The trichomes stay in the skin for up to a year

Saturday, June 29th, 2024

Back before he came up with the easier-to-film Survivor, Mark Burnett produced the Eco-Challenge adventure race, based on Gerald Fusil’s Raid Gauloises adventure race in Costa Rica:

The teams raced non-stop, 24 hours a day, over a rugged 300-mile (500 km) course, participating in such disciplines as trekking, whitewater canoeing, horseback riding, sea kayaking, scuba diving, mountaineering, camel-back riding, and mountain biking. Teams originally consisted of five members, but the team size was reduced to four members early in the event’s history. A feature of the race is the mandatory mix of men and women for all participating teams.

I vividly remember watching the 1997 Australia race, when a bickering team mountain-biking through the rainforest at night, with headlamps on, stopped, because one of the guys screamed out in pain. He didn’t know what had happened, but his best guess was that a snake had bit him, or perhaps some other venomous creature. The team asked if he could go on, because he wasn’t going to get any help until they reached the aid station.

When they got to the aid station, the medic took a look and found no bite, but he did find some nettles from the gympie-gympie bush. What could they do about the excruciating pain? Nothing. How long would the pain last? Months.

Everything in Australia is trying to kill you.

He kept racing.

Other people have not kept going:

North Queensland road surveyor A.C. Macmillan was among the first to document the effects of a stinging tree, reporting to his boss in 1866 that his packhorse “was stung, got mad, and died within two hours”. Similar tales abound in local folklore of horses jumping in agony off cliffs and forestry workers drinking themselves silly to dull the intractable pain.

Writing to Marina in 1994, Australian ex-serviceman Cyril Bromley described falling into a stinging tree during military training on the tableland in World War II. Strapped to a hospital bed for three weeks and administered all manner of unsuccessful treatments, he was sent “as mad as a cut snake” by the pain. Cyril also told of an officer shooting himself after using a stinging-tree leaf for “toilet purposes”.

He’s had too many stings to count but Ernie Rider will never forget the day in 1963 that he was slapped in the face, arms and chest by a stinging tree. “I remember it feeling like there were giant hands trying to squash my chest,” he said. “For two or three days the pain was almost unbearable; I couldn’t work or sleep, then it was pretty bad pain for another fortnight or so. The stinging persisted for two years and recurred every time I had a cold shower.”

Now a senior conservation officer with the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, Ernie said he’s not experienced anything like the pain during 44 years work in the bush. “There’s nothing to rival it; it’s 10 times worse than anything else – scrub ticks, scrub itch and itchy-jack sting included. Stinging trees are a real and present danger.”

So swollen was Les Moore after being stung across the face several years ago that he said he resembled Mr Potato Head.

“I think I went into anaphylactic shock and it took days for my sight to recover,” said Les, a scientific officer with the CSIRO Division of Wildlife and Ecology in Queensland, who was near Bartle Frere (North Peak) studying cassowaries when disaster struck.

“Within minutes the initial stinging and burning intensified and the pain in my eyes was like someone had poured acid on them. My mouth and tongue swelled up so much that I had trouble breathing. It was debilitating and I had to blunder my way out of the bush.”

Wikipedia explains the mechanism:

Very fine, brittle hairs called trichomes are loaded with toxins and cover the entire plant; even the slightest touch will embed them in the skin. Electron micrograph images show that they are similar to a hypodermic needle in being very sharp-pointed and hollow. Additionally, it has been shown that there is a structurally weak point near the tip of the hair, which acts as a pre-set fracture line. When it enters the skin the hair fractures at this point, allowing the contents of the trichome to be injected into the victim’s tissues.

The trichomes stay in the skin for up to a year, and release the toxin cocktail into the body during triggering events such as touching the affected area, contact with water, or temperature changes.

I was reminded of this by the recent story of a hiker who suddenly lost feeling in her legs from a mysterious attacker in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains:

The woman had stopped around 6:30 p.m. to fetch water from a creek along the park’s Taboose Pass when she felt a sting that she thought was a spider bite.

“Afterwards, she was unable to feel the skin on her legs and could not continue her hike down,” Inyo County Search & Rescue officials said in a statement.

The unidentified woman used the last of her phone battery’s juice to call for help. She relayed her coordinates just before the device died.

The Inyo County Search & Rescue pushed a wheeled litter the 1.75 miles between the trailhead and the immobilized hiker — but came just a quarter mile short of the victim when the trail became too rough.

The team stashed the litter and forged ahead until they found the paralyzed woman, who they “slowly walked down the tricky section of the trail while ensuring her safety with ropes.”

