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I was just made aware that the James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble’s successor and a key to the future of astronomy, has been recommended to be terminated.  This is not yet law, and I don’t know if it’s likely to go through as is or not, but I’m going to be looking for more information.  The thing is over budget and delayed, but a lot of money has already gone into it and it’s not that far from done.

Here’s another article.


(Thanks to Angela Speck for pointing me at this.)

Originally published at Mike Brotherton: SF Writer. You can comment here or there.


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I have an essay titled “The Cold Legacies” that just went up over at Lightspeed Magazine.  This is based in part on an old blog post and lesson plan for my “Science in Science Fiction” course I’ve taught at the University of Wyoming.  Anyway, it’s about Tom Godwin’s story “The Cold Equations,” some controversy concerning the story, precursors, as well as responses.  They’re running the original story over there this month, as well as publishing a new response “The Old Equations” by Jake Kerr.  It’s an interesting twist that is amusing on the one hand, tragic on the other.  I suggest you check it out when it is released next week, or spring for a cheap subscription and get access to it and the whole month of stories now.

Originally published at Mike Brotherton: SF Writer. You can comment here or there.


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I was under the weather over the July 4th holiday weekend and didn’t get a lot done here on the blog, professionally, or socially.  Well, my cat enjoyed the extra time with me, even if I sometimes surprised her with a big sneeze.  I have a few things I meant to write about at the end of last week, and will stick to that schedule even though I have more stuff now (e.g. the redshift 7 quasar).

There are two stories that got some attention last week — way more than they should have.  I want to bring them up and discuss them briefly and explain what went wrong, if I can, or at least complain about it enough that anyone reading this will be less likely to be sucked in or support those who, well, do the sucking.

First was a story, and not the first one on this subject, about how drinking diet soda makes you fat.  Fatter than drinking regular soda, anyway.

Well, that’s a hypothesis at best, not a conclusion even if it turns out to be true in the end, and it’s garbage at worst.  Unfortunately it’s reported with confidence and will be taken as a so-called “scientific fact” by too many, and may well cause some at risk people to chage their diets and negatively impact their health.  (I suppose it could have a positive impact, but it would be lucky if it turned out that way.)

What researchers actually found was that people who drink diet soda have larger waistlines than people who don’t, and that this remains true over time.

That’s IT.  Correlation does not equal causation.  You can form a hypothesis from a correlation, and then go test it in various ways, but you can’t be sure about a causal relationship.  Let me give a counter example that’s also been controversial but is different: the correlation between CO2 and global temperatures.  In that case, the correlation is actual evidence in support of the CO2 increase causing global warming because it was predicted decades previously, and a host of other competing hypotheses have failed predictions.  Deniers of man-made climate change often like to say that “correlation doesn’t mean causation,” which is true, but they act like they don’t know the causality was predicted long before anyone had found a correlation, and like idiots climatologists had invented the idea after seeing the single correlation and ignoring alternative explanations.  And the correlation in this case still doesn’t prove causality, but it’ is a piece of evidence in support.

I used to drink real soda, then switched to diet soda when I noticed I was putting on weight.  I’ve been up and down since then, but if I switch back to regular soda or even to healthy fruit juice, full of sugar, I usually gain weight right away.  That’s anecdotal, but contrary to the claims of the article, and makes me suspicious.  I’ve also seen a lot of people who justify getting dessert, or supersizing a meal, if they have it with a diet drink.  Is it the diet drink causing the increasing waistline?  I would not say so.

The way to test the claim (not a valid conclusion, merely a hypothesis at best) is to get some random groups of people (random enough that they have the same overall demographics) and have half drink diet soda and the other half regular.  Ideally so that they don’t know which group they’re in (we’ll need good diet soda!).  Then we see if there’s a difference down the line.

Picking out people who have self-selected diet and regular and following them over time cannot tell us if diet soda helps to control weight.  As in my case, some people who have weight issues pick diet soda and continue to have weight issues.  Some people who have no weight concerns drink regular and continue to maintain their weight.  Some people who drink regular soda may refrain from snacking and desserts because of that choice, while the diet soda drinkers let themselves splurge.  It’s just not that easy with people.  The study sounds like it may have been worth doing, but I don’t see how it can reach the conclusion reported in the story.  I haven’t read the actual paper, and it’s possible that the authors were a lot more cautious than the pop science article I linked to above, so let’s share the blame.  It’s a study with results that are being over represented in the media, perhaps to the detriment of the health of the public.

