RealClearScience Newton Blog

Have We Already Detected a Dark Matter Particle?

Ross Pomeroy - October 15, 2018


Dark matter supposedly makes up 85% of the matter in the universe, but so far, efforts to catch hypothesized dark matter particles have all ended in failure. Weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs) are no-shows at grand experiments housed in Italy, Canada, and the United States. Even tinier axions have not been detected either. Neutralinos, born out of supersymmetry, may look nice on paper but so far have no bearing on reality.

By definition, dark matter is hard to find, but its glaring absence is growing harder and harder to ignore. As Korey Haynes pointed out at Discover:

Decades ago, scientists were confident about the existence of the “luminiferous aether” as a medium to carry light. Now, that’s looked back on as a clumsy belief that should have been dropped far earlier than it was. Scientists persisted because they were sure that light, like sound, required a medium to move through in spite of the evidence piling up against that concept. Having been fooled once, scientists have to ask: Is dark matter the new ether?

Astrophysicist and blogger Ethan Siegel thinks that claim is overblown.

Navigating the Controversial Science on Transgender Identity

Ross Pomeroy - October 8, 2018


A cloud of controversy hovers over scientific research on transgender identity, but not necessarily because of the research itself. Ideologues threatened and unsettled by gender fluidity question research they don't like, while activists on the opposite side do the same. Bias is antithetical to properly assessing scientific findings, so slanted discussions often don't get anywhere.

Today, I'll turn to the scientific literature to tackle three controversial questions about transgender identity.

1. Can gender dysphoria, in which a person's gender identity does not match their gender assigned at birth, be affected by social factors?

Maybe. A recent study published to PLoS ONE drew condemnation from some and praise from others. Lisa Littman, an Assistant Professor of the Practice of Behavioral and Social Sciences at Brown University, surveyed 256 parents of teens experiencing rapid-onset gender dysphoria. The collected surveys revealed that gender dysphoria was linked to a prior increase in social media/Internet use and "seemed to occur in the context of belonging to a peer group where one, multiple, or even all of the friends have become gender dysphoric and transgender-identified during the same timeframe." This suggests that social interactions may affect feelings of gender dysphoria.

How Bird Mummies Fueled the First Debate on Evolution

Ross Pomeroy - October 2, 2018


The Ancient Egyptians were quite fond of mummification, and not only of humans. In fact, far, far more animals were ritually preserved than people. Cats were revered and thus were regular targets. The process supposedly allowed the beloved pets to travel to the afterlife with their masters. Felines were also sacrificed and preserved as religious offerings, often to the cat-like goddess Bastet. Archaeologists unearthed so many cat mummies that by the end of the 19th century more than 19 metric tons worth were shipped to England for use as fertilizer.

An African Sacred Ibis in the Mida Creek mud flats, Kenya.

Another animal, the ibis, was mummified on an even greater scale. Over four million of the distinct birds were buried at the catacombs of Tune el-Gebel alone! Half a million more have been unearthed at Saqqara, the great necropolis for the Ancient Egyptian capital Memphis.

The finds understandably excited 19th century archaeologists, but they also fascinated naturalists. After all, here was a bounty of 2,000 to 3,000-year-old exquisitely preserved specimens to study! But out of the research erupted controversy. As Australian scientists Caitlin Curtis, Craig D. Millar, and David M. Lambert recently recounted in PLoS Biology, the mummified birds sparked what may have been the first true debate about evolution.

The learned dispute pitted two giants of biology against one another. French naturalist Georges Cuvier, who is sometimes called the "founding father of paleontology," faced off against Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, best remembered for his now disproved theory of inheritance of acquired characteristics. However, in the "Sacred Ibis debate," Lamarck was on the correct side of history.

How Does Exercise Affect Testicular Health and Function?

Ross Pomeroy - September 24, 2018


Exercise may be the best thing you can do for your health. Habitual exercise supports a healthy weight, prevents cardiovascular disease, treats type II diabetes, slows the progression of Alzheimer's, alleviates depression, and helps you sleep, among many other benefits.

But is exercise such a great thing for testicular health?

