Cancer: bad luck or bad journalism?

Recently, there’s been a lot of press about cancer being caused by bad luck, but is it?

There’s two questions we should consider. How accurate is the science? And then how accurately is the science being reported?

How accurate is the science?

Science is built around transparency and repeatability, with scientific papers being subject to rigorous peer review to examine their method, results and conclusions.

In this case, the scientists involved have picked up on a legitimate correlation between the risk of cancer arising in a particular organ and the number of cell divisions that occur in that organ. Lots of cell division = higher risk. It’s an interesting insight, but it doesn’t mean cancer is the result of bad luck.

How accurately is the science being reported? 

As with so much that goes on in the media, most of the articles I’ve seen on this topic have been nothing more than a rehash of other articles without too much thought or analysis.

All too often, “automatic content creation” replaces actual journalism. Whenever you see roughly the same information repeated mindlessly, you’re probably looking at a content aggregator rather than actual human content.

auto content creation

The great irony of the internet age is content is growing at an exponential rate but quality is falling away. In the 1900s, the consummate knowledge of mankind doubled every century, prior to that, such doubling is estimated to have occurred only once a millenia. By the end of World War II, our collective pool of knowledge was doubling every 25 years. Now, the amount of information in the world doubles every year.

The problem we face going forward is identifying trustworthy, reliable knowledge in the sea of verbiage. Automatic content creation is a plague on the internet. Best solution? Check the sources an article is based upon. No source = no value.

In this case, the science isn’t being accurately reported as the conclusion that cancer is the result of bad luck is not the conclusion of the study.

Yes, organs with lots of cell division carry a higher risk of developing cancer, but it’s a broad, general observation. Lifestyle (epigenetics) has a huge impact, as does genetics. Look closely at the published graph showing the results of this study. There’s a big clue in that one of these cancers is listed twice.

Cancer rates

Remember, this graph is logarithmic, meaning although the values on the axis look evenly spaced, they’re not. Each marked value is exponentially further away from the last value. 10^5 is a hundred thousand while 10^7 is ten million, and 10^9 is a billion, etc.

Now, look at lung cancer. There are two values, one for smokers the other for non-smokers. They’re not the same. Why? Because lifestyle choices make a MASSIVE difference, on the order of 18 times more difference when you do the math!

The cancer risk is 18 times higher in smokers than non-smokers. Since roughly 18 percent of the adult US population are smokers, this suggests that for lung cancer, about 75 percent of the risk is due to smoking — Guardian

No other cancer in this study has been broken down by known drivers.

The incidence of melanoma (skin cancer) is known to be directly linked to sun exposure damaging DNA. Split out those that developed melanoma after years of exposure to the sun against those that developed melanoma even though they protected themselves with sunscreen, hats, etc, and you’ll probably get a very similar result to the smoking/non-smoking difference. Also, genetics play a huge role in melanoma, with light skinned/fair haired people being far more susceptible to this cancer.

Another stand out is HPV as this is a cancer we know is caused by a virus, and we’ve developed a vaccine for it, yet it also ostensibly follows the pattern of cell division = higher risk. Clearly, there’s more research to be done and better categorizations to be made to take into account these other contributing factors.

Cancer is an astonishingly complex disease. There’s no silver bullet. There’s no simple answers, like “It’s all just bad luck.” But there is an abundance of wonderful research being done on how to prevent and how to treat cancer.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure — Benjamin Franklin

Eat healthy meals. Exercise regularly. Avoid exposure to known carcinogens. Protect yourself from the sun, etc. None of that advice has changed with this study.

Don’t leave cancer to dumb, bad luck.

My Top 10 (actually 18) Books of 2014


Top 10 Books of 2014 as chosen by independent science fiction writer Will Swardstrom

Originally posted on Will Swardstrom - Author:

It’s December, so that can only mean one thing – end of the year Top 10 lists! I did my favorite reads of 2013 last year, so now this can be a yearly thing. Just like last year, most of the books I read over the last 365 days or so were independently-published. Just like last year, I really believe we are in the midst of a publishing renaissance thanks to the new digital publishing tools at our disposal.

Personally, I did manage to get my second novel published, but everything else I published ended up being short stories (a couple will even be showing up in the first couple weeks of 2015). Due a lot of family situations, including a major addition to my family in August, writing just wasn’t as much of a priority during a few stretches. I can say I was able to get about 1/3…

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What will First Contact be like?

Is there life in outer space?

Although there’s plenty of conjecture in the media and a host of imaginative science fiction stories on this subject, we already know the answer to this question.

Picture credit:

Picture credit: Wallpapers

Yes, there is life in outer space! 

There’s no uncertainty, no doubt, no question at all. Life exists in outer space. Earth itself is definitive proof that life can thrive in the harsh environment of space.

At first glance, such an answer might seem disingenuous, as what people really mean when they ask, “Is there life in outer space?” is … “Is there any other life?” but this is a genuine answer. Our universe is a harsh, hostile environment, and yet life has flourished with astonishing diversity on at least one planet—Earth.

The answer to the question, “Is there any other life in outer space?” is “We don’t know, but we have no reason to think there isn’t.”

In the 16th century, Nicolaus Copernicus first established that the Earth revolves around the sun. The single biggest hurdle he faced in promoting his heliocentric theory was that everyone assumed the Earth was special. Earth wasn’t “just another planet” like Mars or Venus. Earth was the center of creation! Copernicus proved otherwise.

