Category Archives: Earth

Fox News Contributor Steven Milloy Promotes Junk Climate Science On Twitter

Frequent contributor to Fox News Steven Milloy retweeted a Politico story about climate change to suggest that CO2 won’t kill Earth because Venus is made of CO2 — the only trouble is humans don’t live on Venus, as far as we know.

Milloy is no stranger to ignoring accurate and verified scientific truths. A lawyer and frequent commentator for Fox News, he refers to himself as a libertarian thinker and runs a twitter account called @JunkScience through which he ironically, but not facetiously, often peddles what mosts scientists would refer to as junk science. His close financial and organizational ties to tobacco and oil companies have been the subject of criticism from a number of sources going back to the early 2000s, as Milloy has consistently disputed the scientific consensus on climate change and the health risks of second-hand smoke. Having close ties to tobacco and oil, it’s not difficult to understand why.

Among the topics Milloy has addressed are what he believes to be false claims regarding DDT, global warming, Alar, breast implants, second-hand smoke, ozone depletion, and mad cow disease. This time, however, he attempts to equate planet Earth with planet Venus, saying that CO2 won’t destroy the Earth because Venus is largely made up of CO2.

The obvious problem to scientists (and most people with a high school science education) is that humans don’t live on Venus, and couldn’t since it is so darn hot, hailing an average temperature of 864 degrees Fahrenheit.

It’s obvious that Milloy is being paid to promote bad science in an effort to persuade Fox News watchers into believing that climate change is a hoax. The trick he uses here is to make it seem like people who believe in man-induced global warming through greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide think the Earth will cease to exist with too much CO2. That isn’t what climate change scientists and activists think at all.

On the contrary, climate change scientists and activists are concerned about human and animal life will cease to exist — the way it doesn’t exist on Venus.

The danger in having to explain this to people is that it’s easier to look at things Milloy’s way. Despite it being wrong, lazy thinkers will read what he tweets and hear what he says on Fox News without doing anymore research or thinking on the matter. When people say convincing things with authority, it usually doesn’t matter if what they’re saying is true or not.

Watching the planet breathe: Studying Earth’s carbon cycle from space

Berrien Moore III, University of Oklahoma and Sean Crowell, University of Oklahoma

Carbon is a building block of life on our planet. It is stored in reservoirs on Earth – in rocks, plants and soil – in the oceans, and in the atmosphere. And it cycles constantly between these reservoirs. The Conversation

Understanding the carbon cycle is crucially important for many reasons. It provides us with energy, stored as fossil fuel. Carbon gases in the atmosphere help regulate Earth’s temperature and are essential to the growth of plants. Carbon passing from the atmosphere to the ocean supports photosynthesis of marine phytoplankton and the development of reefs. These processes and myriad others are all interwoven with Earth’s climate, but the manner in which the processes respond to variability and change in climate is not well-quantified.

Our research group at the University of Oklahoma is leading NASA’s latest Earth Venture Mission, the Geostationary Carbon Observatory, or GeoCarb. This mission will place an advanced payload on a satellite to study the Earth from more than 22,000 miles above the Earth’s equator. Observing changes in concentrations of three key carbon gases – carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and carbon monoxide (CO) – from day to day and year to year will help us to make a major leap forward in understanding natural and human changes in the carbon cycle.

GeoCarb is also an innovative collaboration between NASA, a public university, a commercial technology development firm (Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Center) and a commercial communications launch and hosting firm (SES). Our “hosted payload” approach will place a scientific observatory on a commercial communications satellite, paving the way for future low-cost, commercially enabled Earth observations.

Observing the carbon cycle

The famous “Keeling curve,” which tracks CO2 concentrations in Earth’s atmosphere, is based on daily measurements at Mauna Loa Observatory on Hawaii. It shows that global CO2 levels are rising over time, but also change seasonally due to biological processes. CO2 decreases during the Northern Hemisphere’s spring and summer months, as plants grow and take CO2 out of the air. It rises again in fall and winter when plants go relatively dormant and ecosystems “exhale” CO2.

Recorded starting in 1958 by the late geochemist Charles David Keeling, the Keeling curve measures atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations.
Scripps Institution of Oceanography

A closer look shows that every year’s cycle is slightly different. In some years the biosphere takes more CO2 out of the atmosphere; in others it releases more to the atmosphere. We want to know more about what causes the year-to-year differences because that contains clues on how the carbon cycle works.

For example, during the El Niño of 1997-1998, a sharp rise in CO2 was largely driven by fires in Indonesia. The most recent El Niño in 2015-2016 also led to a rise in CO2, but the cause was probably a complex mixture of effects across the tropics – including reduced photosynthesis in Amazonia, temperature-driven soil release of CO2 in Africa and fires in tropical Asia.

