Bay Area Skeptics

The San Francisco Bay Area's skeptical organization since 1982

The Memorial Day Weekend SciSchmooze

Bob Siederer
27 May 2024

May 20, 2013 tornado in Moore, Oklahoma. Credit: Vincent Deligny/AFP/Getty Images

Hello again Science Fans! It is a 3-day holiday weekend for most of us, so enjoy the unofficial beginning of summer. The astronomical start of summer, the summer solstice, occurs on Thursday, June 20 this year. If you want to know more about the solstice, check out this article from the Farmers’ Almanac.


Way back in 1930, the lower portion of a massive statue was discovered in Egypt. The statue was of Ramsesses II and was estimated to have been 23 feet tall. But the upper part remained missing…until now. The missing portion has been discovered and it is in great condition. Having watched “Dune 2” last night, the thought of shifting sands is present on my mind.


I got the latest COVID-19 booster this week. I mention this to people and the most likely reaction is “oh, we’re still doing that?” COVID isn’t in the news as much these days for several reasons. COVID-caused deaths are way down from their peak. In fact, on April 2, no deaths were attributed to COVID-19 in California for the first time since March 18, 2020. But new variants, known as KP.2 and KP.3 are becomming the dominant strains. They are still part of the Omicron family tree, but seem to be better able to get around our defenses. The vaccine will not necessarily prevent you from catching these, but will greatly lessen the symptoms and dangers.

Environment and Weather

These past few weeks have seen large outbreaks of violent tornadoes in parts of the midwest. That in and of itself isn’t unusual at this time of year. May and June are the most active months for tornadoes in the Plains. But there appear to be changes in the “normal” pattern. There are fewer days producing tornadoes, but the ones that form are bigger. And the locations seem to be moving further east, into more populated areas.

Something else rare and strange happened the night of April 30 in Oklahoma when a tornado was spinning in the “wrong” direction, and another changed directions, looping back over the path it had just created.

It isn’t known for sure how or if this increase in stronger tornadoes is caused by climate change. And, of course, there are still people who deny the climate is changing, or that the changes are being caused by humans. They point out that CO2 levels have increased and decreased over time and that these variations are “natural”. New research done by Oregon State University and University of St. Andrews provides some pretty solid proof of just how much things have changed. They dug around 2 miles deep into the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, taking a core sample of the ice, and then examined the air bubbles trapped in that ice for as long as 50,000 years. They found the natural changes increased by an estimated 14 parts per million across 55 years, every 7,000 years or so. Now, that same amount jumps every 5 to 6 years! Our CO2 levels are now increasing at a rate 10 times faster than at any time in the past 50,000 years.

Meanwhile, in Florida, Governor DeSantis has signed a bill that scrubbs most references to climate change from Florida laws, bans offshore wind turbines in state waters, and weakens natural gas pipeline regulations. DeSantis said “we’re restoring sanity in our approach to energy and rejecting the agenda of the radical green zealots.” The wind power generation industry hasn’t shown much interest in offshore Florida locations because there isn’t enough wind! Florida also passed a law banning lab-grown meat from the state, even though the product isn’t available commercially. Perhaps because residents of Florida are more likely to have been affected by flooding, tornadoes, and hurricanes, the number of people living in the state who accept climate change is around 90%, and supporters of state efforts to address climate change is at 69%, well above the national average.

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

Google is changing what’s behind that ubiquitous search box we all use, funneling results through the Gemini chatbot to generate an “AI Overview” at the top of your search results. Here’s a look at what is changing behind the scenes, and why it may not be a good thing.

To find articles for this newsletter each week, I use news consolidators like Flipboard and Google, and lately the results have been getting a little weird. For example, on Flipboard, I have a tab for Science articles, and some odd things have been appearing there. Each time I refresh, two or three articles about cryptocurrency appear. These aren’t labeled as sponsored, so I have to assume the categorization algorithym is putting these articles in my feed. Several sites with dubious slants also frequently have articles appearing. One,, only seems to contain articles of a positive nature. Another, has mostly articles related to climate change mitigation, but they sound like clickbait.