Picture credit:

Picture credit: ArtsElectronic

Even now, five hundred years later, people still struggle with Earthism (if I may be allowed to coin such a phrase) assuming Earth is somehow special and unique in the heavens. The reality is, Earth is a rather small planet in orbit around an unassuming star in a modestly sized, nondescript galaxy.

Everything we’ve learned about astronomy suggests there are a ridiculously large number of similar, Earth-like planets out there, perhaps as many as 40 billion in our own galaxy!

There are at least two hundred billion galaxies in the visible universe, each with hundreds of billions of stars. Each of these stars can potentially host dozens of planets.

Earth is as unique as a snowflake, but so is Mars, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn. Contrary to popular belief, snowflakes are somewhat identical when they form and, as wonderfully varied as they are once they reach the ground, they’re not entirely unique.

Earth is astonishing and beautiful, but it is no more or less important or unique than any other planet. Consider the other planets in our solar system, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn, Jupiter and the rest. They may lack complex life but they’re just as extraordinary as Earth, and there’s a distinct possibility that the moons of Saturn and Jupiter could harbor microbial life!

In the 1950s, Enrico Fermi looked out at the stars and posed the question, “Where is everybody?” Fermi had done the math and realized given the size of our galaxy and how long it has been around, we should see the Milky Way teeming with life.

Fermi’s Paradox has become a mainstay of astronomy ever since, with scientists trying to understand why the heavens are silent, and yet the answer may be surprisingly simple.

Picture credit: XKCD

Picture credit: xkcd – The Search

Seth Shostak, in his non-fiction book, Confessions of an Alien Hunter, points out how astonishingly difficult and time consuming it is to search through space.

Seth gives the analogy of someone sitting next to a haystack, sifting through a thimble full of hay looking for a needle to highlight how little we have accomplished in our search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Only this particular field we’re sitting in has at least two hundred billion other haystacks!

Space is unimaginably big. The average star seen with the naked eye is roughly a hundred light years away, and yet the distribution of stars that make up our galaxy spans a hundred thousand light years!

On the darkest night, we see only a tiny fraction of the stars in our own galaxy, something like 0.000005% of the stars out there.

Picture credit: Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Picture credit: Neil deGrasse Tyson

Look out at the stars tonight and the chances are the starlight falling on your eyes first radiated into space before you were born. That light has been racing through space over the course of your entire life, only to arrive now and register in your eyes for a fraction of a second.

When you look at the numbers, First Contact is a question of when, not if, and yet First Contact won’t be anything like the movies.

Stephen Hawking is concerned about First Contact, noting that, historically, First Contact with an advanced civilization never ended well for the original inhabitants. American Indians, Aztecs and the Australian Aborigines all suffered at the hands of the more technologically advanced colonial Europeans, but First Contact with an extra-terrestrial intelligence will be quite different.

Rather than working against us, First Contact is going to be extremely one sided in our favor, and the reason is simple—we will detect ET long before ET detects us.

Remember, looking into space is akin to looking back in time.

If we detect an alien civilization at the modest distance of 3,000 light years away then we will see that civilization as it existed 3,000 years ago. Should they happen to be looking in our direction, they’ll “see” us as we were in 1000 BC—King David ruled in Israel, the Assyrian empire dominated the Middle East, Rome wasn’t founded for another three hundred years.

ET would “see” a technologically silent planet with a curious atmosphere that they might consider a candidate for life, but they’ll have no direct evidence for intelligent life. 

Even if our extraterrestrial neighbors can travel faster than the speed of light and can reach Earth in a relatively short period of time, they would still have no way of knowing there was civilized life on Earth for thousands of years to come. In short, we can see them, but they can’t see us.

In this way, emerging celestial societies, such as Earth, have an advantage over more technologically advanced societies in that we can eavesdrop. We can remain incognito as we learn about ET.

Picture credit:

Picture credit: Tiny Humanity. Yep, that blue dot is as far as our radio signals have reached into space

If we detect an alien civilization anywhere beyond that tiny blue dot, they’re not going to know about us for a very looooong time.

So what is First Contact likely to be?

Contact is somewhat of a misnomer. First Detection is more appropriate.

If we look at the kinds of signals broadcast by humans, some of the strongest signals come from “dumb” technology, things like weather radar or navigation radar at airports. There’s not too much that could be inferred from detecting such a signal from an alien civilization other than that the signal wasn’t produced naturally. If we picked up their equivalent, we’d know they were there, but it would take years to glean more than that. 

More interesting signals, such as radio and television, are designed for local reception. Although such signals leak into space, they weaken according to the inverse square of the distance they reach—double the distance, quarter the strength, etc. As they’re not intended to span star systems, they’re going to be absurdly difficult to detect as they’ll be so faint they fade into the background noise.

ET may use some kind of point-to-point solution for communicating between planets or stars, something like a laser. Being effective over large distances invariably means there’s less leakage, less opportunity for us to eavesdrop. We would miss something like this entirely.

One hallmark of civilization is the consumption of power. Converting energy into usable power is notoriously difficult to do efficiently. Invariably, there’s always some kind of leakage. Engines are noisy, they get hot, etc, so when looking at the heavens we look for the telltale signs of industry. We may very well detect the heat signature of an advanced alien civilization before detecting their radio waves.

Picture credit: HALO

Picture credit: HALO – A Dyson sphere around a star would give off infrared radiation we could detect

Another possibility is a deliberate broadcast. In this scenario, ET recognizes the difficulty of interstellar travel and broadcasts his intentions either via radio waves (cheap to send) or by sending out Von Neumann probes (such as the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey). In essence, this is the equivalent of the time capsules we buried in grade school, leaving something for future generations to examine. 

