Wednesday, October 18, 2017


You've probably read or heard about the latest breakthrough in gravitational-wave astronomy--the first detection to two neutron stars merging, with the added bonus of the first follow-on observations of the event across the entire electromagnetic spectrum from gamma rays to radio waves.

Artist's conception of neutron stars merging
Credit: NASA

With three gravitational-wave observatories online (see LIGO and VIRGO), observers were able to accurately triangulate the most recent burst of gravitational waves that rumbled past Earth on August 17. With a much smaller part of the sky to scan, astronomers were able to pin down the source of the event--the merger of two neutron stars in a distant galaxy producing a kilonova--and track its evolution through observations in gamma-rays, x-rays, visible light, infrared and radio waves. 

This unprecedented series of observations let astronomers compare the neutron-star merger to theoretical predictions in great detail, including proving that most of the elements heavier than iron are forged in these collisions. They also provided new information about the accelerating expansion of the universe. In addition, it demonstates that astronomers now have a huge new window into the universe that promises a stream of surprises and new discoveries.

For great pictures, animations and a more in-depth description of this breakthrough and its implications, click here.

Saturday, October 14, 2017


I live in Santa Rosa, California. As you know, Santa Rosa, along with many other parts of California, is still reeling from the impact of raging wildfires.

A barn goes up in flames in Glen Ellen, California
Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

My wife and I are lucky--our house happens to be located a mile or two from where the firestorm stopped. We've spent several sleepless nights, bags packed and in our car, monitoring whether or not we would need to flee. But other than that, we have not been directly impacted by the fires.

Many people were not so lucky. This morning's paper lists 50,000 residents of our county--that's one out of every ten--under evacuation orders, 35 confirmed deaths, 235 people still missing, 5700 homes and businesses destroyed, and more than $1.2 billion in economic damage in Santa Rosa alone. Many of our friends and people we know have lost their homes, businesses or jobs.

We're all-too-used to reading about or seeing images of catastrophes somewhere else--floods in Bangladesh, drought in Australia, hurricanes battering Puerto Rico, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Perhaps we've been moved to a moment's empathy or pity, perhaps we make a donation to some aid agency, or perhaps we just shake our heads and move on.

It's different when it's here rather than there, in our home town rather than someone else's, harming our family or friends rather than strangers.

Our natural disaster, our catastrophe has brought several realizations home to me:

--It can happen here. None of us is immune. Here in Santa Rosa, it wasn't just the Journey's End mobile home park that was destroyed, it was also the middle-class Coffey Park neighborhood and the idyllic Fountaingrove neighborhood, home to many doctors, lawyers and other well-off citizens. Like the residents of Journey's End and Coffey Park, the residents of Fountaingrove had to desert their homes with little or no warning in the middle of the night as the unexpected firestorm blasted through, driven by 70 miles-per-hour winds. Some, many of them elderly or disabled, simply could not get out in time.

--It's real, and it hurts.  It's one thing to see struggling people on TV. It's very different when it's you spending hours hosing down your house and yard while hot embers fall from the sky, when it's you trying to decide what necessities to throw into the car, looking around your house wondering if you'll see it again, or you helping a desperate friend rescue a few precious things before the fire strikes again. It's different when the store you shopped in yesterday is gone today and the neighborhood you've visited a hundred times is a blackened wasteland.

--Ordinary, daily life is precious. It's trite to repeat that "you don't really know what you've got 'till it's gone," but it's also a profound truth. We may all strive to do or experience something extraordinary, have a peak experience, change the world, but in the end what's truly valuable is the everyday life of everyday people. When that's disrupted or lost, you suddenly realizes how precious it was.

We've experienced just one corner of one natural disaster. The dozens who have died, the thousands who've been displaced, represent just a tiny fraction of the estimated 65 million displaced persons and refugees in the world today. But even that enormous number pales in comparison to the number of people--people just like you and me--who are at risk from two existential threats--climate disruption and nuclear war.

I'm not going to argue the reality of either threat. I'll only point out that common sense should tell us that the number and intensity of the extreme climatic events that we're experiencing is far from normal, and that further destabilization of the climate could threaten any or all of us. And a moment's thought should be more than enough to remind us that even a "limited nuclear exchange" could result in misery or death for hundreds of millions of people.

The limited, local disaster I'm living through has brought home to me the preciousness--and fragility--of each of our lives. Multiplying the losses experienced here by millions is no longer unthinkable, but it is unacceptable.

I've been extremely impressed by the local leaders who have come to the fore in this disaster--the local and state fire officials, the sheriff and police officers, mayors and other elected officials. They have all been clear, direct, factual, and focused on responding to and resolving the crisis, step by step. Their efforts to protect lives, contain the fires, begin to bring them under control and now, line up the resources needed to rebuild, seem to be well coordinated and, as more resources have been marshaled, increasingly effective. I've been similarly impressed by how ordinary people have responded--rescuing and helping others, giving time, goods and money to help people who've had to evacuate or who have lost their homes, and showing great dignity and resilience in the face of disaster.

