Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Scientists redefine the habitable zone: Wait...we're not in the center?

File:The Earth seen from Apollo 17.jpgResearchers at Penn State have recently redefined the "Goldilocks zone" - the distance from a star where liquid water is likely to be found on the surface. This is obviously an important thing for life. Here's the thing though, the previous definition put earth in the center of the Goldilocks zone (get it? Not too hot, not too cold). In the new definition the earth is out of the zone by about one million kilometers. {Correction: Earth is still within the Goldilocks zone, but is about one million kilometers away from the edge. This still puts us very close to being cooked, according to this model.}

Now that really seems like an obvious mistake. We know that liquid water is found on the earth and that it is within a habitable distance from the sun. So why put out a paper that is essentially saying the earth isn't habitable? Well, it actually doesn't say anything like that at all. The paper defines the distances from the sun that liquid water is most likely to exist. It's not a definition or even a strict cut-off point for habitability. In the abstract, the authors even clear state: 
"Our model does not include the radiative effects of clouds; thus, the actual HZ boundaries may extend further in both directions than the estimates just given."
Clouds. Clouds reflect sunlight away from the earth, taking heat away. So this new definition doesn't say that the earth uninhabitable, it defines a possible range where planets would be habitable (not taking into account cloud coverage). Some reports are already trying to showcase the "stupidity" of scientists, but they really misunderstand the purpose of the research. This is simply a model - our best guess, given certain assumptions - and since we don't know very much about other solar systems it's good to have a good guess of where to look, and that's what this range gives us.

Troxler's fading

I have long been fascinated with optical illusions. Recently I have started seeing them as great examples of how our minds are continuously deceiving us and our intuition is often very wrong. Take the optical illusion below, for example. Stare at the center of the image (blinking is okay, just keep focused on one point).

If the illusion worked for you the colored image disappeared. This illusion is an example of Troxler's fading, which was first described by Ignaz Paul Vital Troxler in his 1804 paper "On the disappearance of given objects from our visual field". The effect happens because any stimulus that is unchanging is eventually ignored by the neurons receiving the stimulus. An even cooler example of Troxler's fading is this illusion.


At first you see pink dots that are disappearing in order around the circle. Focus on the cross, though, and the pink dots will disappear. In their place you will see a green dot circling the cross. Look very closely, that green dot doesn't actually exist. I expect the reason you see a green dot is because green is the negative color of pink. When your brain begins ignoring the pink dot stimuli it will still need to process when the stimuli change. That's tough though, your brain is already ignoring the pink dot, so how can it interpret something disappearing that it was already ignoring?The solution is to interpret the lack of a pink dot as a green dot - the negative of pink.

Monday, January 28, 2013

A Dung Beetle: The smallest astronomer

Humans have a love for the night sky. Even early humans must have looked up in wonder - it's no surprise that astronomy is the oldest of all the natural sciences. Not only do we love stargazing, but ships have crossed oceans and slaves in America found freedom by looking to the stars. As it turns out we aren't alone in our love for the stars.

The life of a dung beetle (Scarabaeus zambesianus) is simple: Find a pile of dung, roll it into a ball, and run away with it. The beetle needs to get away quickly, so a straight line is its best bet. During the day it can use the sun as a reference point and at night it has the moon, but what if the moon isn't visible? They don't use any local landmarks to orient themselves, so how do they find their way? New research shows that when the moon isn't visible the dung beetle can use the Milky Way as a reference frame

To test the beetles the researchers used a planetarium, changing which stars were visible. Without the Milky Way the beetles were unable to walk in a straight line. So, even though the beetle's eyes are not sophisticated enough to see individual stars, the bright streaks of the Milky Way are enough to guide it. It makes me wonder if the beetle enjoys looking at the stars or just sees a map when it looks up.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

One Percent: It's sort of a big deal...

On Friday Michael Drysch went to a Miami Heat game and came home $75,000 and a tackling bear hug from LeBron James richer. The Miami Heat offered him the money if he could sink a half-court shot and LeBron tackled him in celebration.

Later, in an interview with, Drysch said:
"I had made that shot something like 1 percent of the time in my life."
Now obviously that's a figure of speech, I get that. Drysch most likely meant that it was a shot he hadn't made many times in his life. The thing is, though, if something happens 1% of the time that probably means it actually happen a lot, if someone is one in a million that means that 7,000 people are the exact same, and if a hand sanitizer kills 99.99% of 200 million germs you're still going to be left with 20,000.

When it comes to statistics, our intuition is pretty horrible. It's just one of the ways that our brain deceives us

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Saturday Links: January 26th, 2013

I didn't post any links last week due to being at a conference and actually having to do things on a Saturday. Enjoy your day off (if you have the day off). Don't spend it all on the internet...
  • Not science, but this is a shot-for-shot live action remake of Toy Story (in its entirety).