These two examples of year-to-year variability in the carbon cycle, both globally and regionally, reflect what we now believe – namely, that variability is largely driven by terrestrial ecosystems. The ability to probe the climate-carbon interaction will require a much more quantitative understanding of the causes of this variability at the process level of various ecosystems.

Why study terrestrial emissions from space?

GeoCarb will be launched into geostationary orbit at roughly 85 degrees west longitude, where it will rotate in tandem with the Earth. From this vantage point, the major urban and industrial regions in the Americas from Saskatoon to Punta Arenas will be in view, as will the large agricultural areas and the expansive South American tropical forests and wetlands. Measurements of carbon dioxide, methane and carbon monoxide once or twice daily over much of the terrestrial Americas will help resolve flux variability for CO2 and CH4.

GeoCarb also will measure solar induced fluorescence (SIF) – plants emitting light that they cannot use back out into space. This “flashing” by the biosphere is strongly tied to the rate of photosynthesis, and so provides a measure of how much CO2 plants take in.

NASA pioneered the technology that GeoCarb will carry on an earlier mission, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2 (OCO-2). OCO-2 launched into a low Earth orbit in 2014 and has been measuring CO2 from space ever since, passing from pole to pole several times per day as the Earth turns beneath it.

Geostationary satellites like Geo-Carb and the GOES weather satellites (shown here) are positioned over the equator at an altitude of about 36,000 km (or 22,300 miles) above Earth’s surface and orbit at the same speed as the Earth’s rotation, making them appear to stand still. OCO-2, like the Low Earth satellite shown here, samples a much narrower area.

Though the instruments are similar, the difference in orbit is crucial. OCO-2 samples a narrow 10-km track over much of the globe on a 16-day repeat cycle, while GeoCarb will look at the terrestrial Western Hemisphere continuously from a fixed position, scanning most of this land mass at least once per day.

Where OCO-2 may miss observing the Amazon for a season due to regular cloud cover, GeoCarb will target the cloud-free regions every day with flexible scanning patterns. Daily revisits will show the biosphere changing in near-real time alongside weather satellites such as GOES 16, which is located at 105 degrees west, helping to connect the dots between the components of Earth’s system.

Nuances of the carbon cycle

Many processes affect levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, including plant growth and decay, fossil fuel combustion and land use changes, such as clearing forests for farming or development. Attributing atmospheric CO2 changes to different processes is difficult using CO2 measurements alone, because the atmosphere mixes CO2 from all of the different sources together.

As mentioned earlier, in addition to CO2 and CH4, GeoCarb will measure CO. Burning fossil fuel releases both CO and CO2. This means that when we see high concentrations of both gases together, we have evidence that they are being released by human activities.

Making this distinction is key so we do not assume that human-induced CO2 emissions come from a decrease in plant activity or a natural release of CO2 from soil. If we can distinguish between man-made and natural emissions, we can draw more robust conclusions about the carbon cycle. Knowing what fraction of these changes is caused by human activities is important for understanding our impact on the planet, and observing and measuring it is essential to any conversation about strategies for reducing CO2 emissions.

GeoCarb’s measurement of methane will be a crucial element in understanding the global carbon-climate system. Methane is produced by natural systems, such as wetlands, and by human activities such as natural gas production. We do not understand the methane portion of the carbon cycle as well as CO2. But just as with CO2, methane observations tell us a lot about the functioning of natural systems. Marshes release methane as part of the natural decay in the system. The rate of release is tied to how wet/dry and warm/cool the system is.

It is uncertain how much natural gas production contributes to methane emissions. One reason to quantify these emissions more accurately is that they represent lost revenue for energy producers. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates a U.S. leakage rate of around 2 percent, which could add up to billions of dollars annually.

These images of the Aliso Canyon, California methane leak, taken 11 days apart in January 2016, are the first time the methane plume from a single facility has been observed from space. Photos were taken by instruments on (left) a NASA ER-2 aircraft at 4.1 miles (6.6 kilometers) altitude, and (right) NASA’s Earth Observing-1 satellite in low-Earth orbit. Future instruments will provide more precise measurements.

We expect based on simulations that GeoCarb will produce maps that highlight the largest leaks with only a few days of observations. Finding leaks will reduce costs for energy producers and reduce the carbon footprint of natural gas. Currently, energy companies find leaks by sending personnel with detection equipment to suspected leak sites. Newer airborne sensors could make the process cheaper, but they are still deployed on a limited basis and in an ad hoc manner. GeoCarb’s regular observations will provide leakage information to producers in a timely manner to help them limit their losses.

