Monthly Archives: February 2013

February 2013 Revisit: It’s a Conspiracy!~@!~`1

At the end of each month, What Does This Mean? will reflect upon the previous four weeks of posts to correct mistakes, acknowledge discussion and generally put a bow on what we’ve come to know.  Where most media fail to realize that a story doesn’t stop once the ink dries, WDTM? is proud to proclaim that the learning process never ends and that new information should always inform and shape our earlier interpretations.  This inaugural edition will necessarily cover less and take a slightly different tact.  Or is that just what they want you to think???

Frank Drake’s legacy, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), momentarily shut down in 2011.  Was it because they had secretly found what they had been looking for?  Was this year’s flu outbreak part of a government program to sadistically sicken the citizenry?  And how about that meteor in Russia?  Could it have really been an alien spaceship or a nefarious missile test?  Well, I guess anything’s possible, but when you live in a probabilistic universe, you have to play the percentages, and none of those suppositions seem very likely.  So why do major (and sometimes even minor) events always spawn these kinds of way out conspiracy theories?  What does it say about us that we’re eternally looking to undermine the “official story?”  You can probably blame our evolution-addled brains.

Michael Shermer, Editor in Chief of Skeptic magazine and monthly Scientific American columnist, has written several times on the subject.  One of the main driving factors in conspiracy belief seems to be the human tendency to see patterns where they don’t exist.  A phenomenon known as apophenia, it’s thought to be a hold-over from our more danger-plagued ancestors.  Not every rustle in the bushes is a venomous snake, but it’s probably better to assume so and be wrong than the opposite.  As one of the few organisms, if not the only one, to have a theory of mind (the notion that others can think just like I do), we’re also prone to over-observing agency.  “Someone must have done it!”  When we once saw guiding spirits in the rivers and the trees, we now identify shadowy manipulators behind the scenes.  It’s almost comfortable in a way to believe that even if the forces are malevolent, somebody is actually in control of otherwise random events.

And the advent of the internet just amped up the virulence.  Poorly printed leaflets have been supplanted by light speed video delivery.  It’s a lot easier now to find credentialed kooks to back up what you already accept, too.  Smart people are really good at defending views they came to through non-smart avenues.  So when you can find engineers who think the Newtown shooting was staged, it seems a tiny bit more believable than when senile Aunt Edna yells it from the basement.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

Okay, I was way wrong about the Chelyabinsk meteor.  I imagined UFO enthusiasts nervously chewing their fingernails, and we got half the Russian population invoking aliens and acts of God.  But when you’ve been legitimately lied to by your government so much, maybe they get a pass.  Let’s not forget, though, that propaganda is different than being able to keep secrets.  Even in America, it’s hard to believe that a government full of Chatty Cathy’s itching for immortality and book deals can keep a lid on everyone involved in a massive Moon landing hoax.  That’s preposterous enough to make a man violent.

But really,  in the Information Age, not one disgruntled grip from the set of “Buzz Bounces Around” has blogged his complicity (or at least had his grandson do it for him)?  Why hasn’t WikiLeaks busted this shit open?  The internet is both the best and the worst thing to ever happen to the spread of weird ideas.  You can bend the digital ears of anyone worldwide with your wackiness, but the rational rebuttal is also mere keystrokes away.  Sites like snopes and the Skeptic’s Dictionary might be outnumbered, but the ammunition exists to combat the crazy if you’re willing to look for it.

Why Your Antibiotics Don’t Work

Did you get hit with the flu this season?    If so, you had plenty of company, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) peg this year’s United States outbreak as the most widespread since the H1N1 pandemic in 2009.  That’s partially because this season’s flu vaccine seemed less effective at preventing the disease than usual, giving most inoculated individuals only a 56% lower chance of needing further treatment, while benefiting an even more dismal 27% of those aged 65 and older.  It’s somewhat unknown at the moment why the vaccine couldn’t find its stride, but we have a much better understanding of why diseases like strep throat and Staph infections become more and more difficult to combat over time.  And you might be part of the problem.

If you were unfortunate enough to come down with a bad case of influenza, did your doctor prescribe a little bit of Cipro or Amoxil?  He shouldn’t have.  Such antibiotic remedies are only useful against bacterial infections and can’t do a thing to strike at cold and flu viruses.  Why do they get wrongfully doled out?  Some doctors do so to ward off opportunistic bugs that try to move in while the immune system is weakened.  Others feel the need to give sufferers something, even if it’s not effective.  Many patients don’t understand the limitations and won’t leave until they’ve got a scrip in their hand, or they’ll take their business to a doctor who will do what they want, even if that’s in opposition to what they really need.  The CDC estimates that almost 60% of all antibiotic prescriptions in the years 2007 and 2008 were incorrectly applied to viral infections, although reports indicate that statistic has been cut by as much as a quarter since.

