Laws of Physics need an update. Someone please tell Congress!

By Michael R. Bloomberg

The most extraordinary event of the year — and perhaps the 21st century — made few national headlines. But it may just alter the future of the human race, and it should lead both parties in Congress to support a major investment increase in the nation’s research and development infrastructure.

The event happened in Batavia, Illinois, about 35 miles west of Chicago, at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. Rarely does a single experiment threaten to upend the known laws of the universe. But so it was on April 7, when a group of more than 200 physicists published a paper with a deceptively modest title: “Measurement of the Positive Muon Anomalous Magnetic Moment to 0.46 ppm.”

The anomaly in question could be a momentous one. Starting in 2018, researchers measured how subatomic particles called muons — heavier, more transient cousins of electrons — interacted with a strong magnetic field. They found that the muons’ “precesses,” or wobbles, differed from what the reigning Standard Model of physics would predict, and seemed to cohere with a similar deviation detected in 2001.

If accurate, those results would indicate that some previously unknown force or particle is acting on the muons — and suggest that the Standard Model, which physicists have relied on for half a century, could have a significant problem.

Why does this matter to anyone besides physicists — and those who dropped physics as a college major, like I did? (There was a German language requirement — I lasted three days.) Well, for starters, it might hold the key to explaining the deepest mysteries of the universe. It could also help elucidate the nature of dark matter, inform new quantum-mechanical models, or even shed light on perhaps the biggest quandary of all: Why is there something rather than nothing? As a group of eminent particle physicists once put it, the quest to understand such questions is “a defining characteristic of the human spirit.”

A worthwhile read. Perhaps, equally beneficial to those who remain superstitious enough to believe that something comes from nothing.

Global soils are the stuff of life. We’re destroying everything they offer.

Global soils are the source of all life on land but their future looks “bleak” without action to halt degradation, according to the authors of a UN report.

A quarter of all the animal species on Earth live beneath our feet and provide the nutrients for all food. Soils also store as much carbon as all plants above ground and are therefore critical in tackling the climate emergency. But there also are major gaps in knowledge, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) report, which is the first on the global state of biodiversity in soils.

The report was compiled by 300 scientists, who describe the worsening state of soils as at least as important as the climate crisis and destruction of the natural world above ground. Crucially, it takes thousands of years for soils to form, meaning urgent protection and restoration of the soils that remain is needed.

The scientists describe soils as like the skin of the living world, vital but thin and fragile, and easily damaged by intensive farming, forest destruction, pollution and global heating…

Soils simultaneously produce food, store carbon and purify water, he said, so they are “at least as important” as the climate and above-ground biodiversity crises. “If you’re losing the top soil through bad treatment and then erosion, then it takes thousands of years until the soil is produced again.”

We know next to nothing about the life in our soils. Yes, we have categorized a great deal – with little or no information on how they act upon their environment. Which, in turn, is the growth medium for virtually all our food.

In Memoriam: John Coster-Mullen


Illustration of John Coster-Mullen and the Little Boy bomb

by Alex Wellerstein

I don’t know off-hand exactly when I started talking to John. A look through old e-mails suggests that in 2006 we had been talking, but that those e-mails reference earlier conversations. My guess is that we had been in touch in 2005, when I was working on my paper on how people draw atomic bombs…Around that time I probably bought John’s book and got in touch with him, and we began exchanging documents as well…

Over the next 15 years or so, we exchanged quite a bit of documents, I acquired three versions of his book, Atom Bombs, and we got to spend some time together in person at the Atomic Heritage Foundation’s conference for the 70th anniversary of the Manhattan Project. He was always generous and excited. He clearly really enjoyed that he, a truck driver (among other things), was producing research that academics from places like Harvard and Princeton thought was important and valuable

I enjoyed John as a friend, correspondent, and as a subject of study. John is what I call a “secret seeker” in my book, someone who — for whatever reason — is driven towards learning “nuclear secrets.”…With John, I never got the sense that he was strongly motivated by the politics of secrecy, though he sometimes could sound like that when he got irritated with the Department of Energy…Sometimes he would give the old Ted Taylor line, that the surprising thing about the atomic bombs is that they aren’t that hard to build (if you have the fuel, etc…

