Life on a Comet? I’m Gonna Go With “No.”

http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2015/07/07/comet_life_no.html

On Sunday, the Guardian published an article about the possibility of life on the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which is currently being explored by the Rosetta probe. As soon as I heard about this, I knew that these claims were coming from Chandra Wickramasinghe, an astronomer at the University of Cardiff.

Why? Because Wickramasinghe has a history of making outrageous claims about life in meteorites, about the flu virus coming from space (seriously), about SARS coming from space, about red rain in India coming from space … you get the picture. He’s even claimed NASA is covering up evidence of life on Mars. And yet for all these claims, he has very little evidence—or I should say very little good evidence.

For example, he’s had a series of claims about finding diatoms, a type of algae, in meteorites. He’s published pictures of them (in what could charitably be called an iffy journal), saying these fossilized microscopic plants come from space.

The problems with this claim are legion. For one, the diatoms look just like ones found on Earth, today. That makes this far, far more likely they are actually diatoms from Earth that have contaminated his samples—which is supported strongly by the fact that his team apparently didn’t control their samples for contamination very well. And for another it’s not at all clear his rocks were even meteorites in the first place!

All this is prelude to his current claims that the hard, dark crust on the surface of the comet 67P is “not easily explained in terms of prebiotic chemistry.” That is, to be delicate, incorrect. A hard, dark crust is a natural outcome from taking organic molecules (that is, carbon based, not necessarily from life) and exposing them to radiation (like ultraviolet light or subatomic particles in the solar wind) from the Sun. Physical chemist Chris Lee talks about this in an article in Ars Technica, rebutting Wickramasinghe, and points out that this sort of carbon formation is so common it’s a nuisance to be dealt with in the lab all the time.

I find it rather a bit of a jump to go from seeing a hard crust on a comet to claiming it’s evidence for microscopic life. His other claims suffer similar leaps of logic when simpler, more prosaic explanations abound.

The Guardian article is relatively cautious about these claims, saying “Prof Wickramasinghe’s views are regarded as several steps outside the scientific mainstream.” To say the least. Still, most of the article reports the claims straight. Not surprisingly, the awful Daily Mail published a completely credulous article about this, as have several other venues, and the news is getting traction on Twitter and Facebook, which is to be expected.

I don’t expect most journalists (or the public) to be able to be scientifically dissect such claims … however, a Web search on Wickramasinghe’s name would have yielded plenty of articles critiquing his claims just in my own writing, let alone those of many others. I’m glad to see science communicator Rachel Feltman wrote an article criticizing this story, as did the Telegraph. Snopes is on it as well. Maybe these will get some traction now as well.

To be clear, I am not in favor of suppressing speculation or out-of-the mainstream thinking; at times science can progress by those very things. But they have to have some sort of merit, some sort of firm basis from which to grow, and over the years I (and many others) have seen little of that in Wickramasinghe’s claims. I welcome his presentations at scientific meetings where they can be scrutinized, as long as he takes that scrutiny to heart (again, something of which I’ve seen little evidence).

I also know that such scrutiny doesn’t make for as good a story as “Life found on comet!” I don’t have much advice for what we can do about this, either, short of a paradigm shift on how science is presented to the public. With the Internet we’ve already gone through such a shift, and we’re still working through the fallout from it. But I worry … such stories weaken the public’s understanding of science, and may weaken the public trust as well when rebuttals are issued. This is how science works, which is its strength, but that can be seen as a weakness outside of scientific circles, and it’s something scientists—and science communicators—need to think about.

Orion’s Other Nebula

http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2015/07/06/m43_yuri_beletsky_photo_in_the_near_ir.html

The constellation of Orion is named after a great hunter, but if we wanted to be scientifically accurate, it should be named after a nursery instead.

After all, thousands of stars are being born in the direction.

The Great Nebula of Orion, M42, is a classic star-forming gas cloud, visible to the naked eye as the middle star in Orion’s “dagger.” And while M42 gets all the press, right next to it is a smaller but no less dramatic nebula, M43. Stars are forming there, too, and when you mix young, massive, hot stars and dense clouds of gas and dust, what you get is beauty.

Voilà!

Holy wow! That picture was taken by Yuri Beletsky and Igor Chilingarian. I’ve featured Beletsky’s works here on the blog before, but this is far and away the most stunning. They used the monster 6.5 meter Magellan telescope in Chile coupled with a fantastically sensitive camera called the MMIRS, which can see into the near-infrared part of the spectrum.

