Believing in aliens
I was asked recently if I believe in aliens.  Here's what my response would have been if I wasn't drinking: 

1.  I fundamentally believe there's a natural explanation for everything.  This is called naturalism, and it's the opposite of supernaturalism (e.g. religion).  Human beings have, for a long time, come up with supernatural and sometimes absurd explanations for things they didn't understand.  "God created the earth, then the sun" (oops, wrong order).  "Earthquakes are god's punishment for something" (oops, plate tectonics).  "You're sick because of bad air" (oops, germs). 

That's not to say people are big dumb stupid idiots.  I would go with less aggressive words like "ignorant" (i.e. didn't know) or "naive" (i.e. didn't know enough).  As we learned more, there was less of a need for supernatural explanations for things because we discovered natural explanations.  There are literally countless examples throughout the history of scientific discovery. 

I believe aliens fit in that category.  The pictures, videos, and eyewitness testimony all follow the pattern of, "I don't know what I'm looking at, so it must be aliens."  It's the same with "ancient aliens" who supposedly helped us build the pyramids and whatnot.  "I can't imagine a way humans could've built this structure, therefore aliens did it."  It's a failure of imagination. 

I don't have a good answer or explanation for things people attribute to aliens.  And I understand the thought process of appealing to that logic, because it does make a certain amount of sense.  But based on our well-documented human history of mis-attribution, I'm holding off judgment until we get some better data. 

2.  However, I also think the existence of aliens is pretty likely.  Another common theme in human history is thinking we're the center of everything and assuming we're unique.  We used to think the earth was the center of the solar system and the center of the universe, but it turned out to be sort of the opposite.  We used to think biological life was temperamental and rare, requiring just the right mixture of air and water and sunlight, but then we found things on hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean.  Life is not difficult, and we're not unique. 

If there are [whatever] billions of galaxies in the universe, and [whatever] billions of stars in each galaxy, the idea of a rocky planet in a goldilocks zone hospitable to some sort of life is at the very least conceivable, if not a near certainty.  It would be the ultimate example of human hubris to assume we're alone in the universe.  It might be alien bugs or alien lobsters instead of alien humanoids, but still. 

3.  That being said, I think the pro-alien lobby (just made that up) is a little short on evidence.  Claiming a certain rock couldn't have been cut or moved by people of a certain era because they didn't have the proper tools, and then claiming it's aliens -- this is like answering a question with a question.  You couldn't come up with a reasonable explanation, so you went with unreasonable.  Or capturing a shaky-cam video of some lights in the sky that look weird -- like seriously have you never heard of image stabilization?  It's like Bigfoot sightings:  You're telling me in the 200 or so years of the existence of cameras, we haven't been able to capture a single clear shot? 

Discounting government cover-up conspiracy theories (a topic for another day), the evidence has yet to be compelling.  Interesting?  Yes.  But conclusive?  No.  However, to quote Bill Nye when he was asked what if anything would change his mind:  "Evidence." #science

Weird facts
I always come across those listicles that are like, "17 Amazing Facts About Nature," and I'd say my favorite facts are these: 

Wet-bulb temperature
Since this has been coming up a lot lately,
The wet-bulb temperature is the temperature read by a thermometer covered in water-soaked cloth over which air is passed.  The wet-bulb temperature is the lowest temperature that can be reached under current ambient conditions by the evaporation of water only.

Even heat-adapted people cannot carry out normal outdoor activities past a wet-bulb temperature of 32°C (90°F), equivalent to a heat index of 55°C (131°F). A reading of 35°C (95°F) -- equivalent to a heat index of 71°C (160°F) -- is considered the theoretical human survivability limit for up to six hours of exposure.
In other words, if the wet-bulb temperature gets too high, the human body loses its ability to cool down by sweating, so you can simply die from being too hot. #science

Memory eraser drugs
Here's something I recently learned about and find both fascinating and terrifying:
Midazolam is a benzodiazepine with antianxiety and sedative effects. Because of rapid onset and short duration of action, it is commonly used in diagnostic and therapeutic procedures to create anterograde amnesia, which prevents undesirable memory of the procedure that is painful for the patient.
There's a whole class of drugs that have this effect.  I always thought anesthesia drugs just sort of put you to sleep.  I didn't realize they actively prevent your brain from forming new memories. #science

Evidence vs. reality
I'm a pretty big believer in the idea that evidence should mostly guide our actions and opinions.  For example, I'm in the camp that pretty much all vitamin and mineral supplements are essentially worthless for most reasonably healthy people.  If you eat an even modestly healthy diet, a vitamin supplement won't boost your immune system or cleanse your liver or whatever ridiculous thing it says on the bottle.  It's all complete quackery, based on incomplete or mis-information, often appealing to the "eastern" or "ancient" ways of thinking which is attractive to modern westerners.  [Side note:  When an eastern medicine works, it's no longer called eastern medicine, it's just called medicine.]

However, when I'm sick or stressed or not sleeping well and there's a supplement that claims to fix that, I'll swallow my pride and give it a shot.  I think part of the appeal is that it feels like you're addressing the issue by doing something.  And doing something seems better than doing nothing.  Plus there usually aren't many downsides to supplements because you just pee them out anyway.  So the worst result you could get is that they work.  So far I'm batting 0 for 1000, but hey why not try some new weird pill? #science

Convergent evolution
Convergent evolution is "the independent evolution of similar features in species of different periods or epochs in time".  A simple example is fish and dolphins.  Fish didn't just become dolphins.  First a non-fish became a fish, then they exited the water, then they grew legs, then they re-entered the water, then they lost their legs.  Both fish and dolphins became water-dwelling fin-propelled animals at completely different points in history and in different branches of the tree of life. 

