Sunday SciKu | The Geminids

Photo by ESA

This Sunday’s SciKu doesn’t need much explaining but serves as a reminder that tonight is the peak of probably the best annual meteor shower of the year: the Geminids. Unlike most meteor showers, the Geminids are created by the debris field of an asteroid rather than a comet.

Orbiting the sun once every 1.4 years, the 3.6-mile-wide 3200 Phaethan asteroid dips halfway between the Sun and Mercury before it’s flung back out toward Mars, heating the surface to 1,500° F and gradually breaking it apart via thermal expansion. The trail of dust, which the Earth is flying through tonight, is full of all sorts of rocky elements as a result, creating over 100 shooting stars per hour in a range of colors. Last night I saw 9 or 10 on my midnight walk with the dog, but that was just a preview.

The moon is almost completely dark tonight, so go out and take a look toward Gemini (just behind Orion’s back shoulder in the sky). But be sure to bundle up if it’s as cold as it is here!


the stars fall
through my winter


Sunday SciKu | Polarity All the Way Down

Photo by Jong Marshes via Unsplash

Life as we know it couldn’t exist without the strange properties of water, which are due to its exceptional polarity. A water molecule is a big negative oxygen atom on one end with two positive hydrogen atoms on the other, making it an extreme dipole. It’s not the most extreme (that would be all-cis hexafluorocyclohexane), but nothing comes close in abundance. That arrow-like shape allows it to cut like a knife through anything else that’s even slightly polarized, making it the universal solvent of biochemistry. Water isn’t just that life happened to emerge from the sea—it couldn’t have appeared in anything but a sea of water forcing all of the necessary chemicals together. It’s not just the universal solvent, but also the universal catalyst. As life on land, we’re really just bags of water that brought the sea with us.

The polarity of water also provides its bizarre physical properties—the melting and boiling points of water are abnormally high, allowing it to be liquid on Earth. Solids are less dense than liquids, so ice floats. It’s surface tension is much higher than other liquids. There are around 70 physical properties like this that make water a physical anomaly. Even more interestingly, the molecular polarity alone isn’t enough to explain it all.

That’s where this week’s sciku story comes in. One of the hypotheses has been that water actually has two liquid states—a traditional one, and another that’s more like a liquid crystal. Even though the traditional liquid state dominates at room temperature, there’s always a slight amount of flux between the two states, giving water’s bizarre behavior an extra boost.

If that’s hard to imagine, think about the surface of a lake, where a few molecules are always evaporating into gas as others are condensing back into liquid, creating an equilibrium that’s constant while always changing. That’s happening inside every glass of water, according to this hypothesis, only the flux is between liquid and liquid rather than liquid and gas.

The problem is that it could only be modeled by computer and had never been proven in the real world. The process is too rare and rapid to observe at room temperature, and ice forms too quickly at cold temperatures. Until this week, when a team at Stockholm University managed to use X-ray lasers to examine supercooled water at high pressure to prove this to be true. Every glass of water and droplet in your body is in constant flux between these liquid and liquid crystal states.

Thinking about this as I dozed off to sleep last night, it occurred to me that the necessity of polarity isn’t just a metaphor for our broader society, it’s metonymous, and on every level. Human cognition isn’t functional without something akin to a dipole moment—we need the competing approach and avoidance circuits; it’s why we have two brain hemispheres. We carve up the world into patterns and name them—that’s what an idea is, from the Greek, a pattern. And to see a pattern, idein, is literally to see. We pull those ideas apart and put them back together, and that process is the scaffolding of everything we’ve ever done as a technological species.

In the same way, without a constant frothy sea of division, societies wouldn’t be able to spark or sustain themselves. Polarity is the knife blade that allows us to cleave and recombine into something better, swimming forward against the current of entropy, embodied now in two political halves always at war with each other. It’s not just turtles all the way down, it’s polarity all the way down. This is another example of the fractal substrate of the universe (which is what my old book American Fractal was actually about). We’re all bags of polarity moving through that fractal fabric, blinking into and out of existence, nodes of flux in our own states of flux, catalyzing a larger chemistry, never realizing, as Vonnegut put it, that we were making champagne.


election year—
the extreme polarity
of water


Sunday SciKu | Test Tube Randomness

In this paper from Nature, researchers at ETH Zurich used DNA synthesis to create test tubes full of randomness—7 million GB of random data per run, to be exact—which could turn out to be very useful for encryption. Synthesizers basically drip the four nucleotides one at a time to make whatever chain you want. This team turned on all four droppers at once and let the chips fall where they may. It’s funny that it’s 2020 and no one had thought of that before.


canned chaos—
as if there weren’t


Sunday SciKu | Friendly Finches

Photo by David Clode

Past studies have shown that humans can recognize the voice of a friend after hearing just two words with 90% accuracy, and that babies recognize their mother’s voice at birth. I’ve never found an answer to the question of how many voices we have stored this way, and I wonder if it might be up to Dunbar’s Number—the number of social contacts we’re able to store and keep track of without external support systems. That number, around 150, is thought to govern the tribe sizes in hunter-gatherers, among other things, and thus has a large influence human cognition and history.