More than likely, though, First Contact/Detection will be accidental on ET’s part and not a deliberate message, and that will limit what we can learn from them.

First Contact is going to be a long, slow process, but it will change our outlook on life and the universe just as radically as the telescope Galileo first pointed at Jupiter. 

When it comes to First Contact, we’re going to have to be patient.

Peter Cawdron is the international bestselling author of such speculative First Contact novels as ANOMALY, XENOPHOBIA and MY SWEET SATAN.

Scientist Fiction

Recently, while working on the Telepath Chronicles, I got to meet Elena Giorgi, a native of the virtual land of Facebook.

Elena is a scientist writing science fiction, specializing in thrillers, and she’s got quite a yarn to spin.

Not only

Not only is Elena an author, she’s a remarkable photographer

Here’s my interview with Elena.

Writing is an arduous task, a labour of love. What inspired you to start writing science fiction?

That’s an interesting question, because in fact, I grew up reading the classics and a lot of literary fiction, and indeed that’s all I wrote for the longest time. I studied theoretical math in college and graduate school, and as much as I love rigor and logic, I soon grew tired of all the abstraction with no immediate application. Quoting from a guest blog I did for the STEM Women website

“Pure math is beautiful and perfect. There’s Banach spaces, and then Hilbert spaces, and then Banach spaces of Hilbert spaces, and Hilberts of Banachs of Hilberts… It’s like getting lost in one of Dr. Seuss’s pictures. Oh, the thinks you can thinkYes you can, but… do you want to?” 

I switched to genetics in 2004 and never looked back. That’s when I started also envisioning all these fantastic science fiction scenarios because truly, if you think human imagination has no limit, wait until you see what Mother Nature came up with through genetics and epigenetics. It’s mesmerizing! You think vampires are cool? Wait until you learn about epigenetic chimeras! We have alien colonies right in our body, millions of aliens who can actually control how fat and/or lean we are by expressing (or not) certain genes in our guts.

So, in a nutshell, that’s how I started writing science fiction: because I fell in love with molecular biology and genetics. :-)

As a scientist, can you tell us a little about your work on developing a vaccine for HIV?

MosaicsMy mentor, Bette Korber, designed a couple of vaccine constructs a few years ago, before I started working in her group. The problem with HIV is that the virus mutates so rapidly that the immune system can’t keep up with it. Think of influenza, for example: it mutates fast, too, but because within one season every infected person more or less shares the same virus, we can still vaccinate people with a different strain every year. Well, with HIV, every person has a different virus. Imagine that: with over 30 million people currently living with HIV/Aids, how are we going find a vaccine that can protect from that many viruses?

Bette and the other wonderful scientists working in my group came up with some genetic sequences that could summarize all the diversity in the HIV population, so that by vaccinating with a handful of strains you can protect people against millions of circulating variants. The problem with that is that these genetic strains had to be reconstructed in silico, in other words, on a computer. No HIV virus found in nature right now will be able to give you that kind of protection. However, a vaccine created with a computer instead of being found in nature has to overcome many more hurdles before it can go into human trials.

When I came on board we had ongoing experiments on animals, and my role was (still is) to analyze the experimental data and statistically validate the results. The good news is that the results have been great in animal studies, and human trials just started this past October. We are all very excited about this.

Being a scientist by trade, does it bug you when movies like Prometheus take shortcuts and hash the science? (I couldn’t believe they took off their helmets inside an alien tomb!)

22271138You know, sometimes “knowing too much” can really take away the enjoyment of movies and fiction.

For me, it’s not just the science. I learned a lot of forensics and police procedural when researching for my book Chimeras, so now shows like CSI are totally ridiculous to me.

And indie author to indie author: you wouldn’t believe how many errors I catch in traditionally published books. It drives me up the wall, because these are the same editors who couldn’t believe the science in my books, and then they go off and publish poorly researched (or not researched at all) books.

Can you tell us a little about your latest writing project?

I’m planning and jotting down ideas for a third book in the Track Presius series, a hard-boiled detective thriller where crimes revolve around medical research and genetics. I’m also about 1/3 into the sequel of Gene Cards, which instead is a futuristic thriller featuring Biothreat special agent and Muay Thai fighter Skyler Donohue, her white hat hacker friend Peter Wang, and the extravagant medical examiner Dr. Erasmus Montoya. As if that wasn’t keeping me enough busy, I’m working on a short for Samuel Peralta’s next anthology in the Future Chronicle series, and I’m half way through a YA fantasy novella, which may or may not turn into a serial (we’ll see).

If you could have one of your books turned into a movie, which one would it be and why?

Chimeras, for sure! It’s a hard boiled detective thriller with enough action (but lots of science too!) to make it a fun ride. If I’m allowed a little plug, the audio book just came out, and it is a bit like watching the movie. The narrator did an amazing job! I’ll admit I’m biased, though. ;-)

What do you love most about science fiction?

I love just about everything about science fiction, but if I were to pick one favorite aspect, it would have to be the speculative one. When I read a book, I want something that leaves me pondering, and science fiction has that power because many of the premises are drawn from our every day life and projected into other worlds, or other realities. It’s fun to speculate about our future or envision the possible consequences of our behaviors as a species.

Thanks so much for the opportunity, Peter!

Twitter: @eegiorgi


Seriously, make sure you check out Elena’s books and her magnificent art work

You can find Elena’s writing on Amazon and her amazing photography and artwork is available on sale on SmugMug



Christopher Nolan’s latest movie Interstellar is a blockbuster in every sense of the word.

