March 31st, 2014

Sci + Tech | March 31st, 2012
Control over communication, from James Admin to Egypt
Written by Andrew Komar

This past February, occupiers in the James administration used Twitter to brand themselves as #6party, and to communicate with their supporters. They advertised a livestream feed, from which they broadcast the first hours of their time in Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Morton Mendelson’s office. They dispatched press releases on a blog. On the first day of the occupation, after denying them food from supporters, and before shutting off the water in the washrooms, the administration took away their wireless connection.

It is almost a banal point to say that the internet is an essential tool to social organization today – from organizing protests, to house parties, to vote mobs – it’s become irreplaceable. But the radical new powers that have been granted to the average netizen have proven a speed bump to institutions that are based on a more traditional model.: In the context of authoritarian forces seeking to continue their control, or grandiose activists, such as Anonymous wishing to overturn the status quo, the internet – or control thereof – can serve as an irresistible tool to meet their goals.

The role of social media is often cited as a key factor in the success of a variety of ...

Sci + Tech | March 12th, 2012
Bug burgers, manure foam, factory farming, and the future of meat
Written by Andrew Komar

The fact that we can choose to consume animal protein of all varieties at every meal is only made possible by an uncomfortably disgusting supply chain. Many consumers rarely give a single thought to the industrial horror that enables this voracious consumption, simply buying the neatly packaged results of this process. As a red-blooded Albertan carnivore, I participate in this process. In the context of a growing world of seven billion hungry people, we should at least be able to stomach the disturbing reality of the meat on our plate. Among those of us who eat meat – roughly 96 per cent of Canadians – it often seems an unspoken reality to not talk about the process behind its production.

Right now, we “produce” over 58 billion animals every year to satisfy our hunger. The issue boils down to one of supply and demand. How can you maximize the amount of meat produced in the shortest amount of time? The answer that the market has come up with is the factory farm. Forget idyllic scenes of frolicking livestock living out happy lives before a humane slaughter, well over 99 per cent of all animals produced for consumption will come from factory farms. To maximize ...

Sci + Tech | February 13th, 2012
It's hot, it's here to stay—and it really is all our fault.
Written by Andrew Komar

Global climate change is a process that takes much more than a single lifetime to play out – or to see the worst effects. On a long-term scale, the scope of the change is so great that geologists have proposed that we are currently living through the dawn of a new geologic era: the Anthropocene, also known as the Age of Humanity.

It was only a few thousand years ago that much of North America was covered in kilometer-thick layers of ice. The ices ebbed and flowed across the continent over the course of millenia due to natural warming caused by the Earth’s wobbly orbit around the sun. Our current place in the complex ‘wobble’ would ordinarily put us at the beginning of another period of giant ice sheets scraping across the continents. But we’re not only stopping this ice age, we’re going much further: The forecast for the Anthropocene is that it’s to be an age of extreme warming.

In the best case scenario: we collectively dump only a half-trillion ton slug of carbon dioxide equivalent gasses, and the world becomes two degrees Celsius warmer. What does a world that is two degrees warmer actually look like? We need only look ...

Sci + Tech | January 30th, 2012
Canada becomes the first country to withdraw from the Kyoto protocol
Written by Andrew Komar | Photo by Alyssa Favreau

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, vying for Canada’s 12th “Fossil of the Day” award – given to the most environmentally retroactive country by the Climate Action Network – became the first Kyoto signatory to formally break its commitments to the protocol in mid-December 2011. First put in place in 1997, the Kyoto Protocol was an international agreement to cut down on global carbon emissions in an attempt to mitigate some of the more dire effects expected from anthropogenic climate change.

The Canadian government, which has been a long-time critic of Kyoto, the only legally binding greenhouse gas agreement in existence, cited the fact that both China and the United States were not members of the Kyoto accord, and thus not bound to pay the significant costs that were set to be imposed on Canada. Collectively, those countries alone produce around 40 per cent of the total global emissions, whereas Canada produces less than 2 per cent. However, since the Chrétien government signed the protocol in 1997, per-capita emissions of Canadians have risen over 25 per cent from the specified target of a 6 per cent decrease from 1990 levels.

Under the penalties formerly agreed to in the accord, this increase over the prescribed ...

Sci + Tech | November 7th, 2011
Why scepticism is a necessary application of the scientific method
Written by Andrew Komar | Photo by Edna Chan

The basic idea behind scepticism was perhaps best summarized by the physicist Richard Feynman: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” This principle is exponentially more difficult to uphold in the modern era, where information of all degrees of truthfulness can flow without limit. To further complicate things, there are whole industries based on pseudoscientific nonsense that are more than willing to take your hard-earned cash from your gullible hands.

So how do we protect ourselves from the unscrupulous people who brazenly lie to enrich themselves? We need a bullshit detector to separate truth from their profitable claims. Luckily for us, the scientific method provides us with exactly the tools for the job! A brief review: any claim must be backed up with clear, inarguable, and reproducible evidence. Furthermore, this evidence ought to be free of the various cognitive biases that humans bring into the picture unintentionally. This includes conflating correlation and causation or interpreting data in a way that favourably confirms your presuppositions. Although this sounds simple in principle, it is nearly impossible to consistently apply.

