelings, it was actually to see how people would react if they thought someone amongst them was dying. At one point, an actor who was involved in the experiment and stationed in one of the booths, faked having a seizure while speaking over the intercom, cried out for help, then apparently collapsed.

Seeing as how one of their compatriots seemed to be in mortal danger, you'd think the subjects in the other booths would have leapt to lend aid. Most of them didn't.

"Only four of the fifteen participants responded immediately to the appeal for help. Six never got out of their booth, and five others came out only well after the 'seizure victim' apparently choked," Kahneman described.

After detailing the procedure of the "helping experiment" to students, Nisbett and Borgida had them watch videos of two people who had allegedly taken part. The videos painted a benign, genial picture of the supposed participants. After viewing the videos, students were asked to guess whether or not the depicted individuals rushed to the aid of the seizure victim. Half the students were informed of the results of the "helping experiment" and half were not.

Now, you might think that the students who were apprised of the experiment's gloomy results would have been more likely to guess that the individuals in the video didn't rush to the aid of the seizure victim. But they weren't. In defiance of the facts, both groups maintained their rosy outlook of human nature.

"For teachers of psychology, the implications of this study are disheartening," Kahneman wrote. "When we teach our students about the behavior of people in the helping experiment, we expect them to learn something they had not known before; we wish to change how they think about people's behavior in a particular situation. This goal was not accomplished in the Nisbett-Borgida study, and there is no reason to believe that the results would have been different if they had chosen another surprising psychological experiment."

Psychology professor Michael Hobbiss at the Bolton School in the United Kingdom has turned up similar results when teaching his students about Milgram's infamous shock experiment, in which 65% of participants obediently shocked other people from 15 up to 450 volts in 15-volt increments. (Unbeknownst to the participants, the electric shocks were actually fake, and the people getting shocked were actors.) Before Hobbiss apprises his students of the study's results, he estimates that roughly 10% think they would have completed the experiment all the way up to 450 volts. After fully learning about the study, that proportion rises to between 20% and 30%. That's a decent improvement, but still far less than the 65% level seen in the experiment.

Interestingly, Nisbett and Borgida did find a way to get their students to absorb the take-home message from the "helping experiment": Feed them convincing anecdotes. They told a third group of students the procedure of the "helping experiment," showed them the videos, then said that the two people in the videos had not come to the aid of the seizure victim. With this information, the participants accurately predicted the low proportion of people who aided the seizure victim.

So it may not be that psychology is a waste of time, just that general facts and veritable statistics will never trump powerful anecdotes. In many ways, that's even more depressing.

Primary Source: Daniel Kahneman (25 October 2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Macmillan. ISBN 978-1-4299-6935-2.

Phil Plait's Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

The Apocalypse is here.

Science writer Phil Plait's worst nightmare came true. The Republicans won control of the U.S. Senate. What can we expect to happen? In Plait's words, the Republicans will "put a cohort of science-deniers [sic] into positions of authority," which "quite literally affects the future of humanity." Why? Because, now, the United States will no longer be able to address climate change, "the single greatest threat we as a species face today."

In other words, this:

When it comes to climate change, this type of fearmongering is sadly common among science writers. Political silly season turns otherwise objective science analysts into obnoxious partisan cranks. Because so many people believe the sort of outrageous claims Plait has made, they need to be addressed.

"This previous Congress will go down in history as the least effective ever..."

As cathartic as it is to name everything you hate as the "worst ever," it makes for very poor analysis. For instance, the worst president in U.S. history is not George W. Bush or Barack Obama, but probably a tie between Franklin Pierce (the drunk), Warren Harding (who ran a very corrupt administration), and James Buchanan (who failed to prevent the Civil War). Any randomly selected Congress from the 1850s could probably be described as the "least effective ever."

"Ted Cruz, R-Texas, could be chairman of the committee on science and space..."

Unlikely. Ted Cruz and Mitch McConnell, the presumptive majority leader, do not like each other. Besides, the current ranking member of the committee is John Thune, which means he is far more likely to receive the gavel.

"Ask Californians suffering from one of the worst droughts in history how they feel about 'long-lasting changes in the climate'..."

