The Bullet Ant Sting May Be the Worst Pain Known to Man. It Can Also Make You Feel Great.

Over his career, adventurer and naturalist Steve Backshall has endured all sorts of pain, but perhaps the worst came from a creature "no bigger than a fuse."

Meet the bullet ant.

Native to the western rainforests of South America, this insect is the largest ant in the world, reaching over an inch in length. It also packs a sting thirty times more painful than a bee's.

Despite its ferocious traits, the ant is normally quite docile towards humans and other larger animals, reserving the use of its mighty sting solely for defensive purposes. But you won't be thinking about the critter's motives should you find yourself stung. You'll only be thinking about the all-encompassing pain.

"With a bullet ant sting, the pain is throughout your whole body," Backshall described on a recent episode of the BBC's Infinite Monkey Cage. "You start shaking. You start sweating… It goes through your whole body… Your heart rate goes up, and if you have quite a few of them, you will be passing in and out of consciousness. There will be nothing in your world apart from pain for at least three or four hours."

The ant's torturous sting is the most painful in existence according to entomologist Justin Schmidt, who's masochistically experienced and chronicled more insect bites and stings than any other human.

With homage to Schmidt, the true experts on bullet ant stings may be the Satere-Mawe of Brazil. As part of their warrior initiation rites, teenage boys are required to adorn gloves filled with bullet ants for ten minutes, and to endure the unbelievable pain with (mostly) calm composure. Boys looking to become men must repeat the feat a total of twenty times. After each trial, the initiates' hands are left blackened, paralyzed, and swollen.

Their disturbing injuries don't last, however. One of the amazing things about the sting of the bullet ant is that there are little to no lasting effects. There are no scientifically documented reports of deaths, perhaps because, according to some estimates, it would take 2,250 stings to kill a 165-pound human. That's a difficult number to reach, even for the Satere-Mawe. Moreover, after twenty-four hours, the injected neurotoxin, called poneratoxin, is entirely flushed from the body.

"It’s an almost completely pure neurotoxin," Backshall said. "One of the reasons why people can use it for tribal initiation ceremonies is because although it causes extraordinary pain, it’s not dangerous. There’s almost no allergens. There’s no danger of a histamine reaction to the venom."

And once the toxin is gone, you feel fantastic, Backshall added.

"You have such a massive overdose of adrenaline that you feel like a god. For a week afterwards I felt like if I leapt off a cliff I could have flown."

An adrenaline boost isn't the only potential benefit of the bullet ant's poneratoxin. It's being explored for use as an insecticide. And ironically, very low doses of the toxin may actually serve to block pain.

The microgram injection from a bullet ant sting isn't quite low enough, however, as Australian comedian Hamish Blake recently found out.

Poor guy...

(Image: Smartse)

Widely Reported Study Showing Dangers of E-Cigs Has One Little Problem...

E-cigarettes are a topic of contentious debate. Are they an effective way to wean smokers off of traditional cigarettes? Are their dangers understated? Are they "gateway" devices to tobacco products? In short, all things considered, do e-cigs benefit or denigrate public health?

Earlier this month, a new PLoS ONE study entered into this contentious fray, and its results were fairly damning to claims that e-cigarettes are relatively safe.

To sum the study up: A research team primarily based out of Johns Hopkins University exposed mice to e-cigarette vapor in a small chamber for three hours a day for two weeks so that the levels of cotinine -- a metabolite of nicotine and biomarker for tobacco smoke exposure -- in their blood was roughly similar to the amount of cotinine seen in the blood of e-cig users. They found that mice which reached these levels of blood cotinine after exposure to e-cig vapor had compromised immune systems and were more susceptible to viral and bacteria infections compared to mice only exposed to normal air.

"Despite the common perception that E-cigs are safe, this study clearly demonstrates that E-cig use, even for relatively brief periods, may have significant consequences to respiratory health in an animal model; and hence, E-cigs need to be tested more rigorously, especially in susceptible populations," the researchers concluded.

Their cautionary message was blared across the web, in outlets like Discovery News, The Guardian, the BBC, and The Verge, and was widely shared on social media.

But it seems, however, there's a "little" problem with the study that escaped the scrutiny of early reporting. Mice have vastly higher rates of cotinine metabolism than humans. While the half-life of cotinine in mice is roughly 35 to 50 minutes, the half-life of cotinine in humans is approximately 20 hours! This massive disparity means that mice have to be exposed to much higher amounts of e-cigarette vapor at faster rates in order to reach comparable cotinine levels to humans.

In a detailed comment posted to the original study last Thursday, Drs. Alexey Mukhin and Jed Rose from the Center for Smoking Cessation at Duke University Medical Center pointed out this key tidbit of information, and subsequently calculated, based on the study's methods, how much nicotine the mice were exposed to. Then they translated that amount to a daily exposure for a human, which ended up being between 300mg and 370 mg per day.

That's a lot. To reach that level of nicotine, a human would have to take between 3,600 and 4,600 e-cig puffs per day. But that's just the low-end estimation. As Mukhin and Rose further explained (emphasis mine):

"It should be noted that in our calculations we postulated that the blood for cotinine measurement was taken immediately after the end of 90 min of exposure. In the results section the authors stated that “Blood was collected … within 1 h of the final exposure” but in the methods section they stated that “exposure was assessed by measuring serum cotinine at 1 h after exposure.” If the last statement is correct, because of the fast elimination of cotinine in mice the level of exposure in the study was 3 times higher (2^(60/37.5) ≈ 3) than the above-calculated values. In other words, to obtain the same exposure in humans the e-cig user should take 11000 – 13000 puffs per day. Assuming 8 hours of sleep per day, in order to acquire such a high number of puffs e-cig users would need to take 11-13 puffs per minute and thus practically take an e-cig puff with each breath."

That much vaping would undoubtedly compromise anybody's immune system!

In the wake of their convincing debunking, Mukhin and Rose stated, almost euphemistically, "We recommend that the results of the discussed study should be interpreted with caution and that more studies with more realistic levels of e-liquid exposure should be conducted."

Rose admitted that he does have a patent purchase agreement with Philip Morris International, which has an obvious stake in the e-cig market. But despite the apparent conflict of interest, he and Muhkin's analysis does seem sound.

RealClearScience reached out to Dr. Thomas Sussan and Dr. Shyam Biswal, the lead authors of the study, offering them a chance to respond to Mukhin and Rose's comment. *Sussan replied on March 1st:

For decades, animal studies have provided the basis for human studies, and this current study should provide rationale for future human studies. The mice in our study were allowed to breathe freely inside a chamber containing 20% e-cigarette vapor for 3 hours per day. This exposure is comparable to what a human e-cig user may be exposed to, after accounting for differences in lung capacity, and is well below one puff per breath.

*Article updated to include Sussan's reply

(Image: AP)

Net Neutrality: Obamacare for the Internet?

Fox News is in a tizzy over net neutrality. (This topic has been covered extensively in the technology press; see the archive at RealClearTechnology.) In a nutshell, net neutrality requires internet service providers (ISPs, such as Comcast, Cox, and Verizon) to treat all data equally. An ISP would not be allowed to commit high-tech acts of extortion by, for instance, threatening websites with slower internet speeds unless they fork over extra cash.

Unfortunately, this is not merely hypothetical. An epic battle, described by The Oatmeal in entertaining comic book format, between Comcast and Netflix has shown how powerful ISPs can bully websites. Briefly, Netflix customers, who stream movies online, make up a large portion of internet traffic. So, Comcast decided to slow down Netflix users' internet speeds unless Netflix paid them a lot of money. (See chart.)