The entire rescue operation took more than five hours.

In the days after the scary encounter, medical officials ruled that the bite wasn’t from a spider at all — nor was it even a bite.

“Rescuers believe that the individual who needed rescuing was stung by stinging nettles located on the overgrown trail,” Lindsey Stine of the county sheriff’s office told The Post.

Fortunately, the symptoms from California’s stinging nettles don’t last longer than 24 hours.

The Russians took great delight in rubbing what they learned in the face of the State Department

Tuesday, June 4th, 2024

Area 51 by Annie JacobsenWhile developing the A-12 Oxcart, which would evolve into the SR-71, Annie Jacobsen explains (in Area 51), the CIA feared the Russians were watching from space:

Across the world, at NII-88, Sergei Korolev had designed a Soviet spy satellite called Object D, but the CIA did not know what exactly it was capable of. Also under way was a follow-on espionage platform called Zenit, a modified version of the Vostok spacecraft that had been equipped with cameras to photograph American military installations from space. The Russians took great delight in rubbing what they learned in the face of the State Department. Once, using diplomatic channels, they passed a simple sketch of the exact shape of Lockheed’s top secret airplane to the CIA, whose employees were baffled as to how the enemy could have known such a thing, in view of the fact that operations personnel had been very careful to avoid the orbiting Soviet snoopers. Was there a double agent among them? The CIA, ever paranoid about KGB infiltration, worried in private that there could be a spy inside Area 51. Lovick finally figured it out: the Russians were using infrared satellites. In the desert heat, which could reach 125 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, the mock-up of the aircraft left a heat signature as it sat on the tarmac while technicians were waiting to hoist it up on the test pole. The sketch reflected that.

Internal Family Systems is the hot new psychotherapy

Thursday, May 23rd, 2024

The Others Within Us by Robert FalconerInternal Family Systems, Scott Alexander explains, is the hot new psychotherapy:

The therapy that’s getting all the buzz, curing all the incurable patients, rocking those first few small studies. The therapy that was invented by a grizzled veteran therapist working with Patients Like You, not the out-of-touch elites behind all the other therapies. The therapy that Really Gets To The Root Of The Problem. There’s always got to be one, and now it’s IFS.


You treat your mind as containing a Self — a sort of perfect angelic intellect without any flaws or mental illnesses — and various Parts — little sub-minds with their own agendas who can sometimes occlude or overwhelm the Self. During therapy, you talk to the Parts, learn their motives, and bargain with them.


The second assumption is that everything inside your mind is part of you, and everything inside your mind is good.


The secret is: no, actually some of these things are literal demons.

At least this is what I take from The Others Within Us, by Robert Falconer, a veteran IFS therapist.


The first N times they ran into this kind of thing, the IFS therapists said that surely this was some good-albeit-traumatized Part of the patient’s unconscious, which had spun a crazy metaphorical story and needed to be bargained with and brought back to the Self. But it kept happening. The demons’ stories were surprisingly consistent. Finally, some of the IFS therapists would tell their therapist friends — look, this sounds crazy, but sometimes it seems like some of our patients have demons.

And the therapist friends would answer: “Oh, you too?”


To hear Falconer tell it, one of psychotherapy’s big crises is that veteran therapists and psychiatrists keep noticing the demons, keep talking about it in their isolated silos, but nobody’s ever blown the lid off the whole thing and made it public.

(And it’s not just therapists. One of my favorite stories in the book was that of Reverend John Nevius, a sober-minded Protestant missionary in late 1800s China. He learned that the Chinese mostly appreciated Christianity for its ability to cast out demons, and that they expected his help with this task. After great reluctance, he agreed, and was surprised to find himself effecting miracle cures and winning converts. “After experiencing casting out demons himself, he sent circular letters to all the other missionaries in China, almost all of whom had similar experiences. Seventy percent of them had come to believe in possession and re-evaluate their faith.”)


He also falls into a trap I would describe as “has never read a pseudoscience book before, doesn’t realize what the red flags for pseudoscience are, and so collects the whole set”. We go from discussion on how the same doctors who laughed at Ignatz Semmelweiss will no doubt laugh at him, to quotes about science progressing funeral by funeral, to that one story about how the Native Americans couldn’t even see Columbus’ ships because they were so far out of their accepted categorization schemes3. These are all prima facie reasonable things to mention if you have a revolutionary theory that you expect the establishment to reject. But it’s analogous to how, if you’ve just been accused of racism, it prima facie seems reasonable to object that you have lots of black friends. Along with prima facie reasonableness, you also benefit from having some familiarity with the discourse and avoiding the exact phrases that will make doubters maximally hostile.


