You might not know it, but the world is much better off than it’s ever been

3442-comic-face-fear-fright-horror-man-panic-retro-scared-scary-scream-spooked-suit-terror-vintage-free-vector-graphics-free-illustrations-free-images-royalty-freeIt’s kind of difficult to plan where you’re going if you don’t know where your at. That’s increasingly a problem as we become more and more detached about the state the world is in. Our picture of our world is skewed by the press, politicians, social media and frequently, our own brains.

If you get your news only from network and cable news you should be scared to death. We’re bombarded 24/7 with stories of murders, atrocities and terrorist attacks. Most people are convinced that crime is skyrocketing, mass shootings are common, terrorists are hiding around every corner and the world is increasingly at war. The problem is that all of that is wrong.

k6279015According to FBI statistics, crime has been falling steadily for the better part of a generation. Between the years 1993 and 2000 the murder rate dropped from 7 homicides per 100,000 people to 3.8 per 100,000. That’s nearly a 50% decrease, and it’s not just homicides. During the same period non-homicides involving guns, such as robberies dropped from 725 per 100,000 people in 1993 to 175 in per 100,000 in 2000. In other words, it fell approximately 75%. Other crimes, assault, domestic abuse, child abuse, thefts, rape have all had similar declines.

It’s not just the U.S. Crime has dropped in virtually every large, industrialized country. Murders in England and Wales dropped 66%. Property crimes in France are down by a third. Homicide rates in Japan haven’t been this low since shortly after World War 2. Nobody is quite sure why. Possible explanations range from demographic shifts to the banning of lead in gasoline, but for whatever reason, crime is down throughout the industrialized world.

FORT BRAGG, N.C. – Paratroopers from Company C, 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division establish position behind cover in the early evening hours of an air-assault, live-fire exercise, April 3, 2009. (U.S. Army photo Spc. Benjamin Watson, 49th Public Affairs Detachment (Airborne))

On a larger scale, wars are down as well. Both the rate of deaths due to war and the actual number of people dying in battle are down. In 1950, at the start of the Korean War, there were approximately 850,000 battle deaths, according to the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, Norway. By 2008, the number had fallen to less than 50,000. Despite debates over what constitutes a “war” in the modern world, and an uptick in battle deaths due to the war in Syria, it’s pretty clear that wars are claiming fewer lives. According to Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, “There was a slight uptick in 2012, and I expect it will continue to rise a bit in 2013 and 2014 because of Syria and Iraq, but not nearly enough to bring us to the levels seen during the Chinese Civil War, Korea, Vietnam, India/Pakistan/Bangladesh, Iran-Iraq, USSR-Afghanistan, and the many now-quiescent regions of Africa.”

The good news doesn’t stop there. Worldwide, infant and maternal mortality are down, as are deaths due to disease and malnutrition. Combine that with reductions in auto fatalities and other forms of accidental death and this may be safest time in human history. So, if the world is so much safer, then why does everyone think it’s more dangerous? The short answer is that there’s a lot of money to be made by scaring people.

Both print and TV news, along with web-based news outlets work under the adage “If it bleeds it leads.” People tune in to hear about tragedy and violence. Good news is harder to sell. A study of news preferences conducted by Pew Research in 2014 found that people ranked war and terrorism as their highest news priority, followed closely by natural and man made disasters. We create a ready market for scary news and the media is only too willing to cater to it.

donald-trump-you-re-fired-18191625Politicians too use fear as a way to bring in voters and get them to the polls. That’s why Donald Trump claimed rapists were illegally pouring in from Mexico and recently tweeted, “Crime is out of control, and rapidly getting worse. Look what is going on in Chicago and our inner cities. Not good!” It’s absolutely false, but it gets people’s attention. It mobilizes the base. Politicians use the politics of fear because it works.

So, why does it work? Why is fear so effective and why do we keep coming back for more? From an evolutionary point of view, being afraid is a very useful thing. Those who reacted at the first sign of danger were more likely to survive, while those who took the time for a more reasoned response frequently became someone’s lunch. Today there aren’t many things around to eat humans, but our fear response is hard wired. In the absence of actual threats, our brains frequently latch onto any slight threat and blow it out of proportion.

This has a range of negative effects. The stress of being constantly afraid can compromise the immune system and cause long term damage to the heart. More generally, it clouds our judgment. Preoccupation with imagined threats can blind us to the real things. It causes us to act irrationally and allows others to prey upon our fears. If we can set those fears aside, we can make more reasoned decisions about our world. We can celebrate the advances we have made and continue to advance in the future.


