So it turns out you CAN donate to NASA…   Leave a comment

Good evening everyone,

I know I’ve been silent for a long while – one of the things I’ve been thinking about in the midst of this has been the perplexing fact that it does not seem possible to donate to money NASA online, which is particularly frustrating given that they were the recipient of less than half of one percent of the federal budget in the last fiscal period.

As of today, I discovered that you CAN donate to NASA – but only if you use bitcoin, or snail mail:

http://spaceindustrynews.com/how-to-donate-to-nasa/

Since the requirement to purchase postage, physically print out a form, and then mail a physical form of money such as cash, check, or money order may be a big inhibitor for folks who may otherwise wish to donate $5 or $10 to NASA, I thought I would share this fundraiser to essentially put together a lump sum donation to NASA and thereby save its would-be contributors a little bit of postage and effort:

http://www.gofundme.com/thisisfornasa

The disclaimers associated with this fundraiser are as follows:

1) The donation to this GoFundMe is not tax deductible, since you are technically giving money to an individual, not a charity.

2) NASA can do anything it wants with the money after it is in NASA’s hands. No specifying which purpose or project your money should go to.

Posted February 14, 2015 by kagmi in Uncategorized

From UC Irvine: “Chemists find a way to unboil eggs”   2 comments

Originally posted on Science Springs:

UC Irvine bloc

UC Irvine

January 23, 2015
Janet Wilson, UC Irvine

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UC Irvine and Australian chemists have figured out how to unboil egg whites — an innovation that could dramatically reduce costs for cancer treatments, food production and other segments of the $160 billion global biotechnology industry, according to findings published today in the journal ChemBioChem.

“Yes, we have invented a way to unboil a hen egg,” said Gregory Weiss, UCI professor of chemistry and molecular biology & biochemistry. “In our paper, we describe a device for pulling apart tangled proteins and allowing them to refold. We start with egg whites boiled for 20 minutes at 90 degrees Celsius and return a key protein in the egg to working order.”

Like many researchers, he has struggled to efficiently produce or recycle valuable molecular proteins that have a wide range of applications but which frequently “misfold” into structurally incorrect shapes when they…

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Posted January 24, 2015 by kagmi in Uncategorized

From SPACE.com: “For Alien Planets, Atmosphere May Be Key to Day-Night Cycle”   Leave a comment

Originally posted on Science Springs:

space-dot-com logo

SPACE.com

January 15, 2015
Calla Cofield

Alien planets that orbit close to their parent stars may be at high risk of the ultimate hot-cold scenario, with one side stuck in permanent daylight while the other shrouded in everlasting night. But a thin atmosphere may be enough to save a planet from this fate.

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An artist’s concept of Kepler-186f, an Earth-size planet found orbiting in the habitable zone of its parent star. A planet like Kepler-186f with a smaller orbit than Earth’s could be at risk of having only one hemisphere face toward the star, with the other hemisphere always facing away. Credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech

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Size comparison of Kepler-186 f with Earth

Living on a planet with one side in perpetual sunlight and the other in perpetual darkness would pose some significant challenges for survival — the sunny side of the planet might reach boiling…

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Posted January 17, 2015 by kagmi in Uncategorized

Nearly half the systems crucial to stability of planet compromised   Leave a comment

kagmi:

Ignoring the truth will not make it go away.

Originally posted on After Big Bang:

Almost half of the processes that are crucial to maintaining the stability of the planet have become dangerously compromised by human activity. That is the view of an international team of 18 researchers who provide new evidence of significant changes in four of the nine systems which regulate the resilience of the Earth.

“People depend on food, and food production depends on clean water,” says Prof. Elena Bennett from McGill’s School of the Environment who contributed the research on the nitrogen-phosphorus cycle to the study. “This new data shows that our ability both to produce sufficient food in the future and to have clean water to drink and to swim in are at risk.”

The research fixing new planetary boundaries (which represent thresholds or tipping points beyond which there will be irreversible and abrupt environmental change) was published today in the journal Science. It suggests that changes to the…

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Posted January 16, 2015 by kagmi in Uncategorized

What Pope Francis Will and Will Not Do   Leave a comment

Good evening everyone,

For some reason, today I have been linked to several articles about Pope Francis.

Pope Francis is the current leader of the Catholic Church – which contains 1.2 billion people, making it arguably the biggest religious denomination in the world.

