Bay Area Skeptics

The San Francisco Bay Area's skeptical organization since 1982

An Easter SciSchmooze

Bob Siederer
March 31 2024

Caltrain’s New Electric Trains. Photo by Bob Siederer

Hello again Science Fans! I’m filling in for David this week (and next). For those of you who celebrate, Happy Easter!

More about Time

In my February 25 SciSchmooze, I went into a discussion about time. There was one error (that I know of) in that discussion where I said how there was a two week difference between the start of Daylight Savings Time here in the US versus Europe, with them making the change later than us. The difference is actually three weeks, with Europe changing to Daylight time early this morning. They will return to standard time one week before us in the fall. That discussion included leap year and leap seconds. But there’s a new problem.

Climate change is causing the Earth’s rotation to slow down and, as a result, at some point in the not too distant future, we’ll need to have a negative leap second, and that has never been done before. There are significant consequences of skipping a second! Cosmic interactions are complicated!


Artificial Intelligence seems to be in everything these days. All sorts of products claim to have an AI component. But all that AI requires a lot of computing power, and that requires a lot of electrical power. By 2026, the amount of electricity needed to run data centers, handle cryptocurrency, and run AI will be about the same amount of energy consumed by the entire country of Japan!

All that computing power requires a LOT of transisitors, with smaller and smaller nanometer technology to pack more transistors onto a silicon wafer. Here’s a look at the history of circuit growth and where we’re projected to go in the future.

I’m a firm believer in the value of education. I developed and taught a college-level computer internals course back in the day that explained how mainframes worked. It was aimed at future programmers. The idea was that the more you knew about how the computer worked, the better you could program it. The same is true today with things like AI. Even if you aren’t a programmer but just a casual user of something with AI, knowing more about what happens when you do something helps you understand the results, especially when those results aren’t what you might have expected.

I came across some free courses offered by NVIDIA that might help you understand what all the hype is about with AI, as well as how to use things like ChatGPT more effectively. I have not taken these courses myself, so I’m not necessarily recommending them. There are other bits of instruction out there on places like YouTube, and on other vendor sites. With a little bit of research on your part, you could become more comfortable with the technology of today, and where it is going in the future.

Environmental Transportation

Herb and I and a mutual friend had the pleasure of attending an open house tour of the new electric Caltrain trainsets that will replace the diesel-hauled trains that have plied the rails between San Jose and San Francisco for the past 40 years or so. This year marks the 160th anniversary of the start of commuter service on the same corridor between these two cities. The new trainsets are built by Stadler, a Swiss company, and are based on their KISS platform. KISS is an acronym meaning “Komfortabler Innovativer Spurtstarker S-Bahn-Zug” which translates from Swiss German into “comfortable, innovative, sprint-capable suburban train”. Twenty-three 7 car sets are currently on order or onsite. One battery operated 4 car set has been ordered to test for use between Tamien and Gilroy. If successful, the model could replace the remaining diesel service to the south county area.

Since these are all electric, they are emission free.Another type of advanced train is being tested, having recently set a Guinness World Record for distance traveled without refueling a hydrogen fuel-cell train. Several of these are on order for San Bernardino County’s Transportation Authority and are based on Stadler’s FLIRT design, a cousin to the KISS.Did you know that even today’s diesel-hauled freight and passenger trains are really electric? The diesel part is actually a big generator, and the traction is provided by electric motors on the locomotive’s axles. So electric propulsion of trains is nothing new.


Somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago, someone was born with blue eyes. That person is a very distant relative of every person with blue eyes today, me included, according to researchers at the University of Copenhagen.If you enjoy strawberries, you may enjoy this article about the Driscoll company, the berry giant based in Watsonville. After reading this one, I think I’ll stick to organic strawberries when at all possible.


The volcanic activity near Grindavík, Iceland continues, with the latest eruption lasting at least 2 weeks at this point. This latest phase released a lot of sulphur into the air, and it spread across northern Europe, reaching as far east as the Baltic states last Friday.

Our Sun’s rotation isn’t quite what you might expect. At the equator it rotates in around 24 earth days, while at the poles it takes around 34 days. There’s a new theory to explain why it behaves this way.

For the first time, astronomers were able to capture the light from a supernova in the Messier 101 galaxy, also known as the PinWheel. Several different telescopes were focused on this galaxy as the light emerged, giving the astronomers the most detailed look at what actually happens when a star goes supernova.

As the Curiosity rover continues to explore the surface of Mars, we learn more about the history of our red neighbor. Scientists now say Mars had more water, and it stayed wet longer, then they had previously thought, based on photographs from Curiosity, which is acting like a robot geologist on Mars.

The Chandra X-ray Observatory is one of the lesser known space telescopes. It doesn’t get as much recognition as the James Webb or Hubble telescopes, but the data it collects is vital to our understanding of the Universe as it is the main source pictures in the x-ray range of light. But NASA’s proposed fiscal year 2025 budget cuts funding for the operation of this vital observatory, and this represents a significant danger to other astronomical research.

Event picks

There are 103 (!) events listed on the calendar for the next two weeks, so there’s a lot to see and learn. Here are some suggestions:
AI & the Humanities: AI is Weird – 04/01/2024 05:00 PM in Berkeley
The Shocking Nature of Wildfires Science Show – 04/03/2024 11:30 AM at the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley
Does Coffee Cause Cancer? Myths about the Food We Eat – Livestream – 04/04/2024 04:00 PM

Looking ahead, tickets for the ever-popular Lick Observatory summer lectures and concerts will go on sale April 17 at noon. These sell out quickly, especially the Friday night lectures. Not all of the speakers have been announced yet. Plan ahead!

Have a great week in Science.

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