Tag Archive | science

Sunday Update 1/13/2019: This is not a sci fi movie

© World Data Center for Geomagnetism/Kyoto Univ.

This would have gone in the science links on Friday if I had been able to find an article whose headline didn’t have misleading things in it. I know, I should have just written my own. Anyway, so the magnetic field of the planet always fluctuates and wiggles around a bit, and back in the day when a compass was always a object at least big enough to fill the palm of your hand, the amount of drift didn’t matter. But modern navigation devices (and the way we use them) require a bit more precision, so scientists map the field changes and try to build mathematical models that allow the computerized navigation aids to take the changes in the field into account. Well, things have been a bit dicey than usual the last few years: Erratic motion of north magnetic pole forces experts to update model that aids global navigation.

So we desperately need to start updating the models more often, and also, we really need to update now because the drift has exceeded the previous model’s margin of error. Simple, right? Well: Scientists Can’t Fix Map of Earth’s Magnetic Field Thanks to the Government Shutdown –
The federal government was set to update the World Magnetic Model but had to delay it because of the shutdown

That’s right. Cadet Bonespur’s temper tantrum is messing with global navigation systems, too.


Coffee, coffee, everywhere — and why half of what you know about it is wrong

“There is no such thing as strong coffee, only weak people...”

“There is no such thing as strong coffee, only weak people…”

I have been drinking coffee since I was 12 or 13 years old—in other words, for 45 years! During that time the amount and types of coffee I drink has varied. Growing up in a working class family in the central Rockies, meant that for many years the kind of coffee I drank would be sneered at by a lot of coffee afictionadoes. Cheap, canned ground coffee for the percolator, instant coffee for when you don’t have the time to make a full pot. My father and both grandfathers had the kinds of jobs where they took a lunch box and a big thermos full of coffee with them each day they went to work.

So for more than 45 years I’ve been around coffee and coffee lovers, as well as consuming a lot of coffee myself. And I have spent a good portion of those 45 years having to debunk commonly held beliefs about coffee’s affect on one’s body. I thought I had heard everything, but a couple of years ago when the topic of coffee came up in an online discussion, someone made a joke about coffee making you poop. Or, I should say, I thought they were making a joke. But I encountered it a few times again over the next few months, and then it seemed that everyone on the planet knew as an absolute certainty that coffee is a natural laxative of such power that if forces you to run to the bathroom a few minutes after finishing the cup.

This puzzled me in part because 1) I had never experienced this effect, and 2) while some of the men who drank a lot of coffee around me when I was a kid would occasionally make crude comments about how many times they had to take a piss because of the coffee (and that they didn’t want a third cup because they didn’t want to take another piss soon), no one had ever mentioned needing to take a dump. And I guarantee you that a couple of my uncles would have had some very colorful jokes based on it if they had ever observed a correlation between drinking coffee and needing to poop.

So, I did some research, and while it is easy to find a lot of web pages that promote the idea, if you restrict your reading to pages that cite medical studies, you find out that, yeah, it’s a myth. There was one study in the 1990 that seemed to show an increase in the muscle movements of the colon a few minutes after drinking coffee—but only in about 28% of the subjects. And, most medical people who commented on the study were quick to point out that the study didn’t demonstrate that this increase in activity was enough to create a laxative effect. Another study a few years later couldn’t reproduce the results with coffee alone—they only measured the increase if the person drank the coffee (either regular or decaf) along with a meal of at least 1000 calories. That would seem to indicate that maybe it isn’t the coffee that’s the issue, it’s filling up the stomach and kicking the digestive system into full gear that causes the movement further down.

Lots of people insist that drinking coffee makes them need to go. Among the many critiques raised by other researchers concerning these studies and the anecdotal evidence is people are overlooking the possibilities of both a pavlovian effect and habits. If you generally drink coffee shortly after waking up most days (because you set up the automatic coffee maker on a timer each night, for instance), and you usually eat dinner at roughly the same time each night, your body may just be ready to go by morning. The coffee is a coincidence.

As the article I linked to above also mentions, the oft repeated notion that drinking coffee, tea, and other beverages containing caffeine actually dehydrates you is also a myth. Coffee, it turns out, is not a diuretic.

I want to pause here and point out that I’ve heard the admonition against drinking coffee because it supposedly dehydrates you from nurses and other medical personnel ten times more often I hear it from anyone else. This is the reason that anytime someone starts telling me that one should eat or do this, or refrain from eating or doing that because their doctor told them that I have to fight not to roll my eyes before urging them to do some of their own research.

