Monday, December 23, 2019


The latest and best reconstruction of temperatures near Greenland over that last 450,000 years shows that much of Greenland's vast ice sheet could melt from sustained warming of less than one degree. That means that the world risks triggering a devastating 7 meters (23 feet) of sea-level rise before the end of this century.

 Greenland Ice Sheet at Risk
Credit: cake@cake0

Writing in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), researchers at the University of Bergen, Norway, and at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, analyze 450,000 years of sea surface temperatures off the coast of Greenland. They were able to track four interglacial (warm) periods, during one of which Greenland's southern ice sheet completely disappeared. During that 30,000-year-long warm period centered around 400,000 years ago, temperatures were only slightly higher than they are today--within one degree C--and well within the projections of climate models for the end of this century--if we continue on a business-as-usual trajectory.

Comparing the four warm periods it became clear that the amount of warming was not the only factor impacting how much of Greenland's ice melted. The other key was the duration of the warming. Even with temperatures just 0.8 degrees C warmer than today, the longer duration of the warm period centered around 400,000 years ago led to almost complete melting of Greenland's southern ice sheet.

According to the authors, their findings support climate models that find a tipping point somewhere between 0.8 and 3.2 degrees C warmer than today, beyond which melting of Greenland's ice sheet is inevitable even if temperatures go back down. Paleoclimatologist Nil Irvali, at the University of Bergen, explains that the tipping point occurs when melting reduces the altitude of the ice surface to the point where the even-warmer temperatures at the lower elevation guarantees runaway melting. "The elevation effect becomes dominant over time," she says, "melting accelerates, and may even continue even though the climate cools again."

The risk, she clarifies, is not that the Greenland Ice Sheet will melt before the end of the century, but that by the end of the century atmospheric warming caused by a continuation of current policies and emissions could easily trigger irreversible melting and an eventual, and devastating, 7-meter sea-level rise.

Actually, Irvali points out, it's even worse than that, since both atmospheric carbon dioxide and warmer ocean waters have extremely long lifetimes. "It is also important to note that CO2 we put into the atmosphere will have a long lifetime even if we cut emissions, and as more and more heat accumulates in the ocean it commits us to a longer timescale of warming," she says, "So our current activities will impact climate for millennia to come."

The authors conclude, "Notably, the critical temperature threshold for past [Greenland Ice Sheet] decay will likely be surpassed this century. The duration for which this threshold is exceeded will determine Greenland's fate."

To which we must add, and the fate of millions of Americans and hundreds of millions of people worldwide.**


**In case this paleo-historical study seems too theoretical, recent observations by a completely different set of researchers show that Greenland is losing ice 7 times faster than it was two decades ago, in line with the IPCC's worst-case scenario, putting some 400 million people at risk of coastal flooding by 2100.



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Saturday, December 21, 2019


This has been a very mixed year for the global polio eradication campaign.

What the global polio eradication campaign
wants never to happen again

The good news is that two of the three strains of wild poliovirus have been conquered; they no longer exist except in laboratories.

The mixed news is that the remaining wild poliovirus only exists in two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, the number of cases in both countries, especially in Pakistan, has been higher than in 2018. The two countries suffered 125 cases of polio compared to just 33 last year, 101 of those in Pakistan. In both countries, strife, insecurity and anti-vacccination propaganda and rumors have enabled the virus to hold on.

The bad news is that the number of people--mostly children--sickened by poliovirus that has mutated back to a virulent form from the live-but-attenuated polio vaccine has more than doubled since 2018. This back-mutation only occurs in one person out of an estimated 2.8 million, but since 450 million children are getting the attenuated vaccine every year, a significant number of cases are inevitable as long as the oral vaccine remains in wide use--unless the surrounding population has a very high rate of "herd immunity." There were 241 such cases in 2019 vs. just 104 in 2018.

The solution is complex, but at hand. In part, it depends on the rapid release of an oral vaccine against the type 2 poliovirus, which is expected to be less likely to mutate to a virulent form. You can read about the global polio endgame strategy here. Plans and resources are in place to make this transition, and the intense, decades-long global campaign to wipe out this deadly disease once and for all will succeed, even if not quite as quickly as hoped.



Thursday, November 28, 2019


If you've been following the escalating climate crisis, you know that decarbonization of the global economy is a crucial part of achieving a sustainable world. The good news is that the U.S. is moving in the right direction. The latest assessment of how much carbon was injected into the atmosphere from US electricity generation shows that the carbon intensity--pounds of carbon dioxide per MW-hour--dropped 9 percent since this time last year. Total generation fell by 4 percent in the same period. Even better, that's a 40 percent reduction in carbon intensity of power generation in just the last 15 years. 

Carbon emissions per MW-hour in U.S. 2001-2019
Credit: Power Sector Carbon Index, 
Scott Institute for Energy Innovation 

"The U.S. electricity sector is continuing to get cleaner, and both carbon intensity and overall emissions are dropping," said Costa Samaras, assistant professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and co-director of Carnegie Mellon's Power Sector Carbon Index.

The researchers say that this encouraging and continuing trend is due to the decline of coal-powered electricity generation, the increase in power from natural gas, and from renewables such as wind and solar. "We're in the middle of an energy transition right now, and the biggest part of that story in the U.S. is how swiftly coal has been declining over the past decade," said Samaras. "The decline of coal can be attributed to the rise of natural gas, the continued improvement of renewables, and energy efficiency efforts."

There's lots of room for improvement, however. Wind, solar and hydropower still account for less than 20 percent of U.S. electricity, just about equal to nuclear, the other zero-emissions source of power.