If a follow-up study comes out in a few years, and finds a different conclusion, people will lose confidence in science some more.  It’ll be like eggs — good for you this year and bad for you the next, with science losing.  Look, it’s normal for our scientific knowledge to change, to improve, and in some cases get flipped on its head, but it doesn’t happen that dramatically very often with good science fairly reported.  It happens all the damn time with studies of limited value being over interpreted whether by the scientists themselves or by science reporters who ought to know better but too rarely do.

The second story is worse, in my opinion, dragging science into gender politics in a way that’s unfair to men and women alike.

An article headline in Time magazine reads “Why Women are Better at Everything.” Ugh.  The proposition isn’t true, although I could certainly believe that on average women likely have more natural talent than men in some areas, and vice versa, although I’d suspect training counts for more in general, and that unfair generalizations often cause more trouble than they’re worth.

The reporter gets her headline from A Wall Street Journal column in which the male author drops that bit of wisdom, presumably as a bit of a self-deprecating aside, while discussing a study of male vs. female investing patterns in which women did better.  So it went from a single study in which the women in the study outdid the men, to a more general “women better at investing” to a wild and unsupportable “women better at everything.”

All of this is discussed in the context of testosterone being the culprit.  Testosterone makes men take bigger risks than they should on average, and under perform women (containers of limited amounts of testosterone), at least when it comes to investing.  And everything else.  Ugh.

Well, it may be that limiting risk was the secret to the success of women in investing in this one study.  Taking bigger risks might be valued in a different market.  Or it may be that average performance isn’t that interesting, and we’re only concerned about hitting it big.  Or, given the smaller number of women in the study, we’re comparing the best women to the average men (the only woman in a class probably works harder and does better than the average man).  Or any of another possible number of things.

It’s a correlation between performance and gender in one study that may not be causal.  It’s the same damn thing as the first story, only on overdrive because of gender issues.  If you want to do this right, you get two random groups of men and women, matched in demographics and background, give them some investment funds, and see who wins out in the end.  You’d want to have a long test with lots of people to make sure you could detect a statistically significant difference that wasn’t muddled by big outliers (big losers and winners way outside the norm), and average over enough time it could be a general statement that applied to a range of market behavior.  My dad made 180% one year in the market back in the late 1990s, but a few years later he underperformed dramatically in a different sort of market with different behavior.  Or maybe it was his testosterone increasing as he got older…

My point is that “science” is explicitly dragged into these articles again, unfairly.  The study is what it is.  It isn’t what it isn’t: a scientific finding that one sex is better at everything than the other.  That’s an off-the-cuff line from a columnist being inflated into a headline.

We’ve been worrying for years about girls good at math suddenly losing interest and underperforming.  Now we’ve started worrying about boys underperforming and our universities being dominated by women.  There are certainly gender issues that science can and should address.  I believe good science can and should be done on just about any topic where knowing more would be useful or fundamental.

Bad science, badly reported, hurts us as a society and hurts our trust in science.

Given time, science as a whole fixes itself, stumbles forward, and we as a group have a deeper knowledge of how and why things work they way they do in our world.

Given time, do enough individually bad studies, or at least badly reported studies, damage science in the public sphere?

Where is the system to fix this perception?  Because I’m telling you right now that I don’t see it.  Top scientific journals rarely if ever run replication studies.  Newspapers and magazines rarely run retractions of follow-up stories with the same fanfare and prominence that the original controversial and badly reported finding gets.  The public just gets confused and becomes susceptible to purveyors of junk science pushing their own biased agenda.

Science is the only way of generating reliable new knowledge, imperfect as it is.  Everything else is useless, or worse than useless.

Anyway, I saw these two stories within a day or two of each other last week and they left me sort of angry and depressed.  It’s more and more of a soundbite world.  Now you just see a link somewhere, a headline, and file away that science has shown that women are better at everything, or that your diet Coke is making you fat, and continue on with your busy day just trying to get by.  But that junk sinks in and undermines a busy life, adding to the confusion, and sometimes leading to the rejection of our best source of knowledge: science.