The colors you see here are all different wavelengths of infrared light; blue is actually light at 1 micron (just outside what the human eye can see), green at 1.6, and red at 2.2. At these colors, interstellar dust that blocks visible light is more translucent. Most images I’ve seen of M43 show it as a solid glow of light, but at these infrared colors it looks far more like you’re looking down into a cave.

That’s not entirely inaccurate! This whole region of the sky is dominated by a cold, dense, opaque cloud of molecular hydrogen and dust, completely opaque to visible light. Stars are forming inside it, and some are massive and very near the edge of the cloud on the side toward the Earth. When these hot and luminous stars switch on, they start to eat away at the cloud, carving a cavity inside it. Since they’re near the edge, this cavity can grow until it blows out the side. That’s what we see when we look at the Great Nebula, and we see it here, too.

The bright star in the image is the culprit, and you can see how the cavity is filled with more tenuous gas. Towering fingers of gas and dust point right at it; those are like sandbars in a river, dense regions resisting erosion. Stars will probably be born inside those, too, just like in the famous Pillars of Creation.

It’s interesting to compare this Magellan image with one taken by Hubble back in 2004-05:

You can see more stars in the newer Magellan image! In general, that’s true when you look at nebulae in the infrared; the dust doesn’t block the light as well. But it also depends strongly on exposure time, so I wouldn’t jump to any conclusions here. But it’s interesting to look at relative brightnesses of stars; in visible light some stars are brighter than others, but in the IR they switch! That’s because, very roughly speaking, a blue star will look brighter in visible light, and a red one will look brighter in infrared.

An obvious lesson here is that the Universe looks very different, and you learn different things, when you view it in different ways. Branch out! Embrace diversity! You’ll expose even more beauty when you do.

Dione, Mother of Beauty

http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2015/07/05/cassini_beautiful_image_of_dione_and_rings.html

The Cassini mission is nearing its planned end after more that a decade orbiting Saturn. But it’s not over yet; in mid-June it took this spectacular shot of the icy moon Dione:

The Sun is off to the left, so Dione is a crescent. You can get a hint at how battered and cratered its surface is. Looming behind it like a gigantic specter is Saturn itself, with its rings seen nearly edge on. We’re seeing the night side of Saturn here, unlit by direct sunlight … so what’s that glow above Dione?

It’s ringlight! The rings are broad and reflective, and from that part of Saturn they would sweep across the night sky, providing illumination in the same way the full Moon does on Earth. Imagine what that must look like …

The tiny moon you can see to the upper right is Enceladus, the water-spewing moon that has been the center of so much attention lately. Dione orbits once for every two times Enceladus orbits Saturn. This is called a resonance, specifically a 2:1 resonance, and these are common in moons orbiting the giant planets. Usually this means the moons tug on each other and change their orbits over time, but in some rare cases it actually helps stabilize the orbits, which is the case here.

This shot is surreally beautiful. Fitting, too: In mythology, Dione was the mother of Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty.

This is the penultimate visit of Dione by Cassini; there will be one more close pass in August (shaving the moon by a mere 474 kilometers). This is a common theme with encounters now; the Cassini end of mission is planned for September 2017, when it will dive into Saturn’s atmosphere and burn up. This is a standard practice for planetary orbiters at the mission end, to prevent them from crashing into a moon and possibly contaminating it. Even as it plunges in, it will send back data on the planet’s atmosphere, giving humans one last chance to learn another scientific nugget of information about Saturn.

It’ll go down doing its duty one final time. A noble end.

Do You Want Some REAL Fireworks?

http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2015/07/04/supernova_what_would_happen_if_a_star_exploded_near_earth.html

Today is the Fourth of July, a national holiday in the U.S. where we celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence (we didn’t actually win our independence until 1783, depending on how you look at it).

It’s traditional to celebrate with fireworks, which I’ve always enjoyed (though some people are making the case that we should be aware of people—and pets—who don’t). But as an astronomer, my idea of fireworks is maybe somewhat more expansive than most folks …

Like, the explosion of an entire star. Called a supernova, they’re among the most violent events the Universe has to offer. The amount of energy they emit can be equal to the total amount of energy the Sun emits over its entire lifetime. The closest example is the Crab Nebula, seen above. Want a fun little bit of cosmic trivia to astound your friends? The light from this explosion reached Earth in the year 1054 … on July 4.

