Author Archives: Daniel Faris

About Daniel Faris

After graduating from the Writers Institute at Susquehanna University, Daniel Faris moved to Philadelphia to begin his life as a freelance writer.

Homer-Simpson-Running

What causes running pain and why it’s a sign ‘you’re doing it right’

I don’t think anybody has ever claimed that running is a 100% wonderful experience. Even the most avid runners still have to get past the painful parts of that morning jogging session.

However, there’s a common misconception that some people just aren’t made to run. With the exception of those with certain chronic medical problems, of course, most human bodies actually can handle a regular running workout routine.

The question isn’t one of physical limitations; according to science, it really boils down to the willingness to overcome the completely normal, healthy dose of pain that everyone’s body must endure while in a prolonged state of exercise. These running pains are a fairly good indication that you’re doing it right.

“Well, I Hope You’re Having Fun, Because I’m Not.” – Sincerely, Your Body

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Image: NetFlix

Your body will usually grow accustomed to the self-inflicted tough love within the first few minutes of your morning jog. Here are just a few bodily complaints that we experience, and a scientific explanation about why they happen:

The Itch – Ever wonder why you start itching, like you just jumped into a pile of fiberglass insulation, not long after those first few steps? Well, if you haven’t done much running lately, then your heart is working overtime to get the blood flowing to meet the oxygen demand you’re now placing on your body. Once those capillaries on the surface of your skin begin to swell with blood, it interacts with your skin’s nerve endings, which makes you think that you’re allergic to exercise. But have no fear, it’s just your body telling you that you haven’t cracked the whip in a while.

Side Stitch – It’s like someone took a ball peen hammer to your innards, causing you to wonder if your soul is attempting to escape through your gut. Most of us have been there, wishing our sophomore gym class weren’t as cruel of a period. However, in those days, they believed that ye olde ‘side stitch’ had to do with a general lack of electrolytes -but this idea hasn’t held fast. Nowadays, the most prevailing hypothesis has more to do with how hard your diaphragm (your breathing muscle) is working, and how much it isn’t enjoying this workout.

CO2 Overload – If you haven’t hit the track in a while, then uncontrollable gasping is likely going to be on your body’s list of things to put you through after completing that first lap. While you might be thinking that oxygen is in short supply, this isn’t exactly the case. In fact, there’s plenty of oxygen in your body; it’s the fact that you’re unable to get enough carbon-dioxide out of your body that makes you feel the need to hyperventilate.

The Lactic Burn – Feeling the burn? Believe it or not, you’re actually getting burned by acid. Lactic acid, that is. This is how your brain is able to tell how hard your muscles are working, and on a more basic level, it helps you stop them from working before you do any real damage to your body. However, the burn is also an indication that you’ve embarked on a productive workout, and it tends to lessen after a few minutes into your run.

Gas – Your guts are about to gurgle, because running is great for digestion. Because your insides are juggling around the eggs and bacon you had this morning, this will naturally release gasses that would otherwise have been trapped in your digestive system for a bit longer. The good news is that you’re getting it all out now, but the bad part is that you could undergo a little temporary cramping from gas. Either way, it’s not pleasant, especially for those downwind of you.

Running Pain vs. Drug Withdrawal Pain

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Credit: Run Now

Obviously, running is going to put your body through rigors that would probably not be described as ‘a bed of roses.’ In fact, running pains curiously resembles those of another: symptoms of drug withdrawal. Here are just a few.

  • Sweating
  • Racing heart
  • Palpitations
  • Muscle tension
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Tremor
  • Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea

Sounds about right! But the interesting part is when running and drug addiction collide. In fact, it’s quickly becoming one of the best ways to handle drug withdrawal symptoms for a few interesting reasons. For instance:

  • According to a study, published in June 2008, researchers found that exercise actually reduces the “positive-reinforcing effects of cocaine.”
  • Major drug rehabilitation centers are currently using exercise programs for the purpose of detoxification, withdrawal symptom management, and perceptions of self-worth improvement in patients with astounding success.
  • It’s become one of the best ways to overcome the negative social and psychological effects of rehabilitation. Running is even being used as a prime self-motivating factor for staying clean.

Why Running Is a (Healthy) Drug

There are several reasons why the practice of running is becoming more prevalent for dealing with drug addiction, and much of it could have to do with the nature of this rigorous type of exercise.

Not only do the pains of running seem to mimic or even cover over drug addiction withdrawal symptoms, but in the process, the patient is experiencing an active state of progress. Withdrawal is an excruciating process, but if that process can be replaced by ‘excruciating progress,’ then that would offer a completely different mindset to approaching the challenge.

In addition, the endorphins that flood the brain at the end of a jog provide the euphoria that recovering addicts crave – and this feeling is even strong enough to treat chronic depression. Addicts often turn to drugs, because it offers a counterfeit sense of pleasure that is often felt after some accomplishment. Perhaps that’s the reason why drug and alcohol addiction centers are finding that running is their most painful, yet powerful cure: because their patients really are accomplishing something, and feeling a resulting sense of euphoria that’s undeniably well-deserved.

concrete parking garage

What is concrete: how concrete is made and why it’s so important

Concrete practically surrounds us, but how many of us really know what it is? Almost every building project on the planet uses concrete at some point in the process: footings and foundations for homes, office buildings, and highway projects, as well as sidewalks, architectural elements, dams, and skyscrapers. From bridges to swimming pools to highways, concrete has probably been used to construct it. It’s versatile, relatively inexpensive, and it endures under punishing conditions.

 

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Concrete is the foundation material to mankind’s buildings, streets, and cities going back to Roman times. Yet, it’s not something the average non-construction worker can tell you about without a quick trip to their computer keyboard. So to solve the mystery of today’s concrete, we’ve got to look at its history and its origins.

First of all, the term concrete does not define a specific material—more a mix of them. Cement and broken stone or gravel is mixed with water to form concrete. Basically, a mix of paste and rock that hardens. The magic behind concrete’s great history and vast array of uses comes from its multitude of uses; concrete, as well as cement (think of it as a kind of glue), can be shaped and molded while wet but is incredibly hard, strong and durable after it dries.

The history of concrete 

Concrete as a building material is thought to have been used as early as 6500 B.C., beginning in what is now known as Syria and Jordan. Ancient structures, many of which are still standing today, have been identified by most Scholars as being constructed from some form of concrete. The process of mixing sand, gravel, limestone, and water for building materials was used, in one form or another, throughout the ancient world for thousands of years. Babylonians and Assyrians used clay as the mortar or ‘glue’ to keep their rock, gravel, and sand mixtures in place. But it was not until the rise of the Roman Empire that concrete was able to ‘hold its own,’ as it were. The discovery of an ancient form of cement is what first changed the nature of what we now call concrete.

The metamorphosis of a pliable substance into one that a civilization could be built upon is what first fascinated the Romans in the early 1st Century. The Parthenon and the Colosseum were both constructed using Roman concrete and are still partially standing to this day. But Roman engineers did not merely improve upon the ancient mixture—sometimes called ‘Liquid Stone’—they created what would become the most widely used man-made building material in the modern world.

The Romans found magic in a volcano known as Campi Flegrei, near the town of Pozzuoli, Italy. Specifically, a magic volcanic dust that turned to stone when it touched water. This ‘magic’ dust was known as ‘Pozzolana’ and was a construction miracle for the Roman world.