In addition to having more followers than any other living religious leader, Francis’ followers can boast an unusual uniformity of teaching, since all Catholics must have a local parish priest, and all priests are rigorously trained according to a highly specific theology that the Catholic Church has been working on for about 2,000 years.

On top of all of that, the Catholics have a doctrine called “papal infallibility” – which basically means that since the Pope is believed to be God’s chosen leader of the Church on Earth, anything he says about religious teachings has to be correct.

All of this means that the Pope is a very big deal. And, as Popes go, Francis has really been shaking things up. And that has a lot of people very dismayed, or excited – speculating that he may be the first Pope to recognize gay marriage, or ordain female priests, or start pushing for greater contraceptive access worldwide.

None of that is going to happen.

However, Francis is making some very real changes that everybody, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, can benefit from knowing about. So, without further ado, I would like to set the record straight – in the face of our all-time-low standards for journalism these days – and clarify what exactly Pope Francis has done, and what it means, on each issue:

Money

By far Pope Francis’ most radical departures have been related to money. It’s no secret that the Catholic Church has developed some quite opulent traditions over the centuries. Starting with the premise that “God’s messenger on Earth” should be honored, this somehow turned into an enormous bureaucracy where thousands of bishops are chaffeured in ritzy cars and live in expensive mansions. Some oddly specific traditions include the specific $400 pair of shoes that became tradition for the Pope to wear at some point over the centuries, and of course the completely opulent “papal palace,” with its massive serving staff and luxurious meeting rooms where the Pope conducts business with all the super-important businesses. Needless to say, all of this has been the subject of quite a lot of criticism from folks who feel that Jesus would not exactly have approved. But all of it has also become so traditional that it has come to be deemed disrespectful of Church tradition for a Pope to refuse to abide by these.

Pope Francis has refused.

He refuses to live in the papal palace. Instead, he insists on living in the nearby guest house, essentially a hotel, where priests and bishops and other visitors coming to the Vatican to meet with the Pope stay. He claims that “living in community” like this prevents him from getting lonely – and the whole thing makes the opulent papal palace and its proponents look hilariously useless.

He refuses to wear the traditional “red shoes” – a pair of shoes which are indeed red, and which have been crafted specially for each incoming Pope by the same Italian family for centuries. Instead, he insists on dressing like any old priest underneath his papal vestments, “to remind himself of who he is.”

Francis has also spurned the usual chaffeured papal Mercedes in favor of an old Volkswagen – that is, when his security staff aren’t preventing him from taking the bus, like he used to do as a bishop in Argentina.

Perhaps the most lasting of his money-related departures will be his massive efforts to reform the running of the Church – he has effectively decided to reorganize several Vatican departments, demoting several high-ranking church officials and cautioning incoming bishops not to “view the job as a promotion” or “think they are joining some kind of royal court.”

His example is certainly going to make it embarrassing for the next Pope or Bishop who decides they need a brand new mansion or Mercedes!

In addition, Francis has continued and strengthened his predecessor’s calls for greater economic equality, and voiced his own strong concerns about the exploitation of the poor by the wealthy in many areas of the world.

Sex

Pope Francis has certainly made some needed course-corrections for the Catholic Church on issues of sex.

Most notably, he has taken the extraordinarily Christlike step of reminding believers and Church authorities alike that the Church does not exist to regulate sex: it exists to feed the hungry and heal the sick and protect the defenseless.

So while Francis has not actually changed any teachings – homosexuality is still not what God intended, nor is contraception, and abortion is still murder – he has urged Catholics and Christians of all stripes to be less “obsessed” with these issues, and to take other issues, such as humanitarian ones, into greater account.

The statement above was shortly followed by his global-headline-making “Who am I to judge?” remark when asked about the salvation of gay couples. This statement should not have been so shocking, as the Church’s complicated stance on sin has long stated that no one can know the destination of another’s soul for sure. But no previous Pope in my memory has had the courage to say that – all seemed to be too concerned with not promoting bad behavior (which Pope Francis was promptly accused of doing with that remark by more conservative Church leaders, including one who he recently demoted).

And it’s not just homosexual folks who are getting an unusual helping of compassion and non-judgement from Francis. In a recent document which he drew up and got approved by 200 bishops, Francis and the bishops stated that while no changes can be made regarding the nature of the marriage bond – that it is permanent and heterosexual – people living in gay relationships and in heterosexual relationships outside of marriage may have “gifts and qualities to offer,” and that Christians should focus on the positive aspects of all people and relationships, rather than the imperfections.