I loved it. Yes, there’s some handwavum (particularly toward the end) and there are gaping unexplained paradoxes and an impossible escape from beyond the event horizon of a black hole, but what a visual feast!


Nolan has to be commended for his vision.

At three hours in length, Interstellar is epic. The breadth of the storytelling is mind boggling.

To be critical and nitpicking of a movie like this is to miss the art. I’ll raise a few points here, but they’re not criticisms, more observations I think you’d enjoy considering.


The portrayal of time dilation is chilling to behold. Sure, the effect is exaggerated to an extreme in the movie, but it’s an amplification, not an error.

There’s a few implausible things, like not observing a planet from orbit before setting down and getting wiped out by tidal waves, but in the 90s, who would have thought the twin towers would be felled by terrorists in hijacked planes? Oh, by the way, we once had tidal waves like that here on Earth.

It has taken billions of years for the Moon to recede to where it is today. Shortly after its formation, the Moon would have been considerably closer and would have caused tides hundreds, perhaps thousands of feet high, meaning life emerged on Earth when it resembled a cosmic washing machine.

For those kind of tides to occur on a planet orbiting a black hole, the planet would need a rotation period of about two hours (making a very short day) but being so close to such a large object, the planet would probably be tidally locked like our moon (which would result in no tides). But it was uber cool!

The ice clouds were another visually cool but physically impossible concept in the movie, with spaceships flying between upside-down mountains.

The portrayal of the accretion disk around the black hole, though, is extremely well done.


Imagine staring at Saturn with its thin, flat rings, only somewhat paradoxically you can see the rings curve both above and below the planet, THAT is what you’re looking at here.

The accretion disk of a black hole is relatively flat and straight, swirling around the equator, but gravitational lensing causes the light from the far side of the black hole to bend up, over and around the hole, giving the appearance of a halo that’s not actually there. It’s a bit like sticking a pole into water and seeing it appear to bend, only the light is being bent by the strength of gravity.

Fly around the equator and the black hole will always look exactly as it does in this shot because there is no halo standing up behind it, that’s an illusion of gravitational lensing. Fly above the poles and look down and you’d see the ring, only the ring would look much closer than it actually is as the lensing would draw it together.

Beautifully done.

Interstellar is well worth the price of admission.

Be sure to see Interstellar on the big screen.

9/10 stars from me.





Sci-Fi November – Review: The Telepath Chronicles – An Anthology of Science Fiction


I’m excited to be part of the Telepath Chronicles, an anthology of independent science fiction writers. Here’s a review by Michael Patrick Hicks.

Originally posted on Michael Patrick Hicks:

telepath chronicles

About The Telepath Chronicles

Telepathy. Just a far-fetched bit of science fiction “hocus pocus.” But is it? With today’s giant leaps forward in technology and biotechnology, with people constantly surrounded by sophisticated yet invisible communication networks, and with a rapidly increasing understanding of the brain’s inner workings . . . is it so hard to imagine that we might be able to develop direct mind-to-mind communication?

Or might it not be the case that evolution alone, in the right circumstances—if not on this planet, then on others—could give rise to creatures with telepathic abilities?

This collection of fourteen stories explores the ramifications of a future where telepathy is real. From that first glorious moment of discovery, to the subsequent jealousies and class divisions, to the dangers of weaponization and the blessings of medical miracles, The Telepath Chronicles promises to take you inside the creative minds of some of today’s top…

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Book Review/Author Interview: My Sweet Satan by Peter Cawdron


Here’s a book review and author interview focusing on my latest novel, MY SWEET SATAN

Originally posted on TJ's New Book Blog:

SweetBook Description/Blurb:

The crew of the Copernicus are sent to investigate Bestla, one of the remote moons of Saturn. Bestla has always been an oddball, orbiting Saturn in the wrong direction and at a distance of thirty million kilometers, so far away Saturn appears smaller than Earth’s moon in the night sky. Bestla hides a secret. When mapped by an unmanned probe, Bestla awoke and began transmitting a message, only it’s a message no one wants to hear: “I want to live and die for you, Satan.”

Review 5 of 5 Stars

I first encountered Peter Cawdron’s storytelling when I found Anomaly on the free book list one day a couple of years back. What a find that was as he’s one of my favorite new authors that’s come along in the past few years. His work has improved each step of the way from the first book I read…

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DOUBLE Book Review – Revolution & My Sweet Satan


Here’s a review of two books I released this month.

Originally posted on Will Swardstrom - Author:

Today – in my first blog post in over a month (more on that later) – I’ll be giving you a DOUBLE REVIEW. That’s right – two reviews in one blog post. Good for you both books are by Australian author extraordinaire Peter Cawdron.

Cawdron has had the book My Sweet Satan on Pre-Order for about a month now and it is just releasing this week. But, while we were all waiting for that book to drop, he snuck in another short story: Revolution.

revIn Revolution, Cawdron paints a picture of a world similar to our own, but with technology advanced a bit. Alexander Hopkins is getting home on a red-eye flight from Russia when that world slams into him with all the force Homeland Security can muster.

The breadth of the story is short, so I’ll keep my review brief as well, but you want to catch…

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Just a rock?

Rocks are wonderful. They’re true four-dimensional objects.

Technically, other than a black hole, everything has four dimensions, stretching in three dimensions and existing for some length of time in the fourth, but rocks are remarkable for their astonishing longevity. Compared to your average rock, our lives are rice-paper thin in terms of how far we stretch in time.

