Life on Mars, and other scientific fables

Most scientific papers are bullcrap.

This started as a post to complain, because I lost several hours of my life researching the sleep hormone melatonin for a blog post before deciding that I couldn’t trust anything that I read.

But the post got bigger and more uncomfortable, because science has gotten political. You are either pro-science or anti-science, and there isn’t much market for being a nuanced critic of any field, least of all a critic of science as a whole.

But screw it.  I read scientific research for my work, and scan through dozens of papers for each entry in this blog.  And people who read what I write care about science, and are (hopefully) adult enough to grapple with the truth that:

  1. Most scientific papers are wrong
  2. It’s possible for entire fields of science to run off the rails in major ways, for decades at a time

This sounds depressing.  I roll my eyes *a lot*. But there is hope. Continue reading

I learned: The earth is a giant battery, and it powers life

Twenty meters beneath the frosty surface of Antarctica lies Lake Vida, a thin pool of salty slush that, against all expectations, teems with life.

The presence of life under such extreme conditions is an assemblage of amazings. The temperature of the pool is -13°C.  The water is 19% salt, over five times the concentration of the ocean.

And most incredibly, an ice cap has sealed off the lake from the rest of the earth’s ecosystem for almost 3000 years.  All light is blocked by 20 meters of dirty snow.  Organic matter – otherwise known as “food” – can neither enter nor leave.

Without food or energy, how do its resident microbes survive? Continue reading

I learned – The million dollar dissident

Two weeks ago, an Arab human rights activist was targeted in a hack.  Clicking on a web link would have given hackers full access to his iPhone, and using this technology they could track his movements, see his chat messages, and even take pictures using his camera.  So this week, like hundreds of millions of other iPhone users, I protected myself by updating my iOS.

All of this seems like the standard inconveniences of life in a digital age.  Yet hidden inside this details is a potentially transformative story about the shifting social contract between governments, businesses, and the people. Continue reading

I learned – The origin of causality

We can only tell the difference between cause and effect because of the Big Bang.

The story starts with the laws of physics, with a spotlight on the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics: Disorder increases over time.

The driving force of the 2nd Law is easy to understand – there are many more ways for a thing to be disordered than to be ordered. Drop a lamp, and it will shatter and spread pieces in random directions. If you collect those pieces together and drop them again you are really, really unlikely to get a lamp back. Over time, in any closed system (meaning that no energy is coming in), disorder prevails.

In fact, when we talk about *caused* that lamp to break, we implicitly invoke the 2nd Law. The rest of the laws of physics actually have no way of distinguishing cause from effect, or “before” from “after”. Gravity and Newton’s laws and quantum mechanics all look the same whether you run time forward or backwards. It’s only the 2nd Law that actually has an arrow that points forward.

In fact, we know implicitly that the broken lamp came after the whole lamp in the same way we know that the sky is “up”. There is no “up” in the universe. The “up” we perceive is because we stand on the Earth, and its gravitational pull creates a reference frame that distinguishes up from down.

The arrow of time that we perceive is similar. We can tell what happens “after” from what happened “before” because “after” things are more disordered.

The only way we can distinguish future from past is because we live in the shadow of the Big Bang. Like the Earth serving as our point of reference for space, the Big Bang is our point of reference for time.

The universe was more ordered yesterday than it was today. And when you scroll back enough yesterdays, you get to the Big Bang, where all matter and energy existed in the same place. That’s as ordered as the universe can get. As time marches forward from there, things fall apart.

Cause and effect are as meaningless as “up” and “down” as far as the rest of physics is concerned. The Big Bang anchors history, and every event since then only makes sense in reference to it.

The talk linked here from Sean Carroll goes into this in more detail, starting at 25:00 or so. To me, though, the next most interesting thing is to ask if somehow this implies why the universe is this way. Note that this next bit is not solid physics – it is more pub physics – but it is (as Carroll says in the video) really fun just the same.

Start in *any universe* with the simple assumption that order has to increase as you go back in time. Turn back the clock a little and light is absorbed into stars instead of being emitted by them. Order increases when you return all the energy to one place.

The same is true for mass – there is more disorder in lots of small stars than there is in one big star. You get more order by pushing stars together. When you roll back the clock far enough, the only way to keep gaining more order is to push all matter and energy in the universe until it’s in one ginormous pile.

And when all the matter and energy is in a gigantic pile, gravity and other other laws of physics will collapse that pile into a singularity, where (amazingly) the laws of our universe actually fall apart.

You’ve reached the only plausible beginning. And you have used only the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics to get you there. The Big Bang had to have happened.

I find this weird bit of speculation oddly comforting. I can’t say that it’s right, but it’s somehow reassuring to think that, perhaps, the universe *has* to be this way.

Just for a moment, existence seems a little less arbitrary, and maybe a little less fragile because of it.

I learned – A universal theory of deliciousness

A few months ago I made an amazing salsa using strawberries and ginger. It was transcendent.

But why did it work so well?

It’s an oddly visceral experience, to prepare a food that is called one thing (salsa) that it clearly isn’t, and yet somehow is at the same time. And David Chang in his recent piece in Wired, “The Universal Theory of Deliciousness“, explained to me what I was experiencing.

Chang’s grand idea is that a truly great dish doesn’t just please the palate, but also evokes memories of dishes from our past. Our brains preserve memories as stories, so even memories of smell and taste get woven in to grander reminiscences of childhood and family. By retelling these food stories in new ways, a dish can be more than good – it can surpass the moment and capture something about our personal history in each bite. Food prepared with this kind of thought goes beyond nourishment, and speaks directly to who we are.

I totally buy this. Chef Watson, IBM’s recipe generator ( is what got me to that strawberry ginger salsa. Using a very similar-sounding process to Chang’s, it breaks ingredients into classes (spicy, fatty, sweet), and then randomly suggests replacements (such as swapping serranos for ginger and tomatoes for strawberries). It’s computer controlled, yet somehow has its own genius. And when it works, it delivers an emotional wallop.

Of course, Chang not only has a good theory of food, he’s exceptionally well practiced and thoughtful about details as well. So he probably wouldn’t have made my next attempt, a hot mushy mess of ginger bacon pumpkin chili that sparked a kitchen revolt by my family.

I haven’t played much with Watson since that particular disaster, but Chang has inspired me to go back. By overlaying some of his wisdom on top of the randomness of their algorithm, perhaps I can do better than my past luck would allow. And maybe I can plant some great memories with my kids as well, for them to rediscover while eating another dish, decades later.