Anyway, the good news is that these ridiculously huge events tend to happen very far away. But what if one were a lot closer? Well, if it got close enough, we’d be in trouble. I wrote a chapter in my book Death From the Skies! about that.

But I also talked to science communicator Rose Eveleth about what would happen if a supernova were too close for comfort on her podcast Meanwhile in the Future. Also appearing is my friend and astrophysicist Katie Mack.

That was fun. She starts off each episode with a little vignette talking about some event in the future, then uses that as a springboard to talk about the science of an event. Clever.

I wrote more about the Crab in a recent post, and it turned out to be a little more poetic than I expected. But hopefully, it’ll give you an impression of the cosmic forces out there, ones which craft the Universe we live in.

If you’re celebrating July Fourth today, have fun! But remember, have some perspective. The fireworks you’re watching could be a lot, lot bigger.

Crash Course Astronomy: Meteors!

http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2015/07/03/crash_course_astronomy_meteors.html

I’m not gonna lie to you: This is one of my favorite episodes of Crash Course Astronomy we’ve done so far. It was a lot of fun, and this is just such a fantastic topic to talk about. So here you go: “Meteors, Meteoroids, and Meteorites, Oh My!”

Those meteorites I held up in the intro are mine; they’re examples of Sikhote Alin, an iron meteorite that rained debris over Russia in 1947. They’re my favorite; they come in all sorts of exotic and bizarre shapes, and their color is gunmetal blue-black. They’re a bit pricey, but you can buy them for yourself. I suggest perusing the store of my friend Geoff Notkin (you may have seen him on the Discovery Channel’s Meteorite Men TV show). He has great samples.

I’ve written about meteors about 74 bazillion times. If you’re looking for a generic meteor shower viewing guide, I’ve written them for several showers. Here’s one from the 2014 Geminids. I’ve written about the Russian Chelyabinsk impact several times, including the night it hit, a follow-up a year later featuring what we’ve learned, a cool video where you can see a small chunk hitting a frozen lake, and another video where they hauled a big chunk out of a lake.

I also wrote about the Perseid that astronaut Ron Garan saw from the space station … including a calculation for how often the space station gets hit by a meteor on average.

You can see why I had so much fun making this episode. I’m endlessly fascinated by meteors, and hopefully, now, you are too. 

Washington State Woman Is First Measles Death in U.S. in 12 Years

http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2015/07/02/measles_first_us_death_from_the_disease_in_over_a_decade.html

In Clallam County, Washington, a woman has died of complications from measles. This is the first U.S. death from measles since 2003.

Clallam County had an outbreak of measles earlier this year, when five people were diagnosed with the disease. The woman who died brings this to a total of six.

She likely contracted measles when she visited a health facility; a person who was later identified as having measles was there at the same time. The woman who died was apparently taking a series of medications that lowered her immune system’s ability to fight off disease. Although she didn’t present a rash or other obvious external symptoms, she died of pneumonia caused by the measles infection.

Vaccination rates in that area of Washington are lower than they should be. We—and I do mean “we”—need the public to have as high a rate of vaccination as possible, to ensure herd immunity, so that the bacteria and viruses that can cause such illness and death have as few places to hide as we can muster. When rates drop, we get outbreaks, like the one in Disneyland that sickened so many and spread the highly contagious disease to many parts of the country.

One person who came down with measles in the Clallam outbreak had been inoculated, but it was decades ago, when the shot was less effective. It’s important to make sure your immunizations are up-to-date.

This death comes on the heels of California making it harder for parents to opt out of vaccinating their school-age children; only a medical exemption will be accepted (before, they also allowed religious and personal reasons). I’m very happy this law passed. I’ll note that Washington state, where the woman died, still allows personal exemptions. Hopefully their legislature will rethink that policy.

It also comes right after a huge and awful backlash against the new California law by the anti-vax crowd, including actor Jim Carrey, who tweeted a series of foolish and blatantly incorrect statements about vaccines. He brought up the zombie ideas of mercury poisoning (a non-issue) and conspiratorial Big Pharma nonsense.

Let me be very, very clear: Anti-vax rhetoric like that makes people scared to get vaccinated. Rates drop, herd immunity drops, outbreaks occur, and people get sick. Some die. This is a direct, step-by-step chain.

No one is forcing you to get vaccinated. If you want your children to attend school in California, then yes, you have to get them vaccinated unless there’s a pressing medical reason. But no one is coming to your door, holding you down, and injecting you with anything. You still have a choice. That choice boils down to this: If you want to rely on public services, then you have to support those services. One method of support is making sure you have minimized the risk of your child giving other children dangerous infectious diseases.

