Guest Post: The Three Quarks of Life

This is a tough post to read, tougher to look at.  Some background might help. In 1993 Chris Arnade got a PhD in physics and then went to work on Wall Street.  Starting in 2007, Chris started taking long walks with his camera through New York City, where he found a lot of ambiguity and unsolvable problems.  By 2010 he was spending all of his spare time in the Hunts Point neighorhood of the Bronx, documenting the stories of street addicts.   In 2012 he quit his job to dedicate his full time to the project.  His collaborator in the project is Cassie Rodenberg, who writes the Scientific American blog, The White Noise.– LWON eds

shooting up(Shooting up)

My first career was studying the rules that drive the material world, theoretical physics. Physicists use extremes to learn how nature works: They take stuff and smash it together at really high speeds to strip matter of the ancillary fluff and expose the essential core.

My current career, of working with homeless addicts in the Hunts Point neighborhood of the Bronx, is equally revealing. It is seeing life stripped of ancillary fluff, leaving what is essential. It exposes the things often forgotten when you have a steady job, a supportive family, and own lots and lots of stuff.

Gone are the material and social pleasantries that mask our perceptions of being human. A street addict’s life is about hustling for the next meal, the next place to sleep, the next fix. About staying alive.

For physicists the essential core is composed of a handful of particles, of which the most essential of the essential are six quarks. Six particles that combine and interact to make up everything. Six varieties of Lego pieces.

In Hunts Point three rules dominate: The three quarks of life. Continue reading

La Vie Souterraine

underground living 2

At Lisgar Collegiate, my old public high school in Ottawa, whenever I had gym class, band or strings, law or – as I vaguely recall – accounting class, I had two choices. I could either pack my books away, pin my sleeves over my hands and charge out the door, through 15 seconds of -20C blizzard to the adjacent South Building or I could take the civilized — if slightly less refreshing — route underground. Subterranean building is a common solution in extreme climates, and the future of weather means that cities elsewhere would do well to put a bit of ground between themselves and the elements. Urbanist Jane Jacobs may urge us to build up, not out, but there is another option: down.

The cobblestones of sleepy Corsham, Wiltshire, hide a well-kept secret of improbable scale. Embedded in the limestone cave network underlying the town, a 35 acre city was built to allow 4,000 government staff to ride out a nuclear war. Burlington Nuclear Bunker had its own TV studio where survivors could make announcements from the apocalypse. Offices, a hospital, a sprawling phone exchange, pub and landromats — all sat empty for half a century under a bizarre selection of Olga Lehmann murals. Powered by a heavy-duty generator, the underground city was to use a subterranean lake as a drinking water reservoir. Its existence remained classified until it was decommissioned and put up for sale in 2004. Continue reading

Forward by Failure

2nd season rifle 2014

A few years ago, I decided to take up hunting. This was kind of a big deal, because I’d spent the first decade-plus of my adult life as vegetarian. I became a big game hunter for the same reason I raise chickens — to know where my food comes from and ensure that it’s raised and harvested humanely. I figure if I’m not willing to kill it myself, I have no business eating it.

I quickly learned that hunting red meat is much harder than raising chickens. First of all, I had to acquire a hunter safety card, which required attending a one-day class on firearm safety and hunting regulations. The class included several videos demonstrating what not to do (like shooting from a vehicle or across a road), practice handling firearms and primers on hunting regulations. It ended with a written exam and a trip to the shooting range to fire a .22 rifle.

The next summer, I focused on learning to shoot. It took me multiple trips to the firing range before I felt comfortable handling the 30-06 rifle I’d chosen. And there was still the issue of actually using it to kill something. Continue reading

Seeing Mammoths

mammoth imageSeeing a mammoth is not the same as looking over a zoo wall at a modern elephant, or even standing next to a live, gray, wrinkled wall of flesh with scant, coarse hairs. Watching the flexible, prehensile reach of an elephant’s trunk and the slow cross-wise chewing of hay, I’ve found it hard to see the larger mammoth inside.

Elephants and mammoths are obviously related, both proboscideans evolved from a trunked African animal the size of a pig some 60 million years ago, eventually becoming the largest land animal on earth. The earliest version of the mammoth, Mammuthus subplanifrons, originated in the African tropics about 5 million years ago. A later mammoth, Mammuthus meridionalis, entered forests and grasslands in Europe and Asia about 3 million years ago, eventually leading to the famed wooly mammoth, Mammuthus primigenius, which adapted to cooler, more arid treeless conditions in the north from the British Isles to eastern Siberia and into North America. The wooly mammoth was a latecomer to the New World, arriving from Siberia across the land bridge only 100,000 years ago. A previous mammoth species had arrived in North America a million years earlier and moved into warmer more southerly parts of the continent where it evolved into the what is known as the Columbian mammoth, Mammuthus columbi. This was one of the larger proboscideans to have ever lived, up to 13 feet tall at the shoulder.

In museum collections, I’ve looked for this animal by running my hands along the arcs of their tusks, 10 or 12 feet of solid ivory, colored chestnut from time in the ground. In the clean lighting and gentle hum of air ducts, I still couldn’t see the actual beast. Taken out of the context of its environment, I saw paleontologists and plaster jackets more than I saw mammoths.

