Mysterious Fast Radio Bursts

The radio telescope near Penticton has detected signals that were sent from some mysterious object billions of light years away, at a time when the Earth was so hot that water boiled on its surface and the atmosphere so toxic that life couldn’t exist.

Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory near Penticton. Image: Phys.org

No one knows what the objects are but the bursts are strong and short. I asked Paul Scholz, Research Associate at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory in Penticton what they might be: Cosmic strings, Neutron stars, Supernovae, evaporation of black holes? His reply by email:

“This is what we hope to answer!”

Maybe the radio bursts are alien signals sent long ago to arrive at a time when we have the technology to detect them? Deborah Good, a UBC PhD student working on the project, is doubtful:

“There’s a bunch of theories right now, but one thing we’re really confident about is that it’s not aliens,” she told the Globe and Mail (August 5, 2018).”

The discovery of these signals is so new that they don’t even have a name other than the descriptive “Fast Radio Bursts.” I previously read about FRBs in Scientific American and I wondered if the Penticton observatory called them anything else, such as “Lorimer bursts?”   Dr. Scholz relied:

“We call them FRBs. Lorimer burst refers to FRB 010125, the first FRB that was discovered by Duncan Lorimer in 2007.”

The article in Scientific American was written by the same Professor Lorimer, the discoverer of FRBs. He was originally perplexed by his discovery and wondered if they were even real:

“We theorized that if we could identify and understand them, we could not only learn about a new type of cosmic event, but we could also estimate their distances through dispersion measurements and use them to do something as grand as map out the large-scale structure of the universe. But first we had to prove that the burst was real –a quest that would take many surprising turns and almost end in retreat. (April, 2018).”

What intrigues me about this discovery is this use of “dispersion measurements” to measure astronomical distances. Before researching this article, I was only familiar with the “red shift” method: as objects recede from us, the colour they emit is shifted towards the red end of the spectrum. The greater the shift, the greater the distance.

Dispersion measurements (DMs) depend on the effect that clouds of electrons have on the radio signal.  As the signal streams towards us, its frequencies are stretched out; dispersed. The greater the DM, the greater the distance. Approximately.

A slight error in the measurement is caused by the fact that electrons are not evenly distributed in space. While the measurement is not precise, it’s pretty good.

The Penticton observatory is collaborating with other telescopes to determine the size and location of the sources of FRBs.

The sources appear to be very small and very powerful says Lorimer. They are only one-five hundredth the diameter of the sun, yet give off as much energy in one second as the sun does in a month.

It will be fascinating to find out what these explosive bursts are. I’m quite sure little green men didn’t send them.

 

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Immigrant women’s STEM skills untapped

If it makes sense for girls to enter programs in science, technology, engineering and math, then it makes even more sense to employ immigrant women who already have these skills.

    image: CIVIC York

Girls should to be encouraged to enter STEM fields. Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops is holding a camp for girls at Harper Mountain this summer. The program will provide positive female role models and build confidence in STEM studies.

It’s not just a question of gender equity but one of necessity. Canada faces a skills shortage. Jobs are waiting to be filled. TechGirls Canada founder Saadia Muzaffar says:

“The top item on the innovation minister’s national agenda is ‘the need to secure the right people—including women, immigrants, and training for the next generation—who can help us close the gap between the number of jobs posted and the number of workers available to fill them (CCPA Monitor, Nov/Dec, 2017).’”

In the field of information and communications technology alone, there will be a shortage of 182,000 workers by 2019.

What’s missing from this equation is the fact that immigrant women have these skills and that talent is being wasted.

Immigrant women aged 25 to 34 are twice as likely to have a STEM degree as Canadian women of that age (23 versus 13 per cent).  Not just women but all immigrants, on average, are highly trained says Muzaffar:

“Almost nine out of 10 newcomers with credentials above a high school diploma had a university degree at the time of landing in Canada. Among these, 82% held degrees in fields of study ranging from engineering to agriculture, biology, physics, mathematics and health sciences, as well as the humanities and social sciences. Two-thirds held professional jobs before immigrating to Canada; in management and business administration, natural sciences, health and education.”

Here are the factors that discourage talented immigrant women from being employed:

Immigrant families arrive with a lot of talent but little money. The husband finds work wherever he can, usually in a low-paying job like driving a taxi. Since the cost of child care is prohibitively expensive, the wife stays at home with the kids. The longer she is out of a job that employs her skills, the less likely she will ever be employed. Each passing year removes her connection to the workforce.