That's the focus of a new review paper published to the European Journal of Applied Physiology. University of Aveiro researchers Bárbara Matos, Rita Ferreira, and Margarida Fardilha teamed up with John Howl, a Professor of Molecular Pharmacology at the University of Wolverhampton, to parse through the mixed literature on testicular function and exercise.

To briefly summarize, physical activity is generally beneficial for male reproductive health, especially if it treats obesity, but certain types of exercise and overtraining can produce negative effects. Now let's dig in to specifics.

Carl Sagan's Problems With Plato

Ross Pomeroy - September 17, 2018


Aristotle, Plato, and Pythagoras are hailed as intellectual giants and great founders of scientific thought, and it would be difficult to deny them this lofty description. In the 500s BC, Pythagoras was one of the first to recognize that the Earth was a sphere, he came up with the term "cosmos" to describe the universe, and he laid the groundwork for mathematics. Plato subsequently formed Western philosophy as it is known today. His student, Aristotle, immersed himself in astronomy, biology, physics, and geology, and made bountiful observations in all those fields. He hypothesized, gathered data, and formed conclusions, though he never eactually performed experiments.

Yet despite the collective accomplishments of Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle, astrophysicist and legendary science communicator Carl Sagan was not a fan.

Democritus, ancient Greek philosopher.

The trio flourished during a time of great awakening on the Greek islands. At the same time, another less heralded Greek philosopher, Democritus, was making profound discoveries as well. He was the first to recognize that everything is made of of infinitesimally small parts with spaces between them – atoms. He advocated experiment, insisting that mere perception through the senses is insufficient to arrive at true knowledge.

"Pythagoras had a very different method. He believed that laws of nature can be deduced by pure thought. He and his followers... were thoroughgoing mystics," Carl Sagan said in Cosmos.

The New England Patriots Win Because They Actually Heed Science

Ross Pomeroy - September 11, 2018


The New England Patriots quite predictably kicked off their 2018 National Football League campaign with a win on Sunday. As the victories add up, they're sure to make this year their 18th winning season in a row, a success almost certainly followed by yet another trip to the playoffs (their tenth in a row), and subsequently followed by an extended run in the postseason. One has to wonder if this all-too-predictable plot ever gets boring for Patriots fans...

For everyone else, it's easy to despise the Patriots for their success, their aura of smugness, and for Tom Brady's repeated peddling of pseudoscientific BS. There's one thing the team should be admired for, however: they win because they actually heed science's findings about football.

Football is a game steeped in tradition, and for coaches and general managers, relying on game sense and intuition has long been the norm. But these vague abilities are easily influenced by myth, anecdotes, and cognitive bias. Hard data provides far better guidance. The Patriots seem to recognize this, and fill their organization with numbers wonks who actually act on what evidence tells them.

This wise strategy begins before the season even begins, with who the Patriots select to be on their team in the NFL draft. Unlike many other teams, which pursue prized players like puzzle pieces and sometimes trade away multiple players and draft picks to get them, the Patriots tend to diversify. Like investors putting their money into a range of stocks rather than going for broke on a couple, the Patriots regularly trade away their higher picks in the first round for more selections in the 2nd and 3rd rounds (there are seven rounds in total.) This is right in line with what economists Cade Massey and Richard Thaler found in a study they published back in 2005. The duo showed that players selected in the first round receive outsized salaries for what they actually accomplish. At the same time, players in the second and third rounds tend to be paid much less but still perform nearly as well on the playing field.

Is the Big Dipper Really a "Big Dipper"?

Ross Pomeroy - September 6, 2018


Many children first curiously gaze up at the night sky to "connect the dots." When they do, they see a wondrous array of pictures: animals, hunters, objects, gods... the stars are alive!

To kids in North America, one of the most recognizable pictures is the Big Dipper. Formed of the stars Dubhe, Merak, Phecda, Megrez, Alioth, Mizar, and Alkaid, the ladle-like image is actually part of the larger constellation Ursa Major. The Big Dipper is not an official constellation; it's an asterism, basically an unofficial constellation.

And since it is unofficial, that means cultures all over the world see the Big Dipper quite differently. In Germany, Scandinavia, Romania, Hungary, and Italy, children are introduced to the set of stars as an enormous wagon.

Some in China see Wenchang Wang, a Taoist deity, accompanied by two attendants.