And it’s not just children. It’s elderly people who are at risk, too, and people—like the woman who died in Washington—who are immunocompromised. I have family members in both these categories, which is why my entire family is up-to-date on our vaccinations.

When you get vaccinated, you are helping not just yourself, but also many, many people around you of all ages. Read up about measles, and what you need to do. Ask your board-certified doctor and see if you need to be vaccinated (or need to get your booster). If they recommend it, then listen to them.

Read more of Slate’s vaccines coverage.

Is Star Trek Tech Possible?

http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2015/07/02/star_trek_what_technology_is_possible.html

My friend Veronica Belmont is pretty cool. Nerd, writer, TV host … and now she’s doing an online video series with Engadget called “Dear Veronica”, where she answers tech/geek questions sent in by viewers. It’s a lot of fun.

In this week’s episode, she was asked, “Which Star Trek technologies will still be invented? Which are truly impossible and will never happen?”

Hey, I like Star Trek! So I’m really glad she asked me to field this question.

That was fun to record. But it was hard, too, since I only had 30 seconds, which didn’t give me much time to really dig deep.

But hey, I have space on the blog (haha—“space”! I kill me) so why not give a little more detail here?

Before we get started: Almost everything below is conjecture, based on physics as we know it. But I’m not an expert in all these fields, and I’ve been known to be wrong before. If you have better evidence, please let me know! Also, I’m assuming no major breakthroughs that negate or heavily modify the laws of physics as we see today. Keep that one in mind. All of these might be possible, but would involve huge breakthroughs that seem pretty unlikely to me—still, I'm no curmudgeon, and I'd love to see any of these technologies come true. I’m also trying to be brief here, to cover a lot of the quadrant. If you want details, Commander Riker might have already looked it up for you.

So let’s leave spacedock and take these ideas out for a shakedown cruise.

FTL

There are lots of problems with the idea of going faster than light. You can’t just accelerate past it like you can the speed of sound; it would take infinite energy according to relativity. And relativity tends to be right.

Other ideas include making a warp bubble, or punching a hole through space, or wormholes, but they all still have the same problem: causality. Moving faster than light is like time travel, and that opens up an entirely new can of Gagh.

So, I’m giving this a Nope until proven otherwise.

Transporters

In Trek, they’ve said many times that the transporter works by converting someone to energy, beaming that across space, and then re-matterizing them. The problem with this is that converting a standard red-shirted human body (say, 50–70 kilograms) into energy is the equivalent of detonating well over a thousand one-megaton nuclear bombs, which is a lot.

Even if you can contain that, how do you record someone’s “pattern”? That’s a lot of information. A lot. Theoretically, there’s an equation that describes every single subatomic particle in your body, but it’s a tad complex. Describing a hydrogen atom is already pretty hard, but put ten of them together and it gets fantastically complex. There are very roughly 1028 atoms in your body. That’s a big equation.

A better retcon would be to say you’re creating a subspace tube, encasing the traveler in a small force field, and plunging them through it. But even then, I don’t think subspace is quite so much real.

So: Nope.

Phasers

Phasers are like lasers but instead they start with a digraph.

OK, how they work is never really stated, but I heard from a friend who worked on Next Generation that they don’t vaporize you, they send you into subspace, where you die (see “Transporters,” above, except don’t use a force field). That’s clever, and I like it, but again with the not-real subspace.

Nope.

Artificial gravity/Inertial Dampening

These are tough. As far as we know now, there’s no way to do either (well, you can spin a spaceship to mimic gravity, but that has other complications; and besides, is clearly not what they mean by the term in Trek). These are fundamental properties of space and mass, and as far as we know, the laws of physics give these a big Nope.

Replicators

Replicators work on the idea that once you convert something to energy, you can then reconstitute it back as a different kind of matter. Cool, but transporters don’t work, so Nope.

Tricorders

Now we’re getting somewhere. Lots of things a tricorder can do we already have tech for. Infrared meters can read your temperature from a distance. Phones can listen for sounds, and do some basic image stuff too. This idea is based on reality well enough that there’s an X Prize for it.

So: Yup. Eventually, and kinda sorta now.

Communicators

Please. A device for talking to people over long distances that you have to flip open? What is this, the 2190s?