As it turns out, Pozzolana—Italian volcanic ash—is the perfect mixture of silica oxides and lime, which, when mixed with water is the basis for what we now call cement. It has been speculated that ancient Roman engineers observed the hardening of volcanic materials when it entered the sea and wondered if the process could be re-created in the building process. As a result, concrete and the Roman building boom was born.

The weight-bearing abilities and pure durability of concrete made it the material of choice for many ancient builders, who used it to construct baths, piers, and harbors for the Romans. However, when the Roman Empire fell in the 5th Century A.D., knowledge of concrete fell with it. Concrete making was lost to history for more than a thousand years—out of use and out of mind until the 19th Century. An Englishman named Joseph Aspdin rediscovered concrete and patented it as Portland Cement in 1824. Mr. Aspdin’s patented cement still makes up the majority of what we call grout, mortar, and stucco in today’s buildings.

How concrete is made

how concrete is made

Making concrete isn’t that different from one of children’s favorite pastimes: making stuff out of mud using molds, then left to dry in the sun. No skyscrapper ever could be made out of mud, of course, so there must be more to it.

Essentially, concrete is made by mixing two essential components: aggregates and paste. In the composition of modern concrete, there are various materials that are used by the industry as aggregates. These include sand, gravel or crushed stone. The particle size of the aggregates can matter a lot, depending on the type of construction. Fine aggregate is considered anything with particles smaller than 0.2 inches (5 millimeters), while coarse aggregates can be as large as 1.5 inches (38 millimeters).

The paste is most of the time cement — a mix of limestone, clay, gypsum and various other minerals or chemicals.

Aggregates and paste need to mixed in the right proportion if we’re to make strong and durable concrete. If you don’t put enough paste, then the concrete will have too many voids between aggregates (porous concrete and rough surface). Excess cement will always produce a nice, smooth surface but this can crack more easily and can become costly.

After the material have been appropriately proportioned, water is added in the right amount. The water-cement ratio is the weight of the mixing water divided by the weight of the cement. A chemical process called hydration is initiated. During this reaction, each cement particle forms a node that grows, linking up with other cement particles or adhering to nearby aggregates.

When the resulting mixture dries, it forms a solid stonelike mass. The best concrete has a low water-cement ratio. Engineers play with this ratio until they reach a soft spot between quality and fresh concrete workability.

Typically, the industry uses a mix that looks like this: cement (10 to 15 percent), aggregate (60 to 75 percent) and water (15 to 20 percent). Air is an inevitable component of concrete and makes-up 5 to 8 percent.

Rediscovering concrete

The main ingredients in Portland cement—the literal mortar of the modern world—are calcium silicates, formed when limestone and clay are mixed and heated to over 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Chemically, roughly the same formula that created ‘Pozzolana’ inside the Campi Flegrei volcano centuries before.

The trick is in remembering that cement is not the same as concrete. In the many years since 1824, the construction industry has tweaked, improved, and expanded the formula for making concrete with a mountain of additives and processes, but cement is still the glue that holds everything together.

Today’s concrete, with cement as one of its main components, is able to support huge amounts of weight without crumbling. It has compressive strength. Concrete is limited however, when it comes to tensile strength—the ability to bend. Concrete breaks when it bends. That’s a big problem when building bridges, dams or support columns that must make constant adjustments for weather and wear to endure.

The tensile strength of concrete has been enhanced since Roman times with additions to the chemical mix. In 1849, just twenty-five years after the patenting of Portland Cement, Joseph Monier, a Parisian pot-maker, invented reinforced concrete. Monier received a patent for his method of adding steel bars or mesh to concrete before it hardens, which brought about yet another innovation in modern building techniques and improved the tensile strength of concrete. Reinforced Concrete is still widely used today in a multitude of projects, from skyscrapers, dams, war memorials, bridges, and highways.

The future of concrete

Traditional concrete can absorb only 300 millimeters of water an hour. In contrast, Topmix can safely due away 36,000 millimeters of water an hour.

Now that you know what concrete is, you should also know what it’s in the process of becoming. Many new forms of the ancient mixture are being developed and increasingly used in construction today. One of most exciting improvements to concrete in recent years is the development of pervious concrete.

Also known as porous pavement, pervious concrete holds qualities opposite to traditional concrete in that its particles are so large they allow water to seep all the way through them. Rather than repelling water and causing urban flooding after a rain like impervious concrete does, pervious concrete allows natural run-off and ground absorption of the water. Together with the promise of driverless cars, pervious concrete could bring about significant changes to driving conditions in the near future. Also, self-repairing concrete is definitely something to watch.

No matter what you call it, though, the world as we know it would not exist without the discovery and use of concrete. It’s in our buildings, our cities, and our highways. It’s the very bedrock of our civilization and is contained in most everything we look at, live and work in, and drive on.

Is There Hope for Extinct Species?

When we talk about extinction, we tend to think of it in the past tense, or as something that just kind of happens, far removed from the activities of humankind. So let’s put things in perspective, just so we fully understand the scope of extinction.

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If there are 100,000,000 distinct animal species on planet earth, and 0.01% of all species go extinct each year, then more than 10,000 species go extinct every year. And given how little we know about earth’s more mysterious ecosystems, many of these may be species we’re not even aware of yet.

So the question is not whether extinction happens on a regular basis, but to what extent human activities play a role in these occurrences. The good news—or perhaps the bad news—is that we have numbers on that topic, too. Or, at least, a general idea of where things are headed.

According to Endangered Species International, 44,838 species occupied the IUCN Red List, which tracks the progress and status of threatened and endangered species, in 2006. Of those, 784 had gone extinct by 2006. The year is now 2015, and the number has increased to 905; an alarming upward trend. Just as we can track the ever-worsening progress of climate change after human beings arrived on the scene, so too can we measure our impact on the natural world by keeping tabs on the number of species that go missing from year to year.

Why Aren’t We Doing More?

You’re probably asking yourself why we’re not able to do more, if scientists and environmental watchdogs are so keenly aware of this ongoing crisis.

Part of the problem with addressing extinction in a practical way is, of course, the intersection of capitalism and politics: an immovable force and an unstoppable object. All too often, we witness the result of humankind’s avarice, whether we’re hunting species to the brink of extinction because they have something we need, or because we simply turn a willfully blind eye to the kind of environmental damage that our engines of production keep churning out on a practically constant basis.

Consider, for example, the case of the greater sage-grouse—a threatened species that had lived for some time on the bubble of being labeled “endangered.” Just last month, the US Fish and Wildlife Service decided not to grant endangered status to the Greater sage-grouse, a move that angered environmentalists across the country.

As is usually the case with decisions such as these, worries of economic troubles dragged the issue into political gridlock.

Thankfully, a sort of compromises was reached, and there may yet be hope for the greater sage-grouse. Despite not granting this particular species the protections afforded by endangered status, the Natural Resources Conservation Service doubled down on its Sage Grouse Initiative, which creates a sort of treaty-by-necessity between the Federal government and private land owners, and has been uniting private and public interests since 2010. With awareness of the problem on both sides, there may yet be hope that the greater sage-grouse will rally, and replenish its numbers in the coming years.

Is There Hope for Extinct Species?

Here’s a question that sounds like something out of science-fiction: With so many species going extinct on an annual basis, can anything be done to “resurrect” the species we’ve already lost?

Impossibly, the answer might be yes.

I’d like to turn your attention to an amazing and eye-opening TED Talk given by Stewart Brand, who in 2013 shared with the world the progress that’s been made to resurrect several extinct species. It’s been a well-kept secret among the scientific community for many years, but enough progress has been made, and they’re confident enough in their methodology, that they’re ready to share their findings with the world.