Toilets Are Dangerous and We Don't Need Them

Ross Pomeroy - August 29, 2018


Every day, tens of millions of Americans sit atop a foul cesspit of waste for minutes or even hours, not considering the awful risks to which they are exposing themselves. The toilet may seem innocuous and even funny to most, but in truth, it's anything but.

In 2008 alone, 234,094 nonfatal injuries occurred in American bathrooms, a quarter of them near the toilet. A rare few deaths happened as well. Bruises to the buttocks and dislocations of the hip occur when sitting or falling down on an unforgiving toilet seat. Hemorrhoids result from straining to defecate.

Also of concern are chemicals used to sanitize toilets. Bleaches and other cleaning solutions are poisonous if consumed, and may increase your risk of cancer if you use them. Moreover, the onset of childhood autism closely follows potty training. There might be a link.

Toilet proponents might shrug off the risks of noxious chemicals. They also might suggest installing wall-mounted grab bars, buying "Squatty Potties," or using child seats to minimize physical dangers, but those fixes are mere bandaids sure to fall off. There's a simpler solution: why don't we just do away with toilets and instead defecate and urinate outdoors?

Exaptation Shows That Evolution Is Not Intelligent

Ross Pomeroy - August 23, 2018


Feathers work remarkably well for flight. Fairly rigid, yet light, with a lot of surface area to push against air molecules, they permit birds to soar to great heights. Yet scientists are now starting to realize that feathers did not originally evolve for flight. Case in point, paleontologists are now finding feathers on dinosaurs whose size rendered them incapable of leaving the ground for anything more than a leap. Turns out, the same properties that make feathers great for flying also make them wonderful for insulation.

This makes feathers a quintessential example of a process called exaptation. While it seems they originally evolved to help maintain body temperature, their form and function has since adapted for flight.

"Exaptation is rampant in evolution," writes Anastasia Thanukos of the University of California Museum of Paleontology. "Any evolutionary process that involves co-opting a trait for a new function results in an exaptation. This means that all reasonably complex traits are likely to represent a layering of exaptations and adaptations."

The earliest ancestors of turtles likely evolved shells not for protection, but to serve as platforms for burrowing underground. Legs seem neatly adapted for locomotion on land, but leg-like limbs were present in a 375-million-year-old fish known as Tiktaalik, and were likely used for propping the fish up in shallow water. There are exaptations in genes, too. A gene called Distal-less controls coloration on the wings of butterflies, but since it's found in many other animals, it likely had different jobs in the ancient past. Human symbolic thinking may even be an exaptation, argues paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall, since the brain regions that control it evolved long before signs of language or art first appeared in the archaeological record.

Four Animal Diseases Deadlier Than Ebola

Ross Pomeroy - August 10, 2018


Scarcely a week goes by without some public discussion of superbugs, new contagions, or disease outbreaks. Humans fear the insidious threats we cannot see. But we are not the only species to experience devastation at the hands of an infectious foe. Here are four horrifying animal diseases:

Hendra Virus: In Australia, it's hard to find a veterinarian who doesn't subtly wince at the word "Hendra." Harmless enough on paper and fragile outside a host, Hendra virus is anything but harmless in horses. A slight wobble in an equine's step coupled with listlessness in its demeanor are the initial signs of infection, followed by rapid deterioration and death. Hendra kills 80 percent of horses it infects, and can even rarely cross over into humans, where it kills with similar efficiency. It's for this reason that many veterinarians will not treat a horse with symptoms of Hendra if the animal has not been previously vaccinated.


Chytridiomycosis: According to at least one group of scientists, it's “the worst infectious disease ever recorded among vertebrates in terms of the number of species impacted, and its propensity to drive them to extinction." Chytridiomycosis is caused by two types of chytrid fungi, and it has infected about 30% of all amphibian species in the entire world. Three percent of all frog species have gone extinct because of it. Chytridiomycosis affects the skin of amphibians, often causing it to thicken. Having "thick skin" may be seen as beneficial to humans, but to amphibians, it's deadly, as many species absorb nutrients, release toxins, and even breathe through their skin.