Is there any way of keeping it from getting worse?  I’m all ears.

Originally published at Mike Brotherton: SF Writer. You can comment here or there.


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Especially if you’re cutting back on carbs.

Click the link, see the awesome picture.

Originally published at Mike Brotherton: SF Writer. You can comment here or there.


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I wanted to point out two great articles standing up for things I think are wonderful and positive.

First, John DeNardo of sfsignal.com writes a thoughtful and balanced positive plea to literary types to read science fiction, in particular knocking down a number of misconceptions that might make some pass.  This is the kind of article where you reach out to those with another perspective and try to bring them over to the dark side (we have cookies!) rather than rallying the base against those snobby types.  I’m a week late linking to this, but better late than never.

I’m also a big fan of science, and think most of our scientific instituions do a pretty good job overall, although there are some reasons for concern (very valid criticisms with some obvious fixes that I hope are applied).  However, some conservative Republicans don’t even know enough science to make reasonable criticisms, to wit, Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma’s complaints about the National Science Foundation (why is science literacy so very very low among politicians from OK?).  I could write my own rebuttal, but an excellent and thoughtful one has been written already and is very much worth a read. I was going to snip out a paragraph or two here, but the whole thing is worth quoting, so go read it.  Disclaimer: I am and have previously been funded by the NSF, and have participated in several peer review panels — I think I know the strengths and weaknesses of the system pretty well and that knowledge is the basis of my opinion rather than a bias in favor of those who have funded my research and educational outreach.



Originally published at Mike Brotherton: SF Writer. You can comment here or there.


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After a month of traveling, both for work and fun, I’m going to stick close to home for a couple of months.  Only two weeks to go until Launch Pad, which will keep me pretty busy, but a chance to relax a bit, put in some steady work on some neglected research projects.  Lots of links to catch up on, too…

Charlie Stross takes down the singularity.  He isn’t exactly a prophet for the rapture of the nerds.  Interesting reading.  The short version of his article is “Santa Claus doesn’t exist.”

Christianity is a science starter, not a science stopper.  I seriously doubt it, and think the article is trying waaaaaay too hard.

And…Christian Faith Requires Accepting Evolution.  No, it doesn’t.  Science does.  Maybe in some circles there’s a tradition, but in my opinion faith is sure not required, and actually gets in the way.  In related news, Michelle Bachmann supports Creationism in schools.  Ugh.

In Australia, climate scientists are getting death threats.  Come on, science-denying conservatives, this is a bit too far don’t you think?

The Religion of Global Warming (and they should have added “Denial” at the end of title, since that’s what it’s about — and here’s a recent example with Santorum.)

And Al Gore in Rolling Stone on the Climate of Denial.

I read Superfreakonomics on one of my recent trips, and while I enjoyed much of the book overall, I was shocked and annoyed at some of the crap in their chapter on global warming.  I was going to blog about it, but I’m a couple of years late and many have already done it very thoroughly.  Here’s one place to start, among others.  Makes me worry about what else they’re getting wrong in other chapters concerning things I know less about.

Plague could worsen with global warming.

Tech millionaires going in for long-term projects.  Like over thousands of years.  If we get that covered, and folks thinking about the next election or quarter, why can’t we get the more important 5-10 year range covered?

Aping the early human workout.

Anyone got alternatives for rockets?

Very cool video of a year of the moon in a few minutes.  Must see.

Revenge of the Feminerds: Barriers to Women in Science.

The Chinese are building the biggest radio telescope that will be bigger than Aricebo.

Wikipedia on lunar eclipses, or why you need to be careful with wikipedia.  (Nice find from Brian Malow.)

Vampire stars.

Is education the next bubble? While I agree that many universities are overpriced, I disagree that education should be seen only in financial terms.  Learning is worthwhile even if it doesn’t lead to economic profit.  Spending $100k on some degrees, however, is hard to justify.

Really interesting article at io9 concerning myths about the future.  Not exactly futurism, but about futurism.

I’m generally optimistic about the future, but the state of the ocean is “shocking” to say the least.  We do have some serious problems to clean up.

Alan Moore on magic.

NPR is going to do a list of 100 best science fiction and fantasy books.  Get ready for more controversy, perhaps…  Looks like nominations are now closed, but voting will be enabled soon.

