A premium on vaccination avoidance?

Paul Raven @ 25-01-2011

A provocative and interesting piece has been doing the rounds wherein a doctor suggests that those parents who decline to have their kids vaccinated against infectious illnesses should be obliged to pay higher insurance premiums as a result [via BoingBoing and many others].

Refusing to vaccinate a child is dangerous not just for that child but for entire communities. It’s precisely this point a colleague of mine was considering when he had the idea that parents who refuse to vaccinate their kids should pay substantially higher health insurance premiums.

It makes sense. Insurance, after all, is just a pool of money into which we all pay. In determining how much we or our employers pay, risk is taken into account.

The perfect analogy is smoking. If you smoke — and want to turn your lungs black and spend a greater portion of that pot of money on your possible chronic lung disease or any cancers you’ll get — then you may have to pay more.

Why shouldn’t we impose the same logic on parents who refuse to vaccinate their children?

It’s definitely logical, and there’s an appeal to market forces in there that I suspect has better odds of turning the tide of anti-vaccination paranoia than attempting to pateinetly explain the science to people who cannot (or simply will not) understand it.

The problem, of course, is what happens when the anti-vaccination faction refuses to pay insurance at all; I’m not sure how the law on these matters works in the US, but I’m pretty sure the consitutional obsession with freedom means that folk can’t be forced to contribute against their will. I’m also guessing that this a fracture that will occur along class and political lines… and those lines are looking pretty fractured already, at least from the outside looking in. So as logical as this idea looks on the surface, it’s probably indicative of greater social schism to come, rather than being a workable solution to a current problem.

But the overarching question here is “can we permit and manage science denialism in large societies using market forces?” Or, to put it another way, “believe what you want, but if you want to live here, there is a premium on dissent against scientific orthodoxy”. Phrased like that, you can see why some people describe science as a form of hegemonic belief system… though those that do tend to be devoted to hegemonic belief systems of their own – ones with much less basis in, y’know, reality, evidence, that kind of stuff. And I can’t see them cheerfully ponying up their antivax premiums any time soon, can you? Geographical separation looks increasingly like the only way this is going to shake down.


Cosmological constant not optimal after all

Paul Raven @ 19-01-2011

Interesting news from that weird and wonderful intellectual space where physics and theology trade slow, dignified blows; new research into the effects of varying the cosmological constant swings out like a haymaker from the atheist corner and knocks at least one God-of-the-gaps out of the ring [via SlashDot].

… although positive, the cosmological constant is tiny, some 122 orders of magnitude smaller than Planck’s constant, which itself is a small number.

So Page and others have examined the effects of changing this constant. It’s straightforward to show that if the the constant were any larger, matter would not form into galaxies and stars meaning that life could not form, at least not in the form we know it,.

So what value of the cosmological constant best encourages galaxy and star formation, and therefore the evolution of life? Page says that a slightly negative value of the constant would maximise this process. And since life is some small fraction of the amount of matter in galaxies, then this is the value that an omnipotent being would choose.

In fact, he says that any positive value of the constant would tend to decrease the fraction of matter that forms into galaxies, reducing the amount available for life.

Therefore the measured value of the cosmological constant, which is positive, is evidence against the idea that the constants have been fine-tuned for life.

I guess the obvious theist retort would be that God’s ineffable decision to use a sub-optimal value for the constant is a test of our faith… hi-ho, anthropic principle!


Well, when I say “Earth-like”…

Paul Raven @ 11-01-2011

… I certainly don’t mean “capable of supporting life of the sort found on Earth, or even recognisably similar at a glance”. Yeah, it’s another (albeit milder) sexing-up-science-headlines post! The Kepler telescope has confirmed the discovery of the first “Earth-like” exoplanet, says COSMOS Magazine (who, in fairness, are a good science publication), while Wired picked the more honest “definitively rocky”. Basically, “Earth-like” in this context means “not a gas planet”; from the Wired piece:

… the starquake measurements make astronomers even more certain that Kepler-10b is a ball of rock. COROT-7b’s host star is magnetically active, Batalha says, making it difficult to tease the planet’s gravitational pull from the star’s own magnetic jitters. Some measurements of the planet’s mass leave room for other interpretations of the planet’s composition, like a planet that is more than half water.

