Weapons-Grade Private Enterprise


Spent_nuclear_fuel_hanfordOver the years, I’ve met a number of physicists who had direct or indirect connections with the Manhattan Project and who then spent the rest of their lives trying to get the nuclear weapons genie back into the bottle and the bottle corked.  I think of these physicists as the old arms-controllers. They’re impressive people. They’re not so much uncheery as they are highly focused on the job of corking the genie.  Like, they’re pushing 90 years old and still stumping around full of current and complex information, giving talks and publishing things and backing politicians into corners.

I’ve just read about one (I’m pretty sure he qualifies as an old arms-controller though like others of them, he’s a little opaque to the all-seeing eye of Google) named Thomas Neff.  I’m reviewing a book about nuclear weapons. I learned that during the Cold War, the world had 65,000 nuclear warheads and around 2,000 tons of the fissile stuff – mostly weapons-grade uranium and some plutonium — that make nuclear warheads so effective.

All this stuff had to be made:  weapons-grade uranium is processed, or enriched, from lesser uranium; and plutonium is manufactured outright.  God didn’t make this stuff; we did.  It’s all over the place; it’s proliferated to all corners of the earth; most of it is in Russia, the U.S. comes second.  And once made, the stuff can’t be unmade; it can’t be destroyed.  We’re stuck with it.  You have to wonder why God doesn’t get disgusted and just shut down the whole stupid human endeavor, another Flood maybe.

Until Thomas Neff, a physicist/non-proliferation expert at MIT, figured out how the situation might be improved with a little private enterprise. Continue reading

Donald Trump Is the World’s Greatest Performance Artist



“For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who don’t believe, no proof is possible.” – Stuart Chase

Over the past few months, I’ve vaguely been aware that Donald Trump has been stirring up ideas that vaccinating children causes autism. Trump points out that many kids who get vaccinated also get autism. This is true, in the same way that many people who drink tequila get Alzheimer’s and many people with brown hair are serial killers.

Like most of my colleagues in the science writing community, I was exasperated by this ignorant babble from our nation’s greatest ignorant babbler. It’s hard enough to cover the sciences under normal circumstances but it’s doubly hard when public figures spread pseudoscience.

But then I looked closely at a couple photos of “The Donald” and in a split second, everything changed. All this time, people have seen him as this evil clown on whom we hang our frustrations about the world’s selfishness and greed. Well the joke is on us. Because Donald Trump is not actually Donald Trump at all.

He’s Andy Kaufman in disguise. Continue reading

The Last Word


Holurhaun on 4 Sept from Flickr:peterhartree

September 14-18, 2014

The week kicked off with a guest post by Alexandra Witze, who used fonts I didn’t know WordPress supported to share some Icelandic mythology and make me very excited about her new book.

Michelle introduced the complex morality of energy, caloric and otherwise, as the resurgence of an older idea.

Christie tries out one of those treadmill desks that are all the rage. She discovers her problem with it is a philosophical one.

The discovery of one of Sir John Franklin’s ships in the Arctic is not just a dramatic find, but also an indication of what would be possible if we put some serious resources into archaeology.

Jelly fish are really one of the most wondrous creatures on Earth. And it’s not like they’re rare. Helen goes to visit some in Baltimore.

The Floating World of Jellyfish


moon jelliesIn a dark gallery alongside Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, a horde of glowy, gelatinous bulbs are drifting. A living lava lamp, someone calls them, and that’s what they are – jellyfish, mesmerizingly lit for the benefit of visitors to the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

Aquariums have been keeping jellies for years. I first saw them at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in about 1994, when I visited a friend in the San Francisco Bay area and we took a day-long pilgrimage. I couldn’t believe the terrifying, painful creatures of childhood visits to the seashore were so shockingly, glowingly beautiful. Continue reading

All the Other Franklins




“What happened to Franklin is, in its way, a trivial question. He had a wooden ship in the Arctic and no idea what he was doing – what do you mean, what happened to him? But we still ask why. “ – Adam Gopnik, Winter (2011)

As of a week ago, we have an incrementally better idea of what happened to Sir John Franklin’s Northwest Passage search of 1845. One of the two bomber vessels, Erebus or Terror, having landed in a heap of trouble (mired in ice), ended up at a shallow depth in Victoria Strait, just off Nunavut’s King William Island, their last reported position. Against expectations, it’s in just about one piece, with its deck (and, therefore, its contents) intact, and we’ll soon know which of the ships it is when searchers determine the boiler design.

There’s already much to learn from its placement. Three-years-worth of provisions on board meant that failure was a drawn-out affair. The only written record we have states that dozens of the men died from any number of afflictions: scurvy, starvation and – as one might expect – hypothermia. The many Inuit witnesses were able to describe events quite clearly – white men dying on the ground while others trudged on, lifeboats full of sawed-off human bones. Lead poisoning from food containers is a more recent theory. After Franklin died on the Erebus, the record states, his men abandoned it and headed south on foot.

Continue reading

Stepping Off the Multi-Tasking Treadmill



Yesterday in the Washington Post, I wrote about how I wanted to love my treadmill desk, but I just don’t.

I had high hopes. I’ve been a standing desk user for more than 10 years, long before they were a “thing.” I’m an active, restless person who already spends more than 80 percent of my workday standing, so a treadmill seemed like the natural next step in my workspace evolution.

But then I tried it. Walking feels good, and my impulse is to walk fast. The more I raised the speed (the treadmill can go up to four mph), the better the walking felt, but the more distracted I became from the task at hand. Walking slowly was even more distracting, due to my impulse to up the speed.

Walking on a desk treadmill, I soon discovered, is about as satisfying as eating a gourmet meal while driving. I love walking outside. Many of my best ideas come when I’m out walking my dogs. But combining walking and working seemed to diminish both experiences. Continue reading

More Energy, Less Freedom



The writer and filmmaker Swain Wolfe spent his earliest years at a tuberculosis sanatarium near Colorado Springs, Colorado, where his father was the director. After World War II, the sanatarium closed, his parents divorced, and his mother moved Wolfe and his sister to a ranch in western Colorado and then, when Wolfe was a teenager, to Montana. Wolfe dropped out of high school and found work on timber crews, in sawmills and slaughterhouses, and finally in the underground copper mines around Butte, Montana. He recalled his mining days in a 1994 interview in the Bloomsbury Review:

When you’re underground for a while, you begin to get the feel of where the ore flows, how hard the granite is one place from another, how hot the wall temperature is from level to level, where the earth slips and messes up the tracks, and things you knew but never had words for. Then one day after work you drive over to Anaconda to see your girl and you realize something is very different. Your world is never going to be the same because you cannot be on the surface without thinking about what’s underneath.

Continue reading

Guest Post: Bárðarbunga and the Winters of Winds, of the Sword, of the World


Holurhaun on 4 Sept from Flickr:peterhartree


Snow fell on the four quarters of the world; icy winds blew from every side; the sun and the moon were hidden by storms.

— Writer and folklorist Padraic Colum, citing an Icelandic legend in Orpheus: Myths of the World


When you live in Iceland, you kind of expect a rough winter. But sometimes the winters are harsher than most, and sometimes they seem to last year after year. To anyone clinging to this chunk of hardened lava in the North Atlantic, it might feel like the end of the world is at hand. Continue reading