Watching the planet breathe

With daily scans of landmasses in the Western Hemisphere, GeoCarb will provide an unprecedented number of high-quality measurements of CO2, CH4 and CO in the atmosphere. These observations, along with direct measurements of photosynthetic activity from SIF observations, will raise our understanding of the carbon cycle to a new level.

For the first time we will be able to watch as the Western Hemisphere breathes in and out every day, and to see the seasons change through the eyes of the biosphere. Equipped with these observations, we will begin to disentangle natural and human contributions to the carbon balance. These insights will help scientists make robust predictions about Earth’s future.

Berrien Moore III, Vice President, Weather & Climate Programs; Dean, College of Atmospheric & Geographic Sciences; Director, National Weather Center, University of Oklahoma and Sean Crowell, Research Scientist, University of Oklahoma

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

It’s our Solar System in miniature, but could TRAPPIST-1 host another Earth?

Elizabeth Tasker, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)

Scientists have discovered seven Earth-sized planets, so tightly packed around a dim star that a year there lasts less than two weeks. The number of planets and the radiation levels they receive from their star, TRAPPIST-1, make these worlds a miniature analogue of our own Solar System. The Conversation

The excitement surrounding TRAPPIST-1 was so great that the discovery was announced with an article in Nature accompanied by a NASA news conference. In the last two decades, nearly 3,500 planets have been found orbiting stars beyond our Sun, but most don’t make headlines.

How likely are we really to find a blue marble like our Earth among these new worlds?

Earth 2.0?

We still know little about these planets with certainty, but initial clues look enticing.

All seven worlds complete an orbit in between 1.5 and 13 days. So closely are they huddled that a person standing on one planet might see the neighbouring worlds in the sky even larger than our Moon. The short years place the planets closer to their star than any planet sits to the Sun. Happily, they avoid being baked by TRAPPIST-1 because it is incredibly dim.

TRAPPIST-1 is a small ultracool dwarf star with a luminosity roughly 1/1000th that of the Sun. Comparing the two at Wednesday’s news conference, lead author of the Nature paper, Michaël Gillon, said that if the Sun were scaled to the size of a basketball, TRAPPIST-1 would be a puny golf ball. The resulting paltry amount of heat means that three of the seven TRAPPIST-1 planets actually receive similar amounts of radiation as Venus, Earth and Mars.

This alternative Solar System does look like a compact version of our own, but does TRAPPIST-1 include an Earth 2.0?

Artists impression of the seven TRAPPIST-1 worlds, compared to our solar system’s terrestrial planets.

Here’s the good news first.

The seven siblings are all Earth-sized, with radii between three quarters and one times that of our home planet and masses that range from roughly 50% to 150% of Earth’s (the mass of the outermost world remains uncertain).

Because all are smaller than 1.6 times Earth’s radius, the seven TRAPPIST-1 planets are likely to be rocky worlds, not gaseous Neptunes. TRAPPIST-1d, e and f are within the star’s temperate region — aka the “Goldilocks zone” where it’s not too hot and not too cold — where an Earth-like planet could support liquid water on its surface.

The orbits of the six inner planets are nearly resonant, meaning that in the time it takes for the innermost planet to orbit the star eight times, its outer siblings make five, three and two orbits.

Such resonant chains are expected around stars where the planets have moved from where they originally formed. This migration occurs when the planets are still young and embedded in the star’s gaseous planet-forming disc. As the gravity of the young planet and the gas disc pull on one another, the planet’s orbit can change, usually moving towards the star.

If multiple planets are in the system, their gravity also pulls on one another. This nudges the planets into resonant orbits as they migrate through the gas disc. The result is a string of resonant planets close to the star, just like that seen encircling TRAPPIST-1.

Being born far from the star offers a couple of potential advantages. Dim stars like TRAPPIST-1 are irritable when young, emitting flares and high radiation that may sterilise the surface of nearby planets. If the TRAPPIST-1 system did indeed form further away and migrate inwards, its worlds may have avoided getting fried.

Originating where temperatures are colder would also mean the planets formed with a large fraction of ice. As the planets migrate inwards, this ice could melt into an ocean. This notion is supported by the estimated densities of the planets, which are low enough to suggest volatile-rich compositions, like water or a thick atmosphere.

Not an Earth?

Since our search for extraterrestrial life focuses on the presence of water, melted icy worlds seem ideal.

