Natural selection in real time: cliff swallows in Nebraska

(via Reddit) Nebraskan cliff swallows have over the last thirty years evolved to have shorter wings, which apparently helps them not get hit by quite so many cars.  Apparently, nesting in an overpass is better than nesting in a cliff in pretty much every way apart from the giant metal things constantly assaulting the ground beneath them and just on top, according to Charles Brown, author of the study that revealed this fact.

They'd been studying the birds since the '80's, and thought to check wing length when they noticed that the amount of roadkill had gone down, from hundreds of birds a year when they started, to four in 2012.

A few millimeters — about the width of a Tic Tac — might seem like a small change, but for birds’ wings, “a little bit can make a big difference,” says evolutionary biologist Ronald Mumme of Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa.

Petite wings let birds take off quickly and maneuver deftly through the air. Like quail, which have short, rounded wings and can explode off the ground almost vertically, Brown says, swallows might be better served by short wings that help them whiz up and out of harm’s way.

Subgenres of weird real science

io9 has published a list, titled: 11 Emerging Scientific Fields That Everyone Should Know About, which is, like, crazy interesting.  My favorite one was number 7:

7. Recombinant Memetics

This one's quite speculative, and it's technically speaking still in the proto-science phase. But it'll only be a matter of time before scientists get a better handle on the human noosphere (the collective body of all human information) and how the proliferation of information within it impacts upon virtually all aspects of human life.

Similar to recombinant DNA (in which different genetic sequences are brought together to create something new), recombinant memetics is the study of how memes (ideas that spread from person to person) can be adjusted and merged with other memes and memeplexes (a cohesive collection of memes, like a religion) for beneficial or ‘socially therapeutic' purposes (such as combating the spread of radical and violent ideologies). This is similar to the idea of 'memetic engineering' — which philosopher Daniel Dennett suggested could be used to maintain cultural health. Or what DARPA is currently doing via their ‘narrative control' program.

Public Knowledge on Free Access petition

I wrote earlier today that I wasn't sure about the nature of the recent White House directive requiring open access to research and development in government organizations.  I was iffy because my source was the White House (who will obviously be biased in their own favor) and Huffington Post (who are not notorious for thorough, accurate journalism). I'm a little less reserved in my optimism now, though, because has published a write-up about it.  It's a re-post of a Google Plus post by Peter Suber, Director of the Harvard Open Access Project.  In it, he talks about why the directive is good, and how it compares and contrasts to the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), which I didn't know was a thing.

Here's an excerpt:

The two approaches complement one another. FASTR does not make the White House directive unnecessary. FASTR may never be adopted. And if it is adopted, it will be after some time for study, education, lobbying, amendment, negotiation, and debate. By contrast, the White House directive takes effect today. The wheels are already turning. Compared to this executive action, FASTR is slower. (Thanks to Becky Cremona for this good line.)

Similarly, the White House directive does not make FASTR unnecessary. On the contrary, we need legislation to codify federal OA policies. The next president could rescind today's White House directive, but could not rescind legislation. (One lesson: Don't let up on efforts to persuade Congress to pass FASTR.)

So, great news.  Progress for science, freedom of information for America's citizens, and transparency always makes corruption harder, so steps like this almost inevitably improve government.

(Also: I learned about a new thing in Open Access terminology in this article.  Apparently there's two popular standards for access:  Green OA, which means organizations publish directly to their own open access archive; and Gold OA, which means organizations publish their research in Open Access journals.)

Petition granted to make taxpayer-funded research publicly available

According to the Huffington Post, the White House has just granted a petition to "require free access over the internet to scientific journal articles resulting from taxpayer-funded research."  Dr. John Holdren, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, writes:

I have issued a memorandum today (.pdf) to Federal agencies that directs those with more than $100 million in research and development expenditures to develop plans to make the results of federally-funded research publically available free of charge within 12 months after original publication. As you pointed out, the public access policy adopted by the National Institutes of Health has been a great success. And while this new policy call does not insist that every agency copy the NIH approach exactly, it does ensure that similar policies will appear across government.