Unfortunately, the contrast with how our national leaders are dealing with the existential threats of climate disruption and nuclear war could not be greater. In both cases, actions by President Trump, his advisers and appointees, and Congress are making thinks worse rather than  better. Pulling the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement is just the most blatant of the many steps Trump has taken to reverse global progress on the climate. And undermining the nuclear accord with Iran, and the belly-thumping battle between Trump and Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un are dramatically increasing the risk of a nuclear war.

The point of this commentary is to remind everyone that when it comes to the global risks from climate disruption or nuclear war, there is actually here, and they are actually us. People here in Santa Rosa took action as the flames approached, and most were able to save their lives and those of their loved ones. Government officials and agencies took coordinated action to limit the scope of the disaster. People at all levels did what what needed. We need our nation's leaders to act equally well.

We all need to take action now with respect to the threats of runaway climate change and nuclear war. Now, with every tool at our disposal, because when those fires come roaring out of the skies, it will simply be too late.

If you enjoyed this post, please sign up to receive email alerts or to follow

Friday, September 22, 2017


Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has now undone Obama-era regulations that protected campus victims of sexual assault, and Scott Pruitt just eviscerated Obama's Clean Power Plan. Those are just two pebbles in a bucketful of progressive changes implemented during the Obama administration that Trump, his appointees, and the current Republican-dominated Congress have erased or reversed, with more to come.

The list of Obama-era policies that have already been erased includes expansion of overtime pay, rules to reduce race-based pay differences, protections for women workers, rules to protect investors, a phase-out of private prisons, protections for voters, protections for the Arctic, fracking regulations, fuel-efficiency standards, and of course the Paris Climate Agreement and Obama's clean power plan. Next on the chopping block, the Iran nuclear deal.

The pattern is so clear that we think it's fair to say that a deep, underlying drive shared by Trump and his allies is to undo everything that Obama accomplished during his eight years as President, no matter the merits. Given that Trump kick-started his campaign by weaponizing the rumor that Obama was not born in the United States--birtherism--and so was not a legitimate President, it doesn't seem that far-fetched to infer that Trump and many of his supporters would be delighted simply to erase Obama, 1984-style, from the history books.

Ever helpful, here's a sample from the forthcoming edition of The Real True Americans: Fair and Balanced American History for Real American High School Students:

21-st Century American Presidents:

Bill Clinton, 1993-2001
George W. Bush, 2001-2009
Barry Whatshisname, 2009-2017
Donald Trump, 2017-

Barry Whatshisname
44th US President

If you enjoyed this post, please sign up for email alerts from

Wednesday, August 30, 2017


Just a quick link to an important piece by climatologist Michael Mann detailing the ways in which global warming and climate change added destructive power to Hurricane/Tropical Storm Harvey:

The factors Mann details include sea level rise (compounded by subsidence from oil drilling); warmer surface and deep waters in the Gulf which added to the energy/intensity of the storm, the storm surge it caused, and the amount of water it dumped on land; and the fact that it stalled over Texas, producing those all-time-record-breaking rainfall totals.

In the absence of meaningful action to control climate change, we're going to see a lot more of these "once-in-a-thousand-year" disasters.

One of thousands of rescues in the aftermath
of Hurricane/Tropical Storm Harvey
Credit: Dept. of Defense

Thursday, August 24, 2017


With President Trump and North Korea's Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un engaged in a nuclear-armed chest-thumping competition, and the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists' Doomsday Clock now just 2 and a half minutes before midnight, the possibility that our civilization may annihilate itself is hard to deny. And that doesn't count the risks from climate change, biodiversity loss, runaway artificial intelligence and other human-caused developments.

The Doomsday Clock may tick for most technological civilizations
Credit: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

If we're in this fix just 350 years after the start of the Scientific Revolution and just 7 decades into the Atomic Age, how much longer can we reasonably expect our vaunted but fragile civilization to last?

Not all that long, says Daniel Whitmire, a retired astrophysicist now teaching mathematics at the University of Arkansas. Whitmire bases his argument on one of the long-established principles of philosophy and science, the principle of mediocrity.

The principle of mediocrity makes the reasonable assumption that we're more likely to observe or experience common events than uncommon ones. This idea has helped us to recognize that Earth is not the center of the universe, that our solar system is just one among billions in our galaxy, and that the Milky Way is just one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in the observable universe.

Whitmire notes that we are Earth's first technologically advanced species and that it's early in our possible technological evolution. If we are in fact typical of technological civilizations in general, that leads to two unhappy conclusions--technological civilizations don't last long before destroying themselves, and when they do, they take their planet's biosphere down with them.

To grasp Whitmire's reasoning, we need to think like a statistician, in terms of a distribution of technological civilizations with different lifespans. Imagine a big bowl full of marbles, each representing a technological civilization somewhere in our galaxy. So far, we've only gotten to reach into the bowl once, and out came our particular civilization. What can that one draw tell us about the rest?

Whitmire points out that if most technological civilizations last hundreds of thousands or millions of years, our few-hundred-year experience with technology would be very atypical. However, Whitmire calculates, if most technological civilizations last no more than a few thousand years, we would be typical, falling in the middle 95 percent of the distribution, although among the youngest.

The implication from the most likely distribution--most technological civilizations don't last very long, say 500 years or so.