In the “multiple personalities panic” of the 1980s, some psychologists started thinking multiple personality disorder was a big thing and suggesting to all their traumatized borderline female patients that they might have it. Sure enough, lots of these people developed multiple personalities. This didn’t seem fake, just weird. Eventually the American Psychiatric Association sent out a statement saying “STOP DOING THIS”, therapists stopped talking about multiple personalities with their traumatized borderline female patients, and these people mostly stopped getting multiple personality disorder (although the occasional new case crops up here and there).

Now here comes IFS, saying “hey maybe you have multiple Parts in your mind, have you considered looking for them?”

As a last step, he fully covered the wound with the chewed leaves

Saturday, May 4th, 2024

There is widespread evidence of such self-medication in non-human animals — whole-leaf swallowing, bitter-pith chewing, and fur rubbing in African great apes, orangutans, white handed gibbons, and several other species of monkeys — but there had been only one report of active wound treatment in non-human animals, namely in chimpanzees, until scientists spotted the active self-treatment of a facial wound with a biologically active plant by a male Sumatran orangutan:

We observed a male Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) who sustained a facial wound. Three days after the injury he selectively ripped off leaves of a liana with the common name Akar Kuning (Fibraurea tinctoria), chewed on them, and then repeatedly applied the resulting juice onto the facial wound. As a last step, he fully covered the wound with the chewed leaves. Found in tropical forests of Southeast Asia, this and related liana species are known for their analgesic, antipyretic, and diuretic effects and are used in traditional medicine to treat various diseases, such as dysentery, diabetes, and malaria. Previous analyses of plant chemical compounds show the presence of furanoditerpenoids and protoberberine alkaloids, which are known to have antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, antioxidant, and other biological activities of relevance to wound healing. This possibly innovative behavior presents the first systematically documented case of active wound treatment with a plant species know to contain biologically active substances by a wild animal and provides new insights into the origins of human wound care.

Orangutan Facial Wound Healing

Chickenpox is now so rare in the US that doctors are misdiagnosing it half the time

Thursday, March 28th, 2024

Thanks to a successful vaccination campaign starting in 1995, chickenpox is now so rare in the US that doctors are misdiagnosing it half the time, according to a report from the Minnesota Department of Health:

The country’s nationwide childhood vaccination effort reduced case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths in under 20-year-olds by more than 97 percent.


Some people who have been vaccinated against chickenpox can still get the disease, usually with milder fevers and fewer or no blisters, just red spots. This occurs more often in people who’ve only had one dose of the vaccine, not the recommended two.

Since the milder-looking ‘breakthrough’ chickenpox looks different to what doctors might be expecting of the once-rampant childhood disease, it can be difficult to diagnose just by looking at the red rash or spots.


The investigation found that of 420 patients with a suspected chickenpox infection who provided specimens to MDH’s labs between December 2016 and March 2023, only 37 percent tested positive for varicella-zoster — the virus that causes chickenpox.

One-fifth of those positive cases were examples of ‘breakthrough’ chickenpox, having received at least one dose of the chickenpox vaccine, and around half of the patients tested by MDH were fully or partially vaccinated.

More specifically, among 208 patients whose doctors suspected they had chickenpox after examining them at a medical facility, only 45 percent (or 95 people) tested positive for the disease. Another 26 people tested positive for an enterovirus, and a sole person was found to have HSV-1, a different type of herpes virus related to chickenpox.

At first, they thought it was blood from one of the sperm whales

Saturday, March 23rd, 2024

During a tourist excursion in Bremer Canyon, a whale-watching hotspot off the coast between Albany and Hopetoun, scientists witnessed a pod of sperm whales forming a “rosette” — that is, forming a circle with their heads together — as orcas attacked, before unleashing their defense defecation:

They described seeing a “cloud of diarrhea” permeate the water, and this rarely seen defense mechanism seemed to help the sperm whale pod escape what could have been a fatal attack by at least 30 killer whales, ABC News Australia reported.


As the event unfolded, onlookers noticed a large, “dark bubble” pop up to the water’s surface. At first, they thought it was blood from one of the sperm whales, potentially a small calf. But when the team later reviewed footage of the plume, they realized it was actually whale poop.

“Because [a] sperm whale’s diet consists mostly of squid, they actually have this really reddish colored poo,” she said.

