Daily Archives: September 30, 2016

Our Future in Space

On the 21st of June, Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin (but more widely known as the CEO of Amazon) was announced as the third recipient of the Heinlein prize for his feats regarding accessibility of space for the common man. His Blue Origin has achieved important milestones in rocket reusability and orbital vessels, but this is far from what makes him and his little known agency outstanding. Bezos plans on, along with other private entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk and Richard Branson, kickstarting human expansion into space and beginning a multi-planetary empire.


Bezos is certainly ambitious on his expectations for us as a species, but he does have a plan. He envisions a future where mankind is spread across the entire Solar System, maybe even beyond, with Earth being a “residential planet” and heavy industry being confined to inhospitable planets with only colonies to maintain them. Our presence in space would number in the millions, perhaps even billions, with a massive, dynamic and interconnected society communicating and exchanging ideas throughout the vast sidereal space, always expanding into the unknown. This may be an optimistic, adventurous view of the future, but Bezos claims our future lies outside planet Earth.

According to him and many other scholars, it is essential to colonise Mars or even the Moon because, essentially, Earth needs a backup much like a computer. As far as we know, Earth is the only planet in the universe that contains life in any way, shape or form, and as such, we can’t risk its destruction with an asteroid impact, gamma ray burst or environmental collapse, since that would be the end of all known life. Which means, we need a colony outside of Earth so that if a catastrophe does happen, at least some humans and animals will still exist and be able to spread and repopulate somewhere else. It is not only a matter of striving for interplanetary greatness, but of survival of all known life, to colonise other planets as soon as possible.


So, if we must go beyond the pale blue dot, how are we going to do it? Since we still don’t really have the technological capabilities for building even a basic colony on Mars, we must start with the first frontier – the atmosphere. Blue Origin has already taken steps towards launching heavy weight carrying rockets into orbit, which Jeff Bezos hopes will in the near future start a market for space tourism, where people would pay to go into orbit and enjoy the breathtaking views of Earth beneath their very feet as they float in a confined shuttle. If space tourism becomes a thing, competition will become a propelling force, driving space agencies to go farther and farther until we have the technology to make routine trips to the Moon or even Mars. Then it would be a matter of having the technology to settle, and we will then have taken the very first step towards the colonisation of space.

Space exploration is an uncertain and potentially dangerous enterprise, but also extremely rewarding. With the colonisation of the Americas beginning in the 15th century, the mineral and agricultural riches of the New World were so abundant an invaluable that they helped catapult western Europe towards the centre of human civilisation, sparking movements such as the Enlightenment and empire building. Colonising space will be the same. We will revel in the mineral wealth the many planets out there offer, creating planet spanning industrial powerhouses capable of fueling monumental projects, such as building massive colony spaceships or even a Dyson sphere, ensuring an incremental growth of our civilisation. At such a pace, humankind would be present in so many planets and satellites that our species would become essentially immortal.


But let’s not get hasty. It’s still 2016, some people still believe vaccines are harmful and racism still lingers in the collective conscience. We still have a long way to go, but as soon as we take the first step, we walk down a glorious path from which we cannot return. There are men and women today fighting for our right to space, and those are the true unsung heroes of this generation. Our progress is slow yet steady, but our future has never been brighter.

Can meditation change you?

Growing up, my friends and family were very into yoga and meditation. I was raised being told how healthy and helpful both were for the mind and body. I know yoga is good for the muscles as a form of exercise, but the idea that meditation is healthy for your mind never sat quite right with me. For those of you that don’t know, meditation is the act of concentrating on nothing for long periods of time. Can meditation actually change the makeup of your mind on a bio-chemical level? It seems like such an odd concept as people have been questioning how much we can actually control our minds since the beginning of time. The null hypothesis in this case would be that meditation has no affect on the brain, while the alternative hypothesis is that meditation has some sort of affect on the brain.


