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Following a lively conversation on Facebook, sparked by the picture below, one of my friends suggested that someone weigh up the benefits of science to society in comparison to the benefits of military research. I figured I’d tackle the task, but as I am aware people don’t like reading long posts, I thought I’d just focus on one particular part of science. And believe me, the list would be long if I were to try it from every field of science. I doubt I’d even be able to finish it.

So the “part” of science I’m going to talk about is NASA. It’s just one organisation, and yet, NASA has contributed more to society than most people give it credit for. This post is largely inspired by the comment I hear a lot that goes roughly along the lines of “why spend money going into space when we have enough problems here on Earth”. Well, here’s why.

First and foremost is the ultimate pursuit of knowledge. Since the development of the human brain, especially the growth of the neocortex, humans have been obsessed with answering everything they can observe. This used to be done largely through the use of deities, but as science developed, we formulated functional, physical understandings of the universe. This is important because it was precisely due to this drive that we have achieved our current level of advanced society. If this drive to explain things didn’t exist, we would still be living as cavemen.

Second, there’s the fact that humankind will inevitably require the means of traveling outside of our solar system. This need is due to two things – the first being the fact that humans are destroying the Earth through exploitation of resources. The World Wildlife Fund predicted that by 2050, we would need to colonise two planets if we continued to expend resources at our current rate. While this report is a decade old, the very fact that we even have to consider something like this in our lifetime is a sign of bad things to come. This prediction is not alone either, with Stephen Hawking also proclaiming that our species will face extinction if we do not colonise other planets. And even if we manage to survive all the things that could kill us (meteors, black holes, climate change, ourselves), somehow managing to survive five billions years into the future (super unlikely), our sun will go Red Giant on our asses and kill us all anyway. So for starters, NASA contributes to our society by developing technology that helps ensure we even have a future to live in.

Finally, and here’s where the examples come in, NASA technology has resulted in a wide range of what are known as “spin offs”. These are essentially technologies developed by NASA and incorporated by others to suit other needs, and I will focus on these as the core of NASA’s contributions. After all, human nature dictates that what occurs in the future is less important than what happens now, so let’s look at some of the technology NASA has contributed to our current lives. There are so many of these that I’m only going to pick out a few. There’s actually 35 archived catalogues dedicated to NASA spinoffs, which you can find on this page.

But let’s look at a few examples. I’m not sure how to go about this so I’ll just make a quick list and explain the more obscure ones.

  1. Velcro
  2. Teflon
  3. Scratch resistant lenses
  4. Freeze dried food
  5. Sports shoes (shock absorbers, stability and motion control)
  6. Cordless power tools
  7. CAT and MRI scanners (so anyone with fractures or internal injuries can thank NASA for this technology allowing doctors to see what’s wrong in your body).
  8. Light emitting diodes (can be used for cancer treatment and promote faster healing of wounds).
  9. Infrared technology
  10. Mammography systems (reducing need for biopsies due to better breast cancer detection).
  11. Miniature heart assist device (implanted into patients waiting for a heart transplant).
  12. Memory foam
  13. Sunglasses (the technology of the lense being able to filter out UV rays).
  14. Water purification systems
  15. All manner of protective coatings (used on tools, vehicles, buildings and bridges)
  16. Kidney dialysis machines
  17. Medical rehabilitation equipment
  18. Insulation (specifically aluminium and propylene/mylar)
  19. Retroreflectors (used as a sensor to detect hazardous gases in oil development, chemical planets and waste storage sites)
  20. Anthrax detection system
  21. Wireless light switches
  22. Decontamination processes (specifically for areas contaminated by chemicals, used by many companies)
  23. WARP-10 (a portable pain reliever for muscle and joint pain)
  24. Patient harnesses (to assist patients recovering from traumatic brain injury, stroke, spinal cord injury, hip/knee replacements, etc.)
  25. Crash test models (and dummies)
  26. Liquidmetal (used in a large range of sporting equipment, jewelry, watches, mobile phones, orthopedic implants, and coatings).
  27. Navigation systems for planes allowing terrain recognition in all conditions
  28. Gas sensor (used by aircraft to detect dangerous weather conditions and avoid them).
  29. Eye surgery equipment (improving on LASIK)
  30. Bank terminal technology

