From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

"Let's (Not) Go To Mars!"

on Monday, 17 July 2017. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

Ah, the question asked since the dawn of human civilization: Should we go to Mars? Earth is getting pretty crowded, we're using up all the easily-accessible resources, and we're pretty much done exploring here. So let's go somewhere new!

Hence the anonymous question asked on the whiteboard by my desk recently. Mars seems like a good place to visit, and maybe even move to. But should we?

Mars certainly has a lot going for it. As planets go it's not too far away. It's bigger than the moon, which gives it a more Earth-like gravity. There's a lot of water on the surface just laying around. You could certainly pick a worse place to plant your interplanetary feet.

On the other hand, there's no air. Well, a little bit, and it's all carbon dioxide. The water is frozen. The gravity, while stronger than the moon's, is only about a third that of the Earth. And "not too far away" in space is...really, really far away.

Getting to Mars is certainly technologically feasible. Building a colony there? Possible, but it will take some major leaps and bounds, not to mention a century or two of solid investment, before it could be self-sustaining.

But in the end, should we go to Mars? Maybe.

"Quite Repellent"

on Monday, 10 July 2017. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

We can all admit that superconductors are pretty nifty. They carry electrical currents with zero resistance (hence the "super" part of their name), so anytime you want to build The City Of The Future, you'll want to include superconductors to transmit electricity from your ecologically-friendly power station to your self-driving car without any losses.

Because of that lack of resistance, superconductors repel magnetic fields - in other words, they prevent any magnetic field lines from penetrating their surface. This feature makes superconductors double-nifty: if you place one on top of a magnet, the field lines envelope the superconductor like a net, overcoming gravity and making it levitate.

The downside is that we've only been able to make superconductors that do their thing at very cold temperatures, which is why The City Of The Future isn't The City Of Today. But the hunt is on for the right combination of materials that superconduct at everyday lukewarm temperatures, which will make free electrical transmission - and levitation - routine.

"Pure Lunacy"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 03 July 2017. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

Let's imagine some report comes out claiming that incidents of crime are higher than average during the days surrounding a full moon. And let's further imagine that there are enough data to claim statistical significance. What are our options to interpret this result?

a) The full moon causes people to go nuts because of mysterious moon-rays b) The full moon is connected to people going nuts for some mundane reason c) None of the above

I suppose it's easy to dismiss option a) since we don't encounter crazy-making moon-rays in any other experiment, so most rational-thinking people rightly go to conclusion b). The moon itself isn't causing people to go berserk, but perhaps with the slightly brighter nights, folks are more inclined to think criminally.

Perhaps. But to me the simplest answer is c). If you mine enough data and make enough cross-correlations, you're bound to find a statistical link - even a significant one. But "statistically significant" is not the same thing as "meaningful". You can see this in action on one of my favorite websites, Spurious Correlations:, which finds significant connections between, for example, the number of swimming pool drownings and the number of films starring Nicholas Cage.

Be careful with statistics - data are the first things to lie to you.

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