Five hundred or a thousand years may seem like a long time from the perspective of a human lifespan, but it's extremely short compared to the age of the Earth and the Earth's biosphere. Whitmire notes that, left to itself, Earth's biosphere can be expected to survive for at least another billion years. If humans (or other technological species that might evolve here) went extinct, but didn't damage the biosphere in the process, there would be time for many subsequent civilizations to evolve. But that would again make us, as first-timers, atypical.

The implication--when technological civilizations die, they destroy their planet's biosphere, or at least degrade it to a level that doesn't give the planet enough time to evolve a second technological civilization. To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, there are no second chances for planets that evolve technological civilizations.

In short, if we are typical, than other technological civilizations would, like us, be early in in their potential life-spans (implying a short lifespan in general), and be the first on their planet (implying no subsequent technological civilizations, and hence destroyed or massively degraded biospheres).

Whitmire concludes:

Our inferences regarding the fate of the typical technological species are based
on two observations and essentially one assumption. The observations are that
our technological species is (1) the first such species to evolve on Earth and
(2) early in its potential technological evolution. The assumption is that the
Principle of Mediocrity applies to the reference class of all extant technological
species. Given this assumption, the suggested inference is that the typical tech-
nological species has a short lifetime and that their extinction coincides with
the extinction of their planetary biosphere.

Of course, we can always hope that we're not just a typical technological civilization, but one that's smart enough not to annihilate ourselves along with Earth's biosphere. That would be great, but if we follow Whitmire's logic, the odds are against it.

You can access Whitmire's article in the International Journal of Astrobiology at this URL.


If you enjoyed this post, please sign up to receive email alerts or to follow

Monday, August 21, 2017


The researchers who leaked the National Climate Assessment in early August did so out of fear that the Trump administration would censor or simply refuse to publish the report--the product of years of work by 13 federal agencies.

Trump has already proved them right by shutting down the advisory committee charged with evaluating and translating the assessment's scientific findings into action.

It's not as though action on climate change isn't urgently needed--the assessment found that temperatures are rising rapidly, especially in the western US and the northern Great Plains; the Atlantic seaboard can expect more destructive hurricanes; California can expect more droughts; the Northeast can expect more deluges and floods; coastal cities will suffer more flooding as sea levels rise; and the risk of irreversible climate tipping points is growing.

Hurricane Isabel hits East Coast of US, 2003
Credit: Wikipedia
With Trump in the White House (or at Mar-a-Lago), and Scott Pruitt in charge of the EPA, the US will not just be ignoring climate change, it will be moving full speed in reverse.


If you enjoyed this post, please sign up for email alerts from

Sunday, August 20, 2017


Here's a quicklink to a Cleantechnia,com story about how South Miami is coming to its senses about global warming, climate change and, especially, the region's risk from rising sea levels and storm surges. It's the first city outside of California to mandate solar panels on all new homes.

Tidal flooding on a sunny day, Miami, 2016
Credit: B137

While our leaders at the federal level continue to march backwards with respect to climate change and its impacts, cities like South Miami and states like California and New York are, of necessity, taking the lead.

Friday, August 11, 2017


Climate scientists have been concerned about the risks from rising sea levels for nearly 50 years.

That a warming climate will raise sea levels makes intuitive sense--water, including all the water in the world's oceans, expands as it warms, and melt water from glaciers, ice sheets and the Antarcitc ice cap will of course end up in the oceans.

Although the pace of sea level rise seems small, on the order of a millimeter per year, its impact is multiplied by higher tides, stronger storm surges, sea-level-rise hotspots, and by the fact that 634 million people, close to ten percent of the world's population, live in low-lying coastal areas. The US is among the top ten countries with large numbers of people at risk from sea-level rise.

Pinning down the rate of sea level rise has proved to be challenging (see "Sea level measurement" at this URL). Now, however, a team of researchers has used sophisticated statistical techniques to deal systematically with the sources of uncertainty in different sea level data sets. "This likely is the first time a group of statisticians have had really close examination of sea level data," says Andrew Parnell, at University College Dublin.

Their approach allowed them to trace sea level changes over the past 2000 years, with increasing accuracy as more, and more accurate, data have become available in recent decades.

The group found that from 1 AD through 1800 AD, global sea levels rose by much less than one millimeter per year. They began to rise more rapidly at the start of the Industrial Revolution, and are currently not just rising, but rising faster and faster. They estimate that globally the rate is now 1.7 millimeter per year.

"Some people argue that sea levels are not rising," says Parnell. "We are showing them that sea levels are not only rising, but accelerating.

In terms of potential impacts, the East Coast of the US is at particularly high risk. It happens to be one of the sea level rise hotspots. For example, sea level near New York City is rising by 3 millimeters per year, putting more than $25 billion of infrastructure at risk.

New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina
September 11, 2005
Source: NOAA
Author: Lieut. Commander Mark Moran, NOAA Corps, NMAO/AOC

Parnell and his colleagues presented their new findings at the 2017 Joint Statistical Meetings, in Baltimore, Maryland.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017


In his prescient novel, 1984, George Orwell introduced the world to Newspeak, a minimized and simplified revision of English designed to make nuanced, reasoned, independent thought impossible.