nextnatureimage courtesy of nextnature.net

So what?  What’s the harm?  Doctors get to feel like they did something helpful, drug companies make a few more bones and patients receive peace of mind, even if it’s illusory.  The problem with over-prescribing antibiotics is a product of the same process that got us these big brains we use to develop them.  Whenever you drop that antibacterial hammer on a population, inevitably there will be some individual organisms that were lucky enough to have a natural resistance to the chosen treatment.  Those are the ones that survive to make more just like them.  The ill-adapted get whacked, the “stronger” survive and multiply and pretty soon you’ve got a new strain of bugs that brushes off your old drugs like a case of dandruff.  That’s selection in action; Darwinian evolution on display.  We wouldn’t be here without it, yet it’s also what drives some of our worst diseases.  Now half of U.S. Staph infections are resistant to our most common antibiotics and a strain of enterobacteriaceae has proven nearly immune to even the toughest remedies, leading to a 40% mortality rate in those infected.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

You shouldn’t press your doctor for antibiotic treatment unless he’s sure it’ll be genuinely helpful.  Conversely, if you’re diagnosed with a viral infection and a physician tries to prescribe you antibiotics anyway, question him if that’s the wisest course of action.  He might just be trying to avoid and argument.  And when you do find yourself on a regimen, be sure to see the entire course through, as ending early can bolster the remaining bacteria, creating a relapse for yourself and a dangerous new adversary for the rest of us.

Study results are mixed as to whether wildly common antibacterial handsoaps contribute to microbial resistance and if they’re actually any more effective than their garden variety counterparts.  It seems that triclosan, the most common active agent in antibacterial soaps, needs to remain on a surface for as long as two minutes to do its job.  Does anyone actually do that?  When you also consider that new research suggests the very same chemical may weaken muscle contraction and alter hormone regulation, it’s probably not the worst idea to just stick to the old standbys instead.

Antibiotics are overused on animals as well.  The Union of Concerned Scientists has estimated that 70% of of the drugs in America are administered to food animals in the absence of any disease, as a means of promoting growth.   After 35 years of trying to pass similar bills, legislation was finally pushed through in 2012 that requires farmers and ranchers to obtain a prescription from a veterinarian to use antibiotics on farm animals, but what if the vets aren’t any more judicious than our clinicians?  Constant vigilance on the part of the entire medical community and the citizenry itself will be required to check the further emergence of resistant strains.

The solar system hates Russia: Chelyabinsk, Tunguska and UFOs

Remember the “other factors” pointed to by Rare Earth hypothesis proponents I mentioned in the previous post?  Things that may be necessary for the evolution of complex life that aren’t intrinsically accounted for in the Drake Equation?  One of those is the presence of a significantly large, so-called “gas giant,” like Jupiter, in the same system as a habitable planet.  The idea is that such a sturdy stalwart acts to gravitationally Hoover up enough of the biggest asteroids loitering around the neighborhood so as to allow the critters on an inner planet enough time to figure out things like civilization, technology and e-mail before they shoot cosmic craps and some big space rock slips in and ruins it for everyone.

Fat fucking lot of good it did for the residents of Chelyabinsk, Russia on Friday, February 15th.

But hey, we’ve seen our burly protector in action, through the 1994 impacts of Shoemaker-Levy 9 cometary fragments.  So we know it does its job, as least sometimes, as the largest piece of Shoemaker shrapnel was on the order of 100 times the size of the little guy that injured over 1,000 and did more than $33 million in damage last week.  Imagine a fleet of those jerks showing up on our doorstep.  Thanks for having our back, Jupes.

Our watchful big brother can’t catch ‘em all, however, and some of the smaller stuff sneaks on through.  On average we can expect an interloper the size of the Chelyabinsk object every 30-60 years.  This most recent assaulter was the largest since the then mysterious 1908 blast at Tunguska, in the Siberian region of (would you believe it?) Russia.  The solar system is obviously trying to strike at our population’s strategic vodka reserves.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

Asteroid early detection is no joke.  Fortunately, NASA estimates that they’ve locked down the orbits of more than 90% of the near Earth objects large enough to wipe us out (those at least a kilometer in diameter), and none of them should come calling anytime soon.  The outlook is less rosy when considering debris with diameters in the 100 meter range, as we’ve only got a handle on about 30% of those.  To compare, Friday’s visitor was probably less than 20 meters in size.  There are hopes that new projects like ATLAS will aid in increasing our detection limits, but even that won’t spot rocks as small as the Chelyabinsk body.  Maybe it’s time to spend more than $3 million a year on such things?

Additionally, perhaps this will finally shut up the Tunguska conspiracy nuts.  Some people will try to find a mystery anywhere, and plenty claim something stranger must have happened then because no large meteorite fragments were found.  Forgetting the fact that no one bothered to look for 13 years.  And ignoring the discovery of the predicted silicate and magnetite spheres in the surrounding soil and tree resin.  Or the anomalously high amounts of iridium, an element that’s rare on Earth but more abundant in asteroids.  The first fragments of the Chelyabinsk object have been identified, but it’s probably easier to know where to look when you can see the damn hole in the ice.