Nanotech

The idea of teeny tiny machines that can be programmed to do simple tasks doesn’t strike me as being all that far-fetched. We have some basics of this developed now. They’re a far cry from nanites escaping and taking over our (nonexistent) FTL starship, but this field is interesting. I wonder if they could be made generic such that in tandem they can do more complicated tasks. This sounds more like an engineering problem than one of physical laws, so I have to give this one a Maybe.

Force fields

The term force field is pretty generic. If you have a dense (strong) enough magnetic field it can deflect charged subatomic particles (electrons and protons) away from you, so in a sense we have those now. But something that can protect you from the force of an explosion, deflect bullets, and so on? I’m not even really sure how that would work.

But ignorance is no excuse, so to be honest I’ll give this a Maybe, just not according to what we know now.

Cloaking

I love this. YES. In principle, this can be done. You just need to deflect any photon coming at you from any direction so that once it’s past you it continues on in that direction.

Or, you could, for example, surround yourself with a device that can both detect and emit photons. It absorbs a photon, figures out what direction it came from, then finds the emitter on your opposite side and tells it to shoot off a photon of the right energy in the right direction. If you’re sitting still, and the light source isn’t changing, this should work. If you’re moving, then you better have really fast processors on your cloaking computer.

This would be very hard to build, and might be clunky, but it doesn’t violate any laws of physics, so I give this a Yes.

Universal Translator

We already have primitive but sort of effective translators online now. However, these take previously known languages and basically do really fast table lookups of the translations. This won’t work for an unknown language, let alone the squeals, grunts, clicks, whines, buzzes, pheromone exudate, cilia waving, and rapid eye blinks used in alien language. In Trek, that thing basically reads minds, so I’m pretty skeptical. Nope.

Turbolift

An elevator that goes up, down, and sideways? Willy Wonka had one of those in the 1960s.

Tractor Beam

In Next Gen they refer to the tractor beam—a device that can grab distant objects and be used to tow them—as using gravitons. These are theoretical particles that mediate the force of gravity in quantum mechanics, like photons mediate electromagnetism. However, gravitons have never been detected, and may not actually exist, which is a prerequisite for actually, y’know, existing. That doesn’t mean they don’t, it just means that a tractor beam is speculative, so I can’t give it the thumbs up here. But Maybe, someday.

Artificial Intelligence

This is a funny one. I won’t worry about the existential issues of what intelligence is, because that’s a rabbit hole I don’t want to go down (though in detail it’s important; is intelligence an emergent property of anything that has enough complexity, or is it something that has to be specifically built into the hard/wetware?). But if we accept that humans possess intelligence, can we replicate it in nonhuman devices?

In principle, I have to say yes. But I wonder if we’re going about it the right way. Our brains simply don’t work like computers, despite the sci-fi trope. But if we can build machines that process information more like our brains do, then perhaps intelligence will emerge.

I’m no expert, and I’m spit-balling here, but clearly it isn’t easy. I’ve been hearing that we’re just 25 years away from true AI for the past 40 years. Every time some breakthrough is made, it shows us that things are still a lot harder than we thought. Still, evolution seems to have done this naturally after just cooking slightly polluted hydrogen for a few billion years. People whose brains work a lot better than mine are working on it, too, and they seem to think it’s possible. So who am I to say no? Until proven otherwise, I’ll go with Maybe.

To Boldly Go …

So where does this leave us? Beats me. But whether the tech or the science of Trek is real or not, I still love the show. And while this stuff is fun to think about, they’re not the point of the show.

The point is the story, and the story is fun.

So: Second star on the right, and straight on ‘til morning. Engage.

C’mon, How Much Weirder Can Pluto Get?

http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2015/07/02/pluto_curioser_and_curioser.html

Seriously, Pluto, what the heck are you up to?

As New Horizons gets closer every day, more details on the tiny world come into view. The latest? A very weird set of four similar dark streaks on the surface, stretching for hundreds of kilometers, and fairly evenly spaced.

What the WHAT.

Those streaks are really too small to say much about them just yet. Although seen on older images blurred together due to low resolution, they only appear individually on images from Saturday, when New Horizons was close enough to see them and Pluto had rotated them into view (grayscale pictures from the long range camera were combined with lower resolution natural color images from another camera called, seriously, Ralph). The probe is only taking a few pictures per day as it approaches, trying to keep data storage to a minimum to save bandwidth for the big show coming in just over 11 days now.

