Pandora Opens Today at DisneyWorld

The world of Pandora from James Cameron’s visually-stunning film from 2009, “Avatar”, opens to the public today at Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom.

The staff of Frank’s Geekery were treated to a sneak preview of this new themed land last week, and it blew our socks off. While it’s a small area, they’ve packed in the best dark ride in all of Disney, the best flight simulation ride, and the most detailed theming they’ve ever done. You will really feel as though you’re on an alien moon, where even the laws of physics are different – they’ve replicated the floating mountains seen in the film, and they look real. It’s just a stunningly beautiful place.

It’s also a place where you can geek out hard – in addition to sparking the imagination on what human colonization of a habitable alien moon might look like, there’s a detailed replica of Sigourney Weaver’s science lab in the queue for “Flight of Passage” that features some magical little science experiments you can talk about.

I expect Pandora is also going to be a very crowded place for a very long time, as the public floods in for the first time today. If you’re planning a family vacation to Orlando in the next few months, get your FastPass reservations now.

I created a vlog on our walkthrough below – take a good look at those empty lines, because you’ll never see them again!

The World’s Most Sensitive Dark Matter Detector is On-Line

The XENON1T detector is now on-line in Italy, looking for particles that may be the mysterious “dark matter” that seems to make up most of the universe’s matter. 3.5 metric tons of liquid Xenon cooled to -95°C detect interactions between particles passing through the tank of ultra-pure water surrounding the Xenon detector, making this the largest, most sensitive dark matter experiment to date.

Although its first 30 days of operation have not yielded any big discoveries, this isn’t unexpected. The particles it’s looking for are called WIMP’s – Weakly Interacting Massive Particles. By definition they are difficult to detect – they are “weakly interacting” and detectable only through gravity and the weak force.

WIMP’s are the most widely accepted hypothesis as to the nature of dark matter, but it’s just that – a hypothesis. We know that our standard model of cosmology, based on our observations of the universe, would require that only 4.9% of it is made of the ordinary matter that humans and the detectors we’ve built can easily see. 26.8% is “dark matter” that has a measurable gravitational influence on ordinary matter but can’t be seen, while 68.3% of the universe is the even stranger “dark energy.”

“Dark matter” is a bit of a misnomer – we don’t know for sure it’s matter at all. “Dark gravity” is a better term, since we only postulate its existence through its gravitational effects.

XENON1T is an example of what humanity can do when nations come together in the pursuit of scientific knowledge. Big experiments are expensive, but their results benefit the world’s knowledge. XENON1T is produced by a consortium of scientists from the US, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Portugal, France, the Netherlands, Israel, Sweden and the United Arab Emirates.

Solving the mystery of the nature of dark matter would be a huge step forward in our understanding of the universe we live in. Should XENON1T find the WIMP’s it’s looking for, the universe will make a lot more sense. And if it doesn’t, it may be a sign that we need to explore even more imaginative hypotheses. The human brain and its senses have only evolved to facilitate our survival on Earth, and there is some audacity in attempting to understand the nature of the universe on scales that are much larger or much smaller than the environment we’re made to operate within. The fact we can do this at all, and build things like XENON1T in response, is part of the wonder of science to me.

Is Chocolate Really Good for your Heart? Well, Maybe.

The British Medical Journal published a new study that claims eating chocolate can reduce your risk for irregular heart rhythms. You can expect to see a bunch of hype on the Internet today about how chocolate is good for you! So, is it time to have chocolate bars for dinner? Hold on a minute.

The quality of science in the medical field is a bit of a pet peeve of mine. It’s not entirely the fault of the scientists; I mean, a real controlled experiment that involves life or death can be tricky to say the least.  But there are real problems:

  • Lying with statistics – experiments often suffer from small sample sizes, or are not controlled. If it’s not a double-blind study, or it’s not a study with a large number of participants, the results must be taken with a grain of salt. All too often, the media reports on studies published from journals that don’t have high standards for experimental design.
  • Funding bias / conflict of interests – all too often, a sensational scientific claim turns out to be funded by an organization that stands to benefit from it. A recent study about how cheese isn’t bad for you made the rounds on the Internet, but it was funded by the Global Dairy Platform and the Dairy Research Institute.
  • The reproducibility crisis or replication crisis – over half of published studies cannot be replicated, and in some fields it’s much higher.
  • Publication bias – researchers publish because they want tenure, and have a bias to only publish successful experiments as a result. We never hear about negative results.

These are huge issues that threaten the credibility of science as a whole. So what’s a person to do when faced with a claim like “chocolate’s good for your heart?”

Well, it’s on us to apply critical thinking and dig into the details. Let’s ask a few questions about this study:

Are they lying with statistics? This paper claims a 10% risk reduction in people who eat chocolate. 10% isn’t that big of a number, so I’d expect to see a large sample size (how many people were studied) before taking that seriously. Turns out this study had 55,000 participants, so a 10% difference does seem significant. You don’t need a degree in statistics to understand this – even if you rigorously measure statistical confidence, in the end it’s still a judgment call – statistics can only say how likely a measured effect is to be real; it never says it’s real conclusively.