Credit: The Oatmeal via Washington Post/Netflix

If you are a Netflix customer, having your movies stream more slowly because Comcast doesn't get along with Netflix hardly seems fair. If you aren't a Netflix customer, keep in mind that Comcast could choose to throttle whatever other websites it doesn't like. Net neutrality is meant to prevent that.

Enter Fox News. Special Report, which is quite frankly one of the better political news shows on television, presented a very biased report by correspondent Peter Doocy. The tone of the report was largely conspiratorial. Mr. Doocy bizarrely compared net neutrality to "Obamacare" -- even going so far as to rechristen it "Obamanet" -- and claimed without any evidence that net neutrality will "slow down the internet." (See video.) Notably, the report does not even mention the apocalyptic battle between Comcast and Netflix.

Then, in a follow-up report (video), Mr. Doocy says: "If the internet is regulated like a road or a utility, people will notice. First, 'slower broadband,' then 'less investment,' which means 'fewer broadband choices' -- that's according to critics of the plan -- using similar rules in Europe as a model."

Mr. Doocy is implying that over-regulation has caused those silly Europeans to have slower internet connections than Americans. But, that is demonstrably untrue. As reported in Xconomy, Akamai, a cloud services provider, ranks the U.S. #10 in the world for internet speed. Who beats us? A lot of European countries: Ireland (#9), Latvia (#8), Sweden (#7), Czech Republic (#6), Switzerland (#5), and Netherlands (#3). South Korea, at #1, continues to humiliate everybody else.

Furthermore, Mr. Doocy's claim that net neutrality will lead to "fewer broadband choices" is dubious. Most Americans already have little choice in ISP. Quartz reported on a study by Softbank, a Japanese telecom, that says 67% of Americans have two or fewer ISPs (providing at least 10 Mbps download speed) from which to choose. A solid 30% have access to either one or zero ISPs. For all practical purposes, when it comes to internet service, most Americans are living under a de facto state of monopoly or duopoly. Even with increased regulation, it is difficult to see how net neutrality rules could make that worse.

The Fox News segment is irritating for two additional reasons. First, the network appears, as a matter of default, to oppose any and all of President Obama's policies, regardless of their merit. The technology community is in near unanimous support of net neutrality. Second, information on net neutrality is rather easy to find. Yet, it is as if Mr. Doocy did almost no research whatsoever before producing his report.

Ideological affiliations aside, Americans simply deserve better journalism than that. For a much better explanation of net neutrality, see the following WSJ video:

The Terrible, Horrifying, Painful Truth About All Those Corporate Scientist & Science Writer Shills

Friends, for the past few years I've tried to honestly report on science news and explain the wonders of our wide world. Over that time, I've learned a great many things about some of my fellow science communicators. Most of what I've learned is benign: Some of my colleagues use shorter sentences than others. Others are quite the tweeters. One in particular is smitten with sharks.

But I've also uncovered some horrifying truths, particularly in regards to my colleagues who challenge Vani Hari (a.k.a. the Food Babe), promote evidence-based medicine, insist that vaccines are safe, and defend GMOs. You might know these people better as "corporate shills."

When the startling facts first started trickling in, I tried to ignore them. "Keep your head down," I thought to myself. "Stick to the science. Just stick to the science..."

But, over time, the trickle of damning truths turned torrential, and I began to realize that I could not, in good faith, hold my silence any longer.

This will be the last piece I pen for RealClearScience, I expect. As has been pointed out by a great many sage commenters, my employers are, in fact, villainous corporate overlords, and they undoubtedly won't like what I'm about to reveal. While I'll dearly miss relaying the majesty of the universe, the beauty of biology, and all the fascinating stories from science history, I'll gladly enter exile knowing that my conscience is clear.

My confession specifically revolves around four men: University of Florida horticultural scientist and outspoken agriculture technologist Kevin Folta, oncologist and Science-Based Medicine editor David Gorski (also known as "Orac"), Yale neurologist and skeptical educator Steven Novella, and my co-worker, RCS editor Dr. Alex Berezow.

Let's get this over with.

Kevin Folta loves strawberries. He's also a huge fan of the satirical romp Canadian Bacon and the timeless rock n' roll deadpan comedy This Is Spinal Tap. Worse, he even volunteers his time to help young, impressionable students with science fair projects.

David Gorski is a highly credentialed doctor and surgeon. He also runs a laboratory actively researching the problems of breast cancer overdiagnosis. Apparently, his patients seem to think he's a pretty good guy.

Steven Novella is also a doctor and regularly sees patients. From frequently listening to his podcast, The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, I've learned that he has a loving family, tells "dad jokes" non-stop, and quotes South Park, Star Wars, and Star Trek like he's seen every episode of each. Apparently, he even co-authored a campaign for the popular pen and paper game Dungeons and Dragons. "Quite a nerd, Novella is," Yoda might say.

Lastly, though this is incredibly soul wrenching for me to say, Alex Berezow -- my good friend -- regularly watches soccer and actively attends Seattle Sounders games. He's also blunt and honest, sometimes brutally.

Obviously, I could not uncover any malicious ties between these science communicators and any evil corporations, otherwise I would have shared them. But I think you'll agree that what I've found is far more troubling.

The dearth of damning evidence clearly indicates that something is going on. Folta, Gorski, Novella, Berezow, and pretty much every other science communicator who who slams so-called "pseudoscience" obviously conceal their ties to Monsanto, Big Pharma, and the food industry by maintaining what many might call "normal lives." They have friends, families, and hobbies. They laugh, garden (with lots and lots of pesticides, no doubt), and commute to work. Who knows, they might even possess consciences and some sense of morality.

In short, they're just like you and me.

The frightening ramification of Novella, Folta, Gorski, and Berezow's innocuous normalcy is that they ably blend into cultured society. This begs a disturbing question: If they can hide their corruption so well, anyone can! Who else might be in league with them? Perhaps your mailman? Your organic grocer? Your barista?

Think of what such a conspiracy could accomplish! Organic strawberries laced with glyphosate... Letters sealed with sticky chemicals...

Oh no. Did your server just slip milk from cows given rBST into your cappuccino?

(Image: Imgur)

Anti-Vax Parents Face Jail in Europe, Africa

In late January, I wrote a controversial op-ed for USA Today on how jail should be an option for parents who endanger their children and society at large by refusing vaccines. I received plenty of hate mail for that -- mostly in the form of four-letter words, Nazi comparisons, and vague death threats. However, before you turn your keyboard into an instrument of revenge, I would like to further elaborate on what I feel is a very, very important issue -- perhaps the most important issue we have ever discussed at RealClearScience.

Though many Americans (myself included) understandably flinch at the idea of the government forcing people to do or not to do things, there are times when government mandates are entirely appropriate. You are not allowed to drink and drive; if you do, you could go to jail. You cannot tamper with a fire extinguisher at a gas station; if you do, you could go to jail. You cannot run around naked at a sporting event; if you do, you could go to jail.

These laws, with the specific threat of jail, are in place to highlight the danger that such irresponsible behavior poses to society. Drinking and driving kills people. Tampering with fire extinguishers puts people in danger if there is a fire. Running around naked -- well, let's just say society doesn't want that, either.

The same reasoning also applies to vaccines. A parent who chooses not to vaccinate is threatening the life and health of his child, as well as every person with whom his child comes into contact. We have already decided as a society that we will not allow parents to endanger their children, even if their actions are done with good intentions. Last year, faith-healing parents in Pennsylvania and Oregon were sentenced to prison after their children died from treatable illnesses. The former, who lost two children to pneumonia, were convicted of third-degree murder, and the latter, who lost their child to diabetes, were convicted of manslaughter.