Using cutting-edge genetic techniques, and using closely related species as “host” parents, teams from across the world have been collaborating to bring back the passenger pigeon, which used to be plentiful in North America, but were hunted to extinction by the early 20th century. According to Brand’s TED Talk, they’re about to turn the corner and potentially pave the way for a brand new population of this long-lost bird.

What’s next after that? The possibilities are truly breathtaking. How about the aurochs? Or even the wooly mammoth?

We really are living in a golden age of scientific progress, where we may finally have the tools at our disposal to correct some of our worst mistakes. So the only question left is, Why wouldn’t we want to?

‘Heart in a Box’ a Big Step Forward for Organ Transplants

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Developed by Transmedics, the OCS Heart, often referred to as the “heart in a box,” is a machine that keeps a heart supplied with blood and oxygen for several hours. This allows it to be moved to another patient for transplant. Heart transplants aren’t exactly a new thing—the first one was performed in 1967—but the organ is usually kept on ice while being moved. So why bother keeping a heart beating at all? What does this device do that ice can’t? As it turns out, quite a bit.

Donated hearts almost exclusively come from brain-dead patients: Those whose brains have stopped functioning, but whose bodies can be maintained by a ventilator. In these circumstances the heart is still beating, and is cooled before being removed from the body. At temperatures just a few degrees above freezing, the metabolic rate of the cells is reduced by 90 percent. The organ deteriorates far more slowly, giving doctors time to transplant the heart.

But not all patients who die in a hospital are brain dead. Sometimes the body gives out first. However, this usually makes things difficult for transplant. By the time the heart stops, the tissue is already starved of oxygen, and the cells are deteriorating quickly. In these cases, the heart is usually declared not suitable for transplant. The OCS Heart could change all that.

With a fresh supply of oxygenated blood, hearts that have stopped can often start beating again, sometimes even on their own. The OCS Heart has already been used in at least 15 cases in Australia and the United Kingdom. In one case, 26-year-old Lee Hall had been surviving for six years by way of a mechanical pump installed in his body. The pump’s cables became infected, and Hall only had two days to live without a new heart. Fortunately, the OCS Heart was able to revive the heart of a dead donor, and Hall is now recovering at home with his family.

Despite its success abroad, the device is still pending approval in the U.S., where it could increase the number of donated hearts by as much as 30 percent. Currently, around 2,400 heart transplants are performed each year in the U.S., and that number has been the same for the last 20 years. The OCS heart could be the first real breakthrough in transplant technology in decades, which is a very good thing; 21 people die each year because they can’t get the organs they need. However, this breakthrough does come at a cost: namely, $250,000. With Transmedics receiving over $100 million in total funding to develop the OCS Heart, the price is not unjustified, but it still presents a barrier that could prevent many hospitals from acquiring the device.

Transmedics may not be able to maintain that price point for long, however, as a number of similar devices are in development. Organ Assist, OrganOx, and Organ Solution are all working on warm perfusion machines, although not all of them will be making machines for heart transplants. Organ Solution in particular is focused on livers. The U.S. liver transplant waiting list currently has more than 16,000 people on it. With less than 7,000 transplants performed each year, most patients on the list die before ever receiving a transplant. This is clearly among those health issues, like tuberculosis, that most of us don’t think much about until it touches our community or someone we know personally. Thankfully, the march of progress will soon help us put problems like these behind us for good.

By keeping organs warm and alive instead of putting them on ice, doctors have a much larger window of time in which to perform the transplant. However, this new technology is not without controversy. The question is whether the death of the patient is truly irreversible if the heart can function again outside the body. Currently the issue is being handled by obtaining informed consent from family members before removing the heart, but as medical technology continues to advance, questions about the line between life and death will only become more complex.

Will Dyson’s River-Cleaning Vacuum Succeed Where Others Have Failed?

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In 2014, Dutch teenager Boyan Slat made headlines when he came up with the so-called “Ocean Cleanup Array”—a floating barrier designed to cut down the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by 42 percent within 10 years. Since this was a revolutionary way to deal with the global marine pollution problem, Slat naturally drew a lot of praise, as well as criticism.

It’s pretty obvious where the praise comes from. After so many years of scientists warning about the worsening state of our polluted oceans, Slat’s work comes across as refreshing. But the critics have their points, too.

Aside from its supposed lack of scientific soundness, the “Ocean Cleanup Array” doesn’t really address one critical issue: The public’s general attitude towards marine pollution. If people continue to consume the 220 million tons of plastic churned out every year, it seems we need a more proactive solution—one that intervenes before that plastic even makes its way to the ocean. Thankfully, lots of companies are making use of our cast-off plastic, for inclusion in products as diverse as solar panels and synthetic lumber.

Still, the criticism doesn’t seem to faze him. After all, he’s still planning to deploy the system along the Japanese island of Tsushima in 2016, probably hoping that the project will take off from there. Also, he’s not the only one with a grand idea.

Take UK billionaire and engineer James Dyson, for instance. Around the same time Slat’s invention was being hyped up, Dyson quietly conceptualized the M.V. Recyclone and wrote about it for Time magazine.

A Giant, River-Cleaning Barge

As the inventor of the Dual Cyclone bagless vacuum cleaner, Dyson incorporated a similar technology into the M.V. Recyclone’s design. Essentially, the barge will unfurl a large net into the river, skim it for large plastic debris, and haul these up for shredding on-board. The shredded pieces will then be graded and separated by a large cyclone not unlike the ones on Dyson’s famous vacuum cleaners.

Granted, Dyson is still testing and refining the prototype, so it’s hard to say at this point whether it’ll “work” or not. But from what we’ve seen so far, here are a few issues that might crop up:

  • Like Slat’s Ocean Cleanup, Dyson’s Recyclone is more of a Band-Aid than an end-all, be-all solution. While it can clean up rivers, it won’t stop people from polluting those rivers in the first place (just as street sweepers might improve a town’s curb appeal, but don’t proactively dissuade litterers). But at least it attacks the marine pollution problem at one source (i.e. the rivers), rather than allow it to go further into the ocean.
  • The Recyclone risks the same engineering and environmental problems as the Ocean Cleanup. There’s always the chance that the Recyclone will pull up river animals along with the debris. Also, the barge itself should be durable enough to withstand the river’s strong currents, on top of the weight of the plastic collected.   
  • Feasible, environment-friendly alternatives exist. In the Netherlands, for instance, the Plastic Visser traps litter using a floating basin covered with vegetation. This serves the double purpose of cleaning the river and nurturing the ecosystem at the same time. And then there’s the solar-powered Jones Falls Water Wheel, which can capture 50,000 pounds of trash per day.

If Dyson takes a long, hard look at the criticisms against Slat’s work in particular, he might be able to mold the Recyclone into a much better answer to the marine pollution problem. It might never be the magic bullet the public’s looking for, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.

Can Hearing Aids Also Save Your Memory?

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If you’ve ever lived with someone who’s hard of hearing, or have struggled with hearing difficulties yourself, you know it can be a hard condition to live with. Thankfully, modern technology has given us a wide variety of hearing implements that can let us salvage this precious physical sense.

But hearing loss can come with a number of related symptoms that are just as debilitating; those who live with moderate to severe hearing loss may also experience worsening memory and general mental confusion as their hearing slips away.