I think discovering “the secret” for him was more about proving himself as a researcher than probably any big statement about secrecy. Over the years I’ve gotten various documents from him trying to explain himself, and to my eye they come down to a sort of love for the work, the topic, and the people — one that only grew over time and he had more exposure to all three…

The Cold War mentality was premised in part on hiding science and technology from your competitors. The easiest part of that for American politicians was – and remains – casting all serious competitors as somehow inherently EVIL. That justified reliance on secrecy about absolutely everything…and still does. Including the banal which have already made it to the back pages of local, regional newspapers.

But, the tale, the personality of John Coster-Mullen grows through this dedication to the history of his work and achievements. I hope that recognition of his research will continue to grow, as well.

At least, it didn’t explode!

Today is bread day. I bake my loaf of bread for the following week every Friday. It is an old-fashioned European process consuming several hours actually starting the evening before.

So, Thursday evening, I mix what is called a poolish – vernacular for it’s supposed origin in Poland centuries ago. A very wet mixture, half flour, half water, barely an eighth of a teaspoon of yeast … the whole critter allowed to mumble to itself for 8-12 hours … covered in plastic wrap so no spiders or other critters fall in overnight. By Friday morning, the poolish is ready to be mixed with the remaining flour, water, salt and yeast to make the completed dough.

In our home, that’s called Jabba. :-]

I left it sitting out on the counter, last night. Didn’t get round to starting the end process till morning sunlight had already begun streaming in the East windows into our kitchen. The result is above.

Future Steak?

The shoppers of the world don’t know it yet, and farmers are only just beginning to worry about it, but supermarket meat aisles are probably on the cusp of change. Another range of products will soon appear alongside the traditional steaks and lamb chops. They’ll be identical to what we know as meat, but with a major difference: they will have been made in an industrial-scale laboratory…

…A growing group of food scientists and food companies believes we are about to enter an era when no animal needs to be killed and no land grazed to create meat. The economics are getting better and better. It’s good news for lab meat pioneers, vegetarians and animal ethicists. For the Australian and New Zealand meat industries, its effect may depend on how they react.

America’s largest meat company, Tyson Foods, gave the economics of lab meat a vote of confidence in January 2018 when it bought into lab meat startup Memphis Meats. It joined global food production giant Cargill, a company with annual revenue of more than US$100 billion a year.

With these two industry giants now backing the lab meat push, development is likely to ramp up and costs are expected to come down. Lab meat could be on the menu even earlier than forecast. Most estimates now see it coming to market within 10 years.

When it arrives, lab meat will take its place alongside increasingly sophisticated plant-based “meat” products from companies such as Beyond Meat and the Bill Gates-backed Impossible Foods.

These last two are already widely available and easy to prepare into a delicious snack or main course. Sufficient fat and protein guarantee mouth feel, flavor and texture. So – for the time being – the vegan alternatives to traditional slaughterhouses is ahead. I buy and consume them on a weekly basis. Still…looking forward to see what the labgrown animal product will have to offer.

Shrub predicts fire season terror!


Bryant Baker

…Chamise turns out to be a fascinating plant, one critical not only to the California landscape but to the safety of its human residents. When fire scientists want to know how flammable the state’s vegetation might be, they don’t rely on some newfangled gadget. They rely on chamise. “It’s a really pretty and kind of understated shrub,” says Bryant Baker, conservation director of the Los Padres ForestWatch … “And I think because it’s so common, it’s often taken for granted.” …

…Because the plant is so abundant, it’s a sort of standardized species—they can sample it all over the state. Fire weather researchers like San Jose State University’s Craig Clements … use it to get an idea of how parched vegetation is overall.

And nothing scares a fire weather scientist quite like a year with dehydrated chamise. If it’s dry, then that’s a good indicator that everything is dry. “Right now, these are the lowest April 1 fuel moistures we’ve ever had,” Clements says. This is supposed to be the time of year when moisture levels are at their highest, thanks to recent autumn and winter rains. But California is withering in a drought.