The goal, the experts point out, is to continue to produce abundant power while emitting less and less carbon, and also to grow the use of zero- or low-emission electricity in transportation, buildings and industry.



Monday, November 18, 2019


Have you ever noticed how inaccurate the conventional idea that one year in a dog's life equals 7 human years is? Well so did Trey Ideker at UC San Diego and his colleagues. You can read about the details of their study--based on changes to DNA over time--here. The bottom line is that dogs age much more quickly than humans for the first few years, but then their rate of ageing slows down.

It turns out that for dogs one year old or older, a more accurate formula is:

Equivalent human age =16 * ln (dog's age in years) + 31.

That's 16 times the natural logarithm of the dog's age in years, plus 31. 

 Ruff, age 12, or 70.8 using the new formula
Credit: Carol Von Canon/Creative Commons

The link above has a convenient calculator you can use to see how well you think the formula works.

It certainly seems to make more sense for older dogs, for whom the age-times-seven formula makes 12-year-old Ruff 84, and any dog over 14 a centenarian. The logarithmic calculation produces much more reasonable ages for older dogs. See for yourself.



Saturday, November 16, 2019


Two recent studies show that owning a dog can significantly extend one's life, especially after a major health setback such as a heart attack or stroke. The researchers chalk up the health benefits of dog ownership to reduced social isolation, more exercise and lowered blood pressure.

 Two studies show that dog ownership
provides significant health benefits
Photo credit: Airman 1st Class Isaiah J. Soliz

Tove Fall, a professor at Uppsala University, in Sweden, explains the striking results of a study following nearly 340,000 Swedes aged 40 to 85 after a stroke or heart attack. Heart-attack survivors who lived alone but owned a dog were a remarkable 33 percent less likely to die during the study period than similar patients without a dog. Dog-owning stroke patients living alone were 27 percent less likely to die. The life-extending benefits of dog ownership were somewhat less for people living with others, but still substantial.

"We know that social isolation is a strong risk factor for worse health outcomes and premature death. Previous studies have indicated that dog owners experience less social isolation and have more interaction with other people. Furthermore, keeping a dog is a good motivation for physical activity, which is an important factor in rehabilitation and mental health."

A separate piece of research melded together ten separate studies involving a total of 3.8 million people. This meta-analysis showed that dog owners were 24 percent less likely to die from any cause than non-dog owners. Dog ownership proved especially protective for people recovering from a heart attack--they experienced a huge 65 percent reduction in mortality risk.

The authors of these studies point out that these results don't prove a cause-and-effect relationship between owning a dog and a longer, healthier life. However, they clearly show a powerful correlation and add a new data-supported dimension to the old saw that dogs really are our best friends.



Sunday, November 10, 2019


I saw the sci-fi movie Forbidden Planet when it came out in 1956. Even though I was just ten years old, it made a huge impression on me.

In it, a team from Earth lands on Altair IV, a planet where aging scientist Morbius and his daughter Altaira are the only survivors of an earlier expedition. Morbius warns that the planet is haunted by a monster with incredible powers. I still recall a scene in which the raging, previously invisible monster is outlined in sparks as it penetrates a force field protecting the visiting spacecraft, and another in which it melts its way through a supposedly impenetrable door.

The Id Monster from Forbidden Planet
Credit: Joshua Meador/United Artists

We eventually learn that the monster isn't real; it's a projection of Morbius' id, amplified and made incredibly powerful by an enormous machine that is all that remains of the Krell, a race of hyper-intelligent beings that disappeared suddenly 200,000 years earlier. 

We eventually learn that it was the machine's unleashing of the Krell's own unconscious fears and hatreds that led to their extinction.  In turn, it was Morbius' inner demons, manifested by the Krell machine, that destroyed everyone in the previous expedition except for him and his daughter. 

Not surprisingly, Morbius strenuously denies the possibility that he is the source of the monster. But finally, when the monster melts through a supposedly impenetrable door and threatens Altaira and him, he confronts it. The confrontation proves fatal, but the moment Morbius dies the monster vanishes.

In retrospect, Forbidden Planet was one of many films--science fiction and otherwise--that gave us a glimpse beneath the shiny surface of America in the 1950s. Movies like Rear Window, On the Waterfront, Strangers on a Train, Rebel Without a Cause, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Them, High Noon and many more expressed the fears, darkness and delusions of postwar American life and culture. On the surface, Ike's America seemed buoyant and optimistic, but those films exposed the hidden fault lines and mounting pressure that lay beneath.

Fast forward five decades, and we find ourselves grappling with our very own id monster in the form of Donald Trump. In his race-baiting campaign, his slimy, hate-fueled rallies, his fox-in-the-henhouse appointments and his draconian immigration policies he voices and acts out the inner demons of our nation--racism, xenophobia, authoritarianism, greed, narcissism, religious intolerance, white nationalism; in fact just about every kind of fear and hatred. And as head of state and commander in chief he controls the mighty Krell machine that amplifies those ugly, destructive drives and makes them dangerously real.

We have a President who demonizes Muslims and Hispanics and would lock them out of the US, who repeatedly labels the press the enemy of the people, who smears and demeans his adversaries, incites violence, has assaulted and is contemptuous of women, lies constantly and shamelessly, embraces conspiracy theories, scorns our allies but loves dictators and uses the office of President and US foreign policy for his own personal and political gain. He's an arrogant, nasty and dangerous bully, now wielding world-shaking power.