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White-Nose Syndrome: A dusty cap of white fungus resembling a dab of powdered sugar is the hallmark sign of of this syndrome, which began infecting North American bats back in 2006. Since then, white-nose syndrome has laid waste to bat populations in 33 U.S. states and seven Canadian provinces, sweeping mechanically and menacingly across the continent from where it originated in New York. The aptly named Pseudogymnoascus destructans is the architect of the deadly disease. The fungus erodes the skin of bats, particularly on the wings, leaving the little critters with open wounds. Infection eventually results in weight loss, dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, and death. At least 5.7 million bats have died as of 2012. That number has surely elevated into the tens of millions by now.

Don't Mess With Mercury. Play With Gallium Instead!

Ross Pomeroy - August 7, 2018


Mercury is a mesmerizing element. Liquid at room temperature, yet dense enough that coins will float atop its surface, it has wowed a great many students in high school science classes over the decades.

Unfortunately, it is also incredibly toxic, releasing vapors that can acutely destabilize the central nervous system and, over time, damage the brain, kidney, and lungs, sparking symptoms like tremors, vision impairment, hearing impairment, speech impairment, as well as death.

Though students were once allowed to slosh mercury around in their hands, schools are now ridding themselves of the lustrous, silvery element. Luckily, there's a wonderful replacement available.

Gallium closely mimics mercury's otherworldly appearance, though unfortunately lacks its prodigious density. But what gallium lacks in mass, it makes up for with other fascinating properties. Its melting point is roughly 85.7 degrees Fahrenheit, meaning it can be melted in the palm of one's hand, molded to form a shape, then quickly returned to solid form in a refrigerator. Gallium is also one of the few materials that expands when it solidifies, a trait only shared with water, silicon, germanium, antimony, bismuth, and plutonium.

Homeopathy Is a Worse Fraud Than Theranos

Ross Pomeroy - August 4, 2018


Over the last three years, Theranos has toppled from a $9 billion company to bankruptcy. As Wall Street Journal investigative reporter John Carreyrou exposed, the company's proprietary blood-testing technology never really worked. Founder Elizabeth Holmes, who was heralded as the next Steve Jobs, raised close to a billion dollars from investors by sharing her dream of replacing needle blood draws with less painful fingerpricks for medical testing, but it was a dream that never was fully realized. In touting that fake figment of her imagination for over a decade, she defrauded investors, misled regulators, and put patients at risk. For her misdeeds, Holmes has been fined $500,000, barred from leadership in a public company for ten years, and was recently indicted on charges of wire fraud and conspiracy.

One of Theranos' most appalling missteps was launching their blood testing technology to the public in dozens of Walgreens stores even though many at the company knew that it produced inaccurate results. Holmes' hasty and haphazard actions exposed as many as 176,000 customers to compromised health information. Some patients were diagnosed with life-threatening conditions they never actually had, prompting them to receive unneeded medical tests, incur unnecessary costs, and experience psychological trauma.

For lying to and endangering consumers, Theranos' fall was much deserved. Another, comparable industry deserves to share that fate: homeopathy.

On face value, Theranos and homeopathy may seem worlds apart. One is a medical testing company born in Silicon Valley. The other is an alternative medicine which suggests that taking toxic compounds diluted to obscurity in water can cure the ailments they might otherwise cause. But at their cores, both homeopathy and Theranos aim to shake up the evidence-based medical establishment with wild, false claims that put the public at risk. Homeopathic products are physiologically implausible and do not work, yet there are "remedies" available for potentially life-threatening conditions like asthma attacks, influenza, and cancer. Studies show that alternative medicine like homeopathy dissuades cancer patients from pursuing evidence-based treatments. People who choose alternative medicine to treat their cancers experience rates of death between two and five times higher than patients electing conventional therapies.

Are Penis Transplants Ethical?

Ross Pomeroy - July 30, 2018


Earlier this year, a young American veteran of the War in Afghanistan became the first person to receive a successful total penis and scrotum transplant. A medical team at Johns Hopkins Hospital performed the complicated, 14-hour procedure.

To date, five individuals have received penis transplants, one in China, two in South Africa, and two in the United States. Each event is vigorously reported in the popular press, but as is typical, the coverage often contains more cheerleading than context.

In a recent article published to the journal European Urology, Johns Hopkins University urologist Hiten D. Patel provides that missing context, along with some skepticism.