The ubiquitous video footage of the meteor’s approach, thanks in part to Russia’s obsession with dash cams, has nothing but bad implications for the “UFO phenomenon,” to boot.  If interstellar snoops are constantly dropping by, why aren’t they repeatedly filmed from a myriad of different angles, as in the montage above?  And don’t tell me they know enough to avoid the former Soviet republic; I’ve seen sighting reports from less than 2 months ago.  Hell, the meteorite that struck a parked car in Peekskill, New York in 1992 was filmed by *16 different people,* in a time prior to our now inescapable cell phone preoccupation.  If aliens were around as much as the proponents claim, they’d have a weekly dedicated segment on TMZ.

Kepler informs Drake: Plugging Real Numbers into the Equation

The question, “Are we alone in the universe?” penetrates to our very cores. When we look up at the night sky, is there anyone gazing back? Or are we set adrift in the cosmic ocean all by our lonesomes? If there are others beyond our sight, wondering the same thing, how many are there? Are they close enough to hold a conversation, or would the interstellar service provider drop the call? Can we ever know the answers to these humbling and vexing questions?

In 1961, astronomer Frank Drake aimed to reduce the uncertainty by putting numbers on the important planetary parameters. In preparation for a meeting commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences, a gathering that would set the stage for the now-famous radio wave investigation, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), Drake jotted down a list of things you’d need to know in order to determine how many potential pen pals we could expect in our galactic neighborhood. The eponymous Drake Equation was defined thusly:

Drake equation ,

where “N” is the number of alien civilizations within communication range (AKA “the thing we wanna know”) and the other factors are as follows:

R* = the average rate of star formation per year in our galaxy
fp= the fraction of those stars that have planets
ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
fl = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life at some point
fi = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life
fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
L = the length of time for which such civilizations release detectable signals into space

Again… this was in 1961. Four years before the best evidence of the Big Bang was stumbled upon, eight years prior to men walking on the moon, and more than a decade preceding the first conclusive identification of a black hole. Where was Frank Drake getting estimates for these values? Why did he assume that technologically advanced civilizations eventually die out? What if they colonized other planets; how would that affect the numbers? The lack of precision and utter guesswork inherent in this formulation did not go unmentioned, leading some, such as “xkcd” cartoonist Randall Monroe to proffer cheekier versions.

Drakexkcd

Drake’s equation may have taken form solely as a way to kick off discussion, but ya just can’t help but try to fill it out, can ya? With their limited knowledge, Drake and his colleagues plugged in numbers and chugged out a range of values between 1,000 and 100,000,000 communicating civilizations in our galaxy. So yeah, lots of uncertainty still, especially when the numbers you’re picking are plucked out of pure speculation to begin with. But what happens when you apply 50 additional years of astronomical knowledge? Can modern discoveries help refine Drake’s bullshit equation?

The original (conservative, they thought) estimate for R*, the average rate of star formation in the Milky Way, was put at about 1 per year. Using some tricky techniques of the INTEGRAL gamma-ray observation satellite in 2006, NASA and the European Space Agency were able to jack that number up to 7. Later studies with the Spitzer Space Telescope further pare that down to a single star like our sun annually. Hey, not a bad guess on that one. When you consider that the rate of stellar formation was higher in the past (back when a civilization would have to start out to get to a communication stage by now), things might look even better than initially expected!

The next term, fn, the fraction of stars that have planets, is something that couldn’t be honestly addressed until very recently. The original shot-in-the-dark supposals were between one fifth (0.2) and one half (0.5). The first “exoplanet” was confirmed in 1995, but it was only with the launching of the Kepler Space Telescope in 2009, however, that we gained the ability to identify smaller, rocky planets (like our own) by observing the dip in starlight from their parent stars as they cross in front. Kepler has provided a flood of planetary candidates, almost 3,000 of ‘em, leading to some bold predictions, such as that of Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics researcher Francois Fressin, that nearly every sun-like star should have at least one planet. Uh, wow. Drake’ll take that, for sure.

Moving further down the chain… is still the realm of speculation. We await the confirmation of Kepler’s current 461 “maybes” that seem to exist within their host star’s so-called “habitable zone,” which would assist in constraining ne, the possible “life-supporting” planets each particular star boasts. A true Earth twin hasn’t been discovered yet, but as Kepler casts its net wider in 2013, many believe that moment is mere months away.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?
 

Frank Drake should be a happy man! And the rest of us, too, as we slowly trudge through the components of the equation with continuing data, bringing us closer to answering our fundamental questions. The value of fp, the fraction of habitable planets that do develop life, will be harder to put a figure on. Spectroscopic techniques can determine the components of far-off atmospheres, but none with the telltale markers of respiration have yet been identified. And once you get observational data for fi, the fraction of those planets that develop intelligent civilizations, it’s pretty much game over, right? One would be enough to make us greatly rethink our place in the universe.

But how likely is it? Proponents of the Rare Earth Hypothesis, such as Peter Ward and Donald E. Brownlee, suggest there are other factors affecting the possibility of intelligent life that aren’t accounted for in the Drake Equation and other estimates. Still, the numbers we’ve compiled over the last half-century have to be encouraging to those who dream of the ultimate foreign correspondence.