As I write this, I realise that there is way too much for me to keep going. I’ve put down 30 of the more common ones. You are welcome to take a look at a longer list available here (even if you don’t read it, I advise you to click that link and scroll down just to get an idea of just how much NASA alone – let alone all of science – has given us). One thing is for sure though, in 35 years, NASA has given humankind a ridiculous amount of things. Science in general is responsible for everything you see around you. I guarantee that there is at least a dozen things around you right now that are the result of science, so when people ask why we should bother spending money on science (not only in the case of NASA, but for the LHC as well), I shake my head in dismay. But wait, I’m not done yet.

It’s become a cliché to compare the chronically underfunded NASA to the comically-bloated military establishment, but the comparison is instructive. In 2010, total military spending (not including indirect costs from interest on incurred debts) was 683.7 billion dollars. This was a three percent increase over the previous year.

Let me put it another way. At the same time the NASA budget was being nickle and dimed with budget decreases every year, the budget increase in the military for that year was about equal to the total NASA budget. The military budget increased by nearly $20 billion dollars the same year that NASA was cut back by a critical few hundred million.

– Joel Boyce, Care2

To wrap your head around it, here’s a quick comparison. It costs $1 billion more than NASA’s budget just to provide air conditioning for temporary tents and housing in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I’ve been sloppy with my hyperlinks, for which I apologise. This post was a huge undertaking. Here are my last two links for you guys. Dr. Tyson is fun to listen to and is quite popular on the internet, so I thought you guys might enjoy these.

Neil deGrasse Tyson defending NASA before the Senate

Neil deGrasse Tyson talking about NASA’s importance

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I normally don’t get too involved in politics, but this was too awesome to pass up. How could you not vote for such a cool guy? It’s not actually a quote as much as a speech, and I’m sure everyone’s heard it already, but I’ll leave it here as a funny keepsake:

No seriously, why are people still trying to argue against the existence of climate change? It’s amazing that during 2010, 48% (Rasmussen Energy Update) of Americans believed climate change to be exaggerated and by 2011 (Gallup Politics poll), 42% still didn’t believe it was an issue. I use America as an example here because the country is used as a standard for comparison, due mainly to its political influence and dominant economy in the past (I say this so people don’t think I’m picking on them, especially with what I’m about to say).

And why am I writing about this? Well, maybe a politician or CEO with a limited term in office will only think of their short term results but I would like to see something done to protect the lives and homes of over 7 billion humans, millions more animals, as well as our food supply and the future of life on this planet. But even if I didn’t care about all that, this one reason alone is enough for me:

 

I hate seeing shit like this. As if a polar bear’s life wasn’t hard enough, going weeks without food in the freezing cold (by the way, humans have also messed up fish populations, making these animals more desperate, which is why many go into human towns looking for food – and are sometimes shot for doing so). This animal’s entire life is spent looking for enough food to survive, and now it barely has any ice to rest on. Increasingly high amounts of polar bears have died from drowning because they simply can’t find any ice to rest on after going out hunting for food. They swim aimlessly looking for somewhere to lie down, and they keep swimming until their exhausted body fails and they just drown, fully conscious but unable to move. Such a sad and lonely death for such a majestic creature.

 

So, despite overwhelming scientific evidence and consensus within the scientific (and global) community, there are still people who don’t think climate change is real, many of whom live in the US. Well, what can I say? That I shouldn’t have expected so much from the country with the highest amount of adults that think angels are real, and who needed the government to release an official statement saying mermaids weren’t real? It’s funny that there is infinitely more academic evidence for the existence of climate change than there is for god, but somehow, 90% of Americans believe in god (Gallup poll). I’m not trying to turn this into a religious debate, I’m just pointing out the stupidity in having the capacity to believe in something with very little evidence, based on faith, yet reject solid evidence of something else when it’s presented to you. I mean, if you have the trust to believe in something obscure, wouldn’t that same trust make you even more susceptible to believing something with a great deal of evidence? I guess not, that’s silly of me to say.