I always think of this when I notice a celebrity voiceover. If I recognize John Krasinski in an Esurance commercial, does that mean he’s in my tribe psychologically, even though I don’t actually know him? What a strange world we live in.

Anyway, this week’s SciKu was inspired by research out of U.C.-Berkeley showing that zebra finches are also able to recognize the voices of their friends in this way, right up to their own “tribe” size of 50. The thought of finches twittering to their friends made my day.


all these years
your voice on the phone
still birdsong


Sunday SciKu | Radiocarbon Record

Photo by Denis Agati via Unsplash

Here’s some potentially great news, the significance of which will probably go entirely unnoticed. It requires some explanation, so hold on tight. First here’s the primer on radiocarbon and coronal mass ejections:

99% of the elemental carbon on earth is the C-12 isotope and 1% is C-13, both of which are stable. Occasionally, though, a nitrogen atom in the atmosphere gets whacked by a high-energy cosmic ray from space, knocking off a proton and turning it into the radioactive C-14. This is a continuous process, as the earth is always being showered with galactic cosmic rays, so new C-14 atoms are always being created even as they decay over time, and the amount in the atmosphere remains relatively constant.

When plants take in CO2 for photosynthesis, a trace amount of it is always C-14. Because the C-14 decays but the C-12 doesn’t, we can use the ratio between the two to determine how long ago the plant was alive. The half-life of C-14 is 5,730 years, so if only half is left, that’s how old the sample is. Carbon dating: as simple as it is amazing!

The only problem is that it turns out the atmospheric concentration of C-14 isn’t as steady as we first thought. Tree rings and stalactites show that some years in the past have seen huge anomalous spikes in C-14 production. There are only two natural phenomena we know of that could create enough high-energy particles to explain these spikes: enormous coronal mass ejections from our own sun or supernovae from distant stars.

We really want it to be the latter. My biggest worry for the future of humanity isn’t nuclear war or pandemics or climate change—it’s coronal mass ejections. Due to solar flares and magnetic field instabilities, the sun regularly flings chunks of itself out into space as superheated plasma. Usually they’re small blobs. During the solar maximum every 11 years, there are a few CMEs every day. But sometimes they’re not small at all.

If something like the 1859 Carrington Event happened today, it would wipe out not just the power grid, but many of the electrical circuits on whatever continent was sun-facing when it arrived. It would be a catastrophic disaster and take years to rebuild—but we would, with the help of the night side of the Earth, which would be spared. These happen every 150 years or so, and the last was 1921. In July 2012, one of these missed us by 9 days.

The C-14 spikes, though, are much larger, and happen every 800 years, on average. The last was the Charlemagne event of 774 AD. C-14 production was 20 times the background rate that year. And we’re overdue for one of these.

If they’re caused by distant supernovae, we just get the cosmic rays. Cancer rates might go up, air travel might be impacted, there’d be more cloud formation and more lightning for a year—but civilization would be fine.

If it came from our own sun, though, a year’s worth of this energy is compressed into a few hours of hot plasma, and all of our technology is toast. For Charlemagne’s world, with no circuits to fry, this was only a magical global aurora, and maybe a bad hair day from static electricity. For us, it would be 400 Fukushimas simultaneously. No trucks, no trains, no water pumps. No phones, no radios, no refrigerators. All gone, overnight. No factories to rebuild any of it. If you can’t imagine how that would turn out, read The Road. Humanity would survive deep in the Amazon and for clusters of doomsday preppers, and that’s about it.

But I said this was good news! And here it is:

In a paper published this week, CU Boulder geoscientist Robert Brakenridge was able to date supernova remnants to many of these C-14 spikes in the tree ring record. It really could just be option A! Carrington could be the biggest CME our sun is capable of. And the next supernova candidate, Betelgeuse, is hundreds of years off and far enough away that it wouldn’t matter much at all.

Score one for a future!


fate of the world
in a child counting
tree rings