Space radiation comes in two different flavors

Saturday, March 16th, 2024

The Orion spacecraft that is supposed to take humans on a Moon fly-by mission this year has a heavily shielded (solar) storm shelter for the crew, but shelters like that aren’t sufficient for a flight to Mars:

Space radiation comes in two different flavors. Solar events like flares or coronal mass ejections can cause very high fluxes of charged particles (mostly protons). They’re nasty when you have no shelter but are relatively easy to shield against since solar protons are mostly low energy. The majority of solar particle events flux is between 30 Mega-electronVolts to 100 MeV and could be stopped by Orion-like shelters.

Then there are galactic cosmic rays: particles coming from outside the Solar System, set in motion by faraway supernovas or neutron stars. These are relatively rare but are coming at you all the time from all directions. They also have high energies, starting at 200 MeV and going to several GeVs, which makes them extremely penetrating. Thick masses don’t provide much shielding against them. When high-energy cosmic ray particles hit thin shields, they produce many lower-energy particles—you’d be better off with no shield at all.

The particles with energies between 70 MeV and 500 MeV are responsible for 95 percent of the radiation dose that astronauts get in space. On short flights, solar storms are the main concern because they can be quite violent and do lots of damage very quickly. The longer you fly, though, GCRs become more of an issue because their dose accumulates over time, and they can go through pretty much everything we try to put in their way.

The reason nearly none of this radiation can reach us is that Earth has a natural, multi-stage shielding system. It begins with its magnetic field, which deflects most of the incoming particles toward the poles. A charged particle in a magnetic field follows a curve—the stronger the field, the tighter the curve. Earth’s magnetic field is very weak and barely bends incoming particles, but it is huge, extending thousands of kilometers into space.

Anything that makes it through the magnetic field runs into the atmosphere, which, when it comes to shielding, is the equivalent of an aluminum wall that’s 3 meters thick. Finally, there is the planet itself, which essentially cuts the radiation in half since you always have 6.5 billion trillion tons of rock shielding you from the bottom.

To put that in perspective, the Apollo crew module had on average 5 grams of mass per square centimeter standing between the crew and radiation. A typical ISS module has twice that, about 10 g/cm2. The Orion shelter has 35–45 g/cm2, depending on where you sit exactly, and it weighs 36 tons. On Earth, the atmosphere alone gives you 810 g/cm2—roughly 20 times more than our best shielded spaceships.

The two options are to add more mass—which gets expensive quickly—or to shorten the length of the mission, which isn’t always possible. So solving radiation with passive mass won’t cut it for longer missions, even using the best shielding materials like polyethylene or water. This is why making a miniaturized, portable version of the Earth’s magnetic field was on the table from the first days of space exploration. Unfortunately, we discovered it was far easier said than done.


In 1967, Richard H. Levy and Francis W. French delivered a report saying that plasma and electrostatic shields were promising, but they both needed 60 million volts to work—even by today’s standards, that number is ridiculous.


Electrostatic shields had been ignored because they required those 60 million volts that French and Levy talked about in their report. In 2008, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and ASRC Aerospace Corporation proposed an electrostatic shield based on three huge Van de Graaff generators connected to an outer ring that looked like something taken straight from a Vulcan Combat Cruiser. It was undeniably cool, but it was completely infeasible. Fry and Madzunkov had to find something more realistic, so they turned to advanced modeling software and huge GPU clusters.


events’ radiation and 15 percent of cosmic rays using just 1 million volts, not 60 million. And you no longer needed to haul a full-size power plant with you. “Using grid-like, porous structures we not only brought the weight down, but we also brought the needed power down from megawatts to 100 watts,” said Fry. Power savings that big were possible because plasmas, which normally bleed away volts, did not accumulate on these porous structures—they flew right through them.

First-generation biofuel operations use food crops like corn, soy, and sugarcane as raw materials, or feedstocks

Monday, February 12th, 2024

Introducing a simple, renewable chemical to the pretreatment step can finally make biofuel production both cost-effective and carbon neutral:

Lignin is one of the main components of plant cell walls. It provides plants with greater structural integrity and resiliency from microbial attacks. However, these natural properties of lignin also make it difficult to extract and utilize from the plant matter, also known as biomass.


To overcome the lignin hurdle, [UC Riverside Associate Research Professor Charles] Cai invented CELF, which stands for co-solvent enhanced lignocellulosic fractionation. It is an innovative biomass pretreatment technology.