There's no doubt that Trump as President and Commander in Cheif amplifies our nation's dark drives and turns them into dangerous and destructive real-life events. There's also no doubt that the darkness was always there, lurking in the shadows and biding its time. As progressives have been pointing out for decades, we as a nation need to acknowledge and confront our history of slavery, genocide, patriarchy, and imperialism--not to mention our current rush towards ecocide--if we are ever to live up to the ideals of liberty and equality that comprise our conscious self-image and that we have at times shown the world.

As Einstein famously pointed out, "We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them." Trump's world is one of towers and walls, with him, his family, and those who are absolutely loyal to him high in their real or imagined castles and protected by walls from what they see as the dirty and dangerous rabble below. If we dream of a different world, we can't hide in our own towers and behind our own walls, physical, emotional or intellectual. As Morbius showed us, unless we accept and confront our own id-monsters, they will break through whatever walls we build. 




Thursday, October 31, 2019


The three-decade-long campaign to eradicate polio--not long ago a worldwide scourge--passed an important milestone this month. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) announced the eradication of wild poliovirus type 3 (WPV3). Type 2 was declared eradicated in 2015. That leaves only one type of wild polivirus, WPV1, still in circulation.

 Somali child receiving an injection of inactivated poliovirus
Credit: PV2 Andrew W. McGalliard
Public Domain

That good news is augmented by the fact that WPV1 only exists in two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan. This allows resources to be focused on those last two remaining reservoirs of the deadly virus.

However, the goal of finally eradicating polio remains elusive. There have been more cases of wild-virus-caused polio in those two countries (18 and 76 respectively) this year than in 2018. And, there have been a significant number of cases caused when the weakened virus used for oral inoculation mutates back to a disease-causing form. Although very rare, when millions of children are given the oral vaccine, mutation back to a virulent form is enough to keep the disease alive.

To address this problem, GPEI has now shifted into its Polio Endgame Strategy. This is a multifaceted campaign involving continued mass inoculations, rapid response teams to quickly contain and snuff out any flareups, and a shift from oral live attenuated immunization to inoculation by injection of completely inactivated virus. The endgame campaign is estimated to cost $4.2 billion and take four years. If it succeeds, humanity will have eliminated a second deadly disease (smallpox was the first) and no child will ever again be killed or paralyzed by polio.


You can read an executive summary of the endgame strategy here.

Saturday, September 21, 2019


Just six weeks ago I posted about Google quantum AI guru Hartmut Neven predicting that quantum computing would grow at an unheard-of doubly exponential rate, and that the long-sought benchmark of quantum supremacy would be reached sometime this year.

Quantum computer core
Credit: Flickr

True to Neven's predictions, word has filtered out that Google has submitted a scientific paper reporting the first demonstration of a quantum computer solving a problem that even the most powerful classical computer can't manage--the hallmark of quantum supremacy. Reportedly, the problem Google's 54-qubit computer solved in 200 seconds would have taken a supercomputer 10,000 years to do.

One caveat--the problem was a very specific task known to be particularly well suited to a quantum computer. Much more work is needed before quantum computers will be able to tackle a full range of real-world problems. However, those developments will almost certainly happen much sooner than most people imagine.

This milestone is important in itself, meaning that scientists in every field, cryptographers, AI researchers, etc., will soon be able to tackle tasks that were previously impossible. However, what really demands everyone's attention is that easily-missed prediction, now known as Neven's law, that progress in quantum computing is going to unfold at a doubly exponential rate.

"To our knowledge," the Google team writes, "this experiment marks the fi rst computation that
can only be performed on a quantum processor. Quantum processors have thus reached the regime of quantum supremacy. We expect their computational power will continue to grow at a double exponential rate."

You can get a sense of what this astonishing rate of change means in my earlier post, "Forget Moore's Law. Neven's Law Rules Now." The bottom line is that we can expect as much progress in quantum computing in the next five or six years as we've seen in the digital world over the past five or six decades. After that point, all bets are off. If you think that the digital revolution has been earth shaking, just wait for the quantum revolution.

As Nevens says, "It looks like nothing is happening, nothing is happening, and then whoops, suddenly you're in a different world."

Well, we're in that new world now. It's going to make words to describe the rate of change, such as "breathtaking," "jet propelled" or "explosive" seem far too slow.


Robert Adler


In my post of May 19, 2017 entitled "L'etat c'est moi--Trump's identity problem," I argued that given Trump's blatant narcissim, he would inevitably come to see the presidency and the government as extensions of himself, with which he could do as he wished:

"It's no secret that our current president has the same proclivity [narcissim]. From his point of view, it's his country, his military, his secrets to share or withhold as he wishes, his realm to do with as he pleases. The Constitution, the rule of law, checks and balances, Congress and the courts are irrelevancies that had best get out of his way."

 Donald Trump

Nothing could illustrate this more clearly than the unfolding whistleblower scandal involving Ukraine. If what's being reported turns out to be true, Trump used the office of President and the coercive power of the United States to attempt to strong-arm a foreign government into an investigation to dig up dirt on Joe Biden and his son.

Joe Biden, of course, is Trump's most likely opponent in the 2020 elections, an opponent who, even according to polling by Fox News, leads Trump 52 to 38.

The fate of Ukraine is of importance to the United States. It would be totally appropriate for the President to negotiate forcefully with it, for example, to get it to reduce corruption and strengthen it's democratic institutions. However, using it as a cat's paw to dredge up dirt on a political opponent is not just inappropriate and possibly illegal, it is, or should be, an impeachable offense.

It's also worth noting, that Trump appears to be a repeat offender in such matters, having just dodged a bullet by Attorney General Barr's mealy-mouthed interpretation of the Mueller Report, which was  the result of a multi-year investigation into Trump's use of political ammunition provided by, and possibly coordinated with Russia, targeting Trump's previous opponent, Hillary Clinton.

