Comments of the Week #94: from nuclear bombs to the changing culture of astronomy

“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:

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!

The toroidal cloud associated with a hydrogen bomb. The toroidal cloud associated with a hydrogen bomb.

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.

Image of the Tsar Bomba bomb, courtesy USSR. Image of the Tsar Bomba bomb, courtesy USSR.

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.

Image credit: United States Geological Survey, via Image credit: United States Geological Survey, via

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.

This optical/X-ray/infrared composite of the galaxy cluster IDCS J1426.5+3508 reveals the most massive cluster ever found at such a high redshift. Image composite credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ of Missouri/M.Brodwin et al; Optical: NASA/STScI; Infrared: JPL/CalTech. This optical/X-ray/infrared composite of the galaxy cluster IDCS J1426.5+3508 reveals the most massive cluster ever found at such a high redshift. Image composite credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ of Missouri/M.Brodwin et al; Optical: NASA/STScI; Infrared: JPL/CalTech.

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.

I hope that keeps you a little bit entertained; I can't believe how much information we got crammed into 5 minutes there. Also, I don't know if you could tell, but I'm a little under the weather in this video. Did I hide it okay?
Image credit: E. Siegel, 2016. Image credit: E. Siegel, 2016.

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.

U.S. Department of Education Program Legal Group (Title IX), from the United States Department of Agriculture. Image credit: USDA photo by Lance Cheung. U.S. Department of Education Program Legal Group (Title IX), from the United States Department of Agriculture. Image credit: USDA photo by Lance Cheung.

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.

Image credit: user clif_hiker of LibraryThing; source from Image credit: user clif_hiker of LibraryThing; source from

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.

Image screenshotted from Forbes. Image screenshotted from Forbes.

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 and 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.

Image credit: Screenshot from Lewis Dvorkin's article (highlights mine) at Image credit: Screenshot from Lewis Dvorkin's article (highlights mine) at….

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!

More like this

In regard to Feyman's diagram.. if I can figure out how playing bongos get's you to the Nobel Prize.. I will surely win a Nobel Prize :)))

By Sinisa Lazarek (not verified) on 16 Jan 2016 #permalink

Alternately, WRT reading Forbes (haven't tried this w. Forbes -- yet -- but have used it in the past):

Set up a virtual machine (I use VirtualBox, but whatever) [1]. Once you have the VM set up, snapshot it. Then go to wherever you want to browse, do your reading, and leave. At that point, either wipe the cookies, cache, etc. or close the VM. And then restore the VM to the snapshot.

This has several benefits. First off, you start without any personal information where the browser, malware, whatever, can find it. Score one.

Secondly, any trackers should get whiffed by the browser wipe. If not, the snapshot reset will.

Finally, any drive-by malware gets wiped by the snapshot restoration.

Safe, secure, and to all appearances totally naked to trackers, malware, and all of the other things that people try to inflict on you as the price of being on the Net.

[1] For the timid, they're cheap( free) and easy to use.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 16 Jan 2016 #permalink

Dear Forbes,
I use an adblocker, I will always use an adblocker, if that means I cannot access "Starts with a Bang" any more then so be it, we all lose.
Don't try to force your adverts on readers or you may not have many readers left.
No longer yours

By StuntTrader (not verified) on 16 Jan 2016 #permalink

Hmmm, Ethan, your 'TV appearance' seems to have drawn a blank. Or maybe that was the point.
Only read the article today, so too late to comment upon.

"earthquake of any significant magnitude at a depth of 0.1 km or less is virtually unheard of"

Aye, hence the bit:it’s not *proof* of a bomb test, but it’s a heavy argument.

It's not literally unheard of, but so close as to win in a court of law.

"where a bad letter or even a rumor can sink a career,"

Of course that would be one reason why someone would say to their female student as their male coach "It would be best for you to go to another member of staff for coaching". After all, the rumour of being a sex pervert can ruin your career. See the several examples.

However, having done so, this is apparently rampant sexism because the male professor is telling the female victim to f-off.

That the lecturer may be worried about joe-jobbing is 100% ignored and cannot be considered.

It's why I'm against blaming a class of people (especially when that class includes just about half the world's population) for the actions of some that you have identified by their sex alone.

We don't blame all black people for the actions of the Black Panthers. We don't (well, unless we're indoctrinated USians) blame all muslims for the actions of ISIS. We don't blame all Christians for the christian-led murders of gays and non-christians in Niger.

But we do as a society let us discriminate and blame men for actions some men do.

Rape, never mind the "physical assault" of rubbing someone's shoulder, is very hard to prove because you have to get past the "Innocent unless proven guilty" bar of any sane justice system. Hence the extralegal options that are enforced without justice and only the choice of Hobson to make it "a meeting of minds" and an "agreement" that is a requirement of a contract.

But we should still only blame those who do it, not anyone who shares some chromosomes with them. After all, most of those chromosomes are from women.So why not blame women? They're far more responsible for the genetic information than men are.

"We evolved to be killers, meat-eaters and rapists, among other things"

So women didn't evolve?!?!? Shit, that's some grade-A-plus sexism right there!

Please remember, Richard lost his wife who he loved and nearly lost his mind in grief. I've seen "womanising" be a coping mechanism: you don't get hurt again if you don't let someone get that close to you again.

And remember too, women in that age would go

1) Is the man spending?
a)Yes? Go up and ask for a drink.
Get more drink. And a meal. And a lift home.
Is the man fit?
Yes? Let him in and shag.
No? Say thanks, you've been sweet and close the door.
b)No? Is the man fit?
Yes? Go to 1a)
No? Find another mark.

It's a HUGE problem for social justice warriors that they only pick out the narrative, and elide the inconvenient, supporting one problem, then insist that because the problem exists, it must be rampant. And because you've seen it, you are better than them. And because you're better, anyone who disagrees is worse.

Women evolved to have strong babies and will go to the male that seems best able to support them for marriage and the strongest male for the actual insemination.

Ergo cuckolding is a huge problem?

And remember, the father of the most survivable babies will be strong, large, aggressive, assertive, because these mean the child will be strong and survive, and the male will feed a large family and be able to keep the "wealth" to support the woman and children against predation from animals as well as other humans.

You can see it with chimps: all the adult females will pair with the dominant male, but will go with the most likely looking up-and-coming male to father children with behind the back of the alpha male.

Wolves' penis enlarges so the penis cannot be removed because the female would have sex with a competitor and their seed will either be washed out or have to compete with this other male's seed for progression.

If you want to claim men evolved to be rapists, you would have to admit that women have evolved to be whores.

Find that uncomfortable? I know I do, but then again, I don't say men evolved to be rapists. Maybe you shouldn't either.

"I don’t say men evolved to be rapists. Maybe you shouldn’t either." What an idiot...

What is idiotic about any of that, Bri?