Now, it will take too long for me to list every single logical fallacy and false “fact” that climate change sceptics use, and many people before me have already done that honour, so I’ll just make a statement of absolute fact here: climate change is as real as the earth beneath your feet. It is not the result of natural occurrence, it is not exaggerated in its impact, it is not lacking in any sort of evidence in any way, it is not due to the sun (in fact, the sun’s temperature has gone in the opposite direction to global temperatures; see links below). It is real.

Here’s 21 myths climate change sceptics use and a thorough debunking of them: http://www.scholarsandrogues.com/2007/07/23/anti-global-heating-claims-a-reasonably-thorough-debunking/

Here’s  another 173:
http://www.skepticalscience.com/argument.php

Here’s an Australian Government report (you can easily find your own government’s reports):
http://www.climatechange.gov.au/en/government/international/global-action-facts-and-fiction/cc-action.aspx

Here’s 10 more facts from academic sources:
http://www.climatechange.com.au/facts-about-global-warming/

Here’s an article from the Scientific American politely saying how sceptics are stupid:
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=is-global-warming-a-myth

So yeah, if you still don’t believe in climate change, you’re either a genius whose opinion transcends the academic opinions of the entire global scientific community, or arrogant enough to think that you are, ignorant, or just plain stupid. This is not a discussion, so stop trying to make it one. How are we going to do anything about it if idiots still say it’s not real?

 

Recently, any 9gag post featuring the usage of the word “America” to represent the United States of America and “American” to refer to a person from aforementioned States has been met with a lot of tears, frustration and broken hearts in the comment sections. This could very likely be an internet-wide phenomenon, but 9gag is the only place where I really read comments (because there are so many idiots there it’s amusing).

Well, I’m here to end this crap.

These arguments usually revolve around something along the lines of “America is not a country, [insert profanity and remove appropriate punctuation], it’s a continent”. Wow that’s dumb. America is less a continent than it is a country. In short, using the word “America/American” to describe the US and its inhabitants is perfectly correct – and I’ll proceed to prove it to you.

Ok, so here’s some history. The term “America” was first featured on one of four five (as of July 4, the fifth was found in a German university library) maps of German cartographer Martin Waldseemueller, who died in 1522. At the time, it was used to mark a boomerang shaped strip of land that is now modern-day Brazil. Here’s a picture for reference.

That’s America there on the right. If you don’t believe me, Google it yourself. Anyway, it should be pretty obvious that there’s more to South America (and indeed North America) than what is shown there. Over time, the term “America” became used to describe the “New World”, which pretty much just included the Americas (gasp, there’s a hint!) and sometimes Australasia. This was mainly due to the expanding of the geographical horizon that existed in the European Middle Ages, in which they believed that the whole world consisted only of Africa, Asia and Europe. Eventually, after all was discovered, and scientists did their thing with tectonic plates, they divided North and South America into two different continents – and rightly so. Why? Because the two landmasses are on separate tectonic plates. Again, a picture for you as reference.

In case you can’t see, the brown plate is North America and the purple is South America. Well, now that we’ve established a well-documented, existing definition (that North and South America are two different continents) we can continue with our proof. And yes, I am aware that people around the world are actually taught different things. There’s a five continent model (old mode from the 60’s in Europe – hence the five Olympic rings), a six continent model where North and South America are combined into one (mainly taught in Europe and Latin American countries), and finally the seven continent model where North and South America are separate. However, most geographers and scientists now agree on a six continent model – but North and South America are still separate continents (refer to tectonic plates if you want to know why). The true six continent model (true as in geographically and scientifically endorsed) combines Europe with Asia (Eurasia) as they are technically one single landmass on one single tectonic plate. So either way, if someone tries to say North and South America are just one continent (America), then that’s how they were taught so it’s not their fault that they’re wrong. Yes, they are still wrong.