Our local museum has an assortment of fossil fragments on sale in the gift shop. For $20 you can purchase the fossilized tooth of megalodon, an extinct species of shark that makes the Great White look like a tadpole.

What's that in the water beside Megalodon? Oh, a toothpick!

What’s that in the water beside Megalodon? Oh, it’s a toothpick!

For $15 you can snag a trilobite that’s roughly 400 million years old.

As for me, I think it’s comical that money changes hands so someone can “own” a 400 million year old fossil. The time this fossil spends in my possession is ludicrously brief relative to its age, and I can’t help but wish it another 400 million years of existence beyond the pitiful 20-30 years it spends on my shelf.

We see rocks and fossils in three dimensions, but they exist in four. If we could “see” time as we see length, these fossils would be absurdly long. If we translate time into length, and consider our entire lives as roughly a centimeter in length (about the length of your thumb nail) then that trilobite would stretch from New York to Los Angeles!

Rocks are chrononauts. They’re time travelers.

In October of 2012, Lisa Webber heard a a thump on her garage roof. Little did she know as she watched TV, but her house had just been struck by a meteorite.

Picture credit: Ames Research Center

Time lapse photograph of the Novoto meteorite. Picture credit: Ames Research Center

The next day, after reading about a meteor in her local paper, Lisa and several other residents became curious about those bumps in the night and found fragments of meteorite on their roofs. Far from being “just a rock” the Novoto meteorite has revealed a surprising amount of detail about the early solar system.


Not quite the same “deep impact” you see in the movies, but far more interesting. Picture Credit: SFGate

Rocks are time capsules. They’re durable, and they capture geological events like a camera takes photographs.

The details “recorded” by the Novoto meteorite, are nothing short of astonishing.

Here’s what NASA scientists have been able to determine from this tiny fragment of rock, overlaid against a brief, rough sketch of the history of life on Earth.


The Novato meteorite fragments are an example of how science can painstakingly retrieve information stored over billions of years to gain better insights into our universe.

Think about that next time you kick a rock down the street!


Pink elephants floating by

What’s the most absurd thing you can think of? The concept of pink elephants floating through the sky might spring to mind. The idea of large animals floating in the air is ridiculous because of the sheer weight involved, and yet have you ever considered how massive a cloud actually is?

floating elephants

Picture credit: Art of the Day

A cloud’s mass is spread out in a thin vapor with a density of anywhere from 1/10 of a gram per cubic meter up to 5 grams per cubic meter , but add it all up and there’s a surprising amount of mass in even something as fluffy as a common cumulus cloud.

Cumulus clouds sit roughly 2 kilometers above the ground and, on average, cover a cubic kilometer of space, with a total mass of over 1.1 million pounds. Putting this in perspective, that’s the same as 550 Blue Whales, each weighing up to 160 tons.


Picture credit: Cloud Maven – Cumulus clouds over the desert. Hundreds of blue whales would be far more spectacular

What about a thunderhead?

What about a massive cumulonimbus rolling in over the horizon? You know, the clouds that look like something from the opening of the movie Independence Day?


Picture credit: Cumulonimbus by Pat Groove

Cumulonimbus clouds contain roughly the same mass as 10,000 747 jet airplanes or 200,000 elephants floating through the sky! What a sight that would be!

In addition to the kinetic energy of such a massive storm, there’s also a phenomenal amount of energy released as water condenses, forming the mushrooming updraft you see above. Chaotic collisions between particles within the cloud and the circular motion of air currents causes different electrically charged regions to form within the various cloud banks, leading to lightning and thunder. When all this is taken into account, it’s no surprise to learn that the average thunderstorm releases the equivalent of a 20 kiloton nuclear bomb! Most of the time, this energy is released across a broad front and does little or no damage, but when it concentrates in the form of a tornado or in the eye wall of a hurricane, the devastation is not dissimilar to that of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

As tempting as it is to ignore weather warnings and chase storms, don’t. Remember, you wouldn’t gamble with nuclear weapons or several hundred thousand elephants raining down upon you, why take a chance on a tornado? Stay safe this tornado season.

And when it comes to a hurricane, we’re talking the equivalent mass of forty million elephants. It’s a silly measurement, that’s for sure, and we’re not likely to switch to measuring hurricanes in elephants any time soon, but it does help put the size of these storms in perspective.

Clouds…. who’d have thunk they could be so troublesome.

Picture Credit: Pink Floyd album Animals

Picture Credit: Pink Floyd album Animals

At the top of the bell curve

I’m not sure what TV show this was from, it might have been The Office or The Big Bang Theory, but in the show one character insulted another rather obnoxious character who was protesting how smart they were. The conversation went something like…

Him: “I’m smart. I’m intelligent.”

Her: “Oh, sure, you’re right at the top of the bell curve.”

For those of you not familiar with a bell curve, it describes how the normal distribution of “things” whatever they may be, tends to cluster around the average/mean. Most “stuff” is similar, with the exceptions being far less frequent. This is true when it comes to test scores, job incomes, or even something like the natural variations in a species of animal. “Things” tend to be the same.

Sitting "at the top of the bell curve" puts you in the middle, the most common spot.

Sitting “at the top of the bell curve” puts you smack in the middle, the most common spot.

No one likes to think of themselves as average, and yet the majority of us are clustered right around that mean. Scott Adams has a great cartoon that plays to this concept.

Picture credit: Scott Adams

Picture credit: Scott Adams

Being average isn’t so bad. We’re all average in one way or another, as there’s so many ways to measure ourselves.