Scientists have believed for some time that these two conditions, while closely linked, would require different forms of treatment. But a recent study from Johns Hopkins has revealed that a familiar technology—hearing aids—may help to reverse the mental side-effects of hearing loss.

The impetus behind the study was the purported connection between hearing loss and an elevated risk of various cognitive problems. The study’s lead author, Jennifer Deal, has published previous work about this connection, but few studies have sought to study the connection in detail—until now. They’re hopeful that their findings will determine once and for all whether hearing aids are capable of staving off or even reversing a trend of worsening cognitive function.

The answer, so far, is yes they can.

Deal hailed the team’s findings, saying: “This study is important because it focuses on a risk factor that is amenable to intervention in later life and could potentially postpone cognitive decline.”

Deal and her team worked with a total of 253 people for the study, with an average age of 77 years. The patients all exhibited hearing loss described as “mild” to “moderate.” Each one was given a series of memory, learning, and reasoning tests way back in the early 1990’s. To truly test the long-term effects, the team waited until 2013 for a battery of follow-up tests.

And what did they find? It turns out that those participants who did not wear hearing aids in the intervening years posted the greatest drop in test scores. The ones who did wear hearing aids showed a slowing of their mental deterioration—a triumph both for this team of researchers and for modern hearing aid technology.

Most human beings know only too well that the gift of hearing is too easily squandered or damaged. Experiencing head trauma, listening to music too loud, getting clumsy on the Fourth of July, genetics, or merely growing older can all contribute to hearing loss later in life. But, while a person’s history and habits might give them some advanced warning that their hearing might one day be in danger, it can be tempting to ignore the problem—as well as the potential side-effects that come with it.

According to Dr. Alice Holmes, the study is important because it proves in a new way that hearing loss should not be ignored: “This shows we really should be treating hearing loss. I think treating the hearing loss can really improve someone’s overall quality of life and not only does it improve that quality of life but also others’ around him.”

So if you’re experiencing hearing loss, or know someone who is, now is the time to seek treatment. In addition to losing a part of your connection to the world around you, your mental health may suffer in some unexpected ways if you let your problem go untreated.

robot mural

Killer AI? Let’s Solve the Smaller Problems First

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Tesla Motors’ Elon Musk has said that our civilization is dangerously close to encountering AI problems within a “five-year timeframe, 10 years at most.” He made the comment on the website Edge.org shortly before deleting it.

His point was that, sometime soon, we may actually create a form of artificial intelligence that decides to rise up and wipe out the human race, a la Skynet from the Terminator films. At the very least, he believes that it may cause us harm in some way. Musk clearly stated that AI could potentially be “more dangerous than nukes.”

That may seem far-fetched for now, but he believes it’s possible—so much so that he’s actively working to prevent it. If there’s anyone that can keep it from happening, it’s Musk. He’s responsible for Paypal, Tesla Motors, and SpaceX—all of which are incredibly innovative in their respective industries.

But Musk is not just running around blindly through the streets screaming that the sky is falling; he’s actually trying to stop it from becoming a reality. Meanwhile, other experts are calling attention to the less movie-worthy problems posed by AI and automation: things like massive unemployment, to name just one.

How Elon Musk Plans to Save Us from Killer AI

Elon Musk recently donated millions of dollars to the Future of Life Institute—well over $10 million, to be exact. It’s not the money that’s going to save us, though; it’s how the institute plans to use the funds.

They are conducting research that will work toward optimizing AI that is “robust and beneficial,” as opposed to dangerous and harmful. Musk has long supported the idea that future AI technologies must become just as beneficial as they are capable. If the power of AI exceeds its usefulness to the human race, that’s when we may run into significant problems. And it seems the Future of Life Institute is right behind him in that belief.

As for the funds, they will be doled out to 37 teams, all of which will be conducting different research on AI. The 37 teams chosen were narrowed down from an initial total of about 300.

They will be studying how to teach AI to better understand humans, how to align robot and AI interests with humanity’s, and find ways to ensure that AI will always be under our control. That latter point is important, because so long as we maintain control, it’s highly unlikely that AI will be able to “rise up” against us.

If you’re interested in seeing the complete list of those grant winners, the institute has announced them publicly via their official site.

What Are the Real Problems?

Despite their commitment to reigning in AI, the Institute claims that discussions furthering the concept of “killer AI” detracts from the more immediate problems at hand. Max Tegmark, President of the Future of Life Institute, believes that there are more modern issues bubbling to the surface, such as the economic impact of AI replacing modern jobs.

And what might that economic impact look like? To begin with, all kinds of heavy machinery that currently requires a human operator may soon be replaced with autonomous machines. The upside, of course, is that the world might see a dramatic reversal in workplace injury trends, since, if there’s one thing we can say for sure about autonomous technologies, it’s that they’re much less prone to error than their human counterparts. And those errors cost U.S. businesses about $1 billion per week in workers’ compensation payouts.

And then we’ll need to consider the real societal cost of suddenly having millions fewer jobs in the U.S. The taxi and trucking industries are particularly vulnerable; AI-powered autonomous cars are looking less and less like a pipe-dream and more like a very real possibility. With the possibility of massive unemployment looming, many are turning to a revolutionary, but economically viable, solution known as a Universal Basic Income. It’s gaining traction in some of the Nordic countries and even portions of Canada, but we have yet to see an American politician brave enough to broach the topic to Congress.

Regardless, these is the delicate trade-offs that will define future research into automation and artificial intelligence. Says Max Tegmark:

“The danger with the Terminator scenario isn’t that it will happen, but that it distracts from the real issues posed by future AI. We’re staying focused, and the 37 teams supported by today’s grants should help solve such real issues.” That said, part of the plan is to also research preventative measures to keep AI from becoming such a “deadly” problem.

The good news is that this research and work is being done before the birth of a more powerful AI. It makes more sense to at least prepare for the scenario beforehand—that way we don’t run into any problems in the future. Of course, there’s always the question of whether or not this work will be done in time. It’s possible a more advanced form of AI will come into fruition within the next few years. Only time will tell.

Image Credit: jlmaral (via Flickr)

genetic engineering

On Genetic Manipulation and the Government’s Role in Science

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In an announcement that’s been a long time coming for science fiction fans, the White House has, for the first time, come out in support of a global moratorium on altering the human germline.

It’s a decision that has implications not just for this particular type of scientific inquiry, but also for the future of government involvement in science. With a number of scientific singularities marching ever closer, there are some fundamental questions that we need to start asking ourselves, and there’s never been a better time to do it.

An Ethical Quandary

The announcement comes after Chinese scientists announced that they had successfully modified the genetic code of human embryos. To be more precise, the researchers removed a mutated gene from the embryo using a process called CRISPR-Cas9. This is clearly a significant achievement, and one with far-reaching scientific potential. Even so, the news was tempered by warnings from fellow scientists and bioethicists from across the country about the possible ramifications of meddling with human DNA.

In answer, the White House voiced support for a temporary moratorium on the process.

A breakthrough like this has the potential to catch humanity totally off-guard. We’re still spinning our wheels in an attempt to reach a scientific consensus on the merits of genetically modified crops, for example, so the thought of altering a human being has understandably left more than a few people worried.

And why shouldn’t it? We’ve been watching the consequences of genetic engineering play out in science fiction stories for almost a hundred years already. From Brave New World to Star Trek, it’s clear that the issue is far from straightforward.