Let’s go back to our original claim “American is a continent not a country”. Wrong. Here’s where the previous hint comes back; the Americas (notice the plural) are two continents. They can also be collectively known as Pan-America, which consists of North, Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean. America (notice the singular) is not a continent. The continents are North America and South America, remember? Cutting the first half off a word does not make it the same thing, especially when the second half is the same for two different continents. In fact, these stupid claims are defeated by their very own logic. They argue that we cannot call the United States of America by the shortened term “America” but they say America is continent when it is itself shortened by cutting off the preceding word. In both cases, we’re ignoring the first half of the name, so “America is a continent, not a country” is already wrong by its own reasoning. So what makes it more correct to use America/American to refer to the US and its people? I’m glad you asked.

First of all, “American” is a demonym. A demonym is basically a term for the populace of a certain locale, based on the name of that region. Thus, Chinese (from China), Australian (from Australia) and American (from America). Now, here’s the fun bit. Let’s just say for an instance that the word America does not, by itself, have any meaning – thus nullifying the semantics of the word American (ignoring the fact that some people do already say “North American” and “South American”). What then would you call a person from the US? United States of American? United Statesian? Here’s my personal favourite: USAsian. It even sounds like “You is Asian”. If we ever change the word “American” it should be to USAsian. If you want to blame someone, blame the people who decided to name a country “the United States of [landmass]”. They obviously didn’t foresee the difficulty of naming things when they came up with that name. As a result, we just have the word American, which is a nice, simple demonym.

Second, and here we get into a bit of the etymology and semantics of language itself, what is the meaning of a word? If you think about it, a word is really just a wavelength emitted by our vocal chords. That’s the scientific way of saying “words are just sound”. So how does this sound have a meaning attached to it? It’s meaning is given to it by its use. If it’s used to represent something, it will come to mean that thing. The word “American” has already had a few hundreds years of usage to describe people/things from the United States. Not only that, it was popularised and utilised by the media and government (the American Dollar and the American Dream), so really, the word has already established its meaning and the media, people and government were the ones who created the word’s meaning, as well as ensuring that it sticks. So yes, America is the shortened word for the United States of America, and American is the word for a person/thing from the US. Its usage as such is perfectly correct.

Before I forget, I remembered someone saying “stop claiming the entire continent for yourselves”. I’m guessing that the other people belonging to North and South America (the continents) are feeling left out of their own continent. Well, in response, I say: chill out. You should be glad that you’re not lumped in with the US and have a country name and appropriate denonym for yourselves. That means you don’t get dragged into the American image of archaicness, obesity and stupidity (among other things). Now stop trying to argue that America “is a continent not a country” or you mind end up being considered stupid after all.

So, recently scientists reported the discovery of a particle with observable effects likening it to the Higgs Boson. That’s a very complex way of saying “they think they found the Higgs Boson”. Some of you may not think this is a big deal. To those people, I say “I don’t believe you understand the gravity of this matter”. That’s the first of some of the Higgs jokes popping up.

Anyway, this is a huge scientific breakthrough and it pretty much shoots the whole neutrino affair out of the water. Why is that? Well, there was a lot more hype over the neutrino potentially surpassing light speed because geeks and opportunists started an avalanche of ill-informed statements. The most prominent of these was the whole “faster than light” travel fiasco. I wrote an article on the neutrino for a course at uni but I can’t be bothered finding it so I’ll sum up quickly why this is a stupid idea: the neutrino is also known as the “ghost particle” because it can travel through matter with minimal to no interaction. If something with that kind of amazing ability can’t surpass light speed (or was in doubt of surpassing light speed at the time that these faster than light dreams started multiplying) then what hope do humans have? Let’s put this in perspective. Suppose the neutrino did manage to break the light speed barrier. Well, you might say humans will use that technology to develop super-light speed travel. Errrrrrr. Wrong. What are you going to do, make a spaceship out of neutrinos? Let me remind you that neutrinos do not interact with matter. You’ll have a better chance at resolving the atheist-theist war than ever making even a seat out of neutrinos. There’s a lot more to the neutrino than that, and maybe I’ll put the information up here some time, but for now, rest easy knowing that we’ll always be stuck at sub-light speeds.

