Archive for the ‘This Is Real’ Category

This Is Real: The Dictator’s Handbook

2017/03/12 Leave a comment

The Dictator’s Handbook was a frightening and fascinating read.  I came across it from a YouTube video that nicely summarizes many of its premises and consequences.

Appropriately, the book comes with the subtitle: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics.

It’s a highly plausible analysis of political and other power structures, and what leads them to be more democratic — or more oppressive.  It also discusses why it’s difficult to have a dictator who is both benevolent and effective.  It’s written by a pair of political science professors, and filled with historical examples.

It was written a couple of years before the most recent US presidential election, but it has some… implications, nevertheless.

No dictators were harmed in the making of this book.

Read more…


Science Sidebar 2: Dark Matter

2014/07/31 1 comment

Another item that didn’t make the paper.

So, dark matter.  It’s stuff.

The comment is prompted by the announcement a little while ago that the US Department of Energy has chosen which three next-generation direct detection experiments it’s going to fund.

So, what is dark matter, and what are these experiments doing, anyway?

This is a doodle I made once of a sparticle, or supersymmetric particle.  Dark matter WIMPs may be sparticles.  (No, it's not an insult, stop waving that spear around.)

This is a doodle I made once of a sparticle, or supersymmetric particle. Dark matter WIMPs may be sparticles. (No, it’s not an insult, stop waving that spear around.)

Cold Dark Matter Search

Dark matter is like the force: it surrounds us and penetrates us, and binds the universe together.  (Thank you, Obi-wan.)

We know dark matter exists because we can see its effects on ordinary matter, which has a convenient tendency to glow in the dark.  We see stars orbiting around their galaxies too fast to be held in place unless there were dark matter we can’t see; we see galaxies orbiting each other, or in clusters, at such a great velocity that they would fly apart… unless there were dark matter.  And on and on.  There’s also evidence for the existence of additional, weakly-interacting matter imprinted on the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), the afterglow of the Big Bang.

There’s more evidence than I want to go into right now, but if you’re still skeptical, check out the Bullet Cluster.

The predominant current theory is that dark matter is a weakly interacting massive particle — or WIMP, because physicists can’t resist a good acronym.  Something like a supersized neutrino — bulky instead of super-light, and only interacting very infrequently with normal matter.  We’re inside a galaxy, so there’s conveniently a lot of dark matter around and in us all the time, but it generally doesn’t do much.

This is where CDMS comes in, with SuperCDMS as the successor.  Both versions work with large chunks of germanium or silicon metal, waiting to get lucky and have a dark matter particle slam into one of the nuclei.  Those particular elements are chosen both because they’re a convenient mass (close to the DM particle), and because they have nice properties for detecting collisions.

To avoid confusion with other particles (like neutrons from radioactive decays or cosmic rays or other things like that), the whole experiment has to be way underground.  The same is true for…


Nope, it’s not a band.  And the acronym gets shorted to LZ.  They’re combining two previous experiments into one collaboration.  This one is similar in principle to SuperCDMS, except that it uses liquid Xenon instead of silicon or germanium.  (Cool, right?)

Anyway, the main difference in results is that LZ will be more sensitive to higher mass WIMP-type particles than SuperCDMS is.  But, there is a region of overlap: low-mass LZ may overlap with high-mass SuperCDMS, allowing the two different experiments to cross-check each other.

It’d be cool if dark matter existed there.


This is where stuff gets weird.  Weirder.

This experiment doesn’t try to detect dark matter with atoms.  Instead, it’s using microwaves.  It’s looking for a particle called an axion, which is much less massive, and hypothesized to have some strange properties when it interacts with light.

That particle was postulated to solve a fundamental problem in particle physics related to what’s called “CP violation”, but maybe it can handle the dark matter problem as well.  It’s not as popular as some of the more massive WIMP theories, but it should still be tested.  Since we don’t know what the right answer is yet.

 All The Other Things

Yes, there are lots of other experiments.  I have serious doubts about their claimed detections, though.

Also, it’s quite possible that dark matter is more than one thing.  Hey, maybe it’s two different kinds of WIMP, plus axions and something else we haven’t thought of yet.

And that’s that.  … no, let’s leave dark energy for another day.

Science Sidebar 1: Things That Go Boom In The Night

2014/07/01 2 comments

Since I’m currently working as a science reporting, I’m writing a whole bunch of actual non-fictional things about science.

The catch?  Since the newspaper is not my personal blog, there’s finite space.  So I don’t have room to include all the cool details.  Which made me kind of sad, until I realized that, hey… I could put some of those details on my personal blog.