Supposedly, the way meditation changes the chemical relationships is your brain is fairly simple.     Without meditation, the medial prefrontal cortex (or the section of the brain responsible for self reflecting/ thinking about yourself i.e. daydreaming, self evaluating) is very closely related to the Insular cortex (part of the brain associated with the parietal lobes, responsible for touch or feeling) and the Amygdala (responsible for strong, intense emotion such as fear). This is a fancy way of saying whenever you feel scared of a bad physical sensation, you likely think there is a problem related to you. Psychologists have found that with meditation, these regions of the brain become less related. This means that when a problem arises, you’re less likely to think it’s related to you and more likely to look at problems objectively without personal motives. I want to speculate the way psychologists found this out.

This idea suggests that meditation trains the mind to have more rational perspective, but are there studies that show concrete evidence of this? I researched and found one study at UCLA observed 3 aspects of the brain (cortical thickness, white matter and gray matter) and found participants who meditated had slowed or even reversed brain-aging effects in comparison with the control group, or people who did not meditate. The way they observed these aspects was not mentioned and in turn, I have to believe this study was correctional. So we don’t know for certain if the meditation was the variable responsible for these effects on the brain.


Another study done at Yale University looked at people who had been meditating for extended periods of time, in this case it was at least 10 years. These people had less activity in brain areas linked with things such as anxiety, autism and schizophrenia. While this was observational, another study done at Northeastern University had one experimental group of participants take part in an eight-week meditation program and the control group not do anything significant to increase compassion. Then, they tested their compassion. They operationally defined this variable of “compassion” by placing a person with crutches who was having difficulty in front of the participant and seeing if they helped. 50% of the meditating participants helped the person with crutches while only 15% of other participants helped. Both these studies were correlational and didn’t account for any confounding variables. The second study (about compassion) was extremely susceptible to confounding variables because the way the variable was operationally defined was not a definite way to measure compassion, so the validity of the test has to be put in question. Other influencing variables could have been how the participant was feeling that day/ what kind of mood they were in, the appearance of the person with crutches, etc. Both these studies showed soft endpoints and lots of room for error.

So, the question remains. Does meditation actually change the makeup of your mind on a biological level? The conclusion has to be maybe.It’s quite difficult to accept anything as true when it’s a correlation between something completely intangible and immeasurable (in the case, meditation) and a hard endpoint. All the studies I found were correlational and I never saw evidence of change on a bio-chemical level. But, these correlations are fairly strong and if the information can be trusted, then we have reason to reject the null hypothesis. It appears something is going on, but like Andrew has said in class, nothing is ever proven, we just have strong evidence that it’s not due to chance!





Is wearing sunscreen bad for us?


Colorful sunscreen from here

In class, Andrew talked about how no one knew smoking was dangerous because the results weren’t prevalent until 20 years later, and this made me wonder what I have been doing that could create health problems for me in the future. I am a redhead, which means that my entire life has consisted of smearing sunscreen on my entire body whenever leaving the house to prevent a nasty burn. For the past 18 years, I have pretty much always been covered in sunscreen, and now I am curious to see if sunscreen could be dangerous. What if the chemicals in our sunscreens actually caused cancer?


Photo from here

I first visited the American Academy of Dermatology’s website, where I learned that on average, 5.4 million people will be diagnosed with skin cancer each year, making it the most common cancer diagnosed. Melanoma is considered the most fatal skin cancer and will perhaps affect up to 76,380 people world wide this year. The ACD recommends daily sunscreen application.