In fact, in many situations, we actively wish to suspend these principles of scientific ...

Sci + Tech | October 3rd, 2011
Thought that nothing could move faster than light in a vacuum? You might be wrong.
Written by Andrew Komar | Photo by Edna Chan

Physicists from the Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus (OPERA) program at the European Institute for Nuclear Physics recently released a paper claiming that they may have discovered particles that might travel faster than the speed of light. This revelation, if true, would mean that the universal speed limit, as laid out in Einstein’s theory of special relativity, would be incorrect. Relativistic physics is the keystone of our modern understanding of the universe, so this announcement has the potential to be one of the most important findings in over a century.

These astonishing conclusions come from an experiment on a very different type of subatomic particle, known as the neutrino. This particle, the existence of which was first hypothesized by the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi in the 1930s, is generated during nuclear decay. These miniscule neutral particles barely interact with regular matter, which makes them exceedingly hard to experiment upon. At any given second, there are about 65 billion neutrinos, coming from the sun alone, flying through an area the size of your thumbnail. The vast majority of these neutrinos will fly right through the earth and out the other side.

Making neutrinos even more peculiar, is that they come in ...

Sci + Tech | September 26th, 2011
Recent findings bring the possibility of extraterrestrial life closer than ever before
Written by Andrew Komar | Photo by Edna Chan

The family of confirmed planets that exist outside our solar system gained fifty new members last week when the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) team announced new discoveries at the Extreme Solar System Conference in Wyoming. This announcement described a planet that may orbit around its star in a habitable zone, known as a “Goldilocks zone” because it is neither too hot nor too cold, allowing liquid water to form. Liquid water is a necessary precondition for life as we know it, so finding planets that may have it is an obvious first step to finding evidence of extraterrestrial life. This brings the total number of known exoplanets – planets that exist outside our solar system – up to 685, with thousands more potential worlds waiting to be confirmed by various scientific missions.

This plethora of exoplanetary discoveries has seriously challenged scientists’ ideas about planetary formation. The traditional model has planets forming around the same time as a newly born star, accreting from the same disc of dust that rotates around the protostar, an early phase in the formation of a star. But with new discoveries, it became clear that current models were unable to predict the diversity of ...

Sci + Tech | September 12th, 2011
Don't panic, we're just talking about the Higgs boson
Written by Andrew Komar | Photo by Jerry Gu

During the International Europhysics Conference on High Energy Physics hosted in late July at Grenoble, the latest data from the world’s most powerful particle accelerator was presented. After years of waiting for the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) to be built and brought up to operational levels, and after numerous frustrating technical setbacks, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) was ready to present its first tenuous conclusions about the Higgs boson. It was there that they dropped the bombshell: CERN stated that there was a 95 per cent chance that it did not exist, effecitlvey ruling out its existence.

The Higgs boson, popularly known as the “god particle” because of its supposed role in endowing everything in the universe with mass, has been furiously searched for since the postulation of its existence in 1964. The Standard Model predicts a menagerie of subatomic particles. Of these, the Higgs boson is the only one yet to be confirmed. As a scientific theory, the Standard Model is the most thoroughly tested in all of human history. It successfully unites electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force that keeps atomic nuclei together, and the weak nuclear force that controls radioactive decay ...

Sci + Tech | April 4th, 2011
The continuing consequences of Deepwater Horizon’s mismanagement
Written by Andrew Komar | Photo by Edna Chan | The McGill Daily

The first anniversary of the massive explosion aboard the offshore drilling rig Deepwater Horizon is approaching. The April 20, 2010 explosion, caused by a failure of the blowout preventer, ruptured the oil well at a depth of 1.5 kilometres below the ocean’s surface. The resulting gusher at the well head eventually dumped nearly 5 million barrels (some 700,000 metric tonnes) of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Efforts to stop the flow were hampered by the technical difficulties of working at such an extreme depth, and the well was only capped when a relief well was drilled five months later. Since then, the Gulf oil disaster has largely faded from the public eye, but we are only now seeing the beginning of long-term problems that will affect the region for years to come.

Despite technical increases in the ability required for oil companies to drill at ever-increasing depths, the technologies to clean up spills have not fundamentally changed in more than thirty years, even since the Gulf disaster. The offshore drilling in the Gulf approved by the Obama administration features the same blowout preventers that we now know are prone to blowout. The safety report from BP that is cited ...

Sci + Tech | March 28th, 2011
Structural codes keep our buildings safe, but it may not be enough
Written by Andrew Komar | Photo by Olivia Messer | The McGill Daily

We often take for granted the idea that the buildings we use every day will remain standing. This becomes most apparent during seismic events when the structural capacity of the built environment is put to the ultimate test. Yet the damage caused by extreme earthquakes is highly variable, which is in fact best illustrated by the differences in the destruction caused by recent earthquakes in Haiti and Japan.