But this may actually bode ill for habitability. While 71% of the Earth’s surface is covered by seas, water makes up less than 0.1% of our planet’s mass. A planet with a high fraction of water may become a water world: all ocean and no exposed land.

Deep water could also mean there’s a thick layer of ice on the ocean floor. With the planet’s rocky core separated from both air and sea, no carbon-silicate cycle could form – a process that acts as a thermostat to adjust the level of warming carbon dioxide in the air on Earth.

If the TRAPPIST-1 planets can’t compensate for different levels of radiation from their star, the temperate zone for the planet shrinks to a thin strip. Any little variation, from small ellipicities in the planet’s orbit to variations in the stellar brightness, could turn the world into a snowball or baked desert.

Jupiter’s moon Io, is in resonance with moons Europa and Ganymede, and its tidal heating powers its volcanoes.
NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Even if the oceans were sufficiently shallow to avoid this fate, an icy composition might produce a very strange atmosphere. On the early Earth, air was spewed out in volcanic plumes. If a TRAPPIST-1 planet’s interior is more akin to a giant comet than to a silicate-rich Earth, the air expelled risks being rich in the greenhouse gases of ammonia and methane. Both trap heat at the planet’s surface, meaning the best location for liquid water might actually be in a region cooler than the “Goldilocks zone”.

Finally, the TRAPPIST-1 system’s orbits are problematic. Situated so close to the star, the planets are likely in tidal lock – with one face permanently turned towards the star – resulting in perpetual day on one side and everlasting night on the other.

Not only would this be weird to experience, the associated extremes of temperatures could also evaporate all water and collapse the atmosphere if the planet’s winds are unable to redistribute heat.

Also, even a small ellipticity in the planets’ seemingly circular orbits could power a second kind of warmth, called tidal heating, making the planets into Venus-like hothouses. Slight elongations in the planet’s path around its star would cause the pull from the star’s gravity to strengthen and weaken during its year, flexing the planet like a stress ball and generating tidal heat.

This process occurs on three of Jupiter’s largest moons whose mildly elliptical paths are caused by resonant orbits similar to the TRAPPIST-1 worlds. In Europa and Ganymede, the flexing heat allows subsurface liquid oceans to exist. But Jupiter’s innermost moon, Io, is the most volcanic place in our Solar System.

If the TRAPPIST-1 planets’ orbits are similarly bent, they could turn out to be sweltering.

The view from here

So how will we ever know what the TRAPPIST-1 planets are really like? To investigate the possible scenarios, we need to take a look at the atmosphere of the TRAPPIST-1 siblings.

TRAPPIST-1 was named for the Belgian 60cm TRAnsiting Planets and Planetesimal Small Telescope in Chile that detected the star’s first three planets last year (it also happens to be the name of a type of Belgian beer). As the name suggests, both the original three worlds and four new planetary siblings were discovered using the transit technique; the tiny dip in starlight as the planets passed between the star and the Earth.

Transiting makes the planets excellent candidates for the next generation of telescopes with their ability to identify molecules in the planet’s air as starlight passes through the gas. The next five years may therefore give us the first real look at a rocky planet with a very different history to anything in our Solar System.

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administer of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA, declared the discovery of TRAPPIST-1 as, “A leap forward to answering ‘are we alone?’”.

But the real treasure of TRAPPIST-1 is not the possibility that the planets may be just like the one we call home; it’s the exciting thought that we might be looking at something entirely new.

Elizabeth Tasker, Associate Professor, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Mars and Earth are getting closer together

On May 30, our cold, red sandy neighbor outside Earth’s orbit is getting very close to us, at least for a short duration of time.

Scientists say Mars will be closer to Earth than it’s been since the past eleven years. At about 46.8 million miles away, it’s still a rather distant journey away, but the planet can typically be about 250 million miles away.

According to NASA, from May 18th until June 3rd, the great red planet will be bigger, brighter and hopefully more visible, weather permitting.

Skywatchers should expect to see a reddish star in the mornings at dawn or slightly before, if you are in the UK. United States watchers should look for it around midnight.

For a better view, look up your local astronomy club where members are likely to have powerful telescopes. If you’re looking for a telescope yourself, check out the Celestron C9.25 and get ready for some mindblowing astronomy at home.

Earth Compared To Largest Known Star NML Cygni

This article is part of a series:
Animated Gifs That'll Science You Fast

Comparing the planet you live on to the size of other celestial bodies has got to be one the biggest mind-blowing experiences a human can go through. To put yourself into perspective and recognize that we are but a nano-blip on the radar of extraterrestrial life makes it all that much more apparent why we haven’t been visited yet… or have we…?

