Tag Archive for Scientific American

Editorial Review and Opinion

In the May 2015 issue of Scientific American, there is an article in the Science of Health section entitled “Why Girls Are Starting Puberty Early,” by SciAm editor Dina Fine Maron. The article describes a situation in which American girls are experiencing the changes associated with puberty earlier and earlier in life. This change has occurred over the last generation. The author cites clinical evidence and points out some of the problems associated with the phenomenon. Her principle explanation for condition seems to center around obesity. The rise of obesity in America equals the rise in early onset of puberty in girls. Have you heard about obesity before? It is the scourge of America and is being blamed for this latest of social ills.

She mentions the possibility that social stress may be a cause, as if social stress has never existed before. My mother grew up in the Great Depression and I grew up during the Cold War. I think we both had a little “social stress” ourselves, yet neither of us suffered from premature puberty. She also recommends breast feeding and raising children in homogeneous neighborhoods. The stress argument sounds like armchair psychology, breast feeding is a familiar progressive nostrum, while the last sounds suspiciously like de facto segregation.

In addition, while the article is several thousand words long, only two sentences are devoted to the mention of pesticides and other environmental chemicals that are now present (and in ever increasing quantities, which she also doesn’t mention) in the modern American food chain. And, almost comically, she asserts these are probably only important because obese people would ingest more toxins and thus have more of them in their bodies. No mention at all is made of the ever present growth hormones in meat and vegetable products, as well as the insecticides and herbicide suppressors that are now present in some GMOs widely used in animal feed and cereals; nor the growing variety of and sufferers from food allergies among children as well as certain classes of behavior disorders. All of which seem to parallel the above mentioned changes.

As a society, we should be horrified at the notion that the physiology of our young people, principally girls, but it is also happening to a lesser degree to boys, is being adversely effected by what, at least I must conclude, are human created environmental conditions. The phenomenon of premature puberty only occurs in countries practicing the agricultural methods used here in the United States. And after all, too many coincidences do constitute an actual pattern. That an article addressing a major issue like this should ignore these environmental factors is curious indeed. The cynic in me suspects that the author, an editor at SciAm, knows which side of the bread the butter is on. That the very companies that provide for and buy the products of modern agriculture, Monsanto, Dupont, Dow Chemical, Phizer, Merc, and so on, are also principal sponsors and advertisers in SciAm, and they might take offense at an article suggesting that their products are a possible source of a health problem. This may be a reason behind her downplaying this aspect of the issue.

But leaving aside the arguments that the current industrial model of agriculture practiced in the United States is unsustainable environmentally, I would contend that these methods are also poisoning our children. Viable and existing alternatives exist, but I will leave that discussion for another day.


Exo-Planets 2

In this recent article in the Scientific American, we learn that astronomers have discovered 629 planets outside the solar system.  NASA’s Kepler mission has discovered over 100 in an area of the Northern Hemisphere covering only 1% of the sky. Ten of these exo-planets are terrestrial, that is they are small planets with solid surfaces. I know of at least one of these that appears to have a triple-point temperature range: water can exist as ice, liquid and vapor. This is amazing and sobering news when one considers that we have only just begun our search for such planets and that we are as yet only searching in our own neighborhood.

Our own solar system is ripe for settlement and development. The moon and Mars are the two most likely candidates. The moon because of its proximity and Mars because it has an atmosphere and water. Once methods of interplanetary travel are established, the asteroids and the large moons of the outer solar system will be the next likely candidates. Eventually a space faring culture will develop off the Earth, a culture that sees the cosmos as its habitat. This culture will inevitably look to the stars and to b the many exo-planets as the next logical goals for settlement. Multi-generational missions to settle these new planets would not be inconceivable to people raised in such a culture.

We may eventually develop a means to break the light barrier, the cosmic speed limit postulated by Albert Einstein that nothing can move faster than the speed of light, the way we broke the sound barrier in the 1940’s. If so, these exo-planets will become stepping stones for us to further explore the universe as well a places for us to found settlements. In any case, the discovery of these exo-planets is akin in importance to the discovery that our own solar system planets were more than just points of light in the sky.






The Standard Model

When my grandfather was a young man, atoms were the basic building blocks of matter. In fact, the very term was derived from the Greek word atomos, which means indivisible. By the time I was a young man, that basic unit of matter had been divided into protons, neutrons and electrons, which were then believed to be the basic units of matter. Since then, new discoveries revealed that those three once basic units are in fact made up of several sub-particles generically classified as Fermions (named after the nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi) and shown in the attached chart. For some time, these particles, or units of matter, were thought to be the basic ones of which all larger particles are composed. Recently, however, new evidence has surfaced that “imply that they (the particles shown in the chart) are instead built of still smaller components.” *

The quoted article highlights, albeit unintentionally, an underlying problem we face as we strive to understand the universe, both on the micro and macro level. It seems that no matter what we discover, the more we know, the less we know. Each layer of knowledge that we peel off the onion of the universe simply reveals another layer beneath it. And paradoxically, that layer always seems larger and more complex than the one that covered it. So the amount to be known keeps growing, while our ability to comprehend this new information remains the same. The problem is much the same in the macro universe of stars and galaxies, but I will discuss that in future post.

Some years ago I saw a presentation by Arthur C. Clarke, the scientist and science fiction writer, on the subject of fractals. Fractals are mathematical expressions that create identical or similar patterns that repeat no matter how closely viewed. You have no doubt seen visual representations of fractals on the web and in some modern art. These would just be neat parlor tricks of interest only to mathematicians except for one salient fact as pointed out by Clarke: while the mathematically generated fractals are infinite, they have many finite analogies in the natural world. River networks, blood vessels, DNA molecules, crystals, snowflakes, and broccoli are just a few examples of finite fractal patterns. But if finite fractal patterns clearly exist in nature, and infinite patterns exist in math, what prohibits infinite patterns in nature?

Infinity is not a term embraced by many scientists except mathematicians. Physicists and other practical investigators into the micro-world want no part of infinity. Hence the notion that there may be an infinite number of ever smaller sub-particles, similar to fractals, or at least so many as to be effectively infinite, is an unacceptable concept.  In their minds, there must be a final particle or set of particles. I believe the reasons for this conviction are psychological rather scientific. After all, everything in our normal lives is finite and these are the experiences that condition our assumptions and beliefs. We are born, we live and we die. As individuals, our part of the life cycle is finite, and this fact carries over into how we look at the natural world.  Scientists are human and are not immune to the bias toward finiteness that is hard wired into all of us. In addition, the notion if infinity has religious connotations attached to it that many scientists find repellant and associate with superstition.

However, being neither a scientist or a theologian, as a science fiction writer I am free to speculate. It is quite possible that we will never find that “god particle,” the most basic of the basic, the building block of matter and therefore the universe.  Instead, we may be faced with an ever more complex micro-world that truly is a world without end.

*The quote and the chart were taken from an article entitled “The Inner Life of Quarks,” in this month’s (November, 2012) issue of Scientific American by Don Lincoln, a senior physicist at Fermilab.