But let’s get back to this moratorium. It seems to be inspired by the fear of so-called “designer babies”—that is, the idea that we could alter the genetic code of a human embryo before birth, thereby tailoring our progeny according to our (probably superficial) desires.

The optimists, meanwhile, view this kind of manipulation as a way to proactively eliminate a number of heritable genetic disorders, but critics have always been quick to question whether the risks outweigh the potential benefits.

Following China’s triumph, the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine announced their intentions to meet this fall with a stable of other researchers and bioethicists. Their goal is to discuss at length the advantages, implications, and possible risks of gene-altering technologies.

The White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy added its voice to the growing chorus of concern; in a statement on their website, spokesman John P. Holdren confirmed the administration’s stance that “altering the human germline for clinical purposes is a line that should not be crossed at this time.”

Nevertheless, the office also acknowledged that biotechnology has played a significant role in moving the human race forward. Their statement continued:

“The advances in health technology over the past century—vaccines, antibiotics, early disease diagnostics, and treatment for countless health conditions—have reduced infant mortality, extended life expectancy, and alleviated suffering for millions. But new technology also brings risks and ethical challenges that require careful consideration.”

The Role of Government in Science

I’m sure that this deliberate and measured approach will cause some to chafe at the characteristic slowness of the federal government, or bemoan another “government intrusion” into the lives and livelihoods of the American people. But for my part, I think this is the right move. Frankly, I’m pleased that the government is showing some initiative here and is aggressively getting ahead of the issue. It’s a rare day when any branch of the government takes action that’s both proactive and in line with common sense. Usually we can count on just one of these at a time.

But to address the question of whether or not the government should be dictating matters of scientific ethics, we must first address the question of whether or not the government should be funding scientific inquiry in the first place.

In a thoughtfully worded but ultimately flawed article for the CATO institute, Terence Kealey argued in 1997 that the government should be taken out of the equation entirely. He calls upon tech industry magnates such as David Packard, John D. Rockefeller, and Howard Hughes, all of whom left significant fortunes to research foundations. His argument centers on the idea that, so long as private industry is enthusiastically and generously funding scientific research, we don’t need the government to contribute to the efforts.

To that I say only this: shouldn’t we be throwing as much money as we can at the cause of technological progress? I, for one, am dismayed every time Congress cuts NASA’s funding, say, or passes yet another piece of legislation that denies either the legitimacy, or the power, of science.

Science is not a partisan issue, nor even a political one; it’s a human issue that benefits each of us in discrete and priceless ways.

Still, I’ll gladly admit that the private sector is doing some amazing things in the name of progress, often without a flow of money from federal sources. Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Tesla Motors are making great strides in space exploration and the automotive industry, and are sharing their innovations with the world by making their patents freely available to all. Meanwhile, Google is hastening the coming autonomous car revolution and even the long-stagnant home energy industry is making strides toward a bold and sustainable future, with companies from coast to coast bringing cleaner technologies like biodiesel and ethanol and solar to a wider audience than ever before.

But let’s get hypothetical. Where will this push for technological and scientific progress really take us? The answer may be found, albeit in its infancy, in Amsterdam. It’s long been understood that 3-D printing could represent the boldest step yet into an uncertain future: it has applications in medicine, manufacturing, agriculture, and a variety of other industries. And now a Netherlands-based company is putting together what might be one of the most important proofs of concept we’ve seen yet: a 3-D printed bridge built by autonomous “robot arms.”

This is significant for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it represents a very modern fear: the further loss of jobs to automation. The call for a universal basic income in certain parts of the world seem to herald this very future: it represents a way to keep Americans financially intact even as the march of technology robs us of more and more decent-paying jobs.

This future will not be hypothetical for much longer; in the not-too-distant future, emerging technologies will eliminate just about every kind of physical job, and even some of the creative ones, too. What this means is that the world’s governments will not simply oversee or regulate science and technology, but in fact ensure that progress does not, paradoxically, prove to be the undoing of millions of American families. Coming technologies will vastly outpace our already fertile imaginations, and will fundamentally change life in this country and beyond. It will challenge the very idea of government in ways that no war, nor any other external force, ever has. It will force the State to become the first and last line of defense for when our reach finally exceeds our grasp: a role that no profit-based entity can (or should) be allowed to occupy.

We truly are living in unprecedented times, where not a week goes by where there’s not at least a whisper of some new technological or scientific breakthrough on the horizon. And just as a central government allows us access to shared benefits such as roads and national parks, so too can it ensure that each of us shares ownership in the fruits of our scientific labors, as it was always meant to be.

Image Credit: Thlerry Ehrmann (via Flickr)

Link

At face value, measuring the temperature using Celsius instead of Fahrenheit seems to make a lot of face sense. After all, the freezing point of water is a perfect 0 degrees Celsius — not the inexplicable 32 degrees in Fahrenheit. Also, the boiling point of water in Celsius is right at 100 degrees (Okay, 99.98, but what’s a couple hundredths of a degree among friends?) — instead of the awkward 212 degrees Fahrenheit.

thermometer

Celsius is also part of the much-praised metric system. It seems as though every developed country in the world has adopted the metric system except for the United States, which still clings to tge older, more traditional measurements. Finally, scientists prefer to use Celsius (when they’re not using Kelvin, which is arguably the most awkward unit of measurement for temperature). If it’s good enough for scientists, it should be good enough for everybody else, right?

Not necessarily. Fahrenheit may be the best way to measure temperature after all. Why? Because most of us only care about air temperature, not water temperature.

Think about it. When was the last time you used a thermometer to measure water temperature? It was probably in a high school or college class. If you’re ever in need of boiling water (e.g., when it’s time to cook pasta), then you can usually determine that the water is boiling by just looking at it. The steam and bubbles are a dead giveaway.

However, things are a little more complicated when it comes to measuring ambient temperature. You’ve probably browsed over to Weather Underground recently to see if you should wear a coat when you go outside. This is the only time most of us non-scientific folks care about temperature.

Celsius is great for measuring the temperature of water. However, we’re human beings who live on dry ground. As a result, it’s best to use a temperature gauge that’s suited to the air, as opposed to one that’s best used for water.

This is one reason Fahrenheit is superior

Fahrenheit is also more precise. The ambient temperature on most of the inhabited world ranges from -20 degrees Fahrenheit to 110 degrees Fahrenheit — a 130-degree range. On the Celsius scale, that range is from -28.8 degrees to 43.3 degrees — a 72.1-degree range. This means that you can get a more exact measurement of the air temperature using Fahrenheit because it uses almost twice the scale.

A precise reading of temperature is important to us because just a little variation can result in a perceivable level of discomfort. Most of us are easily affected by even slight changes in the thermometer, and the Fahrenheit scale is more sensitive to those changes.

And let’s face it: with so many home heating and cooling methods and technologies available, there’s already enough guesswork involved in keeping our homes comfortable. According to Foster Fuels, for example, homeowners who rely on oil heating already have to contend with a +/- 10% margin of error when reading their fuel gauge. And when every drop of fuel oil counts against that gauge reading, using a temperature scale with a higher degree of accuracy is extremely important when programming your thermostat.

This doesn’t mean that scientists should stop using the Celsius scale, though; they need to maintain consistency with their peers around the globe. They don’t need to add the task of converting temperatures to their already complex work.

The metric system certainly has its merits as well. It’s easier to measure snow in centimeters or millimeters than to do so in inches and offers the aforementioned advantage of precision. It’s also better to measure both distance and air pressure using the metric system, as opposed to pre-metric scales.