It’s possible they’re multiple impact sites, but that seems really unlikely. They’re so evenly spaced… they’re also located very near the equator, and on the hemisphere pointed toward Pluto’s moon Charon. There’s been some suspicion that Pluto might be geologically active, spewing out jets of some material. Neptune’s moon Triton has dark geyserlike plumes, probably nitrogen from under the surface mixed with dust or some other dark substance.

Also, Triton (like Pluto) is a Kuiper Belt Object, an icy and rocky body from the outer solar system, captured by Neptune. Hmmmm.

What could drive such activity on Pluto? On Earth (or rather, under it) it’s the hot mantle moving under the continental plates that causes our tectonic activity. For Io’s volcanoes and the geysers of Enceladus (moons of Jupiter and Saturn) it’s tides from their parent planets.

Pluto and Charon are locked in both orbit and spin, so the tidal forces should all be balanced … now. However, it’s thought that Charon may have formed after a big impact on Pluto, blasting material into orbit that coalesced to form the moon. For some time after that event there would have been considerable tidal stress on Pluto, and the jets may have been active back then, leaving their marks on the surface.

The same is true for Charon as well, and the tides on it would be 10 times larger (since Pluto has 10 times the mass of Charon). Note that Charon is a lot darker than Pluto. Did it have even more activity than its big brother?

With close encounter just a week and a half away, we’ll be getting more amazing pictures every day. Unfortunately, New Horizons will be dipping low over Pluto’s opposite hemisphere from these weird features, so we won’t get super close-ups of them. But we’ll certainly get some better shots over the next few days.

This is getting so exciting! Stay tuned.

Update, July 2, 2015: I originally said the streaks were only seen in the June 27 data, but I meant that they were only seen individually after then. Also, the probe is taking only a few pictures to save bandwidth, not data storage as I originally said. It takes a long time to send back each image. After closest encounter we'll be receiving images for many months.

Carreyed Away

http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2015/07/01/jim_carrey_anti_vax_is_as_anti_vax_does.html

On Tuesday, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB-277 into law, removing the ability for parents to opt out of vaccinating their public school-age children for personal and religious exemptions.

In the wake of this, I knew the anti-vaccination cavalry would be mounting their steeds. What I wasn’t expecting was a series of tweets from actor Jim Carrey, showing exactly why those of us on the side of reality cannot rest, even after a lovely legislative victory.

Jim Carrey is a comedic actor, and I’ll note that I quite like a few of his movies and performances. But I stopped going to the theater to see them a few years ago, after he hooked up with Jenny McCarthy and joined her on her bizarre and fact-free crusade against one of the most successful medical procedures of all time.

He’s been vocal in the past; in 2009 he wrote an anti-vax screed for the Huffington Post (the journalistic equivalent of the Mos Eisley tavern for anti-vaxxers)*, and he joined McCarthy to publicly defend the disgraced and humiliated doctor Andrew Wakefield, whose unethical research, retracted paper, and conflicts of interest started the modern anti-vax movement and earned him an accusation of fraud from the British Medical Journal. When they were together, he and McCarthy were the public face of the anti-vax movement, promoting the long-debunked notion that vaccines cause autism.

They don’t.

But this hasn’t stopped Carrey. Tuesday night he went on quite the rant on Twitter, sending out a series of tweets that were, to be charitable, completely wrong. Let’s take a look.

Greed? Ah, a variation on the “Big Pharma shill” gambit, the claim that somehow pharmaceutical corporations make huge amounts of money on vaccines. Actually, if money were the only reason they did this, it would be far more profitable for those companies to let people get sick. Hospital and clinic visits make them way more money.

One of the basic claims made by anti-vaxxers is that there are toxins in vaccines. But there are toxins in everything. The concern isn’t that they’re there, it’s in the amount. Eating one aluminum atom won’t have any effect on you, and people tend to have a few dozen milligrams in their bodies all the time. Not all vaccines have aluminum in them, and ones that do have it in such a teeny amount it has negligible effect on you.

As for mercury, hang on a sec …

Yes, this does make sense! That’s because Carrey, despite having a vast amount of information literally at his fingertips, doesn’t understand the difference between ethylmercury and methylmercury.

Methylmercury (with an M) is a form of mercury that is bioaccumulative—that is, it builds up in the body over time. People get it in their systems in a number of ways, including eating some fish.

