Do not delete!

Many mysteries still surround the issue of what noncoding DNA is, and whether it really is worthless junk or something more. Portions of it, at least, have turned out to be vitally important biologically. But even beyond the question of its functionality (or lack of it), researchers are beginning to appreciate how noncoding DNA can be a genetic resource for cells and a nursery where new genes can evolve.

~ Jake Buehler from, https://www.quantamagazine.org/the-complex-truth-about-junk-dna-20210901/

I knew there were “large” portions of the DNA strand that weren’t [as far as we could tell] important. But 98%? waaaaaaaaat? Also, many other great things in this article—and it’s always nice to link to Quanta Magazine.

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Interconnected

The Scientific Revolution began in the 1500s; the Industrial Revolution not until the 1700s. Since industrial progress is in large part technological progress, and technology is in large part applied science, it seems that the Industrial Revolution followed from the Scientific, as a consequence, if not necessarily an inevitable one.

~ Jason Crawford from, https://rootsofprogress.org/relationship-of-the-scientific-and-industrial-revolutions

It seems clear to me, (and the article does not disagree,) that the the Scientific Revolution was a necessary precursor to the Industrial. So, “was it necessary?” isn’t a very interesting question.

But the question, “how did it lead to and enable the Industrial revolution?” is a very interesting question. I hadn’t thought about how, specifically, did the one lead to the other. The Scientific Revolution didn’t simply create some sort of encyclopedia of human knowledge, (spread out among all the scientists.) It did that, yes. But it also set things up for the Industrial revolution because suddenly the regular, uneducated people believed the world was knowable and believed that they could tinker, and iterate to improve things.

Which is an interesting point to keep in mind the next time I’m ready to throw my hands up in frustration at some wacky something-or-other.

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It’s the little things

That even though we evolved as ruthless replication machines, we’ve somehow risen out of the muck and we currently find ourselves running cultural software that’s way out of sync with what game theory would dictate, and perhaps we can seize the moment and build a civilization that can tame the brutal dynamics that created us.

~ Dynomight from, https://dynomight.net/about.html

Eliding a long explanation, I’ll just say: I hope that’s still accessible by the time you read this. Also, my normal routine is to bookmark stuff and to later—often much later—write a blog post around it. But not this time. This one caused me to drop what I was doing and blog about it… before even having finished reading it.

You’ll instantly see (once you go there… why are you still here?) why it appeals to me. You’ll be way ahead of the average level of science knowledge if you just skim the list. But the big take-away for me is: It’s not at all hard to find things to be thankful for, and I don’t just mean insanely technical things like that which are on that list. No, I mean…

All you have to do is look around, and start imagining changes. Completely realistic changes. Small changes even. And every single thing that we think, “oh, that’s nice,” becomes something to be thankful for.

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Straight-up magic

The aim of fusion research is to develop a climate- and environmentally-friendly power plant. Similar to the sun, it is to generate energy from the fusion of atomic nuclei. Because the fusion fire only ignites at temperatures above 100 million degrees, the fuel—a low-density hydrogen plasma—must not come into contact with cold vessel walls. Held by magnetic fields, it floats almost contact-free inside a vacuum chamber.

~ Max Planck Society, from https://phys.org/news/2021-08-wendelstein-x-concept-efficiency.html

I’ve been following the phys.org syndication feed for, like 20 years. It kicks out a lot of posts. (About 840 each month in fact. Which I can tell by looking in my account at feedbin.com.) I’ve been watching from afar for decades as we humans try to figure out nuclear fusion.

The sun fuses light elements—Hydrogen mostly—creating slightly heavier elements—Helium mostly. Our bombs and nuclear reactors go in the other direction: They take very rare, very heavy elements—like Uranium-238 which is even more rare than it’s very rare “normal” Uranium that has 235 protons and neutrons in its nucleus—and break them apart releasing an enormous amount of energy. But breaking them apart is fairly easy. Uranium is such a big fat nucleus that it breaks apart on its own. (That’s what Radon gas comes from in your house.) Fission is pretty easy.

Fusion on the other hand is insanely difficult. You have to push two protons very close together before they decide to stick together. But when they do stick you get energy out. Hydrogen only has one proton in it’s nucleus, and the center of the sun is literally a churning soup of protons and free-roaming electrons. Gravity squeezes it more and more. Millions of degrees. Inconceivable pressures. The material is so dense, so opaque, that the light produced by the little Heliums getting created bounces around inside so much, it helps balance the gravitational crushing. In fact, the light that leaves the sun is only a tiny fraction of the energy being generated. Most of it just fights gravity off. Yes, the solar energy reaching Earth is a tiny fraction, of a tiny fraction of the total energy the sun produces.

Yeah. We humans have figured out how to do that. In fact, we have two very different engineering solutions—the “tokomak” and the “Wendelstein 7-X”. They work. We can put cheap, abundant, harmless Hydrogen in and it creates Helium. Yes, with a net outflow of energy. Years ago, we could do it for fractions of a second, but it consumed more energy than we got back out. But now, today, these two devices literally consume Hydrogen and spit out Helium. Pure, magic. You get so much energy out from Fusion, it’d be trivial to split good old water apart… push that little Oxygen in H2O off using electrolosys and send the Oxygen elsewhere. (It has lots of applications.)

Ever see some sci-fi movie where the people find alien technology? They’re all like, “ooooooh, look at this suitcase sized power supply that runs the whole ship” and “how’s that work” and “alien science.”

Yeah. That shit up top there in that phys.org article. BAM! Human science. Pure magic.