34571547 - squamous-cell carcinoma or squamous cell cancer.

squamous-cell carcinoma from here

I wanted to see the data, so I used google scholar to find this journal, The Null Hypothesis was that wearing sunscreen did not effect levels of BBCs, and the Alternative Hypothesis was that wearing sunscreen did effect levels of BBCs. This paper, focusing on the effect of sunscreen,  was first published in November, 2006.  This study was a randomized experiment, and the participants were 1,621  members of Nambour, an Australian community. These scientists has conducted a previous study where they discovered that there was a reduction of a type of cell called a squamous cell carcinomas (referred to as a SCC) in individuals that wore sunscreen daily and regularly over the course of four years. The Null Hypothesis was that wearing sunscreen did not effect levels of BBCs, and the Alternative Hypothesis was that wearing sunscreen did effect levels of BBCs. There was not the same type of decrease in the basal cell carcinoma cells (called BBC), but it was identified that BBCs could be delayed when compared to the results from the control group (no application of sunscreen). 92% of the participants followed the study until its completion in 2004. The remaining subjects were exposed to follow ups in their randomized groups.

Researchers discovered that those with fair skin (like me) had slightly lowered BBC rates then the participants who did not wear any sunscreen. For this conclusion, the researchers have included the p value, stating that P=0.03. With a low p-value below the usual alpha level of 0.05, the researchers were able to reject the null hypothesis and conclude that wearing sunscreen, especially for people with fair skin did indeed lower rates of BBCs.

After reading this paper, I googled, “Is Sunscreen bad for you?” Of course, many biased holistic sites popped up, but I was able to find a TIME Magazine article titled, Is Sunscreen Safe, and Do I Need It Every Day?  that addressed the subject.  Most sunscreens have nanoparticles, which reflect the sun’s UV lights, preventing skin exposure.  According to the EWG, nanoparticles definitely provide great sun protection.  Now, scientists worry that nanoparticles are small enough to be actually absorbed by our skin, and easily enter our blood streams.   Researchers are more concerned than ever after unsettling results from lab tests on rats. Rats injected with these nanoparticles showed signs of cell distress, which is correlated with cancer. Although there is room for worry, these rats were inhaling and being injected with these particles, and tests have not been done where the particles were topically applied to the rat’s skin.

Although we should be concerned with the results on this rat study, more studies have to be conducted before scientists can make any claims. There is evidence that sun screen prevents the development of skin cancer and there is a pretty slim chance that these findings are all a fluke. Although it is impossible to rule out chance completely, it seems very unlikely that sunscreen does not have any effect on the reduction or delay of the development of BBCs. There is just developing research that sun screen could potentially cause other kind of cancers. For now, I will still keep wearing my sunscreen, but I will definitely change my skin care habits if more research emerges.

Test Optional… It’s About Time!

I don’t know about any of you, but the standardized testing that monstrously consumed my junior year of high school was absolutely miserable. The trauma of this dark time in my life still lingers today! There’s just no way for a bad test taker like me to truly showcase all of my capabilities on that one booklet on that one Saturday morning. I personally feel that a numerical score should not define people in the eyes of college admissions workers. Can the ACT and SAT truly gauge college readiness?act-sat

While the SAT and ACT are structured in different ways, they attempt to measure the same thing: aptitude. This Washington Post article delves deeper into the idea of “aptitude” in terms of standardized testing. The SAT, which formerly stood for “scholastic aptitude test,” was created with the intent to test college readiness. Basically, creating questions that would evoke the use of academic concepts and logical skills that would be necessary to succeed in college. However, they eventually dropped this acronym when they discovered that aptitude is more than just problem solving or the memorization of facts. So… what is aptitude?


Aptitude is intelligence, as one of the most important indicators of college readiness is the ability to obtain good grades and graduate. According to a longitudinal observational study discussed in this PBS News article, standardized tests are not able to properly measure this necessary signal for success. Bates College, an institution that has decided to go “test optional” (meaning it isn’t mandatory to report your test scores), followed a group of students who did submit their scores and a group of students who abstained from sharing their scores through their four years. Throughout their journey, they compared the two group’s GPAs. Finally at graduation, it was discovered that the GPA’s of the test submitters were only a mere .05 percent of a GPA point higher than the students who didn’t report their scores. Therefore, this study shows that a test score cannot sufficiently measure intelligence, at least in terms of grades. With a scientific mindset, this would make sense. In science, the more random samples that are taken, the more accurate the consensus will be. Thus, we would expect a GPA, which is basically an accumulation of samples over the course of four years, to be more reflective of a score sampled from one day of someone’s life.