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A Break from Bad Science: Star Trek

From now on when I get nasty e-mails this will be my response.
I've spoken plenty about the bad science in movies. It's all (mostly) in jest. Even so, I have been accused of taking things too seriously. To quote one piece of fan mail - "It's a f___ing movie, dude." To me it seems that anyone that took my article that seriously needs to take a few deep breaths themselves - it's a f___ing article, dude.

But, I've decided to accept the criticism and take a break from writing about bad science. Today I wanted to talk about the good science in movies, starting with Star Trek. Now before you write me and tell me that Star Trek is full of bad science take a deep breath. I'll get to that in due time, but today I wanted to focus on the good things that have happened because of Star Trek. Some of these are directly inspired by the series, some may be prophetic, and others are just obvious extensions of technology we already had.

"Beam me up, Scotty!" - These may be the most famous words from the series. The were also never spoken on screen. Still, everybody knows them and many people still (mis)quote them. We are, of course, a long way from the technology that will transport a man from one location to another. We do have a good start on this, though.

Earlier this year in the science journal Nature there was an article on quantum teleportation. In the quantum world we talk about light as photons. One of the weird things about quantum mechanics is that things exist in a superposition. This isn't a "great position", it's a combination of every possible state in which the particle could exist. When a quantum particle is observed the wavefunction collapses and that particle will only exist in one of the possible states. Quantum teleportation takes two photons that are entangled (their properties depend on each other), separates those two particles by any large amount of distance, and destroys one of them. All of the information about the destroyed particle is transported to the remaining particle. This makes communication at light speed possible. Destroying one particle sends a message to the person on the other end. There are some serious ethical dilemmas when you scale this up (if you could scale it up). Quantum teleportation won't transport you from one place to another - it will destroy everything that you are and create a new copy. Are you dead or are you the new copy?

Star Trek didn't invent the idea of a computer, so this probably goes in the "obvious extension of things we already had" category, but you have to wonder what computers would be like if Star Trek hadn't made them so awesome. Long before Siri, Majel Barrett-Roddenberry was the voice of the computers for Star Trek. Google recently announced plans to perfect voice commands, a project said to be inspired by Star Trek. Of course a pleasant voice isn't the only computer technology predicted by Star Trek. The Star Trek computer was a diagnostic tool for the entire ship. If anything went wrong one need only give a simple command - "Damage report!" - and the computer could tell you what was wrong. Similarly  modern cars, planes, and other vehicles have on-board computers to aid mechanics as well as drivers know what is going on. Another example is Jean-Luc Picard, who obviously had a tablet computer long before Steve Jobs made millions selling the iPad.
He's trying to decide whether or not to sue Apple. 

On second thought, maybe computer technology doesn't belong in the "Obvious extension of things we already had" category. A computer we talk to, computers in our cars, and tablet computers could just as easily be prophetic or inspirational. Either way I think it's an easy argument to say that computers wouldn't be the same without Star Trek.

Warp Drive
Einstein gave us a pretty simple equation: γ = (1 − v2/c2)−1/2. In this equation c is the speed of light, v is the velocity of an object, and γ (gamma) is the Lorentz factor - the factor by which length will contract and time will dilate at relative speeds (more on this in a different article). The result of this factor is a universal speed limit. Mass, energy, or information will never travel faster than 670,616,629 miles per hour.

So how does the enterprise get around this? They travel locally at a speed slower than the speed of light but distort space-time around them to get from point A to point B faster than light. The idea of warp drive inspired the Alcubierre drive. There are problems, of course, and a functional Alcubierre drive may not be possible. The original formulation required  the existence of tachyonic matter - matter that is always travelling faster than the speed of light. Other descriptions that avoid the need for tacyonic matter have been proposed, but still require massive amounts of energy. So we may not have warp drive (and we may never have it), but Star Trek has been a springboard to novel ideas in physics.

"Tea, Earl Gray, Hot."

It seems to me that Picard could have saved quite a bit of energy by bringing a few tea bags with him into space. Nevertheless, this article isn't about the efficient use of technology so I'll have to let it go. The replicator, or at least something similar, is actually already available. 3D printers are able to make real, tangible objects from only a digital model. By "printing" an object in layers anything from car parts to toys can come from the machine. They're surprisingly affordable (low end models start around $1,000) and may someday be a household item. Imagine in the future going online to buy a digital blueprint of something you want and printing it out yourself. The days of waiting patiently for the UPS guy to show up will be long gone. Though if you want some tea just make it yourself.

tricorder, homeland security, triage, SPTT
Preinstalled software includes Angry Birds, Facebook and
Twitter apps, and Apple maps (which still doesn't work) 
The tricorder is the most powerful tool available to any member of Starfleet. Indeed, one of the difficulties of saying whether or not a tricorder exists is that a tricorder does so many things. A tricorder acts as a GPS receiver, helps physicians diagnose illness, and can give you detailed information of your surroundings. To a first approximation at least, a common smart phone is essentially a tricorder. In fact, we might as well start calling them tricorders - by calling it a phone aren't we naming it after its least commonly used function?

