the coming implosion of biomedical & health science research

The state of health science in the US today is not weak, but it is under threat. The main problems: 1. p-value hacking. 2. commoditization of adjunct and postdoc labor. 3. disincentives of null value results or replication. All of these things threaten the foundations of the increasingly unsustaiunable edifice that is modern health science, and all of them derive in one way or another from the same root problem: the only source of objective funding, untainted by corporate interests, is the NIH. In essence, health science is a zero-sum game.

This is why the Trump Administration preliminary budget proposal is ominous: it specifies an unprecedented 18% cut to the NIH budget.

As the image above illustrates, grant applications have grown almost twice as competitive over the years as NIH funding stayed constant. An 18% cut in this context is like an amputation.

There is only one possible outcome of this: labs will shrink. Health science research is going to be dramatically curtailed. Maybe there are benefits, in the long run, to this – but in the short run it will only worsen – severely – the problems that health science research currently faces. The question is, how resilient is the health science establishment? We are going to find out.

Even though I left academia, I will be marching for science on Earth Day.

Related: great article at The Atlantic that points out how private funding is a drop in the bucket compared to government support. In my opinion, public science funding is as critical and as irreplaceable as national defense.

Space battles in The Expanse are incredible

watch this.

wow. that raises the bar in my imagination for any space battle in any sci fi. I’ll never be quite as enamoured of X-Wing dogfights ever again. The Expanse is true hard sci-fi in the TV era – there’s as much depth in the novels for a Game of Thrones-esque run if they do it right. Having read (most of) the books, I am amazed at how amazed I am at major plot developments in the show, even though I know they are coming – they just have such incredible impact.

Related: the Nauvoo is just… a cathedral of awesome.

We Just Got Our ’30s Sci-Fi Plots Back

By now, you’ve heard that seven – count ’em, seven – terrestrial planets have been discovered orbiting the ultra-cool M8 star Trappist-1.  According to the paper that the research team released yesterday, all of them could potentially have liquid water on their surfaces, although only three are judged to be good candidates: the authors’ model considers it likely that the three innermost planets have succumbed to a runaway greenhouse effect and that the outermost is too cold.  But that still leaves three potentially habitable planets in a single system.

Those three – Trappist-1e, 1f and 1g – range from .62  to 1.34 estimated Earth masses, and as one would expect from a red-dwarf system, they’re  tidally locked and orbit close to their star with periods of 6 to 12 days.  Their orbits are also very close to each other.  The distance between the orbits of 1e and 1f is .009 AUs – about 830,000 miles – and 1f passes within 750,000 miles of 1g.  This is a system that, even according to its discoverers, shouldn’t exist – their model gives it only an 8.1 percent chance of surviving for a billion years – but as they point out, it obviously does.

There are many more fascinating details about the Trappist-1 system and still more that we have yet to learn.  The discoverers hope that further research, and the launch of the James Webb space telescope next year, will enable them to confirm the details of the planets’ atmospheres and possibly look for biological signatures.  But in the meantime, for those of us who write SF, the discovery of the Trappist-1 system means this: we just got our pulp-era plots back.

We’ve all read stories from the heady days of the 1930s in which the intrepid heroes travel to Mars or Venus in a few days, take off their space suits, breathe the air, encounter exotic life forms and interact with non-human societies.  As we learned more about our solar system, that all got taken away.  The jungles of Venus and the canals of Barsoom have long since been relegated to the realm of nostalgia, and if we want aliens in our stories, we have to cross impossible interstellar distances to find them.

But now, there’s a system where all that can happen!  Three habitable worlds with orbits less than a million miles apart, Hohmann transfers that can be done in a few weeks with inspired 1950s tech – we’ve got the ingredients for interplanetary travel that’s almost as easy as pulp writers imagined it.  And a citizen of Trappist-1f might actually find that Old Venus jungle world one planet in and an arid Old Mars one planet out, and generations of its people could watch their neighbors’ fields and cities grow and dream of one day visiting them.  All we need to do to make pulp stories into hard SF again is move them 40 light years.

All right, we’d need to do a little more than that.  The planets are tidally locked – and with zero eccentricity, they don’t have libration-generated twilight zones – so we’d need to model the day-side and night-side weather.  We’d need to account for the tidal and geological effects of so many worlds so close together, and the atmosphere had better have plenty of ozone to protect against UV and X-ray emissions.  But none of those constraints are deal-breakers, and within them, Weinbaum-punk is suddenly acceptable.

That may not last, of course.  By this time next year, the research team might have found that the Trappist-1 planets have reducing atmospheres or that there’s insufficient protection from stellar radiation or that some other factor makes pulp SF as impossible in that system as in our own.  But right now, it’s wide open to stories of the imagination.  We’ve found one spot in the universe where it’s the Golden Age all over again.

Highlander reboot? there can be only one


What would a guy really be like after 500 years of practicing sword-work? I’m still a stunt guy at heart. You want to reinvent gunfights, how do you do it? You want to reinvent swordfighting, how do you do it? And that’s where we are at now. I love the first Highlander and I think I’m in a pretty good spot. The creative team, the producers and the studio that’s behind it have kind of said, ‘It’s yours to play with.’ The trick would be coming up with an interesting way to introduce it to new audiences without stepping on what’s great about the original property. You don’t want to over complicate it. I think it speaks very simply: ‘There can be only one!’ ‘We’re immortals!’ ‘Don’t get your head chopped off!’ I think we all know what happened with the sequels.”
“When I came on, the property had already been developed for a couple of years and, as things happen in Hollywood, yeah, there was aliens, meteors, spaceships, uh, DNA mutations, terrorists. I mean, they’d tried to drag every plot into the Immortal world. My personal opinion, I don’t want to see any of that. I’m not interested. I have seen other movies like that. I haven’t seen the Immortal world.”

(grudgingly) fine, do what you want. but there can still only be one.

Still, how do you do an interview with a director for a Highlander movie, reboot or otherwise, and not ask about Queen? SMH