Post-Apocalyptic Brewskis

Back in the 1950s, when American scientists and military advisors were regularly test-detonating new nuclear devices to see whether they should be added to America’s nuclear arsenal, scientists decided it made sense to conduct a special experiment — and “Operation Teapot” was born.  Its purpose was to determine the “civil effects” of an atomic blast on commercially packaged food items, including bottled and canned beer.

small20boy20test201962The Operation Teapot researchers reasoned that, if the United States and the Soviet Union started hurling nuclear bombs at each other, the American water supply would quickly become contaminated by fallout, and determining an alternative source for fluids therefore was important.  The report on Operation Teapot explained:  “Consideration of the problems of food supply show the needs of humans for water, especially under disaster conditions, could be immediate and urgent.”  The report added:  “At various times some consideration has been given to special packaging of potable water, but since packaged beverages, both beer and soft drinks, are so ubiquitous and already uniformly available in urban areas, it is obvious that they could serve as important sources of fluids.”  In short, since American households already had ample supplies of beer and Coke, why not see if the U.S. could rely on those to supply post-bomb blast refreshment?

So, in 1955, researchers at the Nevada Proving Grounds put bottled and canned beer and soda at three locations, ranging from 0.2 to 2 miles from ground zero, and then set off a bomb.  Some of the bottles and cans at the location closest to the blast were obliterated, but others survived and, after testing, were found to be largely unaffected in the taste department and “within the permissible limits for emergency use” from a radiation standpoint.  The canned and bottled beers that were positioned farther away from the blast site showed no signs of change whatsoever and even retained their carbonation and airtight seal.

Some of the two-fisted scientists working on Operation Teapot, no doubt thirsty after witnessing the blast, apparently cracked open some of the beers and soft drinks and downed a few swigs to conduct an “immediate taste test.”  The report on Operation Teapot noted:  “Immediate taste tests indicated that the beverages, both beer and soft drinks, were still of commercial quality, although there was evidence of a slight flavour change in some of the products exposed at 1270 ft from GZ [Ground Zero]. Those farther away showed no change.”  The remaining bottles and cans were sent to several commercial laboratories for further taste testing, and the consensus was that the beer could unquestionably be used as an emergency source of potable beverages.

So there you have it!  After following “duck and cover” techniques to weather the initial atomic blast, Americans of the ’50s would be able to crack open a cold bottle of suds and quaff a few without concern about their beer supply going flat or having a skunky taste.  It would make the post-apocalyptic landscape and the clumps of hair falling out of your scalp a little bit easier to take.

Deciphering Alien Communications

Astronomers have discovered an intriguing fact:  an object in a galaxy 500 million light years away is sending us regular, repeating radio signals.

602x338_cmsv2_c88622f3-b54d-5980-a3e0-35b6c127b70c-3573104Fast radio bursts are not uncommon in the universe — observatories have recorded more than 100 in recent years — but repeating fast radio bursts are rare.  And this particular radio burst, which was first recorded in 2017, is the only one that is sending out fast radio bursts in a regular repeating pattern.  The bursts come in 16.35-day cycles, with 1-2 bursts per hour over a four- day period and then 12 days of silence before starting up again.

In short, the source is like the Old Faithful of fast radio signals.  And, intriguingly, at a distance of 500 million light years it’s the closest fast radio burst we’ve detected.

So, what’s causing this regular pattern of radio bursts?  Scientists have come up with several hypotheses:  it could be a natural radio signal-emitting object, like a neutron star or a binary system, where the frequency of the bursts is caused by the object’s wobbling or orbit or rotation.

Or, it could be aliens.  There’s no way to know for sure.

It raises a serious question:  if there are aliens out there, how do we know if they are trying to communicate with us, and what they are trying to say?  The 16-day cycle of radio bursts could be sending a clear, friendly greeting, or an important warning, using the alien version of Morse code, with the initial bursts being the dot-dot-dashes and the 12-day interval the method of letting us know that the message is repeating.  But without knowing the code, we can’t decipher the meaning — or even recognize the radio bursts as a message in the first place.  It’s similar to the inability to decipher ancient hieroglyphics until the Rosetta Stone was discovered.

It reminds me of a passage from Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions:

“As for the story itself, it was entitled “The Dancing Fool.” Like so many Trout stories, it was about a tragic failure to communicate. Here was the plot: A flying saucer creature named Zog arrived on Earth to explain how wars could be prevented and how cancer could be cured. He brought the information from Margo, a planet where the natives conversed by means of farts and tap dancing. Zog landed at night in Connecticut. He had no sooner touched down than he saw a house on fire. He rushed into the house, farting and tap dancing, warning the people about the terrible danger they were in. The head of the house brained Zog with a golfclub.”

Unfortunately, a mysterious repeating radio signal is no more understandable than the farting, tap-dancing Zog.

This Week’s Big Health Scare

News outlets are reporting that the “coronavirus” that was first detected in Wuhan, China is sweeping across that country, causing the Chinese government to try to quarantine entire cities of millions of people to try to stop the spread of the virus.  Nevertheless, cases have been reported in Thailand, Japan, and even in the United States, where a man in the state of Washington who recently returned from China was found to be infected.