Any one weather or climate event cannot be linked definitively to climate change. The LA Times recently reported that there is "no clear link" between global warming and the drought its state is experiencing. Besides, the Southwest has experienced a lot of long droughts in its history. As unsettling as this might be, megadroughts may be normal for the region. Yes, climate change can worsen extreme events or make them more likely, but that is the most that can be said. As a scientist, Plait knows that. However, logic and science go out the window when politics is involved.

"Do we finally take action about the single greatest threat we as a species face today?"

This question is so backwards and full of incorrect assumptions, it's not even wrong.

In the 111th Congress, the Democrats had a 60-seat, filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, and a large majority in the House. If the Democrats really wanted to do it, they could have passed climate change legislation. But, they did not. Instead, they did absolutely nothing. The House passed a cap-and-trade bill, 219-212, which then died in the Senate. Harry Reid, the Democratic Majority Leader, did not even call a vote on the bill.

Why is Phil Plait blaming Republicans, but not Democrats? Well, you can answer that question.

It should also be noted that American carbon emissions have fallen dramatically. There are a variety of reasons for this, but one of the big ones is the growing adoption of natural gas made possible by fracking -- a technology that Democrats and their environmentalist allies oppose. In fact, the U.S. is well on its way toward meeting the goals laid out by the Kyoto Protocol, even though we never ratified the treaty.

Finally, his assertion that climate change is the "single greatest threat we as a species face today" is absurd. RealClearScience believes the evidence for disruptive climate change is convincing, but the evidence for apocalyptic climate change is lacking. Besides, even if apocalyptic climate change is real, it would not pose an existential threat to the human species. That award still goes to nuclear war. Furthermore, poverty, infectious disease, malnutrition, and lack of access to electricity and health care are all far bigger threats than climate change.

Regardless of your political affiliation, you can rest assured that a GOP-controlled Senate will not cause the Earth to explode in an apocalyptic fireball. Unfortunately, the Bad Astronomer will likely continue to blow hot air.

(AP photo)

Private Space Flight Will be O.K.

Two private spacecraft were annihilated in fiery explosions last week. Catastrophic news for space tourism and private space contractors? Not particularly. Each situation exemplifies growing pains that this very young industry has to face.

The first failure ended in a massive picturesque fireball caught on camera. Orbital Sciences' Antares rocket mission was carrying a quantum entanglement photon experiment and dozens of tiny miniature satellites, as well as supplying 1400 pounds of food bound for the International Space Station. This was the fourth similar NASA contracted mission ferrying ISS supplies and science projects.

Mission crew on the ground hit the self-destruct button as the craft began to immolate seconds off the launch pad. The source of the problem was a failure originating at the rocket's engines. As yet, it's not clear exactly what happened.

The lesson here? Basing designs on retrofitting ancient parts with modern upgrades is not good business. Further, both the original rockets, designed by Russian firm Kuznetsov circa 1970 and the American upgrades have had spotty reliability. As the industry expands and companies tool up to design and build modern engines from scratch, the practice of buying up and retrofitting old parts to save money is going to drop. This will push that transition along at a greater pace.

Elon Musk, head of SpaceX, openly criticized Orbital Sciences for using the outdated equipment. His company designs, builds and tests everything from scratch. SpaceX experienced some early failures but has enjoyed a very good record since. Reliability and safety are achieved by designers and builders testing and refining their work.

Virgin Galactic's Spaceship 2 crash was an entirely different scenario with a similar lesson.

Somebody has to be the first person to fly every type of craft designed to leave the earth's surface. Test pilots make careers out of this incredibly dangerous mission. (Decades ago, it was an insanely dangerous mission: test pilots died twice a week at times.) Both victims of this accident were test pilots.

It's a dramatic headline, but cutting-edge spaceships have been killing test pilots for as long as they've been flying. It's a high price paid, but investigation will reveal the precise causes of the accident and improve safety that much more. This is the same type of refinement process as the evolving rocket engine designs. These test flights make sure things work before the normal crews, cargoes and passengers ever risk climbing on.

We've become so proficient at operating airliners and space flights that we've forgotten that painful early mishaps plagued those industries too.