This sounds super-exciting, but I have some questions:

  • Which agencies conduct research for less than $100 million?
  • What constitutes an R&D department?
  • To what extent does this apply to research already done, and currently boxed-up?

I'll be looking over the next few days for criticisms of this response, and I'll report back on whether this is the step forward it looks like, or if it's a shiny but ultimately empty gesture.

Slate publishes a Science Wish List for 2013

Several scientists contributed to Slate's Future Tense column, asking for things they'd most like to see in 2013.  Some fantastic requests are extaordinarlily well-put, for example: Chris Gunter:

Former Nature editor Chris Gunter thinks scientists are the ones who have to adapt. She proposes including  “a new section at the end of traditional scientific papers, titled ‘outreach resources.” She adds, “If we can't explain our work to non-specialists and non-scientists, then we will never be able to effectively compete for funds, especially in times of turmoil, like now.”

William Conrad:

William Conrad, a pharmacology Ph.D. candidate at Seattle’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute, is also focused on publishing. “First,” he says, “make articles freely available within one year of publication; second, make peer review more transparent.”

And my favorite, Brian Switek:

We also need to recalibrate the balance between science and entertainment. “I want science to be re-injected into science television,” said paleontology journalist and author Brian Switek; “We're in a sorry state when [the network formerly known as] The Learning Channel's main claim to fame is a tiny prima donna hopped up on Mountain Dew, and Animal Planet is able to trick viewers into believing that there's a government conspiracy to hide Mermaids.”

A creationist textbook's description of "atheistic evolutionism"

(via Boing Boing) Can we just talk for a minute about the ridiculous notion that "You can't get something from nothing"?  Few things annoy me more about the 'origin of the universe' argument.

How many people, religious or not, have direct experience of what it's like when there isn't anything?  None, right?  Because there has never been a time when there hasn't been stuff, but there were people around to observe it.  We've got no idea what nothing is like.

I hate the argument that stuff just can't pop into being.  For all we know, the only reason stuff doesn't just pop into being now is because there's already other stuff in the way.  As far as I can tell, in fact, that's what's going on with Hawking radiation, where the absolute nothingness created around the black hole makes space for particle-antiparticle pairs to form, one end being sucked into the black hole and the other shooting out into space as new stuff.

We do this a lot in human thinking:  we assume that, because we have intimate experience of one state, we can draw conclusions about a state that we describe as being opposite to it.  Absence is not the mirror-reflection of presence.  We don't know how nothingness behaves just because we know how stuff behaves.

That is all.

New kinds of matter and magnetism

(via Reddit) reports on the discovery of a new state of matter, Quantum Spin Liquid (QSL), and a new kind of magnetism.

The existence of QSLs has been theorized since 1987, but until now no one has succeeded in actually finding one. In MIT’s case, the researchers spent 10 months growing a tiny sliver of herbertsmithite (pictured above) — a material that was suspected to be a QSL, but which had never been properly investigated. (Bonus points if you can guess who herbertsmithite is named after.) Using neutron scattering [...] the researchers found that the herbertsmithite was indeed a QSL.

Moving forward, Lee says that the discovery of QSLs could lead to advances in data storage [...,] and communications (long-range entanglement). [Young] Lee also seems to think that QSLs could lead us towards higher-temperature superconductors — i.e. materials that superconduct under relatively normal conditions, rather than -200C.

Really, though, the most exciting thing about quantum spin liquids is that they’re completely new, and thus we ultimately have no idea how they might eventually affect our world.

Lately it seems like there's cool new quantum science coming out roughly every week.  More likely, I just notice it more now that the Higgs is found and the spell of ambiguity surrounding quantum physics is broken -- as I wrote on Particle Day earlier this year, "I never really believed they were going to find it.  I had this weird sense of pessimistic determinism about the whole thing, because up to that point, everything about chemistry and physics that was known, as far as I knew, was known long before I was born."

Now, rather than feeling like science is basically cooked, and we're just pushing up against a wall of inscrutability, I feel like our understanding of the universe is exploding forward every day.  It's pretty cool.  And I'm grateful.