"In the wake of the world's fifth human penile allotransplantation, an important question resurfaces—what in the world are we doing?" he writes.

Only Three Humans Have Died in Space: The Story of Soyuz 11

Ross Pomeroy - July 23, 2018


Space is brutally inhospitable to human life, so it's a small wonder that out of the 561 people who have ventured beyond the safety of Earth, only three have died there. Five times as many have perished due to crashes or explosions when rocketing away from our planet or re-entering its atmosphere.

The three brave spacefarers who lost their lives in space were cosmonauts Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev. All three died on the Soyuz 11 mission of Jun 1971.

 

An extremely rare view of the world's first space station, the Soviet Salyut 1, as seen from the departing Soyuz 11.

While Soyuz 11 ended in sadness, the vast majority of the mission progressed gloriously. Dobrovolsky, Volkov, and Patsayev lived aboard Russia's Salyut 1 Space Station, the very first space station, for twenty-three days, setting the record for the longest stay in outer space at the time. During their mission, the bold cosmonauts wowed Russians back on Earth with live television broadcasts, projecting hope and depicting a bright future. Patsayev also became the first man to operate a telescope in space. The spectrograms he produced of the stars Vega and Beta Centauri with the station's ultraviolet telescope were later published in the journal Nature.

Will We Ever Stop Using Rockets to Get to Space?

Ross Pomeroy - July 14, 2018


On March 16, 1926 in Auburn, Massachusetts, American engineer Robert Goddard launched the first liquid-fueled rocket. The flight lasted a mere 2.5 seconds and ended anticlimactically 181 feet away in a snow-covered cabbage field, but it would prove to be one of the most significant flights in history.

Ninety-two years later, liquid-fueled rockets are the norm for spaceflight. Towering, explosive behemoths standing sixty times taller than Goddard's original rocket blast humans beyond the boundaries of Earth's atmosphere. Each launch is a true spectacle, offering testament again and again to humankind's collective potential to transcend barriers and reach new heights through brains and cooperation.

But will rockets remain our primary transportation to space into the far flung future? Or will they eventually be replaced by new methods and technologies?

Rockets, after all, are far from perfect. Seven astronauts have died during launches. By chemical engineer Don Pettit's calculation, "sitting on top of a rocket is more dangerous than sitting on a bottle of gasoline!" He ought to know, he's done it a few times. Pettit has flown five missions to the International Space Station and has tallied 369 days, 16 hours, and 41 minutes in space. At age 62, he's NASA's oldest active astronaut.

How People Created Ice in the Desert 2,000 Years Ago

Ross Pomeroy - July 9, 2018


Today, creating ice is as easy as placing water in your freezer, but how would you accomplish the same phase-altering feat without an energy-guzzling appliance?

What may seem unfathomable at first thought was regularly accomplished more than 2,000 years ago, and in the desert of all places!

In the early evening hours, Persians and other ancient peoples of the Middle East would pour water in long, shallow stone pools no more than a foot or two deep. They would return to the pools just before first light the following morning to find the water frozen over. They'd then collect the ice and store it inside a yakhchāl, or "ice pit" (pictured above). Within these hollow, insulated domes were deep, subterranean holes where ice could be stored for months.

Okay, "What's the big deal?" you might be thinking. After all, one could easily replicate this process in frigid climes where ambient temperatures dip below freezing. But what's amazing here is that nighttime desert temperatures rarely dipped below freezing, yet ancient Middle Easterners managed to create ice nonetheless!

The Three Big Questions About E-Cigarettes

Ross Pomeroy - July 2, 2018


The rapid rise of e-cigarettes has left many worried vaping will rewind society's progress against the public health dangers of smoking. Underlying these concerns are three key questions. Today, we answer them:

1. Are E-cigarettes safer than normal cigarettes?

Yes. After years of research, there's little doubt that e-cigarettes are far safer than normal cigarettes. Joining the consensus are organizations like the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Cancer Research UK, and the British Medical Association. By replacing combustion of tobacco with vaporization of nicotine salts and chemical flavoring, long-term health risks are greatly reduced. Cancer risk from vaping could be as little as one percent of the cancer risk from smoking. Passive exposure to e-cigarette vapor is far less harmful than secondhand smoke. One study found that 3.5 years of daily e-cigarette use did not appear to damage the lungs of vapers in their twenties and thirties.

