Build that underground shelter and batten down the hatches!

When we say “The sky is falling!” this is what we mean:

People heading to work in Chelyabinsk heard what sounded like an explosion, saw a bright light and then felt a shockwave according to a Reuters correspondent in the industrial city 1,500 km (950 miles) east of Moscow.

A fireball blazed across the horizon, leaving a long white trail in its wake which could be seen as far as 200 km (125 miles) away in Yekaterinburg. Car alarms went off, windows shattered and mobile phone networks were interrupted.

“I was driving to work, it was quite dark, but it suddenly became as bright as if it was day,” said Viktor Prokofiev, 36, a resident of Yekaterinburg in the Urals Mountains.

“I felt like I was blinded by headlights,” he said.

No fatalities were reported but President Vladimir Putin, who was due to host Finance Ministry officials from the Group of 20 nations in Moscow, and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev were informed.

A local ministry official said such incidents were extremely rare and Friday’s events might have been linked to an asteroid the size of an Olympic swimming pool due to pass Earth at a distance of 27,520 km (17,100 miles) but this was not confirmed.

Phil Plait fills us in:

[UPDATE: When I wrote the headline for this article, I thought there was evidence the meteor had broken up in a single event while still high up in the atmosphere, so I used the word “explode”. I don’t want to mislead people; there may not have been any explosion at all. To be clear, the “explosion” heard in so many videos below is almost certainly from the shock wave of the meteoroid, and not from it exploding or hitting the ground.]

Apparently, at about 09:30 local time, a very big meteor burned up over Chelyabinsk, a city in Russia just east of the Ural mountains, and about 1500 kilometers east of Moscow. The fireball was incredibly bright, rivaling the Sun! There was a pretty big sonic boom from the fireball, which set off car alarms and shattered windows. I’m seeing some reports of many people injured (by shattered glass blown out by the shock wave). I’m also seeing reports that some pieces have fallen to the ground, but again as I write this those are unconfirmed.

Note: This is almost certainly unrelated to the asteroid 2012 DA14 that will pass on Friday. See below for details.

Do I have any readers in or near Chelyabinsk? I’m very glad to hear no one has died. Let’s hope it stays that way.

This is the sort of event that reminds us that we’re not the center of the universe. It’s completely out of our control, theoretically possible to predict but this one took us by surprise, and it could strike anywhere. The next meteor could just as easily land in the middle of the ocean, or it could hit my neighborhood. And if it did, most of the damage would probably be done before we had time to flee to the basements.

NASA expects another meteor to pass very close by Earth some time today, moving south to north. Chelyabinsk might not be alone in the news.

Don’t Make Me Uncomfortable: High School Chemistry Edition

Valerie Strauss at The Washington Post Blogs has run this very…special…op-ed from someone named David Bernstein who is pissed as heck that his son has been told he needs to learn chemistry, and he’s not going to take it anymore.

I was recently informed by a school official at my son’s high school that the state of Maryland mandates that every student take chemistry in order to graduate. [It turns out that it is not, in fact, mandated by the state but that is what I was told anyway.]

With us so far? Someone told his son he had to take Chemistry, so Mr. Bernstein went and Googled for info about curriculum standardization, but didn’t Google far enough to find out that actually, Maryland schools’ science requirements do NOT mandate Chemistry instruction.

With the mistaken assumption fraying at his nerves, Mr. Bernstein’s case against mandatory Chemistry instruction includes such gems as this:

Now I don’t begrudge chemistry, which has brought forth many of the great inventions of our time, from the pain killer I took an hour ago to the diet soda I’m sipping on now (I’m actually sipping on Scotch. In fact, my very own mother, who if I am lucky will never lay eyes on this article, is a chemist, and believes that chemistry is the most noble of human pursuits and doesn’t understand how I, a former philosophy major, was able to eke out a living.

and this:

But my son is not going to be a scientist. The very thought of it makes me laugh. Your son should take five classes in chemistry so he can be a scientist and make America more competitive.


But my son is not being exposed to chemistry, he’s spending a year of his life studying chemistry every day, which translates into a year of misery for him and our entire family, and paying for tutors who just get him through the course. It doesn’t take a chemist to know that my son is not going to be a chemist. He’s 15, not 7. It’s really that obvious. You took chemistry (I’m not talking to you scientist). What do you remember from that year? Nada, I bet. Next time a school official preens about the importance of chemistry, I’m going to ask him or her how many elements there are in the periodic table. Hint: you can find the answer on Google.

Just off the top of my head, I notice that David Bernstein does not show very high expectations for his son. I remember what it was like to be a teenager, and if I’d found an op-ed in the WaPo with either of my parents talking about, for example, my struggles with Pre-Calculus this way, I would’ve been pissed off. I was a much nicer person at 15 than I am at 32, but seeing my mom talk about how her daughter was never going to be a mathematician would have raised my hackles.