TEDx speaker integrity

(via Slate) TED has published a letter to the organizers of TEDx conferences, a class of conference not run by the TED administrators but entitled to use the TED name, explaining how to detect pseudoscience, and making it very clear that TEDx conferences are obligated to vet their speakers, and weed out scammers and charlitans.

They wrote this letter in response to criticism and concern about the integrity of the TED name, including a reddit thread.  Really.  TED listens to reddit.

Here is my favorite part, a checklist for red flags that should clue TEDx organizers to look more carefully at a potential speaker's credentials:

Be alert if a potential speaker (or the speaker’s advocate on your planning team) does any of the following things:

  • Barrages you with piles of unrelated, over-general backup material, attempting to bury you in data they think you won’t have time to read
  • Holds a nonstandard degree. For instance, if the physics-related speaker has a degree in engineering, not physics; if the medical researcher does not have an M.D. or Ph.D.; if the affiliated university does not have a solid reputation. This is not snobbery; if a scientist truly wishes to make an advance in their chosen field, they’ll make an effort to engage with other scholars
  • Claims to have knowledge no one else has
  • Sends information only from websites they created themselves; there is little or no comment on them in mainstream science publications or even on Wikipedia
  • Provides data that takes the form of anecdotes, testimonials and/or studies of only one person
  • Sells a product, supplement, plan or service related to their proposed talk — this is a BIG RED FLAG
  • Acts oddly persistent about getting to your stage. A normal person who is rejected for the TEDx stage will be sad and usually withdraw from you. A hoaxer, especially one who sees a financial upside to being associated with TEDx, will persist, sometimes working to influence members of your team one by one or through alternative channels
  • Accuses you of endangering their freedom of speech. (Shutting down a bogus speaker is in no way endangering their freedom of speech. They’re still free to speak wherever they can find a platform. You are equally free not to lend them the TEDx platform.)
  • Demands that TEDx present “both sides of an issue” when one side is not backed by science or data. This comes up around topics such as creationism, anti-vaccination and alternative health
  • Acts upset or hurt that you are checking them out or doubting them
  • Accuses you of suppressing them because TED and TEDx is biased against them and run by rich liberals ;)
  • Threatens to publicly embarrass TED and TEDx for suppressing them. (The exact opposite will happen.)

This bit, also, was very good:

As a member of the community, if you do come across a talk on the TEDx YouTube channel or at a future event that you feel is presenting bad science or pseudoscience, please let us know. Bad science talks affect the credibility of TED and TEDx: it is important we get this right.

It's great to see the TED administrators taking seriously the community's concerns about TED's continued legitimacy.  It's especially great that they point out that Wikipedia is a good starting place for research -- and that research that can't be found on Wikipedia is probably bollocks.

A Slower Speed of Light

(via Boing Boing) I played through "A Slower Speed of Light," the new video game by the MIT Game Lab, twice today.  Which, I mean, only takes like ten minutes.  But still.

The gameplay is incredibly simple.  You just move around (WASD, mouse) and collect orbs.  Every time you get an orb, though, the speed of light slows down, so when you start moving, you're moving closer to the speed of light, and therefore closer to the qualities of special relativity.  Some of these qualities include:

  • Red/blue shift:  The world turns into this surreal rainbow whenever you're moving.  At high enough speeds, if you look behind you, there's this deep blackness, because you're moving away from the light faster than the light can catch up to you.  It scared the crap out of me when I first noticed it.
  • Lorentz Transformation: the distance between you and other stuff changes when you're moving close to the speed of light.  I don't really understand what was going on with this, but it becomes more difficult to navigate.
  • Expanded visual range:  When you're moving fast enough, you start to see different kinds of light.  The stuff ahead of you looks bluer than it really is, but the creatures walking around look bright red, because they're giving off infra-red light.

They're also releasing the software as open source, so other developers can make more complicated games that involve changes in the speed of light, or near-lightspeed behavior ingame.

You can download the game for Mac or PC here, on the game's website.