Inspired by our current president and his climate-change denial, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)--the agency whose mission is to guide and enhance American agriculture, conserve and improve the rural environment, and help feed America and the world--has decided to outlaw phrases such as "climate change," "climate change adaptation," "reduce greenhouse gases," and "sequester carbon." Newspeak is alive and well at the USDA.

Flooding in New Orleans--yet again

Those now-forbidden terms are to be replaced in official communication by what Orwell would call "goodthink"--terms approved by the all-powerful Party. "Climate change" becomes "weather extremes" or "intense weather events," "climate change adaptation" becomes "resilience to weather extremes," while "reduce greenhouse gases" and "sequester carbon" become "build soil organic matter" or the mind-numbing "increase nutrient use efficiency."

Wildfire, Black Forest, Colorado, June 12, 2013
Credit: DoD--photo by Master Sgt. Christopher DeWitt, U.S. Air Force

In Oldspeak--plain old English--it's at least possible to think and speak clearly about the global problem of climate change and ways to minimize or adapt to it. But, in Newspeak, in Trump's Department of Agriculture, that's now a thoughtcrime, or, better yet, simply unthinkable.

The flash drought that's currently decimating the high plains' wheat crop is simply an isolated weather extreme. It can't be linked to the raging wildfires in the Pacific Northwestflooding in New Orleans, the fact that Virginia's Tangier Island is washing away or that Death Valley just experienced the hottest month ever measured anywhere on Earth. The concept that ties these "weather extremes" together no longer exists, at least at the USDA.

You can see this in action at the EPA, where scientists explaining how climate change has added to the destructive power of Hurricane/Tropical Storm Harvey are being accused of politicizing the storm. In other words, understanding is politicizing. Remaining ignorant is the right thing to do.

 Credit: Stephen Bettany

One of the three guiding slogans of the Party in 1984 was "Ignorance is Strength." If that's true, Trump's USDA is certainly flexing its muscles.


You can read environmentalist Bill McKibben's comments  on this issue here.


If you enjoyed this commentary, please sign up for email alerts for new posts on (right column above).

Sunday, July 23, 2017


Persistent organic pollutants--POPS--are pervasive in the environment and accumulate in our bodies. Pesticides, pharmaceuticals and many industrial chemicals contribute to this potentially toxic tide.

Some common organic pollutants
Credit CunhaEnviroSci

In an earlier post, I reported on findings by epidemiologist Miquel Porta and his colleagues revealing that ten percent of Americans have 10 or more different POPS in our blood at abnormally high concentrations.

Porta and his team are now studying the impacts of these long-lived organic compounds that many of us unknowingly carry in our bodies and bloodstream.

His most recent findings, reported in the American Journal of Epidemiology, reveal a strong correlation between people's toxic loads and metabolic abnormalities such as high blood pressure, insulin resistance, high blood sugar, unhealthy lipid profiles, and chronic inflammation--factors that increase the risk of metabolic syndrome, diabetes and heart disease.

Porta and his colleagues at the Hospital del Mar Medical Research Institute in Barcelona (IMIM), and the Autonomous University of Barcelona, evaluated 860 people enrolled in the Catalan Health Interview Survey. Participants included obese and normal-weight men and women from the age of 18 to 74. Statistical analyses controlled for the effects of age, sex, BMI, educational level and social-economic status. It's the first study looking at the relationship between POPs and metabolic abnormalities in  normal-weight individuals.

"The take-home message of our study," says Porta, "is that POPs contribute to cause unhealthy metabolic phenotypes as well as the metabolic syndrome."

 Intriguingly, the correlation was stronger for people of normal weight than for obese people. This may help to explain why many people of normal weight turn out to be metabolically unhealthy, and why some obese people remain metabolically normal.

It wasn't  a small effect--people of normal weight carrying high loads of POPs were four times more likely to be metabolically unhealthy than normal-weight peers with low toxic loads. Obese individuals with high toxic loads were 1.4 times as likely to suffer from metabolic abnormalities than those with low levels of toxins in their blood. And regardless of weight, metabolically unhealthy people carried nearly twice the load of toxins than their healthy peers.

A separate research study reports that normal-weight people who are metabolically unhealthy have three times the risk of heart attack, stroke or death compared to their metabolically healthy, normal-weight peers.

Although we are all exposed to organic pollutants from many sources--the air we breathe, the water we drink, furniture, fabrics, food containers and many other sources, the authors point out that fatty animal foods are the biggest source, and one that we can control by what we choose to eat.

They add, however, that individual efforts to eat a healthy diet and maintain a healthy weight are only part of the solution. Government action to minimize the accumulation of POPs and other toxins in the workplace, consumer goods and the environment are also needed, as well as similar efforts by private companies.

"Individual habits play a role, but so do public and private policies," says Porta, "that is, polices of governments and companies that have been shown to decrease 'internal contamination' by POPs."


You can access the abstract of Porta's journal article at this URL.

If you enjoyed this post, please sign up for email alerts from (right column above).