My favorite is that people still cite studies from the 1950s that showed a correlation between coffee drinking and heart disease (among other things). Because those original studies made two errors that created a false correlation: they didn’t control for tobacco use, and they didn’t separate data by the gender of the subject.

Turns out that back when smoking was much more prevalent than it is today, there was a high correlation between coffee use and smoking. In other words, people who drank a lot of coffee were more likely to also be heavy smokers. Once you think about the neurological properties of caffeine and nicotine, that makes sense, both substances are mood regulators. Anyway, turns out that most of the statistic correlation vanished once you accounted for the smoking.

A tiny bit of statistical correlation remained, but if you then separated the data and compared only coffee drinking men to non-coffee drinking men, and similarly only comparing coffee drinking women to non-coffee drinking women, the correlation completely vanished. Why? Well, coffee drinking men on average drink between 10-20 percent more coffee today than the average woman. Given that on average men outweigh women by a bit more than 10 percent, and the amount of caffeine one must consume to produce a given result varies by body mass, it makes sense that coffee drinking men will consume at least 10% more coffee than women. Completely separate from any lifestyle questions, it is a biological fact that merely being male increases one’s chances of developing heart disease or high blood pressure.

This is a great reminder that correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation.

There have been many more recent studies that have shown there is no link between coffee consumption and coronary artery disease or stroke. That is, no link between regular coffee and those diseases. Oddly enough, people who drink a lot of decaf seem to have a slightly increased risk of certain types of coronary disease, though at this time no one knows why.

Anything that people indulge in—if it isn’t perceived as a necessity for survival—comes under a lot of scrutiny from others. There are always people who thinking you shouldn’t indulge in the activity at all, or that you shouldn’t do it more than they do, and so on. So that’s one reason coffee accumulates these misperceptions and why people repeat them indefinitely. More generally, people place a lot more weight on their own perceptions and anecdotal evidence of people who agree with them than they do to logic, statistics, and reproducability.

The science indicates that coffee doesn’t have most of the negative effects most people associate with it. So you can enjoy it guilt free. And if you’re one of those people who don’t enjoy or use it or all, that’s absolutely fine. Just stop ragging on other people for doing it. None of us are giving you grief for your oxygen habit, are we?

“Coffee: a warm, delicious alternative to hating everybody every morning forever.”

“Coffee: a warm, delicious alternative to hating everybody every morning forever.”

Weekend Update 8/5/2017: Let’s stick with happy stuff

Voyager: The Grand Tour and Beyond. Image © NASA

Voyager: The Grand Tour and Beyond. Image © NASA Planetary Science Division

As often happens, several interesting bits of news that I would have included in my weekly round up of links if I had seen them before Thursday night have turned up. And some of them are things I could write a bit of a rant on, but I’m just not in the mood to rant or be outraged. We can find bad or disturbing or worrisome news everywhere. So I will just save that for next week, okay?

I really wish I’d seen this story before I did this week’s Friday Links, because it would be a great candidate for Link of the Week: The Loyal Engineers Steering NASA’s Voyager Probes Across the Universe. “As the Voyager mission is winding down, so, too, are the careers of the aging explorers who expanded our sense of home in the galaxy.” It’s bittersweet to think about: two devices built in the 70s that can only understand a programming language that has been considered obsolete for decades, billions of miles away, but parts of them are still functioning and sending their data back. It’s just a really good story. You should go read it. I’ll just point out that Voyager 1 launched just 20 days before my 17th birthday.

In much less serious news, this story (and the adorable video that accompanies it) is just funny: Gay Dads Obsess Over Baby’s First Haircut In Adorable Diaper Ad. Go, watch. Have a chuckle.

And then, in case you need some heartwarming family friendly goodness: In a Heartbeat – Animated Short Film:

(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)

The learn more about this short film: YouTube Falls Hard for ‘In a Heartbeat,’ a Boy-Meets-Boy Story.

Dumb arguments against legal protections for transgender people, part 5

So-called “bathroom bills” are getting passed by cities, counties, and states lately, and it feels as if most of the queer community isn’t noticing. A lot of them are still tied up in various state legislatures, and since some of the misleadingly-named religious liberty laws have been killed once big companies threatened to take their businesses out of said states, it’s possible that a lot of queer folks just assume the same thing is going to happen with them.

