Gravitational waves and climate change

Since early 2018, I’ve contributed multiple articles to Mercury, the membership magazine for the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP). These articles are only available in full to members of ASP, but recently Mercury has put extensive previews for certain articles up on the website as enticement to join. One of those articles is my piece about the GRACE Follow-On mission, which is simultaneously a project that measures the effects of climate change and is a testbed for the upcoming LISA gravitational-wave observatory.

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The Gravity of Climate Change

For Mercury:

Orbiting spacecraft are an essential tool for mapping worlds in the Solar System, providing information about everything from landforms to magnetic fields. Repeated monitoring helps scientists measure variations in a planet as the seasons change. That’s particularly true for the planet we know best, and one that is experiencing the biggest variations of all the worlds in the Solar System: Earth.

The Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On (GRACE-FO) mission consists of twin space probes designed to measure Earth’s gravity to high resolution. That measurement is important for geology—seismic activity and other substantial shifts in Earth’s crust—but also for tracking shifts in water and ice around the world. Those variations help researchers measure the melting of polar ice, along with more subtle phenomena like the depletion of aquifers in western North America and India, for example.

In addition to its essential work measuring ice melting and climate change, GRACE-FO will test a vital component of the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), the planned space-based gravitational wave observatory that will continue the work of LIGO and its Earth-based observatories.

[Read the rest of the preview in Mercury]

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Gaining time for brain cancer patients with mathematics

The linked article is for SIAM News, the magazine for members of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM). The audience for this magazine, in other words, is professional mathematicians and related researchers working in a wide variety of fields. While the article contains equations, I wrote it to be understandable even if you skip over the math.

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Mathematical Modeling Gains Days for Brain Cancer Patients

For SIAM News:

Glioblastoma, or glioblastoma multiforme, is a particularly aggressive and almost invariably fatal type of brain cancer. It is infamous for causing the deaths of U.S. Senators John McCain and Ted Kennedy, as well as former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s son Beau. Though glioblastoma is the second-most common type of brain tumor—affecting roughly three out of every 100,000 people—medicine has struggled to find effective remedies; the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved only four drugs and one device to counter the condition in 30 years of research. The median survival rate is less than two years, and only about five percent of all patients survive five years beyond the initial diagnosis.

Given these terrible odds, medical researchers strive for anything that can extend the effectiveness of treatment. The nature of glioblastoma itself is responsible for many obstacles; brain tumors are difficult to monitor noninvasively, making it challenging for physicians to determine the adequacy of a particular course of therapy.

Figure 1. Magnetic resonance imaging scan of the brain. Public domain image.
Kristin Rae Swanson and her colleagues at the Mayo Clinic believe that mathematical models can help improve patient outcomes. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data for calibration, they constructed the proliferation-invasion (PI) model — a simple deterministic equation to estimate how cancer cells divide and spread throughout the brain. Rather than pinpoint every cell’s location, the model aims to categorize the general behavior of each patient’s cancer to guide individualized treatment.

[Read the rest at SIAM News]

When physicists go bad

My latest comic with Maki Naro addresses the instances where certain physicists abandon scientific ethics to promote dubious causes: eugenics, climate change denial, and so forth. Since this issue is a bit fraught, I’ve included notes and references at the end of this post. Journalism, y’know?

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When Good Scientists Go Bad

Science doesn’t make you magically objective, and it’s not separate from the rest of human experience.

Albert Einstein wearing a "Black Lives Matter" shirt next to William Shockley carrying a tiki torch

Albert Einstein obviously died many years before the Black Lives Matters movement, but he was a strong anti-lynching advocate. William Shockley similarly never waved a tiki torch at a neofascist rally, but he did hang out with Ku Klux Klan financiers. [Credit: Maki Naro (art)/moi (words)]

There’s a common myth that scientists are objective participants in the world, applying the same rigorous standards to life outside the lab as they do within it. However, everyone’s biases affect our interactions with the world (and the practice of science itself is less objective than many people would like to believe). In some instances, when scientists leave the world of research, they still pretend that’s not the case, using scientific credentials to make statements beyond their expertise. In this new comic with Maki Naro, we looked at a few cases where right-leaning physicists endorsed outright pseudoscience: eugenics, questionable weaponry, and — most prominently today — climate change “skepticism”.

References for the comic:

  1. Elizabeth Catte. What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia (Belt, 2018). This book is where I first found out about William Shockley’s attempt to implement IQ-based eugenics in Appalachia, and the original inspiration for this comic. It’s also a well-sourced and -researched antidote to Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.
  2. For more on the meeting between Shockley, Harry Caudill, and KKK financier J. W. Kirkpatrick, see this excellent report from the Lexington Herald Leader. Kirkpatrick was (among other things) involved in an attempted white supremacist coup to overthrow the government of the Dominican Republic.
  3. Naomi Orekes and Erik M. Conway. Merchants of Doubt (Bloomsbury, 2010). Oreskes and Conway provide a detailed exposé of scientists (not just physicists) involved in anti-environmentalist and pro-corporate activities from the mid-20th century up to today. The “Rogues Gallery” in the comic is derived from this book. (There’s also a documentary, but I haven’t watched it.)
  4. The quote from William Happer comparing carbon dioxide to Holocaust victims was widely reported; see this MediaMatters summary and his profile on DeSmog Blog. DeSmog Blog is also the source of the information about Willie Soon.
  5. I wrote about Einstein’s antiracist and anti-lynching work for Smithsonian, which contains its own sources and notes. (I also wrote in Forbes about Einstein’s own racism about Asian people.)