Thursday, July 20, 2017


“Get Me Roger Stone” Netflix documentary 2017

Those still attempting to make sense of how the country has reached its
current political impasse could hardly do better than viewing the new Netflix documentary,

 Roger Stone
Credit: Wikipedia

Stone, whose career closely tracks the Republican Party's evolutionary descent from Nixon to Reagan to Trump (sad) appears first as a ideologically driven Young Republican partisan in the 1970's, then a fervent Reagan campaign staffer and later big-time Washington consultant/lobbyist in the 1980's and 1990's, and most recently as a key strategic adviser to Trump's campaign team. With a history of lobbying for a variety of unsavory foreign governments, his name has currently appeared in a number of recent investigative reports and articles delving into the relationship between close Trump associates and Russian operatives during the 2016 presidential campaign. 

As his public profile has risen, so has his ego, which the documentary highlights in full graphic display-- to Stone's evident delight. Like Trump himself, one of Stone's acknowledged mentors in the darker arts of politics was the infamous Roy Cohn, Senator Joseph McCarthy's chief counsel and hatchet man during the Senator's anti-Communist crusade in the 1950's. It was, in fact, Cohn who introduced Stone to Trump in the early 1980's; and Stone, who later in the decade began urging Trump to consider running for President.

Central to Stone's 'brand' has been a mastery of the techniques of negative campaigning, including character assassination, dirty tricks, disinformation and behind-the-scenes manipulation of groups, individuals and causes. In interviews, he is openly and aggressively unapologetic about his commitment to winning at all cost, using any tools available. Unfortunately, his model seems to have been increasingly adopted by Republican leaders in Washington where policy and public interest concerns, along with any commitment to bipartisanship or shared governance have given way to the single-minded goal of defeating and demeaning the opposition. With no fixed ideology, available to the highest bidder, and certainly without shame, Stone is the perfect hired gun and exemplar of the new Trumpian world. 

The documentary's chief impact, however, is its shocking revelation of just how far and how fast we have come from a world in which at least the ideals and standards of acceptable political and personal behavior in a democracy were promoted and proclaimed –if not always followed. What we are experiencing is not a new normal, but what can best be described as a 'new abnormal' in which 'alternative facts', denial of evidence, blatant lies, deliberate distortions and a generous admixture of the politics of fear have effectively undermined a sense of shared reality and trust in national institutions.

In their effort to win at all cost, freely employing the politics of personal destruction while demeaning the very instruments of democracy, Trump, Stone and their enablers have brought the nation to its current debased level of national division and crisis. Joe McCarthy and his amanuensis, Roy Cohn, have very nearly triumphed. While perhaps not explaining fully the shape of the elephant in the room, “Get Me Roger Stone” is a timely examination of a significant portion the beast.

Les Adler


If you enjoyed this post, please sign up for email alerts from zerospinzone (right column above).

Thursday, July 13, 2017


On June 19th, the Arizona Republic published this headline:

Nearly 50 flights cancelled Tuesday as Phoenix nears 120-degree day

My first thought was that the tarmac had melted, but of course a modern international airport is paved with concrete, not asphalt. The problem turns out to be basic physics--hot air is less dense than cold air. That's what gives a hot-air balloon lift, but it steals lift from a plane. Every plane has a rated temperature beyond which it can't take off if fully loaded--it can't pick up enough speed to get airborne before running out of runway. 

As the world warms, we can expect more planes stuck at gates
Photo credit: AP

At 120 degrees, smaller commuter aircraft were stuck in Phoenix until the heat abated, while larger, more powerful planes, like the Airbus or the Boeing 747 still had 6 or 7 degrees to spare.

Don't expect this to be an isolated incident, a new study warns. Researchers at Columbia University examined the impact rising temperatures due to global warming will have on 20 major airports worldwide, including Phoenix, Denver, LaGuardia and Ronald Reagan, in Washington, DC. As reported in the journal Climatic Change, under a "business as usual" scenario, on hot days, 10 to 30 percent of flights could be affected and airlines on average would lose about four percent of capacity.

That may not sound like a lot, but since more than 8 million people fly every day, that could mean 320,000 hot and unhappy passengers. In addition, given the slim profit margins of most airlines, that kind of loss could have serious financial implications.

And, the authors point out, those unbearably hot days may come around much more frequently as the atmosphere continues to warm. Daily maximum temperatures at major airports may rise by 4 to 8 degrees C (7.2 to 14.4 F) by 2080 under many scenarios. That would mean far more frequent and intense heat waves and far more delayed, cancelled or weight-restricted flights.

"Our results suggest that weight restriction may impose a non-trivial cost on airline and impact aviation operations around the world," writes lead author Ethan Coffel, at Columbia University.

One more non-trivial reason to take climate change seriously, and do everything we can to slow it down.


If you enjoyed this post, please sign up for email alerts from zerospinzone (above right).

Wednesday, June 28, 2017


Growing up in the '50s, I remember reading about the great promise of atomic energy. Nuclear reactors, we were told, would produce so much energy so efficiently that electricity would essentially be free--"too cheap to meter," as Lewis Strauss, Chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, said in 1954.

As we know, reality didn't turn out to be quite so rosy. Between cost overruns and delays, opposition supercharged by the 1979 Three Mile Island meltdown, reliability issues, and the still-unsolved problem of what to do with nuclear waste, nuclear power came to be seen as far more problematic than promising. Currently, nuclear plants generate just 20 percent of all electric power in the US, and their share is gradually falling.