Wishing Tesla a Happy Birthday

nicola-tesla-600x338Nicola Tesla, one of the greatest inventors in history, was born 160 years ago today, July 10, 1856, and in the 160 years since, his legend has only grown. In his honor, here is a brief excerpt about him from my book, They Called Me Mad. Enjoy.

In 1888, Tesla was invited to deliver a lecture on the benefits of alternating current before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. One of those present at the lecture, Dr. B. A. Behrend, later commented, “Not since the appearance of Faraday’s ‘Experimental Researches in Electricity’ has a great experimental truth been voiced so simply and so clearly…He left nothing to be done by those who follow him. His paper contained the skeleton even of the mathematical theory.”

Word of Tesla’s success and his new and improved system soon spread through Wall Street. There it came to the attention of George Westinghouse. Westinghouse was an inventor himself, who had developed an improved type of airbrake for trains. He had parlayed his inventions and investments into an empire of business interests, and in the process, become one of the most influential business men in America. He had long been interested in AC power, even investing in one of the earlier systems before Tesla’s improved version came along.

nicola-teslaThe walrus mustached business magnate went to Tesla’s lab to see for himself what the young upstart had come up with. Within moments of his arrival, Westinghouse was craning and bending to get a better look at the wondrous machines and gadgets that filled Tesla’s lab. The business man was soon asking the young inventor questions about this device or that. Tesla was impressed with the intelligence of the questions. The two men had a natural affinity for one another, and quickly became friends.

Almost immediately, Westinghouse saw these advantages of Tesla’s AC system. He offered Tesla $60,000 for his patents, including $5,000 in cash and 150 shares of Westinghouse stock. As amazing as that amount of money was back then, the offer also included a royalty of $2.50 per horsepower for the electricity sold. Within a very few years, a royalty like that would be worth a mind boggling amount of money. Potentially, it could make Tesla one of the richest inventors in the world.

Once the documents were drawn up, and the ink on the signatures was dry, Westinghouse set about promoting Tesla’s new system for AC power. He hired Tesla to work as a consultant on the installation of the system, paying him a salary of $2,000 per month. Of course, since Westinghouse’s operations were headquartered in Pittsburg, it required that Tesla move to the city, but that was a small price to pay to see his dream of AC power become a reality.

In the midst of his work for Westinghouse, Tesla achieved what he described as his greatest accomplishment. On July 30, 1891, Nikola Tesla became a U.S. citizen. In later years, he often told friends that he valued that more than all the scientific honors that were bestowed upon him. Evidence for that is provided by the many honorary degrees which he tossed carelessly into drawers, while his certificate of naturalization, Tesla always kept secure in his office safe.

War of the CurrentsTeslavsEdison

Thomas Edison was outraged when he heard of Tesla’s deal with Westinghouse. Here was a real threat to his DC monopoly, and a threat that the Wizard of Menlo Park had no intention of taking lying down. The battle lines were drawn. While Tesla had Westinghouse on his side, Edison had the backing of J.P. Morgan, one of the world’s most powerful bankers, and a man whose influence reached all corners of commerce and government. What ensued would come to be known as The War of the Currents. The stakes were the chance to harness the power of Niagara Falls.

An international committee was convened to award the contract for a system that would use Niagara Falls to generate electricity. Both sides relished that prize. While Westinghouse began to publicize the advantages of AC, Edison responded by launching a publicity campaign of his own about its dangers.  He was convinced because of the higher voltages possible with AC that it was inherently unsafe.  To convince others, he hired local boys to capture neighborhood cats and dogs, which he then proceeded to electrocute with AC before on looking reporters.  Edison would then urge them to report on the dangers of people being electrocuted, or “Westinghoused,” as he called it.

These brutal demonstrations escalated over the course of years to include calves, horses, cattle, and ultimately even an unfortunate elephant. In 1903, officials at the Luna Park Zoo in Coney Island decided that Topsy the elephant had become so dangerous that she needed to be euthanized. Over the course of three years, she had killed three of her handlers. Never mind that at least one of them was later discovered to have tried feeding her a lit cigarette. Once the decision was made, a means of dispatching the beast was sought. Edison leapt at the chance.

topsy-the-elephantOn January 4, 1903, before an audience of 1,500 spectators and reporters, the condemned pachyderm was prepared. Copper electrodes were attached to her feet and wires were run to a generator. When the technicians gave the signal, the switch was thrown and the 6,600 volt AC charge ran through Topsy’s body. As onlookers gasped, smoke rose from her feet, and the mighty elephant keeled over dead. Edison’s assistants filmed the entire spectacle, and the film was later released to the public.