“CELF uses tetrahydrofuran or THF to supplement water and dilute acid during biomass pretreatment. It improves overall efficiency and adds lignin extraction capabilities,” Cai said. “Best of all, THF itself can be made from biomass sugars.”


First-generation biofuel operations use food crops like corn, soy, and sugarcane as raw materials, or feedstocks. Because these feedstocks divert land and water away from food production, using them for biofuels is not ideal.

Second-generation operations use non-edible plant biomass as feedstocks. An example of biomass feedstocks includes wood residues from milling operations, sugarcane bagasse, or corn stover, all of which are abundant low-cost byproducts of forestry and agricultural operations.

According to the Department of Energy, up to a billion tons per year of biomass could be made available for the manufacture of biofuels and bioproducts in the US alone, capable of displacing 30% of our petroleum consumption while also creating new domestic jobs.

Because a CELF biorefinery can more fully utilize plant matter than earlier second-generation methods, the researchers found that a heavier, denser feedstock like hardwood poplar is preferable over less carbon-dense corn stover for yielding greater economic and environmental benefits.

Using poplar in a CELF biorefinery, the researchers demonstrate that sustainable aviation fuel could be made at a break-even price as low as $3.15 per gallon of gasoline equivalent. The current average cost for a gallon of jet fuel in the U.S. is $5.96.

We can read the scrolls

Monday, February 5th, 2024

Vesuvius ChallengeOn March 15th, 2023, Nat Friedman, Daniel Gross, and Brent Seales launched the Vesuvius Challenge, and now they are announcing the Grand Prize winners:

Two thousand years ago, a volcanic eruption buried an ancient library of papyrus scrolls now known as the Herculaneum Papyri.

In the 18th century the scrolls were discovered. More than 800 of them are now stored in a library in Naples, Italy; these lumps of carbonized ash cannot be opened without severely damaging them. But how can we read them if they remain rolled up?


Scrolls from the Institut de France were imaged at the Diamond Light Source particle accelerator near Oxford. We released these high-resolution CT scans of the scrolls, and we offered more than $1M in prizes, put forward by many generous donors.


Our team of eminent papyrologists worked day and night to review 15 columns of text in anonymized submissions, while the technical team audited and reproduced the submitted code and methods.

There was one submission that stood out clearly from the rest. Working independently, each member of our team of papyrologists recovered more text from this submission than any other. Remarkably, the entry achieved the criteria we set when announcing the Vesuvius Challenge in March: 4 passages of 140 characters each, with at least 85% of characters recoverable. This was not a given: most of us on the organizing team assigned a less than 30% probability of success when we announced these criteria! And in addition, the submission includes another 11 (!) columns of text — more than 2000 characters total.

The results of this review were clear and unanimous: the Vesuvius Challenge Grand Prize of $700,000 is awarded to a team of three for their excellent submission. Congratulations to Youssef Nader, Luke Farritor, and Julian Schilliger!


Scholars might call it a philosophical treatise. But it seems familiar to us, and we can’t escape the feeling that the first text we’ve uncovered is a 2000-year-old blog post about how to enjoy life.

Why are so many NFL quarterbacks blue-eyed?

Thursday, February 1st, 2024

I knew that Steve Sailer had asked, “Why are so many NFL quarterbacks blue-eyed?” but I hadn’t looked into it, until Razib Khan linked to a 2014 piece:

Intrigued, I did a little research with the help of Google and, and it turns out that over 80% of Superbowls have been won by Quarterback with blue eyes, a ratio of over 4 to 1. What’s more, of the twenty-three modern era quarterbacks in the NFL Hall of Fame, twenty-one have light colored eyes. That is not a misprint. That is over 90%. If you were to include guaranteed first ballot HOFer’s Peyton Manning, Bret Favre and Tom Brady, it climbs to an astounding twenty four of twenty six. (In 2014, no quarterbacks were voted as HOF semifinalist; however, of the six quarterbacks eligible, only sky blue-eyed Phil Simms has won a Superbowl, setting a record for completion percentage in the game and winning the Superbowl MVP award).

Only two Hall of Fame quarterbacks have brown eyes, Warren Moon and Otto Graham. For any coach in the NFL (or vegas bookie), this should be a stunning revelation. According to a New York Times article by Douglas Belkin, blue eyes make up less than twenty percent of the people born in the U.S. today, about 1 in 6. Even when you concede the fact that racism played a large part in the earlier days of the NFL (and some would say even now), and therefore use only statics from the population of Caucasian Americans for comparison, blue eyes are still only found at a rate of approximately 34%, or 1 in 3. Only in Estonia and some Scandinavian countries does the percentage of blue eyes even approach that of the NFL Hall of Fame’s 90+%.


