Let’s declare Pluto a planet again

Pluto lost its status as a planet in 2006, but the New Horizon space probe has found that it is no little frozen space rock, as had been assumed.  Rather, it is one of the most complex, varied, geologically-active, and mysterious entities in the Solar System.  It has water, glaciers, ice mountains, and blue skies.  It is even colorful.  I say let’s call it planet again!

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Math discrepancy in astrophysics

There is energy even in a vacuum.  But the amount predicted by quantum physics and the actual measurements are off by a factor of 1 followed by 120 zeroes.  This discrepancy is described as “one of the most confounding (and embarrassing) problems in modern astrophysics.”  It would suggest that there is something wrong with the mathematical models behind quantum physics, something scientists are reluctant to admit.  So they are looking for other explanations, including the final all-purpose answer when scientists don’t know something:  the invocation of multiple universes.

After the jump is an excerpt from an account of a panel discussing this problem, which develops into a discussion of multiverses.  That solution is simply that if there are an infinite number of universes, we would have every possibility, including this unusual math fact, as well as the evolution of life, which they also get into.  (But that isn’t right, is it?   According to the mathematics of probability, random events continued on into infinity will not result in every possible action, much less result in a particular event.  Monkeys at typewriters will not eventually give us the works of Shakespeare, even in an infinite number of universes.)

Anyway, read the account.  Notice how the scientists say that the advantage of positing multiverses is that this avoids the necessity of agency!  They end by saying that all possible answers to the “anthropic principle” must be considered, but I don’t think they mean it. [Read more…]

How cells repair their own DNA

Here I am in Oslo, Norway, so I should take the occasion to post about one of the new Nobel Prizes, which are a joint project of Norway and Sweden and which are being announced this week.  Three scientists won the prize for chemistry by making a remarkable discovery.

They found that DNA, though determining everything about a cell, is actually very unstable and will soon decay.  But cells actually repair their own DNA, making it resilient enough to pass genetic information along to the next generation.  These scientists then determined how the cells are able to do that. [Read more…]

Quantum teleportation

Scientists have teleported photons to a distance of 63 miles, a new record.  This “quantum teleportation” is not quite what happens on Star Trek, but it is another example of the strangeness of the universe as disclosed by quantum physics.  [Read more…]

The “right of the environment”

We are mostly familiar with the concept of human rights.  In his address to the United Nations, Pope Francis affirmed that and arguably took it a little further, referring to “the right to existence of human nature itself,” which includes not only the right to life but also the right to “lodging, labor, and land.”  But he went on to assert  not just the rights of human beings but “the right of the environment.”

Can non-humans, such as animals have rights?  Can inanimate objects have rights?  In what sense can the environment have a right? [Read more…]

The more prey, the fewer predators

One would think that the more prey animals–zebras, antelopes, rabbits, etc.–there are, the more predators there would be, since a larger food supply should support a larger population of animals that eat them.  But it doesn’t work that way.  According to a new study, predator populations decrease when the prey increases.  In fact, this seems to be the case with all animal populations, including herbivores whose “prey” is particular kinds of plants.  And the ratios can be described with a specific mathematical formula, suggesting that this discovery constitutes a new law of nature.

Now the obvious layman’s question is whether the causes might be reversed, that a decline in the number of predators allows for a greater population of prey, but apparently this is considered to be a different effect having to do with the fact that predators breed more slowly in more crowded environments. [Read more…]