Bay Area Skeptics

The San Francisco Bay Area's skeptical organization since 1982

Feliz Año Nuevo con la SciSchmooze

Dr. Schmitz and ichthyosaur fossil

Greetings dear science-aware reader,

I’ve always liked illustrations of plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs. They look so lithe and strong, evoking visions of pelagic ballerinas with the lethality of a T Rex. The fossilized head above came from Cymbospondylus youngorum, an especially large (15-meter-long) ichthyosaur. I wonder whether, unlike Great White Sharks, they would have found humans palatable.

¿And what did i do on New Year’s Eve (besides cleaning the cat box, cooking breakfast, taking out the trash, and other quotidian tasks)? I watched “Don’t Look Up,” a dark comedy about a repeat of the Chicxulub Extinction Event. It even has a song performed by Ariana Grande and Kid Cudi with lyrics that include, “Listen to the goddamn qualified scientists” and “Turn off that s— Fox News.”

Twice (here & here) i’ve written that the biblical destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah may have been caused by an air-burst meteorite. I might have been bamboozled since some evidence for that event appears to be falsified. Dr. Elizabeth Bik (SkeptiCal 2019 speaker) found altered photos presented as evidence for the airburst. Dr. Mark Boslough of the Skeptical Inquirer found other problems with the research. Once again we see value in the peer review process.

Speaking of apocalypses, i am so glad that we are getting so much rain and snow in California, Oregon, and Washington, but i keep thinking about the California Flood of 1605 and the Great Flood of 1862

Obviously you survived New Year’s celebrations this year, but how did your brain fare? Some studies suggest, but do not prove, that moderate (very moderate) consumption of red wine might be be heart healthy – but at the expense of brain health.

Here’s a cheap segue: The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is quite healthy as of this writing. It reached the halfway point on New Year’s Eve (day 6) and it will reach L2 on day 29. Take a moment to see where it is and what it’s up to. Since we have spent big bucks on this astronomy/cosmology endeavor rather than on alleviating social ills, i do hope this project is successful. NASA demonstrates its desire to sell this mission in this video that uses the voice of the late Carl Sagan.

I set my alarm at 4 AM on Christmas to watch the launch of the JWST on top of an Ariane 5 rocket. Here are some fun facts of rocket power sending the telescope to its destination 1.5 million kilometers away:

  1. From launch to 2 min 25 sec: 3,400,000 pounds thrust until boosters separated
  2. From then to 8 min 42 sec: 228,000 pounds thrust until main engine cut off
  3. From then to 24 min 50 sec: 15,000 pounds thrust until 2nd stage separation
  4. Available thrust from JWST’s 16 rocket engines: 1 pound each

We are giving away another large JWST pin to wear or to give as a gift. Just send an email to (only one) before noon Friday with an integer between zero and 1,000. We will then use a random number generator to select the target number and mail the pin to the person who chose the closest number. Dimensions: 3.5 x 4.5 x 0.2 cm.

Public responses to COVID-19 demonstrate that a large portion of Americans – and people around the world – are woefully deficient in their understanding of science. (Once, as my neighbor and i were watching the ISS pass over, she spotted the lights of an airliner moving toward it. “OMG! I hope they don’t collide.”) Yes it’s good to understand “risk levels” and that the Earth is (approximately) a sphere that orbits around the Sun, but most importantly people should know “what the enterprise of science actually is” and that “applying the best known science to our societal problems positively impacts all of us.” However, a ‘naive respect for science’ – a.k.a. Scientism – led my mother to forgo breastmilk and instead raised me on “formula” because Nestlé Foods scientists in white lab coats claimed formula was better. 

My ONLINE picks of the week:
Dandelion Energy (home geothermal) – 4pm Monday
Why Rationality Matters – 4pm Thursday
Night School: New Year, New Species – 6pm Thursday

My IN PERSON pick of the week (outdoors only):
Afternoon Hike at Mindego Hill – 1-4pm Sunday, Los Altos

The Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 apparently spreads more easily than the Delta variant – it is better at evading our immune system – but it is easier on the lungs. Two ways to help avoid Omicron infection are by reducing exposure and getting a booster shot. Using an N95-rated mask when indoors will reduce your exposure. Researchers found that a salt coating on masks helps protect against viruses. Here is how you can improve the virus filtering properties of lesser masks using a mask insert made from household materials. Dissolve 2 tbsp salt in ½ cup hot water, add 1 tsp nonionic surfactant (such as Dawn or similar dishwashing liquid), soak paper towels in the solution, dry them on a flat surface, then cut to size. However, a good filter insert will not help if the mask fits poorly.

You probably have an appetite for learning fun things in science. How about ¿Where does emergency oxygen come from on airplanes? Here’s an interactive site of the evolutionary tree. (Unlike most depictions, it’s not easy to locate humans on this tree.) ¿What happens if a Black Hole hits the Earth? (It may have already happened.) ¿Is the Hyperloop just hype? (We learn that 430 kph = 270 mph = 1.4 x 10^9 hands per fortnight.) ¿What is it like to do field research on Polar Bears?

Have a wonderful week,
Dave Almandsmith, Bay Area Skeptics

Humans aren’t as good as we should be in our capacity to empathize with feelings and thoughts of others, be they humans or other animals on Earth. So maybe part of our formal education should be training in empathy. Imagine how different the world would be if, in fact, that were ‘reading, writing, arithmetic, empathy.’
– Neil deGrasse Tyson

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