Sugar Water: The Year in Science (Last Year, Not This Year)

Written by Current Events, Sugar Water

The Associated Press reported last Tuesday that the bicycles of former U.S. president Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, were stolen from inside the Carter Center in Atlanta earlier this month. President Carter responded by dropping a neutron bomb on the surrounding neighborhood, vaporizing the residents but leaving their bicycles intact, which should make it easier for him and Rosalynn to locate their Schwinns.

I’m only kidding, of course. The nation’s 39th president is a peaceful man who would only use the destructive power of science and technology for the greater good after all other options had been exhausted, not to settle petty grievances like I would. This is why I’m not — and will never be — president. But if I were, I wouldn’t give a speech like President Carter delivered on July 15, 1979, when he asked every American citizen to “take no unnecessary trips, to use carpools or public transportation whenever you can, to park your car one extra day per week, to obey the speed limit, and to set your thermostats to save fuel.”

Sir, from one Georgian to another, did you really think you could sneak that speech past people in the last six months of the Me Decade and expect them to comply? I was only three in July of ’79, but if I wanted my parents to take an unnecessary trip to the Macon Mall so I could meet a guy dressed up as Darth Vader, nothing was going to stop that trip from happening.

But the biggest failure of your “malaise speech,” Mr. President, was your belief that adult Americans are willing to do voluntary math past the age of 18. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve gone 40 miles over the speed limit on residential streets or set a thermostat at 80 in the winter, I’d probably be a rich man, but since I don’t like to keep track of numbers, how should I know?

Your average American doesn’t want to learn about science, either, if he or she doesn’t have to. (When people in Chicago say it’s “too cold to snow,” I assume they mean that even snowflakes have a limit on how much miserably cold weather they can put up with.) As soon as I finished my last paper for Physics 101 in college — “Charlton Heston: If He Likes Guns So Much and He’s Seen the Future, Why Isn’t He Killing All the Apes Before They Take Over the Planet?” — I said goodbye to science forever.

Or so I thought. Unfortunately, 2008 turned out to be a totally awesome year for science, so I’ve decided to do a recap for the benefit of people like myself whose weekly dose of science begins and ends with tightly edited montages of tightly dressed Emily Procter examining semen residue inside bullet casings on CSI: Miami.

The year in science commenced in January, if you want to get technical about it, but I didn’t start paying attention until the end of August, so that’s where I’m going to start my year in review.

But now that I think about it, I did write about the U.S. military’s development of combat robot technology, a.k.a. KILLER ROBOT OVERLORDS, last March, even though my investigative hysteria did nothing to stop their devious plans. In September Time‘s Mark Thompson reported on the magazine’s website that the Army awarded a five-year, $4 million contract to a group of scientists from top universities to create “thought helmets,” which will allow soldiers in the field to communicate without opening their mouths or moving their bodies.

When the League of Stereotypical Italian-American Soldiers learned about the project, they protested that this technology would eliminate their unique talent for angry hand gestures and overdramatic body language, but my concern is that thought helmets will allow soldiers to read every thought going through their fellow soldiers’ brains, not just the ones that are giving and confirming orders. What if “Private Turner is soooooo cute” slips through? Is the appropriate response “Affirmative”? We all think we’d like to read people’s minds, but it’s a slippery slope that can lead downhill to disappointment once you realize your secret crush spends most of the day thinking about American Idol.

But getting back to the military’s unambiguous endorsement of a Terminator-like postapocalyptic future (Terminator: Salvation opens May 22 at a theater near you!), LiveScience.com reported at the beginning of September that Stanford University graduate students have developed an artificial intelligence system that allows a robot helicopter to teach itself how to fly by watching other helicopters.

Sounds great in theory, but what if the nonrobot helicopters start taking drugs? Will the observant but impressionable robo-copter have enough free will to say no to peer pressure? Or will its only defense be “I learned it by watching you!” I can also foresee a day when the young robot helicopter, having fully developed its keen powers of observation, will want to follow in the path of thespian choppers like Blue Thunder and Airwolf and move to Hollywood. Of course, that path also leads to drugs, so the wunderkind whirlybird is screwed either way.

LiveScience.com’s article includes quotes from Eric Feron, an aeronautics professor at Georgia Tech University who worked on autonomous helicopters as a student at MIT, and it mentions that in the future these kinds of helicopters “might prove helpful to search for land mines in a war region or to map out wildfire hotspots.” Or maybe to locate a certain former First Couple’s bikes somewhere in Atlanta — where Georgia Tech just happens to be located — possibly because a certain young rebellious robot helicopter knows who stole the bikes in the first place?

You do the math. Then let me copy your work.

One day autonomous helicopters and deadly robot soldiers will conquer and enslave the human race and eventually wipe us off the face of the planet, just as William Faulkner predicted. (I had this great professor in college who helped me understand the real meaning of The Sound and the Fury. I bet he’s still turning people on to it at the asylum where he teaches now.) But if you think about it, it’s only fair, because humans did the same thing to Neanderthals thousands of years ago.

According to an article published by Agence France Presse last August, new research shows that Neanderthals, long considered the Gomer Pyles of human ancestors, made and used stone tools that were just as good as those of early Homo sapiens, which means a lack of technological know-how wasn’t the cause of their downfall. “It is time for archaeologists to start searching for other reasons why Neanderthals became extinct while our ancestors survived,” said Metin Eren, an experimental archaeologist from the University of Exeter in England.