A call for “compassion and mercy” may ring hollow for those who want to be told that they’re not sinning at all – but it holds a lesson that can possibly apply to all of us, to spend more time focusing on what we have in common, and less time focusing on what we disagree on, be it sexually or religiously, with our neighbors.

Women

Francis has also made headlines by voicing his distress at the “lack of women in real leadership positions” within the Church. It’s not hard to see why: virtually all leadership functions in the Catholic Church are presently administered by bishops and priests who, according to Church teachings, must be male.

This statement led many enthusiasts to wonder if Francis would support the ordination of women – something which small sects of self-identified Catholics, such as the Roman Catholic Womenpriests group – have been fighting for for years.

However, it is quite clear that this has not going to happen: in some less-well-publicized moves, Francis has excommunicated six women who sought ordination into the Catholic priesthood in the U.S.A., as well as an Australian priest who taught publicly that women could be ordained.

What exactly Francis meant by his earlier, cryptic comment that women needed to be given more positions of power in the Church is unclear – but he clearly does not believe they can be ordained for priestly duties, such as consecrating the Eucharist, hearing confessions, and performing marriages.

Science

It is true that Pope Francis has made statements supportive of the Big Bang theory, evolution, and the reality of climate change.

What many readers may find surprising is that these are actually not new statements; if I recall properly, both predecessors Benedict and John Paul II made basically the same statements, saying that they would leave science up to the scientists and that the Church did not require a God who contradicted science.

Environment

Pope Francis has called all Catholics to act on climate change in 2015, stating that “we must safeguard Creation,” and that “if we destroy Creation, Creation will destroy us!” In a stirring passage:

“But when we exploit Creation we destroy the sign of God’s love for us, in destroying Creation we are saying to God: ‘I don’t like it! This is not good!’ ‘So what do you like?’ ‘I like myself!’ – Here, this is sin! Do you see?” – Pope Francis, 2014

Why We Need Curiosity   2 comments

Since the new NASA Mars rover touched down on Mars, I’ve been somewhat distressed to see a lot of complaints about its cost, some even calling it a “waste” of funds that could be used to feed the hungry hear on Earth. All of these posts seem to be based on a series of staggering misunderstandings, which I would like to address here.

First off, Curiosity did not cost $100 billion, as one popular meme is claiming. The price tag was not even 3% of that–for a measely $2.6 billion, we sent a 900 pound nuclear-powered science lab to the surface of another planet to open the way for humans to explore a possible second home for humanity, and to look for extraterrestrial life which could revolutionize our understanding of biology in a way that literally no earthbound discovery could.

All for a whopping cost to American taxpayers of about–$7 per person. Not “per year”–that’s a

We got to see Curiosity’s wheel on the ground moments after touchdown on Monday. Thank government funding for science.

total. We all could have bought a hamburger, or cooperatively sent up the first device ever capable of really searching for life on another planet while simultaneously testing unprecedented landing techniques necessary to eventually send human explorers to the most human-friendly known world outside of Earth. For $7 a piece.

Since the space race ended, Americans have gradually stopped appreciating–and funding–NASA. A lot of this probably has to do with the perception that the space program was military in nature–since we went to the Moon mostly to show our dominance over the people we were also seriously considering nuking.

Things like satellite imaging and GPS have become so commonplace that we scarcely give thought to the fact that it was NASA who pioneered these things–and who continues to pioneer new technologies with specifications more exacting than any that private industry could impose.

But that is such a tiny part of what NASA does. The Moon landing was a singular event that captured the world’s attention for a brief moment in time. The work of NASA over decades, on the other hand, is responsible for virtually everything we know about anything that goes on outside our own atmosphere, as well as a good deal of what we know about physics and Earth’s climate.

What else have we gained from NASA over the years?

Teflon-coated fiberglass used as roofing for many buildings and stadiums was invented by NASA. Portable cooling systems used for heat-sensitive injuries and illnesses were invented for astronauts. Modern firefighters’ light-weight breathing systems were developed for–who else–astronauts. NASA technology has gone into our cars, our airplanes, our cleaning products, our medical equipment–even our artificial hearts, for decades. After all, there’s nothing to spur innovation like charging a team of the world’s top scientists with developing lightweight, portable equipment that will function to support human life in a vacuum under fluctuating temperature extremes.