Even if immigrant families find daycare with friends or grandparents, they face the problem of having their education and work experience recognized. Accreditation can be a frustrating and expensive process. B.C. and Alberta are the worst when it comes to accreditation.

Immigrants who represent visible minorities face discrimination.

If an immigrant woman finds work in her field of expertise, it is likely to be in a temporary job with relatively low wages. There is an economic incentive for employers to keep immigrants and all women marginalized.

If we are serious about putting talented immigrant women to work, the solutions are obvious: affordable day care, simple and cheap accreditation, consolidation of part-time positions to full-time, acknowledge that we discriminate and correct our colour vision.

Animal speech

I know that animals vocalize but do they have an internal language? Something like what you experience now as you read this? Since animals don’t write articles in which they wonder about speech in humans, we can only infer from observation.

Koko jas sign language

Koko has sign language

Getting inside the heads of animals requires time and patience. Francine “Penny” Patterson has spent years in a California zoo teaching Koko, a gorilla, sign language. Koko can name hundreds of objects.

Still, gorillas don’t talk to each other. Anthropologist Holly Dunsworth notes: “Gorillas grumble in the presence of large amounts of food, they grunt as they approach one another or separate from their young, they make copulatory grunts, and they chuckle when they play (Scientific American January 1, 2016).” The vocalizations that gorillas make are no more complex than their visual displays. They telegraph social status and possible behavior, but that is all.

Vervet monkeys do better. They make distinct predator alarm calls for “eagle,” “snake” and “leopard.” Unlike Koko, no human taught Vervets these “words.”   Even then, Vervets don’t have conversations about the big snake they saw yesterday.

Animals appear to lack abstract reasoning: the ability to transfer knowledge from a one situation to one that hasn’t yet happened.

Crows seem to have abstract reasoning. They will drop walnuts to a hard surface and crack them open. They seem to be thinking “if I drop this nut from high enough to the hard concrete sidewalk, it will break open.”

A more likely explanation involves an observation about ourselves than about animals. We tend to anthropomorphize: to view the world of animals through our own eyes. We visualize them with human-like language and intentions.

Sara Shettleworth, cognitive scientist at the University of Toronto says that “proximate cause” is a better explanation. In biology, proximate cause is the most immediate cause of an event. The crow didn’t drop the walnut because it was thinking about the hardness of nuts relative to the sidewalk, the distance it had to fall, and the consequences of the impact.  No, the bird’s physiological state was a key factor. Hunger linked to the walnuts and hard surfaces.

“That is, physiology that encourages conditioned food-procurement behavior based on past success is what causes a crow to fly above hard surfaces and drop nuts, not the crow’s logic about how to best satiate its hunger,” explains Dunsworth. If the crow hadn’t accidently seen how well the technique worked, it wouldn’t have come up with the behaviour based on analysis.

It’s an honest mistake. If we have abstract reasoning, our natural inclination is that animals do: we project our view of reality on to the world.

I don’t mean to suggest that human animals are superior, just different. The mental baggage we carry comes at a cost. It may help us construct our world to tell ourselves: “Take this saw and make a table.” But those voices can also appear to be external and malicious, as in schizophrenia, and tell us: “Take that screwdriver and stab the devil Fred through the heart” –an internal voice I’m quite sure animals don’t hear.

When is a GMO not a GMO?

Everything we eat has been genetically modified but no one would call crops from common crossbreeding GMOs. No, Genetically Modified Organisms occur when DNA from one species is inserted another. So-called transgenic crops, such as corn and soybeans, are resistant to the herbicide Roundup. Use of the technology has led to public distrust of GMOs.

crossbreeding

But other technologies modify genetics yet they are not defined as GMOs. With the arrival of the precision gene-editing tool called CRISPR, definitions become more than just semantic says Scientific American (March, 2016). If the foods produced by CRISPR are not defined as GMOs, then public acceptance will be greater.

Let’s look at some current technologies that are not defined as GMOs. The oldest is conventional crossbreeding, widely regarded as “natural.” If we want a blight-resistant plant that produces desirable fruit, a wild relative of the plant that is blight-resistant can be cross-pollinated with one that produces desirable fruit. However, this process is not precise –it transfers not only the desirable trait but also large segments of chromosomes. Along with the desirable chromosomes can be undesirable ones; a process called “linkage drag.”

Modern wheat is one of those. Nina Fedoroff, a plant biologist and former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, refers to domesticated versions of bread wheat created by traditional breeding as “genetic monstrosities.”