Solar power plant
License: CCO Public Domain

In the meantime, clean, renewable sources of energy--especially wind and solar--have been burgeoning. With renewables surging and nuclear flagging, it was inevitable that renewables would eventually win out. The only question was when.

That question has now been answered. According to the US Energy Information Administration, in March and April of this year renewable energy sources produced more energy for the US than nuclear plants--21.6 vs 20.34 percent in March and 22.98 vs 19.19 percent in April.

"Renewable energy is now surpassing nuclear power, a major milestone in the transformation of the US energy sector," says Tim Judson, Executive Director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service.

And with solar energy growing by 38 percent and wind energy by 14 percent in the last year alone, this extremely positive trend has nowhere to go but up. I, for one, will be delighted when the only signs of out nuclear power misadventure are the silent silos of decommissioned plants.

Signpost memorializing the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island
Credit: The Baltimore Sun
With the cancellation of two planned reactors in South Carolina, just two new nuclear power plants are in the works in the US.  Nuclear energy can no longer compete with wind and solar. The end is in sight.

If you enjoyed this post, please sign up for email alerts from zerospinzone, above right.

Friday, June 23, 2017


A five-year study of 260,000 men and women in the UK found that bicycling to work every day reduced their risk of dying by more than 40 percent compared to commuters who drove or used public transport. In addition, the risk of developing cancer fell by 45 percent, and of being diagnosed with heart disease by 46 percent.

"This is really clear evidence that people who commute in an active way, particularly by cycling, were at lower risk," says Jason Gill, a physician-researcher at the University of Glasgow and corresponding author of the study.

New Yorkers bicycling to work
Credit: Streetfilms
Walking to work had a similar but smaller protective effect, probably because people who used bicycles for their commute exercised longer and more intensely than walkers. 

The powerful protective effect of active rather than passive commuting held up even when the researchers controlled for known risk factors such as smoking, weight and diet.

One benefit of bicycling to work, the researchers point out, is that unlike going to the gym or planned workouts, commuting becomes a no-willpower-needed habit. "You need to get to work every day, so if you build cycling into the day it essentially takes willpower out of the equation," says Gill.


You can read the original article, in BMJ, the British Medical Journal, here.

Sunday, June 18, 2017


Here's a quick quiz for you--match the names of the seven richest people in the world with their currrent net worth:

Jeff Bezos                                                      $89.3 billion

Warren Buffett                                               $84.1 billion

Larry Ellison                                                  $83.5 billion

Bill Gates                                                        $76.6 billion

Carlos Slim Helu                                             $64.8 billion

Amancio Ortega                                               $62.9 billion

Mark Zuckerberg                                              $55.5 billion

(Correct answer at bottom of this post)
Now, let's add up their net worth:                  $516.7 billion

What's interesting about that? It's considerably more than is owned by the least wealthy 50 percent of the people in the world, around 3.8 billion people.

World wealth distribution (2012)

It's hard for me to come up with a good reason why seven men should have more wealth (and the power that comes with it) than 3.8 billion people. Can you?


Current order from the top: Gates, Bezos, Ortega, Buffett, Helu Zuckerberg, Ellison.


Friday, June 16, 2017


Despite the best efforts of President Trump and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, the US continues to make progress in renewable energy generation. The national Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports that in March of this year 10 percent of all electricity generated in the US came from wind and solar--a first for the US.

San Gorgonio Pass windfarm
Riverside County, California
Credit: Nandaro

While the US is by no means the leader in the proportion of energy derived from renewable sources, we are adding a great deal of solar, wind and other renewable-energy infrastructure, so we can expect both the amount and percentage of clean, green energy to grow rapidly.

The fundamental reason for this is that large-scale wind and solar energy is now cheaper than electricity from fossil fuels. This is yet another situation where the slogan "follow the money" rings true, or, to put it another way, actual economics trumps Trumponomics.


If you enjoyed this post, please subscribe or sign up for email alerts.

Monday, June 12, 2017


Jupiter may have formed at the dawn of the Solar System, and protected Earth

Scientists have been able to pin down the age of our Solar System by measuring the decay products of naturally radioactive materials incorporated into meteorites when they first formed. The oldest such inclusions date back 4.5682 billion years ago--a point in time often used as a marker for the birth of the Solar System.

Since the planets are thought to have formed as solid materials condensed from the primordial gas and dust making up the solar nebula or protoplanetary disc, and then gradually clumped together, the planets must all be younger than 4.5682 billion years. Planet formation is thought to have stopped within 10 million years or so, because by then the young Sun's solar wind had blown away most of the gas and dust needed for planet building.

The question is: just when did planets start to form and how long did it take?

A clever new analysis suggests that Jupiter, the largest and most massive planet in the solar system, formed surprisingly early and surprisingly fast--within the Solar System's first one million years. That's important because that early formation of Jupiter may have kept any planets larger than Earth--so called super-Earths--from forming in or migrating into the inner solar system.

