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:

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.



Climate-change denial is not about science

The minds of climate-change deniers won’t be changed with scientific facts. For them, the real issue isn’t science.

image: @politicaltribe

There’s a temptation to think that if all the facts were presented to deniers, that suddenly they would see the light. Professor Katharine Hayhoe says that doesn’t work:

“The number-one question I get from people is, ‘Could you just talk to my father-in-law, my congressman, my colleague? If you could just explain the facts to them, I’m sure it will change their mind.’ This is a trap. . . It almost never works. The only constructive dialogue with a dismissive person in on the level at which he or she really has the issue,” she told Scientific American (October 2017.) The Canadian political scientist teaches at Texas Tech University.

The real issue isn’t science. Sure, deniers like to couch arguments in science-y terms like –it’s just a natural cycle, scientists aren’t sure, actually its global cooling, volcanoes are the cause.  They use the language of science because they understand, or they have heard, that the scientific method tests theories in an irrefutable way.

The implications of reducing carbon emissions are scary for deniers. There are two. Entire economies have been built around the burning of fossil fuels. Therefore, the reasoning goes, if we stop burning fossils fuels our modern lifestyle will cease to exist. Economies will collapse. People will lose their jobs. Big Oil fuels these fears –it’s an existential issue for them.

Another implication has to with betrayal of your tribe. Although it wasn’t always the case, climate change has become politicized. I believe in climate change, not just because it can be scientifically proven but because it’s part of a set of values held by my tribe; along with pro-choice, fair wages, unionization, and environmental protection.

Climate change wasn’t always tribal. A few decades ago, the relationship between carbon dioxide and global warming was uncontroversial –it’s been known since the 1890’s. The trapping of heat with some sort of “blanket” is not only scientifically true, it’s observable: When clouds cover Kamloops at night, it stays warmer than when it’s clear.

However, once climate change moved from being a fact on the shelf to an actionable truth, Big Oil began to lobby politicians to fight against cutbacks in carbon emission. The prospect of reversing the fossil-fuel industry strikes fear in the corporate boardroom.

Climate change is the biggest issue facing humanity. We know the cause and we know the solution. Prof. Hayhoe has some tips. Shouting down the other tribe will not mobilize humanity to action. Avoid scientific arguments –they are not the real problem. Don’t use the words “climate” and “change” sequentially.

“With libertarians, we talk about free-market strategies,” says Prof. Hayhoe, “With mom’s groups, we talk about pollution affecting our kids’ health. With farmers, I say, ‘Hey, you’re the backbone of our food system, how have drought patterns changed?’ I don’t validate that there is a left and right side to climate change. And neither should the media.”

What’s the point in being right, in erecting tribal walls, when the future of our planet is at stake?

Fiction is not cultural appropriation

The fires of cultural appropriation were fanned recently when the editor of a small magazine published by The Writers’ Union of Canada wrote “I don’t believe in cultural appropriation.” Then he poured gasoline on the fire by promoting a “Cultural Appropriation Contest” in which the winner would the writer who appropriates culture the most: “. . . the Appropriation Prize for best book by an author who writes about people who aren’t even remotely like her or him.” He was forced to resign.

Credit: Illustration by Jon Foster

Fiction is not cultural appropriation because storytelling is not the property of any one culture. Fictional characters are, by nature, inventions of the storyteller. Writers may invent talking animals (Animal Farm) or wizards and magic (Harry Potter). In all cases they are fabrications, not cultural appropriations.

Cultural appropriation is not fiction. It is real. Grey Owl (aka Archibald Belaney) didn’t just write stories about indigenous North Americans –he completely assumed their identity. The British-born Belaney fabricated his persona after arriving in Canada in 1906. In 1925, he married a Mohawk Iroquois woman, 19-year-old Gertrude Bernard (aka Anahareo), who later encouraged him to write about his experiences.

Some indigenous writers claim that only they can fictionalize indigenous characters. But to what extent should a writer be indigenous? Prize-winning Canadian novelist Joseph Boyden wrote extensively about the indigenous experience. Boyden is primarily of Irish and Scottish ancestry but also claims Nipmuc and Ojibway heritage. How pure should an indigenous writer’s linage be to qualify?

A writer for APTN National News called out Boyden for faking his indigenous roots. I can understand calling out an author for not portraying authentic fictional characters. However, Boyden’s characters are authentic. I his novel, Three Day Road, he tells the story of two Cree soldiers serving in World War I, inspired by an Ojibwa sniper. Would Boyden’s story be more authentic if his pedigree were more indigenous?