According to my wife, (a certified retinal angiographer who has worked with America’s top retinal surgeons), it is well known amongst eye surgeons and ophthalmologists that there are dramatic physiological differences between light and dark colored eyes. In fact, light eyes, or those with less melanin present, are at a greater risk for macular degeneration as well as reacting very differently to certain stimuli than dark colored eyes. For example, when given dilation drops before an exam or surgery, it is common knowledge that brown eyes require more medication, sometimes up to twice as much, take longer to dilate and stay dilated for a shorter period of time than their lighter colored counterparts. If eye color accounts for this diverse a reaction to a temporary medication like dilation drops, it stands to reason that they would react differently to other stimuli as well, like air temperature or perhaps even the bluish tint of the winter sun. This concept has largely been ignored by the athletic community.


If any other occupation required a similar visual skill as the NFL quarterback, the men often admiringly referred to as gunslingers, then perhaps actual sharp shooters, or what we might call a sniper today, is a good place to look for validation. As it turns out, it was once common knowledge that the best sharp shooters possessed light colored eyes. In a famous 1890 short story by Ambrose Bierce, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, the author writes, “He observed that it was a grey eye and remembered having read that grey eyes were keenest, and that all famous marksmen had them.” In reality, it was so well known light colored eyes made for the best snipers that the Canadian military conducted tests in the late 1800’s on the very subject. They not only found lighter eyes seem to perform better as snipers, but certain colors can be seen at great distances better than others resulting in a change of their infantry’s uniform color from red to grey, the very first official camouflage and, what would suddenly appear to be a huge advantage for the Oakland Raiders. (Jim Plunkett finally comes into focus).

Drug and chemical warfare was sort of a parallel arms race

Friday, January 26th, 2024

Tripping on Utopia by Benjamin BreenUC Santa Cruz historian Benjamin Breen’s Tripping on Utopia: Margaret Mead, the Cold War, and the Troubled Birth of Psychedelic Science tracks the souring of the idealism once associated with the study of psychedelic drugs in the 20th century:

More concretely, it focuses on the intertwined lives of two cultural anthropologists — Mead and Gregory Bateson, who were married for 14 years — and the extraordinary circle of social scientists, psychoanalysts, artists and spies who gathered around them from the 1930s through the ’70s.


People in the ’20s and ’30s genuinely thought science could, for instance, lead to the formation of a world government.

Mead and Bateson thought that scientists would lead the vanguard of a revolution in bringing the wisdom and the experiences of other cultures into the modern world, the creation of a sort of global culture that would allow for some form of transcendence. World War II really changed their view.

So there was a strong belief that in the aftermath of the atomic bomb that the way to win a war was to never end up in actual combat. Psychological warfare was the way to go — you know, basically the idea of game theory. For instance, the American side imagined, “What if the Soviets have a mind-altering drug and they give it to the president of the United States or slip it into the ambassador to Moscow’s drink?” That concern actually prompted parallel work by the CIA and the U.S. military. Drug and chemical warfare was sort of a parallel arms race alongside the nuclear arms race.

And that is what we mostly associate today with MKUltra. But it was much bigger than that. There were many other programs. and I barely scratched the surface. For instance, the idea of dropping aerosolized LSD over cities was something people thought about, but also [to use it] as a tool of diplomacy, a way of interrogating suspected double agents, even as a way of inuring Americans in the State Department. There were many layers of paranoia.

Generating Power on Earth From the Coldness of Deep Space

Thursday, January 25th, 2024

On a clear night you’ll feel your body cool; some of that cooling is heat radiating into space:

Removing heat this way can cool that object down tens of degrees below the temperature of its surroundings.

We can exploit the temperature difference by turning it into electricity through thermoelectric power generation. The working principle behind a thermoelectric generator is the Seebeck effect, which describes how a material develops a voltage difference in response to a temperature differential across it. We can manipulate the Seebeck effect in semiconductors by the controlled addition of impurities, or dopants.


With the ambient environment as a hot reservoir, we can use the coldness from deep space to create the cold reservoir. To do this, we send heat out to space using what we call an emitter, which cools itself to a lower temperature than its surroundings. That’s a phenomenon known as radiative cooling. Then, a thermoelectric generator situated between the cold emitter and the now-hotter ambient surroundings can produce electricity.