106349531-1579718913219gettyimages-1195315493It seems like there is always some huge health disaster for us to worry about.  This week, it’s the Wuhan coronavirus.  Should we be concerned about it?

The link above is to an L.A. Times article that provides some basic information about the Wuhan coronavirus.  Coronaviruses are common in humans and some other animals, but the Wuhan variation is a new strain that hasn’t been seen before.  After some people began showing pneumonia-like symptoms, health officials traced the origin of the conditions back to a large seafood and live animal market in Wuhan, China.  Initial research indicates that the Wuhan strain may have come from the handling of snakes at the market, with the virus jumping from snakes to humans.  (At this point, one can almost hear Indiana Jones saying:  “Snakes!  Why does it always have to be snakes?”)

The key issue for most of us is determining how the virus is transmitted, and what we can do to avoid getting it.  The virus appears to be moving from human to human via the airborne route, which is why you see pictures of people in China wearing masks that cover their noses and mouths.  Viruses that are conveyed by air can spread rapidly and are the most difficult to contain.  And, from the reports of cases outside China, that’s what has happened here.  Still, it appears that some people are more prone to becoming infected than others — exactly why that may be so is one of the things researchers are examining — and severe illness, and death, has for the most part occurred only in people who are older and otherwise dealing with significant health issues.  The man from Washington infected with the virus, for example, is being monitored and is reported to be in good condition.

I tend to be a fatalist about these kinds of things.  I’ll pay attention to the news about the coronavirus, but I’m also content to let the CDC and other public health officials and scientists do their work and figure out how to deal with the Wuhan coronavirus, just as they have dealt with SARS and Ebola and other global health issues.  I’m confident that, if I need to go out and buy a mask, they’ll let me know.

Popular Nightmares

Dreams, and nightmares, are among the most private things we experience in life.  No matter how close your relationship might be with your spouse, your family members, or your friends, no one can actually share the dream with you.  And if you’ve ever tried to describe a disturbing nightmare to someone, you realize you can’t really capture the way you experience it — if you can even recall the rapidly vanishing fragments of the nightmare at all.  At best, you’re providing a pale reflection of an intense experience.

why-do-we-have-nightmaresStill, wouldn’t you like to know whether other people have the same kind of nightmares that from time to time haunt your dreams?

One company did a survey of 2,000 respondents to find out about their nightmares and see which nightmare scenarios were the most common.  The survey found some interesting results — including that the commonness of certain nightmares varies between men and women.  Women, for example, are far more likely to have a nightmare about a loved one dying or their house burning down, whereas men are much more likely to have a dream about killing someone.  (Curiously, women are slightly more likely than men to have a nightmare about going bald.)  The survey also showed that the frequency of certain dreams may be tied to the respondents’ specific circumstances.  Married couples are much more likely to have nightmares about abandonment by a partner or a partner’s infidelity than single people.

The top 10 most frequent nightmare scenarios, as determined by the survey, are:

  1. Falling
  2. Being chased
  3. Death
  4. Feeling lost
  5. Feeling trapped
  6. Being attacked
  7. Missing an important event
  8. Waking up late
  9. Sex
  10. Loved one dying

Farther down the list are other common scenarios, like being unprepared for an exam or being naked in a public place, and some weirdly specific nightmares, like your teeth falling out, being covered by bugs, or having car trouble.

Reading the list may cause you to realize that many of us have the same kinds of dreams, but also that there are other bad dreams that you luckily don’t have.  I’ve never had a nightmare about killing someone, fortunately.  And a word of caution — if you’re like me, looking at the list might cause you to remember a nightmare that you had otherwise forgotten.

Now, I can only hope that seeing some of the common nightmare scenarios other people have won’t cause my subconscious brain to add those to the nightly dream mix.

Countering The Cabal

One of the admirable things about modern science is its inherent skepticism.  Scientists are supposed to be constantly challenging accepted ideas, developing hypotheses, and designing experiments to try to disprove the hypotheses — all in the name of gathering data, advancing our knowledge and developing new ways to analyze or address problems.  Whether it is physics, or biology, or the treatment of disease, the “scientific method” has reliably produced enormous gains in our understanding and huge advances in numerous fields.

investigacic3b3n-cientc3adfica-pac38ds-vasco-1024x683-1But what if scientists stopped behaving as skeptical scientists?  What if, instead, scientists came to believe so deeply in a particular theory that they became zealous advocates for that theory — almost as if they were adherents to a religious belief, rather dispassionate, objective scientists?

That’s the sad story that this article tells about research into Alzheimer’s disease, which affects nearly 6 million Americans and one in 10 people 65 and older.  Unlike other areas of medical research where great strides have been made — think of the rapid developments in the treatment for HIV and AIDS, for example — research into Alzheimer’s disease has not produced much progress.  Some of that may be attributable to the fact that the human brain is complicated, but many observers now are saying the absence of significant gains is attributable, at least in part, to what they call “the cabal”:  a group of influential researchers and related individuals who believed so fervently in a particular theory about Alzheimer’s that they thwarted research into other approaches to the disease.