I’ll take a wild guess — gentrification. The Neanderthals lived alongside Homo sapiens in Europe for 10,000 years, until one day the H-saps said, “Those Neanderthals are sitting on some prime real estate. If we just tidy up their forest and clear away the dead vegetation, it’ll be a great neighborhood to raise our kids and erect some wine bars.”

Voila! The H-saps moved in and raised the rent, forcing the Neanderthals to move south to Florida, where they invented a primitive form of shuffleboard before settling down for a nice, long extinction.

Eren believes that a streamlined technology for tool making may have given the H-saps the evolutionary advantage over Neanderthals and allowed them to colonize Europe, because “a new shared and flashy-looking technology might serve as one form of social glue by which larger social networks were bonded … Thus, during hard times these larger social networks might act like a type of life insurance, ensuring exchange and trade among members of the same team.” That’s right — a standard, easy-to-use set of stone tools was the Ice Age’s equivalent of Facebook.

We can all learn from the past, but we can also learn from the fictional future, whether it’s the technophobia of the Terminator films (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles — the complete first season is now on DVD!) or the global-warming paranoia of 1995’s Waterworld. In the first scene of Kevin Reynolds’s futuristic action-adventure yarn, Kevin Costner’s hero, known only as the Mariner, is introduced urinating into a container, which he then empties into a Rube Goldberg-type contraption that converts the urine into drinkable water, which he then gulps down. Say what you will about Waterworld, but you can’t accuse it of making a weak first impression.

There are plenty of holes in the film’s science-fiction fabric, like how the Mariner could have evolved into a half man, half fish combo, a process that would take at least a few thousand years, when the Exxon Valdez is still rust-free enough to continue sailing the high seas, but Waterworld must have a few big fans at NASA — in November the Associated Press reported that a $154 million water recycling system that turns “astronauts’ urine and sweat into drinking water” was tested on the international space station. Messrs. Reynolds and Costner, I knew your work would eventually be vindicated.

Waterworld was trashed in the press in late 1994 and early ’95, before anyone had even seen it, because its budget had ballooned to $175 million, making it the most expensive movie of all time up to that point, and because Costner’s star had begun to fade after the box-office failures of A Perfect World, Wyatt Earp, and The War in ’93 and ’94. But $175 million for a movie shot on open water 14 years ago is nothing compared to $154 million for a single pee-pee purification gadget.

I guess President Bush decided that if America couldn’t return to the moon before he vacated the White House, then all of NASA’s petty cash should be spent on a contraption that will eliminate the need for astronauts with a urine-drinking fetish to write Dan Savage about their special kink.

You made the right call, Mr. President. Whenever I read a Savage Love letter that starts out “Last week in space I told my girlfriend and fellow crew member that I was ready to take it to the next level,” I worry about the political repercussions.

Speaking of President Bush, he’s looking pretty weathered these days, isn’t he? Being the big decider will do that to you, and maybe the effects of aging multiply the more unpopular you are. (If president-elect Obama doesn’t fix the economy fast, expect that six-pack he showed off in Hawaii last month to turn into a Fat Albert-like paunch by 2011.)

If Bush wants to look healthy again and guard his heart against inflammation, he needs to eat a small square of dark chocolate every day. Last September LiveScience.com reported that “only 6.7 grams of chocolate per day represents the ideal amount, according to results from the Moli-sani Project, one of the largest health studies ever conducted in Europe. For comparison, a standard-sized Hershey’s kiss is about 4.5 grams (though they are not made of dark chocolate) and one Hershey’s dark chocolate bar is about 41 grams (so a recommendation might be one of those weekly).”

Again with the math! I’m getting drowsy just thinking about it, so would someone please throw the correct amount of chocolate in my mouth before I black out? Thank you.

It’d be great if God Himself were to wing that dark cocoa our way, but He won’t, especially not if Stephen Hawking has anything to say about it. In September the Hawk stirred the pot when he bet $100 that the European Organization for Nuclear Research wouldn’t be able to find the Higgs particle when it pressed the power button on the Large Hadron Collider, a 16.9-mile tunnel thingamajig designed to accelerate “sub-atomic particles to nearly the speed of light before smashing them together,” as noted by Agence France Presse.

Is Stephen Hawking the biggest trash talker in the cosmos or what? “I think it will be much more exciting if we don’t find the Higgs,” he said. “That will show something is wrong, and we need to think again.” (I’m pretty sure AFP edited that quote so it didn’t end with the word “bitches.”)

The Higgs particle, from what I can gather, is a mysterious “mediator” that would presumably answer the question of how particles acquire mass — if its existence could be proven, that is, which is why it’s often referred to as the “God particle.” In other words, to quote the AFP story, “it is everywhere but remains frustratingly elusive.”

So was the Higgs particle found on September 10? I don’t know. And that’s okay. See, like God, science may be everywhere — I do believe they can peacefully coexist — but it’s a subject I’ll never be able to wrap my entertainment-trivia-stuffed brain around, just as Dr. Hawking will probably never be able to tell me the opening date of Waterworld without looking it up first on IMDB. (You’re not the only one who can talk trash, Hawk.)

Wait a second. The opening date is a number: 7-28-95. So I do keep track of some numbers after all. Wow, look at me making a discovery — just like a real scientist! And if there’s hope for me, there’s got to be hope for us all, even if our future involves killer robot overlords disguised as talking apes.

The Format, “Apeman” (from B-Sides & Rarities)