Kepler-10b, on the other hand, is denser than the Earth, meaning it is probably made up of rock and iron.

Unfortunately, the new rocky world is hot enough to melt iron. It orbits its star once every 0.84 days, meaning the planet is 23 times closer to its star than Mercury is to the sun. At such a close orbiting distance, the planet shows the same face to the star at all times, the same way the moon always shows the same face to the Earth. Temperatures on the daytime side of the planet would reach 2780 degrees Fahrenheit, as hot as some red dwarf stars.

So: in a totally different orbital zone to Earth, with no day/night transition like Earth’s, no atmosphere like Earth’s, and a temperature that ensures there isn’t and probably never was any biosphere like Earth’s. But hey, it’s made of rocks – just like Earth!

Look, I’m pretty much a lifelong space geek, and I think this is an awesome discovery. But this journalistic upselling of new discoveries just cheapens them, y’know?


Nucleotides in Titan’s atmosphere?

Paul Raven @ 06-01-2011

I’m somewhat surprised that I haven’t seen this story all over the place. Perhaps everyone’s taking a while to get back up to speed after the holidays… or perhaps no one wants to get burned the same way they were by the last story about life chemistry that came out of NASA’s press department.

Nonetheless, complete with obligatory “maybe real life is stranger than science fiction after all OMGZ!!” closer, here’s NASA Science News talking about an experiment that demonstrates the possibility of basic life chemistry building blocks in the atmosphere of the Saturnian moon, Titan:

Hörst and her colleagues mixed up a brew of molecules (carbon monoxide(1), molecular nitrogen and methane) found in Titan’s atmosphere. Then they zapped the concoction with radio waves – a proxy for the sun’s radiation.

What happened next didn’t make the scientists shout “it’s alive!” but it was intriguing.

[ There’s good reason to make science journalism accessible, but do we really need shitty little asides like that, NASA? This isn’t Sesame Street, for goodness’ sake… ]

A rich array of complex molecules emerged, including amino acids and nucleotides.

“Our experiment is the first proof that you can make the precursors for life up in an atmosphere, without any liquid water(2). This means life’s building blocks could form in the air and then rain down from the skies!”

[ The metal-head in me now really wants to use Slayer’s “Reign In Blood” as a voice-over bed for this article. Sing along at home! ]

“We didn’t start out to prove we could make ‘life’ in Titan’s skies,” explains Hörst. “We were trying to solve a mystery. The Cassini spacecraft detected large molecules(3) in Titan’s atmosphere, and we wanted to find out what they could be.”

In hopes of obtaining clues to the mystery molecules, Hörst used computer codes to search the lab results for matches to known molecular formulas. She decided, on a whim, to look for nucleotides and amino acids.

[…]

“We had about 5000 molecules containing the right stuff: carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, and oxygen. We knew we had the elements for organic molecules, but we couldn’t tell how they were arranged. It’s kind of like legos – the more there are, the more possible structures can be made. And they can be put together in many different ways.”

Among the structures identified in the lab experiment so far are five nucleotides found in DNA and RNA, and two amino acids. But she says there could be more amino acids in the mix.

How could those molecules have gotten there? The ice geysers of Enceladus are a possible answer, apparently, though this is all strictly speculative stuff at this point.

Search-for-alien-life bonus material! Antarctica’s massive Lake Vostok may finally give up its secrets (presuming it has any, natch) now that a Russian team has come up with a way to sample the lake’s water without contaminating its effectively closed ecosystem with dirty surface-monkey germs. What mysterious things might we discover lurking miles beneath the ice? Whatever’s down there, it might give us some more clues to what’s going on on Enceladus…


All I want for Christmas is some cool new physics

Brenda Cooper @ 22-12-2010

I’m a bit of a physics geek.  Not that I can do the math.  But I’ve always wanted to know how the world works, and physics is the very coolest science for that.  The foundation.  So I decided to find three bits of news in physics to put forward as a little gift for my fellow science geeks – a bit of how the world might work for the holiday season. Continue reading “All I want for Christmas is some cool new physics”


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