Then there is Mutagenesis, not considered as creating GMOs by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Developed in the 1920s, it involves the use of x-rays, gamma rays or chemicals to induce mutations in plants. The mutants are ten examined for desirable traits. It’s a shot in the dark.

A more precise shotgun approach was refined in the 1980s. Cisgenesis involves using a DNA particle gun to literally shoot genes with the desirable trait into a plant cell. Cisgenesis can also be accomplished by using bacteria to carry the desirable genes into the plant cell. It’s more efficient than conventional crossbreeding because there is less linkage drag. Whether or not the product is a GMO is determined on a case-by-case basis.

Gene-spliced plants are not considered GMOs. In this method, undesirable traits are turned off by introducing RNA into genes which interferes with the gene. Some approved foods using this method are non-browning potatoes and apples.

CRISPR is totally new and the jury is out on whether they produce GMOs or not. The precision and low-cost of CRISPR confound the problem. As I described in an earlier column, CRISPR is like a search and replace function in a word processor in which all instances of a spelling error can be found and replaced.  Or it can be used to find and simply delete the error.

Supporters of CRISPR argue that when the technology is used to delete but not insert genes, then the results should not be called GMOs: as when an undesirable trait is deleted and not replaced with anything.

Critics of CRISPR say that any tinkering with genes using any technology, other than “natural” methods, should be enough to label the products as GMOs.

Clearly, public acceptance relies on accurate definitions.

 

The promise and peril of CRISPR gene technology

So far, the promise of genetic engineering to cure disease has been a bit of a dud. Up until now scientists could only read our genomes – now they can write. A gene-editing tool found in bacteria, called CRISPR, is poised to achieve that goal.

CRISPR

As well as read, the old technology allowed the ability to add says Dr. Elizabeth Simpson at the University of British Columbia on CBC Radio’s Quirks and Quarks. She’s begun to use CRISPR in her work on aniridia, a genetic eye disease.

“In the older technology we would add the missing gene, not insert it into the genome to make the eye function properly. We had a lot of trouble making the addition produce the right amount of protein at the right time. With CRISPR, all the natural regulation is still there and can be used by the eye to heal itself. We don’t have to be as clever and it’s a faster way to go.”

CRISPR (Clustered regularly-interspaced short palindromic repeats) is part of a natural bacterial defense. Scientists have known about these sections in bacterial DNA for years but they didn’t know what they were for or how they got there.

Then they discovered that these repeated clusters were sections of DNA gathered from attacking viruses: the bacteria had literally incorporated the enemy’s DNA into theirs. Still, their function remained a mystery.

Dr. Sylvain Moineau, Professor at the University of Laval, was one of the researchers to find out. He discovered that some yogurt bacteria weren’t susceptible to viral attack and some were. The ones that weren’t used the embedded viral DNA, described above, as a natural defense. These successful bacteria compared the embedded viral DNA with sections in the attacking viruses, and then cut that section out. As you can image, viruses don’t work well with gaping holes in their midsections: a pretty good defense.

While cut up viruses don’t work well, human DNA has the ability can stitch itself back up. That allows CRISPR technology to remove parts of our DNA that cause disease and replace it with functioning parts.

That’s the wonder of CRISPR. It cuts out the bad parts and inserts the good parts. Think of it as the search and replace function in word processors says Dr. Feng Zhang at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was key in transforming the natural CRISPR system into a gene editing tool. For example, if I’ve misspelled CRISPR throughout this whole article, I can use the search and replace function in Word to replace all incorrect instances of CRISTR with CRISPR.

Powerful tools in the hands of the wrong people can be disastrous. It would be wonderful to cure muscular dystrophy and Huntington’s disease. And since permanent genetic changes can be passed on through generations, malaria could be wiped out forever by making mosquitoes resistant to the parasite.

But In the hands of bio-hackers and unethical corporations, CRISPR could wreak havoc in areas of agriculture, biology, pharmaceuticals, ecology and wildlife preservation.

Ethical debates must take place before the technology becomes widespread. It’s another reason that we need strong government regulation.

How science works

Scientists overwhelmingly agree that humans are contributing to global warming in a significant way: 97 per cent of tens of thousands of scientists from a variety of disciplines are convinced of anthropogenic global warming (AGW).

induction-deduction-1

But consensus alone doesn’t make it true. Albert Einstein make that point in 1931 when a book was published renouncing his theory of relativity. The title, “100 Authors against Einstein,” said it all.

Einstein replied: “Why 100? If I were wrong, one would have been enough.” His point was that consensus does make a scientific fact. He wasn’t right just because he was Einstein. He was right because thousands of scientists found that he was right.

