Skepticon Impressions: Gelatogate!

I'm back! As you may know, I've spent the last three days in Springfield, Missouri, having a blast at Skepticon IV. The convention was a weekend of great talks that ran the gamut: atheism, skepticism, sex, politics, feminism, math, science. There was no overarching theme at all, and I think it was better for being eclectic: since there was very little overlap, each and every talk offered something new and different.

Best of all, I got to get together with some of my atheist blogger friends whom I've had the privilege of meeting before, as well as a whole bunch of awesome people I formerly only knew as pixels on a screen (or not at all). You know who you are, and I love you all. It's glorious to witness and be part of the exuberance, the energy, the vitality of this movement. This was my first Skepticon, but I can guarantee it won't be the last.

On the other hand, this happened:

This is Gelato Mio, an ice cream franchise in Springfield. They placed this handwritten sign in the window during the convention, which, if you can't read it, says, "Skepticon Is Not Welcomed To My Christian Business." (This picture has been passed around a lot on Twitter, and I don't know who originally took it, but would be happy to give proper credit if anyone does know.)

I'm not sure what motivated this - whether some Skepticon attendees were being unruly, although in that case the proper response would be to ban unruly people, not all Skepticon attendees - or whether it was just out-and-out bigotry. Given that the Christian ownership of the store was deemed relevant, I'm guessing the latter. Making it even more absurd, this was one of the businesses that specifically advertised to Skepticon in fliers given out at the convention. Did they not realize who we were until they actually met us?

After a flood of outraged reviews on Yelp, the store issued an apology. It was their loss in any case: another restaurant in town, the excellent Farmers' Gastropub, had their single best night ever thanks to the massive atheist bloggers' and students' meetup that took place there. (We were personally told this by the head chef when some friends and I went back for brunch on Sunday.)

But as inconsequential as this one incident is, it shows that anti-atheist bigotry is an active force in America. Our existence is still viewed as an affront by thin-skinned believers who'd like to exclude and punish us. Given the growing size and vigor of this movement, they're not going to succeed, but it's important that we not forget what we're up against.

I have to sort through the several hundred pictures I took, but I'll post a full recap of the weekend as soon as I've done that. Stay tuned!

Postscript: During the weekend, I was dragooned into signing up for Twitter. Follow me and say hi at @DaylightAtheism!

Drill, Baby, Drill: What will we look for when we mine on Mars?

It's unlikely that there's anything on the planet that is worth the cost of shipping it back

  • In the second season of National Geographic Channel's MARS (premiering tonight, 11/12/18,) privatized miners on the red planet clash with a colony of international scientists
  • Privatized mining on both Mars and the Moon is likely to occur in the next century
  • The cost of returning mined materials from Space to the Earth will probably be too high to create a self-sustaining industry, but the resources may have other uses at their origin points

Want to go to Mars? It will cost you. In 2016, SpaceX founder Elon Musk estimated that manned missions to the planet may cost approximately $10 billion per person. As with any expensive endeavor, it is inevitable that sufficient returns on investment will be needed in order to sustain human presence on Mars. So, what's underneath all that red dust?

Mining Technology reported in 2017 that "there are areas [on Mars], especially large igneous provinces, volcanoes and impact craters that hold significant potential for nickel, copper, iron, titanium, platinum group elements and more."

Were a SpaceX-like company to establish a commercial mining presence on the planet, digging up these materials will be sure to provoke a fraught debate over environmental preservation in space, Martian land rights, and the slew of microbial unknowns which Martian soil may bring.

In National Geographic Channel's genre-bending narrative-docuseries, MARS, (the second season premieres tonight, November 12th, 9 pm ET / 8 pm CT) this dynamic is explored as astronauts from an international scientific coalition go head-to-head with industrial miners looking to exploit the planet's resources.

Given the rate of consumption of minerals on Earth, there is plenty of reason to believe that there will be demand for such an operation.

"Almost all of the easily mined gold, silver, copper, tin, zinc, antimony, and phosphorus we can mine on Earth may be gone within one hundred years" writes Stephen Petranek, author of How We'll Live on Mars, which Nat Geo's MARS is based on. That grim scenario will require either a massive rethinking of how we consume metals on earth, or supplementation from another source.

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, told Petranek that it's unlikely that even if all of Earth's metals were exhausted, it is unlikely that Martian materials could become an economically feasible supplement due to the high cost of fuel required to return the materials to Earth. "Anything transported with atoms would have to be incredibly valuable on a weight basis."

Actually, we've already done some of this kind of resource extraction. During NASA's Apollo missions to the Moon, astronauts used simple steel tools to collect about 842 pounds of moon rocks over six missions. Due to the high cost of those missions, the Moon rocks are now highly valuable on Earth.

Moon rock on display at US Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, AL (Big Think/Matt Carlstrom)

In 1973, NASA valuated moon rocks at $50,800 per gram –– or over $300,000 today when adjusted for inflation. That figure doesn't reflect the value of the natural resources within the rock, but rather the cost of their extraction.

Assuming that Martian mining would be done with the purpose of bringing materials back to Earth, the cost of any materials mined from Mars would need to include both the cost of the extraction and the value of the materials themselves. Factoring in the price of fuel and the difficulties of returning a Martian lander to Earth, this figure may be entirely cost prohibitive.

What seems more likely, says Musk, is for the Martian resources to stay on the Red Planet to be used for construction and manufacturing within manned colonies, or to be used to support further mining missions of the mineral-rich asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

At the very least, mining on Mars has already produced great entertainment value on Earth: tune into Season 2 of MARS on National Geographic Channel.

How humans evolved to live in the cold

Humans evolved to live in the cold through a number of environmental and genetic factors.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Surprising Science
  • According to some relatively new research, many of our early human cousins preceded Homo sapien migrations north by hundreds of thousands or even millions of years.
  • Cross-breeding with other ancient hominids gave some subsets of human population the genes to contend and thrive in colder and harsher climates.
  • Behavioral and dietary changes also helped humans adapt to cold climates.
Keep reading Show less

Study: The effects of online trolling on authors, publications

A study started out trying to see the effect of sexist attacks on women authors, but it found something deeper.

Surprising Science
  • It's well known that abusive comments online happen to women more than men
  • Such comments caused a "significant effect for the abusive comment on author credibility and intention to seek news from the author and outlet in the future"
  • Some news organizations already heavily moderate or even ban comments entirely; this should underscore that effort
Keep reading Show less