Cultural appropriation is layered. An art gallery in Toronto recently cancelled an exhibit by a non-indigenous artist Amanda PL because her paintings carried elements of the indigenous artist Norval Morriseau. PL made no pretence at being indigenous. However, Morriseau himself has been accused of appropriating Christian symbols in his work. Author André Alexis finds a certain irony in the layers of appropriation upon appropriation:

“There are levels of irony at play in all this. To begin with Norval Morriseau was criticized for using sacred symbols in his work. He was accused of debasing them. There is a consistency, here, but how strange that some of the condemnation of PL would be a condemnation of Morriseau, too (Globe and Mail, May 14, 2017).”

If anything is appropriated, it is the entire volume of human storytelling from when early humans looked up at the constellations of the night sky and told of Ursa Major, or “great bear”. These tales are so ingrained that they can be used to trace ancient migrations of humans across the globe. Julien d’Huy explains in Scientific American:

“This research provides compelling new evidence that myths and folktales follow the movement of people around the globe. It reveals that certain tales probably date back to the Paleolithic period, when humans developed primitive stone tools, and spread together with early waves of migration out of Africa (September, 2016).”

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.


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.


100 years of Einstein

This month, one hundred years ago, Einstein completed his theory that would forever change physics. Not just physics but his astonishing ideas revolutionized philosophy, art, and culture. A commemorative issue of Scientific American is unambiguous on his impact: “How Einstein reinvented reality.”


Before Einstein, gravity was thought to be a force that pulled coffee cups to the floor. I remember the terse graffiti written on a washroom wall that summarized this notion: “gravity sucks.”

Einstein was sitting in a Swiss patent office in 1907 when a thought “startled” him. He recalled: “If a person falls freely, he will not feel his own weight.” We all have fanciful thoughts but this one had serious implications.

In his thought experiment, Einstein imagined a person falling in an elevator. Our office worker only wanted to get off on the third floor and now he’s falling, weightless, to certain doom.

But no, Einstein now imagines our hapless worker, in his elevator, floating in space. Unless the clerk was told, he would be unable to tell the difference because in both cases he is weightless. While floating in space, free as stardust, is a better choice, he’ll still have some explaining to do.

Einstein’s genius was equating the two and called it “the equivalence principle”; both merely manifestations of the same phenomena.

Einstein then turned to another thought experiment. Now he imagined our worried wanderer accelerating upward through space, the floor pushing up on his feet. By the equivalence principle, our reluctant spaceman could easily imagine himself safely back on earth waiting in his elevator stopped between floors. But he is not.

Through a pinhole in the wall, he sees beam of sunlight. To his astonishment, the beam doesn’t hit a point exactly opposite the wall but slightly lower. Because he is being accelerated, by the time the beam hits the opposite wall the elevator has moved up.

Fine, but what could possibly cause that to happen back on earth? It turns out that space itself is curved and that light beams follow those curvatures, as does everything else. Massive objects create dents in space somewhat like a bowling boll dents a trampoline. Rather than “fall,” objects follow those indentations in space.

Great ideas, but what about the math? Einstein’s brainwaves remained in the realm of speculation until 1912 when Einstein finally applied himself to the equations that would tie acceleration and gravity together. For four years he struggled with the math, often leading to dead ends. He told a fellow genius, David Hilbert, about his problem and Hilbert went to work on it too.

Einstein was under pressure. He promised a solution to be delivered to the Prussian Academy in November, 1915. Not only was he in a race to beat Hilbert to a solution but the clock was ticking down to the lecture.

After a month of whirlwind calculations and frenzied corrections, he arrived on November 4 still wrestling with his theory. “For the last four years,” he candidly told the assembled academy, “I have tried to establish a general theory of relativity.”

It was a long gestation and a difficult delivery but one which forever changed history. Meanwhile, our office clerk has some amazing stories to tell the kids.

Is Monsanto evil?

Yes. Are genetically modified foods dangerous? Possibly. Could science find out if they are? Yes.


Monsanto’s practices run contrary to science, which is ironic when the corporation depends on science for its profits. Claire Robinson puts it this way: “Is Monsanto on the side of science? The answer appears to be: ‘Only if they can control and profit from it.’ That runs contrary to the spirit of scientific inquiry, which must be free to go wherever the data leads — however inconvenient it may prove to a company’s bottom line (New Internationalist, April 2015).”

