Alex Szalay: Big data a big step forward for science

There have been three major eras in the history of science, as Johns Hopkins University astrophysicist and computer scientist Alex Szalay describes it. The first, which lasted for millennia, was empirical, involving mostly the recording of data: Chinese star charts, Leonardo da Vinci’s codices on how turbulent water flows, Tico Brahe’s recording of the motions of planets. The second era, which he calls the theoretical paradigm, launched when Brahe gave his observations to Johannes Kepler, who came up with the laws of planetary motion. [more]

World War III is coming, and you’ll never believe who’s going to start it

Gene Wilder as Dr. Frankenstein

At first blush, the key players in George Friedman’s World War III scenario seem to have been plucked from a random-country generator: Japan, Turkey, and… Poland?

But take a step back. First, consider the source. Friedman, 68, has been in the geopolitical strategy game for decades. He founded the Austin, Texas-based geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor in 1996 and led it until retiring in 2015. Along the way, he wrote bestselling books of immense scope and ambition, including The Next 100 Years and, most recently, 2015’s Flashpoints: The Emerging Crisis in Europe. In 2016, he founded Geopolitical Futures, a geopolitical forecaster focused, as he puts it, on allowing readers “to distinguish the significant from the trivial” in a world “inundated with information.”

His World War III scenario is another example of Friedman’s ability to drink in a deluge of information and distill it down to a fascinating, plausible (if counterintuitive), and indeed significant essence. What’s more, it is not nearly as crazy as it sounds. [more]

The secret to finding life on other planets is not to look for life as we know it

University of Colorado philosopher Carol Cleland, PhD

Perhaps one day we’ll send a spacecraft to a rocky planet orbiting Proxima Centauri. And perhaps the first images arriving back from across 4.2 light years of space will feature a purple Proxima Centurian peering straight back into the camera.

In the popular imagination, alien life has tended to focus on the take-me-to-your-leader/humans-as-snacks variety. Those who have been paying attention, though, know that the life we’re most likely to find on Proxima b, Mars or anywhere else will be microscopic. That sort of life might have very little resemblance to the microbes we’re used to here on Earth.

This gives rise to what appears at first to be a scientific problem, but which in fact something else entirely. The question of how to recognize alien microbes, which astrobiologists assume to be the universe’s most common life form, is to no small degree a philosophical challenge. Philosopher Carol Cleland has been a leading voice in helping NASA and the astrobiology community figure out ways not to miss extraterrestrial microbes right under our robotic emissaries’ noses. [more]

Save the planet — procreate less!

Travis and Sadiye Rieder read a book with their 2-year-old daughter, Sinem, in their Maryland home

You can drive an electric vehicle powered by rooftop solar panels, replace your old appliances and light bulbs with energy-sipping versions, recycle compulsively, compost, give up meat, eschew air travel, buy used-everything, make your own sandals out of old tires. You can do these and all sorts of other things in your personal quest to lower your carbon footprint. Doing so will indeed mitigate to some tiny degree the climate change that, despite the best efforts of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is hurtling us into a slew of potentially catastrophic unknowns as this century steams ahead.

But if you truly care about the climate and the future of a human civilization that developed in the current temperature regime, you could do something that has a much bigger impact: have one less kid. Or more precisely, says Johns Hopkins University philosopher and bioethicist Travis Rieder, one-half less kid. (Those who have reared children would recommend the top, rather than the bottom, half). [more]

Road trip! AZ-CO in pictures

In late March I flew to Phoenix, spent a couple of days with my folks, and then drove their (former) car from Fountain Hills, Ariz. to Denver, Colo. The trip took 11 hours, 10 minutes, the first 822 miles of it done in 11 hours flat. This is possible if one a) stops only when the engine has trained its tank and and b) if one speeds boldly. This is not hard to do in a 350 HP Ford Flex, which is more or less a massive sports car. I averaged about 75 mph despite fueling stops in Gallup and then Raton, N.M.

To pass the time, I listened to 80s on 8 on SiriusXM (does this date me?) plus some comedy radio and also took photos  (if inadvisable at 90 mph).