Ethylmercury (with an E) does not bioaccumulate, and breaks down after a couple of weeks, and your body eliminates it. Thimerosal, which used to be used in many vaccines, breaks down into ethylmercury. This process is quite safe, but after a public outcry spurred by misinformation and confusion on these two forms of mercury, thimerosal was discontinued in most vaccines. It’s now used in very small doses only in some flu vaccines.

Also? It’s been shown, conclusively, that there is no connection between thimerosal and autism. None.

Yes, Mr. Carrey, you are anti-vax. You can’t pick and choose what to believe in and what not to, and then say you’re not anti-vaccine. This gambit was tried by Jenny McCarthy and by RFK Jr. It rings just as hollow with them as it does now. If you’re trying to scare people out of taking vaccines because of obviously and provably false information, then you’re an anti-vaxxer.

As I’ve written before:

Saying in one breath that vaccines have done good but then in another attacking them and increasing fears of them based on nonsense puts [RFK Jr.] squarely in the anti-vax camp. It’s like saying that most UFO cases are just misidentified normal things, but the ones we  haven’t identified are definitely alien spaceships that come here to stick probes in our various orifices. Acknowledging one aspect of reality and then claiming absurdities does  not make you pro-science.

Speaking of which …

Here's a bit of free advice: Run, do not walk, away from comparing yourself to RFK Jr. That may not be the best line to take. For starters, he is indeed an anti-vaxxer. He’s also a conspiracy-monger, and, unfortunately, an influential one, since he does have political clout. And given that we can’t always trust our elected representatives when it comes to health issues, that makes him especially pernicious.

Jim Carrey can yell that he’s not anti-vax at the top of his lungs, but that doesn’t change the fact that he really, really is.

After his Twitter tirade Tuesday night, the replies started flowing in, and I was pleased to see just how many were against him. I guess Carrey didn’t learn the lesson from McCarthy that sometimes going on Twitter doesn’t generate quite the result you were hoping for.

In the end, though, SB-277 is now law, and if you live in California you have to vaccinate your children if you want them to attend public school, unless you have a valid medical reason for not doing so. I think that’s real progress.

I’m happy to discuss the ramifications of laws like this on the basis of parental rights—as a parent myself I have very strong feelings about those rights. I’m also something of a social libertarian, wanting most rights to lie with the people, and not the government. But I also know those rights must have limits, because people make mistakes and in some cases need to be regulated.

The health and welfare of the public certainly constitute one of those cases. So again, I thank Gov. Brown, and I hope many more states follow suit.

*Correction, July 1, 2015: This post originally misspelled Mos Eisley.

Which Hunt?

http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2015/07/01/tim_hunt_nobel_laureate_s_comments_about_girls_and_science.html

In early June, Nobel laureate Tim Hunt was asked to speak at a luncheon sponsored by the Korea Federation of Women’s Science and Technology Associations at a science communications meeting in South Korea.

What he said there is now Internet history. He made a series of sexist comments, saying that the problem with “girls” in science is that they fall in love with the men; the men fall in love with them; and when you confront them, they cry. He then went on to suggest labs should be single-sex.

When I first read this, I figured it was a joke. A very poorly conceived one, and a really dumb one to make, especially given that crowd. But there’s a lot more to it than that.

Many science journalists were at the lunch and witnessed the whole thing, including Deborah Blum, Ivan Oransky, Charles Seife, and Connie St. Louis. After discussing what they saw and heard, they decided St. Louis should write an article about it in a blog post at Scientific American.* What’s very important to note here is that both Blum and Oransky have corroborated St. Louis’ report, multiple times. Seife did as well. Blum asked Hunt about his comments, and he confirmed that he thought women were too emotional to work with men in labs.

In other words, it’s clear that even if he framed it as a joke, he was being sincere in his meaning and intent.

Then it all hit the fan. For one thing, on Twitter, news of his comments went viral very rapidly. The hashtag #distractinglysexy went viral, an amusingly tongue-in-cheek way for women to mock the idea that women are too emotional or liable to fall in love in the lab. For another, Hunt was asked to resign from his honorary position at the University College London. He also resigned from the board of the European Research Council and the Biological Science Awards Committee of the Royal Society.

Mind you, he is a retired professor, and was not fired or asked to resign from any paying positions. He lost no employment over this, despite some people claiming otherwise.

At this point the backlash began. Richard Dawkins, who, honestly, should know better by now than to wade into controversies about sexism, defended Hunt against what he termed a “witch hunt.” However, there didn’t appear to be any organized campaign to get him fired, and furthermore the University College London says it did not ask him to step down due to the social media uproar, but because of Hunt’s own remarks.