If that weren’t enough to terrify the public, one of Edison’s assistants, Harold P. Brown, had previously developed the ultimate device to demonstrate the horrors of alternating current, the electric chair.  The New York State Legislature had shown interest in using electricity to execute convicted criminals, but neither Edison nor Westinghouse wanted their system associated with human executions.  However, Edison and Brown managed to covertly obtain several of Westinghouse’s AC generators, and used them for their execution device.

William Kemmler, a convicted murder, was scheduled for execution at Sing Sing Prison on August 6, 1890. While the 17 witnesses watched, electrodes were attached to Kemmler’s body, and he was strapped into the chair. His last words as they put the hood over his head were, “Take it easy and do it properly, I’m in no hurry.” When the order was given, the prisoner received an AC shock of 1,000 volts. He was pronounced dead by the physician present, Dr. Edward Charles Spitzka, but several witnesses said that they saw him breathing.

Once the Dr. Spitzka confirmed that Kemmler was still alive, he cried out, “Have the current turned on again, quick—no delay!” This time they gave the prisoner 2,000 volts. Several of the blood vessels under his skin ruptured, and before the horrified witnesses, Kemmler began to bleed. Several of the witnesses claimed that he caught fire, and reported the smell of burnt flesh. It took eight minutes to complete the execution, and one of the reporters present described it as, “an awful spectacle, far worse than hanging.”

The Chicago World’s Fairgrand_basin

That horrifying scene might have ended the AC versus DC debate, but Westinghouse had a few tricks up his own sleeve. He conceived of a way to demonstrate the wonderful utility and safety of alternating current before the entire world. His scheme unfolded as plans were made for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The Columbia Exposition, as it was called to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of the New World, was to be the first electric world’s fair.  Edison made a bid to provide all of the electricity and lights for one million dollars.  Westinghouse underbid him by half.  With that masterful stroke, he secured for himself and Tesla just the public platform they needed. It would become the decisive battle in the War of the Currents and enshrine Tesla forever among the pantheon of mad scientists.

On May 1st, 1893, President Grover Cleveland turned the gold key that raised flags, switched on fountains and lit 100,000 light bulbs to herald the opening of the Exposition, all of it powered by alternating current.  In the course of six months, the fair would welcome 25 million visitors, then approximately 1/3 of the U.S. population.  They were treated to the world premiers of the Ferris Wheel, Cracker Jacks and the exotic dancer, Little Egypt, but electricity was the undisputed star of the show. In the Hall of Electricity, Tesla, adorned in white tie and tails and protected by thick cork soled shoes, showcased his electrical wonders before one of his newly developed neon signs proclaiming, “Welcome Electricians.”

He presented to the public an egg shaped copper ball, dubbed the Egg of Columbus that he induced to spin, as if with a life of its own, using rotating magnetic fields.  They saw induction motors, transformers, switchboards and polyphase generators.  The dashing inventor took glass tubes, the forerunners of today’s fluorescent lights, and caused them to glow without wires, simply by welding them like swords within an electrical field.  All of this was accompanied by two insulated plates from which issued lightning-like electrical discharges and claps of thunder.  His demonstrations where awe inspiring, as well as death defying.  As one of the many newspaper journalists present reported:

Mr. Tesla has been seen receiving through his hands currents at a potential of more than 200,000 volts, vibrating a million times per second, and manifesting themselves in dazzling streams of light…. After such a striking test, which by the way, no one has displayed a hurried inclination to repeat, Mr. Tesla’s body and clothing have continued for some time to emit fine glimmers or halos of splintered light.  In fact, an actual flame is produced by the agitation of electrostatically charged molecules, and the curious spectacle can be seen of puissant, white, ethereal flames, that do not consume anything, bursting from the ends of an induction coil as though it were the bush on holy ground.

By the time the fair was over, the battle to see who would win the contract to harness Niagara Falls for hydroelectric power had been won, and Tesla’s fame was assured.  It was a monumental project, taking years to complete, but on November 16, 1896, the switch was thrown and Tesla’s AC power lit up the nearby city of Buffalo, New York. He quickly became the toast of high society and one of the most famous men in the world.


Why Can’t Super Villains Understand Evolution?