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Demonic door operator

A thought experiment devised by the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell in 1867 stumped scientists for 115 years. And even after a solution was found, physicists have continued to use “Maxwell’s demon” to push the laws of the universe to their limits.

~ Jonathan O’Callaghan from, https://www.quantamagazine.org/how-maxwells-demon-continues-to-startle-scientists-20210422/

This is a fun, and well-done, description of what started out as a thought-experiment in 1867—that’s 154 years ago—and which after being solved in theory has subsequently been verified by doing literal experiments on lab benches. They’ve built several of the demons, put them to work and shown why entropy always increases. If you’ve heard of “entropy”, but have always scratched your head, then…

…well, to be honest, this cutesie article won’t explain it all. But it will get you a step in the right direction, so long as you don’t mind the demon working the door.

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Diatoms

Diatoms are a major group of algae found in the oceans, waterways and soils of the world. Living diatoms make up a significant portion of the Earth’s biomass: they generate about 20 to 50 percent of the oxygen produced on the planet each year, […] and constitute nearly half of the organic material found in the oceans. The shells of dead diatoms can reach as much as a half-mile (800 m) deep on the ocean floor, and the entire Amazon basin is fertilized annually by 27 million tons of diatom shell dust transported by transatlantic winds from the African Sahara.

~ From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diatom

I had grasped long ago that diatoms where single-cellular plants. But somehow I missed the, “with shells,” bit. Diatomaceous earth suddenly makes sense. I had always pictured the microscopic little individual diatoms that I’d seen in books; various shapes and sizes, floating in water. But I hadn’t imagined the shapes, structures and types of shells they’re building out of silicon! Turns out, people interested in nanotechnology are particularly interested in diatoms. Wonders never cease.

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Foucault’s Pendulum

Over on the Astronomy Stack Exchange site, (obviously I follow the “new questions” feed in my RSS reader,) someone asked if it was possible, without knowing the date, to determine one’s latitude only by observing the sun. These are the sorts of random questions that grab me by the lapels and shake me until an idea falls out.

So my first thought was: Well if you’re in the arctic or antarctic polar circles you could get a good idea… when you don’t see the sun for a few days. Also, COLD. But that feels like cheating and doesn’t give a specific value. Which left me with this vague feeling that it would take me several months of observations. I could measure the highest position of the sun over the passing days and months and figure out what season I was in…

…wait, actually, I should be able to use knowledge of the Coriolis Force—our old friend that makes water circle drains different in the northern and southern hemispheres, and is the reason that computers [people who compute] were first tasked with complex trigonometry problems when early artillery missed its targets because ballistics “appear” to curve to do this mysterious force because actually the ground rotates . . . where was I?

Coriolis Force, right. But wait! I don’t need the sun at all! All I need is a Foucault Pendulum and some trigonometry… Here I went to Wikipedia and looked it up—which saved me the I’m-afraid-to-actually-try-it hours of trying to derive it in spherical trig… anyway. A Foucault Pendulum exhibits rotation of the plane of the pendulum’s swing. Museums have these multi-story pendulums where the hanging weight knocks over little dominos as it rotates around. Cut to the chase: You only need to be able to estimate the sine function, and enough hours to measure the rotation rate of the swing-plane and you have it all; northern versus southern hemisphere and latitude.

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It’s vastly more complicated

Most modeling efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic have sought to address urgent practical concerns. But some groups aim to bolster the theoretical underpinnings of that work instead.

~ Jon Fox, from https://www.quantamagazine.org/chasing-covid-19s-r0-and-other-numbers-that-define-epidemics-20210322/

Setting aside the specifics of 2020 and the pandemic, the human race is taking enormous strides forward in biology, virology, epidemiology, and a couple other -ologies I’ve not bothered to look up. Also, Quanta Magazine consistently hits it out of the park with article after article like this one—deep dives on all sorts of science and mathematics topics.

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Why why why why

And you begin to get a very interesting understanding of the world and all its complications. If you try to follow anything up, you go deeper and deeper in various directions.

~ Richard Feyman from, https://fs.blog/2012/01/richard-feynman-on-why-questions/

Asking ‘why’ is a well-known way to dig deeper into things. But being able to answer a ‘why’ question is something I don’t hear discussed. My mind is stuffed with information, ideas, skills, and experiences. (Yours is too.) That’s not particularly interesting, and it’s certainly not useful.

What is useful is being able to dive into all that stored information and experiences to then craft a thread which leads the questioner on a small journey of learning. Sure we can take the highway and zoom past all these details. But something it’s the better choice to drop into the off-ramp, and onto the secondary roads; Probably still don’t want to come to a complete stop—if we can help it—but if we take the scenic route and point out more of the details… well, we’re effectively, (both metaphorically and literally,) compressing our knowledge and passing it along.

To the secondary roads!

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Variolation

I generally don’t write about current events here on my blog. But occasionally I find something that I think would be so beneficial for more people to read, that I find I want to share it.

Initial viral load seems likely to have a large impact on severity of Covid-19 infection. If we believe this, we should take this seriously, and evaluate both general policy and personal behavior differently in light of this information. We should also do our best to confirm or deny this hypothesis as soon as possible.

From, https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/3ArEA7tHDXQxE6PED/taking-initial-viral-load-seriously

Since virology has taken such a place of primacy in our lives for the foreseeable future, it can only benefit each of to read more. That article is a wide-ranging, opinion piece (so, I recommend a few grains of salt with it,) which touches on a treasure trove of topics and facts. Of particular note is its discussion of how vaccines work for other diseases. (Or maybe I should write, “…of the variation in efficacy of vaccines for other diseases.”)

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