Science

Infinite in All Directions: Farts in a Bottle, Philosophy of Limits and Forgetting Chernobyl

Infinite in All Directions is The Wire‘s science newsletter. Click here to subscribe and receive a digest of the most interesting science news and analysis from around the web every Monday, 10 am.

The Carolina Reaper

Pods of the Carolina Reaper. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Pods of the Carolina Reaper. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Ed Currie kickstarted a project in 2004 that crossed a Naga pepper from Pakistan with a habanero pepper from St. Vincent. The result was the Carolina Reaper, the world’s hottest pepper, a hundred-times spicier than jalapeños. Peppers get their spiciness from the presence of compounds called capsaicinoids. These compounds bind to nerve cells in the human tongue to give rise to the burning sensation. And this is where the Reaper’s story gets weird: the more Reapers Currie cultivates, the spicier it tends to get by each generation. Where are the capsaicinoids coming from? From Science Friday:

In 2013, the Guinness Book of World Records designated the Carolina Reaper as the hottest pepper in the world. And it seems to be getting hotter with each passing season, according to Currie, but he and his research colleagues don’t quite know why. Currie says he’s not so interested in defending the hottest pepper title—he’s more keen to contribute his pepper work to medical research, if possible. But, he adds, “honestly, we have all the data ready for the next one. So if someone tries to beat me, I can knock them out.”

§

Containing farts

Credit: jblewitt/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Credit: jblewitt/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Relevant after the world’s spiciest pepper: Maggie Koerth-Baker does us all a good turn and estimates, based on a review of the literature, that the “daintiest” of farts can fill a bottle of nail polish while a “big stinker” could need a can of soda to be contained. That’s a variation between 17 millilitres and 375 millilitres, at least based on a 1997 study of 16 Americans. Koerth-Baker goes on to tell us that while more fermentable residues in the stomach does lead to more gas, an increased formation of gas doesn’t lead to or influence bloating. From FiveThirtyEight:

Beans for breakfast really do mean more farts and a higher volume of gas farted — from a mean of about 260 milliliters in six hours on the neutral breakfast to upward of 660 milliliters post-beans. (Bad news for fart-shy Brits?) But there wasn’t much difference in the volume of farts produced by the healthy people and those produced by the folks prone to bloating, even though the latter reported more discomfort.

So what gives? The going theory is that people who experience a lot of problems with bloating and farting — like those who have irritable bowel syndrome — are actually suffering from a nerve disorder that causes hypersensitivity to pain, said Bruno Chumpitazi, director of the neurogastroenterology center at Texas Children’s Hospital. There’s an overlap between people who have IBS and those with other kinds of pain disorders such as fibromyalgia and chronic pelvic pain, he said. And he told me tests using an inflatable balloon inserted into the colon have shown that it takes less inflation to make people with IBS feel symptoms such as pain, bloating and discomfort.

§

A dance for Kiribati

Kiribati in the Pacific. Credit: Google Maps

Kiribati in the Pacific. Credit: Google Maps

After David Katoatau was placed sixth in the men’s 105-kilogram weightlifting Group B final at #Rio2016, he danced. It wasn’t because he’d made it to the Olympics at all or anything like that (a description that fits the Indian contingent) – Katoatau danced because he wanted to draw the world’s attention to the fact that his country Kiribati, a group of islands in the Pacific Ocean, was drowning under the onslaught of climate change. From The Atlantic:

In the coming years, many of the nation’s 100,000-plus residents may be seeking a way out. In 2014, Kiribati purchased $7 million worth of land in the Fiji islands, with the goal of securing an agricultural hub to ensure the country’s access to food and a potential refuge should people need to flee Kiribati en masse. Before leaving office in 2016, former President Anote Tong encouraged his people to consider “migration with dignity” to nearby countries like Australia and New Zealand. Last year, a man from Kiribati lost a four-year court battle in New Zealand to become the world’s first legally recognized climate-change refugee. The danger isn’t necessarily that Kiribati will literally vanish; scientists believe its atolls may change shape and adapt to rising sea levels rather than be swallowed by the ocean. It’s that, in 30 or 60 or 80 years, Kiribati will become either uninhabitable or prohibitively expensive to inhabit.