Some reports quote experts saying that the entire nascent private space tourism industry may be in jeopardy. Sure, a few people may be scared off by these teething issues. Private spaceflight in 2014 is still difficult and risky. But any field with such high rewards for such challenging work will continue to evolve and refine itself. In a few decades, buying a ticket to space may not be any scarier than a ticket across the country.

(AP photo)

Should You Really Be Drinking All That Water?

WHEN IT COMES to hydration during exercise, the mainstream message of the day is "drink early and often." But that's exactly what got a 39-year-old athletic, healthy woman into dire trouble back in 2007.

According to the case report, the woman was brought to the emergency room at Baylor University Medical Center suffering from a splitting headache, nausea, vomiting, and severe lethargy. She was disoriented and borderline unresponsive, but managed to mutter out the events and conditions leading up to her sudden illness. She had played tennis when it was 100 degrees out, then weightlifted afterwards. How long? Oh, about two hours. How much water did you drink? I kept myself very hydrated; I have a one-liter water bottle and drank about four liters.

Laboratory tests would soon confirm the doctors' suspicions. On a mission to stay properly hydrated, the woman had almost inadvertently drunk herself into a coma.

"STAY HYDRATED." Repeated position statements from the prestigious the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) dating back to 1975 have drilled this "conventional wisdom" into athletes' collective psyche. The ACSM's latest recommendations urge drinking fluids before and during exercise in order to "prevent excessive (>2% body weight loss from water deficit) dehydration and excessive changes in electrolyte balance to avert compromised performance." The ACSM further encourages athletes to imbibe afterwards, up to 1.5 liters of fluid for every kilogram of body weight lost.

The advice seems fairly commonsense, but as a result, exercisers in the developed world seem to be growing increasingly waterlogged. Of runners surveyed at the London Marathon in 2010, only a quarter planned to drink according to their thirst. Furthermore, 13% of 488 runners sampled at the Boston Marathon in 2002 were found to have hyponatremia, the state that put the aforementioned woman in danger, in which salt levels in the blood fall below acceptable levels. Other studies have reported incidence rates as high as 29%. The likely cause is overhydration.

Salts are regularly vilified in modern health, but we can't live without them. Sodium salts are particularly vital, necessary for the regulation of blood and body fluids, transmission of nerve impulses, and heart activity. When we drink excessive amounts of water, salt concentrations fall, sometimes to dangerously low levels.

Death from exercise-induced hyponatremia is quite rare, but noticeably on the rise, prompting many scientists to re-examine the touted wisdom on water intake during physical activity.

WRITING IN THE journal Extreme Physiology and Medicine, exercise physiologist James David Cotter says the "just keep drinking" mentality seems to stem from a lack of trust in the human body.

"Drinking to limit changes in body mass is commonly advocated, rather than relying on behavioral cues (mainly thirst) because the latter has been deemed too insensitive."

But when Cotter reviewed the scientific literature comparing the ACSM's drinking guidelines to drinking "ad libitum" (when thirsty), he found the former to offer limited to no tangible benefits as far as reducing heat illness and increasing cognitive and physical performance.

When exercise scientist Dr. Timothy Noakes conducted a stress test of sorts, he came to the same conclusion. Noakes had 18 athletes run 25 kilometers in 112-degree heat, telling them to drink water at their pleasure, and monitoring them throughout the entire route. Even under these extreme conditions, their bodies functioned quite well. Noakes noted that "humans are the mammals with the greatest capacity for exercising in extreme heat." 

As a chemical compound, it's hard to dispute water's importance. As Cotter states, it is:

The medium in which metabolism occurs; a reactant and a product; the basis by which the volume of cells, tissues and organs is maintained; a shock absorber (e.g. for the brain); the medium for the mass-flow transport of gases, substrates, heat, hormones etc.; a thermal reservoir with a uniquely high specific heat capacity, hereby being capable of accepting or releasing large amounts of thermal energy with little change in tissue temperature, and; the substrate for evaporative cooling via sweating, which helps give humans an unparalleled versatility for moving in hot environments.

But more is not necessarily better. In fact, as stated earlier, it might actually be dangerous. Cotter asserts that drinking based on one's thirst is appropriate in the vast majority of environmental and exercise settings, and far less risky.