A lot of electrons have been spilled over whether Hunt went on to say, “Now seriously…,” which would indicate he was actually joking. Seife (who, again, was there at the luncheon) says Hunt never said this.

Hunt’s comments and the defense of them were bad enough, but the situation has taken an even worse turn.

The execrable Daily Mail has waded into this. On Friday, it published what can only be called a hit piece on Connie St. Louis which, bizarrely, was endorsed by Dawkins.

To say the article is problematic is to severely understate the case. It attacks St. Louis’ credentials; however, she is an award-winning journalist, former president of the Association of British Science Writers and was recently elected to the board of the World Federation of Science Journalists. The City University London (where she is a senior lecturer) has publicly supported her after the Daily Mail article came out. St. Louis points out numerous errors in the article there as well.

Not-so-incidentally, the very basis of the attack appears to be based on nothing as well.

This attack is deeply, deeply ironic, given that the Daily Mail has been known to brazenly plagiarize science journalists specifically, and has been accused of other less-than-savory tactics in journalism. Even when it’s original, the publication’s level of science journalism is appalling.

Not to put too fine a point on it, the Daily Mail is to journalism what ipecac is to digestion. Also, a perusal of links to their articles running down the right-hand side of their site doesn’t exactly show them to be champions of women’s rights.

I also found it very odd that the article also dismisses statements corroborating St. Louis’ claims by Blum and Oransky (and it doesn’t even mention Seife)—who, I remind you, were all there at the luncheon and agree on what happened. Why single out St. Louis here?

And now another attack piece on St. Louis has been posted on the far-right-wing Breitbart site, saying she has become immune from criticism because she’s black.

Yes, you read that right. And that’s not all. In a sentence so tone deaf I’d swear it’s parody, the author, Milo Yiannopoulos, writes*:

St Louis is responsible for the sacking of Sir Tim Hunt, a Nobel prize-winning biochemist who became the target of an online lynch mob after his comments about women in science were taken out of context.

Yes, again, you read that right. You might ignore the obviously incorrect statements in that one sentence (Hunt wasn’t sacked, he was asked to resign from an honorary position; and as we’ve seen his comments were not taken out of context), but it’s much harder to ignore that, in an article attacking a woman because she’s black, Yiannopoulos used the phrase “lynch mob.”

Yikes.

Yiannopoulos, for his part, is a vocal advocate for Gamergate, a movement that claims it’s  “actually about ethics in gaming journalism” (a phrase so thin it’s become a standard Internet joke), but which has also been viciously attacking women online. Yiannopoulos appeared on the British 24-hour news channel Sky News to “debate” this topic with Dr. Emily Grossman; while glib, his arguments were unconvincing, and unsurprisingly Grossman has been receiving misogynistic backlash for her appearance (that link also shines a light on more of Yiannopoulos’ incorrect statements).

Clearly, this is quite the rabbit hole.

A lot of people are trying to squeeze this whole Tim Hunt affair in a “he said/she said” frame, but what they’re missing is twofold: Even if he was making a joke initially, he meant what he said, and that’s why he’s suffered the consequences of it, and either way this event has once again shone a spotlight on the rampant sexism in society in general and in the sciences specifically.

So what now? The good news is that at least this important issue is getting airtime, getting discussed. The problem is it’s also getting hijacked, distorted, and drowned out by nonsense. This happens every time institutionalized sexism is discussed.

But discuss it we must. Connie St. Louis has called for systemic change. Science writer Matthew Francis wrote about this in the context of the Nobel Prize itself. Science philosopher Janet Stemwedel wants scientists to be more vocal in decrying statements such as Hunt’s. Emily Grossman shows we need to quash sexism so that at the very least women don’t feel unwelcome in STEM fields. Stemwedel has written along those lines, too. Uta Frith, writing at the Royal Society blog, talks about the impact this has and will have on diversity in the science.

As always, it’s important for men to speak up as well. This isn’t a women’s problem, clearly. It’s something we all need to be aware of and to speak up about.

And in the end, while the spotlight may be on Hunt and what he said, that light has certainly cast a very large reflection on the rest of us.

Here are other articles I’ve written on this issue:

*Correction, July 1, 2015: This post originally misspelled the last name of writer Milo Yiannopoulos. Also, I originally wrote that the article St. Louis wrote about the luncheon was for her blog, but it was for a guest post on Scientific American.