Departed Fountain Hills at 7:30 a.m.; Four Peaks in the background

Departed Fountain Hills at 7:30 a.m.; Four Peaks in the background

The Four Peaks looked a bit different on the way in.

The Four Peaks looked a bit different on the way in.

Tonto National Forest comes along pretty quickly -- a saguaro party.

Tonto National Forest comes along pretty quickly — a saguaro party.

And by Payson there's not a saguaro to be seen. One could be lulled into thinking one is already in Colorado. Not quite.

And into Payson (via U.S. 87), where there’s not a saguaro to be seen. One could be lulled into thinking one is already in Colorado. Not quite.

Ditto for Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest

Ditto for Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest.

Heading northeast toward Holbrook, things open up.

Heading northeast toward Holbrook, things open up.

Holbrook, which I managed to photograph without referencing petrified wood, which isn't easy to do.

Holbrook, which I managed to photograph without a petrified wood sign, which isn’t easy to do.

Toward Petrified Forest National Park on U.S. 40

Toward Petrified Forest National Park on U.S. 40

Despite the sign, I saw absolutely no one washing here.

Despite the sign, I saw absolutely no one washing here.

Into New Mexico

Into New Mexico (the yellow sign says as much; the truck — and in particular, the fact that I was passing it at a rather hasty clip — vexed the attempted close-up).

Just past Gallup, N.M. I had noted this formation...

Just past Gallup. I had noted this formation…

...from the air on the way down. It took about an hour to get here by Boeing 737. I had at least seven hours to go.

…from the air on the way down. It took about an hour to get here by Boeing 737. I had at least seven hours to go.

A few miles down the road, a long stretch of red cliffs...

A few miles down the road, a long stretch of red cliffs…

...that I had also noted from 4.5 miles up.

…that I had also seen from 4.5 miles up.

I was going so fast the guardrails warped.

I was going so fast the guardrails warped.

At first I thought the black stuff had been dumped into piles. But it's volcanic.

At first I thought the black stuff had been dumped into piles. But it’s volcanic.

Approaching Albuquerque

Approaching Albuquerque…

And there it is, where Bugs Bunny made all those wrong turns. It struck me, after so many miles of emptiness, how immense an undertaking the place is.

and there it is, where Bugs Bunny made all those wrong turns. It struck me, after so many miles of emptiness, how immense an undertaking the place is.

Toward Santa Fe, northbound I-25. Santa Fe managed to avoid showing much of itself to the highway.

Toward Santa Fe, northbound I-25. Santa Fe managed to avoid showing much of itself to the highway.

Past Santa Fe, at a point where enough bugs had splatted on the windshield that it confounded the autofocus.

Past Santa Fe, at a point where enough bugs had splatted on the windshield that it confounded the autofocus.

There were more trees, until everything went big and beige.

There were more trees, until everything went big and beige.

Just when I thought the West couldn't get any bigger, it got bigger.

Just when I thought the West couldn’t get any bigger, it got bigger.

But it does end. Entering Raton, I was following a fellow speeder, both of us apparently having forgotten that police hang out just outside of town. The cop car crossing the median pulled him over. Coulda been me!

But it does end. Entering Raton, I was following a fellow speeder, both of us apparently having forgotten that police tend to hang out on the approach to town. The cop car crossing the median pulled him over. Coulda been me!

Up and over the pass and it's into Colorado we go...

Up and over the pass and it’s into Colorado we go…

where what comes immediately into view but... mountains! No saguaro here, either.

where what comes immediately into view but… mountains! No saguaro here, either.

Trinidad from teh highway

Into Trinidad, the snow gone.

 

Headed for Pueblo

Wind power!

Rain….

 

Closing in on Pueblo…

You might have noticed that the drive becomes noticeably less scenic as one approaches the Front Range.

Things get blurry up the Palmer Divide.

And, finally, home, which is where the Ikea is. Or Something like that (Ikea is actually in Centennial, about 13 miles south of home. But whatever. When you’ve driven 790 already, what’s another dozen-odd miles?)