October 21st, 2012

#3636: The problem with "science" TV

Spent a few hours with Lemonzen in the Citrus Grove for Sweetest Day last night, and part of the festivities was us watching a Morgan Freeman's Through the Wormhole ep about what aliens would look like.

The intent had been for me to fisk the science in the thing--but it was so wrong there wasn't time. Instead of being rife for sarcastic comments, the thing just annoyed me, because whatever the people on that show were using to come up with their ideas, it wasn't science.

Freeman would do a voiceover as we viewed a video clip containing "artist's conception" of one exoplanet or another discovered by NASA's space telescope Kepler. There'd be a brief discussion of the surface conditions; then he'd introduce some scientists who'd talk about what a life form living there would look like.

So one planet is, they think, covered in boiling water. After explaining how there could be life in boiling water, they show us a picture of this baleen whale-like creature that has hexagonal symmetry. So far so good--but it has a mouth like the bell of a trumpet.

Sure, because you want your face to contain a huge parachute when you're a creature that lives in water. That doesn't cause drag at all! You won't expend an excess of energy pushing that stupid crap through the water or anything!

...there are a variety of terrestrial creatures which use a baleen to gather food. All these creatures are streamlined and only open the baleen to feed. I'm just sayin'.

Next up, the creature that lives on a "super-Earth" which doesn't have a liquid core, and therefore no magnetic field. These creatures, we are told, would have to be extra-resistant to radiation because their world doesn't have a magnetic field that will protect them from solar radiation.


If Earth had never had a magnetic field, we might not have an atmosphere: the solar wind would have blown it away as it formed. (See also Mars.)

We're talking about a planet massing some 3-5 times as much as Earth, though, so I'll concede that this planet has an atmosphere--the solar wind can't blow it away because the force of gravity is greater. Fine; this particular world has an atmosphere and no magnetic field. Why not?

Here on Earth, we've got a layer of atmosphere that's 100 miles thick. If our magnetic field disappeared tomorrow, there would be no significant increase in mutations or any other radiation-related issues because air has mass and it absorbs the particulate radiation which would otherwise be deflected by the magnetic field. (Which is mostly protons and electrons, I might add, because magnetic fields don't deflect neutrons.)

The electromagnetic radiation emitted by the sun--UV, X-rays, gamma rays--are not deflected by the magnetic field and are simply absorbed by the atmosphere. That's why I'm not going to talk much about it any more; it's not germane. With or without a magnetic field, the planet's atmosphere must absorb all (or most) of the EM radiation if life is to survive long enough to evolve into complex forms.

Further, however--they said creatures on this planet would require a way of repairing genetic damage because of the solar radiation from which there is no magnetic field to save them. Because the planet has an atmosphere this is just plain wrong--but let's look at the issue a little more closely.

Going 100% "science" for the nonce, let's observe that creatures which evolved in terrestrial conditions have a defense mechanism against the one form of solar ionizing radiation which is plentiful at the bottom of a thick atmospheric layer--ultraviolet light--and consider what that mechanism is.

Ever got a sunburn? Ever got a sun tan? Yeah.

Particulate radiation is not particularly (pun intended) difficult to shield against. You just put enough mass between you and the source, and you're fine. But if there's so much particulate radiation flying around that an earth-like atmosphere is insufficient protection from it, you're looking at a superheated atmosphere that's not hanging around long anyway--certainly not long enough for life to evolve.

And what's left after the atmosphere is done absorbing the bulk of it? Plain old garden-variety DNA is sufficient. If there's a problem, creatures might evolve shells or exoskeletons of lead-calcium compounds. Yeah, lead bugs--wouldn't that be cool? (But on a gold-rich world, you might have gold bugs....)

Then there was the guy who was talking about kite plants. The idea is a plant which has evolved a way to use wind shear in its favor; it has a highly photosynthetic sail up high and a kind of parachute down low.

It would evolve thus, we were told, because the atmosphere would be too murky at the surface for plant life to flourish, and it would have to get above most of the clouds blah blah blah etcetera.