Smartphones aside, there are a few modern technologies that could easily pass for a tricorder. I choose to describe a tricorder as a miniature mass spectrometer.1 A mass spectrometer is a scientific instrument used to measure the mass of molecules. They have a wide range of applications, sizes, costs, limitations, etc. They can be used to identify cocaine left on dollar bills, detect pollutants in the atmosphere, study pharmacokinetics, and much more. Mass spectrometers are arguably the most powerful tool available to scientists today.2 The technology obviously exists in the Star Trek universe (Geordi La Forge uses a mass spectrometer in Season  4 Episode 5 - "Remember Me"), and a tricorder must have contained a miniaturized mass spectrometer.

So, do miniature mass spectrometers exist? The one I use is about 6 feet high, 15 feet long, and 3 feet wide. A more common mass spectrometer could be placed on a kitchen counter (if, for some reason, you wanted to do that). Portable mass spectrometers do exist, and improving them is a very active area of research. There is a balance between making something portable and making something that actually works.

Did you like this article? Check out the rest of the series "Bad Science in the Movies"

[1] I probably describe it this way because I work with a mass spectrometer all day.
[2] Again, this statement might contain minor bias due to my research... 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Monty Hall Problem and a lesson in statistics

This semester I am the teaching assistant for a graduate level course on Statistical Mechanics. To me this represents a milestone. Just a little over two years ago I was in the department's office nearly in tears (okay, actually in tears). I was prepared to quit the program - I was just too stupid for graduate school (I'm still not sure I am smart enough, but that's the subject for another blog). It was only my second week in grad school and already I was convinced that I would never pass Statistical Mechanics.

I don't shed tears over Stat Mech anymore, in fact it's probably one of my favorite classes. Statistical Mechanics is the branch of chemistry (or physics, depending on who you ask) that applies large number statistics to molecules. Since molecules are small and there are so many of them the statistics work out nicely and we can accurately predict thermodynamic quantities (like pressure, energy, entropy, etc).

While brushing up on the subject I was reminded of an interesting statistical problem that I thought I'd share. It's called The Monty Hall Problem, and it's based on the game show "Let's Make a Deal!"

Monty Hall was the original host of "Let's Make a Deal!". Most of the game show worked by giving someone in the audience a small prize and then offering them a deal. "Keep the small prize or trade it for whatever is behind door # 1!". Sometimes door #1 got you a new car other times it was something completely useless. So here's the Monty Hall problem: 
Suppose Monty shows you three doors. You know that behind one of the doors is a new car. Behind each of the other doors is a goat. You choose a door at random (we'll say door #1). Then, Monty opens door #3 and reveals a goat. Monty then makes you an offer - You can switch and take what's behind door #2 instead of door #1. Should you switch or stick with your initial choice?
At first it may seem like switching will make no difference. When the game began your odds of winning a car were 1/3. Monty opens a door and reveals a goat, but that still leaves one goat and one car. The odds must be 50/50, right? The car must be equally likely to be behind either one of the doors. It's often the case, though, that your intuition will deceive you. Already this semester I have warned several students that they were trusting their own intuition a  little too much.

The real answer to the Monty Hall problem is that by switching your choice you move from a 1/3 chance of winning a car to a 2/3 chance. It's important to note that Monty knows where the car is and will never open a door to reveal it (that would ruin the game). Below I outline three ways of convincing yourself that this is the answer. Choose your favorite.

Thinking it through: Making a table
In the beginning of any statistics class you'll get some very easy problems. For example:
"If I roll a 6-sided die1 what are the chances that I roll a 6?"
These problems are usually pretty easy to answer by just thinking about it or in some cases writing down all the possible outcomes and counting them. Let's write out all the possible outcomes for the Monty Hall problem. This table assumes your choice was door #1 and that Monty will eliminate one of the other doors that has a goat.

Behind Door #1
Behind Door #2
Behind Door #3
Your prize
(No switching)
Your prize (Switching)
















Just by writing out all the possible outcomes you can see that switching gives you a 2/3 chance of winning a car while not switching leaves you with a 1/3 chance. It can be tedious to write out all the possible outcomes to a problem, especially when you have a large number of events. But that's why we have math.

Mathematically: Bayes' Theorem
Bayes' Theorem is a statistical tool that lets us analyze the probability of one event happening given that another event has already occurred. In this case, what is the probability that the car is behind door #1, given that Monty reveals a goat behind door #3. The math behind Bayes' theorem is written as:
P(A|B) = \frac{{P(B|A)P(A)}}{{P(B)}}

Which is read "The probability that event A will happen given that B is true is equal to the probability that B will happen given that event A has happened multiplied by the probability of A divided by the probability of B." 