I was chatting with a friend about stars and they made the point that the average distance between stars across the whole universe is about 4,000 light years, while the average within our galaxy is 4 light years or about 0.02 stars per cubic light-year, highlighting that there’s a whole lot of empty space out there between galaxies.

Look somewhere like a globular cluster or in the center of a galaxy, and the average is several stars per cubic light year. In these dense regions of a galaxy, stars are practically on top of each other, and the tremendous gravitational tidal forces produced can cause stars to be thrown out of the cluster and even out of the galaxy altogether.

The point being, if you look at all the stars in our galaxy, we’re right smack on the mean. We’re roughly the “same as others,” and that bodes well for the search for life beyond Earth.

Scientists even have a name for this, the Copernican principle, which states that Earth is not special or exceptional. We may think the Earth is, but that’s because we have a natural bias. Mediocrity might be bad in business, but in science, it is the only rational, logical assumption you can make. Out of the roughly two hundred billion stars in our galaxy, and the estimated forty billion planets surrounding those stars, Earth is probably quite mediocre. Certainly, in terms of our distance to other stars we are.

Given what we can observe, life should be quite abundant in our galaxy. Why haven’t we found life? Well, that’s a bit like asking 14th century sailors why they haven’t found the fabled Indies yet. Oh, sure, we can sail to England or to the islands of the Mediterranean, but sailing west to the Indies??? How preposterous! And yet now, of course, such a journey by sea or by plane seems quite rudimentary.

We will find life in outer space. It’s just a matter of time. How can I be so confident? Because we already know life can thrive in space. Earth is the perfect example, and Earth and her star appears to be quite mediocre.

We’re at the top of the bell curve, woo hoo!

NASA’s little secret

In 2018, NASA will launch the James Webb Space Telescope, but the James Webb is no ordinary telescope. The James Webb is set to revolutionize astronomy in a way that will eclipse even the magnificent achievements of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Picture credit: NASA

Picture credit: NASA. The JWST development team in front of a full-size mock up of the telescope

To understand how extraordinary the James Webb is, you have to appreciate the extremes that have gone into this marvel of scientific innovation. The James Webb will orbit almost a million miles from Earth at LaGrange point 2 some 940,000 miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth. That’s roughly four times the distance from Earth to the Moon. In essence, the Earth-Moon system will drag the James Webb along with it as we orbit the Sun.

For the instruments on the James Webb to function properly they have to operate at 40 Kelvin or -233C which equates to -375F . The telescope has a five-layered sunshade designed to keep the operating instruments at temperatures below the freezing point of oxygen.

Picture credit: NASA

Picture credit: NASA

The James Webb will be able to see back further than Hubble, back to the end of the celestial “dark age.” The JWST will see the first moment the expanding gas from the Big Bang began forming stars and galaxies.

The James Webb is going to revolutionize a field we thought was already revolutionized by the Hubble.

[The James Webb Space Telescope] has, in many ways, 100 times the capabilities that the Hubble Space Telescope does. We’re actually going to be able to see the first stars forming, the first galaxies forming after the Big Bang. We’re also going to be able to — we think — directly image planets orbiting other stars — Michael Shara, Curator in the Department of Astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History

Picture credit: NASA

Picture credit: NASA

NASA has a secret, one it has hinted at indirectly, one that it has down-played, but a secret it is quietly hoping will come true.

It’s no secret NASA is looking for life, but NASA is being coy about the role of the James Webb will play in the search for life elsewhere in our universe.

Look at the goals for the mission:

Technically, the last goal is to look for “chemical precursors for life,” but that’s a rather modest way of not getting too overly excited about just what the James Webb could possibly see. As with any scientific research, there is going to be considerable effort put in to confirming any discoveries, but it is quite likely the James Webb will be able to detect the signatures of life in the atmosphere of distant planets. Validating such a finding will be the subject of innumerable research papers, I’m sure.

Here’s what Venus, Earth and Mars would look like to an instrument similar to the James Webb peering at our solar system from a distance.

Picture credit:

Picture credit: Deep Astronomy

Finding markers for an abundance of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide and water vapor, as an example, would be a smoking gun for life similar to what we have here on Earth. Oxygen is so highly reactive it tends to get locked up in chemical sinks like rust in the soil, etc. On Earth, it took hundreds of millions of years for oxygen to be liberated by photosynthesis, and since then Earth has enjoyed recycling oxygen over and over again in the oxygen cycle. If we see a similar stable arrangement on a planet around another star, we’ll have an extremely strong candidate for life.

The James Webb Space Telescope is our best chance of finding life around distant stars.

These are exciting times.



On the edge of my seat

Regardless of his quirky beliefs, Tom Cruise knows how to pull off a blockbuster.

As an actor, Cruise has forged a career taking obscure never-to-see-the-light-of-day stories to the big screen. I loved Oblivion. Sure, there were a few plot holes, but it was a gutsy and somewhat art-house take on an alien invasion, and in a time of death-by-sequel both Oblivion and Edge of Tomorrow are a breath of fresh air. Please, Mr Hollywood, no more Transformers or Godzilla remakes. Even such franchises as X-Men are past their used by date. They’re great as popcorn movies, but they’ll never be as memorable as Oblivion or the Edge of Tomorrow.

Edge of Tomorrow is a real fan-boy movie, with the mech suits deliberately reminiscent of Warhammer 40,000, a tabletop miniature set piece battle game developed in 1987. As if in honor of Warhammer, Emily Blunt even wields a battle sword against the alien horde.