Knowledge of other worlds, and all this technology too! All on an annual budget of $16 billion, which is about half a percent of our total federal budget. Or about $53 per American per year. Not a bad subscription, if you ask me.

As such, I’d argue that Curiosity is arguably the best way our government could possibly have invested a mere $2.6 billion. Here’s why:

First and most obviously, we have the potential scientific boon. Will Curiosity discover life on Mars? No one knows. But it is a very real possibility–not just some sci-fi fan’s pipe dream. We’ve long known that the Martian atmosphere undergoes mysterious chemical changes throughout the Martian year–chemical changes quite consistent with the presence of bacterial life.

I will shoot you with laser beams until you talk, Mars. Failing that, I’ll just use my lasers to spectroscopically analyze your chemical makeup.

Perhaps it takes a biology geek to understand just how huge of a deal this would be. Currently, we have precisely one type of life to study: Earth life. Since all earth life is descended from the same cellular ancestor, this means we literally know nothing about the fundamentals of life or biology.

We’ve never seen any type of life except Earth life: we’ve never seen any cells that have a different way of passing on their hereditary traits, or of turning genes into proteins, or of doing any of the fundamental functions of life. If we found an independent origin of life on Mars, who knows what those organisms could teach us?

Who knows what staggeringly better ways of getting things done they might have developed, simply because they never thought of doing it our way? Who knows what this could mean for academic science, let alone medicine?

And of course, the question of life on Mars goes far deeper than the practical applications of such a discovery. One of the things we don’t know, since we’ve only ever gotten to study our own origin of life, is how common life might be in the universe. Or how common intelligent life might be in the universe. We don’t even know for sure that there is other life out there. This is kind of huge.

What does it mean for us if our neighbor has a whole separate origin of life from ours? It means that maybe life is common–maybe we need to expect to find ecosystems on other worlds as we explore further out, maybe we need to expect to get visited by extraterrestrials and maybe shut our interstellar radio transmissions down like Stephen Hawking said, so we won’t get invaded. I feel like “don’t get invaded, because seriously there is other life out there” might be a worthwhile thing for us to know, medical and philosophical boons aside.

Secondly, we have the new technology that Curiosity is testing. Humans just aren’t going to Mars on the technology that got the featherweights Spirit and Opportunity there. Those things were so small–and comparatively scientifically feeble–for a reason. It turns out that it’s really hard to land on Mars. In fact, 60% of Mars missions to date have crashed or otherwise been lost (though the U.S. has done slightly better than that in recent years). Curiosity‘s landing was so nerve-wracking because a ridiculously complicated string of precise, unimaginably complex calculations, computer programming, and mechanics had to go off without a hitch in order to safely lower the half-ton rover onto the planet which lacks an Earthlike atmosphere to slow spacecraft.

Guess what a manned capsule would need to land on Mars safely? That same technology. That we just tested for the first time on Sunday night. That worked. While the nearest human was 300 million miles away. Even ignoring the ultimate goal of landing on Mars, do we think that kind of technology doesn’t have some pretty serious commercial implications for things like, say, unmanned vehicles here on Earth, or computer programming of robotics in general?

The last major benefit of Curiosity I want to address is purely psychological. It may also be the most important. Some people will take “purely psychological” to mean “not real,”  because it’s not an object you can pull out and put on a table and go “look, SCIENCE!” Which is completely stupid, given that virtually all of the problems in the world are purely psychological. Well, maybe not all–illnesses and earthquakes, not psychological. But that fight you had with your parents? Purely psychological. The part of world hunger where we have plenty of resources to feed everyone, but can’t seem to get them in the right place to do it–purely psychological. All war, everywhere, for any reason? It’s psychological, guys.

Carl Sagan was HUGE on the psychological benefits of the space program. Why? Because images and  from space, unlike literally any piece of writing or art or photography or anything else done by another human being, show us reality as it really is. Not a human-centric universe, but an unimaginably huge one in which Earth is just a tiny speck. Not an Earth divided into color-coded territories, but a whole, finite, and objectively interconnected planet. Space exploration makes us aware of the dangers we face that we don’t like to think about and/or haven’t experienced as a species–“never mind that 99% of all species on Earth are now extinct, that won’t happen to us because it hasn’t happened before in living memory.”