His dance was particularly heartbreaking because of how dire matters seem back home: in 2015, he and his coach Paul Coffa had written an open letter to the world describing how waves had swallowed his hut a few months after it had been built, how the rising oceans and changing tides could render Kiribati uninhabitable in as little as three decades. The letter finished, “In the not too distant future we will all drown.”

§

An anthropology of limit

Credit: keoni101/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Credit: keoni101/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Alberto Pirni from the Institute of Law, Pisa, has an intriguing question for his audience: now that we’re inching into the final frontier, does humankind need to break apart and reassemble the frameworks within which human nature and its attendant ethics are defined? Put another way: does the conception of ‘human nature’ impinge on humankind in a way that could be reshaped by our exploration of space? The question might seem trivial because the answer’s in sight – but Pirni does good by starting down this intimidating road using the tools of philosophical anthropology. As he writes in his paper:

… we are approaching a frontier beyond which the disciplinary lenses that have historically been used to tackle the fundamental aspects of “human nature,” namely biology and ontology, would have to be revolutionized if they are to remain of any use.

Then, much later:

… “the space,” namely, a not-specific place outside Earth in which the man is trying to give shape to a new path of its own surviving. Here rises what we would like to call the “anthropology of limit.” In order to grasp a provisional content for such expression, we must proceed analytically, first, by reconsidering briefly the two conceptual sides implied in that expression, namely “What is a man?” and “What do we mean with limit?”.

Pirni’s answer (insofar as there can be answers to such big questions in a single paper) takes us through discussions on our collective anxiety for perfection, the idea of ‘positive deficiencies’, Kant’s distinction between limits and boundaries, physiology’s opposition to naturalism and bioethical challenges unto an overall ‘anthropology of limit’. The paper overall is a super-interesting read – but don’t try to read it in the middle of a workday. You’ll (likely) fall asleep.

§

If you like what you’re reading, subscribe here. You could also consider making a donation to The Wire, which is a non-profit publication. Here’s more on how we’re funded.

§

Life on Venus

Venus transits against the face of the Sun, June 2012. Credit: bunsky/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Venus transits against the face of the Sun, June 2012. Credit: bunsky/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

A complex climate model of Venus has thrown up the possibility that the planet was host to oceans of liquid water for billions of years before its greenhouse effect went cuckoo. The clincher was the formation of clouds solely over the planet’s dayside, reflecting away incoming heat, while the nightside had clear skies through which to radiate any excess heat and stay cool. According to the researchers who ran this simulation, this configuration of clouds and surface temperatures would’ve been possible if Venus had the same surface features as it does today and if days were as long until 715 million years ago as they are today: 243 Earth days.

Even slight deviations in these conditions produced dramatically different results. Shannon Hall in Scientific American:

Because the answers to both questions are fairly uncertain, the research team also modeled what Venus’s climate would have looked like 2.9 billion years ago if it had an Earth-like topography or spun at a slightly faster pace. The differences were huge. With mountain ranges and ocean basins similar to Earth’s, the temperature was 12 degrees warmer than with Venus’s topography. And if the rotation rate was 16 Earth days, the temperature skyrocketed 45 degrees higher than the level with its current rotation rate. The cloud pattern that kept the climate cool only formed if the planet was rotating slugglishly.

§

The plutonium problem

A plutonium ring. Credit: GrrlScientist/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

A plutonium ring. Credit: GrrlScientist/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

While previous issues of this newsletter have highlighted pieces endorsing the use of nuclear power plants in countries where the transition to renewable energy is hindered for various reasons, I’ve also clarified that I’m not a fan of India’s Department of Atomic Energy, either. Though it may be wishful to consider India’s nuclear programme and the DAE as being distinct, one of my favourite commentators on this front is M.V. Ramana. In 2013, at a talk given at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Ramana pointed out that this distinction did exist in theory and that it might make sense to hold on to it – though he didn’t seem to do so himself.