What isn't clear is whether this pattern represents pure corruption--the conscious, willful breaking of laws and norms for his own political gain--or pathological narcissim, a narcissism so profound as to blind Trump even to the possibility of separating his own needs from our nation's priorities. It would still be corrupt, but might represent the kind of distinction that criminal law makes between, for example, premeditated murder and vehicular manslaughter.

My bet is that Trump, in his narcissism, feels 100 percent justified in using the Presidency and the powers of the United States any way he pleases.

Unfortunately, that doesn't make what he has done or is likely to do any less dangerous to all of us.


Robert Adler

Friday, September 20, 2019


Ever since election day, 2016, I've joked about how I (and everyone reading this now) were bumped into an alternative universe, one where Trump became president instead of Clinton. Here's how it happened:

Credit: ABE  Books

A group of us were vacationing in San Luis Potosi, Mexico on election day, 2016. I got permission from the management of the hotel we were staying in to connect my laptop to the large-screen television in their breakfast room so that we could livestream US channels and watch the election results come in.

We settled in with some drinks and were chatting happily as we watched the first returns get posted. As you remember, the polsters and pundits were quite sure that Hillary Clinton would win, and those early returns seemed to point the same way.

Then, without warning, a huge storm blew up. Rain was pouring down, a blast of wind smashed open an outside door and sheets of water blew in, flooding the floor. The downpour continued along with blasts of thunder and lightning, and within a few minutes the electricity and the wifi feed went off.

The hotel staff lit some candles to give us light, and we hunkered down for the next hour or so until the storm gradually abated and the power and the internet came back on.

You guessed it. By the time we could tune into the election results again, the votes from the midwest were coming in and Trump was winning. The storm, it seemed, had blown us into a different universe.

Now I realize that my feeling of having been transported into an alternate world may have been seeded by a science fiction story that I read nearly 60 years ago.

With the help of the internet, it didn't take long to find the story, called "A Sound of Thunder," wirtten by Ray Bradbury and first published in Collier's Magazine on June 28, 1952. I read it a few years later in a collection of Bradbury's short stories, The Golden Apples of the Sun, published in 1953.

The story is set sometime after the year 2055, one day after a US presidential election in which Keith,  a man who " . . . will make a fine President of the United States," defeated the dangerous Deutscher,

"If Deutscher had gotten in," Bradbury writes, "we'd have the worst kind of dictatorship. There's an anti everything man for you, a militarist, anti-Christ, antihuman, anti-intellectual."

We learn that time travel is now possible, and that Eckels, the story's protagonsit, has contracted with  a company that will take him on a  hunting excursion back to the age of the dinosaurs with the aim of bagging a Tyrannosaurus Rex. It's explained that the company has targeted a particular T. Rex that would have died by natural causes seconds later, so as not to change anything in the past. His hunting guides also emphasize that Eckels absolutely must stay on a floating metal pathway, again to avoid making an inadvertent change to the past that could reverberate in unpredictable ways back to the future.

Unfortunately, when confronted by the actual tyrannosaur, Eckels panics and stumbles off the metal path back to the safety of the time machine.

When they get back to the present, things are subtly, subliminally different. In particular, a sign that had been written in good English before the trip back in time is now written in a crude pidgin. Eckels scrapes the mud off his boots and finds a single crushed butterfly. Bradbury writes:

"It fell to the floor, an exquisite thing, a small thing that could upset balances and knock down a line of small dominoes and then big dominoes and then gigantic dominoes, all down the years across Time. Eckels' mind whirled. It couldn't change things. Killing one butterfly couldn't be that important! Could it?"

Eckels fearfully asks who won yesterday's election. The company representative laughs and says, "You joking? You know very well. Deutscher, of course! Who else? Not that fool weakling Keith. We got an iron man now, a man with guts!"

For me, it took a huge thunderstorm. For Bradbury, all that was needed was a butterfly.*


*For a discussion of how Bradbury's story may have contributed to the famous "butterfly effect," from chaos theory, check out this Wikipedia entry.


Robert Adler

Tuesday, September 10, 2019


As the ancient Romans already knew (remember "a sound mind in a healthy body"?), physical and mental fitness are connected.  Now, two millenia later, new research may tell us why.

Dr. Jonathan Repple, at the University of Muenster, in Germany, and his colleagues were able to study over 1000 MRI brain scans of healthy volunteers, with an average age of 29. They supplemented the scans with a test of physical endurance and a dozen cognitive tests.

 High contast brain scan

As has been shown in previous research studies, the researchers found that physical fitness and cognitive functioning were strongly correlated.  What was new was their finding that this correlation was mediated by the integrity and connectivity of the white matter of the subjects' brains.

White matter consists of long, insulated nerve fibers that transmit information rapidly from one part of the brain to another.  Fitter subjects had better brain connectivity, and those with better brain connectivty scored better across the board on cognitive tests.

(This finding makes subjective sense if you consider how much of our thinking consists of making connctions.)

The researchers didn't expect to find such a strong relationship between physical fitness, brain health and cognition in healthy young people. "To see this happening in 30 year olds is surprising," Repple says. "This leads us to believe that a basic level of fitness seems to be a preventable risk factor for brain health."

Still, this correlative study could not determine is whether improving people's fitness will improve the health of their white matter and/or boost their cognitive performance. "We see that fitter people have better brain health," says Repple. "So we now need to ask whether actually making people fitter will improve their brain health. Finding this out is our next step."

Stay tuned. And in the meantime, just in case, stay fit.

Robert Adler


You can find the research paper, White matter microstructure mediates the association between
physical fitness and cognition in healthy, young adults; at: 1

Monday, September 02, 2019


Today’s headlines (NYT August 25) about President’s Trump’s ‘fantastic’ new trade pact with Boris Johnson reveals what last week’s flap about Trump’s effort to ‘purchase’ Greenland may have really been about:  It was, in fact, a brilliantly conceived deception for the truly historic action being negotiated behind the scenes for the purchase of post-Brexit England!
We all fell for the ‘fake news’, as expected, since nothing the President tweets or demands from day to day is beyond belief. The advantages of a fire-sale rescue of Great Britain just as its economic value reaches rock-bottom after a likely ‘no deal’ exit from the EU could not have escaped the calculating mind of our Deal-maker-in-chief. Imagine--‘Fortress Americans’ and ‘Little Englanders’ together again, reuniting their Anglo-Saxon heritage. Such a deal!

Les Adler

Wednesday, July 31, 2019


Moore's law has had a pretty impressive run. For more than 40 years, Gordon Moore's prediction that the density of components in integrated circuits would double roughly every two years has held true. The result is that the microchips that run our digital world are 2-to-the-20th power, or several million times more powerful than anything that was available back then.

(In the late '60s, I wrote programs for the CDC 6600, then the most powerful supercomputer in the world. It churned out 3 million operations per second. The processor in a current iPhone performs more than 3 billion operations per second, and today's fastest supercomputer 122 quadrillion.)

By way of putting this exponential growth of computing power into perspective, imagine if you were a million times richer or a million times smarter than you were a few decades ago, and could expect to keep doubling your wealth or your smarts every two years. Not too shabby.

IBM Q Quantum Computer*
Credit: Lars Plougmann

But that's all so yesterday. Now, as the era of quantum computing surges into view, there's a new sheriff in town--Hartmut Neven--bringing us Neven's law.

Earlier this year, Neven, an economist, physicist and current head of Google's Quantum Artificial Intelligence lab, made the stunning observation that the power of quantum computers is growing not at an exponential rate, but at a doubly exponential rate. Rather than, for example, doubling ever two years, their power is doubling at a rate that itself doubles every two years.

That may not sound like a big difference. But to get a sense of what it means, check out the following table:

Step (n)       Exponential Growth               Doubly Exponential Growth
                    (2 to the n'th power)               (2 to the 2 to the n'th power)

    1                             2                                                         4
    2                             4                                                       16
    3                             8                                                     256
    4                           16                                                65,536
    5                           32                                    4,294,967,296
    6                           64                                       1.8  x 10^19 = 1,800,000,000,000,000,000

If Neven is right, the amount of progress that classical computing made over the last 40 years will be compressed into the next six years of quantum computing development. Or, as he describes it, "It looks like nothing is happening, nothing is happening, and then whoops, suddenly you're in a different world."

The tipping point that will notify us that we're in that different world will be quantum supremacy--the point at which a quantum computer can out-perform the most powerful classical computer. Since quantum computers are still in their infancy, you might think that will take a long time. Not so. Based on the explosive rate of progress in his lab and those of his competiors, Nevens thinks that will happen this year.**And, if progress in quantum computing does follow a doubly exponential curve as Nevens predicts, quantum computers will not just gradually outstrip classical computers; they will almost immediately leave them in the dust.

And it may not only be classical computers that are left wondering what just happened. As those of you who have been following developments in artificial intelligence (AI) know, some very smart people have been warning us about the risks of runaway AI--the emergence of a superhuman artificial intelligence (AGI) that could quickly build an even more intelligent system that could build a still more intelligent system etc. The result could be the emergence of an immensely powerful machine-or internet-based intelligence that might well not have our interests at heart.

Those dire warnings didn't take into account quantum AI which, as you recall, is the raisin d'etre of Neven's lab. If the exponential growth of AI based in classical computers presents us with a looming existential threat, what about the doubly exponential growth of quantum AI?

Remember that sequence: 4, 16, 256, 65536, 4294967296 . . .


*To help keep track of the pace of progress in quantum computing, here's a milestone as of September, 2019, IBM's soon-to-be-available 53-qubit quantum computer: 

**And just to emphasize the rate of change Neven predicted, in mid-September, 2019, well before the end of the year, his lab has published a paper demonstrating quantum supremacy. A 54-qubit quantum computer in their lab took just 200 seconds to solve a problem that would take a supercomputer 10,000 years to do. You can read about it here.


Robert Adler

Wednesday, July 03, 2019


Every so often there's a bit of good news about the race to replace fossil fuels with renewables before time runs out for a habitable planet Earth. Today's ray of light is the news that renewable energy capacity--the amount of power that can be generated from solar, wind and water--beat out the combined capacity of all the coal-fired power plants in the US for the first time.

We need more windmills and less CO2!
This milestone appears in the latest Energy Infrastructure Update from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. It was a photo finish, with renewable generating capacity now 21.56 percent of the total while coal dropped to 21.55 percent. Not a huge difference, but with renewables rapidly growing and coal shrinking, it's a moment worth noting.

Of course, if we are to maintain a livable climate, we need a lot more of such wins, and soon, and not just in the US, but worldwide.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Quick link to a great piece explaining how what we've done to the Earth is coming back to bite us

Economists call them externalities. Those are all the goods and services that aren't accounted for in a company's or a country's balance sheet--things like the oil and ores we've been extracting from the Earth for centuries and the pollutants, including CO2 and methane, that we've been dumping back into the soil, air and water, supposedly for free. Journalist J. P. Sottile, writing in Truthout, does a great job of clarifying how these "free" goods and services are actually a huge, rapidly growing debt, and how nature is now collecting on our past-due accounts. It's a great piece. Please read it!

Open pit mine,Udachnaya, Russia--credit Wikimedia

Monday, April 22, 2019


Here's the bad news: unless you're under 25, your brain is shrinking. The rate of brain loss is slow at first but speeds up gradually over the years. The brain volume of a typical 75 year old is about 15 percent less than it was at its peak. That gradual loss of brain volume goes hand in hand with the decline in memory and other cognitive functions commonly seen as people age.

 All you need is . . . to take a walk
Image source: Creative Commons

The good news is that even light physical activity--getting up, moving around, doing chores, taking a stroll, working standing rather than sitting--slows down brain shrinkage and ageing. A three-year study of more than 2300 men and women found that for every extra hour per day of light physical activity, people's brains measured more than a year younger, and the brains of people who clocked 10,000 or more steps a day were nearly two years younger than those of people who managed fewer than 5,000 steps a day.

The participants in this study were from the second and third generation of the famous Framingham Heart Study, a long term study centered in Framingham, Massachusetts, that has contributed greatly to our understanding of cardiovascular health and disease, diet and exercise. Activity was measured using accelerometers, and brain volume was tracked via MRIs.

These findings are encouraging to the millions of us--75 percent of Americans--who don't manage to meet the official physical activity guidelines of 150 to 300 minutes per week of moderate exercise or 75 minutes per week of vigorous, aerobic exercise. We can protect our brains with less intense activities.

"Every additional hour of light intensity physical activity was associated with higher brain volumes, even among individuals not meeting current Physical Activity-Guidelines," says Nicole Spartano, a researcher at Boston University School of Medicine and lead author of the study. "These data are consistent with the notion that potential benefits of physical activity on brain aging may accrue at a lower, more achievable level of intensity or volume."

The bottom line is that almost any kind or amount of daily exercise, even just an our or so of light physical activity, can give your brain the boost it needs to stay young and fit.


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Tuesday, April 16, 2019


A computer just wrote a book. It's not a particularly catchy title--Lithium-Ion Batteries--and the author, a system called Beta Writer, isn't going to win a Pulitzer. However, it is a full-fledged, meaningful and readable book entirely written by a machine--the first but certainly not the last.

Authors watch out--one more "human only" skill bites the dust

If your reaction to this news is along the lines of "what's the big deal," that's understandable. Hardly a day goes by without news that AI has equaled or surpassed us plodding humans at yet another activity once thought to require uniquely human intelligence.

Artificial intelligence systems--let's just call them AIs for short--are now as good as humans at a large and rapidly growing number of tasks, and far superior in some others, including games like chess and Go, mastery of which was once seen as one of the pinnacles of human intelligence, and highly esteemed (and highly paid) skills including sinking basketball three-pointers. This is happening so rapidly and so frequently that most of us don't even notice the next advance.

However, some heavy-duty thinkers including Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking have been warning us for some time about the potentially existential risks of AI.

Gates, Musk and Hawking are not so much worried about AIs that are better than humans at one particular task or another, but about the emergence of an AI that is smarter and more capable than humans in every area. This kind of entity, they point out, could rapidly design and create an even smarter AI, which in turn could quickly improve on itself, leading to an intelligence explosion that could leave the human race, quite literally, in the dust.

Beta Writer, the system that created Lithium-Ion Batteries is pretty smart. It read thousands of scientific articles, extracted their most important findings, melded together related items, and them summarized them in readable, if technical prose. It produced the kind of comprehensive,  well organized, up-to-the-minute review of a scientific or technical field that until now would have been produced by an expert or a team of experts in a field. As such, it joins the ranks of expert systems that are matching or surpassing humans at increasingly high-level tasks. As an author myself, I can't help but be impressed. However, it's far more limited than the kind of AIs Hawking worried about.

Most researchers working on AI argue that these system, even if increasingly savvy and capable, are on the whole benign, for example helping doctors make accurate diagnoses, providing even amateur investors with high-quality guidance, and making all kinds of complex systems such as air traffic, shipping and product delivery run more smoothly. AIs are now integrated, mostly invisibly, into almost every aspect of our lives, and we rely on them whether we choose to or not. And although they occasionally do destructive things, for example the financial "Flash Crash" of 2010, or the deadly real crashes of  Boeing's 737 Max 8 aircraft, it wasn't because they were too smart or being malicious.

It's extremely difficult to predict when, if ever, an AI will emerge that surpasses humans in all of the areas that we consider important, including a deep understanding of itself and the world, emotional as well as analytic intelligence, creativity and imagination as well as problem solving. However, those who have thought most deeply about this, point out that such an entity may well have values and goals that are very different than ours.

These critics, or prophets, warn that we should be working as hard on "the control problem"--making sure that any emerging super-smart AI has the safety and security of us humans embedded so deeply into its design that it can't decide to act against us--as we are working to make AIs smarter, more capable and more ubiquitous.

All I know is that hundreds or thousands of times more money and talent is being poured into developing smarter, more capable AIs than are being devoted at that boring, but potentially vital control problem.


Earlier posts on AI and its risks:

Google's Alphazero is now scary smart

Advanced artificial intelligence--friend or foe?


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Wednesday, April 03, 2019


Every so often I come across a presentation that makes something I had a vague idea about crystal clear. I invite you to dive into this great piece by Brian Resnick and Javier Xarracina on Vox. It's partly about dark matter, but it uses a series of beautifully done graphics to give us a sense of where the Earth fits into the big picture of the sun, the Milky Way and the hundreds of billions of galaxies in the known universe, all of which are dwarfed in turn by dark matter and dark energy.