The particular theory is that a substance called beta-amyloid accumulates in the brain, creating neuron-killing clumps that cause Alzheimer’s.  It quickly became so accepted in the Alzheimer’s world that scientists, venture capitalists, scientific journals, and research funding entities wouldn’t support or publish work on alternative theories — even if that’s what the scientific method teaches.  One observer quoted in the article linked above said:  “Things shifted from a scientific inquiry into an almost religious belief system, where people stopped being skeptical or even questioning.”  That’s a pretty chilling indictment, because it’s directly contrary to what is actually supposed to happen.

Notwithstanding the impact of the claimed “cabal,” some alternatives hypotheses that appear to be promising have been developed, and some small trials of potential treatments have occurred.  Still, it’s clear that not much progress has been made in treating dementia over the past few decades, and many people now believe that the near-universal acceptance of the beta-amyloid theory is at least partly to blame.  It’s a disturbing, cautionary tale about the bad things that can happen when scientists stop acting like scientists.

A Supernova In The Offing?

The red giant Betelgeuse — don’t say it three times in a row unless you want Michael Keaton to show up and make your dinner guests dance to the Banana Boat Song — is one of the most familiar stars in the sky for people who live in the northern hemisphere.  It’s the right shoulder, and one of the brighter stars, in the constellation Orion, the hunter, which is visible even in the night sky of Columbus, with all of its light pollution.

betelgeuse-rigel-orionBut lately, Betelgeuse is acting strangely.  It’s become noticeably dimmer, and fallen out of the ranks of the top ten brightest stars in the northern sky.  That might mean nothing, because Betelgeuse is a variable star that shifts in brightness, or it might mean something extraordinary:  some scientists think we might be witnessing the death throes of Betelgeuse, and in short order we might see a supernova where Betelgeuse once was.  Supernovas occur when the lifecycle of a star of a particular size ends, and the star’s mass is ejected in a titanic explosion.  If Betelgeuse were to go supernova it would be brighter in the night sky than the Moon and might even be visible during the day.

Supernovas don’t happen every day, every decade, or every century.  One famous example occurred in 1054 A.D., when Chinese, Japanese, Arab, and Korean astronomers all reported observing a new star in the heavens, in the constellation of Taurus the bull, that was so bright it could be seen during the day for weeks and did not fade from view at night until two years later.  Modern astronomers believe that the ancient astronomers were seeing a supernova that now appears as the Crab Nebula.  Being able to observe a supernova in real time, with the sophisticated technology that is now available, would undoubtedly allow humanity to add significantly to its understanding of the death throes of a star.

And here’s a mind-blowing point.  As I write this, Betelgeuse may already have exploded.  In fact, it might have already exploded when Columbus sailed for the New World in 1492, or the American Revoluation began in 1776, or World War II ended in 1945.  We don’t know for sure, because the light from Betelgeuse takes about 600 years to reach Earth.  Whenever you look up at the stars in the night sky, you’re always looking into the past.

The U.S. Space Force

Earlier this week, Congress approved the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act.  Among its other provisions, the legislation has officially created the U.S. Space Force, which will become the sixth branch of the U.S. military — after the Navy, Army, Marines, Coast Guard, and Air Force.

spaceforce1_1533570559Although the legislation authorizes the creation of the U.S. Space Force, it does so in a cautious way.  The U.S.S.F. will initially be created under the Department of the Air Force, and it won’t be able to start hiring new service members.  Instead, to reduce redundancy and maximize efficiency, no new “billets” are authorized, which means that the U.S.S.F. will use existing personnel from the Air Force Space Command to staff the new branch.  That means that, at least initially, the U.S.S.F. will have a very strong Air Force feel to it.  During its first year, the Space Force will establish a headquarters, and the President is empowered to appoint a Chief of Space Operations, who will report to the Secretary of the Air Force and be a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

What, exactly, will the U.S. Space Force do?  The legislation identifies its core functions as follows:  “protect the interests of the United States in space; deter aggression in, from, and to space; and conduct space operations.”  That’s a pretty broad mission.  You can read one recently retired Air Force General’s view of the case for the Space Force, the need to seize the “high ground” of space, and the need to counter actions by the Chinese government in space, here.  His remarks also indicated that significant new technology has already been developed, and is currently being developed, that will help the U.S.S.F. fulfill its broad mission.  We can expect to see some advances in satellites, spacecraft, communications, space transportation, robotics, and life support technologies, among others, as the U.S.S.F. gets underway in earnest.  And don’t be surprised to see contracts awarded to SpaceX and other private space technology and exploration companies.

When the creation of the U.S.S.F. was first suggested, some people made fun of it as a silly Buck Rogers adventure, and others bemoaned the official militarization of space as inconsistent with the notion of space as the peaceful final frontier.   Congress, however, clearly saw a strategic need for a new branch of the service to focus on space, and the legislation approving the creation of the Space Force passed by overwhelming, bipartisan majorities.  The U.S. Space Force is here, and it signals a new era in the “Space Race.”  Exactly what that new era will look like will be sketched out in the next few years.