“Observing quasars is like observing the exhaust fumes of a car from a great distance and then trying to figure out what is going on under the hood.” -Carole Mundell
Enjoying what we’re putting out at Starts With A Bang? There was a whole lot that we saw this past week, including a few tour-de-force pieces on some breaking news, including:
- How can we know if North Korea is testing nuclear bombs? (for Ask Ethan),
- The early Universe’s most massive galaxy cluster revealed (for Mostly Mute Monday),
- Should you play Powerball? Science solves the mystery,
- The Universe’s Dark Ages May Hold The Secrets To Dark Matter, Inflation, And Even String Theory (by Sabine Hossenfelder), and
- What all the harassment stories in astronomy really mean.
As always, there’s more on the way, but as a special bonus for Starts With A Bang fans, I’ve got an offer for you: if you’d like an autographed copy of my new book shipped anywhere in the world to you, here’s how to make it happen! (Also, I got a rude awakening with how expensive international shipping is. Who knew?!) With that said, let’s dive right in to your comments of the week!
From dean on nuclear fusion ignition: “‘If it were, it would be by far the lowest energy, most efficient fusion reaction ever created on the planet, and done so in a way that even theorists are uncertain how it could occur.’
should the word most be least?”
Although Sinapsis had a decent answer to this, I wanted to explain further. In this case, “efficiency” means “what do I have to do to get fusion ignition,” and “how much energy is then liberated, via E=mc^2, by the fusion reactions?” A more efficient reaction, with respect to the first question, is to input the least amount of energy possible, which means a very small nuclear detonation outside the fusion cell. That’s why the old-school hydrogen bombs, the ones that were used in the 1960s, looked like this.
Once you do get fusion ignition, you can argue that how much of that reaction burns to completion — the ratio of fuel in to energy out — is what determines efficiency, and in that case, I see where you’re coming from. But the first stage is key, and what more efficient means in this case is that this would be the smallest-yield fusion weapon ever detonated if it were fusion.
But it’s not; if there was a fusion stage at all inside, it failed to ignite completely. You may now commence with the Kim Jong-Un jokes.
From Wow on the North Korean “earthquake” that happened earlier this month: “Seismologists are pretty good at locating an epicenter, even of such small quakes. And they do have different results depending on where they are, and some can’t happen in some places. So if you see a quake that occurs at subduction plates happen in NK where there is no subduction at the low depth the test is at, it’s not *proof* of a bomb test, but it’s a heavy argument.”
Even if you do have fault lines, subduction zones or other geological instabilities in the Earth’s crust, a naturally occurring earthquake of any significant magnitude at a depth of 0.1 km or less is virtually unheard of. Combined with the S-and-P-wave analysis, we’re virtually certain that this was a nuclear bomb test and not a naturally occurring earthquake. That’s why the USGS, above, concluded exactly what it did.
From nobody on the early Universe’s most massive galaxy cluster: “”
Does nobody care that we found a 500 trillion solar mass cluster from back when the Universe was only a quarter of its current age? You recognize this means, quite probably, that of all the mass structures existing at present in the visible Universe, this one’s the most massive of all?
Well, if I can’t get you excited with that, maybe I can show you my TV appearance from this past week.
From eric on Powerball and the odds: “Didn’t we already cover this the last time it got big? Obviously not this big though. This is quite an astounding historical event just because of the amount.”
The thing about this Powerball jackpot — and I did cover this back in 2014, if I remember right — is that they’ve deliberately changed the odds since that time in order to make hitting the jackpot nearly twice as hard, and to decrease even further the expected value of your ticket. Consider that the “old” Powerball had 59 white balls and 35 red balls, while the “new” Powerball has 69 white balls and 26 red balls. Your odds of hitting all 5 white balls and the 1 red (power) ball on a single ticket used to be 1-in-175 million; now they’re 1-in-292 million. Your expected value from a non-jackpot ticket was $0.38 in the old Powerball; it’s $0.32 in the new Powerball. And even the power play option (which you should still never take) is less likely to give you quadruple-or-higher payouts than the previous edition. The only increase? If you hit four white balls (out of five numbers) and the powerball, you net $50,000 instead of $10,000, and that’s not nearly enough to make up for the longer odds.