Source: Cotter et al. "Are we being drowned in hydration advice? Thirsty for more?" Extreme Physiology & Medicine 2014, 3:18

Politicians Say the Most Unscientific Things!

Washington sometimes seems like a place where the scientific method goes to die. More often than not, laws are passed based on ideological desires rather than rational considerations. Facts are made to fit arguments, when they should be molding them. Issues are brought to the forefront by attention-grabbing anecdotes, not any sort of evidential need.

So it is not surprising that this sort of unscientific thinking occasionally yields inane blather. Here, we count down nine of the silliest things politicians have ever said on matters of science. Happy Election Day!

9. Representative Paul Broun: "I've come to understand that all that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and Big Bang Theory; all that is lies straight from the Pit of Hell."

8. President Ronald Reagan: "Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do."

7. Senator John McCain: "It's indisputable that (autism) is on the rise among children, the question is what's causing it. And we go back and forth and there's strong evidence that indicates it's got to do with a preservative in vaccines."

6. President Barack Obama: "We've seen just a skyrocketing autism rate. Some people are suspicious that it's connected to the vaccines. This person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it."

5. Representative Dennis Kucinich: "While we wait for scientists to sort out the health effects of cell phone radiation, we must allow consumers to have enough information to choose a phone with less radiation."

4. Delaware senate nominee Christine O'Donnell: "American scientific companies are cross-breeding humans and animals and coming up with mice with fully functioning human brains."

3. Representative John Shimkus: "If we decrease the use of carbon dioxide, are we not taking away plant food from the atmopshere?"

2. Representative Joe Barton: "Wind is God’s way of balancing heat. Wind is the way you shift heat from areas where it’s hotter to areas where it’s cooler. That’s what wind is. Wouldn’t it be ironic if in the interest of global warming we mandated massive switches to energy, which is a finite resource, which slows the winds down, which causes the temperature to go up?"

1. Representative Hank Johnson (speaking about the island of Guam): "My fear is that the whole island will become so overly populated that it will tip over and capsize."

(Image: AP)

The Great Condom Hypocrisy

If your Baby Boomer parent nags you for the upteenth time about practicing safe sex with a haughty tone of moral superiority, reply with a simple statistic. The rate of gonorrhea was roughly five times higher during the 1970s than it is now. You know, mom or dad, condoms were around back then.

Society is convinced that trouble-making teens need all of the instruction when it comes to sex, but in fact, adults may need more tutoring.

In school, kids are now rightfully bombarded with information about contraception, abstinence, and practicing safe sex, and the barrage seems to be working. From 2000 to 2010, the teen birth rate dropped precipitously across all ethnicities. Over that same period, rates of gonorrhea fell slightly or remained steady, perhaps because 8 out of 10 sexually active boys and 7 out of 10 girls say they used a condom during their last sexual experience. That rate could be as low as 59%, but even so, it still easily trumps that of older Americans.

Yep, the lowest rate of condom use is among people aged 45 and over. Okay, you might say, but that's because more adults are in committed relationships. True, but ninety-one percent of men older than 50 admitted to not using condoms for sex with a date or casual acquaintance, researchers from Indiana University found. Numbers like that undoubtedly contributed to this intriguing statistic: From 2000 to 2010, rates of sexually transmitted diseases such as chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis doubled for people in their 50s, 60s and 70s.

Teen still contract far more sexually transmitted diseases than adults. Adolescents ages 15-24 account for nearly half of the 19 million new cases of STD's each year, the CDC reported in July. But -- and this is just my guess -- that number probably says more about the prevalence of sexual activity by age group than it does about safe sex practices. After, all sexual activity declines rapidly beginning in middle age, most prominently due to physical difficulties.

Teens, it seems, are far more inclined to use condoms than adults are. Therein lies one of the greatest sex hypocrisies. Of course, that doesn't mean that sexual education should stop. Far from it! More than 400,000 teen girls aged 15–19 years gave birth in 2009. That's far too high!

But it does mean that the parents of teen students might want to attend a few sex education classes of their own, especially before adopting a "holier than thou" attitude.

(Image: AP)