Is there a conflict of interests? In this case, no. This study wasn’t funded by anyone who stands to benefit from increased sales of chocolate. This test also checks out on this study.

Has it been reproduced? No, but that’s not unusual for new research. However, if you really plan on increasing your chocolate consumption as a result of this study, it would be prudent to wait a few months and see if anyone has attempted to reproduce these findings (or proven unable to do so.) If I were a betting man, I’d say it won’t happen. Thanks to publication bias, it may take quite a bit of digging to find these results on your own.

Was it a controlled experiment? No, and the authors of the paper freely admit this. It was not a “double-blind” study; it merely looked for correlations between people who ate chocolate and those who didn’t with irregular heart rhythms. Correlation does not imply causality – there may have been some other underlying difference between these two groups that occurred randomly. Or perhaps there is some connection between eating chocolate and the real cause of the difference – perhaps chocolate-eaters are more likely to be physically active, in an effort to burn off that extra fat. This is the main issue with this particular study, and why you should take it with a huge grain of salt. Salted chocolate, as it were.

In the end, I wouldn’t call this particular study “bad science,” but its results should be taken with a good helping of skepticism – and the study’s authors admit as much, which good scientists should do. It’s not a controlled experiment, the results aren’t overly dramatic, and it hasn’t been reproduced yet.

Still, a chocolate bar sounds pretty good right now.

How do Flamingos Sleep Standing on One Leg?

…especially the ones that aren’t on a lawn and made of plastic? Here at Frank’s Geekery headquarters in Florida, this is a burning question.

A couple of researchers in Atlanta wondered the same thing and published their findings in The Royal Society’s Biology Letters.

To answer this question, they obtained “two fresh-frozen adult Caribbean flamingo cadavers” from a zoo in Birmingham, Alabama, thawed them out, and started messing around with them.

It turns out they were able to lock one leg of a Flamingo and just prop it up. Their knee joint has developed such that it can lock in place, and apply the force of the bird’s weight directly above it. Standing on one leg requires zero energy from a Flamingo and works even if you’re getting blown around a bit by the wind. Even a dead Flamingo can do it. The results were carefully measured and documented, in the name of science.

In contrast, standing on two legs actually requires more energy, as things aren’t as well balanced in that configuration.

So now you know.

 

Google’s AlphaGo Beats the Best Player in the World

Last year, Google’s artificial intelligence program AlphaGo beat a Korean Go Master, and it was big news. Today the news is even bigger – AlphaGo beat the best human Go player in the world,  19-year-old Ke Jie of China.

This is a big deal because unlike Chess, you can’t simply brute-force all possible moves your Go opponent might make, and find the optimal move to counter whatever she may be doing. That’s why Chess programs have been kicking my butt since I was 12, but computers playing Go is a recent thing.

Instead, AlphaGo’s deep learning algorithms trains itself by playing games against itself, and learning as it goes which sorts of patterns result in advantages. Just like with humans, practice makes perfect – and it can practice 24/7. Its play is now described as very human-like, which perhaps shouldn’t be surprising because finding patterns given training data is pretty much all that our brain does. The difference is a computer never forgets a pattern it’s learned – well, unless you pull its plug!

Does this mean artificial intelligence is that much closer to taking over the world and enslaving its human creators? Well, yes and no. AI is still limited to learning how to get really good at very narrow problems – like keeping a car within its lane, figuring out what temperature you’d like your house to be at, or playing Go. Think of them as idiot savants, except they’re even less than idiots – they know nothing other than the data you’ve trained them with, and only within the context of the objective you’ve given them. But like all technology, it can be dangerous in the wrong hands – a human who trains an AI with some nefarious cyber-warfare goal could do a number on humanity, even today.

Can Bitcoin Save the Planet?

Nature magazine published a piece by Swedish ecology professor Guillaume Chapron, detailing how the technology that makes Bitcoin transactions secure can be applied to solve ecological problems.

It’s a big idea, and it’s already being used to track sustainably-caught fish in Indonesia together with small sensors. Bitcoin has solved a huge challenge in finance: you must assume everyone involved in a transaction is out to defraud you. Bitcoin’s “blockchain” system is a distributed way to track financial transactions in a trackable, trustworthy, and secure manner.

Financial transactions aren’t the only ones subject to fraud, however. You can’t even know what species of fish you’re really buying, let alone trust its “sustainable” moniker. Blockchain can help authenticate the origins and movements of fish, or anything else, along the supply chain.

Science magazine published an interview with Mr. Chapron, where he explains:

To take an example, if you buy a fish at the supermarket, the supply chain is very long. The supermarket might not even know where it came from. And so there are multiple opportunities for environmentally unsustainable goods to enter the supply chain. A blockchain-based supply chain would mean that when you buy a fish, you scan a QR code [like a bar code] with your smartphone, and you see every step. And you know that it cannot be falsified.