2 of 12

New solar storm forecasting technique breaks the 24-hour warning barrier for Earth

Solar storms start their lives as violent explosions from the sun’s surface. They’re made up of energetic charged particles wrapped in a complex magnetic cloud. As they erupt from the sun’s surface, they can shoot out into interplanetary space at speeds of up to 3,000 kilometers per second (that’s 6.7 million miles per hour). Depending on their direction of travel, these energetic storms can journey past Earth and other planets.

If a solar storm makes it to Earth, it can disrupt a variety of modern technologies including GPS and high-frequency communications, and even power grids on the ground, causing radio blackouts and citywide loss of power. It can also wreak havoc within the aviation industry by disrupting communication methods.

To combat related potential economic losses, affected industries have been seeking a solution that can provide them with at least 24 hours of warning. With enough lead time, they can safely change their operational procedures. For example, passenger planes can be rerouted or power grid transformers can begin the slow process of “winding down,” all of which require at least a day’s notice – a huge jump beyond the 60-minute advance warning currently common. By building on earlier research, my colleagues and I have come up with a technique we think can meet that 24-hour warning goal.

A false alarm issued on January 7 2014 about an unusually large coronal mass ejection underscored the scope of the forecast problem.

Magnetic fields dictate solar storm severity

The strength with which a storm can affect our everyday technological infrastructure depends largely on the orientation of its magnetic field. Often the magnetic field within a solar storm has a helical structure, twisted like a corkscrew. But, much like tornadoes on Earth, these solar storms undergo significant changes during their evolution – in this case, as they leave the sun and travel toward the planets.

NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale mission investigates magnetic reconnection.

With a specific field orientation, the floodgates open, allowing the solar particles to enter the otherwise protective bubble of Earth’s atmosphere (the magnetosphere). This interaction between the solar material and Earth’s magnetosphere is predominately driven by a process of joining each other’s magnetic fields together. This interaction is called magnetic reconnection.

North and south attract and combine.
Geek3, CC BY-SA

This realignment of the field works in a similar way as two bar magnets attracting. If similar poles of each magnet (north and north) are brought together, the field lines repel each other. Unlike poles attract and combine together. If the poles are unlike, in our case between the solar storm and the Earth’s magnetosphere, they become magnetically connected. This new connectivity of the Earth’s magnetosphere now contains the trapped energetic particles that were previously isolated in the solar storm. If a large penetration of energetic particles makes it into the Earth’s upper atmosphere, the reaction provides the visual extravaganza that’s often called the Northern Lights.

Solar plasma hitting the Earth’s magnetosphere lights up the sky over Antarctica.
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio, CC BY

In search of: advance forecast

To date, predicting the magnetic field structure within solar storms hitting Earth has remained elusive. Modern forecasting centers around the world, such as at NOAA and UK Met Office, are dependent on direct measurements from inside the solar storm by a spacecraft just in front of Earth (for example, the newly launched Discvr satellite by NOAA). Measurements tell us the direction of a solar storm’s magnetic field and thus whether it’s liable to reconnect with the Earth’s magnetosphere in a dangerous way for our technology. We’ve been stuck with less than 60 minutes of advance warning.

The difficulties in creating a reliable forecast have centered around our inability to reliably estimate the initial structure of the storm above the sun’s surface, and the difficulty in observing how storms evolve as they spend about two days traveling to Earth.

My colleagues and I recently published an article in Space Weather that proposes an improved method for predicting the initial magnetic structure of a solar storm. Getting a better handle on the origin of these solar storms is a substantial step toward predicting how the storm can affect us on Earth, and to what extent.

Our method relies on correctly modifying a previous discovery about how the motions of solar plasma (of mostly hydrogen ions) and magnetic field hidden below the sun’s surface can affect the initial structure of a solar storm. It’s called the solar dynamo process. This is a physical process that is believed to generate the sun’s magnetic field. It’s the engine and energy source driving all observed solar activity – that includes sunspots and long-term solar variability as well as solar storms.

Exploded view of a solar storm flaring out from the sun.

We think combining this modified initial storm model with a new method that incorporates a storm’s early evolutionary stages will lead to significant improvements to our forecasting predictions. Triangulating the entire solar storm by using cameras at three locations from NASA’s STEREO and SOHO spacecraft in interplanetary space, using modern modeling techniques we’ve developed, enables a more robust prediction system. Since these cameras are located at very different vantage points in space, we can use them in conjunction to improve our estimations of the total shape and location of the solar storm – much like the depth of field we achieve by seeing the world through two eyes.