A letter on the value of space travel

I've been scrolling through the recent updates on Letters of Note, and I came across this one, from 1970.  It's written by Ernst Stuhlinger, who was at the time the Associate Director for Science at NASA, and responds to a question, from a nun in Zambia.  She asked why we spend billions on space travel when there are children starving on Earth. In his response, he explores through a number of anecdotes the incredible ways in which seemingly useless scientific pursuits can have incredible positive effects for the world.  He talks about the interconnectedness of different areas of human life, the things science has done to help people in the past, and the ways that the space program had already helped people in tangible ways around the world.

But my favorite part is this:

Among all the activities which are directed, controlled, and funded by the American government, the space program is certainly the most visible and probably the most debated activity, although it consumes only 1.6 percent of the total national budget, and 3 per mille (less than one-third of 1 percent) of the gross national product. As a stimulant and catalyst for the development of new technologies, and for research in the basic sciences, it is unparalleled by any other activity. In this respect, we may even say that the space program is taking over a function which for three or four thousand years has been the sad prerogative of wars.

How much human suffering can be avoided if nations, instead of competing with their bomb-dropping fleets of airplanes and rockets, compete with their moon-travelling space ships! This competition is full of promise for brilliant victories, but it leaves no room for the bitter fate of the vanquished, which breeds nothing but revenge and new wars.

(emphasis mine)

I love that bit.  I love thinking of science as not just a means to various ends, but as the end unto itself, driving countries to compete against each other in a civil, mutually beneficial way, creating a necessity that can breed creation without requiring that we kill hundreds of thousands or millions of people.

Also:  knowing it was written in the 70's, by a NASA scientist in the space race, it was fun to read it in that black-and-white TV announcer tone of voice that's in all the historical videos about American history.

Potential male contraceptive

Both the BBC and SciShow reported today on the new developments around male contraception -- it seems there's a solid lead towards developing a pill for people with Y chromosomes.  Or, at least, it works in mice.

The testes of mice taking the drug began to shrink as they produced fewer sperm, which were also less mobile. Some were rendered infertile.

When the animals were no longer taking the drug they were able to have babies.

One of the researchers, Dr James Bradner said: "This compound produces a rapid and reversible decrease in sperm count and motility with profound effects on fertility.

"These findings suggest that a reversible, oral male contraceptive may be possible."

The way these things go, human testing is probably a while off, and if that goes alright (fingers crossed) it'll still be like ten years before the pill is available to the public -- by which point, I probably either won't want it, or be ready for a more permanent intervention.

But it'll be good to know that if I have male children, they might have access to contraceptives that they're relatively more likely to keep up with.

The features of scientific fraud

(via Boing Boing) ArsTechnica has a post up about scientific fraud, by way of explaining how to do it.  It follows the successes and errors (mostly successes) of Dr. Yoshitaka Fujii, who was publishing papers based on fabricated data for about 20 years before he was formally caught.

The article goes on to offer 8 tips on how to defraud the scientific institution:

05.  Don't publish in journals focused on your field. In general (see point 4), it's best to avoid publishing in high-profile journals altogether, since those will draw attention to your work. At the same time, you don't want to keep seeing your stuff published in the same journals, or those editors will start feeling a personal responsibility to make sure their star researcher is on the up-and-up.

It seems to me that the biggest flaws in science revolve around the pride of individual scientists and institutions.  There's no easy solution to that -- unlike government, I don't think a ground-up deconstruction and reassembly of science would work.  But to start, the article references huge stigma around even trying to uncover fraud.  Adding a system of random investigations of scientists irrespective of reputation might help open up suspicious scientists to exposure.

Boing Boing guide to sifting out bad theories

As a science-enthusiast, non-scientist, one of the main skills I need to develop (and one of the main areas in which I'm likely to be deficient) is telling good science from bad.  The way these things are sorted out in the scientific community are complicated, and without years of training and experience, it's hard to tell whether a claim does or doesn't have the right ingredients. Fortunately, there are guides out there, to help people like me.  Skeptic Magazine editor Michael Shermer has the Baloney Detection Kit, a video explaining many of the ways you can find hints towards the credibility of the claim.  Now, at Boing Boing, science editor Maggie Koerth-Baker offers Crackpots, Geniuses, and how to tell the difference.