Furthermore, there is precedent for threatening parents who refuse to vaccinate their children with jail. In 2007, a Maryland judge threatened parents with jail if they failed to provide proof of vaccination for their schoolchildren. Parents in France, Belgium, and Nigeria all could face jail time if they refuse to vaccinate their kids. Why? Because these societies have decided that public health trumps individual rights.

Having said all that, there are still two more points worth making:

First, regardless of your belief about vaccine mandates, ultimately we all want the same thing: A safe and healthy world, particularly for our children. Though we may not agree on policy, we (hopefully) agree on the desired outcome.

Second, I am rarely ever married to any particular policy. I could be convinced that severe fines are more appropriate than jail. Still, it would seem that jail ought to be an option on the table for the most extreme cases, such as the entirely preventable measles outbreak that started at Disneyland. Regardless of what specific policy our country pursues, the bigger takeaway from my argument is that the status quo simply cannot be allowed to continue. We must tighten vaccine exemption laws.

Thankfully, that is beginning to happen. California is seeking to eliminate all exemptions except for medical ones. Philosophical objections would no longer be allowed. That is a very good step. Mississippi, which has a similar law, has a 99.7% MMR and DTaP vaccination rate for kindergarteners. (See CDC data here.) If the entire world had such a vaccination rate, measles -- like smallpox -- would be relegated to the dustbin of history.

Then, we wouldn't need so many vaccines.

(AP photo)

These Houses Look Like Faces

In many ways, houses are a lot like faces. They are "distinct members of a basic category," sport "consistent internal features," are generally oriented in a single direction (i.e. towards the road), and are relatively familiar to most people in the developed world.

Scientists have used these similarities to their advantage.

"Houses have often been used as comparison stimuli in face-processing studies because of the many attributes they share with faces," a team of researchers from Dalhousie University recently noted in the journal Behavior Research Methods.

But despite the frequency with which houses are utilized in this type of research, there's no large, well-controlled database of house pictures for researchers to draw from. The Dalhousie team, led by Jillian Filliter and Jacqueline Glover, sought to fill this void.

And so, they fanned out around Halifax, Nova Scotia -- where Dalhousie University is located -- to photograph houses. In total, Filliter, Glover, and their team snapped one hundred pictures, which they subsequently edited to remove anything in the way like tree branches or cars, as well as identifying information like house numbers. They also grayscaled the images for consistency. The researchers then recruited 41 undergraduates to rate the houses (on a scale of 1 to 7) for how typical they were, their likability, and their resemblance to faces.

The students didn't think some of the houses looked like faces at all. This one, for example.

But others really did. Like this one.

And this one.

And this one.

The only correlation Filliter and Glover found was between typicality and likability -- the more typical the house, the more people liked how it looked. This is fascinating, because, as the researchers noted, it "is consistent with previous findings in the face-processing literature suggesting that people find more average or prototypical faces to be particularly attractive."

The images could be used to study pareidolia, the human psychological tendency to perceive significance in ostensibly random objects. A big part of pareidolia is seeing faces in things that aren't faces. Prior research has shown that objects which resemble faces elicit activation patterns in the ventral fusiform cortex of the brain similar to those evoked by viewing real faces. It's widely believed that humans are hard-wired to identify faces.

Filliter and Glover have made all of their data and pictures freely available online.

"We anticipate that this stimulus set and the associated ratings will prove useful to face-processing researchers by minimizing the effort required to acquire stimuli and allowing for easier replication and extension of studies," they wrote.

(Images: Filliter, Jillian (2014): DalHouses. figshare. Retrieved 16:14, Feb 18, 2015 (GMT))

The Horrible Ways Mathematicians Have Died

Perhaps it was out of morbid fascination, or maybe a simple desire to memorialize lives lost, but whatever the reason, Kellen Myers decided to make a list of mathematicians who died in "unpleasant" ways.

A mathematician himself and a PhD student at Rutgers University, Myers admits he's not sure why he compiled the macabre list in the first place.

"The purpose of this list is not clear, but it is perhaps an attempt to compile a relatively complete list," he mused.

Regardless, the list has garnered wide attention. Myers says it's by far the most popular page on his humble Rutgers homepage, which also displays the papers he's published and his office hours.

The list's focus is grotesquely fascinating, to be sure. Who wouldn't be at least slightly interested in the tragic story of Pavel Urysohn? At age 24, he was already an assistant professor at Moscow University and had made significant contributions to topology, the study of shapes and spaces. Two years later, he drowned while swimming off the coast of France.

Or what about Austrian American mathematician Kurt Gödel? Considered by some to be just as influential a logician and philosopher as Aristotle, he sadly succumbed to crippling paranoia later in life. In his sixties, he became convinced that his food was being poisoned, and would only trust the cooking of his wife Adele. When she was hospitalized for six months in 1977, Gödel refused to eat, and subsequently died of starvation.

Of the nineteen mathematicians on Myers' list, four were killed or murdered, three committed suicide, two starved to death, one succumbed to jaundice, and one even died of a parasitic liver infection.

That mathematician was Srinivasa Ramanujan. Perhaps the purest definition of a prodigy, Ramanujan received almost no formal training in mathematics, and performed almost all of his research in isolation, often under conditions of extreme poverty. Ramanujan's genius wasn't truly known in the broader mathematical community until his twenties. In 1914, at the age of 26, Ramanujan trekked to Cambridge at the invitation of acclaimed British mathematician G.H. Hardy. There, he further honed his skills and continued to pour out results. In 1919, he became very sick and returned to India. He died a year later at the age of 32.

The existence of Myers' list begs the question: are mathematicians prone to die under unfortunate circumstances? Any mathematician with training in statistics will offer a quick and simple answer: almost certainly not. The list that Myers has compiled, while intriguing, is a small, biased sample, and its results cannot be ascribed to mathematicians as a group.

So if you dream of numbers, fret not. You're not destined to die in a terrible manner.

(Image: Charles F. Wilson)

Source: Mathematical Ends

How Does Electrocution Kill You?

We're all conscious of the dangers of electricity. We know that 3-volt batteries are safe, but outlets are dangerous enough that they should be covered in order to protect toddlers. We also know not to use a hair dryer in the bathtub. But why? How does electricity actually hurt people?

Volts and amperes (amps) are properties used to describe most simple electrical phenomena in the world around us. Amperage (A) is a measure of current flow, i.e., how many electrons flow through something per second. One amp is about 6 million trillion electrons per second. This flow of electrons is what actually causes tissue or nervous system damage. All those electrons passing through a body either heat and burn tissues or interfere with essential electrical signals, such as those that cause the heart to beat.

The latter phenomenon is why an electrocution above a certain amperage will cause your muscles to clench and make it impossible for a person to let go of the current source. Being physically unable to let go of a live wire is called tetanic contraction.

Voltage (V) is how strong the "urge" is for the current to flow. Voltage is the push on the electrons. A rough analogy is that current is like water molecules, and voltage is like a slope. The steeper the slope, the more the water molecules wants to flow down it. Zero voltage between two points is like a plateau and, hence, there is no current flow.

An object's electrical resistance (measured in ohms) limits the amount of current that any voltage can drive through it. The stronger the resistance, the more voltage you need to push the same amount of current. The body's natural resistance is its defense against electricity. Internal tissue has a low resistance compared to the skin. Thus, small shocks are not a problem, but once the skin is breached, the rest of the body is defenseless. That explains why a 3-volt battery is harmless, but Old Sparky was rather deadly.

Wet or damaged skin has 100 times less resistance than when dry.

Dropping an electrical appliance into the bathtub can be lethal for precisely this reason. Thus, a 120-volt hair dryer dropped in the bathtub can kill a person but grabbing the terminals of a 12-volt car battery with dry hands produces no meaningful shock.