For the Monty Hall problem we have three important variables. The door you choose (Dn), the door Monty opens (Mn) and the door that actually has a car (Cn). So the probability that the car is behind door #2 (C2), given that you chose door #1 (D1) and Monty opened door #3 (M3) is:

Which works out to be:

So, if you choose door #1 and Monty reveals door #3 there is a 66.6% chance that the car is behind door #2 and only a 33.3% chance that it is behind door #1.

Mathematically: Renormalization
This is my personal explanation of the math. As such it is not strictly correct (a mathematician would likely have my head), but the math works out and it is applicable to many other problems. For this reason I've chosen to include it.  

When we first started out door #1, door #2, and door #3 all had equal probability of containing the car (1/3). Then Monty opens up door #3 and reveals a goat. You haven't changed anything, so your probability is unchanged. You still have that 1/3 chance of getting a car if you stick with door #1. However, you do have a choice. You can switch to door #2. If you choose to switch, we have to renormalize the problem. Normalization basically just means that the total probability must be equal to 1. There are a few ways we can normalize. 
1. Realize that the remaining probability is equal to the total probability minus the original probability. In this case that means 1-1/3 = 2/3.
2. Divide by the "new probability". In other words our initial probability was 1/3. Now there are only 2 possibilities. We have to renormalize to reflect that change. The probability that the car is in a door other than door #1 is (1/3)/(1/2) = 2/3.
This solution is sure to get me in trouble with mathematicians (they don't like it when you place loose with their maths), but it does work. To convince you that it's not just true for this specific case let's imagine there are N doors. The probability of choosing correctly is 1/N. Monty opens one door and allows us to switch. What is the probability that the car is in one of the other available doors (instead of door #1)? Solving it both ways from above:
1. The total must be one, and I know my original probability is 1/N. The remaining probability is 1-1/N = (N-1)/N.
2. Renormalize. (1/N)/(1/N-1) = (N-1)/N 
Renormalization is a handy tool, but you have to be careful. Running about dividing probabilities willy-nilly is sure to get you a bunch of wrong answers. It's important that you know the physical meaning behind the division that you're doing.

[1] Nerds are very easy to spot. They're the ones that ask "How many sides?" when you talk about dice. Everyone else assumes you're talking about 6-sided dice. After all, isn't that the only kind?

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Explaining my research...sort of.

A while back XKCD had this great comic about explaining a complex topic using only the 1,000 most commonly used words in the English language.

See Ar Oh, from the blog "Just Like Cooking" just posted his attempt at explaining his research (organic synthesis) using the same restrictions. He used this website (which I suggest you waste some time on. It's fun).

Since I am always asked about my research but rarely have a good answer, I thought I would give it a try. So here it is: This is what I spend my time researching (explained using only the 1,000 most common words in the English language).
"In my job I hit very small things with light. Then they shake. Once I hit those small things with lots of light they break. My job is to watch how they break and that way I know what those very small things look like."

It's not even right anymore, but there you go. That's what I do in the lab.

Here's the original XKCD comic:

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Bad Science in the Movies: Back to the Future

In 1985, Einstein made the historic trip forward in time by one minute.

No, not that one...

Yup, that's the one!

Thanks to his Flux Capacitor, Doc Brown was able to send his best friend forward in time by one minute. But what does science have to say about this historic journey? Is time travel - as seen in the Back to the Future trilogies even possible? What type of machine would be necessary to send a person into the past and bring them back?

One point of time travel that is often overlooked is space travel. The earth travels relative to the sun at a speed of about 30 km/sec (~67,000 mph). This means that Einstein's trip into the future by one minute would have left him about 1,800 km (~1,118 miles) behind the earth. Therefore, any time travel machine must also be an even more sophisticated space travel machine. In fact, space travel may be what actually limits time travel. Let me explain.

Remember that Einstein (the dog) traveled forward in time by one minute but also would have had to travel in space by about 1,800 km. There is a great article that uses some clever geometry to show that Doc Brown's furry friend would have had to travel at about 6 times the speed of light to move a single minute forward in time. That obviously can't happen. The situation is actually worse than that article described, though. Much worse. The calculations negates any movement of the solar system. However, the solar system is also orbiting the center of the Milky Way.. In the same minute that Einstein travels the 1,800 km relative to the solar system the sun itself travels ~28,000 km relative to the center of the Milky Way. If we use the center of the Milky Way as our reference frame, then when Marty McFly travels from 1955 to 1885 in Back to the Future III, he would have had to travel somewhere around 0.1 lightyears in the blink of an eye to catch up to the Earth.

Out of all the "Bad Science" articles I've written, though, Back to the Future is my favorite film. Because of that let's be a little bit bias. Let's allow Marty to break the universal speed limit every time he travels. Maybe the clue to how this all works is in the Flux Capacitor. Let's individually define those two words to see if we get any clues.
Flux: Physicists use the term flux to describe something's flow. Heat flux describes the rate that heat flows over an area, magnetic flux describes the rate that a magnetic field changes in a given area, etc. Flux isn't too bad of a word to use to use then, right? Time is an integral part of flux
(pun intended).