At least I hope that’s what’s happening. I hope that it’s merely a lot of folks still feeling giddy about the Supreme Court ruling legalizing marriage equality nationwide thinking that the big battle is won and queer people are equal, now. We won one big battle, but there’s still a long way to go. I hope, I sincerely hope, that it is not true (as some fear) that a substantial portion of the queer population doesn’t think that trans issues matter.

Because we really do seem to be letting the haters say whatever lies they want about trans people, and a lot of the media just repeats that factually incorrect information as if it is true.

Over at Holy Bullies and Headless Monsters, Alvin Erwin has been beating the drum about our complacency: ‘Lgbts want to harm children’ – the lie the community won’t kill, and Mothers of the transgender community speak out against the hateto give a couple of examples. I’ve been beginning to think he’s right, that we’ve given up on the fight because we think marriage ended everything.

So I am really happy that one of the LGBTQ rights groups has finally started to push back: GLAAD releases new resource for journalists: Debunking the “bathroom bill” myth. This isn’t enough. This is only a first step. It’s going to take much more than making a single press kit available to hold off the attack.

Especially not when Conservative Trolls Have Been Suggesting Men Go into Women’s Restrooms to Help Legislators Discriminate Against Trans People. That’s right, as a few people have gotten the word out that there are states which have explicitly allowed trans people to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity for upwards of ten years, and that there has never, ever been a single instance of someone trying to use that law to go into a restroom and rape someone, the paragons of virtue have decide to manufacture some fake instances.

And make no mistake: these bills aren’t just aimed at trans people. It’s an attempt to get a wedge in to find other ways to discriminate against queer people of all kinds. If they normalize the idea (once again) that simply making some conservative people feel uncomfortable is an adequate defense to criminalize a behavior, trans people in bathrooms aren’t where they’re going to stop. Holding hands with a same sex partner in a public place makes those same people uncomfortable, after all.


Dumb arguments against legal protections for transgender people.

Dumb arguments against legal protections for transgender people, part 2.

Dumb arguments against legal protections for transgender people, part 3.

Dumb arguments against legal protections for transgender people, part 4

Dumbest arguments against anti-discrimination laws, part 1.

Dumbest arguments against anti-discrimination laws, part 2.

Flying by

NASA.gov (Click to embiggen)

NASA.gov (Click to embiggen)

We’ve come a long way from the morning in June, 1965, when I watched my first NASA launch, live. I’m pretty sure that Walter Cronkite was the narrator of my adventure. And by long way I do mean literally. The furthest from the Earth’s surface that Gemini 4 got was about 155 nautical miles. New Horizons has traveled about 3,000,000,000 miles (that 3 billion, yes, billion-with-a-B) to do its Pluto flyby.

The Gemini launch was the first one that was broadcast live, around the world, by satellite. So a lot of people watched the launch. And it was a great flight. Ed White (Edward H. White II) become the first person to space walk, exiting the capsule in a spacesuit with a camera. NASA only let him stay out 20 minutes (actually, they were telling the other astronaut, James A. McDivitt, to get White back in sooner, but White was trying to stay out as long as he could). White and McDivitt could communicate to each other over an intercom line that was part of the tether, but it didn’t connect with the exterior radar to the ground. On top of that, the primary communication system with the ground was having some problems (the VOX unit at McDivitt’s end didn’t correctly identify when McDivitt was talking, so it kept cutting in and out and odd times, so he had to switch to the push-to-talk mechanism).

NASA didn’t want White outside of the capsule during any of the periods when the capsule was out of range of a tracking station (we didn’t have quite as extensive a network of tracking stations around the world back then, so there were a few points in the orbit where we were out of communication with the capsule).

I’ve been a space geek at least since 1965. Probably longer, but the Gemini 4 launch is the earliest one I remember watching (and apparently drove everyone crazy talking about it for weeks after).

So, yes, I’m pretty excited about our flyby of the planet Pluto (if you’re one of those deluded people who adhere to the totally ridiculous redefinition, don’t bother arguing; a scientific definition of an class of object should depend upon the objectively measurable properties of that object only, not the presence or absence of other objects in its vicinity). I can’t wait until we start receiving the images New Horizons is taking today. We’re going to learn so much!