Another factor is the difference between alternating current (AC) and direct current (DC). A constant voltage between two points can drive a current that does not fluctuate (DC). However, a fluctuating voltage drives an alternating current (AC), in which electrons are actually being spit out of an electrical outlet and then sucked back into it roughly 60 times per second.

The fluctuation rate of 60 Hz makes these currents particularly suited to screwing up the nerves that regulate heartbeat. This can cause a heart to flutter instead of beating normally, which kills a person quickly. That's why standard AC wall current is especially dangerous to humans. The threat of AC current varies widely by its frequency, whereas DC simply becomes more dangerous as the voltage and current levels increase.

Though there are plenty of warning signs that read, "Danger! High Voltage," it is actually the amperage through the body that kills you. The range of amps needed to kill a person varies. Here's a primer, taken from OSHA, discussing AC wall current shocks in mA (1000mA = 1A):

These are just general guidelines. In reality, a relatively small current could flow into one hand, directly through the heart, and out the foot to kill a person instantly. On the other hand, an enormous electrical arc from a lightning bolt might hit a person but, instead of traversing the inside of the body, find the easiest path to travel through the skin and result only in burns.

In other words, electricity's effect on the body depends on the specific path the current takes through the body and on the individual characteristics of a person's body. A very large amount of current can kill a person simply by cooking the insides. A smaller amount of current can kill a person if it flows directly through the heart or central nervous system. The amount of water and fat insulation in the body factor in here.

So kids: Don't drink and drive, don't do drugs, and don't drop hair dryers in the bathtub.

(AP photo)

70,000 Years Ago, Another Star Flew by the Edge of the Solar System

Proxima Centauri, the closest star outside the Solar System, currently rests 4.24 light years away, but it won't always be our nearest cosmic neighbor.

The reason for this is simple, and much to the dismay of fortune-telling astrologists: Stars move. In roughly 27,000 years, Proxima Centauri will be just three light years away from the Sun, after which it will gradually move away. 6,000 years after that, Proxima Centauri will no longer be the closest star, its title superseded by Ross 248, which, at its closest, will be just 3.024 light years from the Sun.

But long before Proxima Centauri and Ross 248 started duking it out to be our next door neighbor, the Sun may have had a much more intimate stellar partner.

According to an international team of astronomers, about 70,000 years ago a red dwarf star -- nicknamed "Scholz’s star" for the astronomer who discovered it -- passed by our solar system just 0.8 light years distant. In fact, 98% of the 10,000 simulations the team ran projected that the star's path grazed the outer edges of the Oort Cloud, a region of space filled with icy planetesimals which marks the final boundary of our solar system.

If the astronomers' analysis, which was recently published to The Astrophysical Journal Letters, is correct, that would make Scholz’s star the closest known star to ever pass by our solar system.

Eric Mamajek, an astronomer and physicist at the University of Rochester and lead author of the study, grew curious about Scholz’s star during a discussion with Valentin Ivanov, from the European Southern Observatory. Ivanov, a co-author, noted that the star wasn't really moving across the sky. Subsequent analysis revealed that the star was actually moving directly away from the solar system at breakneck speed, like a thief fleeing the scene of a crime. Focusing the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) and Chile's Magellan telescope at the star eventually produced enough data to resolve the star's prior path. 

Though Scholz’s star would have been a very close neighbor, our ancient ancestors probably wouldn't have noticed it. The red dwarf star is just 8% the mass of the sun and much dimmer. Even at its nearest, the star would have been fifty times too faint to be seen with the naked eye at night. However, since Scholz’s star is magnetically active, it may have occasionally flared up to become thousands of times brighter, making it just barely visible for a meager span of minutes or hours per event.

Scholz’s star is now twenty light years away and won't be returning anytime soon. However, Dr. Coryn Bailer-Jones of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy calculates that we may receive another visitor in the distant future. Last December, Baller-Jones reported that the rogue star HIP 85605 may pass as close as .132 light years to the solar system between 240,000 and 470,000 years from now. That's a close miss on the cosmic scale, but more than far enough that our futuristic ancestors will have little to worry about. The only concern would be that HIP 85605's foray through the inner Oort Cloud might send a few comets careening in Earth's direction.

Mamajek and his co-authors doubt Bailer-Jones' claims. They calculate that HIP 85605 won't approach closer than 300 light years away, leaving Scholz’s star's "closest" title uncontested for the time being.

(Image: Michael Osadciw/University of Rochester)

Anti-Science 'Skeptics' Are Not Skeptics. They Are Incredibly Willing to Believe BS.

Being a "skeptic" is in. Doubtless, a great many "skeptics" of manmade climate change, vaccines, and 9/11 fancy themselves as brave, stalwart holdouts, standing tall against a tide of opposition, like Davy Crockett at the Battle of the Alamo.

But they aren't.

They are, however, incredibly willing to believe alternative, pie-in-the-sky explanations. Put it another way: They're not skeptical; they're extremely gullible.

Many climate skeptics contend that the massive scientific consensus on climate change is instead a conspiratorial hoax. Some vaccine refusers believe that health officials knowingly or unknowingly permit vaccine manufacturers to inoculate us with dangerous chemicals. 9/11 truthers argue that the attacks on the World Trade Center may have been orchestrated by our own government and covered up by the media. There is no convincing evidence to support any of these theories, but there is quite a lot that debunks them. In short, while these "skeptics" are incredulous to facts, they are incredibly credulous to fairy tales. This makes them some of the least skeptical people on Earth. Blinded by their ingrained, ideological worldviews, all they're doing is fooling themselves, and denying reality.

"They tell themselves that they’re the ones who see the lies, and the rest of us are sheep. But believing that everybody’s lying is just another kind of gullibility,” Slate's William Saletan eloquently stated.

For a great example of a "skeptic" who is blinded by his beliefs, look no further than comedian Bill Maher, who regularly (and rightly) lambasts Republicans for denying the overwhelming evidence on climate change, while at the same time ignoring even more overwhelming evidence on the safety and effectiveness of vaccines. Ideology, not evidence, governs his stances.

With the term "skeptic" being thrown around so haphazardly these days, it's worth mentioning what it really means to be a true skeptic. Few people know that better than the Fellows of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, an organization founded in part by Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov to promote "objective and impartial inquiry." In December, they announced their concern that "skeptic" was being confused with "denier," making it clear that the two terms are not the same:

Proper skepticism promotes scientific inquiry, critical investigation, and the use of reason in examining controversial and extraordinary claims. It is foundational to the scientific method. Denial, on the other hand, is the a priori rejection of ideas without objective consideration.

A true skeptic never dismisses an idea out of hand. A true skeptic is willing to be wrong, and recognizes an echelon of evidence that will change their mindset. And most importantly, a true skeptic doesn't only question the beliefs of others, he also questions his own. Because skepticism isn't just about doubting things you disagree with, it's about keeping yourself honest, open, thoughtful, and true.

If "skeptics" of climate change, GMOs, and vaccines, can embrace those standards, then they may call themselves true skeptics. If not, then they are simply deniers of science.

(Image: Shutterstock)

Interstellar, and the Quest to See a Black Hole

Imagine an object in space so dense and massive, with a gravitational pull so huge, that not even light can escape. Spacetime, itself warps around, twisting and bending. Once there was a star, but it collapsed long ago, morphing into this mind-bending monstrosity. Is it a trick? Does it hail from a foreign dimension? How can this be real?

The film Interstellar, which is now nominated for five Academy Awards, features the most accurate representation of a black hole mankind has ever seen. The depiction has been hailed not only as a groundbreaking achievement in cinema, but also as a step forward for science.