Read it and weep, sisters and brothers. Much will potentially be destroyed in this year’s fire season. And, so far, I haven’t read of any new ingenious way of stopping wildfires.

“Beast from the East”


Newly open water in the ArcticVladimir Lugai

The April snow falling on fruit blossoms in Europe these days may be directly connected to the loss of the sea ice in the Barents Sea in the Arctic. That was certainly the case in 2018 when the sudden cold spell known as “Beast from the East” descended on the mid-latitudes of the continent…

They are diligently stoking thousands of bonfires on the ground close to their crops, but the French winemakers are fighting a losing battle. An above-average warm spell at the end of March has been followed by days of extreme cold, destroying the vines with losses amounting to 90 percent above average. The image of the struggle may well be the most depressingly beautiful illustration of the complexities and unpredictability of global climate warming. It is also an agricultural disaster from Bordeaux to Champagne.

It is the loss of the Arctic sea-ice due to climate warming that has, somewhat paradoxically, been implicated with severe cold and snowy mid-latitude winters…

“What we’re finding is that sea-ice is effectively a lid on the ocean. And with its long-term reduction across the Arctic, we’re seeing increasing amounts of moisture enter the atmosphere during winter, which directly impacts our weather further south, causing extreme heavy snowfalls. It might seem counter-intuitive, but nature is complex and what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.” says Dr. Hanna Bailey.

And it gets more complex than that. RTFA, and understand as diverse and divergent from our “common sense” on the ground as many of these events may seem, cause and effect still happens and can be analyzed. Remedies for harmful change is the difficult bit.

California wildfire research center makes a scary discovery

On the second day of April, the skies were clear over the San Francisco Bay Area and the view from atop the sun-drenched Mount Umunhum in the South Bay spread across a sea of green shrubs and trees carpeting the surrounding Santa Cruz Mountains.

It was a beautiful sight, but a team of researchers from San Jose State University’s Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center — the only wildfire research center in California — noticed something wasn’t quite right.

“I was shocked when we went up there because usually in April we have a lot of new growth and old growth, and we didn’t see any new growth on the shrubs,” said Craig Clements, a SJSU professor and director of the center. “We weren’t seeing any of the lighter colored, bright green new growth sprouting out of the growth. Usually we take clippings of new stems and there weren’t any. This has never happened.”

Clements shared an image (above) from the expedition on Twitter and wrote, “The lack of rain this season has severely impacted our chaparral live fuel moistures. Wow, never seen April fuels look so… dry. No new growth anywhere in this Chamise. April is climatologically the highest live FMC of the season. Very Scary!”

FMC refers to “fuel-moisture content” — a measure of the ratio of moisture to combustible material in brush and trees that indicates how prone they are to burning. And the image up top is an area ready and waiting for wildfire.

Tracking history before DNA


F.Chen et al./Nature

Over the past two decades, DNA retrieved from ancient fossils has transformed scientists’ understanding of human evolution. Analysis of the similarities and differences in the DNA of different hominin groups has allowed researchers to map out the tangled family tree in a way that was previously not possible. And genetic material has led to some major finds, such as the discovery of Denisovans in the first place…

Ancient DNA has also left geographical blind spots. DNA degrades faster in warm environments, so although a 100,000-year-old specimen found in a cold Siberian cave might still harbour genetic material, a fossil that has spent that long in the heat of Africa or southeast Asia generally will not. As a result, little is known about the genetics of even relatively recent hominins from these regions, such as H. floresiensis…

Now researchers are hoping that protein analysis might begin to fill in some of those blanks. The idea is not new: as early as the 1950s, researchers had reported finding amino acids in fossils. But for a long time, the technology needed to sequence ancient proteins just didn’t exist … That changed in the 2000s, after researchers realized that mass spectrometry — a technique used to study modern proteins — could also be applied to ancient proteins. Mass spectrometry essentially involves breaking down proteins into their constituent peptides (short chains of amino acids) and analysing their masses to deduce their chemical make-up.

RTFA. Fascinating as paleontology can always be. Learning the where and when of how we got to here and now. True science never walks away from a problem because it’s difficult. Even when it takes generations to resolve.