Predictions matching reality

So far, we’ve tested this new predictive technique on eight different solar storms, with the first forecasts showing significant agreement with the real data. Further advanced statistical testing with a larger number of storms is now under way within NASA Goddard’s Community Coordinated Modeling Center.

A burst of solar material erupts out into space. Where’s it headed?

“We’ll test the model against a variety of historical events,” said Antti Pulkkinen, director of Space Weather Research Center at NASA Goddard and a coauthor of the publication. “We’ll also see how well it works on any event we witness over the next year. In the end, we’ll be able to provide concrete information about how reliable a prediction tool it is.”

We’re working toward improving the user interface and implementation into current systems. Once proven reliable and statistically significant for forecasting, our technique may soon become a regular operational tool used by the forecasters at Space Weather Prediction Center at NOAA.

The Conversation

Neel Savani is Research Faculty in Space Weather at University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Where We Can Move When We’re Done Destroying Earth

Displayed with permission from Liberaland

Once we’ve used up this planet, is there a planet B?

Planet-hunting for Earth-alternatives is now in full swing, says Professor Sara Seager, an astrophysicist and planetary scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “We already know about thousands of planets orbiting stars other than the sun, we call them ‘exoplanets,'” she told me via Skype from California. “And I believe there’s definitely a ‘planet B’ out there somewhere, we just have to find it. And right now, myself and others around the world are building the next-generation of telescopes so that we’ll have the capability of finding and identifying another Earth.”

In the video [below], you can watch Seager detail three recently discovered exoplanets that have each generated a lot of excitement in the scientific community. These planets orbit their stars in the so-called “Goldilocks” zone. They are not too close to, and not too far away from, their respective stars. That means they are-potentially-hospitable to life. Among Seager’s favorites is the Earth-sized Kepler 186-f, but it’s over 500 light-years away, so humans probably won’t be going there. Closer possibilities include HD 40307-g, a large planet in a solar system with as many as six planets.

So will human explorers ever really make it to an exoplanet?

“I really think somehow, some day, someone will find a way to get there,” Seager said. “But it’s definitely not the solution to the problems on our planet right now.”

Understanding Cognitive Bias Helps Decision Making

noun: intuition
  1. the ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning.

People tend to trust their own intuition. Has there been much formal study about the veracity of intuition?

Brain science itself is a young field, and the terminology has yet to mature into a solid academic lexicon. To further increase your chances of being confused, modern life is rife with distractions, misinformation, and addictive escapisms, leaving the vast majority of society having no real idea what the hell is happening.

To illustrate my point, I’m going to do something kind of recursive. I am going to document my mind being changed about a deeply held belief as I explore my own cognitive bias. I am not here to tell you what’s REALLY going on or change your mind about your deeply held beliefs. This is just about methods of problem solving and how cognitive bias can become a positive aspect of critical thought.

Image: "Soft Bike" sculptiure by Mashanda Lazarus

Image: “Soft Bike” sculptiure by Mashanda Lazarus

I’m advocating what I think is the best set of decision making skills, Critical Thought. The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking defines critical thinking as the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. (I’m torn between the terms Critical Thinking and Critical Thought, although my complaint is purely aesthetic.)

Ever since taking an introduction to Logic course at Fitchburg State college I have been convinced that Logic is a much more reliable, proven way to make decisions. Putting logic to practice when decision-making is difficult, though. Just like a math problem can be done incorrectly, Some logic can even counter-intuitive. My favorite example of intuition failing over logic is always chess. Even as I write this I can’t convince myself otherwise: I have regretted every intuitive chess move. It’s statistically impossible that all my intuitive moves have been bad moves yet logic works in the game so much better that my mind has overcompensated in favor of logic. In the microcosm of chess rules, logic really is the better decision-making tool. Often the kernel of a good move jumps out at me as intuition but then must still be thoroughly vetted with logic before I can confidently say it’s a good move.

In high school, I was an underachiever. I could pass computer science and physics classes without cracking a book. My same attempt to coast through math classes left me struggling because I could not intuitively grasp the increasingly abstract concepts. The part of my mind that controls logic was very healthy and functioning but my distrust for my own intuition was a handicap. I would be taking make up mathematics courses in the summer but getting debate team trophies during the school year.


Photograph of Marcel Duchamp and Eve Babitz posing for the photographer Julian Wasser during the Duchamp retrospective at the Pasadena Museum of Art, 1963 © 2000 Succession Marcel Duchamp, ARS, N.Y./ADAGP, Paris.