Capacitor: Doc Brown says that the stainless steel frame of the Delorean contributes to the "flux dispersal". Obviously there is some sort of electronic feedback that occurs. It makes sense, then, that you would want a  capacitor. Capacitors are used in electrical devices to store current. Capacitors hold a charge.
Flux Capacitor: Utter nonsense. If we combine what the individual terms mean we are left with the idea that a flux capacitor somehow stores the flow of some current. Obviously this would be the flow of time, but that doesn't really make sense for a capacitor. I don't know any explanation of time that requires electricity, and I don't know of any use for a capacitor other than to hold an electric charge. Just because you're using fancy words doesn't mean you're saying anything fancy. The Flux Capacitor might have just been called the Turbo Encabulator.

If you liked this "Bad Science" post, check out the rest of the series! 

Saturday Links: January 12th, 2013

Saturday links!
  • Science popularity is growing online!
  • Good science always has political ramifications. 
  • A great post on chemophobia by See Ar Oh ( 
  • Snakes on a plane! No, really, snakes on a plane.
  • As you may know, there is an official petition page for the White House. Citizens can write a petition about anything they want to see happen. Any petition that gets enough signatures requires a formal statement by the White House. Someone thought it would be a good idea to petition the White House to build a Death Star. Certainly they won't respond to that, right? Wrong. This great response (Titled "This Isn't the Petition Response You're Looking For") gives a few jokes about the implausibility/immorality of building a Death Star and then takes this opportunity to highlight the great science that is actually happening in space. I thought this was a perfect response by the White House.  

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The liberal bias of Math

I've spoken out about the need for science literacy several times in the past. Each time I have the delusional hope that people have listened and the world will change. Unfortunately, FOX News has once again gotten my blood boiling.

On Wednesday Eric Bolling accused schools of a liberal bias for teaching Algebra. "Distribute the Wealth", the host exclaimed, holding up a worksheet from Scholastic, "for the distributive property of division and multiplication, this is for grades 3-6."

Now, I'm not trying to be political. I understand the outrage is from the term "distribute the wealth". I get it, those are political buzz words. But the worksheet is not teaching 3rd graders about the merits of distributing wealth. This isn't a lesson in a political science class. It's a math lesson. For third graders. It's teaching kids about the distributive property. Math does not have a liberal bias.

Kimberly Guilfoyle then adds her thoughts and jokes about her inability to complete a 3rd grade math worksheet.
"This isn't that easy! I'm a mom and I can't do this!" 
This is what really bothers me about this whole segment. Some journalists think that being bad at science and math is a good thing. I don't know if they're trying to be relatable, they're worried about alienating their audience, or think it's endearing. Whatever it is it needs to stop. In any other subject a journalist is expected to understand the thing they're reporting on. For some reason math and science get a pass. In fact if you do understand it (like I'm sure Kimberly Guilfoyle actually does) it's somehow good journalism to pretend you don't. Doing this perpetuates the idea that math and science are only meant for a select few of the smartest of all of us. That's just not true. Math and science should be clear and simple.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Science Myths and Misconceptions - Part III: Dark Side of the Moon

#3 - The Dark Side of the Moon
Despite what Pink Floyd would have you believe, there isn't a side of the moon that is always dark. All parts of the moon are lit by the sun at some point.

There is a far side of the moon, though. Anytime you look up in the sky you will see the same face of the moon. The far side side of the moon is the side that always faces away from the earth. This happens because the moon is tidal locked with the earth - it takes just as long for the moon to rotate the earth as it takes for it to rotate around its own axis.

The far side of the moon was not seen until the Russian probe Luna 3 sent back photographs in 1959.

Photograph taken by Luna 3
In 1968 astronauts on Apollo 8 became the first to directly visualize the far side of the moon. Apollo 16 astronauts gave us this stunning photo.

But no story about the moon would be complete without a conspiracy theory. On the far side of the moon there is said to be a large, hidden, alien complex. This website says that:
"There is a HUGE alien moon base complex on the far side of the moon. This sounds silly but it is true and we have solid proof… straight from the military.
In 1994, the US Navy sent a satellite called Clementine to the moon to image it for two months. During that time, the satellite took 1.8 million images. Out of those images, 170,000 images were made available to the public. The rest were classified. Classified moon craters?

Within the 170,000 images available, there are many obviously censored images of incredibly massive artificial structures, structures often MILES in width and height. The sheer size of these structures eliminates the possibility that we built them; the numbers of trips by rockets carrying materials would be outrageously large.

This is the biggest discovery in history. Certain military and government agencies have known for decades. The alien moon base has been up there in various forms for possibly tens of thousands of years.
Also, these satellite images have been censored. So you will see images with huge, alien structures that have been photographically “smudged” to hide the structure or structures."
Let's just point out a few problems in this man's logic.