New Horizons races past Pluto in historic flyby

Everything you need to know about Tuesday’s Pluto encounter

NASA’s First Encounters with Planets in the Solar System

Dumb arguments against legal protections for transgender people, part 4

I’ve written before about dumb arguments people make for why there shouldn’t be legal protections for transgender people. And here’s one I haven’t tackled:

The Bible says it’s a sin!

You might want to read the whole book before you make that claim:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
—Galatians 3:28

The usual Biblical arguments about transgenderism ignore this verse, or try to claim that it’s being metaphorical about how god judges people. And then they point to verses in the Bible about how god created each person, or the verses about women covering their hair and so on to infer a definitive statement from god. But they’re wrong, as I’ll explain below… Read More…



Not this stuff, again!

We’re having a teeny bit of snow. Compared to the winter a lot of other people have had, we’ve been getting off easy. But that doesn’t mean I won’t grouse about it.

I’ve been checking up on the blog by Professor Cliff Mass (he teaches meteorology at the U of Washington, and was once a grad student of Carl Sagan). I’ve been following his weekly weather bit on a couple of the local NPR stations for years, where he nerds out about the science of weather. Today’s “nowcast” about our current series of alternating cold and warm fronts.

He was talking about the various computer models that they run, and how as they run them again and again they all change in the same way. He said, “Meteorologists call this dprog/dt or dmodel/dt (those who know some calculus will understand the name!).”

To unpack that joke, in math we are often concerned with rates of change. So we’ll talk about dx/dy, with the “d” referred to delta or change, and the “x” and “y” each being variables representing some quantity you might be monitoring, so “dx/dy” can be transliterated into English as “the change in x in relationship to the change in y.” Which sounds weird and abstract until I point out that every time you look at the speedometer on your car, it’s showing the “the change in distance in relationship to the change in time.” Most of the time we in physics and other physical sciences, the variable “t” represents time, so “dt” is “the change in time.” So Cliff’s comment about “dprog/dt” would be “the change in [the result from the] program in relation to the change in time” and “dmodel/dt” would be “the change in [the result from the computer] model in relation to the change in time.”

Anyway, it made me think of what may be my new favorite rate of change: dsnow/dt, “the change in the amount of snow in relationship to the change in time.”

And let me just say, I hope the slope of that curve goes negative sooner, rather than later. (Which is a nerdy way of saying I want the dang snow to go away!)

Fact isn’t meaning

Some years ago, while working on a collaborative science fiction project, one of the other people mentioned that they had read that chimpanzee DNA is more than 98% identical to human DNA. “It only takes that little 1% to make a huge difference!”

I had seen articles quote this figure as well, but since the human genome project was still underway at the time, I was a little skeptical that it was accurate. However, one of my friends showed me a reference to a paper in a peer-reviewed journal where the statistic came from, and a little research seemed to indicate that it was true. So I accepted it, occasionally quoted it myself, and didn’t think about it.

Until I read a book about the human genome project, which talked about that old statistical claim in particular, and explained exactly how it came about.

If complicated science theories or statistics make your head spin, don’t panic! I’m going to explain it in a way that will not cause you any distress.

Imagine that you have printed out the text of a pair of books that are roughly the same length. You have printed it out single-sided, double-spaced, and in comfortably-sized font. Now, you take a pair of scissors to the first book, and you start cutting each page up—you don’t cut them up randomly, you cut them so that you have several thousand little pieces of papers, each one of which has one and only one word on it.

Now, you sort them. You make a pile of all of the slips of paper that have the word “the” on it. You make another pile of all the slips that have the word “blue” on it, and so on, until you have a bunch of piles of the little slips of paper, each pile containing however many instances of a single word.

Pick the ten biggest piles, only, and discard the rest. Now count the number of slips of paper in each of your ten piles, and write down the number of times each word occurs in the book you cut up.

Now, go repeat the whole process on a second book, and when you’re done, compare the two lists. Calculate by what percentage each varies on each word, and then average that variation out.

When you’re done, you find that there is a 98% match between a Harry Potter book and Fifty Shades of Grey. “Look!” you declare, “They’re practically the same book!”

But you haven’t compared the two books, you’ve only counted words and compared counts of the most common words between the two books. If you perform this treatment on any books written in the same language, you’re going to find a match.

And I think everyone realizes, when I explain it this way, that what you’ve done does not measure how similar the books are.

Of course this makes you wonder what the scientists were thinking when they did something very similar to the DNA of humans and chimpanzees.