...how does that evolve?

Seriously: how does something like that evolve in the first place? I don't see it. The engineering seems to work well enough, but in order for natural selection to function there'd have to be a lot of plants being blown off the surface of the planet into the sky.

Show me the terrestrial plants which can be uprooted and blown through the air in hurricane conditions and survive long enough to go to seed. Just once, let alone the myriad of generations required for natural selection to function.

Simply put: I don't buy it. Any of it.

And this is what I don't like about "science" TV. This is why I don't watch it--there'd have to be a whole slew of corrections made to the shit to improve it to the point of merely being wrong!

"This is what conditions might be like on this exoplanet, maybe, if there's water there or this or that or the other thing." It's all speculation; and what's worse, it's bad, non-scientific speculation. We don't really know what kind of conditions prevail on the exoplanets we've discovered. We can make some educated guesses--okay, that planet they found, that orbits Proxima Centauri in 3.3 days, yeah, that one's going to be a mite toasty--but what we can't do is get up and say definitively that this or that planet has water on it, the other planet is pleasantly cool with a westerly breeze, etcetera.

Morgan Freeman tells us confidently that if we can imagine an alien, it probably exists somewhere--but I can just as confidently say that the alien life in question has to follow the goddamned Laws of Thermodynamics.

Which means--sorry--the trumpet-whale-thing is rather unlikely. Also the kite plant.

#3637: So I was driving home last night.

And as I was coming down the ramp connecting the end of I-355 with I-80, something lurched from the grassy strip to my left and ran in front of the Jeep.

I emitted this dismayed sound I can only characterize as "Duwww...." and stepped on the brakes. After missing the critter I analyzed my reaction.

What was most cool about it was how my brain and reflexes worked. The instant I saw the thing, stuff started happening. Part of my brain began analyzing the thing's gait and its motion, as well as its color and shape, to determine what it was. At the same time that was going on, the part of my mind devoted to solving the differential equations of motion sprung into gear, working out how hard I had to brake to avoid hitting the creature without losing control of the Jeep.

My right foot applied enough pressure to the brake pedal that perhaps half the Jeep's braking authority was in use. The first analysis of the relative motions of the two bodies (Jeep and...thingy) came out badly for the creature. (Deer? No. Identification pending.) I reflexively applied more brake and the second approximation began just as the ID report came back: coyote. By the time my brain had finished retrieving data on coyote the creature was clear of my lane and the third approximation interrupted the second, coming back with all clear!

All of this took perhaps half a second, maybe a smidge more, and all of it was 100% automatic. It's neat how the two processes--trajectory analysis and target identification--were independent of each other and simultaneous.

But if you think about it, the human male brain is optimized for those two tasks, particularly the solving of the differential equations of motion in real time. We spent a lot more time as hunter-gatherers than we've spent in agricultural civilization.

If you think about it, that's why we have sports, why we idolize top athletes. The skills used by an NFL quarterback are exactly the skills used by a primitive hunter: acquire target, throw projectile to hit it. The most popular games all hinge on how well people can make inanimate objects go where they want them to; using tools (baseball bat, golf club) are handicaps as well as force multipliers and echo other primitive force multipliers like the atlatl.

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I don't know that I've ever seen a coyote before, certainly not outside of captivity. That one was very nearly an ex-coyote. I'm glad I didn't hit it; that would have messed up my truck.

The new shock absorbers have gotten run in a bit, and the Jeep feels solid as a rock now. Driving on the expressway at 70 MPH is a completely different experience now; where it felt okay before, now it's a pleasure. (New tires will improve that even more, because they'll be balanced and have better grip.)

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Sandra Fluke draws a crowd! ...of seven. "Proof positive it’s much easier to manufacture a controversy in the media than it is to manufacture a rally audience to match."


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...who knew Windows Vista incorporated a time-travel module?

I want to know what this machine was doing on May 5, 1972....

But, hey! At least there were no errors!