Anyway, on August 16, Ramana penned a piece for Ideas for India outlining one more screwup on the DAE’s part: of overestimating the plutonium that will be available to future PFBRs that the department’s planning to set up. Excerpt from the piece:

The second and more important answer to the counter-argument is that even if all goes well from now on, the DAE will just not be able to construct the number of reactors it has projected, within the time period it has envisioned for them. This is because when one looks carefully at the methodology used by the DAE in its projections (Grover and Chandra 2006) it becomes evident that the DAE’s calculations have simply not accounted properly for the future availability of plutonium (Ramana and Suchitra 2009). The error is elementary: the calculations do not take into account the lag period between the time a certain amount of plutonium is committed to a breeder reactor and when it reappears along with additional plutonium for refuelling the same reactor, thus contributing to the start-up fuel for a new breeder reactor. The problem with the projected growth rates is not because of differences in assumptions but, in an essential sense, because of the laws of physics. Such erroneous projections are likely a product of a culture with a lack of accountability and critical internal and external scrutiny.

§

Steer science to solve problems

Steering science to solve problems. Credit: gotovan/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Credit: gotovan/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

The first Daniel Sarewitz piece I read was in 2012, the year the Higgs boson was discovered by scientists working with the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, Geneva. Sarewitz wrote a provocative, but ultimately reconcilable, piece in Nature arguing that those non-physicists who claimed to understand what the Higgs boson really was were simply lying to themselves. This was because the mechanism behind its creation wasn’t exactly derivable from the first principles of physics. It required a lot of recourse to advanced mathematics, stuff that was squarely outside the scope of a layperson to understand except through the use of metaphors. And those who understood the metaphors were simply doing one thing: taking science writers’ word for it, and science writers in turn were taking scientists’ word for it. Clever.

In the spring/summer issue of the journal The New Atlantis, Sarewitz makes another similarly startling claim but romps home with it: that science, traditionally self-correcting, is becoming self-destroying. Science’s self-correcting tendency is one that’s constantly trumpeted by many articles and news reports – especially in the context of replication studies. However, Sarewitz’s position is that burgeoning public investments, scientists’ rising productivity and science’s increasingly protected political status have led to scientists feeling they are becoming less and less accountable to society. He illustrates this by highlighting the Department of Defense’s role in the US’s rise as a superpower through the Information and Space Ages.

… and winds up by suggesting three remedial pills (the first is tricky because it’s easy to interpret it as being against the conducting of any open-ended research whatsoever – which isn’t the case).

First, scientific knowledge advances most rapidly, and is of most value to society, not when its course is determined by the “free play of free intellects” but when it is steered to solve problems — especially those related to technological innovation. Second, when science is not steered to solve such problems, it tends to go off half-cocked in ways that can be highly detrimental to science itself. Third — and this is the hardest and scariest lesson — science will be made more reliable and more valuable for society today not by being protected from societal influences but instead by being brought, carefully and appropriately, into a direct, open, and intimate relationship with those influences.

§

Chernobyl and the Anthropocene

Credit: rapidtravelchai/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Credit: rapidtravelchai/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Kate Brown, a history professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, writes in an essay barely able to contain the tragedy it unravels of how we squandered the chance to study humans’ response to radioactive fallout when we rushed to hide all traces of the Chernobyl disaster. Why is it important, though? From her Eurozine essay:

In the persistent, thirty-year rush to disappear the Chernobyl accident, in the failure to fund large-scale, epidemiological studies about multiple health outcomes, international organizations and scientists have lost the opportunity to trace the adaptive and evolutionary features of human bodies living on territory contaminated by radioactive fallout. And that is a regrettable loss to science and to history. Villagers living off the radioactive landscape present a vivid manifestation of the metamorphosing Anthropocene-era human, one that has slowly been changing places with the accident, becoming pico curie by pico curie a part of nuclear reactor no. 4, the reactor that no longer is.

Like what you read? Subscribe to the newsletter.