I sort of went off at a tangent here. The point was that the neutrino buzz was a fad; there was never really any substance to it. This Higgs boson ordeal, however, is mind boggling. I mean that literally. Even with my reasonable grasp of science, it’s a bit hard to wrap my head around. I asked my mom and stepfather (both PhD physicists who were top of their field in Australia before retirement) for a bit of clarification and arrived at the understanding I have now. I’m going to give a brief explanation of the Higgs Boson and Higgs field in the following paragraphs; if these do not interest you, you may skip, but that leaves you with a bigger question – what are you doing reading this if you’re not interested in science?

Ok, so let’s start with the Higgs field. Why? Because the Higgs Boson is a particle associated with the Higgs field in the same way a photon is associated with an electromagnetic field. The difference here is that the Higgs field permeates the universe. This is a bit hard to understand without an analogy. Let’s say that the universe is submerged within a tank of water – that is, all the planets and stars and galaxies are objects within this tank. The water would be the fabric of time and space – as well as the Higgs field. It is everywhere, in more ways than one. For example, you can bend the fabric of space time (with our analogy, that would be a ripple in the water). Whilst this may shorten the “distance” between two points, the ripple does not eliminate the space time in between – it merely distorts it.

So now that we’ve determined that the Higgs field pretty much encompasses the entirety of the universe (Einstein theorised a similar space time fabric, though I forget the exact name), what you need to know is that particles travelling through the Higgs field, and thus interacting with it, are affected by the Higgs  Boson. The Higgs Boson is a class of particle whose category is known as a Boson. It’s special because it transfers mass to certain elementary particles and thus explains why some particles have mass and others do not. Without mass, there would be no gravity and thus no universe – which is why you’ll hear that the Higgs Boson “holds the universe together”. You’ll also hear it called the “god particle” but Higgs dislikes that name – originally he wanted it called the “goddamn particle” but his editor thought it would be more attention grabbing if it was named the “god particle”.

Anyway, if we delve a little deeper (and further outside my comfort zone), we can attempt to explain how this mass is transferred. Most particles have a positive or negative, non-integer spin. This means that at each energy level of the particle, only one type of spin can exist for the orbiting electron. This is known as the Pauli exclusion principle. The difference with the Higgs Boson is that it can have zero spin or integer spins, thus allowing it to exist alongside another spinning electron at any given energy level. This essentially means that it can exist in multiple states (you may have heard of this quantum mechanics term before, especially since the popularisation of Schrodinger’s Cat). Because the Higgs Boson can exist where no other normal particle should, it has the potential to transfer mass (this is actually my own speculation, don’t quote me in any academic papers).

Anyway, that’s about as far into it as I’ll get. The crux of the matter is, the simple model has been completed. Scientists used this model for 50 years with no proof that the Higgs Boson existed, and now, finally, we have that proof. In short, we’ve discovered something that was fundamental to not only our creation, but everything we see around us in the universe.

The title of this post also mentions world powers, but I’ve rambled on a bit now. I’ll just leave with a quick paraphrasing of the well known Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. “On the day that we Americans like to tell ourselves that we’re the best (July 4), Europe reminds us how far behind we’ve fallen in science (Higgs Boson)”. Dr. Tyson has a deep concern that scientific power will shift away from the US, and wishes to reignite his country’s passion for science. I agree with his forecast; due to the nature of brilliant minds, the next generations of scientists will go to Europe instead of the US for their scientific goals, due to the infrastructure Europe can offer (Large Hadron Collider vs. the now closed Enrico Fermi reactor in the US). A large part of the US’s success is due to the infrastructure and opportunity available within the country, which attracted immigrants and geniuses together. As Dr. Tyson also points out, the greatest scientific achievements made by the US were made by immigrants (a German scientist started the US space program, for instance), and if their infrastructure falls behind, inevitably, their science will too. This will have a widespread effect that will eventually see the US removed as the world superpower (among other factors).

Well, those are my thoughts for the day. Forgive me for any errors in my scientific talk – as I said, the details of quantum physics elude me and I haven’t had the time to research the Higgs Boson as much as I did for the neutrino. Let’s just leave with a picture of the second (and perhaps more prominent) reason why Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is so famous now.

Image

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