Bay Area Skeptics

The San Francisco Bay Area's skeptical organization since 1982

Halloween week with the SciSchmooze

from the desk of Bob Siederer

Hello again Science Fans!

This past week has brought us another reminder of our fragile existence here on the planet.  The Sonoma County fires and the PG&E blackouts should serve as a reminder that we should all have disaster kits that are up to date.  Our thoughts are with those affected by the fires, blackouts, and evacuations.  Several events, including the North Bay Discovery Days event for the Bay Area Science Festival were canceled because of the fires.  Always check the weblink in our listings for any last minute changes or cancellations.

I’ve got a lot of interesting articles to share with you, but first, here are my picks for events this week:

  1. Nerd Nite East Bay: Barnacles, Chevron Richmond, Martian Atmosphere – 10/28/2019 07:00 PM in Berkeley and Nerd Nite Silicon Valley #9: Ancient Automatons & Super Sensors! – 10/29/2019 07:00 PM in San Jose
  2. Samaira Mehta, Youth Entrepreneur of the Year – 10/30/2019 06:00 PM in Palo Alto
  3. Discovery Day at Oracle Park – 11/02/2019 11:00 AM, the finale to the Bay Area Science Festival, in San Francisco

Google said this week that it has reached “quantum supremacy”.  That’s supposed to be when a quantum computer solves a computation that no ordinary binary computer can match.  IBM, however, disagrees with this assertion.  It seems it all depends on how you define quantum supremacy.  In either case, the accomplishment deserves notice. (Disclosure: I worked for IBM for most of my career, 27-1/2 years).

“You know you’re getting old when…”.  That sounds like the beginning of a joke, but it seems every generation complains about “kids these days”.  Now science claims to know why.

Weather forecasting is less of an art now than it used to be, in part because of powerful computer models that are based on past conditions and the resulting weather.  Records from old ships, kept by mariners, are now being entered into a database to help reconstruct the weather and climate history more accurately, which in turn makes for more accurate models going forward. 

“The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man”.  That quote is from 1798’s “An Essay on the Principle of Population”.  A few years later, the earth’s population reached 1 billion.  It now stands at 7.6 billion people.  How many is too many, and how will we nourish more?  Seems there is always room for one more.

When New Horizons zoomed past Pluto in 2015, it took pictures of one side of the former planet.  But it went by too fast to get detailed pictures of the other side, as Pluto takes 6 Earth days to rotate.  But New Horizons did get some long distance pictures of the far side of Pluto on approach, and scientists have now released the first images, along with their analysis.

Along with hundreds of other things the current administration has defunded, rolled back, or eliminated, two more examples of short sightedness were in the news this week.  The government has quietly cut off funding for research into animal diseases that might affect humans.  Examples of serious illnesses that we already know about include Ebola and MERS.  Diseases such as this most affect very poor, underdeveloped countries, such as some in Africa and Asia.  Meanwhile, compounds known as PFAS, which are used in non-stick coatings and firefighting foam, can cause multiple health problems in people.  The former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences was barred from saying so when she worked for the government.  She’s talking now.

Not washing your hands after you poop is more dangerous than eating raw meat. Enough said on that subject!

In news from the animal kingdom, researchers at the University of Richmond have taught rats how to drive tiny cars.  This is fascinating, and there is video!

This last one falls under the heading “unintended consequences”, or, perhaps, “they should have thought of that!”  It seems that Russian scientists have been tracking 13 steppe eagles, a very endangered species of eagle, using transmitters attached to the birds that send their GPS coordinates back to the scientists four times a day using SMS messages.  Just like when you go into another country and incur roaming charges, one eagle name Min, recently flew from Kazakhstan to Iran and his transmitter unloaded a backlog of messages that ran the study out of money!  Even eagles get charged for roaming!

Have a great week in Science, and stay safe!

Bob Siederer

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