Jupiter as captured by the Hubble Space Telescope in April, 2014, with an  
overlay of the giant planet's brilliant aurora in UV (Hubble, July 24, 2016)
Credit: NASA

The creative new approach to dating Jupiter's birth taken by Thomas Kruijer and colleagues at the Institute for Planetology at the University of Muenster was inspired by their realization that there are two related but different populations of meteorites orbiting the Sun (and occasionally falling to Earth where they can be studied). Like identical twins raised apart, the meteorites show strong similarities, yet differ because of their histories.

The researchers realized that the most likely explanation for those two families of meteorites was that as Jupiter formed it created a gravitational barrier that divided a primordial reservoir of gas and dust into inner and outer zones, within which the two different populations evolved.

"Our data showed that these meteorite populations did not mix for several million years," says Kruijer. "The only plausible way to explain this observation is that a gas giant planet, most likely Jupiter, acted as a barrier separating the two reservoirs."

They researchers focused on molybdenum and tungsten isotopes in samples from 19 iron meteorites. The meteorites' radioactive decay profiles placed them into two families known as carbonaceous (CC) and non-carbonaceous (NC) meteorites, and pointed to their formation at different times within two spatially separated reservoirs of the same primordial material. The isotopic signatures show that the NC meteorites formed early and in the outer reaches of the solar nebula while the CC meteorites formed somewhat later and closer to the Sun.

"Only in the last few years has it become clear that meteorites show some kind of dichotomy in their genetic heritage," says Kuijer. "This in part reflects the advances in analytical techniques that have been made, most notably in the precision of isotope analyses."

Iron meteorite (from Barrington Crater, Arizona)
Credit: Taty2007

The two families of meteorites appear to have become isolated from one another about a million years after the solar nebula first started to condense. The most likely cause of the separation, the authors believe, was the birth and growth of Jupiter. The model that best fits their analysis is one in which Jupiter's rocky core grew to 20 times the mass of the Earth by the time the solar nebula was a million years old. That mass was sufficient to split the protoplanetary disc into inner and outer parts.

Protoplanetary disc around the star TW Hydrae
showing a gap caused by a forming planet
Credit: Hubble Space Telescope, NASA/ESA

"Our study is the first to show that Jupiter can actually be dated by establishing when these reservoirs formed and for how long they survived," says Kuijer. "Our results show how the solid interior core of Jupiter formed very rapidly, within only about one million years after the start of solar history, making it the oldest planet in the Solar System," says Kuijer.

Their models indicate that Jupiter's core continued to grow for another few million years, followed by the accretion of the giant planet's dense atmosphere. Jupiter currently weighs in at 317.8 Earths.

If Kruijer and his colleagues are right, Jupiter is not only the biggest and most massive planet in our solar system, it's also the first and oldest.

In addition, they think, we may owe Jove thanks for keeping conditions closer to the sun just right for a planet like Earth rather than for a much larger and probably uninhabitable super-Earth.

"If a super-Earth had formed in the inner Solar System, then the evolution of the terrestrial planet region would have looked completely differently" Kuijer says. "This would have happened long before the Earth formed. I don't think that there would be sufficient material left at Earth's current orbit to subsequently still build an Earth-like body. Possibly, ice giants like Uranus or Neptune would have made it all the way to the inner solar system. In this light, Jupiter's early formation might have been a pre-requisite for building a planet like Earth."


You can find the June 12, 2017 PNAS article, "Age of Jupiter inferred from the distinct genetics and formation times of meteorites," by Thomas Kuijer,  Christoph Burkhardt, Gerrit Budde and Thorsten Kleine, here.


If you enjoyed this post, please subscribe or sign up for email alerts from (above right).

Wednesday, June 07, 2017


Although symptoms of autism don't usually appear until a child's second year, and most autistic children aren't diagnosed until they are three or older, recent research shows that the brains of 6-month-old infants who will go on to develop autism already differ from those of normal infants.

These findings may lead to earlier diagnosis and more effective treatment for children who are at risk of developing autism.

They also provide more evidence, if that's still needed, that autism is not caused by childhood vaccinations. As Robert Emerson, the study's lead author points out, "If these differences are already present at six months of age, they would represent a biological foundation for autism that is in place before several vaccines on the CDC schedule that are administered after six months of age, including the Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR) inoculation, which is typically given at one year."

A child showing autistic symptoms

Emerson and colleagues at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while children slept to track brain size, growth and connectivity in 59 infants who were at high risk for autism because they had autistic older siblings. Twenty percent of them could be expected to develop autism, compared to 1.5 percent of children without autistic siblings.

They found a variety of differences between the brains of infants who went on to develop autism and those who didn't.

In keeping with earlier research, those infants who eventually showed autistic symptoms had a faster rate of growth in brain volume and brain surface area between six months and two years of age

The researchers then used advanced artificial intelligence techniques to differentiate between the brains of those infants who did or did not develop autism. Machine-learning programs trained themselves on the brain scans, and were eventually able to identify correctly 82 percent of the children--9 of 11--who would become autistic and 100 percent of those who developed normally.

This very high rate of discrimination was based on nearly 1000 "functional correlations"--how separate regions of the brain connect and work together--that differed between infants who were on autistic versus normal developmental paths.