I just saw Avengers 2: Age of Ultron, and I loved it. The action was awesome, the characters complex and interesting. I was blown away, but as I walked out of the theater with my sons, something bothered me. I won’t give any spoilers, but Tony Stark creates a super powerful android named Ultron to protect Humanity, and let’s just say it doesn’t go well. What, you didn’t see that that coming? Anyway, Ultron decides that instead of protecting humanity, he wants to make humans evolve, and not in a good way.

ultron-empireHe seems to think that destroying all humans will make a new, better lifeform evolve. I mean it worked for dinosaurs and birds, right, so why not human beings? The problem is that he makes the same mistake we humans have been making since Darwin came up with his theory. Everybody seems to think that the word “evolve” is synonymous with the word “improve.” As if every time something evolves, it leads to a higher and higher form, like those old human evolution posters that show chimps becoming Homo sapiens.

It doesn’t work that way. Evolution is not some sort of perfection machine that inevitably leads to higher life forms. It’s not directional. It doesn’t have a goal in mind. There is no perfect creature at the end of the evolution assembly line. That evolutionary tree, going from roots up to higher branches, that we all saw in our biology textbooks, is just wrong. It’s a lot more chaotic than that. The only goal is for organisms to be better adapted to the particular environment they happen to be living in at that time.

PT-tree-homepageIt’s not so much a tree as a noxious weed, like kudzu, spreading unstoppably in all directions. Each time one of its shoots survives, it gets to reproduce and keep on growing, but what determines whether it gets to do that isn’t whether the new shoot is superior to the last one. The new shoot simply has to be better adapted to the new place it’s growing. That might mean deeper roots in one place or larger leaves in another. Everything is dependent upon the environment. That’s what dictates which shoots survive and which ones don’t. The ones that can’t adapt to that environment go extinct and new shoots fill that place instead.

I realize it’s kind of a leap to go from sprouting shoots to genocidal androids, but they’re both playing by the same set of rules. If Ultron creates an environment that’s been devastated by his evil plans, then what evolves there is going to have to be adapted to those conditions. Those adaptations might not, and probably wouldn’t be greater intelligence or kindness or logic or anything else that you and I might consider to be qualities of a higher lifeform. I’d go into more detail about the types of adaptations it might require, but it would be difficult to imagine and involve too many spoilers.

3684534-x-men-the-animated-series-5195e4e02e61fAs much as I love Marvel comics, and I do, Ultron’s not the only one over there who doesn’t understand evolution. In the comic books, the X-Men and all those awesome mutants are given the “scientific” name Homo superior, because obviously being able to fly and shoot death rays from your eyes is way superior to being an ordinary, boring Homo sapien. Sorry, Stan, there ain’t no superior about it. They’re just Homo different. Who knows what type of environment would lead to adaptations like that. If anything, the regular humans are better adapted simply because they reproduce so much faster, Multiple Man notwithstanding.

Yeah, I know, they’re only movies and comic books and most folks don’t worry too much about them having accurate science, but the idea that evolution is inevitably leading to higher and higher lifeforms is so ubiquitous that it needs to be pointed out and questioned as often as possible. We need to pull up all those weed shoots because everyone we don’t pull is going to take root, and we’ll forever have to deal with supervillains who think they can play with the rules of evolution.marvel-logo-wallpaper-1024x552

Evolution, Entropy and Teenagers

evolutionRight before the Holidays, I had a chance to go to Philcon. It’s the Philadelphia  science fiction conventions (despite the fact that it’s held in Cherry Hill, New Jersey), and it’s one of my favorites. It’s not only a great con, but in exchange for speaking on a handful of panels, they let me in for free, win, win. As a science writer, I usually get put on one of the panels about life on other planets, a great topic, with lots of room for interesting questions. This year, there was a Creationist in the audience, so we ended up getting questions about evolution.

philcon2014_logoAfter my fellow panelists and I patiently explained that survival of the fittest did not mean that only the strong survive, he fell back on one of the Creationists’ favorite arguments, thermodynamics. It’s a fun argument and it sounds all nice and sciencey, like you’re really trying to be logical and everything. It goes something like this, “The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics says that entropy always increases, so obviously, well organized, living things can’t simply arise from disorganized matter.”

Unfortunately for him, this argument fails on two grounds. First, despite Creationist insistence that Darwin’s theory of evolution is invalid because it doesn’t explain how life started, the theory of evolution doesn’t explain that for the simple reason that the theory of gravity or the germ theory of disease don’t explain it. They aren’t intended or designed to. None of them have anything to do with the origin of life. Darwin’s theory simply explains how populations of living things change and adapt once life is already established.origin-of-life-cartoon-150

Second, his argument fails because he doesn’t understand thermodynamics. What the 2nd law of thermodynamics actually says is, “In a closed system, entropy always increases.” Notice the difference? He completely ignored the part about a closed system. Earth, or any other planet, for that matter, isn’t a closed system. It gets hit by meteorites and cosmic rays and all kinds of other things from space. Bits of its atmosphere slowly float away and the occasional bit gets knocked loose, and all of that keeps it from being a closed system. It is a very open system.