Furthermore, I am not a chemist or a scientist in any way, but I do remember some things that I learned in Chemistry that don’t come through so easily in Google. I remember how to dilute an acid or base with water (hint: you measure out the water first!). I remember balancing equations. I remember performing titration. I also remember that my Chemistry teacher was an asshole who clearly held teenagers in disdain and was not fond of teaching, but amazingly enough, I still learned stuff from him because he didn’t treat me like I was never going to be good at science so there was no reason to bother.

An experimental physicist recently told me that at this phase in chemistry instruction “it’s all about memorization anyway.” There will be no other phases in chemistry instruction for my son. He will forget everything he “learned” a week after the class is over. I can’t remember a thing, and I was a pretty good chemistry student.

Dude, do you ENJOY talking about how your teenage son is so intellectually limited?

This one here is possibly a useful point, but the unexamined class privilege on display is really quite amazing:

Now you’re getting desperate. You’re really going to make my son spend a whole year in a subject he will never use so that he can prepare to suffer at a boring job some day? I don’t know what you do for a living but I love what I do and rarely engage in work I don’t enjoy. If we’re going to pressure him, let’s do it in subjects where he can grow and put to use some day.

*nervous titter* Mr. Bernstein, as a member of a younger generation, I can assure you: unless you have the power to pull tremendous strings for your son, he will NOT have such a good time of it in the job market. Just because YOU got a Philosophy degree and still managed to make a living—at something you enjoy, no less!—doesn’t mean your kids will be so lucky. In fact, I can basically guarantee that your kids will be significantly less fortunate than you are. Not because they’re less intelligent, industrious or adaptable than you are, but because the American job market is in such a state relative to the educational attainment of the new generation that young people have to fight to the death just to get a spot at “entry level.” It was bad enough for my age group, and for the people who are just finishing college now, it is considerably worse. Your sons WILL have to accept work that they don’t enjoy, and they will have to do it well and with a good attitude, or they will not be able to make a living. Between now and the time he starts applying for jobs, your chemistry-hating older son will need to learn the life skills to follow instructions, act as part of a team and get the job done. He isn’t going to learn that if he takes nothing but electives.

Here’s what I think happened: David Bernstein didn’t enjoy learning Chemistry as a teenager, while his mother the chemist pressured him to do better and was disappointed that her son showed so little interest in the natural sciences. David is bitter because his mother wasn’t proud of him, and he wants to spare his son the agony of being told the world does not revolve around his interests. Now his son is struggling at Chemistry, and rather than tell him he’s smart enough, and that his hard work will be worth it in the long run, David Bernstein tells his older son that he will never be a scientist. Chemistry and other demanding, highly technical subjects are for other people’s kids to learn.

And now I will tell you something about body image and sex issues.

Remember a very long time ago, when I wrote about Vajazzling and was clearly not impressed?

I still think the culture of everyone-must-wax-their-pubes-to-oblivion-or-else-they’re-troglodytes is a load of horseshit, and Dr. Emily Gibson gives me another reason why:

It’s not healthy.

Long ago surgeons figured out that shaving a body part prior to surgery actually increased rather than decreased surgical site infections.

Pubic hair removal naturally irritates and inflames the hair follicles left behind, leaving microscopic open wounds. […] There is an increase in staph boils and abscesses, necessitating incisions to drain the infection, resulting in scarring that can be significant.   It is not at all unusual to find pustules and other hair follicle inflammation papules on shaved genitals.

And here I thought it was just MY delicate, petal-soft skin that didn’t appreciate having its coarse hairs ripped out or shaved off.

In addition to staph infections, Dr. Gibson says de-hairified nether regions are also more vulnerable, for obvious reasons, to STIs.

It’s not the esthetics of pube removal that bug me; it’s the culture of hostility to those who don’t subject themselves to thousands of little open wounds. There is no explanation necessary for letting the hair-down-there grow as it will. Sexual health is better with hair follicles left alone.


There’s poor memory, and then there’s the failure to give a damn.

I’ve long had a sneaking feeling that all the excuses of “Oh, I’m so sorry, I’m just terrible with names!” and so forth were just a rough translation of “You’re not important enough to remember!” and Professor Harris confirms.

You may think it’s just how you were born, but that’s not the case, according to Kansas State University’s Richard Harris, professor of psychology. He says it’s not necessarily your brain’s ability that determines how well you can remember names, but rather your level of interest.

“Some people, perhaps those who are more socially aware, are just more interested in people, more interested in relationships,” Harris said. “They would be more motivated to remember somebody’s name.”

