Mar 142018

Long-time readers of this blog may remember my imaginary rivalry with Stephen Hawking. We never did get that opportunity to face each other in a cage match aboard the International Space Station (even though my victory was always a foregone conclusion). But I digress. I was truly sorry to learn of his passing yesterday. Not only did he make scientific contributions that will be remembered for decades, but he demonstrated to the world that it’s possible to live a rich, full life with a significant disability. Not all of us will get to be world-class physicists or appear on an episode of Star Trek, but perhaps some kid with a disability will learn about Hawking and realize that her dreams of being a writer or programmer or whatever aren’t so far-fetched after all. Even better, perhaps future kids with disabilities will wonder why their grandparents made such a big deal over Hawking’s wheelchair and speech synthesizer when his mind and sense of humor were his most defining characteristics.

Godspeed, Professor. Eternity beckons.

Dec 282016

The FDA recently approved Spinraza, the first drug designed to treat spinal muscular atrophy. According to a press release from the manufacturer, infants with SMA who received the drug during clinical trials were much more likely to show improvements in motor function than those left untreated. Spinraza is approved to treat both children and adults with SMA.

It’s a bit surreal to live in a time where a specific treatment exists for my disability. I have no idea whether the drug would personally benefit me and I’m not in any hurry to find out. After living with this disability for four decades, my body’s remaining muscle tissue probably resembles the gristle of a cheap steak and I’m not sure any of it can be salvaged. This is probably thrilling news for parents with young children with SMA. It’s entirely possible that those kids will live to see a day when genetic therapies can effectively manage or even cure their condition. In another forty years, people like me could be a historical curiosity, invoking the same reactions that I had when I first saw pictures of kids living in iron lungs in the 1950s:

“People really lived like that?”

May 062014

A new government report makes it clear that climate change is significantly affecting average Americans and its effects will only grow worse if we continue to do nothing. According to the report:

Summers are longer and hotter, and extended periods of unusual heat last longer than any living American has ever experienced. Winters are generally shorter and warmer. Rain comes in heavier downpours. People are seeing changes in the length and severity of seasonal allergies, the plant varieties that thrive in their gardens, and the kinds of birds they see in any particular month in their neighborhoods.

In a more rational country, this report would prompt a coordinated national response to the very real threat that climate change poses. But as long as conservatives persist with their two-pronged strategy of denialism and fear-mongering, we can’t expect rationality at the federal level. Some states and local governments are taking concerted action to reduce carbon emissions and diversify their energy supplies, although I’m skeptical that these initiatives will have much impact on a national or global scale.

It’s difficult to resist the conclusion that humanity may already be well and truly fucked; we just need a few more decades to fully appreciate it. I hope that’s not the case. I hope that there are some really gifted engineers, scientists, and political leaders among today’s preschoolers because they will be the ones who will have to manage the brunt of the crisis.

Mar 052014

I’m looking forward to the relaunch of Cosmos this Sunday. I have vague but pleasant memories of watching the original Carl Sagan series with my parents and it provided my introduction to the notion of scale; both in terms of the vastness of the universe and the deepness of time. I’m still a bit surprised that Fox and Seth MacFarlane are behind this project, but the early reviews seem positive and make no mention of dick jokes or climate change denialism. The fact that it’s airing on Sundays seems to indicate that Fox is hoping to attract a large audience. I’m skeptical that Americans will watch a general-interest science series in droves, but I would love to be proven wrong.

I should also try to re-read Sagan’s Contact, which made a big impression on me when I first read it back in the mid-80s.

Apr 252013

I took this science quiz and apparently scored better than 93% of participants. The questions weren’t particularly difficult, which makes me wonder how we Americans are able to maintain our position as one of the world’s more technically advanced societies. If this trend continues, our descendants will be computer-worshipping simpletons straight out of a lesser Star Trek episode.

Apr 182013

I try to avoid blogging about the weather, but today’s spring snowstorm has me thinking more about melting Arctic sea ice and global weirding. According to some climate scientists, disappearing Arctic ice may result in more harsh, snowy winters like this one. And if our summers are also trending warmer (which they seem to be), I may be spending a good deal more time indoors during the entire year. This isn’t exactly the future I was hoping for.

Feb 272013

Wired has an interesting overview of a new initiative to send a manned, no-frills manned mission to Mars in 2018. The crew wouldn’t land on Mars, but instead would fly by the planet and then return to Earth. The entire trip would take approximately 500 days and the crew would face near-constant threats from solar radiation and micro-meteors. Whether the private Inspiration Mars Foundation has the necessary funds to  pull this off is an open question.

The concept may seem daft at first blush, but its simplicity has a certain elegance. Government space agencies aren’t showing much interest in manned spaceflight, so this may be the best chance for me to witness humans venture reasonably close to Mars in my lifetime.

Jan 182013

What better way to end your week than with a tour of the International Space Station with astronaut with astronaut Sunita Williams? Williams recorded this just before she departed the ISS and she proves to be a charming and able guide. Have you wondered what astronauts eat in space? How they take care of basic bodily functions? Williams answers those questions, but what’s really fascinating is her demonstration of how “down” becomes an irrelevant concept in zero-gravity. It’s fun to think about how this video might one day become a historical document that will be watched by future astronauts living on Mars or other far-flung locales.

Here’s the video:

Dec 032012

Neil deGrasse Tyson ponders whether the universe has a purpose:

Although he can be a little smug at times, Tyson is probably one of the most genial skeptics in popular culture. He isn’t as acerbic as Hitchens or as confrontational as Dawkins. And I like his collection of geek-themed ties. The video above is a charming primer on rationalism and I hope we get to see more like this.