Picture credit: Warhammer

Picture credit: Warhammer

Edge of Tomorrow is based on a Japanese book called All You Need Is Kill, published in 2004 by Hiroshi Sakurazaka. Originally, Brad Pitt was approached for the lead, but he turned it down. Tom Cruise loves switching between genres, appearing in such diverse movies as Top Gun, Jerry Maguire and Valkyrie. Tom jumped at the chance of more scifi.

Picture credit

Picture credit: Edge of Tomorrow

Edge of Tomorrow stays largely true to the essence of All You Need Is Kill, changing only locations and focusing on one portion of the book rather than trying to tackle the whole novel. There’s some key changes around the ability to go back in time and the means of defeating the mimics, but these strengthen rather than lessen the movie adaptation. Warner Bros are to be commended for taking a chance on Edge of Tomorrow, and its success bodes well for original movies in the future.

Edge of Tomorrow deliberately sets the alien invasion in a World War II style setting. Cruise trains in Forward Operating Base Heathrow on the eve of D-Day with his troops assaulting the shallow beaches of Normandy to establish a foothold in Fortress Europe. The visuals are spectacular, the story line intense, and the aliens are given a level of intelligence and sophistication beyond the normal raging bull stereotype.

Edge of Tomorrow works well in 3D. For large portions of the movie, 3D isn’t needed, and that has you forget you’re wearing 3D glasses until something comes flying out of the screen and you duck! It was nice to see 3D used with judicious precision like this.

There were a few insane battle scenes that felt a little too much like watching a video game, but these didn’t last long and were interspersed with touches of humanity as we see Cruise go from coward to hero to disillusioned wash-up and on to a hard won victory. Yes, it’s Groundhog Day for science fiction junkies, but Edge of Tomorrow is a must to see on the big screen.

Fives stars from me.

Picture credit

Picture credit: IMDB



Ancient Aliens???

NASA recently released a free ebook called Archaeology, Anthropology and Interstellar Communication only to remove it because of an errant reference to the possibility that Earth was visited by aliens in ancient times.

Picture credit:

Picture credit: Aboriginal Art

So what’s the deal?

Could aliens have visited Earth in the remote past?

Theoretically, yes, but the problem is there’s no evidence for this idea.

We’ve all seen pictures of cave paintings depicting people pointing at stars or stick figures of seemingly alien-esque creatures on cliff walls, but is there any merit in this concept? I’d argue the answer is no.

If you look at any scientific theory you’ll find there are always multiple lines of independent evidence converging on a conclusion.

Evolution, for example, isn’t proven by fossils. Evolution is demonstrated by a number of different disciplines from molecular genetics to the history of agriculture and the artificial selection of plants and animals. Fossils provide us with a wonderful means of understanding extinct life, but they’re secondary evidence for evolution. You can look at geology and biology and arrive at the same conclusion about the sequence in which life arose on Earth. Every independent line of investigation we examine leads us to the same conclusion: life evolved naturally on Earth over billions of years.

When it comes to ancient aliens, there’s a dearth of evidence. All we have are some poorly interpreted cave paintings to speculate about, and speculation isn’t science.

Picture credit: Prometheus. Here's an ancient alien depicted as an ancient priest or something.

Picture credit: The movie Prometheus even went so far as to depict an ancient alien as an ancient priest just to make sure no one missed the point

So if Earth was visited by aliens in ancient times, what would we expect to see?

Here are a few ideas.


Think about the impact of the Spanish on Aztec society, or the arrival of Europeans everywhere from Africa to India, America to Australia. None of these societies remained intact. They all suffered from the intrusion of terrestrial aliens, and sometimes in entirely unforeseeable ways, like the introduction of European diseases. There were cultural changes, linguistic changes, habitat changes, lifestyle changes, religious changes.

The arrival of an advanced alien civilization at any point in the last 100,000 years would have had a massive impact on human society, and that would be measurable today in the artifacts and habitats these people left behind.

Picture credit:

Picture credit: Aliens vs Predators

Disruption need not be negative. There are plenty of examples of positive disruption, like when the iPhone or the iPad entered the computer market. Traditional desktop computers and even laptops found themselves outmoded and sales dropped. In the same way, some have suggested that the pyramids and Stonehenge were built with the assistance of ET, but there’s a flaw in this argument. There’s no sign of construction techniques or tool markings that are inconsistent with the low level of technology available in that day.

We don’t see any negative, destructive disruption, like the conquistadors arriving in South America. We also don’t see any positive, constructive disruption, like the use of a diamond-toothed saw or some super fangled laser cutting these stones. We see technology consistent with those societies producing these marvelous monuments.

Physical Presence

Although an alien building on Earth could erode over time, there  are plenty of archaeological remains that have lasted for thousands of years (the pyramids, the sphinx, etc) and some that have lasted tens of thousands of years (burial pits, fire pits, stone axes, etc), but we don’t find anything out of place. There are no huge, perfectly circular indentations from the landing pads of a massive UFO weighing thousands of tons, and yet there are plenty of indentations from prehistoric village life.

Picture credit: Knowth Ireland

Picture credit: Knowth Ireland is estimated at almost five thousand years old

There’s sooo much to explore on Earth, so many different ecosystems and an astonishing degree of biodiversity. We still haven’t scratched the surface of the sheer number of species that call Earth home. With some estimates sitting at a hundred million different species, ET would have his hands full exploring Earth. He’d be here for a while, and just as our aircraft leave tell-tale signs of jet fuel contaminant trapped in the ice of Antarctica for the next few million years, ET would invariably leave some trace signature that would be distinguishable from natural processes.