On screen, the black hole -- called Gargantua -- seems to come alive. Off screen, it began with humble origins: on a chalkboard. The man wielding the chalk was theoretical physicist Kip Thorne. Armed with complex math and decades of experience studying black holes, Thorne drew up pages and pages of equations. Mindless mumbo jumbo to most, they constituted a set of instructions to the animators at special effects studio Double Negative, who took Thorne's math, and with some tinkering, welded it into reality.

It was an arduous process for man and machine alike. Double Negative's specialists had to re-write their rendering software, and the studio's workhorse computers ran for days just to construct a single frame. (In movies, there are usually twenty-four frames per second.) As Adam Rogers described in Wired, correctly modeling how gravity bends light caused the most headaches.

In the end, it was all worth it. Audiences witnessed an astounding space spectacle, and Thorne and Double Negative simulated a black hole with more accuracy than ever before. Thorne even reckoned they made a few scientific discoveries in the process.

Turns out, he was right.

In a paper published yesterday to the journal Classical and Quantum Gravity, Thorne and Double Negative chief scientist Oliver James published the code used to create Interstellar's black hole, Gargantua, and demonstrated how it could be readily adapted for scientific research

Intermixed within the code are equations that trace the distorted paths of light rays as they are bent by gravity. These equations helped remove unwanted flickering and distortion seen from stars and nebulae in the background of the simulated black hole in Interstellar.

Thorne thinks this code may help astronomers and astrophysicists to produce even clearer images of other cosmic sights. According to NewScientist, Double Negative has already been contacted by researchers at NASA studying neutron stars, the densest, fastest-spinning objects in the universe besides black holes.

“This new approach to making images will be of great value to astrophysicists like me. We, too, need smooth images," Thorne said in a press release.

Seeing Gargantua in theaters was a real treat. After all, no human has actually seen a real black hole; we've only detected them by their immense gravity.

"By observing how individual stars orbit a point mass that gives off no light, we can infer that — at the center of our galaxy — there’s a point mass many millions of times the mass of our star. It emits no light and has no emission signatures of any type," astrophysicist Ethan Siegel explained.

But with any luck, we won't remain blinded to the majesty of real life black holes for too much longer. Astronomers from institutes across the world are combining the power of thirteen radio telescopes to produce the first ever image of a black hole, or, more specifically, it's event horizon, the outer boundary. The project, called the Event Horizon Telescope, aims to have an image in three years.

Such an image likely won't rate too highly in terms of visual splendor. For a photograph as radiant as what we saw in Interstellar, we'll have to wait a while longer. The technology to produce an image like that remains in the realm of science fiction.

(Image: Paramount Pictures/Warner Bros.)

Will the Universe Disintegrate?

It was slightly over 1300 years ago when prospectors originally struck gold in the Kamioka Mines near the town of Hida, nestled in the mountainous and picturesque Gifu Prefecture of central Japan. More recently, physicists have been looking to strike an altogether different kind of gold, one that could elucidate the final fate of the universe.

The mines no longer whir with the sound of spinning drills or rumble from crashing rock. Now home to the Kamioka Observatory, they're ruled by silence. Within the observatory, scientists labor to extract riches from the cosmos rather than the mountain. Their primary tool is a massive neutrino detector: Super Kamiokande. A cylindrical structure, 41.4 meters tall and 39.3 meters across, filled with 50,000 tons of pure water and ringed by about 11,200 photomultiplier tubes, it's main purpose is to "intercept" neutrinos. These ephemeral subatomic particles interact with other matter so weakly that a neutrino is as likely to pass all the way through a piece of lead one light year thick as it is to hit a single lead atom.

This is what makes neutrinos so hard to detect. Roughly a billion pass entirely through the Earth every milisecond and a single one is stopped by the entire planet. Scientists are hoping that they can set up the best possible trap to catch just a handful of neutrinos every day. When a neutrino does hit the nucleus or electrons of one of the water atoms, it emits a blue light called Cherenkov radiation, the same eerie blue glow that comes from a nuclear reactor submerged in water.

Cherenkov radiation is caused by the production of particles with a speed greater than the speed light waves travel in water. As the water slows down these charged particles, they lose their energy by emitting the blue light. The Cherenkov glow from a particular impact spreads through the water and hits the light-detection photomultiplier tubes lining the detector walls in a particular ring pattern. Depending on just the size, shape and fuzziness of the ring, the type of neutrino, its energy and its location and travel direction in the detector can be deduced.

But what does this all have to do with the end of the universe? The Standard Model of physics says that protons are eternal. The emergence of theories looking to supercede the Standard Model, called Grand Unified Theories (GUTs--the most famous of which is string theory) suggested that protons might not live forever. This phenomenon, called proton decay, would be the spontaneous breakdown of the positively charged constituent particle of the atomic nucleus into smaller particles. This shattering of protons would effectively destroy the atomic matter that makes up the universe.

Experimentalists realized that they could search for proton decay as a test of the GUTs. This is where the neutrino detector comes in. Originally, Super Kamiokande was simply KamiokaNDE, short for the Kamioka Nucleon Decay Experiment. Because, as it turns out, a big bowl of pure water buried under a mountain (thus shielded from cosmic rays) is also a great way to monitor a boatload of protons to see if any will spontaneously cleave.

For decades, scientists watched the pristine pool of water, but they didn't see a thing. KamiokaNDE found no evidence for proton decay. That's more good news for the Standard Model, but another blow for string theory and other GUTs.

Fortunately, if protons do decay, it's not something we'd have to worry about anytime soon. And I don't mean in one hundred, one thousand, or even a billion or a billion billion years. Data from Kamiokande and other experiments has shown that the average lifetime of a proton can be no less than 5.9x 10^33 years. This is well beyond the time when all stars are expected to extinguish, casting the universe into cold darkness. So should protons eventually decay, a bleak cosmos bereft of light will simply fade away into the purest sense of oblivion one can imagine.

(Image: Kamioka Observatory, ICRR, University of Tokyo)

A Letter to Vaccine Refusers

To the Concerned Parents Who Refuse to Vaccinate Their Children:

After a year in which there were more documented cases of the measles than in the previous five years combined, the backlash has been brutal. You've been called everything from "anti-science," to "denialist," to "uncaring." Seeing as how America is now in the midst of a new outbreak, personal attacks like these probably won't abate anytime soon.

I know you're not uncaring, but if you'll permit me a humble guess, perhaps you are a little afraid -- afraid of what might happen should you vaccinate your children. You care deeply for your kids -- that's not in question. You don't want to see them harmed. You want to see them live, laugh, and grow up to be healthy and happy.

You've been told, by some individuals, that vaccines may potentially endanger your children, that they can cause autism, cancer, and other chronic diseases. While I'd rather not speculate on the motives of these fearmongers, I can assure you, with little doubt, that they are wrong. The "evidence" they cite is minor or outright fraudulent, and the "experts" they quote are vastly in the minority.

The overwhelming majority of scientists, many of whom are loving parents just like you, agree that childhood vaccines like the one offered for measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) are not only safe, but vital. Rigorous, repeated scientific evidence supports this view, as do trusted organizations like the Autism Science Foundation and Autism Speaks.

Vaccines are not without risks. The CDC is open and honest about the potential side effects of vaccines. But one thing to keep in mind is that these side effects are paltry when compared with the ferocity of the diseases which vaccines prevent. It's like fastening your safety belt. If you're in a car crash, chances are the belt will inflict bruising or even fracture your sternum. But you'll be alive. The benefits far outweigh the risks.