I’m not just reminiscing; everyone’s decision making process is an constantly-updating algorithm of intuitive and logical reasoning. No one’s process is exactly the same but we all want to make the best decisions possible. For me it’s easy to rely on logic and ignore even a nagging sense of intuition. Some people trust intuition strongly yet struggle to find the most logical decision; everyone is most comfortable using a specially-tailored degree of intuition and logic. People argue on behalf of their particular decisions and the methodology behind them because a different method is useful in for each paradigm.

In chess, intuition is necessary but should be used sparingly and tempered with logic. It’s my favorite example because the game can be played without any intuition. Non-AI computers are able to beat the average human at chess. Some AI can beat chess masters. So, I’m biased towards logic. Chess is just a game, though. People are always telling me I should have more faith in intuitive thinking.

“But,” you should be asking, “Isn’t there an example of reliance on intuition as the best way to decide how to proceed?”

At least that’s what I have to ask myself. The best example I found of valuable intuition is the ability to ride a bike. It is almost impossible to learn to ride a bike in one session; it takes several tries over a week or longer to create the neural pathways needed to operate this bio-mechanical device. Samurais trained to feel that their weapon was part of themselves, or an extension of their very arm.  The mechanical motion of  the human body as it drives a bicycle becomes ingrained, literally, in the physical brain. The casual, ubiquitous expression, “It’s like riding a bike”, is used to idiomatically describe anything that can be easily mastered at an intermediate level, forgotten for years, but recalled at near perfect fidelity when encountered once again.

The Backwards Brain Bicycle – Smarter Every Day episode 133

Destin at Smarter Everyday put together a video that shows the duality of intuitive thinking. It is completely possible to train the human mind with complicated algorithms of decision making that can be embrace diversification and even contradictory modes of thinking.

Cont. below…

After watching this video, I embraced a moment of doubt and realized that there are very positive and useful aspects to intuition that I often don’t acknowledge. In this case of reversed bicycle steering, a skill that seems to only work after it has been made intuitive can be “lost” and only regained with a somewhat cumbersome level of concentration.

The video demonstrates the undeniable usefulness of what essentially amounts to anecdotal proof that neural pathways can be hacked, that contradictory new skills can be learned. It also shows that a paradigm of behavior can gain a tenacious hold on the mind via intuitive skill. It casts doubt on intuition in one respect but without at least some reliance on this intuitive paradigm of behavior it seems we wouldn’t be able to ride a bike at all.

This video forced me to both acknowledge the usefulness of ingrained, intuitive behaviors while also reminding me of how strong a hold intuition can have over the mind. Paradigms can be temporarily or perhaps permanently lost.  In the video, Destin has trouble switching back and forth between the 2 seemingly over-engaging thought systems but the transition itself can be a part of a more complicated thought algorithm, allowing the mind to master and embrace contradictory paradigms by trusting the integrity of the overall algorithm.

Including Confirmation Bias in a greater algorithm.

These paradigms can be turned on and off and just as a worker might be able to get used to driving an automatic transmission car to work and operating a stick shift truck at the job site and drive home in the automatic again after the shift.

This ability to turn on and off intuitive paradigms as a controlled feature of a greater logical algorithm requires the mind to acknowledge confirmation bias. I get a feeling of smug satisfaction that logic comprises the greater framework of a possible decision making process anytime I see evidence supporting that belief. There are just as many people out there who would view intuition as the the framework of a complex decision making process, with the ability to use or not use logical thought as merely a contributing part of a superior thought process. If my personal bias of logic over intuition is erroneous in some situations, can I trust the mode of thinking I am in? Using myself as an example, my relief at realizing data confirms what I have already accepted as true is powerful.

That feeling of relief must always be noted and kept in check before it can overshadow the ability to acknowledge data that opposes the belief. Understanding confirmation bias is the key to adding that next level to the algorithm, in the video example from Smarter Everyday, steering a normal bike is so ingrained in the neural pathway that the backwards steering’s inability to confirm actually fill in the blank and the mind sends an incorrect set of instruction of the mechanical behavior to the body. Understanding the dynamics of confirmation bias would enable the mind to embrace the greater thought system that would enable the mind to go back and forth between those conflicting behavioral paradigms. I’m positing that it should be possible to master a regular bike and the “backwards bike” and be able to switch back and forth between both bikes in quick succession. The neural pathways between both behavior paradigms can be trained and made stronger than the video shows.

I believe that with practice, someotrciksne could alternate steering mechanism quickly and without as much awkwardness as we are seeing in the video just as my initial confirmation bias, now identified, doesn’t have to dictate my decision and I might be more open minded to an intuitive interpretation leading to the best decision in certain situations.

