Destroying PFAS: Less Than Meets the Eye


On the long list of things you need to worry about is the problem of PFAS. “PFAS” is an acronym for perfluoroalkyl or polyfluoroalkyl substances. It’s a class of chemicals composed of long chains of carbon molecules very strongly bonded with fluorine atoms, and they are damned near indestructible. Other chemicals break down by bacterial…

Awful Human Beings: Ryan Cole, M.D.


Some humans ain’t human, some people ain’t kind You open up their hearts, and here’s what you’ll find A few frozen pizzas, some ice cubes with hair A broken popsicle, you don’t wanna go there — John Prine, “Some Humans Ain’t Human,” Fair and Square, 2005 WC admits to an occasional fascination with some appallingly…

How Eukaryotes Got Their Mojo


Warning: Serious biological technogeekery ahead. For much of earth’s history, the only form of life was single-cell, primitive bacteria. Those early primitive cells are called prokaryotes. Basically, they were small sacks of fluid with the contents mixed together, higgedly-piggedly. Sometime about 1.5 billion years ago, a few lucky prokaryotes ingested or otherwise acquired another cell…

Marsquakes! For Science!


In principle, at least, the use of seismic – earthquake – waves to understand the interior of a planet is less complicated than it first seems. You’re probably familiar with bats’ use of echolocation to navigate the night skies: they emit high-pitched squeaks, and then use the reflections, the echoes, to navigate and find prey.…

It’s Friday the 13th: Let’s Get Geeky


WC will celebrate this Friday the 13th, a day founded on superstition, by following up on a series of seriously geeky science subjects. Black holes, even galaxy-sized black holes, have magnetic fields. You can give yourself a headache thinking too long about that. Black holes, which are as real as an earthquake, have always felt…

Miracles and Wonders: Mars Edition


There have been two recent images from the Mars Rover Perseverance and its amazing little helicopter companion, Ingenuity, that reminded WC that for all the faults and challenges of these modern times, we really do live in an age of miracles and wonders. The first was the images of one of Mars’ two tiny moonlets,…

More Proof Carl Sagan Was Right


One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a…

Three Cheers for the Webb Space Telescope


In engineering, a “single point failure” is a term for any step in a multi-step process which, if it fails, craters the whole project. The launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), from launch to deployment at Sun-Earth Lagrange Point 2 (L2) involved hundreds of single point failure risks. Hundreds of motors, cables, moving…

R.I.P. SN 2020tlf


It isn’t very often WC writes an obituary for a star, especially a red supergiant star. In fact, this is the very first time. Because it is the first time astronomers have watched the final days of a red supergiant star and observed as it exploded into a Type II Supernova. The star in question…

In the Dumps Over Lumps


Okay, WC admits that in the giant scheme of things to be depressed about, the pending lumping together of bird species hardly makes it on the radar of even dedicated birders. But WC laments the discovery of the genetic basis for variation among the three Redpoll species, and the news that the genetic variation among…

Notes on the Sheldon Spectrum


Before we get to today’s blog post, here’s a reminder to vote for the Wickersham’s Conscience 2021 Hypocrite of the Year. In 1969, Dr. Ray Sheldon, in the course of circumnavigating North and South America, sampled the water columns across a vast stretch of the Earth’s oceans. What he discovered was that across all of…

Geology in Real Time: the M8.9 Honshu Earthquake


The IRIS Education and Public Outreach (EPO) program has some very spiffy visualization of earthquake activity that captures the movement of the surface of the earth in the course of an earthquake. Check out this display of ground movement from the Honshu earthquake: Here’s the more recent deep earthquake in Peru: WC understands many readers…

For Your list of Things to Worry About: Solar Superflares


There is increasing evidence that solar superflares are more common and much more severe than we thought. Superflares are events triggered when our sun produces an immense flare of particles and radiation, orders of magnitude greater than normal. Superflares matter because when that energy strikes the Earth’s magnetosphere, it can wreak pure havoc on our…

A Few Words About Ingenuity


Ingenuity was an afterthought, at most an experiment approved by doubtful NASA brass, a proof of concept by a few smart NASA engineers. It’s become the little helicopter that could. An unqualified success that has exceeded even the most optimistic hopes of its designers by orders of magnitude. Ingenuity, of course, was the specially-designed helicopter…

Testosterone Levels Plotted Against Age, Human Males

Re-Run: The Steinkruger Principle Explained


Jamie Lauren Keiles recently has a long feature story in the New York Times on his love of motorcycles and his first trip to Sturgis, South Dakota for the gigantic motorcycle rally there. That story and a recent conversation with a friend brought to mind an older blog post which explains, far better than Mr.…

COVID Vaccines: The Facts


WC understands that most folks refusing to get vaccinated for COVID-19 don’t have rational reasons.1 But on the chance that facts can overcome irrational behavior and unreasoning fear, WC wants to point readers to the data. WC shares with Washington Post columnist Kate Cohen the faint hope that simple numbers can move people to get…

The Dunning-Kruger Effect Meets Social Media


WC has written about the Dunning-Kruger Effect several times before. The thesis is simple: If you are dumb enough, you don’t know how dumb you are. The implications are not simple, and if you live in a democracy, the implications are pretty concerning. Benjamin Lyons et al. have taken the implications one step further and…

DESI 3D: A Very Cool Toy


DESI is the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument. It’s the most sophisticated attempt yet to understand Dark Energy, the label given to the mysterious and very poorly understood force that is accelerating the expansion of the universe. At the risk of oversimplifying, DESI is the world’s most sophisticated spectroscope attached to the 4-meter Mayall Telescope at…

Examining a Failed Social Experiment


WC thinks it might be instructive to compare two science/social experiments that are happening in American society as you read this. Sometimes such a comparison can be insightful. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has been administered to about seven million Americans. That’s the single-dose, anti-COVID vaccine approved by the Food & Drug Administration for emergency…

A Photo of a Black Hole: An Update


(WC recognizes the mass media have picked up on the three astrophysics papers that are behind this story. But the mass media have gotten it stupidly, hopelessly wrong. WC makes an effort to clarify. Doubtless, real astrophysicists will sneer at this effort, but at least it distinguishes between the elliptical galaxy M87 and the black…

The Sad Etymology of “Penguin”


WC has posted a lot of political posts lately. While discussion of those issues is important, it can also bring even more stress to readers’ already stress-filled days. So, subject to the Magpie Principle, WC will endeavor to focus a little more on nature, birds and nature photography the next few weeks, to “depressurize” from…

Geology 101: Greenstone


Drop a large vase on a stone floor. It shatters, of course, pieces go everywhere. Now cover the fragments with 5,000 feet of layered sand, basalt, mud and gravel. Let it sit for 20 million years. Allow tectonic forces to then fault the mile-thick pile, shifting some it vertically and some of it horizontally. Allow…