Well, okay, maybe it’s not quite a matter of “you’re not important enough to remember” and more of, “I don’t care enough to remember names in general.” But still. If you meet someone that you know will be important to you, then barring any neurological issues that impair memory formation, you will remember that person’s name.

I used to have a co-worker who kept screwing up my name, calling me something like, “Alice,” but with a bit of extra hesitation at the end, and when I corrected him for what was at least the 3rd time (I will answer to certain permutations of Alyson, but “Alice” is not among them), he fell back on the excuse that his English wasn’t very good. I wasn’t convinced at the time, and now I know it’s nonsense. Since then I’ve lived in a different country and spoken their language, though not as comfortably as my former co-worker speaks English, so I have no time for that language-barrier defense. You live in America and speak English for years, you should not have a problem with a clearly Anglo name. If you don’t remember, it’s probably because you don’t listen.

However, I notice when people mangle other names, not just my own. There are, for a different example, my co-workers whose non-Anglo names are regularly brutalized by other, native Anglophone co-workers, and they (the ones whose names get screwed up) never speak up about it. Drives me nuts to hear one guy’s Ethiopian name get turned into another guy’s not-terribly-similar Indian name, and confuses me even more when the Ethiopian dude doesn’t say anything. I guess it’s a privilege thing; there are certain battles I don’t have to choose.

Breaking news: guys would also like to control their fertility.

Irin Carmon tells us of the Internet activity of men who advocate for male birth control such as Vasalgel. Short version: there are plenty of guys who would like to have options in the middle ground between condoms and vasectomy. On their side is Elaine Lissner, who…

runs the site Male Contraception Information Project (MCIP) and started a foundation, Parsemus, to support the work that foundations and pharmaceutical companies are reluctant to do out of a disbelief that there is a market, either in the developing world or domestically.

And I’m sure glad she’s doing the work to fill in the gaps, because this, folks? It is ridiculous that we are only now at this stage:

The potential method that’s probably furthest along is also the most high-profile, the aforementioned Vasalgel, subject of a Wired feature last year. (It, too, took note of the ferocious enthusiasm of male contraceptive aspirants, including the Florida man who memorably wrote a researcher, “I’d gladly put my balls on the chopping block for the benefit of mankind.”) It’s described as “a polymer gel that goes in the vas deferens and kills sperm for more than 10 years.” Lissner’s foundation just began rabbit trials this week and hopes to start on humans next year.

Oh, for Pete’s sake.

Really, America? Rabbit trials just this week?

The procedure has already been tested on humans, and had excellent results, in India. I get that there is red tape to be navigated, and standards are not always consistent across the world, but, rabbit trials only now? I’m pretty sure that American men ejaculate the same way as Indians. Just sayin’.


Smart kids grow into drunken adults.

Yay! I am validated!

According to two long-term studies — one American, one British —  there’s a correlation between smarts and a thirst for alcohol. The “more intelligent children in both studies grew up to drink alcohol more frequently and in greater quantities than less intelligent children,” says Liz Day at Discover. Why might this be the case?

One of their theories is:

Alcohol makes up for boring early years: “I’m surprised” by the findings, says Joanne Hinkel at The Frisky, so “here’s my pop-psychology theory” to explain it: “All that studying in childhood repressed kids so much that they’re still trying to compensate well into adulthood for all that fun they missed.” Granted, that’s just a theory.

Could the cumulative stress of an entire childhood spent dealing with mindless bullying have something to do with frequent binge-drinking in adulthood? Vodka is cheaper than therapy. I’m just sayin’.


Planetary Resources is making cool stuff happen.

Via BlagHag, Phil Plait shares the news with us about the upcoming endeavors of space startup Planetary Resources, which has every intention of mining outer space for natural resources. Are we about to live in a science fiction novel? Oh yes. It appears we are, and it will be fierce.

THE PLAYERS INCLUDE but are not limited to James Cameron (yes, that one), Peter Diamandis of the X-Prize Foundation, and Eric Anderson, Chairman of the Board of the Spaceflight Federation. Basically, it sounds like these guys are serious about what they’re doing.


In roughly sequential order, their grand plans are:

First, they’re not going to try to jump straight to digging minerals and precious metals out of asteroids, but rather…

Instead, they’ll make a series of calculated smaller missions that will grow in size and scope. The first is to make a series of small space telescopes to observe and characterize asteroids. Lewicki said the first of these is the Arkyd 101, a 22 cm (9″) telescope in low-Earth orbit that will be aboard a tiny spacecraft just 40 x 40 cm (16″) in size. It can hitch a ride with other satellites being placed in orbit, sharing launch costs and saving money (an idea that will come up again and again in their plans). This telescope will be used both to look for and observe known Near-Earth asteroids, and can also be pointed down to Earth for remote sensing operations.