Aptitude is motivation. In order to succeed in college, it’s imperative to be self-driven. However, this PrepScholar blog sheds light on a critical downfall in the ability of standardized test to gauge someone’s proficiency to persevere. The blog asks, how would a college admissions worker determine the kid who got a high score naturally from a kid who worked hard to achieve their high score? This is a very important question that reveals the dark truth of how general a test score really is. A student’s motivation, work ethic, time management, and even creativity are all unaccounted for in a simple number. These are qualities that a college should be looking for, in my opinion and in the opinion of many universities that have decided to go “test optional.” Yes, it is very possible for the naturally high scoring kid to also possess these redeeming qualities, but the test score doesn’t definitely insure that. Therefore, test scores are not the most ideal way to measure the determination aspect of aptitude that would indicate college readiness.

Finally, a confounding variable to high performance in test scores could be resources, which could distort the aptitude conveyed in the score. There has been an extreme amount of scientific and statistical analysis on the correlation between family income and test scores, which is based on the assumption that tutoring or other test taking resources put higher income students at an unfair advantage. This New York Times article accumulated research from various studies to produce the graph shown to the right. allscoresThe findings clearly illustrate a strong positive correlation between family income and test scores, as the highest income bracket in math for example scored 122 points higher than the lowest income bracket. The New York Times also reported that the R-squared value of the study was about .95, which is extremely significant. For anyone unfamiliar with statistics, the  R-squared value tells how much of the variance in test scores is attributed to family income. Therefore, the fact that this number is as high as 95% is evidence of a close correlation between test scores and family income.
In all, the science screams that standardized testing is not a sufficient way to measure college readiness. While there must be some method to the madness because smart people who get good test scores do usually succeed in college, science tells us that there is always the possibility to revise a former theory no matter how much time it has stood before. Personally, I’m excited to see what the future holds in a “test optional” world in terms of developing more holistic measurements to better assess the capability of an individual to succeed in college.

Can Hypnic Jerks be Detrimental to Academic Performance.

Have you ever laid down after a long day, and suddenly as you’re dozing off you feel as if you’re falling and your body jerks? This is a benign sleep movement called a hypnic jerk. The causes of this movement are anxiety, stress, alcohol, caffeine, and being very tired or fatigued. (Green 2015) I feel that students may be the most susceptible to this condition. Even though they are said to be physically harmless. Every time I have experienced this I have been kept up for the rest of the night. A lack of sleep can result in many outcomes, especially in students’ academic performance. Lack of sleep has the potential to cause many things that can hurt ones grades.  I don’t see how this is possibly harmless.

The following observational article describes what part of the brain controls these outbursts and suggests that these phenomena are attributed to other factors in sleep that are unstable. College students on average get approximately six hours of sleep per night, while we all know the recommended suggestion is eight hours per night. This lack of sleep may attribute to more hypnic jerks in college students. There are many variables that may attribute to hypnic jerks in one’s sleep, so it is difficult to pinpoint the phenomena. Perhaps the variables are so confounded it’s impossible to tell which affects how many times an individual experiences this. Also if an experimental trial were to take place, what would the placebo be? I feel like it would be difficult to set a placebo, but the two control groups could simply be college students and non-college students.  However, as a college student, I believe we all experience the variables that cause hypnic jerks. I’d love to see an experiment conducted that addresses this.

In the month that we’ve been here at PSU I’ve been woken by hypnic jerks more often than I had been at home. I asked my room  mates about it and they also have admitted to being kept up. It could be very possible that the amount of hypnic jerks a student experiences and GPA is correlated. Now other confounding variables can be attributed to poor academic performance, but this is a possible component of causation in poor academic performance. I’m really excited to hear what my peers have to say about this. This topic has always intrigued me.







Pic Source

Hypnic Jerks – How To Avoid Waking With A Jolt