The article provides a lot of good hints, but this is my favorite one:

1) If it makes a really nice story, ask for the details. (Good science usually makes a bigger deal out of the evidence than it makes out of the story. In fact, that's actually a problem many legit scientists have—they're better at talking about the details and data then they are at telling stories. But most of us respond to stories better than we respond to details and data.)

She's right -- people are naturally inclined to believe stories, but that just isn't how science works.  Science is, in fact, somewhat inherently anti-story, or, at least, anti-good-story.  Pleasing stories have suspense, tension, and resonant, one might say just, conclusions.  The ideal science-story is: the plot is laid out boringly from the beginning, the central conflict is the experiment, and the conclusion is presented (without regard to justice or irony) in a series of numbers.  Good stories are about building worldviews.  Science is, sort of, about breaking them.

Happy Particle Day!

I remember when the Large Hadron Collider was first going online, and there were all sorts of horrible theories about what was going to happen.  People thought the world was going to end.  When it kept breaking, I heard at least one source theorize that the Higgs Boson was traveling back in time to thwart attempts to prove its existence. I'm starting to realize, now, that I never really believed they were going to find it.  I had this weird sense of pessimistic determinism about the whole thing, because up to that point, everything about chemistry and physics that was known, as far as I knew, was known long before I was born.  Newtonian physics had been around since, like, Newton.  Quantum physics had been around at least long enough for Einstein to think it was a load of crap.

Then, when I found out how close we were getting, I thought we were going to just end up ruling it out-- not finding the Higgs so much that it stopped being reasonable to think the Higgs existed.  We'd find out that we were even further behind than we thought we were, that the standard model just isn't accurate.

So, it's kind of a big deal to me that we found the Higgs Boson -- or, a Higgs-like particle.  It turns out that on a very fundamental level of the structure of the universe, we're already right.  We're right, and we've been right since the 1970's.

Reuters has a great article about the discovery, the best one I've read today.  It describes, among other things, the response of theoretical physicist Peter Higgs, 83 years old, at the announcement.

Clearly overwhelmed, his eyes welling up, Higgs told the symposium of fellow researchers: "It is an incredible thing that it has happened in my lifetime." [...]

"It is very satisfying," Higgs told Reuters. "For me personally it's just the confirmation of something I did 48 years ago[.]" [...]

"I had no expectation that I would still be alive when it happened[.]" [...]

"For physics, in one way, it is the end of an era in that it completes the Standard Model[.]"

The Higgs-like particle has been demonstrated to a degree of certainty known as Five Sigma, which means the likelihood that the discovery is a fluke is less than 1 in 3,500,000 (3 and a half million) -- accounting for 99.99997% of the data.

Now, the most interesting stuff is still yet to come -- now that we know (to a certainty beyond reasonable doubt) that the particle is there, does it do everything we need the Higgs to do?  Some of the scientists are saying yes, others are saying maybe.  Oliver Buchmueller, a CERN physicist, told Reuters:

If I were a betting man, I would bet that it is the Higgs. But we can't say that definitely yet. It is very much a smoking duck that walks and quacks like the Higgs. But we now have to open it up and look inside before we can say that it is indeed the Higgs.

Ask a Star Wars Geek 03

Welcome back! You ask it: I answer. This week...

Kristal T. asks:

"What are the Jedi trials to become a Jedi knight?"

I consider myself to be a veritable compendium of Star Wars knowledge. I've read almost all the novels. And this question actually stumped me.

You see, in all my reading, I've heard reference to the Jedi trials innumerable times. And yet I haven't read about any instance of a padawan undergoing the trials and becoming a knight. My immediate reaction, as always, was to check Wookieepedia, and indeed, the entire process is exhaustively detailed here.

Let me explain--No, wait, there is too much. Let me sum up: There are 5 trials: skill, courage, spirit, flesh, and insight. The trials themselves are actually extremely dangerous, and many padawans have died in the trials[1. Which is really messed up, when you think about it. Rather than save the life of the padawan (keeping in mind many Jedi could see into the future, even just briefly, giving them the knowledge of what is about to transpire), they allow them to die, thereby failing the test.]. The most messed up is probably the trial of the flesh, which involves "the padawan overcoming great physical pain, hardship, or loss, the test sometimes resulted in death or dismemberment." For being really noble, the Jedi were kind of cruel.

