Did NASA Discover Life in the Saturnian System?

Um, no.

NASA put out this press release, which inspired a blogger to post some speculation based on the credentials of the participants in the press conference:

if I had to guess at what NASA is going to reveal on Thursday, I’d say that they’ve discovered arsenic on Titan and maybe even detected chemical evidence of bacteria utilizing it for photosynthesis

–and the Internet went wild with the announcement that NASA had found life on one of Saturn’s moons, including an Atlanta newspaper. Of course, nowhere in NASA’s press release did they say anything about Saturn or Saturn’s moons, but feh! Who cares about what the primary sources say. Speculation is fact!

My guess? There has been some kind of study or experiment that shows how life could evolve based on a different chemistry than familiar Earth life, and that that chemical environment may exist (or have existed) elsewhere in the Solar System. The point of such a finding would be that we’d have to make sure any future astrobiology studies don’t just look for life as we know it – that they include the new chemistries. But that’s only my guess.

If NASA had discovered life, don’t you think the press release for the upcoming news conference would be front and center on NASA.gov, and that the list of panelists would include names like Bolden, Garver, Holdren, or Obama?

A Grad Student Milestone

I have started collecting my materials and papers into a dissertation draft, and today came up with a pleasant surprise. I visited the web site of the AIAA, an organization that publishes some of the journals I’ve submitted to, to take a look at some of the information on one of my papers. When I searched for my name, one of the hits returned was not one of my papers. Nor was it even one of my research group’s papers. It was from another author!

Naturally, I downloaded the paper straightaway. It appeared in the Journal of Guidance, Control, and Dynamics this month, and is on the subject of satellite formations held together by actively controlled electromagnets. Right in the second paragraph was a reference to my work with my advisor at Cornell:

And, sure enough, reference [3] is to, as it turns out, my first conference paper on this project!

(As an aside, by now I’ve done much better work than that paper – and as I edit my dissertation material, I keep thinking, ugh, how could I have written some of that stuff! – but I won’t be picky, because I understand how long the publication process can take!)

To my knowledge, this is my first outside-my-group citation. That’s a grad school milestone!

For those of you not familiar with science and engineering papers, let me explain a little. Even if this is only a sentence in the literature review, it’s still pretty important. It shows that the authors included my work within the scope of the field; it’s a sort of measure of acceptance into the community. This citation is especially cool because the MIT group that published this paper has been working on electromagnetically controlled satellite formations for a number of years, and we’ve seen our work as complimentary to theirs in a number of ways. It’s nice to see the recognition, and to see our work mentioned in the same section as other related research projects. (And I did some work out of one of Schaub’s textbooks recently.)

All right! Now I guess it’s time to try and get back to the grad studentry…

I am annoyed at smartphones, because I am about to get one

Two reasons.

One has to do with the carriers. Modern cellular networks are entirely digital. Make a call, and the phone is digitizing your voice and sending bits through a radio network. Send a text, and the phone is sending bits through a radio network. Load a web page, and the phone is receiving bits through a radio network. It makes absolutely no sense for phone companies to split their plans into “voice,” “text,” “email,” and “data” segments. Really, it’s all data. The network hardware doesn’t care whether the last byte you sent was voice or text or web, it was just a byte. Bit-bit-bit-bit-bit-bit-bit-bit. It took the same amount of bandwidth to send. The only reason phone companies structure things in this way is that they can get people to pay for more things than they otherwise would if, oh, let’s say, Congresspeople realized that it’s all just data and that the phone companies are charging customers several times for the same thing.

The other is that I think the manufacturers, carriers, marketers, and (most annoyingly) customers have forgotten where the second half of the compound word “smartphone” came from.

I have had my eye on the Droid Incredible for a little while now, so I’ve been following many smartphone reviews to see how newer phones match up, and they almost universally agree that call quality on all these devices is okay at best. Today I played around with an Incredible for a bit in a Verizon store and tried calling someone else with it, chatting for a bit, then switching phones with them and chatting some more. On both ends, the voice I heard was clearly intelligible but sounded like it lacked the full richness of tone that I would hear in normal conversation. It was a bit filtered sounding, maybe with a little bit of background. I figured it just sounded like a voice over a phone.