The best view I ever had of this animal was in the gypsum wastelands of a bombing range in southern New Mexico where mammoth tracks have been repeatedly discovered. Continue reading

Guest Post: Affair of the Heart. IV: Day of Reckoning

op roomMy wife Anne and I arrived at Johns Hopkins’s gleaming new Sheikh Zayed Tower at 5:15 AM on September 8.  I knew I would soon be on an operating table with my breastbone split  and my ribcage cranked open, exposing my heart and the aortic aneurysm that had brought me here.  A  heart-lung machine would be circulating blood throughout my body; I would be hooked up to a ventilator; a variety of tubes would be draining fluids from my chest and bladder; and an array of drips and syringes would be feeding fluids and drugs into my veins and arteries, keeping me hydrated and, I hoped, unconscious.  Yet I felt strangely calm, curious to know how it would all turn out. Continue reading

The Last Word

3861636375_c282289566_bOctober 20-24, 2014

In his third post, Colin Norman faces a daunting prospect: heart surgery. “The operation isn’t as simple as snipping out the piece of aorta that includes the aneurysm and sewing in the Dacron tube. Because my aneurysm is right at the root of the aorta, the surgery would involve the left ventricle itself.”

Richard Panek treats us to more bad science poetry. Here’s my favorite line: “The Higgs is a boson, not something with clothes on.”

Karen Masterson explores the US’s history of ham-handed attempts to “help” Liberia, and wonders whether the effort to get the ebola outbreak under control will be the latest example. “Don’t step in again with a big foot and then leave. There’s no pill to make Ebola go away; it will come back.”

Helen Fields catalogues all the times that she has been pooped on by birds in the past decade. The list is extensive. “An informal poll of Facebook friends finds that I have been pooped on more in the last decade than everyone but a dog walker and a biologist.”

And on Friday, Ann Finkbeiner calls on Geoff Brumfiel and Sharon Weinberger to discuss Lockheed Martin’s announcement that the company is a decade away from having a fusion reactor. Geoff and Sharon are skeptical. “Couldn’t you just assert that you, Ann Finkbeiner, are going to build a fusion reactor ‘within 10 years.’ That’s what everyone else does,” Sharon says. Ann agrees to try.

Photos: “Fusion Reactor” by Annabeth Robinson, via Flickr


Conversation with Sharon & Geoff: Starship Fusion

Last week, Lockheed announced it had a small team working on what it calls a Compact Fusion Reactor.  Fusion is the opposite of fission that’s used in nuclear plants today; it can produce enormous amounts of energy; the fuel for  itis cheap and plentiful; a small fusion engine would solve the world’s energy problems. I first wrote about fusion energy maybe 30 years ago; the saying then was “fusion is always 20 years away.” Lockheed now says they’re “as little as 10 years” away.  So my fusion-knowledge is clearly out of date.  I asked my friends and colleagues, Geoff Brumfiel who has written a lot about fusion, and Sharon Weinberger who writes about national security and technology, to explain what Lockheed could possibly be talking about.

3861636375_c282289566_bAnn:  So  Lockheed is saying its airplanes could run on fusion, or something like that. How can aircraft run on fusion anyway? Given that fusion is what powers the sun and h-bombs, wouldn’t that be a little dangerous? or just hot?  Anyway, didn’t the Starship Enterprise already run on fusion?  While I pondered these questions, Geoff sent along the Lockheed press release which ends with, “Do you have any questions?”  Well, Geoff, do you?  I trust they’re better than mine.

Geoff: To really know whether a fusion device like this will work requires a detailed understanding of the technology and geometry of the machine. And because the interactions of the fuel inside a machine like this are so complex–you also have to review some real data. To say whether this new concept will work, I’d want to ask lots of questions along those lines.

And yet, I don’t want to ask those questions, because narratively this fits the classic mold of a fusion machine that won’t work (or at least won’t work without a lot of money):

  1. It’s being developed by people outside the field of fusion research.
  2. They think they can make it compact, which is notoriously hard to do.
  3. And they’re promising to do it quickly, but they haven’t done it yet.

I’ve seen this story too many times before: In roughly chronological order, we have the Huemul Project, the British Z-pinch, The Farnsworth Fusor, Cold Fusion, The Polywell Machine, Bubble Fusion, General Fusion…  Just writing that list makes me feel tired.

Ann:  So because this is a classic failure story, does that mean it won’t happen this time? Continue reading

On a Decade of Getting Pooped On By Birds

I know you're planning something, bird

1. Washington, D.C., 2004 or so

A bench around a circular planter, with a tree in it. I was eating my lunch. I felt something on my arm.

We call it poop, but the stuff that comes out of birds’ behinds is more complicated than that. Birds, like most vertebrates that aren’t mammals, have a single all-purpose exit called a cloaca. From that hole they expel eggs, the leftovers of their meals, and the products of their kidneys.

I assume that’s why the waste is two-toned.


Continue reading