Now, much more well-known to me as a reader of the EU is the fact that the trials can be substituted with a particularly trying mission or several. Notable examples being Obi-Wan (for killing Darth Maul), Anakin Skywalker (for valor during the Clone Wars), Luke (for deciding he was a Jedi now), and the entire Myrkr strike team during the Yuuzhan Vong war (well, the survivors, anyway).

Interesting though that all is, it raising a bigger question for me: how had I read all these books and missed such great details as what the actual trials are? It could be my shoddy memory (which usually serves well enough when it comes to SW), but I think it just isn't really gone over in-depth in that medium. I think that the comics may handle some of it, to which I admit to having limited exposure. The whole thing rocks me to my core, though, if for no other reason than I read all these books, and all these references to the Jedi trials, and never actually asked, "What are they?"

For that, I have to thank you, Kristal. We all learned something on this one.

Nate S. asks: [Mild Spoilers]

"What are the eras of Star Wars history? What events predicated each change of era?"

There are six eras in the Star Wars cannon. Right now they are the Old Republic era, the Rise of the Empire era, the Rebellion era, the New Republic era, the New Jedi Order era, and the Legacy era. However, here is where I note that this is actually changed from when the eras were first declared. The demarcations of the eras, that is, when each starts and ends, changed in only one instance. Originally, the first three eras were the Sith era, the Prequel era (I, II, III), and the Classic era (IV, V, VI).

If I may angrily rant for a moment, there was no reason to change the names of those three eras. It isn't really more accurate to rename them, per se, and in fact, I think noting the prequel and classic eras by their affiliation with the movies only strengthens the sense of when each is. I am annoyed that they changed when there isn't really a reason for or against either way, as far as I can see, with the exception that changing them is mildly confusing, because you can pick up an older novel and see it is in the Sith era, and a newer novel which takes place in that giant span of time and see it is in the Old Republic era, and not realize they refer to the same stretch of time.

A geek of my magnitude wouldn't really be thrown off, but a new comer might, and that's reason enough in my mind to have never changed it to begin with. Oh, and the new time brackets totally conflict and create a grey area of double era, but I'll get to that.

To actually finish answering your question, the eras are denoted by time in universe, in years before or after the Battle of Yavin (Episode IV). The Old Republic era is 5000-33 BBY. This is the time period which encapsulates the Old Republic from it's inception to when Palpatine becomes Supreme Chancellor.

The Rise of the Empire era goes from 1000-0 BBY. This is from when Darth Bane tricks the Jedi into thinking the Sith extinct by taking out tens of thousands of both, to the events of Episode IV. It also creates a 967 year overlap between the eras, which didn't exist when it was the Sith and Prequel eras (Sith 5000-33, Prequel 33-0). That irks me all over.

Not to mention it actually makes little to no sense. The Empire didn't begin to rise with Darth Bane instigating the Rule of Two[2. "There can be only two Sith: Master and apprentice; one to embody the power, the other to crave it," Darth Bane, 1000 BBY.], though that did ultimately lead to Palpatine becoming Emperor. I'd argue it started when Darth Plagueis took on a force wielding serial killer/politician as an apprentice (AKA Palpatine), which happened in approximately 40 BBY. Also, it stops rising about 19 BBY when, you know, it's actually an Empire now. That is when the Rebellion started, in fact.

Not in 0 ABY, though the Rebellion era goes from then til 5 ABY, with the blowing up of the second Death Star, which marks its end and the beginning of the New Republic era... even though the New Republic won't exist as a recognized governing body by the galaxy at large until 7 ABY when Coruscant is taken by New Republic forces and the Empire is finally driven from its seat of power. But the New Republic era goes from 5 ABY til 25 ABY.

The rest of the eras haven't changed[3. Technically, the New Republic era never changed either, I was just following the logic of where eras should start and end and noticed it too didn't jive with in universe events very well.], and with good reason: they all make sense. The New Jedi Order era starts with the first book of the New Jedi Order series, and the invasion of the Yuuzhan Vong[4. The Yuuzhan Vong are a war-like species from outside the Star Wars galaxy. They do not register to Jedi in the Force.], 25 ABY. It goes til just after the end of the Yuuzhan Vong war, in 40 ABY, when the Legacy era begins with the Legacy of the Force series, which kicks off with the beginnings of a second civil war and the possible destruction of the New Republic. The legacy era has no defined end.

