The Sunniest Climate Change Story

From New York:

Here on planet Earth, things could be going better. The rise in atmospheric temperatures from greenhouse gases poses the most dire threat to humanity, measured on a scale of potential suffering, since Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany launched near-simultaneous wars of conquest. And the problem has turned out to be much harder to solve. It’s not the money. The cost of transitioning away from fossil fuels, measured as a share of the economy, may amount to a fraction of the cost of defeating the Axis powers. Rather, it is the politics that have proved so fiendish. Fighting a war is relatively straightforward: You spend all the money you can to build a giant military and send it off to do battle. Climate change is a problem that politics is almost designed not to solve. Its costs lie mostly in the distant future, whereas politics is built to respond to immediate conditions. (And of the wonders the internet has brought us, a lengthening of mental time horizons is not among them.) Its solution requires coordination not of a handful of allies but of scores of countries with wildly disparate economies and political structures. There has not yet been a galvanizing Pearl Harbor moment, when the urgency of action becomes instantly clear and isolationists melt away. Instead, it breeds counterproductive mental reactions: denial, fatalism, and depression.

The Teflon Toxen

From The Intercept:

KEN WAMSLEY SOMETIMES DREAMS that he’s playing softball again. He’ll be at center field, just like when he played slow pitch back in his teens, or pounding the ball over the fence as the crowd goes wild. Other times, he’s somehow inexplicably back at work in the lab. Wamsley calls them nightmares, these stories that play out in his sleep, but really the only scary part is the end, when “I wake up and I have no rectum anymore.”

Wamsley is 73. After developing rectal cancer and having surgery to treat it in 2002, he walks slowly and gets up from the bench in his small backyard slowly. His voice, which has a gentle Appalachian lilt, is still animated, though, especially when he talks about his happier days. There were many. While Wamsley knew plenty of people in Parkersburg, West Virginia, who struggled to stay employed, he made an enviable wage for almost four decades at the DuPont plant here. The company was generous, helping him pay for college courses and training him to become a lab analyst in the Teflon division.

He enjoyed the work, particularly the precision and care it required. For years, he measured levels of a chemical called C8 in various products. The chemical “was everywhere,” as Wamsley remembers it, bubbling out of the glass flasks he used to transport it, wafting into a smelly vapor that formed when he heated it. A fine powder, possibly C8, dusted the laboratory drawers and floated in the hazy lab air.

Honeybees are Screwed

From Pacific Standard:

We’ve been hearing about this since 2007, but it’s as true now as it was seven years ago: Bees are in trouble. Their numbers have been falling, fast, and no one is quite sure why. Earlier this year, Josh Dzieza wrote about the vast ripple effect that the disappearance of bees is having on agriculture. (An important and, frankly, scary caveat: The bees aren’t starving and falling from the sky; they truly are disappearing, vanishing without a trace.)

Why Does a Soccer Ball Swerve?

Why does the ball swerve like that?

It happens every four years: The World Cup begins and some of the world’s most skilled players carefully line up free kicks, take aim — and shoot way over the goal.

The players are all trying to bend the ball into a top corner of the goal, often over a wall of defensive players and away from the reach of a lunging goalkeeper. Yet when such shots go awry in the World Cup, a blame game usually sets in. Players, fans, and pundits all suggest that the new official tournament ball, introduced every four years, is the cause.

Many of the people saying that may be seeking excuses. And yet scholars do think that subtle variations among soccer balls affect how they fly. Specifically, researchers increasingly believe that one variable really does differentiate soccer balls: their surfaces. It is harder to control a smoother ball, such as the much-discussed “Jabulani” used at the 2010 World Cup. The new ball used at this year’s tournament in Brazil, the “Brazuca,” has seams that are over 50 percent longer, one factor that makes the ball less smooth and apparently more predictable in flight.

“The details of the flow of air around the ball are complicated, and in particular they depend on how rough the ball is,” says John Bush, a professor of applied mathematics at MIT and the author of a recently published article about the aerodynamics of soccer balls. “If the ball is perfectly smooth, it bends the wrong way.”

By the “wrong way,” Bush means that two otherwise similar balls struck precisely the same way, by the same player, can actually curve in opposite directions, depending on the surface of those balls. Sound surprising?

The Experience of Being Under a Fire

From the Atlantic:

But fire shelters have saved hundreds of people’s lives, and saved hundreds of others from serious burns. I wanted to get a sense of what it’s like to endure a burnover, so I spoke to Lathan Johnson, a Colorado firefighter who survived a shelter deployment on the Little Venus Fire, which burned deep in the backcountry of Wyoming’s Shoshone National Forest in July 2006.

“You’re not always going to be able to outsmart a fire,” Johnson said. “I thought for sure I’d never have to use a fire shelter, and then I find myself shaking out one, pretty thankful that I had it.”