Revolutionary ideas aren’t necessarily true but many are. Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, lists some:

“The Copernican model, germ theory, the vaccination principle, evolutionary theory, plate tectonics and the big bang theory were all once heretical ideas that became consensus science. How did this happen?”

It didn’t become true based on the results of a poll. The results of a poll done in 2011 by Associated Press-GfK showed 77 per cent American adults believe in angels.

By the consensus model alone, angels exist. Both the majority scientists who believe in AGW and the believers in angels must be right. However, if we apply the test of consilience, one belief tumbles. Consilience is defined as the linking together of principles from different disciplines to form one comprehensive theory.

The 19th-century philosopher of science William Whewell argued for a “consilience of inductions.” Inductive reasoning is defined as that which derives general principles from specific observations.

“For a theory to be accepted, Whewell argued, it must be based on more than one induction—or one single generalization drawn from specific facts,” explains Shermer. “It must have multiple inductions that converge on one another, independently but in conjunction.”  Call it a convergence of evidence.

Whewell wrote in his 1840 book: “Accordingly the cases, in which inductions from classes of facts altogether different have thus jumped together, they belong only to the best established theories which the history of science contains.”

The flaw in the belief of angels is that inductive reasoning isn’t used, let alone the more rigorous test of consilience. To meet the standard of consilience for angels, not just one generalization from many facts must come about, but many generalizations must come together.

One the other hand, it’s not difficult to study whether climate change is caused by humans. That’s because there is a convergence of evidence from multiple lines of inquiry—pollen, tree rings, ice cores, corals, glacial and polar ice-cap melt, sea-level rise, ecological shifts, carbon dioxide increases, the unprecedented rate of temperature increase—that all converge to a singular conclusion.

So, what about the three per cent of scientists who don’t believe in AGW? Perhaps they, being in the minority like Einstein was, are right. But they fail the test of consilience and have a number of flaws including cherry-picking, curve-fitting, and disregard for inconvenient data.

“That is, instead of the 3 percent of papers converging to a better explanation than that provided by the 97 percent, they failed to converge to anything,” says Shermer.

How to market sugar water

There’s no doubt that consumption of pop is harmful, even deadly but you’d never know it from the soft drink industry. Professor Paulette Nestle, nutritionist at New York University, is blunt:

“The science is clear. Kids and adults who drink pop tend to be heavier and have a higher prevalence of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and tooth decay.”

coca_cola_bubbles

Studies funded by the soft drink industry find the opposite: roughly 85 per cent of them find pop to be harmless. And if there is a problem, they say, it’s your fault. No one is holding a gun to your head and forcing pop down your throat. The problem lies on the shoulders of individual consumers. It’s a matter of choice. If only consumers would exercise more.

However, consumers make choices on what they perceive about a product and the sugar water industry is persuasive. They spend millions of dollars on Super Bowl ads that avoid the product itself. Instead, they market deep emotional connections to friends and family. If I can find happiness in a can of Coke, why wouldn’t I drink it?

And if I can find my identity in a can of pop, all the better. Coke sells cans with my name on it and words such as Love and Superstar. Who wouldn’t want to support a corporation that supports the arts, community projects, and cleaning up the environment?

“When Philadelphia was considering a soft-drink tax, Coke offered to give the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia $10 million. It’s that kind of thing,” says the author of eight books in a newsletter from the Centre for Science in the Public Interest.

It’s a standard tactic used by the merchants of misery. You see it used by proponents of Ajax mine in Kamloops. They don’t address the problems that the mine will create: like toxic dust, groundwater contamination, potential sludge spills, the environmental headache created by the mountain of tailings when they leave.

No, Ajax mine tells us how important copper is to our daily lives, how they will create jobs, how they support our university and the arts. To oppose the mine is to oppose family and community, they would have us to believe.

The sugar water industry has learned from the tobacco industry that you can counter science by creating doubt. Sure, 99 per cent of studies might find that consumption of tobacco causes cancer but if only one study is inconclusive, then maybe tobacco is not that bad. It’s human nature to hope that something we want will be OK despite mounting evidence to the contrary, something we are addicted to or feel a deep emotional connection to, something that will create jobs.

Another tool in the toolbox is to fund groups like the Global Energy Balance Network. The group employed scientists of considerable stature who found that lack of exercise, not diet, was responsible for the obesity epidemic. Then a reporter for the New York Times discovered that these scientists had been taking millions of dollars in research grants from Coca Cola including funding of the website.

One of these scientists said not worry about eating less, gobbling junk food, drinking pop. Just be more active. Would it were true.