Pretty much every section of that Wikipedia page made my jaw drop, but the part about light skin color evolving twice was pretty cool. #science

Let me start by saying I'm not an expert and I didn't do any research for what I'm about to write, so I could be completely wrong. 

It's my understanding that humans spread germs to each other through their face holes.  People talk, whisper, laugh, sing, yell, cough, sneeze, and do a variety of other things to propel germs out of their bodies and into the bodies of the people around them.  It's disgusting. 

It seems to me that anything that can possibly prevent this from occurring is probably a decent way to reduce the spread of germs.  That could be
  • physical separation, i.e. distance
  • a solid barrier, like a wall or window
  • a flexible barrier around each person, like a bubble suit
  • a face shield like a welder's mask
  • a mask covering the mouth and nose
Somewhat obviously, a wall is a better germ barrier than a face mask.  But a mask still does something, albeit less than some of the other options.  Some mask materials are probably better than others, but I would imagine any mask is better at preventing the spread of germs than no mask at all.  Doctors and nurses and dentists have known and practiced this for decades (at least). 

There was talk early on in the pandemic about whether or not masks are helpful at all.  And there's been talk more recently about which mask material is best.  The LA Times actually has a good writeup of the CDC's history of discouraging and then encouraging mask use throughout the pandemic (whoops).  I would estimate, again not an expert, that masks are and were probably helpful at reducing the spread of Covid. #science

The engineering community commonly uses the metric system, both because a lot of the early math and science was performed by Europeans, but also because it makes a bunch of calculations simpler.  English units have pounds of mass and pounds of force, which are both equivalent and not equivalent, depending on some criteria I have to look up every time I use them.  So it's common to scoff at people who use English units because it adds unnecessary complexity. 

But not all engineers use metric units.  Mechanical designers and metal machinists use English units, [I've heard] because the cutting tools use English units.  We don't have 6.4-mm screw holes; we have 1/4" screw holes because we have 1/4" drill bits.  Some raw materials come in thicknesses measured to the nearest 1/8" or 1/4". 

But at the same time, metal machining often specifies tolerances using a sort of semi-metric system, e.g. something is measured at 1/8" +/- 0.010" (spoken "ten thousandths").  Similarly some engineers use feet as a unit of distance, but if the magnitude of the values they deal with is greater than 10,000, they use the term "kilofeet", which is both beautiful and ugly at the same time. 

Electrical power is measured in Watts, but mechanical power is measured in horsepower.  [Hint:  they're the same thing, i.e. units of power.]  But it feels wrong to say I have a 147 kW engine in my car, or a 1.36 hp microwave in my kitchen.  It all comes down to what you're used to. 

The metric system is really just a standardized unit (m for length, kg for mass, etc.) plus a Latin or Greek prefix denoting the decimal point.  English units almost sort of use a crappy version of this with things like inches (10^0), feet (inches x 10^1.0792), yards (inches x 10^1.5563), miles (inches x 10^4.8018).  I don't know what the solution is, so I'm gonna go walk a few hundred mega-inches to de-stress. #science

Traditional vs. mRNA vaccine
I'm not an expert so I'm quite possibly wrong about this, but one way to think about the difference between a traditional (viral vector) vaccine and an mRNA vaccine is this:  A traditional vaccine is like if you took a partially-eaten cookie to a bakery and asked them to make you a similar cookie.  An mRNA vaccine is like if you went to a bakery and asked them to make you a cookie with the recipe you just handed them. #science

Rocket brain
A study found that rocket scientists and brain surgeons aren't smarter than the general public.  I was actually just thinking about this recently.  Those disciplines aren't some sort of obscure, hidden knowledge obtained through a secretive quest.  It's just people who had some sort of baseline ability and interest in a topic, then studied and worked hard for a while.  Not to understate their accomplishments or overstate my abilities, but I could do that.  Most people could.  There's a huge caveat that it depends where you live and how your local schools are and all sorts of things.  But in general, most people can do most things. 

I think it's weird that rocket science and brain surgery are put on a pedestal, when really any specialized discipline is essentially equally difficult and impressive.  Electricians regularly work with an invisible death force, yet the average person has no idea how it works much less how to wire an electrical outlet.  Modern life would essentially stop if electricians stopped showing up to work.  Similarly, I hired a guy to redo some drywall in my house, not because I'm unable, but because I'm not good at it.  The work he produced nearly brought tears to my eyes because it was so good.  In other words, trust experts

I think rocket science and brain surgery get singled out at least partly because those subjects are inherently more risky.  Or more specifically, the likelihood of an incident is higher, and the consequences are quite bad.  Getting a rocket to lift off and fly straight is difficult, and if it fails it causes a big boom with lots of fire (high likelihood, high consequence).  This happens frequently enough that it's a legitimate concern for engineers and safety people.  A similar discipline like structural engineering is just as difficult, and the consequences of a bridge or building falling down are just as bad, but the likelihood is much lower (low likelihood, high consequence).  It's the same for brain surgery, but in the reverse order.  If a dentist screws up a tooth surgery, they can just try again next time (low likelihood, low consequence).  If a surgeon screws up a brain surgery, that patient is permanently altered (low likelihood, high consequence). 

[This has been your introduction to Risk Assessment.]

Finally, rocket science doesn't really exist.  Science is the application of the scientific method to further knowledge about a subject.  Not to put too fine of a point on it, but we pretty much know everything we're gonna know about rockets (dangerous claim to make, but I did it).  The science is essentially settled (combine some chemicals or ignite them to produce an energetic reaction).  What we're really talking about when we say "rocket science" is "rocket engineering", i.e. how do I apply this scientific knowledge to shoot a person at another planet?  But "rocket engineering" just doesn't have the same ring. #science

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