Schematics representing brain scan signatures at six months that predicted later autism diagnosis in infants. Red bars indicate weaker connections in autistic infant brains, blue bars stronger connections.
[Credit: R.W. Emerson et al., Science Translational Medicine (2017)]

The authors caution that these are preliminary results using state-of-the-art technology, so further research and the development of simpler and less expensive brain-scanning techniques are needed before they can be applied clinically. 

"If future studies confirm these results, detecting brain differences may enable physicians to diagnose and treat autism earlier than they do today," says Diana Bianchi, M.D., Director or the National Institute of Child Health and Development (NICHD).

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), one child out of every 68 in the US will be diagnosed with autism. The earlier that those children can be correctly diagnosed and start to receive treatment--while the brain is most malleable--the better their outcomes.

You can find a summary of an earlier Nature article about this research here, and a link to the abstract of the current study, in Science Translational Medicine, at this URL.


If you enjoyed this post, please subscribe or sign up for email alerts (above right) and let your friends know about


For the past 20 years, researchers have believed that Homo sapiens--humans like us--appeared somewhere in the heart of Africa around 200,000 years ago and gradually spread from there into Eurasia and later to the rest of the world.

New discoveries from Jebel Irhoud, a mountainous site 100 km (62 miles) west of Marrakesh, Morocco, may require a rewrite of the textbooks.

300,000-year-old Homo Sapiens from Jebel Irhoud
composite reconstruction
Credit: Philipp Gunz, MPI EVA Leipzig

An international team of paleoanthropologists uncovered and studied fossilized remains of five individuals who lived there around 300,000 years ago and whose mixture of advanced and more primitive features places them, according to lead author Jean-Jacques Hublin, ". . . at the very root of our species, the oldest members of our species ever found in Africa or anywhere."

The Jebel Irhoud bones are the oldest securely dated fossils of our own species, pushing the origin of our species back a full 100,000 years.

Finding full-fledged Homo sapiens living so long ago and so far north in Africa leaves the location where our species emerged up for grabs. Eastern, sub-Saharan Africa, where 200,000-year-old human fossils have been found, remains a likely possibility, but now not the only one.

Hublin and colleagues now think that the early evolution of Homo sapiens may have taken place in a widely dispersed population. They point out that there were repeated periods when what is now the Sahara desert was open savanna with scattered trees, lakes and rivers. During those wetter epochs, early human groups could have interacted, interbred and evolved. "Long before the out-of-Africa dispersal of Homo sapiens, there was dispersal within Africa," says Hublin.

"The green Sahara happened several times," Hublin says. "During those periods, there could be exchanges of innovations, and also of genes.  Any favorable mutation would spread. There was no one Garden of Eden in Africa. If there is a Garden of Eden, it's all of Africa--the Garden of Eden is the size of Africa."

Hublin and his colleagues found the Jebel Irhoud fossils along with flaked-stone tools and the remains of game animals in "a pocket of reddish sediments" preserving what once was the floor of a cave on the flank of a mountain. The bones--skulls, teeth and long bones--come from at least five individuals; three adults, an adolescent and a child of 7 or 8. According to the researchers, they show a kaleidoscopic mixture of ancient and modern features, but with enough typical Homo sapiens characteristics to make them the earliest known representatives of our species.

"They contained a surprising combination of very advanced features, especially the face and the dentition, and more archaic features such as the shape of the brain case and the brain," says Hublin. "Their faces are the faces of people you could cross in the street today."

The human fossils were found in the same layers as the bones of animals they hunted, including gazelles, zebras and wildebeest, along with charcoal, and flaked stone tools typical of the Middle Stone Age.

Shannon McPherron, an expert on ancient tool use, emphasizes these early ancestors' control and use of fire, and the craft they brought to toolmaking. "The flint they used came from 25 kilometers away," he says. "They sought out high-quality raw-material locations, collected the flint, carried it around with them, and at this site, re-tooled it for their weaponry."

Some of the 300,000-year-old flint artefacts
found at Jebel Irhoud
Credit: Richter, et al.,

It was the flint tools, many of which had been burned, that allowed accurate dating of the site using thermoluminescence dating (TL). TL allows scientists to date materials that have once been heated by measuring the amount of radiation they have been exposed to since that time. McPherron found a range from 280,000 to 350,000 years ago. "The average TL ages all point towards 300,000," he says, "so 300,000 is the best estimate for the fossils and for the middle stone age artefacts. Things are all falling together around this age."

When asked why he believes that the fossils represent true members of Homo Sapiens, given their mixture of typical and more archaic traits, Hublin explains that evolution happens trait by trait and over time. He also differentiates between our entire species, which has evolved over time, and fully modern humans, who represent just the current cohort of Homo sapiens.

"There's no reason why representatives of our species living 300,000 years ago would be just like us," he explains. "We are not saying that these are modern humans—people having our morphology.  We prefer to use the term Homo sapiens for the whole lineage leading to us, but not necessarily looking like us."

The bottom line according to Hublin and his colleagues is that our clan, Homo sapiens, has roots--albeit still in Africa--that are much deeper in time and far more widespread than anyone thought until now.


An online version of the June 8 Nature paper can be found at:

If you enjoyed this post, please subscribe or sign up for email notifications, and tell friends who might be interested.