However, just because certain metric measurements are superior to traditional measurements, this doesn’t mean that every part of the metric system is superior. Some purists will argue that we should adopt an all-or-nothing approach concerning the metric system, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We, as free people, are certainly capable of accepting the parts of the metric system that simplify our lives and rejecting those that would make things more difficult.

Fahrenheit is superior for measuring temperature precisely. It’s also better because humans tend to care more about air temperature rather than water temperature. For those reasons, we should welcome Fahrenheit as a standard of temperature measurement, rather than rejecting it for its metric counterpart.

Solar Power Today and Tomorrow

Solar power is one of the most efficient yet clean sources of energy we have access to. There are no increased fuel costs or dependencies, no ties to pollutants, and it’s both reliable and affordable. Of course, in order to harness solar power you need access to specific technology. This tech relies on either small-scale solar photovoltaic (PV) systems, large-scale solar photovoltaic systems, or concentrating solar power (CSP) systems to capture solar energy.

Once harnessed, the system can use this solar energy to power anything you could imagine such as appliances, vehicles, consumer electronics, lighting, heat and A/C systems, and much more. When used in combination with a modern power connection (hardwired), it can even help cut your bill in half—if not down to a third of the cost.

Most people believe that solar power and the related technology to harness it is prohibitively expensive, so it remains out of their reach. However, such beliefs couldn’t be any further from the truth, as each year, all around the world, it becomes more and more affordable to make the switch.

How Affordable is Solar Energy?

One of the most common systems used to harness solar energy is a small-scale rooftop-based solar photovoltaic system. Solar capturing panels are placed on top of the roof of a residence, building, or business, and then feeds collected energy to a conversion system. Even just a small system used to be ridiculously expensive, but prices have declined considerably over the past few years. From 2010 to 2013, prices for rooftop-based PV systems have dropped more than 29%, and this includes installation costs.

When you combine falling installation costs with the promise of tax credits and money saved on energy bills, you have no shortage of reasons to get involved. Most states offer tax credits, rebates, grants, and more that could decrease the total cost of a rooftop-based PV system to below $10,000. In addition, customers are able to finance these costs through leasing agreements and power purchase contracts, the latter of which requires them to continue using the system for an extended period of time at fixed rates.

While this is all great news for consumers who are looking to power their homes, it doesn’t offer much for business owners who generally have larger structures with higher demands. The good news is that large-scale PV systems have also dropped in price, more so than household ones. In fact, large-scale systems are an average of 60 percent lower in price than residential solar systems if you take a look at the per-wattage costs.

Concentrated solar power systems (a method that uses mirrors to direct thermal energy) are much more expensive and have not seen the same reduction in prices, but they have one particular advantage over the other two types. CV systems can be used to store the sun’s energy as they collect heat, which means they are still capable of producing electricity when there’s no sunlight.

Where Can Solar Energy Be Used, and Where is it Most Efficient?

Considering solar energy relies on a good supply of sunlight and UV rays, it’s not exactly efficient everywhere. In the United States, southwestern regions are the most reliable as the sun often shines the strongest there. Even so, in areas where sunlight is not as prominent, the amount available for energy generation only varies by less than 30 percent across the entire country. In laymen’s terms, it can be used pretty much anywhere with a small reduction in total energy generation in areas with less sunlight.

For example: a solar panel array installed in Portland, Maine would generate only about 85% of the energy that a similar system would produce out in California, 95% of the total energy it would generate in Miami, and 6% more than it would in Houston, Texas.

The typical efficiency rating for a single solar panel is about 11-15%, depending on where it’s installed. To break it down, this rating measures the percentage of sunlight that hits the panel, which can be turned into usable energy. While that may seem low at the onset, consider that a system generally uses a multitude of panels working in tandem. In this respect, a rooftop-based panel system can generate enough energy to power an entire home from top to bottom throughout the day. Since most consumer based solar systems are photovoltaic, they do not store or produce energy at night when the sunlight is gone.

As for how the system works in tandem with traditional power, it’s set up like this: If your solar energy system produces more power during the day than you consume, the excess energy is sold back to the grid as “store credit.” On days or nights where you use more energy, this store credit is purchased back from the grid. If you produce much more on average and you have lots of extra energy at the end of the month, it carries over to the next, just like roll-over minutes for a cell phone.

How Fast is Solar Energy Use Expanding?

Thanks to the ever-lower barriers to entry, increased reliability in newer solar energy systems, and the rising costs of traditional power consumption, the industry is growing exponentially. Back in 2009, Al Gore had the right of it when he said that solving climate change with renewable energy constitutes the “single biggest business opportunity in history.”

From 2010 to 2013, the amount of solar photovoltaic systems installed in the US jumped more than 485%. By 2014, the United States had more than 480,000 total solar systems installed, which produced up to 13,400 megawatts (MW). To put that into perspective, it’s enough to power nearly 2.4 million US households.

It’s not just consumers looking into solar power, either. Many businesses and companies have installed solar energy systems to improve their efficiency and lower their total operating costs. The installed capacity of photovoltaic systems in the US commercial sector grew from about 2,000 megawatts in 2010 to well over 6,000 megawatts in 2013.

The commercial world is beginning to see the light. So to speak.

What Must Be Done to Continue This Growth?

All that aside, even with recent growth there’s no guarantee that solar energy will continue this upward trend in usage. There are a handful of things that must be done in order to ensure the industry continues to see this same level of innovation and growth.

States that offer solar support should do their best to maintain and better regulate the use of renewable energy. That is, they must ensure that solar powered systems continue to offer the same cost benefits, if not more so. Perhaps more legislation should be put into place to encourage and support the use of these systems in modern homes and businesses. To add to this, more states should consider jumping on the solar support bandwagon.

At the end of 2016, the current tax credit offered to solar energy system owners will decline from 30 percent to 10, resulting in less federal investment in the solar sector. This is one of the most important reasons why consumers and commercial owners decided to have a system installed. Hopefully, this will be remedied by the necessary parties increasing that tax break once again. If there’s anything we know about human behavior, it’s that much of it is influenced by our wallets.

The rise of energy storage technologies will help ensure that solar energy can become even more reliable, and capable of providing electricity when there’s no sunlight, or during periods of increased demand for power. But beyond that, innovation and R&D in every field of renewable energy (geothermal, anyone?), will help reduce total costs of these systems by introducing new technologies into the marketplace. From where we stand, it’s difficult to imagine where our ability to harness the natural world safely will take us in the future. There are so many endless possibilities that nearly anything could come of innovation in the market.

Dare we speak of the Dyson sphere? This long-prophesied, but still largely hypothetical power system would encase an entire star and harness most, if not all, of the power it gives off.

Who knows where we’ll be by the time something like that is produced. But until then, we’ll have to be content with baby steps.

What’s Inside a Flu Shot – And Why There’s Nothing to Fear

A flu shot is considered by many Americans to be a necessary evil. Yes, it can be a little painful if you don’t like needles, but getting vaccinated is an important step towards staying healthy. Nevertheless, despite the obvious health benefits of vaccination, many Americans have a deeply-rooted, and sadly misplaced, mistrust of vaccination—reservations that have nothing to do with a fear of needles.

For these people, there is too much uncertainty surrounding just what’s inside a flu shot, as well as the supposedly dangerous side-effects. The good news is that this fear is simply born out of misinformation—a problem remedied by effectively communicating about the contents of the flu vaccine itself.

Image via Huff Post.