The emitter’s job is to radiate the heat out beyond Earth’s atmosphere. But the atmosphere is transparent only to photons of certain wavelengths. Within the mid-infrared range, which is where heat radiation from typical earthbound objects is concentrated, the most applicable atmospheric transmission band is in the 8- to 13-micrometer-wavelength range. Even some simple emitters send out heat radiation at these wavelengths. For example, if it’s insulated from ambient surroundings, black paint emits enough radiation within that band to cool a surface down by 10 degrees Celsius when exposed to the night sky.

In the wavelength range outside 8 to 13 mm, the atmosphere bounces back a substantial amount of radiation. During the daytime, solar radiation comes into the equation. More-advanced emitter designs aim to avoid the incoming radiation from the atmosphere and sunlight by ensuring that they absorb and emit only within the transparency window. The idea of using such a wavelength-selective emitter for radiative cooling dates back to the pioneering work of Claes-Göran Granqvist and collaborators in the 1980s. Just as an engineer designs a radio antenna with a specific shape and size to transmit over a certain wavelength in a certain direction, we can design an emitter using a library of materials, each with a specific shape and size, to adjust the wavelength band and direction for heat radiation. The better we do this, the more heat the emitter ejects into space and the colder the emitter can get.

Glass is a great material for an emitter. Its atomic vibrations couple strongly to radiation around the 10-micrometer wavelength, forcing the material to emit much of its heat radiation within the transmission window. Just touch a glass window at night and you’ll feel this cooling. Adding a metallic film to help reflect radiation skyward makes the emissions—and the cooling—even more effective. And structures can be specifically designed to strongly reflect the wavelengths of sunlight.


Putting all these optimizations together, we calculated that the maximum achievable power density for this technology is 2.2 W/m2. This power density is a lot lower than what can be generated with solar cells under sunlight. However, when sunlight isn’t readily available, this is pretty good; it’s significantly higher compared to what can be achieved with many other ambient energy-harvesting schemes. For example, it’s orders of magnitude more than the less than 1 mW/m2 that can be harvested from ambient radio waves.

We all want the pill

Wednesday, January 24th, 2024

Rethinking Diabetes by Gary TaubesThe Guardian reviews Gary Taubes‘ Rethinking Diabetes: What Science Reveals About Diet, Insulin, and Successful Treatments

Gary Taubes is probably the most single-minded person I have ever met. In 2002, when he was a little-known science journalist and author of two books on scientific controversies, an article of his was published in the New York Times, headlined: What If It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie? In it, he argued that the low-fat dietary advice of the previous couple of decades wasn’t only incorrect, but actively dangerous and the reason for, as he put it, the “rampaging epidemic of obesity in America”. For Taubes, dietary fat wasn’t a problem at all. Instead, the real danger was carbohydrate, he asserted, sparking a backlash, and fuelling the ongoing conversation about what constitutes a “healthy diet”. He wasn’t the first to assert that carbs were bad (Robert Atkins got there before him), but perhaps because of his serious and scientific background — he has a physics degree from Harvard and studied aerospace engineering at Stanford — he has been a polarising figure, with as many ardent followers as detractors.


Before the discovery of insulin in the 1920s, diet was the only way to manage diabetes and although various options were tried by early practitioners, low-carb was, says Taubes, among the most popular (with medics, at least). Insulin was a gamechanger. Not only did it almost magically save the lives of children with type 1 diabetes, who would often arrive at hospital comatose and die swiftly afterwards, but it also meant that people with diabetes of both types could eat a more or less normal diet.


What Taubes would like to see is low-carb diets being offered alongside or instead of diabetes medications. “When insulin therapy started in the 1920s, they had no idea what the long-term side-effects were or what the long-term consequences of living with diabetes were [because most people with type 1 died],” he says. “Then doctors find out that it’s just easier to let patients eat whatever they want and give them drugs to cover them. Then it’s another five, 10 or 20 years before they start seeing the long-term complications, which they think of as long-term complications of the disease.” What he wishes scientists at the time had concluded was: “The reason we’re keeping them alive is insulin therapy. So what we’re seeing is the long-term complications of the disease as controlled by insulin therapy, and the insulin therapy might be causing the complications as much as the disease is.

“By the late 1930s, you have this tidal wave of diabetic complications: the heart disease, the atherosclerosis, the neuropathy, the kidney failure, the blindness, amputations. And nobody ties it back.” By then, the low-carb diet had fallen far from favour. “Nobody wants to eat a diet. So nobody’s being told: ‘Look, if I give you insulin, I’m going to keep you alive until you’re 30, especially if I give you a lot of insulin and you do eat your carbs. But if I tell you not to eat the carbs and we minimise the insulin use — which for type 2 could be no insulin — I might keep you alive as long as anyone else in your family.’”