Ariel C. asks:

"What is your favorite Star Wars pick-up line?"

As if I have one favorite!

  • Wanna ride home? My car made the Kessel Run in 12 par secs.
  •  *waves hand* This is the guy you're looking for.
  •  If you're wondering if that's a light saber in my pocket... yes.
  •  Are you a Jedi? Because I think you just triggered the activation stud on my light saber from across the room.
  •  I'll Star your Wars.
  •  I suggest a new strategy: let me win.

Ok... I might have a favorite:

  •  Don't close the blast doors... your heart.



And so another week comes to a close, another post for the archives. This week has proved that for all my reading, the Star Wars universe is vast, and to know everything is really, really, really, difficult. And so I'll continue in my efforts to know the answers, so you can ask away. I've also proved I'm probably not smooth with the ladies.

Ah well, I need questions to answer if I'm to keep on writing, so that's where you come in! Shoot me your pressing questions at, and your name (or userhandle) could be the next featured on my post :D

Until next week, -Michael DiTommaso, the Star Wars Geek

Metal Smell comes from human sweat

(via Did You Know on Tumblr) Scientists at Virginia Tech have discovered where the smell of metal comes from -- which is weird, because I didn't know it was something that needed discovering.  It turns out, though, that when we handle metal, it reacts with our skin to accelerate the output of body odor, and that's what smells when we touch certain metals, like iron, copper or brass.

These metallic-smelling organic compounds emanate when sweat from human skin corrodes iron metal. This generates reactive ferrous ions that break down lipid peroxides in the skin to create odorous aldehydes and ketones.

'The smell of iron is only an illusion,' explained Dietmar Glindemann, a chemist at Virginia Tech and leader of the research team. 'What we really smell is a human body odor.'

Apart from being a very cool discovery, the information also has applications in medicine:

The team is now using their experience to develop iron-based diagnostic skin tests. People emit specific chemical fingerprints that can change when the body becomes distressed, such as when a person becomes sick. The volatiles that define these chemical fingerprints are often difficult to detect, but applying iron to the skin accelerates the decomposition of peroxides and improves the detection of volatiles.

'Since different sicknesses produce different amounts of peroxides, applying iron to the skin will produce different quantities of odorants,' explained Glindemann. 'Iron skin tests to detect diseases would be a great achievement.'

The Magic Clock

(via Massimo Banzi's TED talk via Boing Boing) I've felt for a long time that the best way to make sense of science, as an element of human ability, is to think of it as being, basically, magic.

That's not to say I think science is, or should be, inexplicable.  But science in real life and magic in a lot of fantasy novels have something essential in common -- they're about learning the basic rules of the world's behavior, so you can exploit, bend, or hack them.

Sometimes it feels like this is a tough sell.  But sometimes, it's just incredibly obvious that I'm right.

This is the clock from the Weasley's house in Harry Potter.  The one that points not to the time, but to the location of all the family members:

This thing works.  It actually points to the location of the family members displayed, using twitter to pick up location cues.  The only thing it requires externally is a place to plug it in.  This is the coolest thing I've seen so far this week, and I think it's proof that science is basically magic.

Ask a Star Wars Geek 01

Greetings, all. This is the Star Wars Geek, logging on to answer any nerdy, Star Wars-y questions you may have. This will be my first post of many, but before I get to the Q's and A's, I think some credentials are in order: I love Star Wars. I'm a geek. If that's not enough, I've read over 130 Star Wars novels. I've played many of the Star Wars video games[1. Though I admit to not having played KotoR] and even the Star Wars RPG. I've read a couple of the comics and maybe a dozen novellas. I own every Star Wars book I've ever read. Of course, I have seen all the movies many times.

So, I know a lot about Star Wars, and it seems that people often come to me with their Star Wars related questions, as I usually have the answers.