I also came across an article about a professional male athlete rumored to be dating a sports network commentator who is female, but who was refered to as male several times in the article.

The conclusion I draw from this is that no person is editing or curating this content. I could be wrong, but much of it reads like some AI bot created the stories and got some of the details wrong. Words are often missing, or used incorrectly.

The New York Times just published an article on how easy it was for them to create AI chatbots that skew responses towards the left or right, creating disinformation for either side of the spectrum.

Two voice actors claim an AI start-up, Lovo, from Berkeley, used their voices to create bots voices without the actors’ permission. You can listen to recordings of their real voices and the Lovo bot voices and draw your own conclusions. Scarlett Johansson, who voiced the computer operating system in the film “Her” has demanded OpenAI disclose how it developed an AI personal assistant’s voice that sounds uncannily like hers. Life imitates art? OpenAI has since withdrawn the voice.

One thing is for sure…this technology, promissing as it is in many ways, is way ahead of the government’s ability to understand and regulate it.


The University of Tokyo’s Atacama Observatory, the world’s highest astronomical site, is officially in operation. The higher the altitude of a telescope, the less atmospheric interference, and the clearer the images we get. The site is very difficult to get to, and this created difficulties in construction. The observatory was first discussed 26 years ago and work on the site began in 2006.

Our own local Lick Observatory, sits at a much lower altitude, but was built in 1888, with all materials and equipment carried up the mountain by horse and wagon, a feat on a different scale, but just as ambitious for the time.

Over the weekend on May 10 – 12, Earth was struck by the largest solar storm in many years, resulting in the auroras at latitudes much further south than usual.

The solar and heliospheric observatory (SOHO) spacecraft captured video of the storm on the sun.

We’re near the solar maximum, the peak of activity during the Sun’s 11 year cycle, and NASA is preparing for intense radiation storms reaching Mars. We’ll have to better understand how these storm effects differ between Mars and Earth before we send astronauts there.

I was lucky enough to see the aurora in Quebec in 1969. The green and blue ribbons danced slowly in the sky overhead, tinged with red, for about 45 minutes on a crystal clear night. It was magical.

So far, astronomers have identified over 5,000 planets orbiting various stars in the universe. Because they are easier to detect using the methods available to us so far here on earth, most of them have been gas giants that are very close to their stars and have very short orbital periods. The big goal is to find candidate worlds similar to Earth that could possibly support life. A planet with a very similar radius to Earth that orbits in the “Goldilocks” zone, not too close and not too far from its sun, has been discovered around 40 light years away, orbiting Gliese-12, a red dwarf. Research continues.

The Hubble Space Telescope has produced so many amazing images, and so much data, during its 30 years or so in space. That time is limited, however. The Hubble is expected to return to Earth around 2034 as its orbit decays. Now, Jared Isaacman, who has orbited Earth in a SpaceX capsule, wants to pay to take a private maintenance crew to the Hubble to save its orbit. Of course, things are never that simple.

Nearly 590 million years ago, Earth’s magnetic field collapsed. The assumption is that the loss of protection from the field put life on earth’s surface at risk due to cosmic radiation. Yet, it appears that life flourished during this time.

For the Birds

Her name is Ellia. She’s a Goffin’s cockatoo who is learning to use an interactive speech board to communicate with researches. They are trying to figure out not if they can communicate with the bird, but if using this speech board tool is enriching her life.

We’ve known that crows are among the smartest animials in the world. They use tools to gain access to food, and teach successful methods to other crows. Now research has discovered that they can count out loud, up to 4, in a way similar to human toddlers.

Another use for Bamboo?

Bamboo is an incredibly useful plant. It grows very fast, some types as much as a foot a day. It is strong and has been used to build very sturdy homes, rafts, and other structures. It has been turned into almost indestructable flooring, soft material for clothing, bedding, and towels, kitchen cabinetry, and now, a transparent glass-like replacement that is resistant to fire and water.

Here’s wishing you a happy, safe, Memorial Day weekend. Please be sure to take a moment to remember those who gave their lives over the course of our history in defense of our country.

Have a great week in Science!

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