R.I.P. Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke was the author of such science fiction classics as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Childhood's End, and was the first to proposed the idea of placing communications satellites in geosynchronous orbits (where they always appear in the same point in the sky). He passed away today at the age of 90. An amazing man, he will be missed.

In his honor I think I'm going to re-read my copy of The Lion of Comarre & Against the Fall of Night. (I like the original Against the Fall of Night a bit more than the expanded and revised The City and the Stars, but both are good. Beyond the Fall of Night, however, is a great disappointment, contradicting the original not just in theme but in plot, and Gregory Benford should be ashamed of the hack job he did on his half.)

SSRI antidepressants no better than placebo for most; the myth of mental illness?

A recently published meta-analysis of studies of SSRI antidepressants - including unpublished trials - shows that they are no better than placebos for all but the most severely depressed people; and furthermore, that severely depressed people exhibited a decreased placebo response rather than a increased responsiveness to the drugs. (SSRIs, “selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors” are the class of drugs that include Prozac (fluoxetine),
Effexor (venlafaxine), Serzone (nefazodone), and Seroxat (paroxetine).)

This prompted a discussion over on Slashdot, where I posted as follows:

the smell of space

ISS Science Officer Don Pettit writes about the smell of space:

It seems about as improbable as listening to sounds in space, yet space has a definite smell...I had the pleasure of operating the airlock for two of my crewmates while they went on several space walks. Each time, when I repressed the airlock, opened the hatch and welcomed two tired workers inside, a peculiar odor tickled my olfactory senses. At first I couldn't quite place it. It must have come from the air ducts that re-pressed the compartment. Then I noticed that this smell was on their suit, helmet, gloves, and tools.

Going ape...

A recent Slashdot discussion brought up the the way that Soledad O'Brien asked John Edwards about evolution, specifically the phrase "man came, evolution-wise, from apes.", and whether that was an attempt to whip up the ""I didn't come from no monkey!" camp.

It got me imagining my ideal candidate giving a reply. Wouldn't you love to hear something like this:

"Why, yes, Ms. O'Brien, according to our best evidence we did descend from apes - more precisely, we and modern apes descended from a common, ape-like ancestor. And I'm proud of how far our species has developed, how far up from the muck we've come, how far towards grace we've climbed; and I hope that our umptity-great grandchildren will be as far above us as we are above the Australopithecines. My opponent the Biblical literalist, on the other hand, seems to hold that we're all the fallen result of incestuous inbreeding from a single original pair of idiots dumb enough to be fooled by a talking snake. I've got to say I find the scientific account not only more rational, but orders of magnitude more inspiring."

CFC-free foam has nothing to do with Space Shuttle damage

Been a lot of talk recently on the net about the damage to the Space Shuttle; anti-environmentalists have been bringing up old BS about the CFC-free foam used in insulating the main tank. Here's something I posted to Slashdot on the topic:

environmentalist groups got their way and now we have a riskier space program.

This point about how the foam insulation process was changed has come up many times in discussions about the damage to Endeavor. And it's wrong.

It has its origin in one of Rush Limbaugh's lies.
As it turns out, the foam that dealt Columbia the death blow was the
old-style CFC foam. The problem was in the hand-spraying application method
used on that area, which left gaps and voids in the foam.

Yes, when they first started using the CFC-free foam in 1997 there were
some problems seen. Changes were quickly made to improve the adhesion.

There were also plenty of problems with the CFC foam - "popcorning" from
trapped air bubbled was noted in 1995
, while in 1992 Columbia was
struck by a large piece of foam, ripping a 12cm gouge in the tiles. Both of
these were before the switch to CFC-free foam.

Tom Swiss | the infamous tms | my blog
You cannot wash away blood with blood

the "Fermi paradox"

Posted on Slashdot in response to this bit on the "Fermi paradox", the assertation that we should basically be tripping over extraterrestrial intelligent life:

Indeed, as TFA notes, there is "something wrong with our thinking", or at least with that of the author.

First, interstellar colonization? Unlikely. It makes nice SF, but there's no good economic basis for it. A civilization that survives long enough to reach the technological level necessary for interstellar spaceflight will have stabilized its population and learned how to use local resources to make their home world a paradise. Why go anywhere else? The expense is enormous, the payoff non-existent. (They're working on stellar engineering, of course, so there's no worry about their sun going nova.) Childish species who still imagine faster-than-light loopholes might dream of going swashbuckling across the galaxy, but grown-up races are content to follow more mature pursuits. TFA's claims about "intelligent life's ability to overcome scarcity, and its tendency to colonize new habitats" are simply handwaving, generalizing from one species of half-bright monkeys into sweeping statements about all intelligent life.


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