Life is good.

And thus, this, the first installment, just in time for the Fourth of July.


Courtesy of Astronomy Picture of the Day (who got it with credits to NASA, ESA, and Zolt Levay), here’s SN 1006 — the remnant of a Type 1A supernova. Nice celestial fireworks. (Suffice it to say, don’t set off one of these in your back yard.)

The article I’m referring to is available online here.

So, what didn’t make it into the article?

Read more…

Science Fiction Round 29: Vaccinations and Rage

2014/02/06 1 comment

I really hope that I’m going to be preaching to the choir on this one.

Nature (the big-time science journal) publishes a science fiction short story every week along with its articles about real science.  The one I’m concerned about is called “Vessels for destruction.”  It’s free to read online, and it’s quite short, so if you want to read it before I start murdering it, go right ahead.

I’ll wait.

Did You Really Just Say That??

The key line in the midst of the mess is the one where the prophet-martyr type character says the following:

“The Romans lined copper cups with lead because it made the wine taste sweeter. The European settlers in America farmed tobacco. You created vaccines for every ailment known to man, till your bodies could no longer defend against a live disease.”

The author has just equated vaccinations against deadly diseases with lead poisoning and tobacco.

Excuse me?  This is not true.  This is not true at all.  There is a lot of information about vaccines on Wikipedia, but I feel the point needs to be hammered home.  Vaccines DO NOT reduce the strength of your immune system, or make you more susceptible to diseases other than those against which you have been inoculated.  Sure, you’re more likely to get them than the diseases you’re vaccinated against, but no worse than before.  (And, in case it wasn’t clear, vaccines really do REDUCE the likelihood of getting the disease you were vaccinated against.)

Now, admittedly, this is a fictional world, and the above statement about vaccines being counter-productive appears true in that setting.

BUT THIS IS SO MANY DIFFERENT KINDS OF DANGEROUSLY HARMFUL WRONG that supporting the idea, even in fiction, is dangerous.  There are no serious side effects to most modern vaccines — if something does go wrong for even a tiny fraction of people, the vaccine is recalled, like any other medication.  On the other hand, essentially everything that we vaccinate against has the potential for serious consequences.  A certain number of people die every year from things like measles.  Which is why we vaccinate against it — so that doesn’t happen.

Now, why is this fictional tidbit so wrong, do you ask?  After all, some folks say, if one person isn’t vaccinated, they’re just taking risk on themselves. No harm to everyone else, no foul.  Right?  Well, not really…

Herd Immunity

Herd immunity is very important.  Some people can’t be vaccinated for whatever reason — they’re too young to be vaccinated yet, they’re allergic to eggs or other items used to make the vaccine, their immune systems are too compromised to work because of illness or age, or they’re currently seriously ill with something else.  Such individuals depend on herd immunity to avoid contracting such debilitating and potentially lethal diseases as measles, mumps, whooping cough, and many others.  If a high fraction of the population is vaccinated, it’s difficult for a disease to spread — most people’s bodies just kill it on sight, essentially, reducing the potential to pass it on.  Thus, the smaller fraction who can’t be protected with vaccines are still at lower risk due to herd immunity.

But, if the fraction of unvaccinated individuals is too high… herd immunity fails.

In fact, the rates of measles (and deaths from it) have been going up since this anti-vaccine scare started going around.  This is horrifying.  Other illnesses (such as whooping cough) are also seeing a resurgence.  This doesn’t need to happen.

Vaccines are an easy target to blame for problems, such as autism, that tend to be diagnosed in children around the time when they’re scheduled to be vaccinated.  This is coincidence of timing, not causation.  Don’t confuse the two.

And many people seem to have forgotten that these diseases are deadly.  Why?  Because the vaccines they were given reduced the diseases’ prevalence so drastically that many people in the US and UK today are unfamiliar with them.  According to Wikipedia, measles alone caused roughly 345,000 deaths globally in 2005.  The number dropped to roughly 164,000 deaths in 2008, most occuring in southeast Asia.  Why the large drop?  MEASLES VACCINES.  And, of the few people who got measles in the US in 2013… nearly all were unvaccinated.

There’s a correlation for you.

Other Items

If you don’t like that summary, here’s a cute website commenting on Jenny McCarthy’s promotion of non-vaccination.  It also has some other information, like why vaccines are nifty.

And for good measure, the nonprofit Hug Me I’m Vaccinated does good work.

This is Real: Rovers on Mars!

2013/06/11 Leave a comment

I apparently have too much free time, and therefore played with GarageBand and iMovie over the weekend.  Oops.