Many scientists and citizens alike don't remember the time before the MMR vaccine became available in 1963, when three to four million people contracted the measles each year in the U.S. alone. (In 2014, the number of cases dwindled to 191,343 worldwide.*) Nor do they remember when smallpox murdered more than 300 million people in the 20th century. Thanks to vaccines, smallpox is gone, and the measles will hopefully follow suit.

But unless we all diligently immunize ourselves and our kids, the measles, and other vaccine-preventable diseases like it, can still come roaring back.

All parents want what's best for their kids. The beautiful thing about vaccines is that what's best for your kids is also what's best for everyone. We're all in this together.

And so I implore you, do not give in to baseless, irrational fear. Vaccinate yourself and your children.

*Correction 2/10: An earlier version of this article stated the number of measles cases in 2014 at 57,000. It is actually 191,343.

(Image: AP)

The Great 'Monkeys on Mars' Conspiracy

Who took this picture? Probably a monkey.

There exists the distinct possibility that monkeys live on Mars. In the year 2015, it is not possible for scientists to completely rule out the scenario. So, imagine a hypothetical conversation between the monkey-on-Mars believer (we'll call him "Monkeyman") and an astrobiologist.


MONKEYMAN: I believe there are monkeys on Mars.

ASTROBIOLOGIST: There probably aren't.

MONKEYMAN: NASA has not thoroughly investigated this issue. Haven't you seen Planet of the Apes? I think there is a technologically advanced monkey civilization living on Mars. I'm afraid they may be planning to come to Earth someday. Can you prove me wrong?

ASTROBIOLOGIST: We have a lot of photographs of Mars. We haven't seen any monkeys.

MONKEYMAN: Of course you haven't seen any monkeys. They live deep underground. It's a technologically advanced society.

ASTROBIOLOGIST: There is very little reason to believe that life exists on Mars, let alone monkeys. We have sent eight landers to Mars, and we have not detected any signs of life -- plant, animal, or microbial. Besides, there is no liquid water on Mars, and our understanding of biology is such that it seems liquid water is essential to life. Though I wish it wasn't the case, Mars probably never had life on it.

MONKEYMAN: You're assuming too much. We only know about life on Earth. It is possible life elsewhere has evolved not to need water. Besides, these monkeys are so technologically advanced, that they probably could harvest comets for any water they might need.

ASTROBIOLOGIST: A technologically advanced civilization would emit some form of detectable electromagnetic radiation, such as radio and TV waves. If such a civilization existed on Mars, we would have detected the signals by now.

MONKEYMAN: Are you not listening to me? These monkeys are very advanced. They know we're listening to them. So, they have devised a system of communication that is undetectable. Perhaps they use telepathy.

ASTROBIOLOGIST: I think we're losing touch with reality. Every time I provide evidence that you are wrong, you dismiss it and find an excuse to hide the monkeys somewhere else where scientists haven't looked. You are making claims that are essentially unanswerable. That's not how science works. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. So the burden of proof is on you, not NASA.

MONKEYMAN: Look, I'm just asking questions. If there aren't any monkeys on Mars, then all NASA needs to do is show me the evidence. Where's the evidence?

ASTROBIOLOGIST: I just gave it to you.

MONKEYMAN: That proves nothing. Why aren't you being honest? What are you hiding? Who's paying you? You're just a shill. You're a disgusting traitor to humanity.



Does this conversation sound familiar? It should. While no sane person believes there are monkeys on Mars, plenty believe in other scientific conspiracy theories, namely ones involving vaccines, GMOs, and climate change. Though the topics are different, the same flawed logic and gross misunderstanding of science underlie the conspiracists' claims.

The debates often start off reasonably enough. Good questions are asked, and competent answers are provided. However, the answers are ignored, and increasingly unreasonable questions are asked. That's when the conversation quickly goes downhill. Conspiracy theorists refuse to read reputable peer-reviewed scientific literature, instead relying on dodgy websites for information. Worse, the inability of the scientist to provide 100% proof -- because providing such proof is impossible in science -- results in the conspiracy theorist insisting that all beliefs are equally likely. Eventually, frustration sets in on both sides, and the conspirator often makes ad hominem attacks and accusations of fraud.

Sadly, this is why so many scientists refuse to engage with the public. Many conspiracy theorists have no real interest in learning the truth.

(AP photo)

Citizen Scientists: Supermen or Slackers?

Have you ever wanted to personally discover a planet orbiting a foreign sun, look for features on the surface of Mars, or discover and classify beautiful distant galaxies? Do you have an internet connection? Will you work for free? No further qualifications needed, start now! Since its launch in 2009, the website Zooniverse has been the largest of a number of web-based projects like this, known as citizen science.

The majority of citizen science projects, including those on Zooniverse, harness the power of human intelligence to sift through millions of images and videos and identify certain features. Yes, we are still vastly better than computers at distilling meaning from extremely complex patterns.

Planet Hunters is the most popular Zooniverse project. It uses human eyes to sort through the massive quantity of stellar luminosity data collected by the planet-hunting space telescope Kepler. You're recruited to squint closely at measurements of a star's brightness recorded over a period of a month or so. If you get lucky, you'll spot a brief dip when a planet orbiting that star passed in front of the star and blocked a tiny portion of the starlight. It's surprisingly enthralling work.

So, who are these volunteers, doing the work of a $12-an-hour undergraduate research assistant for free? A study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in January took a census of Zooniverse contributors and found some interesting demographics.

The average citizen scientist worked for just one hour and fifteen minutes. Between the seven separate Zooniverse projects examined, mean participation ranged from 30 minutes to 3.5 hours. Even given these typically small commitments, the sum financial reward was impressive. Over the first 180 days of the projects, contributors donated nearly $1.6 million of labor. Individual projects garnered between $23k and $654k.

A closer look at users revealed that this "average contributor" was almost non-existent. Volunteers nearly all fell into one of two antithetical camps. Between 60% and 83% of those who started any project worked once and never returned. Meanwhile, the small minority of returning users created 85% of the output. It is no surprise then that between 71% and 88% of the total work on each project was done by just 10% of users. These top-producing users as a group have some common characteristics. On average, they are only slightly (~14%) faster. The real difference then must be that they log many hours, right?

Total time spent per day by all volunteers averages only seven to 26 minutes. Here those top contributors again emerge. One half of all work done on all projects was completed by the mere 4-7% of returning users who spent the most time per day (more than 30-90 minutes). A further one third of the work was done by regulars who spend less daily time.

Troublingly, contributors' motivation seems to wane. The output of any type of user, regardless of how long or how hard they work, on average drops off over time. Statistically, even the very most active users gradually tend to visit and work less often. All of these projects are thus crucially dependent upon a steady supply of new recruits.

Citizen science has successfully harnessed the public's interest and spare time to perform research while saving millions. What's next? Project organizers must find ways to spice up the immediate excitement of the work to prevent so many of their recruits becoming dropouts after a single visit. They also need to provide more reward to keep the returning supermen who do the heavy lifting going strong.

(AP photo)

The World's Most Dangerous Tree

In 1999, radiologist Nicola Strickland took a trip to the Caribbean island of Tobago. It was a vacation he would remember for the rest of his life. Not because of the tranquil ocean sunsets or the lush, green landscapes, but because he survived a brush with one of the world's most poisonous trees.

Strickland recounted his experience in the British Medical Journal.

"On the first morning we found one of those idyllic deserted beaches, exactly as described in the brochure: white sand, swaying palms, turquoise sea. While searching for exotic shells and coral fragments, I saw some green fruits among the scattered coconuts and mangoes lying on the beach. They were round, the size of a tangerine, and had apparently fallen from a large tree with a silvery bole and oblique based leaves."

His cautious senses disarmed by the innocuous serenity of the tropical paradise, Strickland picked up one of the fruits and took a bite, finding it pleasantly sweet, like a "ripe plum." He quickly urged his friend to sample the unexpected treat.