This is where you, the reader, come in. Send me your questions, so that I can answer them for you. This week, I was lucky enough to get some primer questions from my friends. Next week, I hope to hear from you.

T.X. Watson asks:

What about the books do you think is most relevant to casual fans?

Well, I guess this depends slightly, based on the definition of "casual." For the sort of fans who have seen and enjoyed the movies, and maybe played a game or two: the books offer you a chance to enjoy reading a great book[2. Something I assume the people reading this would want to do as a matter of course] and also the chance to hear about these characters you know from one context thrown into all sorts of other ones. These books are written by a number of authors who you may know from elsewhere, from Timothy Zahn, to Michael A. Stackpole, to R.A. Salvatore, and more. They offer an opportunity to immerse yourself in a fully fleshed out world of adventure and drama, and at the rate new books are being written, an almost endless supply of reading.

To my mind, there isn't overmuch for a "very casual" fan, if you will. The sort of person who just likes the movies and thinks they are a fun way to spend an afternoon. I will say that if there is any sort of lingering curiosity over what happens to the various characters, it's all there. And if going through whole novels to find out is too much for you, then I suggest you check out Wookieepedia and search which ever character you want to know about. I know it's is one of my favorite places on the internet.

Ariel C. asks:

What is the science behind laser shots instead of continuous lasers? And just what is Yoda?

Ah, science and Star Wars! When they are in the same room at the same time I "squee," to use the vernacular. Many people understand that a laser is a beam of light, and as such A) you can't see it unless it's in a dusty room or the like, and B) it travels at the speed of light. In the movies, and reinforced in the other various media in which the Star Wars stories are told, lasers appear as discrete streaks which travel remarkably slowly.

This is because "lasers" in Star Wars are actually a misnomer. They are jets of ionized Tibanna gas, which is mined from atmospheres in places like Bespin. Lightsabers actually are lasers, and in their case they are light which is trapped in magnetic fields generated by the lightsabers themselves, aided by the crystals in the lightsaber which perfectly focus the light and magnetic fields by attunement with the Force. But that is an explanation for another day.

As to Yoda, his species is specifically not mentioned anywhere in the Star Wars cannon. This is at George Lucas' behest, though I'm not really sure why. He probably wants to keep an ace in the hole if he really messes something up with the fans, I think. At any rate, there is another of Yoda's species, Yaddle, who was on the Jedi Council as of the end of the Republic. Yaddle appears briefly on screen in Episode I.

[SPOILER] Nate S. asks:

[Why] the ████ did Chewbacca have to die?

For those of you who aren't into the EU[3. The Expanded Universe], but would like to be, this is one spoiler that I'm not too sorry about giving away, because it was in a book released in 1999, and really, it's sort of common knowledge among the more devoted fans. Chewbacca dies in Star Wars: The New Jedi Order: Vector Prime, the first novel of the New Jedi Order.

There was much discussion of this decision before it was made. Up to this point, no major character from any of the movies had ever died. Even the minor characters had a sort of aura of invincibility around them. And that was bad for the stories themselves. There was never a moment of anxiety when you knew Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewie would always pull through. Michael A. Stackpole had been writing the X-Wing series for a few years at that point, a series in which Stackpole used only minor characters and characters of his own invention which he could kill, and thereby create tension in the reader. To this day, the X-Wing series remains one of my favorites.

Stackpole showed it worked. Lucas gave the ok for one of the characters to die. This is speculation, but I think it was Chewie pretty much because he was the least important of the big-four. Luke needed to run the order, and Han and Leia needed to exist as parents (They have kids, another spoiler I'm not too worried to say). Those elements generated the most drama. Chewie was the plucky side-kick at best, and was still one of the icons of the series. So he got the ax. It was well written, and one of the more poignant deaths of the Cannon. All characters must die eventually, especially when series go on over the course of thousands of years. If he had to go, I'm glad he went the way he did.


So, those are the questions for the week, send me yours at, and I'll answer as many as I can in due time. I'll be back next Saturday, and every Saturday, unless I am eaten by a flock of moose or my hands are hacked off at the wrists by enraged soccer fans.

Until next time,

-Michael DiTommaso, the Star Wars Geek