But then I called the other person on my old LG VX5400, a basic flip-phone that was inexpensive enough to be fully subsidized by Verizon, and repeated the chat-swap-chat sequence. There was a marked improvement in voice quality; it sounded like I heard a fuller frequency range through the connection in both cases. The other person agreed with my assessments.

This puzzles me: why would the Incredible both record and play lower-quality audio? I can think of a few of reasons that might apply:

  1. The Droid Incredible has both an inferior speaker and inferior microphone to my old phone.
  2. The Droid Incredible has an inferior antenna to my old phone.
  3. The Droid Incredible uses more lossy encoding schemes to digitize and play voice audio.

I think there’s no excuse for any of these scenarios. For the first two, clearly better hardware was available to the manufacturer and clearly that hardware is within Verizon’s subsidy budget, so there’s no particular reason to cut corners and make a less capable product. In the third case, well, that’s just silly; why would the manufacturer put software in place that detracts from the performance and appeal of their product?

Obviously, smartphones are being marketed to consumers on the basis of their web access and mobile computing features, rather than their capabilities as phones. But I’m looking at upgrading my primary (and only!) phone line, so it’s important to me to be able to clearly understand others and clearly express myself in phone calls. The hit on voice quality from the Droid Incredible isn’t quite enough to outweigh the reasons I have to want its other features, and I’ve seen anecdotal evidence on the Internet that goes both ways on its call quality, but a noticeable reduction in voice quality was enough of a disappointment to make me briefly reconsider the other features. This device is supposed to be better than my flip phone; yet while it may be “smart,” it’s not better at being a phone.

Maybe this is why many of the people I know who have obtained smartphones immediately became harder to get in touch with…


Tonight, a friend of a friend came over to my apartment so we could all make chili together. During this process, we came to a point when we needed to defrost a bunch of ground beef. When I moved to the microwave to get that going, Friend-of-a-Friend says to me, “You know, you can also defrost meat in a bowl of warm water. That’s healthier for you.”

Usually the method I choose by which to defrost meat is governed by how long I feel like waiting for dinner, and how much I am thinking ahead. But I was curious about this new rationale, so I asked Friend-of-a-Friend to explain how the warm-water method is healthier than punching the “defrost” button on my microwave. “Well,” this person says, “one is cooking with radiation, and one isn’t.” Then they shrug and make a waffling gesture with their hands. “Ehhhh…” The implication was clear.

Something about this situation bugs me. Here is a person who has enough scientific knowledge to see that there is a connection between microwaves, radiation, and certain health concerns – but not enough knowledge about these things to realize that they have constructed a problem or fear that has no justification.

Microwave ovens work by bouncing radiation with a wavelength of a few centimeters or so around in a cavity. This wavelength lines up nicely with some of the vibration modes of water molecules, and the vibrations thus excited get passed along to food as heat.

Ionizing radiation can cause health risks in a number of ways, including killing things outright at high enough doses. However, the more relevant concern at the low levels of radiation found in a household appliance would be that the radiation could damage the structure of some cells’ DNA, and those cells would run amok – becoming cancer.

However, microwave radiation is non-ionizing: it is not energetic enough to do much more than excite molecular modes or maybe kick a few electrons into a valence band. It can’t cause any more direct damage to you than a walkie-talkie does by blasting you with radio waves, or a household radiator does by bathing you in infrared radiation. Furthermore, it can’t cause any damage to the DNA or cell membranes in the steak or pork chop or broccoli cut or baked potato or whatever else you put in your microwave oven. Even with ionizing radiation, irradiating the steak doesn’t make it radioactive. The result you get is a hot steak, not a carcinogen.

So, here is a person who knows that microwaves work by radiation, and that radiation causes cancer. But this person doesn’t realize that the physical mechanisms in each case are different, that the food cannot transfer the effects of radiation to you by being eaten, and that there is no syllogism here. But I wonder just how pervasive this kind of thing is: would this person be surprised if I shined a flashlight on them, and then announced – accurately and truthfully – that I was irradiating them? And how many other people are out there with similar misconceptions?

It strikes me that this sort of incomplete knowledge is a little dangerous, because it creates fear where none should exist. And there are many forces out there that would love for us to receive only partial knowledge, because then we can be driven by those constructed fears. If only more people could be motivated to pursue a fuller understanding of science…