Some of our most interesting animals are found miles below the surface of the planet. If ET was conducting a biological survey (a rather likely scenario), he’d surely explore those depths, leaving a clear sign of his presence: tunnels.

When Europeans first discovered the exotic flora and fauna of Australia, they didn’t stop with a single visit. They colonized. In the same way, it is reasonable to assume any visitor from the stars wouldn’t be satisfied with a single visit to Earth. Repeat visits, by aliens with different motives and intentions, would leave more and more evidence.

And life expands. If ET was here for any length of time, he’d have baby ETs. Sounds silly, I know, but it’s a legitimate point. From the perspective of a physicist, life is expensive. Life is outlandishly extravagant and often wasteful (the sunlight-to-biomass efficiency of photosynthesis for a typical plant is less than 1%). Life requires mineral resources and energy, and harvesting these for even a temporary colony would leave tell-tale signs, like a nice big quarry in the middle of the desert or something.

And our extraterrestrial visitors have no reason to leave. From observing the history of life on Earth and the marvel of evolution, we know the value of observations made over time. Rather than simply taking a snapshot of life on Earth, any advanced civilization capable of reaching Earth would want to document how life continues to evolve on this tiny planet.

Homo sapiens have only been around for a million or so years, just a fleeting moment in evolutionary time. Civilization is a blip compared to the grand history of 3.8 billion years in which life has flourished on this planet. ET wouldn’t bother hiding from a pack of Johnny-come-lately upstarts. He’d be too busy looking at the big picture.

Celestial Presence

As we’re dealing with the possibility of intelligent aliens discovering life on Earth, we should consider their response to such a discovery.

Life in our solar system is rare. Life in the universe seems incredibly rare. Any advanced space-faring race that discovered Earth is likely to have stuck around for a while. You don’t cross thousands of light years for a day trip. So how would an alien species from the stars conduct a biodiversity study of Earth? If our intrepid aliens were following some kind of Prime Directive, they’d set up shop on the lunar surface as it’s perfect for the observation of Earth.

Picture credit: 2001 A Space Odessey

Picture credit: 2001 A Space Odyssey

Arthur C. Clarke struck on this with 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the presence of an alien monolith on the Moon. The Moon is an ideal spot to conduct a scientific investigation of Earth. It’s close and yet it is completely isolated. There’s an abundance of mineral resources, plenty of solar power, etc. Compared to a trip between stars, it’s next door. It’s an ideal staging point for ET.

From our perspective, the Moon is a pristine, untouched environment, and one that preserves any interruption for hundreds of millions of years. If ET had set up shop at any point in the last billion or so years, we’d know.

Another point is that distant orbits are particularly long-lived (the Moon’s been in orbit for 4.5 billion years). Any alien satellite providing communication or surveying the planet could still be sitting in a geostationary orbit or at a Lagrange point. That’s where we’d put them, but there’s nothing there.

The absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, but it should give us pause to think. The challenge of not leaving “footprints” is absurdly difficult, and not something an alien species would go out of their way to do, particularly if they were observing from the lifeless platform of the Moon.

Earth Probably Isn’t Friendly to ET

We think Earth is pretty swell, but for an alien adapted to a different atmosphere content, at different atmospheric pressure and different gravity, Earth could seem as hostile as Mars or Titan does to us. Getting around in such an environment would take some kind of spacesuit, making exploration cumbersome and possibly error prone.

Earth has nasty weather, volcanoes, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, sandstorms. If ET was around for a few decades, something that is entirely plausible given the distance involved in getting here and the work involved in exploring the planet, there’s a good chance he would run into environmental problems and perhaps crash or lose equipment or damage his ship, etc. ET would have plenty of opportunity to leave signs we could later detect.

Have you ever gone for a walk in a virgin forest? Even in an “untouched” forest, we walk on paths carved into the terrain. Our idea of getting out in nature is generally quite tame, and not very natural at all. In the same way as we shape nature to suit ourselves, we would expect to find similar imprints from an extraterrestrial visitor. Perhaps they’d build a visitor’s center at the entrance to their wilderness experience or something, they’d leave some kind of imprint.

Shadow Biosphere

One of the very real problems we face in exploring our own solar system is the microbial world. For all our efforts to the contrary, we can’t help but take Earth microbes to Mars.

In the same way that Europeans inadvertently brought smallpox to the New World, aliens would bring their microbiome to Earth and would invariably take some of our microbiome with them. Don’t underestimate the tenacity of microbes, H.G. Wells certainly didn’t in War of the Worlds.

Any alien life taking hold here would show up on our radar as a significant departure from the phylogenetic tree of life.

The movie Prometheus played on this idea, with “engineer” aliens altering the DNA of life on Earth and advancing evolution. If this had happened, we’d see evidence of such tampering in the genetic code that defines Homo Sapiens. Instead, we see humanity as just one tiny branch on the evolutionary tree of life.

In the image below, we’re near the (arbitrary) border between pink (representing eukaryotes) and purple (representing bacteria).

Picture credit: Wikipedia

Picture credit: Interactive Tree of Life

With millions of species in the tree of life, even this marvelous image covers just a fraction of the relationships between species. How good are your eyes when you squint? From right-to-left at that junction, we have Pan troglodytes (chimps), Homo sapiens (us) and rattus norvegicus (you guessed it, rats).


As fascinating as it is to consider the possibility that Earth has been or is being visited by extraterrestrials, there is no supporting evidence, and certainly no convergence of consistent evidence, but don’t despair, organisations like SETI won’t rest until they find intelligent life that originated beyond Earth.

Picture credit: SETI

Picture credit: SETI