To be fair, the scientists who authored the original paper never claimed that humans and chimpanzees only varied from each other by 1 or 2 percent. They said that they found a similarity in the number and distribution of certain combinations of base pairs of the portions of the chromosomes compared of about 98%. They knew that they weren’t comparing the entire genome, because no one had mapped the entire thing for either species.

At the time, the methods we had for analyzing DNA were crude. We could separate chromosomes, we could pull out certain sequences and count those, but there was a lot we couldn’t do.

We also assumed that the long, repetitive bits at the end of each chromosome were junk, or filler, but new research is beginning to cast doubt on that.

Make no mistake, the more we study both species’ chromosomes, we keep finding a very high amount of similarity between us. Chimps and Bonobos both are clearly very closely related to us. But we aren’t “practically the same species.”

My point is, that 98% was a fact. It was even a true fact, but it was a very specific fact: when comparing certain portions out of the whole DNA. of each species, and when counting building blocks, without much regard to how those building blocks relate to each other, the number of those building blocks is about 98% the same in each species.

Before we can know what that fact means, we need to know a whole lot more facts and a much better understanding of the context.

‘Fessing up, part 1

I was working on a post, in reaction to an op-ed I read last weekend, in which I was ranting a bit.

Okay, it was more than a bit. I was probably well into self-righteous smugness. I took a break to catch up on some news, and came across another story that, as I processed it, made me realize that I was being extremely hypocritical in my rant.

I will return to the topic, and try to write something perhaps a bit less sanctimonious, because I think I have something worth saying on the matter. But before I do that, I have to make a confession or two…

Read More…

Warning: may prove harmful or fatal…

We put warning labels on all sorts of things. Sometimes people ignore them.

The only prescription allergy medicine that ever really eliminated my hay fever symptoms carried a warning about fatal heart problems that could happen if you took it at the same time you were taking certain antibiotics. A few years later, the warning list expanded to include additional prescription drugs. And then it had to be expanded, again, to include several over-the-counter medications and other substances.

Enough people ignored the warnings and had heart attacks, sometimes fatal, to cause the FDA to re-evaluate the drug. Their research indicated that most people would not heed the warnings about the over-the-counter drugs particularly. You know how some people are, “It’s not a real drug! It’s like aspirin!” So it was disapproved for sale in the U.S.

I didn’t want to have a heart attack, of course, but I really liked being free of the allergy symptoms. Several new drugs had been approved about the time that this one was removed that were supposed to do the same thing. Studies show that, for most people, the new drugs did at least as well as the old one, and a lot of people found one of them much better. Also, there hasn’t been much in the way of harmful side effects for the others.

Unfortunately, I’m not one of the people for whom any of the alternatives work as well. Sometimes I wish that I could go to the FDA and sign a waiver that neither I nor my heirs can ever sue over any problems with the drug, and keep taking it. The misery of really bad hay fever days makes the risk seem inconsequential.

During those days, I really resent the sorts of people who don’t pay attention to warning labels. Almost as if they are intentionally making life less pleasant for some of us.

At the other end of the spectrum are people who are overly-wary of warning labels. They know that some medications carry a long list of warnings, and they just don’t want to risk any of them. Part of the problem is that it is difficult to communicate risk on a small label, particularly to Americans, where mathematical education in public schools has long been inadequate. I remember one time trying to explain to someone that the odds of most of the harmful side effects of medications approved for sale in the U.S. are significantly lower than the chances of dying in an elevator accident. “Well, at least with an elevator, you have a chance to try to jump before the fall!”

I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry at the number of ways that retort was wrong.

Of course, risk assessment isn’t a simple matter. For instance, a lot of people like to point out that statistically stairs are hundreds of times riskier than elevators. That’s only true if by riskier you mean the number of injuries and deaths that occur in a given year, rather than the number that occur per use. One reason more accidents happen on stairs than in elevators is because people use stairs more often than they use elevators.

Things become even more murky when you find out that half of the fatalities associated with elevators are maintenance and construction workers doing some sort of repairs near an elevator shaft. Even more surprising, almost one quarter of the fatalities associated with elevators fall into the category of people leaning against closed elevator doors while waiting for an elevator, or people not looking and simply stepping into the shaft when the doors open.

Leaning against an elevator door? Really?

I understand why someone such as myself is willing to risk some possible side effects in order to escape the misery of weeks of sinus headaches, itchy eyes, and scratchy throats. But why on earth would someone lean on an elevator door?

%d bloggers like this: