I’m feeling anxious about it already and it isn’t slated to happen until October 2018. I’m talking about the launch of the long-delayed James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Huge amounts of time and energy (and money) have been funneled into this telescope. It’s a nail-biter unlike other launches because you can’t just turn around and redo this if it fails.

If successful, this telescope will enable some serious science. I read a quote from one astronomer who said that with the JWST, in one day we’ll learn more than everything we currently know about the first galaxies in the universe. It’s designed for viewing the first luminous objects after the Big Bang, and learning how they developed.

Interestingly, another one of its tasks is to directly observe and photograph planets around other stars. Spectroscopy might tell us something about an exoplanet’s weather, color, and maybe even help identify whether there is vegetation.

A few other amazing things I didn’t know:

  • Whereas the Hubble Telescope sits within somewhat easy reach over the earth (550 km up), the JWST will be 1.5 million km away – out at an Earth-Sun Lagrange point. That’s outside the Earth’s orbit but in a gravitationally stable point. No repair missions are possible.
  • One reason it has to be this far away is that an infrared telescope like this needs to be cold. This one must be kept at an incredible -233 C, which is 50 degrees above absolute zero. At the Lagrange point, the JWST will keep one side permanently facing the Earth and Sun. That side has a sunshield “the size of a small tennis court.” It blocks light and heat from the warm side of the spacecraft so the telescope on the cold side can make its observations without interference from the infrared radiation.
  • The main mirror is 6.5 meters in diameter, more than twice as large as the Hubble. It’s made of 18 segments that will unfold after launch.

You see why I’m already worried? There are so many bits and pieces that have to go right, not to mention the launch itself. If it all goes as planned, this will be stupendous. Of course, the Mars rover missions were incredibly complex and they worked, so maybe …

Go to NASA for the whole story. 

8518326751_0757ca9b9a_bNASA.   Full scale model with it’s five-layer sun shield



ask the universe


The universe – an incomprehensibly large expanse strewn with billions of galaxies, each full of billions of stars. And it’s expanding. Then toss in dark energy and dark matter, even though no one currently knows what that means. Add gravity and stir. 

Maybe, like me, you have heard someone ask the universe for help. They’ll say something like, “I want to live in a tropical paradise, so I’ll put the intention out there and see if the universe supports me.” However, I’m pretty sure that the actual universe doesn’t care if you live or die, let alone where you live. Go ahead, just ask it if it cares. 

Yet some people believe that an invisible force underlying all reality will “support” them if their wish is in cosmic alignment with … universe energy! Or something vague like that. Years ago, I held a similar belief – everything is made of consciousness, so you can do anything. It’s kind of like “the secret,” which says that if you really want something you’ll get it. After all, you create reality, so the world will rearrange itself according to your desires. 

In other words, it’s magic. Some people will make ridiculous claims that quantum physics somehow supports this belief in magic. It doesn’t. Go ahead, ask a quantum physicist at the nearest university physics department. I’ll wait. 

These beliefs are not different than the old “praying for what you want” gambit. If your prayer (intention) comes true, the lord (universe) has granted your desire, and if it doesn’t come true, it wasn’t just part of the deity’s plan (energies not in alignment). 

Ask the universe to send you a bag of dog chow. Tell the universe you want to meet the love of your life. Ask it to resurrect a dead tulip. Best of all, ask it for something really vague, such as to make everything work out according a plan you can’t know about. That’s the universe’s specialty.

And if the actions of the universe are indistinguishable from random chance, well, maybe that’s how it prefers to operate.


mutated and organic


Just when you thought it was safe to eat all-natural, organic, everything-free food … when you thought it was okay to buy crops grown in sunny fields and harvested by laughing, healthy family farmers wearing all-cotton overalls … this terrible knowledge is revealed:

Thousands of foods we all eat today were bred from crop varieties that were produced using atomic radiation. Both radiation and toxic chemicals are and have been used to mutate plants in order to create new varieties. It’s been going on since the 1940s. Your favorite organic food may come from a variety produced this way.

Needless to say, the gamma rays used to produce an ancestor of the Ruby Red grapefruit have absolutely no effect on you, the eater. It would be crazy to think otherwise. You are simply eating a variety of produce that was generated that way.

But logic doesn’t enter into this. The same people who think that GMO food is going to hurt them might be terrified. (Never mind that GMOs are rigorously tested, highly regulated, and arguably safer than cross-bred plants.) People may soon demand labeling of all food that comes from a variety generated by toxic chemicals or radiation. They may only buy vegetables developed by cross-breeding or selective breeding and nothing more modern than that.

What the heck, let’s go back to the days before our fruits and vegetables were modified by breeding. They probably looked like this. Or better yet, let’s only eat items that have fallen off a tree or a bush in a forest. Or maybe things that have naturally washed ashore on a beach, like an old jellyfish, warmed by the sun. Delectable! Aged jellyfish just melt in your mouth.

Useful Mutants
Crop Seed Mutation Breeding Increasing
Delicious Mutant Foods

fine-tuned for death


I’d like to propose that the universe we live is “designed” to make life unlikely. It’s a “misanthropic principle” that becomes clear when you look around.

  1. Let’s start with the obvious – 99.999% of everything is empty. It’s mostly a vacuum out there; where life as we know it can’t exist. It’s just dead, sterile space suffused with deadly cosmic radiation.
  2. An unbelievably small part of the universe consists of matter, and 80% of that is dark matter. Let’s look at that tiny, tiny fraction of the universe that consists of what we call ordinary matter. A lot of it is lonely hydrogen atoms, and where the mass clumps together you’ve got gas clouds and radiation-spewing nuclear fusion fire. Then there are burned or frozen chunks of rock. This is a place designed for the non-living.
  3. Further proof of the “death fine-tuning” is that only tiniest fraction of a fraction of a fraction of those rock chunks might be temporarily amenable to life. Most of that life, which is now looking accidental, is probably microbes. You could say the universe slips up once in a while, and in the equivalent of a single dust mote in the Grand Canyon, some microbial life bubbles up, but otherwise non-life reigns supreme.
  4. Now look at the vanishingly small fraction of those rock chunks that could harbor larger, more complicated life. Take earth, for example. In fact, right now that’s our only example. During the finite period of time that complex life can exist here, the planet is subject to doomsday asteroid strikes, horrendous magma-vomiting volcanism, and other catastrophes that beat down life from time to time. It’s not a place that favors the living.
  5. Let’s look at the period between these major disruptions when life thrives for a while. Does the universe care if most creatures with developed nervous systems die painful deaths? No. Animals are torn apart and eaten by other ones, or they starve, or are abandoned or diseased. If humans are somehow different and special (because they write blogs and go to the moon), then the universe is even crueler to them because they can foresee their own helpless doom. They know that they are plagued by deformities, random accidents, disease, and natural disasters.

As you can see, the universe is fine-tuned to treat life as rare and inconsequential. Next post: the bad news.

Okay, I’m purposely stretching this to make a point.I actually feel wonder and delight in the world around us, both living and non-living. It’s fantastic and mysterious and I feel fortunate to be here. I’m just not impressed with arguments that say our universe is perfectly calibrated to create beings like us. You could make a good argument for the opposite.



aspartame – chemical from the fiery depths of hell?


Today I bought some cough drops that contain aspartame. Because I had a vague recollection of some controversy surrounding the safety of aspartame, I decided to look up some details to see if it was really Satan’s own sweetener. Here’s some of what I learned:

When eaten, aspartame breaks down into phenylalanine, aspartic acid, and methanol.

Phenylalanine – This an essential amino acid that you can buy in pill form at health food stores. It’s found in soybeans, cheese, nuts, and meats. It should be avoided by people with a genetic disorder called phenylketonuria (PKU).  

Aspartic acid – Another amino acid; also available as a supplement in health food stores. It’s found in soy, fish, lentils, peanuts, meat, and eggs.

Methanol – This is a wood alcohol. It’s naturally produced in the human body during metabolism. It’s toxic in large enough doses. Fortunately, the amount generated by aspartame is tiny — there is much more methanol in a liter of 100% fruit juice or tomato juice than in a liter of aspartame-sweetened soda pop. Your fear of aspartame should be considerably less than your fear of fruit and tomato juice.

In other words, if you don’t want these three substances in your body, for god’s sake, stop eating nuts and drinking fruit juice! You would have to drink somewhere between 16 and 19 cans of aspartame-sweetened soda in a day to reach the daily limit set by the FDA. Tomato juice is more potent, however, so keep that in mind when you’re guzzling V-8.

The Food and Drug Administration and the European Food Safety Authority have approved aspartame as safe, and the American Cancer Society agrees. By the way, there have been hundreds of studies, so the safety is pretty solidly backed up. And, since there have been hundreds of studies, it would be very suspicious if you didn’t have a few that suggest that it might be unsafe. So if you delve into the research, be smart – look at the whole picture, the cumulative evidence, and look at exactly what the study says and how rigorous it is. 

Yet there are scare websites that talk about “aspartame poisoning,” shocking stories about aspartame damage, “aspartame detoxification” programs, and more. But when it comes to down to actual hard evidence that it causes harm, it’s pretty thin. What the heck is wrong with people and their crazy scary stories, anyway?

If a chemical name makes you scared, go ahead and use stevia, even though it’s not as well studied as aspartame. It’s also considered safe if you don’t eat tons of it. But beware, the active ingredients of stevia are chemical compounds, stevioside and rebaudioside. Everything you put in your mouth is a chemical. Your spit is made of chemicals.

A day is coming when we won’t have to eat or breath chemicals, and that is the day after we die.

(Our friends at Snopes debunk the deadly aspartame myth, and their argument is based on the science.)


carbon dioxide – is it all hot air?


More commentary from my favorite climate contrarian! I’ll put
Schn00dles’ remarks in italics and my comments following. He’s referring to this post.

Hi Dan. Let me say before starting, that being a contrarian (or a brake) is not as fun as it might be supposed. The information and the graphs are all made available in handy publicity forms for the people who sign on to the current public band wagon. Disagreeing responsibly takes some diligence. Thank goodness this discussion is taking place in internet times. Otherwise, building a rebuttal of current hysteria would be a real tough task. So, to begin.
Surely CO2 can serve to trap heat in the atmosphere, but as Dan’s study shows, so do many other molecules and particles. And surely the sun is the biggest provider of heat. One study does not the earth shake. And I doubt if you had the climate science to disprove this study, you would win a Nobel. Generally, negative studies are not selected for publication, or grants. Moreover, few scientists want to dedicate their lives following around other scientists in order to disprove their findings. Plus, billions of dollars have been spent to find a positive relationship between C02 levels and global warming. With several billion dollars in research grants I could probably find the bones of Adam and Eve.

In other words, you’ve got nothing to contradict the research finding that CO2 is the main driver generating global warming. If you think the entire world’s climate science community was unable or unwilling to fairly examine the CO2 evidence in peer review and study replication, and that they’ve been unwilling to do so for decades, and they’ve managed to hide that fact even though it’s all published in plain sight, then you truly fit the quote about conspiracy theorists. By the way, there is much more than one study on CO2. If you want more references, there are plenty here on the IPCC pages.

As for the second point, I believe Dan is cleaning up the historical record in hindsight. Check out this fun snippet from 1972:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H4JX1S9YZBo

This supports exactly what I said: there were reports in the popular press but little in science press and journals. To refute what I said, you need to show that a significant fraction of the climate science community was predicting global cooling. (Spoiler alert: it wasn’t.)

For the third point, you have to ask, “Gee, why does it stop at 650,000 years ago?” Well, the final graph is quite instructive. If you look at C02 levels, proceeding back in time, they began to rise enormously about a million years ago – all accomplished without the benefit of modern industrial techniques.

That’s right. No one is claiming that the only possible source of CO2 in the entire history of the world is modern industry.

Now look at what the climate was like during these periods.
(My graphs aren’t showing. But what it indicates is that we have been in an ice age for the past 3 million years approximately.)

Shocking but true. High CO2 and ice coexisted in the deep past. How could this happen? One example: if volcanic activity clouded the entire atmosphere of the planet, you could get high levels of CO2 along with high albedo — increased reflection of sunlight from the earth — and that lack of sun causes cold. (One of the wilder plans to stop warming is to pump tons of reflective material high into the atmosphere.) But the situation today is different than three million years ago. Today the preponderance of evidence shows increasing COto be the major driver of warming.

Finally, I’m very glad that Dan brought up the current legislation surrounding second hand smoke. The science of second hand smoke hazard has been very well debunked:http://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/secondhand-smoke-charade
But still we are stuck with the hysterical legislation which ensued.
Well, not many people like to breath second hand smoke anyway.

Really? A 1998 editorial by the Cato Institute? Well that sure trumps the current findings of the World Health Organization, the National Institute of Health, the CDC, the U.S. Surgeon General, the National Cancer Institute, the EPA, the American Heart Association, American Lung Association, America Medical Association, etc. etc. etc.

But when you make C02 a “pollutant” as defined by a federal agency… how would you feel about not being allowed to breath unless 50 feet from the entrance of any public building? Or, more realistically, about some bureaucrat determining your level of energy usage – entirely on the basis of their bureaucratic whim? E.g. No outdoor bbq? Drive less than 10 miles per day? Closure of important industries, and on and on…?
Global warming cynics are not your enemy here, friends.

I’m not going to argue policy with you. I might agree with you on some of that stuff. My only points here are that global warming is happening and that COis the major driver. If you deny these things because of policy concerns, it’s a kind of “tail wagging the dog” scenario.