Kirk vs. Kirk. Arm wrestling?  It should be alien babe bedding or smirking or Man-Vulcan love…

7 science fiction films where the movie changed the original book ending.  Some are classic, some errors, in my opinion.

A “Brokeback Mountain” moment for atheists?  I’m not sure that’s a term that should catch on, even if the sentiment is a good one.

Writing advice for summer.

Superhero Starlinks (so many they get their own section tonight)

First, an article from io9 close to my heart: what is the most scientifically plausible superpower?

And top ten superpowers every man wants.

10 things wanted in a Superman reboot

Captain America pics.  Hugo Weaving as Red Skull looks awesome.  New trailer is available, too.

Green Lantern cosplay photos.

Totally demented Green Lantern stories.

The science of Green Lantern.  One of my old astro buddies, Mark Hammergren, is liberally quoted.  Go Mark!

The physics of Superman.  Wonder what his GRE score would be?

Wonderfully asinine superhero origin stories.  Some are real howlers.

Characters that comic book movies got wrong.  Bane is number one on my list.

Does Batgirl get paid?  Better be as much as Robin! Weird commercial…and I actually think that Robin does a little more for Batman than Batgirl does, wink wink.

And let’s finish up with a trailer for Aquaman:

Originally published at Mike Brotherton: SF Writer. You can comment here or there.


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Fringe Science: Parallel Universe, White Tulips, and Mad Scientists, edited by Leah Wilson and Kevin R. Grazier (Battlestar Galactica science consultant, among other cool things), is coming out later this summer (August 30 is the currently scheduled date).

You can also find the book at Amazon, Borders, and Barnes and Noble.

So, why am I pushing it?  Well, I have an essay included: “”Deja New.”  It’s about parallel universes in Fringe, a combination of some physics and literary/tv history.  I’ve gotten a chance to look at the other essays as well and can strongly recommend the book to Fringe fans.

The publisher will be making some of the essays free for a limited time prepublication, and I’ll let you know when mine is up and you can go check it out there (probably sometime in July).  In the meantime, feel free to preorder.  Hopefully this will tide you over until season 4 starts, and I’m hoping season 4 won’t make anything I said wrong or stupid!

Originally published at Mike Brotherton: SF Writer. You can comment here or there.


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They’re not all ignoramuses, but most of them are. It’s enough to make a guy skip talking to pretty girls. I wonder if attractive guys the same age would give similar responses, or normal girls, as opposed to would-be beauty queens who may be trained to recognize “controversial” questions and provide a response acknowledging a range of opinions.

Still, it’s fucking sad.

Originally published at Mike Brotherton: SF Writer. You can comment here or there.


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She swims underwater with whales in below freezing water for ten minutes at a time.  Naked.  Yes, there are pictures.  But that’s the least of it…

She’s doing this FOR SCIENCE.

We need more scientist heroes of any sex, whether they look good naked or not.  I have to say this is one of the more amazing stories I’ve seen recently.  This is something that I would have thought only Wonder Woman could have done, and she’d have been unlikely to have had the scientific purpose and background to do it.

OK, maybe Aquaman, but Aquaman sucks.

Now I go back to my own scientific travails, trying to finish up my review of telescope proposals before the preliminary grade deadline.  If she can do what she does, I can focus a bit more and stay awake a little later.  That’s easy, even without channeling Too-Much-Coffee Man.

Originally published at Mike Brotherton: SF Writer. You can comment here or there.


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First, Saturday University in Jackson this weekend (my first private plane flight up there). Had to update my slides and revise to a slightly shorter length than I usually do.  Talking about science in the movies, mostly science fiction movies. Should be fun.

Second, I’ve got preliminary grades due Friday for Chandra X-ray Observatory proposals. I have quite a few remaining proposals to read before then.  Monday I fly to Boston (via Southwest, luckily my weight is down) for 2+ days of meetings at the airport Hilton.

Getting paid a small honorarium for one or both things, I think…but basically it’s extra voluntary job-related stuff, that’s not quite my primary job description.  Being an academic is taxing at times, although ultimately rewarding usually.  I’ll tell myself that as I fall asleep tonight on the keyboard.

I’ve got some things I want to blog about, but frankly I’m swamped for another day or two.

Originally published at Mike Brotherton: SF Writer. You can comment here or there.


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