Moments later, the pain started.

"We noticed a strange peppery feeling in our mouths, which gradually progressed to a burning, tearing sensation and tightness of the throat. The symptoms worsened over a couple of hours until we could barely swallow solid food because of the excruciating pain and the feeling of a huge obstructing pharyngeal lump."

Strickland and his friend attempted a rudimentary form of self-medication, but their efforts did little to help.

"Sadly, the pain was exacerbated by most alcoholic beverages, although mildly appeased by pina coladas..." he noted.

Fortunately, the apparent poisoning subsided the next day.

When Strickland sought out the cause for he and his friend's discomfort, the answer quickly became clear: It was the manchineel tree.

Noted for its greyish bark, shiny leaves and small, apple-like fruits, the tree is native to Florida, the Bahamas, the Caribbean, Central America, and northern South America. And it's not a plant to be messed with; every part of it will hurt you. In fact, the Carib Indians would tie enemy captives the trunk of the manchineel as a form of torture. The milky sap, which contains a skin irritant called phorbol, causes blistering, burning, and inflammation upon contact with the skin. Merely touching the bark or leaves also engenders dermatitis. Even just standing under the tree when it's raining will trigger symptoms, as four unfortunate students discovered during a rainstorm while vacationing in the West Indies. Eating the tree's "forbidden" fruit produces the worst effects, as Strickland and his friend found out.

"In our case swallowing just a tiny amount of the juice from the fruit had clearly resulted in oral and oesophageal ulceration and severe oedema," he noted. "Drainage of the toxin to regional lymph nodes had presumably caused the subsequent cervical pain."

The tree's pernicious nature has prompted many to take a vendetta against it. In Florida, the tree is now endangered due to eradication efforts. However, many localities simply post warning signs or mark manchineels with daunting red Xs.

Strickland shared his "unfortunate" and "foolish" experience to warn others of the tree's danger.

"We found our experience frightening, and with the increasing availability of package Caribbean holidays we think that attention should be drawn to the potentially serious hazard of this fruit."

(Image: Hans Hillewaert / CC-BY-SA-3.0)

The Nastiest Hate Mail We Have Ever Received

President Harry Truman is alleged to have said, "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog." Though it is unclear to whom the aphorism should actually be attributed, there is no doubting its veracity. The truth of the statement, however, extends far beyond DC and politics. Just ask a journalist.

I have warned prospective journalists that you do not go into the field to make friends. The American public has a particularly low opinion of newspaper journalists and TV reporters; according to Gallup, only about 20% give both groups a rating of "very high" or "high" for honesty. Notably, that's still 2.5 times higher than the rating given to Congressmen. (In your face, Congress!)

To an extent, such a dismal reputation has been earned. Far too many news outlets engage in advocacy journalism, and others are so politically skewed one direction or the other that truth takes a back seat to partisanship.

Here at RealClearScience, we are trying our absolute hardest to rehabilitate the reputation of journalism, specifically science journalism. Previously, I have noted the politically one-sided nature of science journalism. The science media regularly looks the other way when Democrats endorse anti-science policies, and it was clear that many science journalists in 2012 were openly rooting for President Obama. Even worse, political correctness continues to trump actual science, even among science journalists.

RCS has a very different philosophy. For starters, we did not endorse anybody in 2012 because we felt neither President Obama nor Governor Romney deserved our endorsement. In an effort to promote full disclosure, we have openly and unashamedly published our editorial positions. And, most importantly, we promise to strive to deliver news and opinion that is based solely upon the most up-to-date science.

Yet, that mission does not please everybody. We read email and social media. We have upset a lot of people.

In October 2013, RCS assistant editor Ross Pomeroy wrote an article titled, "Massive Review Reveals Consensus on GMO Safety," which was based on a literature review that examined 1,783 GMO-related documents. This comment is typical of the criticism we receive on anything related to GMOs:

Did Monsanto write this article for you or did they pay you to write it?

This is infuriating. We would rather be called a series of four-letter words than to be accused of corruption. It is thoroughly indecent to make such an accusation, yet we are subject to this sort of defamation on a regular basis. And to answer the question directly, no. We are not paid by Monsanto, and neither were the authors of the review. Personally, as a PhD microbiologist, I have been pro-GMO before most people knew what GMOs were.

In February 2014, our physics blogger, Tom Hartsfield, wrote an article titled, "Cool Down, Climate Alarmists and Skeptics!" which called for an end to the extreme polarization in the climate change debate. The truth, he maintained, rests somewhere in between hoax and apocalypse. His calm, even-handed article elicited these responses:

#1. Communism will embrace any propaganda to forward it's expansion. AGW is a perfect vehicle for the forces to control the conversation and usurp political power... They use contrived consensus to quiet dissent. Directly from Stalin's playlist.

#2. There is a pattern. Every couple of days, the Real Clear website posts an article on Climate [sic] change. Most articles deny the existence of Climate [sic] change.

#3. No, I will not stop demonizing the shameless frauds who have been beating me up and demonizing me for more than 20 years. The wheels are falling off their theory and [sic] intend to enjoy every moment of watching them squirm.

#4. The author of this article is a student, not even a working scientist -- he is listed as a "PhD candidate." Not exactly an authority who should be advising the public about policy or much of anything else.

It is difficult to believe that comments #1 and #2 were for the exact same article. Commenter #1 argues that, by accepting anthropogenic climate change, RCS is enabling a global communist regime, while Commenter #2 is accusing RCS of being climate change deniers. Commenter #3 rejects Mr. Hartsfield's call for peace and instead embraces hatred and demonization of political adversaries. And Commenter #4 doesn't seem to understand what a PhD student actually does.

It is worth further elaborating on comment #4. A few days ago, I was a guest on the Michael Medved Show. A caller told me that I had been "educated to imbecility." In other words, scientists are so educated, they have become stupid. The willingness of many of our fellow Americans to mock academics and educated people -- while unabashedly embracing and revering ignorance -- is troubling, to put it mildly.

Last week, I wrote a provocative piece in USA Today titled, "Jail 'Anti-Vax' Parents," in which I argue that refusing vaccination for your child on "philosophical" grounds is tantamount to child abuse and reckless endangerment. To clarify, I do not endorse prison, but -- as a last resort -- a weekend in the local jail while the health authorities vaccinate the kids. Just like drunken drivers, anti-vaxxers pose a serious threat to public safety, and there ought to be serious consequences. Why? Because your right to be sick ends where my right to be healthy begins.

I have never received so much hate mail in my life. Here is just a small (but representative) sample:

Your right to not have your face punched in ends when you infringe our rights. (Posted with a photograph of a militant pointing a gun at the screen.)

I'd love to run into him in a dark alley, let's say that.

You fascist scumfu**.

Measles outbreaks [sic] they got it from the vaccine you moron.

hey Alex go f*** yourself. You NWO shill pos. (For the uninitiated, NWO = New World Order, a mass conspiracy by global elites to take over the world and implement a one-world government. POS = piece of sh**.)

If I was driving and you were in the road, my car would have a simultaneous brake failure and stuck throttle failure, and you would be a distant memory. We don't need more Hitlers, [sic] do us the favor of having to put you out of your misery, and overdose on a lethal dose of your vaccines.

Die mother f***er.

The last comment was pithy, at least.

Sadly, these examples are just the tip of the iceberg. By now, we have received literally thousands of pieces of hate mail. When I gripe about this to friends and colleagues, I usually get the same answer: It's part of the job.