From dean on the lottery as a tax: “I’ve always wondered about the appropriateness of the “TAX on the mathematically challenged” line. A lottery ticket purchase is a choice people make: they can buy tickets or not as they wish. That isn’t the case with a tax.”
When you buy something at the store in most states in the USA — a shirt, let’s say — if that shirt costs $20.00, you might expect to pay $21.60, because there’s an 8% tax on top of what you buy. (In most other countries, a shirt that costs $20.00 will be purchasable for $20.00, because they factor taxes into the price you see. This is much more sane, IMO.)
But if you buy a lottery ticket for $2, you’re basically paying $0.85 (or thereabouts) for the game of the lottery, and $1.15 in taxes. Yes, they’re voluntary taxes, but I think if most people knew that “this ticket is worth $0.85 and you are paying $1.15 towards government programs,” people would be far less likely to play the lottery. The point is that lottery tickets are perhaps the most heavily taxed item for sale in the United States: more than liquor, more than gasoline, more than cigarettes. What I said may or may not be appropriate, but that’s why I think it’s true.
From Sinisa Lazarek on harassment in academia: “Looking at this from the sidelines, it almost seems that academia is years, if not decades behind the business world in terms of inter-personal relations and in general individuals rights/freedoms.”
There are probably a lot of reasons why this is so, including:
- the power structure of academia, where professors literally control the fates of their students,
- where professors outrank postdocs, grad students and undergrads,
- where a bad letter or even a rumor can sink a career,
- where tenured professors are virtually impossible to fire,
- and where fragile egos and insecurities run rampant as part of the culture, with “academic success” as the main validation of someone’s worth as a person.
That isn’t to say there aren’t many problems in the business world as well, even similar problems. But the business world has come a long way since the Mad Men era of the 1960s, while the academic world in many fields, many places and many respects has not. My article came across to some as self-congratulatory and proclaiming “things have changed,” while the truth is there’s a lot of work left to do. I don’t know that anything’s going to change with respect to the bullet points I just listed, so that means we’re all going to have to work extra hard to change the culture of what’s acceptable and unacceptable in academia. I’m doing my part, but it’s up to each and every one of us, particularly those of us in positions of power.
From See Noevo on harassment: “Secondly, if sexually-harassing males are still with us today after millions of years, as are LGBTQ, maybe they just evolved that way. That’s who they ARE. If so, aren’t you unfairly discriminating against the evolutionary nature of these men?”
Yes to all of it, except the “unfairly” part. We evolved to be killers, meat-eaters and rapists, among other things. We evolved to survive and reproduce. But that is not the world we’ve built as a society, and in a great many ways, we no longer engage in the basest of our biological urges when they’re harmful to society. That’s why we have laws and a society in the first place.
Your evolutionary nature is no excuse for your behavior; your behavior is defined by your choices, which is influenced by your urges and your nature, but not determined by them.
And finally, from Denier on the Forbes experience: “That being said, I much prefer the advertisement free experience and don’t much like the idea of drive-by malware attacks. Here is what I do:
I’m using the Firefox browser with the NoScript add-on. I don’t use any ad blockers.
After being forwarded to the Forbes welcome screen, allow forbes.com and forbesimg.com in NoScript by clicking on the Options button in the lower right corner of the browser window.
If it works, then great! If it says you have an AdBlocker, then delete all cache and cookies. That is done by hitting Cntl-Shift-Del and checking the Cache and Cookies boxes.
Close the Forbes tab, go back to Ethan’s link and click it again.
Now it should take you to the welcome screen, count down from 3, and take you right to the article with no advertisements.
Once you’ve set it up once, it should just work from then on.”
Although there’s no such thing as perfect security on the internet, this is perhaps the closest-to-foolproof solution I’ve seen, as none of the attacks out there that I know of in existence will get through this way, and all of the experience-slowing ads will get blocked this way. Forbes has actually written a piece this week on adblock-blockers and — just so you know — I was one of the instrumental people in getting them to investigate, in large part thanks to your comments.
Don’t be afraid of speaking your mind here; I’m listening, even if I don’t like what you have to say. That’s the beauty of having a forum like this, and thanks to you all for participating. Have a great weekend, and I’ll see you back here tomorrow (!) with a special bonus article for your science pleasure before the new week starts!