 Looking up at the Milky Way--our home galaxy
Credit: Free photos from Pixabay

Please give it a click! You won't be sorry.

And to get a totally different view of the history and immensity of the cosmos, check out this new video zoom out of the depths of the Hubble Legacy Field.


Thanks to British author Brian Aldiss for the striking phrase "galaxies like grains of sand." That was the title of the American edition of a collection of some of his short stories, published in the UK under the title The Canopy of Time


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Thursday, March 28, 2019


Imagine you hold a dial in your hand. Turn it to the left and you reduce the number of people killed in your state every year by 15 percent. Turn it to the right and it will increase the number of people killed by 9 percent. For example, if you live in California, you could save 279 lives with a flick of your wrist (or, if you're of a sociopathic bent, you could add 167 deaths per year). In Texas, you could save 197 people or see an extra 118 killed. In New York, you could prevent 92 homicides or provoke 55 more.

Now, new research by public health specialists at the Boston University School of Public Health and Boston Children's Hospital shows that the 50 state legislatures hold exactly that power.

Community health researcher Michael Siegel and his colleagues performed the first simultaneous controlled statistical study of the relationship between different gun laws and homicides in all 50 states, covering the years 1991 through 2016. Out of many different kinds of gun-related laws they studied, they found that three had powerful positive or negative impacts. Universal background checks preventing convicted violent felons from owning guns produced a 15 percent reduction in overall homicides. Laws blocking people convicted of violent misdemeanors cut the homicide rate by 18 percent. In contrast, "shall issue" laws that prevent authorities from using any discretion in granting concealed-carry permits resulted in a 9 percent higher homicide rate.

The researchers found that states with positive forms of all three laws--universal background checks preventing both felons and people with violent misdemeanors from buying or owning guns, and laws giving authorities the right to deny concealed-carry requests from people deemed risks to themselves or other--benefited from 33 percent lower homicide rates.

 Firearms confiscated from felons, California, 2011

For this study, the researchers excluded deaths from legal interventions (e.g. deaths at the hands of police), accidental firearm deaths and firearm deaths whose intent wasn't determined--in total 4.5 percent of firearm-related deaths. They also controlled statistically for many variables known to impact firearm fatalities, including the racial mix of each state, the percentage of young men between the ages of 15 to 29, and the rate of violent crimes other than homicide, divorce, unemployment and poverty.

They found that limiting dangerous people's access to guns is the most effective legal intervention, saving more lives than, for example, trying to limit the kinds of firearms that are available. Asked to summarize the implications of the study for policy makers, Siegel writes:

"Our research suggests that focusing on the “WHO” (i.e., who has access to firearms) is more impactful than focusing on the WHAT (i.e. what types of firearms are allowed). Based on these findings, the priorities for state policy makers should be: (1) universal background checks; (2) laws that prohibit gun purchase or possession by people with a history of violence (a conviction); and (3) extreme risk protection order laws that provide a mechanism for removing guns from people at high risk of violence to themselves or others."

In 2016, 17,250 people were the victims of homicide in the US. In the 26 years covered by this study, 859,871 people were killed. If I had a dial that could prevent even one death, I'd turn it. Wouldn't you? How about saving 2200 lives in a year? Or 130,000 lives over the next 26 years?


You can access the research paper, published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, at this URL.

You can view earlier zerospinzone posts on gun-related issues at the following links:

stand-your-ground laws 

facts about guns in the US

guns and kids in the US

guns, young people and suicide in the US

New Zealand responds to gun violence


A slightly different version of this post appeared on OpEdNews at this URL.

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Monday, March 25, 2019


This is certainly not the most serious thing I could be writing about, what with the Mueller report finally coming to a fizzling end, Venezuela falling into chaos, the Middle East arguably growing even more explosive, decades of relative restraint on the development and potential use of nuclear weapons being tossed aside by the US and Russia, and, lest we forget, climate change.

Still, a little bit of actually useful information is probably worthy of at least a few moments of your attention.

Here's the snippet of news: If you're over 55 and you eat more than 10 grams (.35 oz or 2 teaspoons) of nuts every day, you're 40 percent more likely to enjoy good thinking and memory than your non-nut-consuming peers.

Can a few peanuts a day keep senility away?
Credit: Aney/Wikimedia

This was the main finding in a study of almost 5000 Chinese seniors. Eating more than 10 grams of nuts every day--mostly peanuts for this study group--boosted cognition by about two-thirds of a point as measured on a 40 point scale. That's equivalent to shaving off two to three years of age.

With a greying population putting millions of people at risk of dementia, any intervention that can slow brain ageing can be of great value to individuals and to society as a whole.

Some people will pay thousands of dollars for surgery to make them look a few years younger. How much is it worth to you to have your brain actually work like it did when you were a few years younger? If the "cost" is munching a few teaspoons of nuts every day, it would seem to be extremely well worth it.


You can reference the research report in the Journal of Nutrition, Health & Ageing here.


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Thursday, March 21, 2019


Here in the US, whenever there's a mass shooting we re-enter a futile, paralytic cycle. Gun-control advocates use the tragedy to argue once again for stricter laws. Second-Amendment advocates launch a counter attack, saying "now is not the time." Their supporters in Congress offer "thoughts and prayers." Their critics point out their hypocrisy. Gun-lovers rush to buy more guns. Nothing changes. And, within a few days we endure yet another massacre.