Earthquakes will continue to be a natural hazard as long as we continue to live in seismically active areas, so it is worth understanding the reasons why some buildings stay standing and others collapse when exposed to the same risks. Ultimately, that distinction is in the building codes governing construction practices, as well as how the buildings are maintained. Saeed Mirza, professor emeritus in Civil Engineering at McGill,  has spent much of his career working on issues related to construction and society. “The devastation we ...

Sci + Tech | March 14th, 2011
The extraordinary world of neutron stars
Written by Andrew Komar | Photo by Edna Chan | The McGill Daily

If you have trillions of tonnes of fuel burning at millions of degrees for billions of years and you suddenly run out, what happens?

Stars in the twilight of their lives are doomed to different fates depending on exactly how much stuff is in them. In the case of sun-like stars, they will die by puffing up into red giants (with a radius bigger than earth’s orbit around the sun) and eventually ejecting much of their stardust to form so-called “planetary nebulae” that can span dozens of light-years across.

If the star in question is bigger and hotter than the sun, it performs the much more dramatic exit from the cosmic stage known as a supernova. When the last of the available fuel runs out, the fusion reaction providing the counter-force to the ridiculously immense gravitational forces at the core of these stars is cut off. Without any counterbalance to gravity, the entire star falls in on itself, compressing the core and bouncing back out – tearing the entire star apart in a colossal shock wave explosion that can be seen clear across the universe.

The energy provided by supernovae is sufficient for the creation of heavy elements such as the ones that ...

Sci + Tech | March 7th, 2011
Delivering electricity using a smart grid could save energy and the Earth
Written by Andrew Komar | Photo by Rosie Dobson for The McGill Daily

For life in the 21st century, it is impossible to put a dollar value on the necessity of reliable electrical power. Electricity underlies every aspect of our modern lives, and yet the grid used to deliver this crucial commodity has not substantially changed since the 1890s, after its invention by Nikola “Electric Jesus” Tesla.

The current electricity delivery model is a source-sink one, meaning that a few giant power plants passively monitor the demand for electricity caused by net usage, and turn generators on or off accordingly. From a consumer perspective, your personal “sink” is monitored with a metre that is checked a couple of times a month and you are charged accordingly with a flat rate.

But the real cost of producing electricity is far from a flat rate. Over the day, as people go about their business, the net amount of electricity used rises relative to times when everybody is asleep, resulting ...

Sci + Tech | February 17th, 2011
The potential, and limitations, of fusion power
Written by Andrew Komar

Any vision of how we will meet our energy needs in the distant future is difficult to imagine without harnessing the power of nuclear fusion. Fusion represents the ability to generate essentially unlimited energy from seawater, creating virtually no waste or CO2. Physicists working on making that vision a reality have predicted that fusion power may be just thirty years away, though they have been making that prediction for a very long time.

The basic physics behind fusion are simple. Take an atom of heavy hydrogen (known as deuterium) and smash it together with another atom of heavier hydrogen (called tritium). The collision results in an atom of helium, which weighs less than either of the other two elements. We know that that a change in mass results in a massive release of energy to balance the conservation of energy. The real trick with fusion physics is providing the necessary energy to get ...

Sci + Tech | February 14th, 2011
Exploring the failings of homeopathic medicine
Written by Andrew Komar | Photo by Edna Chan | The McGill Daily

At the recent McGill conference, “Confronting Pseudo-science, A Call to Action,” James Randi of the James Randi Educational Foundation began his presentation by downing an entire bottle of homeopathic sleeping pills. He then continued his presentation without so much as a yawn, despite the supposed effects of dozens of pills floating through his body. This anticlimactic demonstration raises the question: what exactly was in those sleeping pills?

As it turns out, not much. The basic theory of homeopathy was established in the late 18th century by the German physician Samuel Hahnemann. He believed that all disease was caused by an imbalance of the body’s “humours.” Homeopathy supposedly addresses this imbalance with the principle that “like cures like,” treating specific pathological symptoms with ingredients thought to cause those symptoms. The idea behind homeopathy ...

Sci + Tech | January 31st, 2011
Power Balance wristbands are still sold in Canada, despite a lack of supporting science
Written by Andrew Komar | Photo by Edna Chan

These fashionable accessories can be found on the wrists of a huge cross-section of society, and are endorsed by celebrities like David Beckham, Shaquille O’Neal, and Robert De Niro. Numerous testimonials on slick websites offer glowing reviews of how Power Balance wristbands improve strength, balance, and flexibility simply by slipping one on. If it sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is.

In December 2010, Australian consumer protection advocates managed to put the manufacturer of the Power Balance wristbands under the harsh light of real scrutiny. As a result of this legal inquiry, Power Balance was forced to retract advertisements, issue a formal apology, and offer refunds for the $60 wristbands. Of particular note in their apology was the description of the scientific basis of their claims: “We stated that Power Balance wristbands improved your strength, balance, and flexibility. We admit that there is no credible scientific evidence that supports our ...

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