Sagan believed that space exploration, as it showed Earth to be united and fragile in the universe, was a fantastic way to combat war. Space exploration is a concrete, physical sign of humanity transcending its violent, instinctive, short-sighted animal origins–and it is by necessity a cooperative effort.

In a staggering feat of cooperative science, the European space probe orbiting Mars took pictures of the American rover as it landed on Mars. Now we just need to get China in on this and we’ve got us some world peace.

As it shows us the true nature of things, it rallies us around a common cause.

Part of the reason some folks today don’t like the space program is that once upon a time, it was a powerful rallying point for the “in group” of the U.S. and its allies, against the “out group” that was the Soviets and their allies.

But everybody seems to have forgotten what Sagan once saw–that cameras turned back on the Earth from space show all of humanity as a single “in group,” a perspective which may be our only hope for surviving our own growing power over the material world in the face of our collective psychological problems. We won’t address these problems if we’re afraid of each other. If we all feel we’re on the same team, we just might.

Here’s a thought I had: NASA currently costs us about $53 per person, per year. How’d you feel about chipping in an extra $10? If everybody in the U.S. did that, it would put NASA’s budget up from $16 billion to $19 billion–that’s an extra $3 billion, more than the total cost of Curiosity. Every year. At a cost of $10 per person to us.

I think it may be time to lobby some Congresspeople. Or start a donation jar. Whichever comes first.

Book Review: The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain, by Kevin Nelson, M.D.   4 comments

This book is a godsend (no pun intended) for anyone with an interest in both neurology and spirituality. Dr. Nelson, a neurologist, describes how one particular patient’s account of a life-changing vision at death’s door inspired him to begin researching near-death experiences.

It turns out that these experiences are ridiculously common in medical settings. One study showed that 1/4 of patients who suffer cardiac arrest and live to tell about it have some sort of “divine,” “afterlife,” or “out-of-body” experience during their crisis. Dr. Nelson relates to the reader dozens of accounts of such experience, ranging from the traditional (one of Nelson’s own patients had his life changed by the sight of Jesus and the Devil arguing over his soul) to the downright bizarre (one atheist met the Egyptian gods, while another woman was greeted at the pearly gates by Elvis).

In addition to this wealth of case studies, Nelson puts his neurologists’ specialty to good use–he describes several wiring systems in the brain which he believes could cause aspects of near-death experiences in response to adrenaline and low blood pressure in a time of crisis. He puts together evidence from far-flung fields and their implications for our understanding of life, death, and the divine. I had no idea, prior to reading this, that nerves in the heart related to blood pressure can cause REM sleep disturbances, or that there’s such a thing as Cotard’s syndrome, in which a person believes, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that they are dead.

Though some may be frustrated by Nelson’s insistence upon finding an explanation for our most powerful spiritual experiences in evolutionary biology, he shows a profound respect for the power of these experiences–he states at several points that finding a neurological basis for such experiences will not make them any less “real,” and his interest seems to be in learning how to make use of these life-changing experiences rather than in debunking them. As a neurologist, he has no choice but to have a unique perspective–while many people see their own near-death experience as proof of a particular religion, doctors are witness to both the power and variety of these experiences.

I don’t wholly buy Nelson’s attempt to explain every single aspect of mystical near-death experiences through known mechanisms in the brain. As scientists who aren’t working off a great deal of hard data are wont to do–Carl Sagan himself once attempted to explain near-death experiences as memories of exiting the birth canal–Nelson indulges in a lot of speculation that is not yet backed by experimental evidence. But by pulling information on everything from rare autoimmune disorders, psychedelic drug research, and military fighter jet training, he offers some very convincing leads for where in the brain we might look for the mystical as our tools for studying it improve.

In his epilogue, Nelson poses a fantastic question–if, in some future, we untangled the mystery of the profound mystical experiences which are today a once-in-a-lifetime event for a lucky few–could we produce a drug that would produce these reliably? And if so, how would we use it? What would it do to our daily lives, and to our societies, if the indescribable “oneness” which for many has wrought positive life-changes beyond the reach of any medicine or therapy, were available on demand? Who would regulate it? And how would doctors like Nelson himself have a responsibility to use–or not use–such a drug on terminally ill patients?

Now there is a question for science fiction.

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