1 - "Smudged" images.
This is called anomaly hunting. Just because there is a smudge on the photograph does not mean that the smudge was created to hide something. What is more likely - the image is smudged because astronauts had to travel to the freaking moon to take the picture or that a government wide conspiracy is holding this information from us and not a single person has said a word. I tend to discredit any idea that requires the entire government uniting.

2 - "Tens of thousands of years"
So we have a a few smudged pictures and this now means that not only does an alien complex exist, but it has existed for tens of thousands of years? Unless the picture is clear enough to see "EST. 22,146 BC" on one of the smudged buildings I don't see how this claim is warranted at all. Why must the Navy1 explain every last smudge in the photographs but the alternative theory is okay to throw out this wild time frame?  Be wary when extraordinary claims are given with no evidence. It's a sure sign that something is wrong. 

3 - 1.8 million images taken but only 170,000 released?
At first glance, this sounds suspicious. Why would only 170,000 images be released? My initial explanation was that it would put a heavy load on the server to release ~1.6 million useless pictures. My brother is an avid photographer. When he takes my family pictures he takes hundreds of pictures but we only end up putting one on our wall. It's not because the other images have aliens in the background. Two minutes on Google gave an answer that is even more simple - there weren't 1.8 million images taken. At least not in the common use of the word. Clementine was a probe that spent 2 months in orbit and most of the work was spectroscopic. Clementine's purpose was to map the 38 million square kilometers of the moon. 1 million of these "images" are just emission spectra taken at scientifically relevant wavelengths from the ultraviolet to the near IR. In other words, most of the "images" look like this. My guess is that the "images" are not classified, but are just raw data that would need to be requested from the researchers.

All things considered, none of this seems like "solid proof" to me at all.

[1] A side note: It may be true that the Navy funded this probe, but for some reason this guy thinks the Navy was in charge of every detail of the mission.

If you liked this article, why not check out some more? Read the full list of science myths and misconceptions. We're also on Facebook as well as Twitter.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Thoughts from my Dad: Happiness

It's time for me to once again give control of my blog to my Dad. In this installment of "Thoughts from my Dad" we discuss the meaning of happiness and whether or not it is scientifically quantifiable.

Thoughts from my Dad:
Serendipity means a "happy accident" or "pleasant surprise"; specifically, the accident of finding something good or useful while not specifically searching for it. And so it is and this is what happened to me today…. Prior to reading your blog I was listening to Bob Marley - Don't worry be Happy on Pandora. 
After Reading your post on TUESDAY, DECEMBER 4, 2012 entitled Physician interaction may affect pain during medical procedure. I could only think of a professor in my graduate studies that stated “Sometimes it doesn’t matter what you do or say just as long as you do or say something.”   At that time I didn’t challenge what he nor did I even check the research to verify his claims.    In the professors defense, I think he was letting me know that I did not have to have years of experience or a vast amount of knowledge to work with others just a good frame work and understanding of the different theories  and when and how to implement those with specific clients.  However, you certainly would not want to “prescribe the problem” to and individual that is suicidal.
It’s been about ten years later and your article spurred interest in wanting to know how much empathy is part of the cure.
This is what I have found:  
Therapeutic change is around 40% due to client and extra therapeutic variables, 30% due to relationship factors, 15% due to expectancy and hope factors, and 15% due to the techniques and models of individual approaches. [1]
Other studies and research that I gleaned, studied and compared seem to support the above meta-analysis…..
So it does look like it really doesn’t matter what I do, when what I do as a therapist typically accounts for 15% of the therapeutic change.  
This is Serendipity
While reviewing the data and finding additional articles to support the above I came across this study by Lyubomirsky and her colleagues analyzed studies on identical twins and other research and came to the conclusion that happiness is 50% genetic, 40% intentional and 10% circumstantial. [2]
I couldn’t help but notice the similarity in the statistics regarding a person’s pursuit of happiness….
So what are the 40% intentional activities?  They are those in which we act, think about, and respond to the world. In other words, the same life circumstance has the potential to cause different amounts of happiness in people depending on how they react to it. There are certain ways of thinking and behaving that cause people to respond to events with more negative emotions, and likewise, there are ways of thinking and behaving that cause people to respond with more positive emotion…..Humm this sounds like the post I wrote concerning the Secret..?
Further digging I found research supporting the idea that money can take you only so far. According to a study by Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, Americans earning $50,000 a year are a lot happier than those making an annual salary of $10,000, but Americans pulling in $5 million a year aren’t much happier than those making $100,000.
Now there is my little blog I wrote,
I checked it Quote for quote…I hope others learn it note for note
Like good little students
Don’t worry…
Prescribing the problem is a type of paradoxical intervention.
 [1] Lambert, M.J. and A.E. Bergin (1994) 'The Effectiveness of Psychotherapy', in Bergin and Garfield (1994), pp. 143-89.
[2] Lyubomirsky's The How of Happiness 

My response to my Dad: 
You cited Sonja Lyubomurski, who claims that happiness is 50% genetic and 10% circumstantial, leaving 40% to "intentional change". To you this means that The Secret is a valid idea - our thoughts can change our reality. One problem I have with Lyubomurski's claims is that most of her data is just self-reported. In other words, people are asked "are you happy" and their response is recorded. Self-reporting is possibly the worst metric for any real, scientifically valid data. Lyubomurski, of course, defends her use of self-reporting. She basically says that if we want to know if people are happy we should ask them if they are happy. That sounds obvious, but self-reporting tells you nothing about someone's actual happiness. It only tells you how they choose to respond when asked if they are happy. But OK. Fine. Let's assume that self-reported data means something (again, it doesn't). Can we please take a look at the line of logic you used to get from the twins study you cited to claiming the validity of nonsense like The Secret. 1 - People were asked about their happiness. 2 - Researchers analyzed their responses and found that 50% of the variation was due to genetic difference, 40% due to intentional change, and 10% to other circumstances.3 - You interpret this to mean that we can control 40% of our happiness.4 - You assume that control means having happy thoughts.5 - You conclude that 40% of our life can be controlled by happy thoughts.6 - Therefore sending positive vibes into the universe will return to us the things we desire (a la The Secret) Well, it looks like you are one of the quacks that I was talking about. You know, the ones that misinterpret and exaggerate research claims?  To me, the only thing that Sonja's research shows is that people self-report happiness at variable rates. The variation in those rates correlates mostly with genetics (50%) and circumstances (10%), but even those numbers have a large amount of error (40 percentage points between the two). I don't think that research says anything of the actual happiness a person experiences and it definitely doesn't show that we can control 40% of our happiness by our thoughts. If that research teaches us anything it's what factors influence people to self-report happiness.  Happiness is subjective and Lyubomurski herself admits that this is true. How, then, can you take a subjective measurement (how happy somebody says they are) and apply it to an objective reference frame (what they do to be happy)? You can't. Since each person has a different reference for what happiness is it is impossible to apply any meaningful statistics. Therefore, we can't say anything meaningful based on any self-reported happiness studies. This isn't to say that I'm a pessimist. Of course having a positive attitude is a good thing, but a positive attitude by itself does nothing. Action, dedication, and the variability of the universe (luck) are the only things that make something happen.

My Dad's final thoughts:

Son, there is so much to discuss…I know you think the secret is more cloak-and-dagger…so I for this response I will keep the Secret a secret.

Happiness is subjective…. most may not know what happiness is….and most can tell you when they are not.

Your statement: #3 - You interpret this to mean that we can control 40% of our happiness. Yes that is what I am saying(Lyubomurski states in her study) that 40% of things that happen are intentional or Adjective: Done on purpose; deliberate. Synonyms: deliberate - willful - purposeful – intended….yea so I threw in the Secret just for reaction…

Your statement: 4 - You assume that control means having happy thoughts. Control means choice if you can choose your thoughts you are able to control or choose happy thoughts

Your statement: 5 - You conclude that 40% of our life can be controlled by happy thoughts. See # 3 40% of what makes up happiness according to Lyubomurski is 40% intentional….

What I found interesting…(and I think you missed a subtle but important point ) is the correlation between Therapeutic change for a client and intentional activities or those activities in which we chose how to act, think about, or respond to the world.

Somehow I knew my article would cause a reaction with you, but I thought for sure it would be the idea that we have a “happy gene” ……

So further research does support that  Lyubomurski may be a little high in suggesting that 50% of happiness can be explained as genetic.  One such research is from the University of South Florida, Columbia University and the National Institutes of Health found that a type of the monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) gene was connected to higher levels of self-reported happiness in women. What is even more surprising is low expression of MAOA has been related to some negative outcomes like alcoholism, aggressiveness and antisocial behavior.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Saturday Links: January 5th, 2013

Merry Saturday! Here are a few links to keep you busy for the weekend!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Negative temperature?

Temperature in science is measured in Kelvins (K). 0 degrees Celsius is 273 K. Absolute zero is 0 K (-273 degrees C). Today's issue of Science has an article entitled "Negative absolute temperature of motional degrees of freedom". In this article, Braun et al. describe a system of potassium ions that have negative temperature.  As you would expect, there are plenty of weird things that happen to a system with negative temperature.

