About Me

I'm an Explorer, Engineer, Writer, Public Speaker, and Entrepreneur. I write about exploration, travel, and science. 

Any views expressed on this site are my own.  

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For a complete list of works from the MIT Science Writing Program, click here.

For a list of my blog posts on Open NASA, click here


Entropy and the Kitchen Sink

Is your sink full of dirty dishes right now? Mine is. Well, it isn’t full, but it’s got a few items in it I’ve been putting off washing since yesterday. There’s a plate I had pizza on last night, the knife I used to cut the pizza, a fork I used to pick sausages from the pizza when it was too hot to pick up the whole thing, one coffee cup shaped like a cow, and the little grease-catching tray thing from my George Foreman grill—a hold-out I missed during the last Great Kitchen Cleanup of 2012 sometime last week.

I’ll do dishes a couple times a week (on a good week), but almost never right after a meal. I let them build up a little before I give in. I think that’s normal. So normal that physicists even have a term for this practice of hygienic procrastination. They call it entropy. It’s the tendency for disorder to steadily increase in a system, or to think of it a different way, for the amount of useful work to decrease in a system over time. Some say it may eventually bring about an extreme state of critical sluggishness in the universe, when disorder has reached such epic levels that all the bits and pieces we’re made of, all the stars and planets and black holes and galaxies have completely degraded to a state of universal, equally distributed heat and matter. When life as we know it ceases to exist.

The ultimate sink full of dirty dishes.

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Can You Get the Flu From Touching a Sneezy Handle?

You’re far more likely to get the flu from breathing in the virus when you’re around someone who has it than you are from touching infected items around your house, say researchers from Great Britain.

Most household materials can’t sustain enough influenza—the virus which causes the common disease we call “the flu”—to infect another person by physical contact after only a few hours. These results confirmed what most scientists suspected: the influenza virus is quite fragile.

To test the survival of the virus on household items, researchers deposited small amounts of influenza on items like light switches, toys, kitchen counters, keyboards, and window glass in a laboratory setting. Then they measured the amount of viable virus (meaning a large enough quantity to lead to an infection) at set times.

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Coffee Growers Take Note: Fungi Have Sex, Too

Coffee rust
Image: Howard Schwartz, Colorado State University

Here’s news to researchers studying coffee rust, a fungal disease that has devastated coffee crops around the world for more than a hundred years: It was always assumed the coffee fungus reproduced asexually—meaning its cells split instead of fused with other cells from another host. But new research confirms they also reproduce sexually.

Coffee rust is the most economically damaging disease affecting coffee crops worldwide (estimated to cost the global coffee industry up to $3 billion a year). This new insight into the personal life of coffee fungus could help control the spread of the deadly disease in coffee and other plant life as well, including wheat grain and pine trees, which also suffer from different forms of rust fungi. 

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Fear Trumps Happiness in Vocal Cues

Given only vocal cues, humans can identify fear faster in other voices than happiness, say researchers.

The cause lies in biological-survival imperatives. And the implications may prevent your next computer technical-support call from ending in a one-sided screaming match with a voice recording.

Understanding the time it takes to identify an emotion can help engineers develop better automated call centers, aid psychologists in training people with autism to learn subtle social cues, and assist public speakers to analyze the effectiveness of their speeches.

Researchers at McGill University in Canada and the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany have measured the time it takes for people to correctly identify certain emotions (anger, disgust, fear, sadness, happiness). Experimenters speak a neutral, meaningless phrase (e.g., The rivix jolled the silling), which is then broken into seven pieces based on syllables. The time each participant takes to react to each piece is recorded. 

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Cambridge, We (Almost Had) a Problem

John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center.
Almost Mission Control?

I first heard the surprising tale on a Boston duck tour the weekend after I moved to the area from Houston. Having never lived in New England, I couldn’t think of a better way to get to know the city of Boston than on a 20-passenger open air amphibious tank painted bright yellow that promised to bring passengers to all the historical sights from both land and water. The tour was narrated by a tall, goateed man—call sign Duck Pin.

We’d just turned around on the Charles River to head back to the landing site when Duck Pin guided the car-ship through the glassy water toward the iconic towers of the Longfellow Bridge. “And there, behind those buildings about three blocks down on Broadway,” declared Duck Pin, “was the site where NASA wanted to build their Mission Control Center, right next to MIT in the Kendall Square area. It wasn’t until after the Kennedy assassination—since, remember, JFK was a local Massachusetts man—that NASA decided to move Mission Control to Houston, conveniently, in Texas, the home state of our new President Lyndon B. Johnson.” 

Huh? I thought. Mission Control would have been in Cambridge?

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