However, in my opinion, the fact that such abuse is simply accepted as a "normal" part of the job says something very sad about our culture. The Internet, which is one of the greatest achievements of mankind, is simultaneously one of its biggest failures. It seems for every message of love, you can find ten of hate and ridicule. The anonymity of the internet has brought out the worst in all of us.

If there is anything to be learned from internet communication, let it be this: Regardless if you are emailing a friend, a bitter enemy, or even a lowly journalist, always remember that there is a human being on the other side of the computer screen.

(Photo: Hatred via Shutterstock)

Why We Need to See the Stars

Staring up at the night sky, unfettered by artificial light, in all its majesty, is a transcendent experience. But sadly, it's an experience of which many citizens of the developed world are deprived.

“Eight of ten kids born in the U.S. will never live where they can see the Milky Way," author Paul Bogard recently lamented to The Atlantic.

"We’ve taken what was once one of the most common human experiences, which is walking out your door and coming face-to-face with the universe, and we’ve made it one of the most rare human experiences."

The culprit, of course, is light. Like cunning thieves in the night, street lamps and other light sources beguile us with a warm, tender glow, permitting us to comfortably navigate our darkened surroundings. But at the same time, they steal away our view of the heavens. Through illumination of the close, we are blinded to the beyond.

"When you get to where there’s no light around except what Nature’s giving you, the sky is amazing because there’s stars everywhere. There’s color in the stars. There’s so much range of brightness… Familiar constellations can become lost," says Scott Kardel, an astronomer and director of the International Dark-Sky Association.

Our ancestors were not blindfolded as we are today.

“Before we devised artificial lights and atmospheric pollution and modern forms of nocturnal entertainment we watched the stars," Carl Sagan wrote. "There were practical calendar reasons of course but there was more to it than that. Even today the most jaded city dweller can be unexpectedly moved upon encountering a clear night sky studded with thousands of twinkling stars. When it happens to me after all these years it still takes my breath away.”

Throughout all of history, the stars have served as humanity's quintessential source of curiosity.

What happens when we are shielded from celestial inspiration, and from truly seeing our place in the Cosmos? Do we look down and wonder less? Do we lose our sense of scale? Does our ingrained drive to explore dwindle?

While the philosophical drawbacks may never be entirely known, the physical effects are far easier to quantify. When light pervades our nights, it messes with our circadian rhythmicity, disrupting sleep, and potentially increasing rates of depression, cancer, and weight gain.

Luckily, the cures are simple, none more so than simply flipping a switch. New forms of city lighting are also more directional and efficient. LED streetlights, for example, aim their glow at the ground, preventing pollution of the sky.

The dark can be a frightening place. But though we may fumble and fall, we are never lost or alone. As Carl Sagan reminded us, we are all made of starstuff. When we look skyward, we see our family, our friends, and, in a way, ourselves.

It's time to get reacquainted.

(Image: Shutterstock)

Universe's First Molecule Is Shrouded in Mystery

Somewhere, out there, is the first molecule thought to have formed in the universe. But strangely, scientists have yet to see it in the wild.

That molecule is the helium hydride ion.

Roughly 300,000 years after the Big Bang, the first atoms formed. Back then, there was only hydrogen, helium, and lithium. In this time of chemical simplicity, when the average temperature of the universe was a scorching 4000 degrees Kelvin, helium bonded with an ion of hydrogen. It was the first time two different elements joined together: the original cosmic love story.

13.7 billion years later, chemists here on Earth created the helium hydride ion (HeH+) in the laboratory, concocting an extraordinary molecule that defies the odds. Helium is the most unreactive substance in existence. With two electrons completely filling its innermost energy layer, the element has no desire to seek out electrons from, or share its own, with other elements. Yet, with some prodding, helium renounces its selfish ways to form the stable helium hydride ion. The molecule contains just two electrons: one is solely for helium and the other is shared between helium and the single hydrogen proton. The arrangement renders the helium hydride ion extremely prone to react. In fact, the molecule is the strongest known acid in existence.

Reactivity may be one reason the helium hydride ion has evaded detection by astronomers and astrophysicists. In the lab, it exists only in isolation, as it will protonate any molecule it contacts. Another reason is that the helium hydride ion seems very prone to photodissociation, whereby a photon of light smacks the molecule and grants it enough energy to break the link between the conjoined atoms -- in this case, helium and hydrogen. The helium hydride ion is also notoriously difficult to spot with a spectroscope.

"One of its prominent lines, the ‘fingerprints’ used to identify chemical elements optically, overlaps with lines in the spectrum of the CH methylidene radical," Chemistry World's Brian Clegg explained.

All of these difficulties have repeatedly thwarted astronomers' efforts to detect the helium hydride ion. To date, there have been several attempts, non conclusive. Astronomers will keep trying, however. Finding the elusive helium hydride ion, likely within a nebula or a white dwarf star, would inform long-held models of primordial star formation. It's thought that the molecule acts as a molecular coolant of sorts.

Models predict that the universe is flooded with helium hydride ions. But models can be wrong, a fact that atomic physicist Jérôme Loreau readily admits.

"The abundance of HeH+ mystery remains very much unsolved and it is hoped that our calculations, as well as observations from infrared telescopes such as the Herschel Space Telescope and the Spitzer Space Telescope, can shed some new light on the issue. Indeed, observations... could invalidate current models of the appearance of the first molecules, with consequences on our theories of the formation of stars and galaxies in the early universe."

(Image: NASA)

Is Breathing Oxygen a Terrible Idea?

Okay, Evolution. I have a bone to pick with you.

Oxygen... why?

Of all the elements on the periodic table, we breathe and persist on one that's inherently corrosive and readily promotes combustion*. Toxicologists writing in the journal Trends in Pharmacological Sciences even labeled it as "one of the most toxic compounds known."

In fact, as a result of its intrinsic chemical reactivity, oxygen rips electrons from bodily sources, mucking with cellular processes and even causing mutations in DNA, which can give rise to cancer.

There's plenty of nitrogen in the atmosphere... why can't we breathe that?

I mean, really, Evolution... Are you drunk?

As it turns out, the qualities that make oxygen look terrible on paper are the same qualities that grant it's life-fueling powers.

For example, it's precisely because oxygen is so reactive that complex life has evolved to use it. Oxygen loves gobbling up electrons. It hungrily accepts them from all sorts of other elements and compounds. Selfishness like this is exactly what's needed to make cellular respiration work.

The table above shows electronegativity, which is basically a proxy for how much an element loves electrons. See oxygen at the far right?

But as stated earlier, chemical reactivity is a double-edged sword. In its hunt for electrons, oxygen occasionally inflicts some collateral damage. Scientists call it oxidative stress. In response, the body maintains an arsenal of antioxidants, which donate their electrons to sate oxygen's cravings.

There are other chemicals nearly as electron-hungry as oxygen, like fluorine, chlorine, and nitrogen. Theoretically, these elements could also be used to power some alien form of respiration. Life based on such processes would be radically different, however. Nitrogen isn't as reactive as oxygen on account of its reinforced triple bond, but let's pretend that - somewhere in the vast universe -- there are life forms that breathe it. They might very well reside on a world with high atmospheric pressures and oceans of ammonia, instead of water.

Chlorine might be a better candidate than nitrogen. Life that breathes chlorine might live on a world tinted green and filled with hydrogen chloride. There wouldn't be an ozone layer, so the organisms would need to be resistant to radiation.

Compared to such faraway, exotic worlds, Earth may seem mundane. But it is undeniably pleasant. Breathing oxygen on a blue-green world isn't so bad.

Evolution, I owe you an apology. I'm sorry for calling you drunk.

(Images: AP, Ittiz)

*Correction 1/29: This article originally referred to oxygen as "highly flammable." It is not itself flammable, however it does make combustable substances much more prone to combust.