Johnson was overseeing a small group assigned to relieve another crew that was monitoring the fire several miles up a river valley. They got a late start and didn’t hike up the river valley until the afternoon, the most dangerous time for a wildfire, when the sun is hot, relative humidity is low, and the winds are high. “That’s when bad things happen on a fire,” Johnson says. “We call it the witching hour.” Indeed, the Wildfire Lessons Learned Center in Tucson, Arizona, studied 115 instances of firefighters trapped by wildfire over the past 20 years and found that half occurred between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m., and all but 12 happened between noon and 6 p.m.

Reading the Right Atheists

This, from Ethika Politica, is helpful:

Stephen Bullivant’s Faith and Unbelief offers a better strategy for Christians who want to engage atheists. He proposes that instead of demonizing atheists, we should seek out the best among them, those who are most open to dialogue, instead of going after the lowliers. It makes sense to engage the Nietzsches of our age without forgetting that the 19th century had its fair share of Feuerbachs, Renans, and Thomas Huxleys.

This is not only a challenge to Hart, but as you’ll note from all the atheism-related posts I’ve written (see: here), I’m somewhat guilty of the lowlier strategy. In an attempt to redeem myself I came up with a list of ten books by ten living atheists who engage religion (mostly) charitably.

It didn’t take me very long. I’m sure you can think of some prominent figures that I’ve omitted. They are listed below along with representative books, and their publisher blurbs.

One of the things Matt constantly pushes me to do is interact with the best representatives of a tradition and aspire to working on that level, rather than simply picking fights with the latest headline-grabbing hack. It’s a good goal and the list linked above is a helpful resource in figuring out how to do that.

Bruce Gordon on the Recent Findings from BICEP2

Lengthy read on the background and implications of the recent findings concerning the beginnings of the universe.

inflationary processes actually increase rather than decrease the required fine-tuning associated with our universe. For instance, the energy of the inflationary field has to be shut off with tremendous precision in order for a universe like ours to exist, with inflationary models requiring a shut-off energy precision of at least one part in 1053 and perhaps as much as one part in 10123. Furthermore, inflation is an entropy-increasing process (it increases the thermodynamic disorder of the cosmos), yet even without it, as Roger Penrose has shown, the universe’s initial entropy was fine-tuned to one part in 10 to the 10123 power. In other words, adding an inflationary process to the already hyper-exponentially fine-tuned entropy required by the Big Bang exponentially increases its hyper-exponential fine-tuning.

You Are Not Left- or Right-Brained

This has long been a pet peeve of mine. I love it when science vindicates my pet peeves.

In a new two-year study published in the journal Plos One, University of Utah neuroscientists scanned the brains of more than 1,000 people, ages 7 to 29, while they were lying quietly or reading, measuring their functional lateralization – the specific mental processes taking place on each side of the brain. They broke the brain into 7,000 regions, and while they did uncover patterns for why a brain connection might be strongly left or right-lateralized, they found no evidence that the study participants had a stronger left or right-sided brain network.

Whole Foods–Creationism for Hippies

From The Daily Beast:

If you want to write about spiritually-motivated pseudoscience in America, you head to the Creation Museum in Kentucky. It’s like a Law of Journalism. The museum has inspired hundreds of book chapters and articles (some of them, admittedly, mine) since it opened up in 2007. The place is like media magnet. And our nation’s liberal, coastal journalists are so many piles of iron fillings.

But you don’t have to schlep all the way to Kentucky in order to visit America’s greatest shrine to pseudoscience. In fact, that shrine is a 15-minute trip away from most American urbanites.

I’m talking, of course, about Whole Foods Market. From the probiotics aisle to the vaguely ridiculous Organic Integrity outreach effort (more on that later), Whole Foods has all the ingredients necessary to give Richard Dawkins nightmares. And if you want a sense of how weird, and how fraught, the relationship between science, politics, and commerce is in our modern world, then there’s really no better place to go. Because anti-science isn’t just a religious, conservative phenomenon—and the way in which it crosses cultural lines can tell us a lot about why places like the Creation Museum inspire so much rage, while places like Whole Foods don’t.

Magic and Myers-Briggs

Marc Barnes:

Consider how a satisfying test harbors an air of mystery between our responses and the final test-result. We do not want to “see where this is going” while we take it. There is no fun if we can anticipate the result of our answers. By being able to predict the test we are taking — saying “oh, if I answer it this way, of course it will say I’m an introvert” — we reveal our implicit understanding that the test-result is really only our responses told back to us. We don’t want our responses told back to us. We want an identity. Far better, then, are the questions that obscure the relation between our answers and the final result, asking us for answers we cannot easily connect to some objective personality type. This desire for a hidden mechanism is typical of magical desire — to not know how a result was achieved and to revel in the not-knowing. Can we deny the pleasure we take in this, the powerful feeling that accompanies having our identity so mysteriously given to us, so that we say in astonishment, reading the paragraph that describes our “type” — “How did it know this about me?” It is necessary for us to forget the mechanism of tests if we are to extract identity and not the only thing tests offer — limited reflection.