 "This is not New Zealand"
Credit: AP/Vincent Yu

As we know, a week ago New Zealand was shocked when a white racist gunman murdered 50 people at their prayers. The nation united in revulsion. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern spoke movingly about the victims, vowed never to mention the shooter's name in order to deprive him of the notoriety he sought, and promised to enact stricter gun-control laws and ban semi-automatic weapons entirely as soon as April 11.

Most remarkably, at least some New Zealanders are voluntarily turning their weapons over to the police to be destroyed.

There's a problem. The government responds. People respond. It sounds so sensible. It must feel very good to be part of a functional society and government.

Why not here?


Click here for a more in-depth commentary on this subject.


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Thursday, March 14, 2019


New research in mice has shown for the first time that it's possible to stop the formation of amyloid plaques--one of the key pathological features of Alzheimer's disease--and for the brain to clear them away entirely. This line of research has the potential to lead to medications that can slow, stop, or perhaps even reverse the ravages of this dread, mind-destroying disease.

 Comparison of a healthy brain and a brain with severe Alzheimer's disease
Credit: Wikimedia

As many people know through personal experience with friends or family members, Alzheimer's is an implacably progressive neurodegenerative disease that  robs individuals of their memory, cognitive functions, ability to care for themselves, personalities and, eventually, their lives. It's currently the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. and, strikingly, ". . . is the only disease in the 10 leading causes of deaths in the United States that cannot be cured, prevented or slowed."

A new study, however, opens up the possibility that Alzheimer's may in fact one day be slowed or prevented, if not cured. Working with mice genetically modified to develop Alzheimer's disease, neuroscientist Riqiang Yan* and his colleagues at the Cleveland Clinic-Lerner Research Institute in Cleveland, Ohio, found that gradually reducing an enzyme called BACE1 blocked the development of amyloid plaques, which are a central part of Alzheimer's pathology.

Although their study was complex and highly technical, the logic behind it is clear. BACE1 is one of two enzymes that snip amyloid precursor protein, or APP, into the shorter pieces that glom together into the plaques that are thought to disrupt and eventually kill neurons. Since BACE1 has important biological functions, removing it early in life or completely creates serious neuro-developmental problems. Still, the researchers reasoned, reducing it gradually in adult mice might slow or stop Alzheimer's without causing unacceptable side effects. That's exactly what they found.

"In our study," says Yan, " we showed that if we delete BACE1 in the adult mice, even after plaque formed, with sequential and increased deletion of BACE1 the plaque was removed. That indicates that if we can get to a patient early enough, it will be beneficial in removing amyloid plaque."

Yan was not surprised to see that lowered levels of BACE1 slowed or stopped the formation of new plaques. He was both surprised and excited to find already existing plaques cleared away--the first time that this has been seen. "To our knowledge," he says, "this is the first observation of such a dramatic reversal of amyloid deposition in any study of Alzheimer’s disease mouse models. We didn't expect the pre-existing plaque would be removed. That was the very interesting part, and warrants additional study to find out why."

While completely blocking BACE1 causes developmental and cognitive problems, a gradual lowering in adult mice appeared appeared safer. Those mice performed better on learning and memory tasks than untreated Alzheimer's prone mice.  However, they still showed some abnormalities in synaptic signalling. Despite this problem, Yan thinks that compounds can be developed that, when applied at the right time and at the right dose, will slow or stop the development of plaques, allow the brain to clear away existing ones, and so keep Alzheimer's at bay.

Prevention is more powerful than treatment

Yan compares this to the enormously successful use of statins to control cholesterol levels enough to block the development of atherosclerosis and heart disease, even though cholesterol has vital functions in the body. "The critical thing is will this lead to some safe drugs?" he asks. "We need to find something very safe like a vitamin that people can take every day without any concerns. Another similarity is to the statins, taking statins to prevent cholesterol from building up. The idea is that prevention is even more powerful that treatment." 

The next step for Yan and colleagues is to track the effects of reduced BACE1 on the mouse brain in more detail and on older mice. "Human patients are typically older than in the mouse model," he explains. "In the mouse model we started to delete [BACE1] at 4 months, which is like 20 years old for people. We now want to delete it in older mice. We need a new mouse model for this later stage."

Robert Vassar is a professor of neurology at Northwestern University, in Illinois, and a pioneer in the study of the role of BACE1 in Alzheimer's disease. He's very supportive of Yan's new findings, and, like Yan, thinks they hold significant promise for Alzheimer's prevention. Vassar too likes the analogy with statins and cardiovascular disease. "You can't turn off the tap of cholesterol, but you can turn it down enough to not accumulate the plaques in the heart that cause heart disease," he says. "It's saved the lives of many people. The BACE1 inhibitors can do the same, if we find the right dose and the right stage of the disease--how much to inhibit and when to treat." 

Vassar and Yan are both aware that years of further research with animals and humans are needed to turn these promising findings into a safe and effective preventative treatment for people. They foresee a long road, but one that urgently needs to be followed. "We have to bold about this disease," says Vassar.  "We're headed for an epidemic of this with the baby boomers, so we've got to do something."

As a baby boomer myself, I couldn't agree more!


You can access Yan and his colleagues' full research paper here.


*Professor Yan is currently Chair of the Department of Neuroscience and William Beecher Scoville Professor in Neuroscience at the University of Connecticut, in Farmington, Connecticut.


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Sunday, March 03, 2019


Joseph McCarthy, February 9, 1950:

"I have here in my hand a list of 205 that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.

Credit: Getty Images

Donald Trump, March 2, 2019:

"We have people in Congress right now that hate our country. And you know that. And we can name every one of them if they want."

 Trump at CPAC 2019
Credit: Rolling Stone


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