Monsanto uses false pretenses to promote genetically modified foods. Sure, looming climate change seeks drought resistant crops; increasing populations hunger for productive harvests. But to suggest that, therefore, GM foods are the only solution is misleading. That would be like the supporters of an open pit copper mine near a city justifying the mine based on the need for copper. Yes, we need better crops. Yes, we depend on copper too but these are non sequiturs: justifications not connected in a logical way to the argument being made.

If Monsanto has nothing to worry about, they would allow independent scientists to test their claims in the time-tested way –give scientists GM seeds and the non-GM (isogenic) parent seeds and conduct a double-blinded, controlled experiment. Compare the results of both for toxicity, nutritional value, drought and pest resistance, environmental risk.

An editorial in Scientific American wonders why Monsanto and others are operating in such a anti-science way. “Unfortunately, it is impossible to verify that genetically modified crops perform as advertised. That is because agritech companies have given themselves veto power over the work of independent researchers (August, 2009).”

Look at what happened to Australian scientist Judy Carman who decided to carry out an animal feeding study with GM crops. She asks three GMO corporations to supply seeds. One didn’t reply, another wanted details of her study first, and Monsanto sent her a legal document to sign stating that she would give Monsanto the results of her study before publication. Carman was astonished at the blatant censorship of her study:

“We would have been legally bound to do that whether they gave us the seeds or not. No sensible scientist would agree to such conditions, and we didn’t,” she told New Internationalist magazine.

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t any research on GM seeds published. But the only studies that see the light of day have been approved by the seed companies before they make it peer-reviewed journal. “In a number of cases, experiments that had the implicit go-ahead from the seed company were later blocked from publication because the results were not flattering,” says Scientific American.

The editorial also quotes entomologist Elson J. Shields in his letter to the Environmental Protection Agency, the agency tasked with regulating the consequences of genetically modified crops. “It is important to understand that it is not always simply a matter of blanket denial of all research requests, which is bad enough,” he wrote, “but selective denials and permissions based on industry perceptions of how ‘friendly’ or ‘hostile’ a particular scientist may be toward the technology.”

Is this characterization of Monsanto not flattering?



Cultivate the thinner inner-you

Research indicates that you can lose weight by cultivating greater diversity of bacteria in your gut says Claudia Wells in Scientific American.

“New evidence indicates that gut bacteria alter the way we store fat, how we balance levels of glucose in the blood, and how we respond to hormones that make us feel hungry or full. The wrong mix of microbes, it seems, can help set the stage for obesity and diabetes from the moment of birth,” explains Wells.


Studies of identical human twins, one obese and the other lean, reveal that the gut bacteria of lean twins is more diverse. These Bacteroidetes specialize in breaking down bulky plant starches and fibres into shorter molecules that we can use as energy.

Studies in mice back this up. First, genetically identical mice were raised in a germ-free environment and separated into two cages. Then one group was populated with gut bacteria from an obese human twin and the other half with gut bacteria from the lean twin. Both groups were fed exactly the same. The mice with gut bacteria from the obese human twin became fatter while their siblings with lean human bacteria did not.

Then researchers, whose findings were published in the journal Science last September, moved the two groups into the same cage. The fat mice became thin because, unappealing as it may seem, mice consume each other’s feces.

Why didn’t the lean mice become fat rather than the other way around? In a word: diversity.

The researchers theorize that a diverse population of gut bacteria perform specific functions. One is to help regulate hunger so that lean people will feel full after eating. Another eliminates certain amino acids that are elevated in obese people and lead to type 2 diabetes.

While a diverse gut populations contribute to thinness, food still matters.  When mice who had become lean were fed a typical “Western diet,” they grew fat. Their siblings who were fed a diet low in fat and high in fruit, vegetables and fibre remained thin.

Growing a diverse garden of gut bacteria takes care. It starts on the day we are born when mothers give newborns a “bacterial baptism” through vaginal birth. Breast milk nurtures useful bacteria and inhibits harmful ones.

Antibiotics kill not just the weeds in this biological garden but also valuable species. “Antibiotics are like a fire in the forest,” says one researcher. They wipe out entire swathes of microbes and leave fewer to populate the gut.

Diets that are high in fat and antibiotics cause weight gain in mice and that appears to be true in humans. For ethical reasons, the design of human experiments proving the connection would be difficult.  However, circumstantial evidence exists. Maps showing obesity in the Southern U.S. line up with maps of high fat diet and high antibiotic use.

The research requires a re-thinking of who “we” are since the microbes that live in our intestines, mouth, nose, skin and genital tract outnumber “us” by a factor of ten. More realistically, what we euphemistically refer to ourselves is simply baggage that carries our vital microbial community.