Why falsifiability is a false guide to what is and isn’t science

I had a liberal arts education, which means that I mostly use what I learned to post nonsense on Twitter. However, thanks to my advisor, I got a solid grounding in the philosophy of science. While I’m certainly no philosopher myself, I also (hopefully) have a less simplistic view of how science works and doesn’t work than what is often presented as the “scientific method” and suchlike. For Symmetry, I got a chance to talk a little about how “falsifiability” is widely promoted as a way to tell what is scientific and what is not, and why it’s actually a poor criterion, both from a philosophical and scientific point of view.

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Falsifiability and physics

Can a theory that isn’t completely testable still be useful to physics?

For Symmetry Magazine:

What determines if an idea is legitimately scientific or not? This question has been debated by philosophers and historians of science, working scientists, and lawyers in courts of law. That’s because it’s not merely an abstract notion: What makes something scientific or not determines if it should be taught in classrooms or supported by government grant money.

The answer is relatively straightforward in many cases: Despite conspiracy theories to the contrary, the Earth is not flat. Literally all evidence is in favor of a round and rotating Earth, so statements based on a flat-Earth hypothesis are not scientific.

In other cases, though, people actively debate where and how the demarcation line should be drawn. One such criterion was proposed by philosopher of science Karl Popper (1902-1994), who argued that scientific ideas must be subject to “falsification.”

[Read the rest at Symmetry Magazine]

Seeing the unseeable: humanity’s first image of a black hole

Yesterday, the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration released the first image of a black hole humanity has ever seen. That simple-looking image represents a century of scientific work: from the first theoretical calculations describing black holes; to the earliest hints that every large galaxy contains a supermassive black hole at its heart; to the technological advances needed to network a world-spanning array of radio telescopes. When I was in college and graduate school, many people thought this very thing was impossible — I know I did. I am happy to say I was wrong then, and this picture of the 6.5 billion solar-mass black hole at the heart of the galaxy M87 is the most thrilling image of my scientific and science-writing career thus far.

the black hole at the center of the M87 galaxy, as seen by the Event Horizon Telescope

The first image humanity has ever captured of a black hole: the supermassive black hole at the heart of the M87 galaxy. [Credit: Event Horizon Telescope]

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The incredible story behind our first image of a black hole

For the first time ever, scientists have captured a direct image of a black hole. The image, captured by the Event Horizon Telescope, allows us to see something that was thought to be invisible

For WIRED UK:

A black hole is invisible by nature. One of the strangest predictions to come out of Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity, a black hole emits no radiation we can detect, and it swallows up everything that falls on it, matter and light alike. The boundary of a black hole — its event horizon — is a border that can only be crossed from the outside to the inside, not in reverse.

So it might seem paradoxical to talk about capturing an image of a black hole, but this is precisely the mission of the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). Today, April 10, 2019, will go down in history as the day EHT scientists released the very first direct image of a black hole.

It’s not one in our own Galactic centre, but is at the centre of the galaxy M87 – a resident of the neighbouring Virgo galaxy cluster, which is the home of several trillion stars. The feat marks the first time in history that astronomers have seen the shape of an event horizon. It’s an unprecedented map of gravity at its strongest, involving hundreds of astronomers, engineers, and data scientists from around the world.

[Read the rest at WIRED UK…]

You won’t be traveling by quantum teleportation

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This article appeared in the spring print issue of Popular Science, but has also been published online.

Quantum teleportation is real, but it’s not what you think

A commute so quick you could just die

For Popular Science:

In 2017, physicists beamed photons from Tibet to a satellite passing more than 300 miles overhead. These particles jumping through space evoked wide-eyed sci-fi fantasies back on Earth: Could Star Trek transporters be far behind? Sorry for the buzzkill, but this real-world trick, called quantum teleportation, probably won’t ever send your body from one place to another. It’s essentially a super-secure data transfer, which is tough to do with the jumble of code that makes a human.

Photons and teensy bits of atoms are the most complex bodies we can send over long distances in a flash. Each particle of the same type—photon, neutron, ­electron—​is largely the same as every other member of its subatomic species.

Configurations known as quantum states distinguish them. Two photons spinning clockwise, for example, are identical. You can’t make one zip elsewhere with no lag time (sorry, that’s magic), but you can create its duplicate in another spot. Not so useful for moving people, but valuable for instantaneous, secure communication.

[Read the rest at Popular Science]

Asteroids, Mars, and a vision for space beyond colonialism

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Who owns an asteroid?

Celestial bodies like Bennu could help us tell Earth’s origin story. Or they could be strip-mined for resources

Panel from “Who Owns an Asteroid?” with words by me and art by Maki Naro. Click for the whole comic.

Discussions around space travel are saturated in colonialist language and narratives, from “space colonies” on Mars to multiple proposals for mining asteroids. These concepts are often treated as inevitable, with conversations about when and how, rather than if we should do any of this in the first place. In The Nib, artist extraordinaire Maki Naro and I look at how colonialist attitudes have colored our dialog on asteroids and Mars, with a focus on the ethical and — dare we say — the spiritual component of conservation on other worlds.