Other social applications of Blockchain proposed include:

  • Digital authentication of land titles, to prevent corrupt governments from reclaiming land from native people
  • Secure, direct payment of incentives to communities for meeting conservation targets
  • Secure, tamper-proof voting

It’s always great when technologies have unintended, positive consequences. Bitcoin’s Blockchain may be the next big example.

What’s really going on with “Bill Nye Saves the World?”

Bill Nye

I just finished watching all 13 episodes of Bill Nye Saves the World – in fact, I subscribed to Netflix just so I could watch it. I’ve long admired Bill Nye’s dedication to furthering science literacy. I mean, the guy’s 60 years old, and he’s everywhere – promoting The Planetary Society as its CEO, co-hosting StarTalk and StarTalk All-Stars, writing tons of books, and now he’s even got his own Netflix series. This guy is one of the great science evangelizers of our generation. He even took the time to talk to my daughters at a dinner following the launch of LightSail at Cape Canaveral, where he showed them how to take a proper selfie.

Now, you may have heard that “Bill Nye Saves the World” has created quite a bit of controversy and negative backlash. Especially on places like Reddit, where he’s being criticized for giving one-sided treatments to various issues. The data seems, at first blush, to back up this negative reaction – his rating on IMDb is just 3.3 out of 10.

Well, I used to be in charge of IMDb’s technology, so I can’t just let that go without digging deeper.

Having watched the entire series, I think it’s actually really good. Yes, there are a few spots where the editing could have been a little better – and a segment or two are indeed cringe-worthy. But I’m pretty sure that was the intended reaction – he wants to get people talking about this stuff.

Let’s break down that 3.3 rating on IMDb:

Hmm. You can see from the rating distribution a flood of one-star ratings is what’s driving his overall score.  Take those away, and most people actually loved it. It’s almost as if there’s, you know, some targeted campaign against this show or something.

Let’s drill down a bit deeper:

Well, that’s interesting. The vast majority of the votes are coming from men, who are rating it significantly lower than women. Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise, given some strong statements Mr. Nye made in the show about things like educating women and encouraging their participation in the workforce, gender existing along a spectrum, and even that birth control for men needs more work. If you’re a misogynistic Internet troll, those are things that might raise your hackles.

Let’s compare the ratings breakdown between men and women:

This shows that 93% of the one-star ratings are coming from men.

So, the data suggests that Bill Nye Saves the World has simply become a target of some of the more extreme “alt-right” crowd, especially the men. In a way, perhaps it’s a good thing – it’s attracting more attention to his show, and getting people to talk about the issues it tackles.

However, I don’t really see this as a positive outcome. If you’re out to persuade people to make decisions based on data and science instead of political ideology, it’s not effective to just tell them that they’re wrong. That just makes people double down on their existing beliefs. I don’t think Bill Nye has really changed many minds with this show; he’s just made a lot of people even more entrenched within their echo chambers – although I’ll give those people credit for watching the show in the first place. That alone is evidence of some openness of the mind.

What you should do instead – and I’ve heard Bill Nye say this himself – is acknowledge the opposing viewpoint and demonstrate that you understand it. Then, engage in a dialog where you suss out why the other person believes the Earth is flat or whatever, and just get them talking about it without being judgmental or condescending. If you can reach a different conclusion together, then that’s how you can change a person’s mind. Or who knows, maybe yours is the mind that will be changed, after discussing the relevant evidence and facts! (Although, you’re not about to convince me that the Earth is flat.)

This show is, however, successful in energizing people like me who want to live in a world where facts are a thing, and where important social decisions are based on them.

Hang on while I go give Bill Nye a ten star rating.

 

 

 

Remember that weird star they said might have a Dyson Sphere? It’s at it again.

“Tabby’s Star”, more formally KIC 8462852, made the news in 2015 due its very bizarre pattern of dimming.  Its dimming wasn’t consistent with any known natural phenomenon, like clouds of gas or large planets passing in front of it, or sunspots. There was some rather sensational speculation that the star could be surrounded by some alien megastructure like a Dyson Sphere intended to capture the star’s energy for some advanced civilization.

Well, it’s at it again, and astronomers are excited. Major telescopes around the world are turning to it in the hopes of gathering more data on what’s really going on with the “WTF star”.

The professional astronomers I’ve seen talk about this star are pretty confident it’s just some natural occurrence that we haven’t seen before. The press makes it sound as though all natural explanations for this star’s behavior have been ruled out, but that’s really not the case. The whole Dyson Sphere thing is a fun possibility, but extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Just because we don’t understand something isn’t proof of aliens – it’s just proof that we don’t understand something.

But, here’s the great thing about science – if studying this star gives us new insights into how the universe works, that could be just as exciting! Perhaps this star has something to tell us about dark matter, or some exotic proto-planetary disk, or a massive collision of its planets that enshrouded the star with rocky debris. Whatever the cause of its dimming, it’s sure to be as worthy of a science fiction story as the aliens we can imagine to be out there.

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