Once you understand what’s inside of a typical vaccine and why these ingredients are important, you’ll find it easier to show up each year for that all-too-important vaccination.

Fight Virus with Virus

Yes: it’s true that your flu shot contains a few strands of the flu, but the key piece of information here is that those strands are dead. If you’re holding off of getting a flu vaccine due to fears of being made ill, rest easy. That’s a myth. The truth is, the worst most people have to be concerned about is a bit of soreness in your arm for a couple of days.

The virus strands are the important groundwork necessary for formulating a vaccine that will keep you from suffering the ill effects of the flu.

Egg…Proteins?

There are indeed egg proteins in some vaccines, as it isn’t uncommon for flu vaccines to be developed in egg embryos. This often results in trace amounts of protein.

People with severe allergies to eggs can opt for an alternate version of the flu shot that’s free of egg protein.

Water Quality Matters

As this is a flu shot, most of the solution injected into the body is actually water. Therefore, it’s absolutely important that the water used meet the WFI, or water for injection requirements.

As a matter of public health and safety, the water used in vaccines is among the purest water available, which can significantly reduce the possibility of infections or development of an unrelated illness.

Formaldehyde In Flu Shots Isn’t Harmful

This ingredient is why the virus strands in your typical flu shot is dead and can’t actively infect you. It makes the virus ineffective, and unable to make you sick.

There is an anti-vaccination myth related to formaldehyde, suggesting that there is enough in the standard flu shot to make you sick or even give you cancer. In actuality, the amount used is miniscule; there’s simply far too little of it to make you remotely ill.

Flu Shot Ingredients Help Rather Than Harm

No, really, they don’t.

There are so many variations of the flu shot today that if you have an allergy (as was the case with egg proteins), you’ll likely be able to find the right flu shot for you. Nevertheless, there are various myths circulating among members of the public concerning vaccine ingredients and their effects on the body.

One such myth is that the flu shot isn’t recommended for women who are pregnant. In actuality, the flu shot is safe for women who are pregnant and expectant mothers are advised by the CDC to get vaccinated.

It’s important to remember that the flu vaccine is carefully formulated with ingredients that will work together to make you better. The flu shot won’t make you sick; instead, it’s meant to keep you from catching the flu.

The technology behind developing the flu shot improves every year. How much sense does it make to avoid vaccination based on outdated and thoroughly debunked information?

Why Fight Progress?

There is a dangerous belief that the flu is harmless, and that it’s better to risk catching it than to opt for a flu shot. In actuality, the flu is responsible for persons being hospitalized with flu-related complications.

Each year, thousands of people die as a result of the flu or complications related to having contracted the flu—and the worst part of this is that flu-related deaths are highly preventable thanks to medical advancements.

It’s important to ask questions and get the facts, rather than be deterred from a potentially life-saving flu shot by fear and misinformation.

deforestation-238472398424-2.jpg.662x0_q100_crop-scale

Drugs and Environmental Damage: An Often Undiscussed Truth

When it comes the damage caused by substance abuse and the illegal drug trade, many think of lives ruined by addiction or those sent to prison for drug-related crimes. It’s also not uncommon to think of traffic violations and arrests caused by driving while under the influence of alcohol and other drugs.

When drugs are imported into the United States, the people responsible aren’t just damaging human lives; they may also be wreaking havoc on the environment. The illegal drug industry is harmful to nature in ways the average person may have never realized; let’s take a look at how this happens.

Drug Trade Is Accelerating Deforestation

deforestation-238472398424-2.jpg.662x0_q100_crop-scale

CC BY-SA 2.0 Flickr

The disappearing rainforest in South America is blamed on a number of factors – especially cattle ranching. But in recent years, the disappearance of trees on what is supposed to be protected land is increasingly blamed on the drug trade.

It doesn’t help that conservation efforts in highly affected regions such as Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala are hampered by criminals that are dangerous and often violent.

Concerned environmentalists feel that the best possible response would be for the authorities to consider reforestation to be an important part of combating drug cartels.

Prescription Drug Waste and Your Drinking Water

Don't flush your unused medicine down the toilet. Credit: WikiHow

Don’t flush your unused medicine down the toilet. Credit: WikiHow

How do you dispose of your prescription drugs when you no longer need them?

Environmental authorities take prescription drug disposal very seriously because there is concern that actions such as flushing unused drugs down the toilet could contribute to unsafe drinking water.

If you research programs in your area, you may find that there is a “take back” program available for turning in your unused medicine.

If you are simply going to throw your drugs away, be sure remove them from the original containers and carefully mix them with “undesirable substances” such as kitty litter and coffee grounds. They should be placed in a sealed bag or other leak-proof container to avoid unnecessary environmental contamination, as well as to prevent them from falling into the hands of small children.

Methamphetamine Production Causes Hazardous Waste

Credit: ITSGOV

Credit: ITSGOV

According to research, each pound of meth produced creates five to six pounds of hazardous waste. These toxic materials are often disposed of by way of river and streams, putting the health of both humans and animals at risk.

Even worse, the toxic elements can linger for years. Thankfully, because of the serious impact of methamphetamine production on the environment, there are prevention efforts in place.

The failure to be proactive or to catch the meth production in time can lead to clean up and detoxification efforts, which can cost thousands of dollars.

Final Thoughts

Drugs are abused by humans, but other living things can be just as negatively impacted. Plant and animal life shouldn’t have to suffer the ill effects of the drug trade and drug addiction.

The good news is that a growing number of law enforcement agencies understand the importance of protecting the environment from drug-related hazards and properly cleaning up the impacted locations.

These efforts and increased vigilance can work hand in hand to help reverse the harm done to the environment by the illegal drug trade and the irresponsible disposal of drugs.

the first wheel

Five Scientific Discoveries That Changed the Course of History

Where would we be without science?

Dead, probably. Or, at the very least, in a world of trouble. The study of science is something that sets us apart from the other mammals on planet earth. It’s the driving force behind every significant breakthrough we’ve made over the millennia – of which there have been many.

But suppose we had to pick just five of those breakthrough scientific discoveries. How could we possibly rank them in terms of their significance? I’m not going to make the attempt, but I will single out five suitably epic moments from our shared scientific history that changed the course of our development.

The wheel reinvents transportation – and everything else

the first wheel

Credit: John Lund

It’s hard to imagine a world where humans existed without so much as a wheel. You have to wonder how things got done prior to its invention.

The history of the wheel begins in 3500 BC. Aside from the very obvious benefits of moving larger objects and transporting goods and people from Point A to Point B, many of today’s technologies would not been developed if it weren’t for the wheel.

It’s unfortunate that we can’t credit a specific person for the invention that truly transformed mankind, but we can thank the ancient inhabitants of Mesopotamia as a whole.

Gutenberg brings the joy of reading to the masses

Image: Intellectual Adventures Lab

Image: Intellectual Adventures Lab

Johannes Gutenberg generally gets all the credit for inventing the printing press. But the record shows that Eastern societies most likely used similar technology prior to his 1445 invention.

In either case, Gutenberg helped disseminate the written word across all kinds of folk. With his printing press, books no longer were just treasures of the rich; they were shared amongst the masses.

Gutenberg’s contribution to science makes him a crucial figure in the field of education, as well. His printing press helped educate the masses, and we are better as a society for it.

Blurring the lines between astronomy and metaphysics

Copernicus solar model

Image: National Geographic

Aristotle. Copernicus. Galileo. Kepler. Newton. Einstein.