Now, before I continue on any further, I need to make something clear. Negative temperature is not below absolute zero. After all, how can something be colder than absolute zero? The truth may sound even stranger - negative temperature is actually on the scale of temperatures after infinity. So the scale of temperatures is:

+0 K, . . . , +300 K, . . . , +∞ K, −∞ K, . . . , −300 K, . . . , −0 K

I can't stress enough, though, that we're really not talking about temperature here in terms of "hot" and "cold". We're talking about the entropy definition of temperature. The mathematical description of temperature is:
\frac{1}{T} = \frac{{\partial S}}{{\partial E}}

That is, the inverse of the temperature (T) is equal to the change in entropy (S) with respect to the change in energy (E). Negative temperature, then, means that as energy increases the entropy decreases. To anyone with an understanding of thermodynamics that might sound a little strange, and it is.

Wolfgang Ketterle, a physicist and Nobel laureate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, has said of this work: It is "as though you can stand a pyramid on its head and not worry about it toppling over" - what exactly does that mean? To understand it, lets look at some energy level diagrams.
"Normal" temperature
The above diagram shows the quantum energy levels for some "normal" system. You'll notice that three of the particles are in the lowest energy level. As particles gain energy they are excited to higher levels. There are two in the first excited state, and one in the second excited state. If we describe entropy as the dispersal of energy you can see that as particles gain energy and are excited to higher levels the entropy increases -  the particles are more "spread out".1
Infinitely high temperature
As temperature increases and the particles gain more and more energy they occupy more energy levels. Entropy will reach a maximum when the temperature is infinitely high. 
Absolute zero
On the other end of the temperature spectrum is absolute zero. At absolute zero all of the particles occupy the ground state energy level. A common misunderstanding of absolute zero is that at absolute zero motion ceases. Absolute zero does not mean that the atoms have no energy. Notice in the diagram for absolute zero that each particle is not at the bottom of  the energy well. At absolute zero each particle will still have zero-point energy - the energy of the lowest quantum energy level. There can never be a state where the energy of a particle is zero. With no energy there would be no particle.
Negative temperature
Now on to negative temperature. This diagram looks similar to the one for "normal" temperature. You may notice, though, that there are more particles in the higher energy levels. This is not how things "should" work. Particles fill energy levels in a Boltzmann distribution - basically that means they will fill the lower energy levels more than the higher energy levels. You can see now why I quoted Wolfgang Ketterle earlier - the energy levels are filling like a pyramid on its top. This brings us back to the "spread out" definition of entropy. This temperature is negative because as energy is added to the system the particles are spread out into fewer energy levels, not more. They are forced to bunch up at the higher energy levels.

So how was this negative temperature reached? Well, to create a negative temperature you need to have an upper and lower bound to energy. Absolute zero is a lower bound to energy. You can't have a system with lower energy than absolute zero. The researchers needed an upper bound. But of course for a system near absolute zero there is nothing to stop energy from increasing - there's nowhere to go but up! Instead, they created an upper bound on energy by creating a optical lattice. Lasers arranged the potassium ions in such a way that there is an energetic barrier to the higher energy states. Thus, when energy is added to the system you get the inverted pyramid.

There are already plenty of ideas for applications of negative temperature. New quantum devices, heat engines with greater than 100% efficiency (without breaking the laws of thermodynamics), and even an explanation of dark matter. I don't see any of these as being realistic in the near future, though. What we gain from this right now is a better understanding of what temperature really is.

[1] I fully realize that this is not a rigorous definition of entropy, but it is useful definition. I'll be using it to explain negative temperature in a way that is hopefully helpful (and not too incorrect. Remember - all models are incorrect, some are just more useful than others)  

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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

To tell or not to tell: The resolution dilema

Happy New Year!

With the start of the new year comes resolutions to lose weight, quit smoking, drink less, or spend more time with family. For the first few weeks of the year gyms will be full, healthy food will be on the shelves, and treadmills will be sold. In about a month, though, space in the gym will open up, junk food will return, and the treadmill you just bought will become a coat hanger. It happens every year and we all know it.

There are plenty of tips online for keeping those resolutions. In the article just linked to, Richard Wiseman gives some great tips, and I suggest you read his article if you are really serious about your goal. One tip you're certain to hear in almost every "Keep your resolutions" article is to tell everyone. A recent meta-analysis on behavior changing techniques even shows that feeling socially committed to a goal is an important step in changing behavior.

This advice rings true - if you tell someone about your resolution you'll feel pressured (by yourself or by them) to keep it.  For some resolutions, though, telling people may be the worst thing you can do. One study found that the simple act of making your goal known is enough to feel like you have completed the goal. Let's say, for example, that you want to run 5 miles every morning. When you tell others of your plan they are happy for you and congratulate you on your goal. Their praise acts as a reward and, feeling rewarded, you no longer are motivated to complete your goal.

Of course, there are times when sharing your resolution is a  great strategy. If you want to quit smoking friends can be a great resource. If you want to eat healthier you may feel guilty eating chocolate around people that know you shouldn't be eating it. The best idea is to personalize your strategy. If you think you'll need social pressure to keep your resolution, tell away. If you know you're likely to be looking for praise, try keeping your resolution to yourself this year.