The biggest thing that keeps Earth from being a closed system is the sun. It’s the source of our energy. It’s busily burning up hydrogen in nuclear fusion reactions (increasing its own entropy) and pouring out billions of kilojoules of energy each second that we, humble living things, are the beneficiaries of. When those disorganized organic chemicals started coming together to form highly organized living things, they used the sun’s energy to do it. Even though that decreased entropy on our local ball of rock, entropy in the sun and other parts of the universe were increasing, thus maintaining the 2nd law of thermodynamics.

Teen girl in messy roomIf you want to properly understand entropy, the best way is to look at teenagers. If you have one, you know what I mean. Imagine that your own teenager comes to you and says, “You know, I’d really love to clean my room, but that would cause entropy to decrease. It would violate the 2nd law of thermodynamics. You wouldn’t want me to break the law, would you?”

At this point, you lovingly look at your son or daughter and say, “Are you out of your damn mind? Get up there and CLEAN YOUR ROOM.”

To this, you receive the inevitable, “Fiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinnnne,” and the kid goes back to said room. Two or three hours later, after what should have been a twenty minute job, he/she tromps back and says, “There, I cleaned my room. Are you SATISFIED?”

Going to the room to check, you see, to your amazement, that your kid has actually cleaned up the room. Entropy has been decreased. The 2nd law of thermodynamics is in ruin. Of course, you and I know that what the kid has really done is pick up all the crap on the floor and the bed and shoved it all in the closet. That room is no more a closed system than the planet Earth is. While entropy locally in the room has been decreased, entropy in the closet has increased exponentially.

It gets worse. In the course of picking up all that crap, the teen has performed work. Muscles have been used, and heat generated, thus explaining the smell. All of the energy required to do this originated in your refrigerator, which has been left a hollow, entropy filled husk.

imagesWhat does this have to do with evolution? Simple, both operate under the same physical laws, the same laws of thermodynamics. As long as there’s an external energy supply available, it’s entirely possible for simple organic molecules to organize themselves. It’s rare, but once it get going, it’s tough to stop. Even if the chances of such an organization are infinitesimally small, all you have to do is play the odds. There are over 300 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy alone. Current research suggests that many, if not most, of those stars have planets in orbit around them, which they’re churning out energy for. With that much energy and that many planets, the odds of life spontaneously arising are pretty good, probably better than the odds of your teenager spontaneously cleaning his/her room.

Of course, none of this really has anything to do with Darwin’s theory. As I mentioned earlier, it wasn’t intended to explain the origin of life. This does, however, take away one of the main arguments that Creationists try to use against it. Perhaps if we can whittle down enough of their arguments this way, they will eventually have to give up, shaking their heads and tromping back to their rooms with a final parting, “Fiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinnnne.”EvolutionDebate

Georgia Southern University launches investigation of creationist professor

Why Evolution Is True

I’ve written several times before about how Professor Emerson T. McMullen, in the history department of Georgia Southern University (a public school) has been foisting creationism—blatantly stupid young-earth creationism—on students in his classes on science and the history of science. Following a student complaint, the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) filed a formal complaint with Georgia Southern (See my posts on this issue here, here, and here. In the interest of self-aggrandizement, and in receiving the Discovery Institute’s Censor of the Year award an unprecedented twice in a row, I have to add that I helped the FFRF demolish McMullen’s scientific claims).

The University has decided to investigate this issue, and on the highest level. Yesterday FFRF lawyer Andrew Seidel received the following email from Maura Copeland, the chief legal counsel for Georgia Southern University, which I reproduce with the FFRF’s permission.

Dear Mr. Seidel,

In the interest of keeping you updated…

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Are our kids getting worse at creative writing? 6 sci-fi and fantasy books to share with the App Generation

The “app generation” struggles with creative writing — as a new study shows, they’re turning into realists. Here’s a mini summer reading list that might inspire some wild thinking.

Creative writing is part of being a kid. Writing and reading goofy stories of lost kingdoms and Mars colonies helps the imagination grow strong. But a recent study uncovers an interesting, perhaps even dismaying trend: this generation of kids seems to prefer narrative realism when they write.

In a study published earlier this year in Creativity Research Journal, researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the University of Washington asked the question, “How have the style, content and form of adolescents’ art-making and creative writing changed over the last 20 years?”

To answer that, researcher Emily Weinstein and her co-authors, including Katie Davis, co-author of The App Generation (and a speaker at this week’s TEDSalon in Berlin), examined two…

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