While e-cigarettes are unquestionably safer than cigarettes, they are not without health risks. Potential side effects include coughing, dehydration, sore throat, headaches, nausea, stomachaches, and, of course, nicotine addiction. Regular nicotine use can hinder brain development in adolescents and is especially harmful to developing fetuses.

The Forgotten Culture That Built America's "Pyramids" of Dirt

Ross Pomeroy - June 25, 2018


Students of history in America are aware of the Ancient Egyptians, the Incas of Peru, and the Aztecs of Mexico, but fewer are familiar with a great civilization that spread across the eastern United States from approximately 800 to 1600 CE. Meet the Mississippians.

Long before European settlers planted the seeds of modern civilization in North America, the Mississippian culture spread from the Florida Panhandle all the way to southern Minnesota. Defining the dozens of discovered settlements are distinct earthwork mounds that resemble pyramids of dirt. Various structures were regularly constructed atop these mounds. Chiefs presided over individual settlements, and were thought to regulate trade, particularly of maize, which archaeologists believe was the primary staple crop.

The rise of centralized agriculture is the most agreed upon explanation for the evolution of the Mississippian culture. Settlements were set up near rivers to take advantage of fertile farmland. Food was grown and shared under the altruistic watch of the settlement chief.


With a reliable source of food, the Mississippians could undertake other pastimes. Metalworkers fashioned stone tools for farming and etched ornate copper plates for adornment. Artists crafted necklaces and pottery out of riverine shells. Spectators watched athletes compete in a game known as chunkey, in which players tried to hurl a spear closest to a thrown disc-shaped stone.

Do the Benefits of Climate Change Outweigh the Costs?

Ross Pomeroy - June 19, 2018


The climate is currently in a phase of rapid, human-caused change. Concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are increasing. Global average temperature is rising. Arctic ice is melting. Sea levels are increasing.

While the overarching fact of manmade climate change is no longer debatable, a few facets are open to legitimate questioning. How bad will global warming really be? Are climate models really all that accurate? Is it better to mitigate or adapt to climate change? Will climate change actually produce net benefits?

The last question is perhaps the hardest to quantify, but it's also the most interesting. I'll broadly attempt to tackle it today.

Climate change will not be uniformly bad. Some parts of the world and their inhabitants will see benefits, others harms. Farmers in Denmark and Canada will enjoy longer and more productive growing seasons. Cold weather deaths will fall, particularly in northern latitudes. On the other hand, the average amount of time it takes for ecosystems to recover from drought is increasing. Moreover, many island nations may be essentially uninhabitable or even completely underwater due to rising sea levels.

Ancient Deadly Lake Now Holds Incredible, 50-Million-Year-Old Fossils

Ross Pomeroy - June 15, 2018


The Messel Pit, located about 22 miles southeast of Frankfurt, Germany, isn't much to look at, no more than a dull splotch of gray amidst a serene, earth tone landscape of rolling hills and densely packed trees. Locked within, however, is a menagerie of exquisitely fossilized life dating back 47 million years.

At this time, during what's called the Eocene Epoch, the pit was a small, yet surprisingly deep lake within a tectonically-active landscape. Scientists hypothesize that shifting earth intermittently triggered the release of concentrated gases that seeped out of the lake and enveloped nearby fauna. Rendered unconscious, these animals would fall in and slowly drift down through the oxygen-deprived waters to the muddy floor below, where compacting soil and vegetation slowly preserved them over millions of years.

Today, that soil and vegetation is now petrified oil shale. More than 150 years ago, this shale drew the attention of miners. Organized operations began in the 1900s, turning up a wealth of fossil finds in the process. When shale mining became uneconomical in the late 1960s, operations halted. The site was briefly considered for a landfill, but scientists and citizens spoke out loudly against it. Messel became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995.

Now safely reserved for scientists and the general public, Messel Pit has yielded tens of thousands of fossils in the past couple decades, including pygmy horses, insects, early primates, cat-like predators, rodents, and lots of fish, some so well preserved that you can make out their colors and fur. Here is a selection:

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