An inability to acknowledge that one’s own mind might be susceptible to confirmation bias paradoxically makes one more susceptible.  Critical thinking is a method of building immunity to this common trap of confidence. Identifying the experience of one’s own confirmation bias is a great way to try and understand and control this intuitive tendency.  No matter what your thoughts are regarding logic and intuition, examining one’s confirmation biases and better embracing them should lead to better decision making skills.

Jonathan Howard
Jonathan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY

Space debris: what can we do with unwanted satellites?

There are thousands of satellites in Earth orbit, of varying age and usefulness. At some point they reach the end of their lives, at which point they become floating junk. What do we do with them then?

Most satellites are not designed with the end of their life in mind. But some are designed to be serviced, such as the Hubble Space Telescope, which as part of its final service was modified to include a soft capture mechanism. This is an interface designed to allow a future robotic spacecraft to attach itself and guide the telescope to safe disposal through burn-up in the Earth’s atmosphere once its operational life has ended.

Thinking about methods to retire satellites is important, because without proper disposal they become another source of space debris – fragments of old spacecraft, satellites and rockets now orbiting Earth at thousands of miles per hour. These fragments travel so fast that even a piece the size of a coin has enough energy to disable a whole satellite. There are well over 100,000 pieces this size or larger already orbiting Earth, never mind much larger items – for example the Progress unmanned cargo module, which Russian Space Agency mission controllers have lost control of and which will orbit progressively lower until it burns up in Earth’s atmosphere.

A hole punched in the side of the SMM satellite by flying orbital debris.

We don’t know exactly how many or where they are. Only the largest – about 10% of those fragments substantial enough to disable a satellite – can be tracked from the ground. In fact damage to satellites is not unknown, with Hubble and the Solar Maximum Mission (SMM) satellites among those to have coin-sized holes punched into them by flying debris. There is a risk that over the next few years there will be other, perhaps more damaging, collisions.

The soft capture mechanism was installed to prevent more space debris. Engineers worldwide are devising ingenious ways to try to limit the amount of debris orbiting the planet – for good reason. Predictions show that if we don’t tackle the problem of space debris then many of our most useful orbits will become too choked with flying fragments for satellites to safely occupy them.

At some point, there may be enough debris in a given orbit for debris-satellite collisions and debris-debris collisions to cascade out of control. This is known as the Kessler syndrome, as shown (in somewhat exaggerated fashion) in the film Gravity.

Given the degree to which we rely on satellites these days – for communication, GPS and time synchronisation, upon which in turn many vital services such as international banking rely – it’s crucial we prevent near-Earth space from reaching this point. And like it or not, one of the important steps required is to remove large defunct satellites that could become the source of many more chunks of debris.

Designed for disposal

Satellites such as the UK’s TechDemoSat-1 (TDS-1), which launched in 2014, are designed for end-of-life disposal. TDS-1 carries a small drag sail designed and built at Cranfield University that can be deployed once the satellite’s useful science life is over. This acts like a parachute, dragging the satellite’s orbit lower until it re-enters the atmosphere naturally and burns up high in Earth’s atmosphere.

TDS-1 is small enough to burn up – larger or higher satellites will require other ways of moving them away from the most important, valuable, and busy orbits. It’s possible, with enough fuel on-board (and all systems functioning after perhaps decades in space), for satellites to de-orbit themselves. Other, more exotic solutions include tug satellites using nets, tethers, and even high power lasers.

Bag it and bin it – ESA’s e.Deorbit project may use nets to collect debris and drag it into the atmosphere to burn up.

However, space debris isn’t just an engineering problem. Suppose Europe develops a tug satellite and tries to de-orbit old Russian satellites, or passes close to an active US spy satellite. Clearly this could get political. Simply put, we haven’t yet found a way to use space sustainably, and the problem is almost as complex as finding ways to ensure sustainable development on Earth. What we need are practical solutions – and soon.

One that got through: part of the Delta rocket fuel tank that came back to Earth in 1997.

So what will happen to Hubble, perhaps the most well-known case of a satellite that requires a retirement plan? One day, perhaps in the early 2020s, a small spacecraft will be launched to rendezvous with the space telescope. It will attach using the soft capture mechanism and then fire its engines to guide Hubble toward re-entry over the South Pacific. For a satellite as large as Hubble, it’s likely that some parts will survive re-entry so a large uninhabited region over the ocean is best suited to avoid risk of damage or casualties.

The re-entry can be tracked carefully from other satellites, aircraft, and ships – all will capture the moment that Hubble itself, having spent decades watching the heavens, will become a bright shooting star for other telescopes to capture. It somehow seems fitting that a mission as remarkable and long-lived as Hubble should itself end in a blaze of glory.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.