After that, once they’re flight-tested, more of these small spacecraft can be launched equipped with rocket motors. If they hitch a ride with a satellite destined for a 40,000 km (24,000 mile) geosynchronous orbit, the motor can be used to take the telescope — now a space probe — out of Earth orbit and set on course for a pre-determined asteroid destination. Technical bit: orbital velocity at geosync is about 3 km/sec, so only about an additional 1 km/sec is needed to send a probe away from Earth, easily within the capability of a small motor attached to a light-weight probe.

Many asteroids pass close to the Earth with a low enough velocity that one of these probes could reach them. Heck, some are easier to reach in that sense than the Moon! Any asteroid-directed probe can be equipped with sensors to make detailed observations, including composition. It could even be designed to land on the asteroid and return samples back to Earth, or leave when the observations are complete and head off to observe more asteroids up close and personal.

This stage does not sound very profitable, but this is what sets this group apart from a sci-fi villain of cartoon capitalism: they’re looking at the long game. The first stage is about figuring out what they’re dealing with, so that when they move on to more ambitious, more expensive, more invasive operations, they’ll know what they’re doing.

Next step is to make space exploration sustainable:

Once a suitable asteroid is found, the idea is not to mine it right away for precious metals to return to Earth, Lewicki told me, but instead to tap it for volatiles — materials with low boiling points such as water, oxygen, nitrogen, and so on, which also happen to be critical supplies for use in space.

The idea behind this is to gather these materials up and create in situ space supply depots. Water is very heavy and incompressible, so it’s very difficult to launch from Earth into space (Lewicki quoted a current price of roughly $20,000 per liter to get water into space). But water should be abundant on some asteroids, locked up in minerals or even as ice, and in theory it shouldn’t be difficult to collect it and create a depot. Future astronauts can then use these supplies to enable longer stays in space — the depots could be put in Earthbound trajectories for astronauts, or could be placed in strategic orbits for future crewed missions to asteroids. Lewicki didn’t say specifically, but these supplies could be sold to NASA — Planetary Resources would make quite a bit money while saving NASA quite a bit. Win-win.

$20k/liter to get water from Earth into space? Yikes.

I quite like the idea of using asteroids for space supplies, because we’re running kind of low on nice things like water and oxygen here on Earth. If we can dig up more of those things from places that aren’t trying to sustain life, then that both helps space exploration pay for itself, thus making it more viable, and makes the effort less ecologically expensive for the planet that’s arranging space travel. As a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, the concept of “sustainability” is very important to me, and this is an example of something very big and expensive practicing sustainability.

Third stage is effectively making our planet bigger:

The last step is to actually get the precious minerals from the asteroids and bring them to Earth. The exact setup for this isn’t clear at this time — again, the press conference should reveal that — but for the moment it may not really need to be. There are several options.

I’m sure that in the ensuing years of sending small spacecraft around to piggyback on satellites, they will figure out efficient ways of getting minerals down here.

I, for one, look forward to the era when I can buy electronics made from raw materials that weren’t mined from conflict-ridden sections of Africa.

Finally, what is their motivation, if this is going to cost so much up front and take so long to turn a profit?

The vision of Planetary Resources is in their name: they want to make sure there are available resources in place to ensure a permanent future in space. And it’s not just physical resources with which they’re concerned. Their missions will support not just mining asteroids for volatiles and metals, but also to extend our understanding of asteroids and hopefully increase our ability to deflect one should it be headed our way.

This again was a topic I discussed with Lewicki specifically. He agreed with my proposition that all three topics — science, deflection, and resource use — are tied together. After all, we need to understand asteroids scientifically if we want to use them or prevent them from hitting us. We can use them for depots to establish better exploration of them, and sometime in the future we may need to deflect one to prevent all this from being a moot point anyway.

 To put it in fictional terms again: they want to give us a chance to live in a hopeful, triumphant sort of sci-fi novel, and minimize the risk of having to face the sci-fi apocalypse.

Look, just don’t be a pregnant or nursing mother in South Carolina, okay?

Emily Horowitz tells us about a case that’s sure to make hundreds of thousands of women make appointments to have their tubes tied. Despite a total lack of scientific evidence, prosecutors in South Carolina are charging Stephanie Greene with the murder of her fourth child, 5-week-old daughter Alexis, because Stephanie was nursing Alexis while taking prescription painkillers.

Stephanie lives in Campobello, South Carolina. Prosecutors allege that Stephanie took so much prescription medication that her daughter Alexis died of a morphine overdose ingested via breast milk. The coroner’s report shows the cause of death as drug overdose, because the infant had an elevated blood level of morphine. The case is complicated, because there is no question that Stephanie takes a significant amount of prescription medication for physical ailments (i.e. fibromyalgia, chronic pain, high blood pressure) resulting from a car accident, including MS Contin (a drug that metabolizes as morphine).

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