In the book, which is laden with references, studies and dense historical detail, Taubes mentions case records from the 1700s in which patients on low-sugar diets beg for a medical solution, suggesting that the preference for medication over a highly prescriptive diet has been with us for a long time. “If you’re told, a pill or a diet, we all want the pill. But if you’re told a pill or a diet and the diet will keep you healthy and the pill will give you a chronic degenerative disorder where you’re still going to have these horrible complications, they are just going to be 20 to 30 years later… the pill is going to be easier, because it always is. But if you change the diet, it’s not a hypothetical change: you can put your diabetes into remission, you can stop taking these medications.”

It maintained height and stayed in the jet stream for the three-day journey across the Pacific

Monday, December 25th, 2023

Swarm Troopers by David HamblingIn December 1944, David Hambling explains (in Swarm Troopers), US military observers on the West Coast reported a wave of unidentified flying objects:

On investigation, these were found to be paper balloons thirty feet across.


The balloons were filled with hydrogen and had a complex mechanical gondola. At first, they were thought to be weather balloons, but after reports of unexplained explosions, one was captured intact and found to be carrying incendiary bombs. This was the Japanese Fu-Go or “windship weapon.”


It was months before intelligence revealed they had flown all the way from Japan. The Japanese were taking advantage of a newly discovered natural phenomenon, the jet stream, a narrow ribbon of fast-moving air at high altitudes.


A clockwork mechanism controlled the release of a set of small sandbags around the rim of the gondola. Whenever the balloon fell too low, it dropped another sandbag. If it rose too high, which might cause it to burst, a valve vented a small amount of hydrogen. This control system meant it maintained height and stayed in the jet stream for the three-day journey across the Pacific.


The aim was to start forest fires in the heavily wooded regions of the Pacific Northwest. This would spread panic and divert resources from the war effort. The target was big enough that even this rough method of aiming had a chance of success.


US analysts estimated the Fu-Go cost $ 200 each, at a time when a P-51 Mustang was $ 50,000. The little balloons were hard to intercept. There was not enough metal on them to show up on radar, and they were surprisingly fast at high altitude, making them difficult to catch. Only around twenty were shot down.


At least four hundred Fu-Go made it to America, scattered from Mexico to Canada. The number would have been greater but for a problem with antifreeze in the altitude control system. This was too weak and the altitude controls were apt to freeze up, leaving Fu-Go to slowly descend into the waters of the Pacific.

After the war, the US considered balloons:

The E77 balloon bomb was similar to the Fu-Go, but delivered an anti-crop agent in the form of feathers dipped in a bacterial or fungal culture. Like the Fu-Go it was an imprecise way of hitting a large target, but 1954 tests suggested that balloon bombs would be effective.


The US also tested long-distance balloons for photographing enemy territory, but again balloons were edged out by manned aircraft. As always, the US military took more interest in high-performance manned aircraft than small, unmanned alternatives.

The cuprates got really weird when they stopped superconducting and started resisting

Thursday, December 21st, 2023

Liyang Chen and his collaborators at Rice University measured the current flowing through an atoms-thin strand of “strange” metal and found that it flowed smoothly and evenly:

Familiar metals like tin and mercury become superconductors only when chilled to within a few degrees of absolute zero. Bednorz and Müller measured the electrical resistance in a copper-based (“cuprate”) material and saw that it vanished at a relatively balmy 35 kelvins. (For their breakthrough discovery, Bednorz and Müller pocketed a Nobel Prize just a year later.)


The cuprates got really weird when they stopped superconducting and started resisting. As all metals warm, resistance increases. Warmer temperatures mean atoms and electrons jiggle more, creating more resistance-inducing collisions as electrons shuttle current through a material. In normal metals, such as nickel, resistance rises quadratically at low temperatures — slowly at first and then faster and faster. But in the cuprates, it rose linearly: Each degree of warming brought the same increase in resistance — a bizarre pattern that continued over hundreds of degrees and, in terms of strangeness, overshadowed the material’s superconducting ability. The cuprates were the strangest metals researchers had ever seen.


The current in the gold wire crackled in the familiar way that currents made of charged quasiparticles do — like fat raindrops splattering on the car roof. But in the strange metal, current slipped quietly through the nanowire, an effect akin to the nearly silent hiss of mist. The most straightforward interpretation of the experiment is that charge in this strange metal does not flow in electron-size chunks.