You can’t talk about any epic moments in science without talking about this group of geniuses whose collective work gave humanity the stars.

Think about Copernicus in the 1500’s telling a group of other thinkers that the Sun was in the center of universe – not the Earth. Think about the reaction of those folks when they realized that a very core of their existence – their physical space in the universe – was turned completely upside down.

Together, the work of these men and their kin has consistently changed the way we understand the world around us. Which is pretty much the definition of “epic.”

The slow development of the internal combustion engine

first internal combustion engine

Image: Cars and Their Revolution

Some credit Christian Huygens with the invention of the internal combustion engine in 1680. Others say J.J. Etienne deserves the credit – he used gasoline to power his in 1859.

More accurately, the internal combustion engine is the work of many men over many years. After all, isn’t that the way most things are invented? Inventors are always being inspired by the work of others that came before. Without the internal combustion engine, we wouldn’t have automobiles. We wouldn’t have airplanes. What would that kind of world look like?

Think about America: thousands of miles of concrete connecting cities across the country’s vast landscape. The United States relies on its trucking and shipping industries to get goods from one spot to another. You can’t help but wonder how we’d travel and move merchandise were it not for the men who worked to build the first engines.

Measles, mumps and polio: Gone (Mostly)

measles polio vaccine

Image: The Hindu

It’s hard to believe that 100 years ago, measles, mumps and polio all threatened our very way of life.

But thanks to vaccinations, these three once-feared diseases have become essentially a thing of the past. For example, the World Health Organization reports that the frequency of polio cases has declined 99 percent since 1988, from 350,000 cases to 416 cases.

These three vaccines have become the bedrock upon which countless other medical breakthroughs have been built. Think about how amazing it is that, thanks to science, diseases that at one point threatened our livelihoods have become things we essentially don’t have to worry about anymore.

The Future of Science

future of science

Image: Simple Translation

Henry Ford and the automobile. Nikola Tesla and the light bulb. (Yes, not you, Edison!) IBM and the first smartphone. Even something as seemingly uninteresting as metal plating has impacted dozens of industries including electronics, dentistry, and transportation.

But the complete list of inventors who have forever changed our lives is virtually endless. And thanks to science, the list of inventors to come is almost certainly going to be longer.

These days, the news is populated by vapid, uninteresting caricatures. But hundreds of years ago, societies idolized brilliant minds and sat in awe as they listened to their teachings.

While the future remains bright for science itself – there will always be people who want to continue innovating at all costs – one can’t help but wonder whether we’re turning our back on education – and on our future innovators. When the quality of our children’s education depends on their zip code, you know it’s time for change.

Dieter Kapsch wants to drum on your head with his awesome spoon collection. He has collected 1,760 spoons from 447 different airlines over the course of13 years. They include spoons from the now-defunct Imperial Airways, as well as one from a Pan Am flying boat from the 1930s. Credit: Kapsch

The Problem with Using Psychology to Explain Collecting

The empirical sciences are meant to demystify those aspects of human nature that have eluded us. Sometimes, though, for all of our progress, our means of exploring and expressing the psychological underpinnings of universal experiences seem inadequate for the task. Case in point: collecting.

Humans have been collecting things ever since we developed the ability to gather more trinkets than were actually required for basic survival. While you might be able to theorize that the need to collect things has to do with our primal desire for security by accumulating items of personal interest, the psychological community is still at a loss for a more specific answer.

It might be baseball cards, taxidermied squirrels, 1940’s Romanian pinup posters, Arnold Schwarzenegger action figures, or whatever else tickles your fancy; the truth is, all collectors have reasons of their own for engaging in impulsive behaviors. The question, then, is this: what, psychologically speaking, ties the majority of collectors together?

Well, it seems we can’t even collect a consensus on the matter.

Freud Has a Theory for Everything

Sigmund Freud

Credit: The Print Collector

There has been a theory or two on why the accumulation of stuff helps satisfy the human need for psychological security (or simply just makes us humans happy). When in doubt, though, there’s always Sigmund Freud.

Freud theorized that our need to collect things has its roots in our potty training days. As little kids, we’d see what had become of our precious Sunny D swirling down the drain and this distressed us, because we had lost control of something that was once ours. If Freud is to be believed, collecting is a direct response to, quite literally, pissing away our feeling of control.

Whether or not you’re sticking with that story is up to you, but there aren’t too many authoritative voices these days supporting Freud’s theory as a sufficient explanation.

The point is, there has been a theory or two, but none of them have what we’d call universal support.

There’s Collecting, and Then There’s Hoarding

What the language of psychology can help us with is coming to terms with the difference between a collector and a hoarder. While there are quite a few subtle differences in clinical terms, there are two main factors:

  • First: all collectors have their reasons – but those reasons usually boil down to logical or sentimental motivations. For example: while 100-year-old stamps aren’t exactly useful for sending your mother a lovely greeting card, some can be worth quite a bit of money and are historical artifacts. Stamp collecting aficionado Earl Apfelbaum would be the first to tell you that stamp collectors’ motivations have little in common with psychological disorders.
  • Second: collectors might end up in a once-in-a-blue-moon tiff with a spouse or roommate because that baseball card cost more than a basketful of groceries. Overall, though, collectors tend not to engage in dangerous or self-destructive behavior. Collecting is a life-enriching hobby – not an unhealthy compulsion. Hoarders are compulsive, and often at a concerning level.

Collectors would excitably show you their favorite autographed Eagles jersey from 1979. Hoarders would likely not want you in their house, because you’ll try to steal one of their 47 precious cats.

Your Collection Says Something About You

Sponge Bob has a hobby too - collecting dust. Nice!

Sponge Bob has a hobby too – collecting dust. Nice!

Keep in mind that psychological diagnoses must meet a carefully considered set of symptoms. So you might want to refrain from “diagnosing” the guy across the street with a disorder, even though you think he’s got an unhealthy obsession with Depression-era clown dolls.

Nevertheless, the APA has finally come up with a new DSM-5 category for the “Hoarding Disorder.” Though many still believe that their rather loose definitions and diagnosis criteria need a great deal of work, it seems that the issue of hoarding has lately been attracting attention in the psychological community. This is one case where public imagination (thanks in no small part to a certain reality TV show) ran with an idea before science came up with an official explanation.

According to the DSM-5, a “hoarding disorder” is dependent on:

  • Resulting impairment and hindrance in normal life functions (social, occupational, etc.)
  • No other disorders, such as OCD or major depression disorder, can be “attributed” to hoarding.

Basically, if you have no idea why you can’t stop hoarding absolutely useless things, and the thought of getting rid of your collection is like asking Gollum to throw the One Ring into the volcano, then you might want to seek help.

Collecting the Past

Though they’re in the process of wrapping their brains around the issue of hoarding, modern psychologists still have no definition or diagnosis for the average-Joe collectors out there. In a way, this might simply be less of a psychological condition and more of a human one.

Collecting is largely seen as being a way of satisfying that natural desire to preserve the past.

For instance, those who collect historical WWII memorabilia could actively be attempting to preserve for themselves a small piece of a legendary era. Also, a collector of guitar picks from famous rock stars might not even play the guitar – but it’s a hobby that might preserve personal memories of younger, wilder days. Same goes for collecting music; you’re building a historical record of the evolution of your musical tastes.

Either way, collecting is a way keeping a little piece of the past for ourselves. This is an undeniably human thing to do, and is tidily explained without the use of Freud’s admittedly rich bathroom imagery.