Readings: Oil Spill, Facebook, Babies, Time Machines

Here’s what I’ve been reading recently:

(1) “Lessons of the Spill” [Business Week] – a well-researched piece on the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. A few excellent tidbits:

A mile below the surface, things can go to hell in an instant. The pressures and temperatures at work are otherworldly. Imagine an elephant sitting on your chest, and you get a small sense of the weight of rock and water pressing down on the reservoir of oil and gas miles below the surface. To keep the superheated, supercompressed fluids from shooting upward like a volcanic eruption before the well is finished, drillers fill the hole completely with a heavy, synthetic “mud.” Then, to finish the well, they inject a high-tech cement. Each well requires its own unique formulation of mud and cement. The cement is supposed to go down the middle of the drill pipe—a seven-inch tube surrounded by a larger pipe called the casing. When it reaches the bottom of the drill pipe, it oozes up into the gap between the pipe and its casing before drying in place, forming an impenetrable seal.

(2) “Workers on Oil Rig Recall a Terrible Night of Blasts” [New York Times] – related to the first article, but this one is much more personal in nature; the reporters interviewed the survivors of the Deepwater Horizon explosions, and the final article reads like an adventure novel…

It happened so fast.

Just before 10 p.m., the crew was using seawater to flush drilling mud out of the pipes. Suddenly, with explosive fury, water and mud came hurtling up the pipes and onto the deck, followed by the ominous hiss of natural gas. In seconds, it touched some spark or flame.

Three stories above the deck, the blast blew Mr. Sandell out of his seat and to the back of his cab. As he scrambled down the ladder, fire leaped up to envelop him. Another explosion sent him flying 25 feet to the ground.

“I took off running,” Mr. Sandell said. “How, I can’t tell you.”

(3) “Facebook’s Gone Rogue; It’s Time for an Open Alternative” [Wired] – an excellent piece describing the recent Facebook privacy changes and the backlash the social networking site is (and should be) receiving from its users.

(4) “The Moral Life of Babies” [New York Times] – a long, well-explained piece documenting the moral capabilities of babies. If you don’t have time to read the whole thing, here are the most relevant and interesting tidbits:

A growing body of evidence, though, suggests that humans do have a rudimentary moral sense from the very start of life. With the help of well-designed experiments, you can see glimmers of moral thought, moral judgment and moral feeling even in the first year of life. Some sense of good and evil seems to be bred in the bone. Which is not to say that parents are wrong to concern themselves with moral development or that their interactions with their children are a waste of time. Socialization is critically important. But this is not because babies and young children lack a sense of right and wrong; it’s because the sense of right and wrong that they naturally possess diverges in important ways from what we adults would want it to be.

But the new studies found that babies have an actual understanding of mental life: they have some grasp of how people think and why they act as they do. The studies showed that, though babies expect inanimate objects to move as the result of push-pull interactions, they expect people to move rationally in accordance with their beliefs and desires: babies show surprise when someone takes a roundabout path to something he wants. They expect someone who reaches for an object to reach for the same object later, even if its location has changed. And well before their 2nd birthdays, babies are sharp enough to know that other people can have false beliefs.

All of this research, taken together, supports a general picture of baby morality. It’s even possible, as a thought experiment, to ask what it would be like to see the world in the moral terms that a baby does. Babies probably have no conscious access to moral notions, no idea why certain acts are good or bad. They respond on a gut level. Indeed, if you watch the older babies during the experiments, they don’t act like impassive judges — they tend to smile and clap during good events and frown, shake their heads and look sad during the naughty events (remember the toddler who smacked the bad puppet). The babies’ experiences might be cognitively empty but emotionally intense, replete with strong feelings and strong desires.

I think the entire piece is worth your time, especially if you’re into psychology and/or learning more about the human mind.

(5) “How to Build a Time Machine” [Mail Online] – in this piece for the U.K.’s newspaper, physicist Stephen Hawking explains the basics behind relativity and time travel. The conclusion? We cannot possibly travel to the past, but we may be able to travel to the future.

On why we can’t travel to the past (the paradox):

This kind of time machine would violate a fundamental rule that governs the entire universe – that causes happen before effects, and never the other way around. I believe things can’t make themselves impossible. If they could then there’d be nothing to stop the whole universe from descending into chaos. So I think something will always happen that prevents the paradox. Somehow there must be a reason why our scientist will never find himself in a situation where he could shoot himself. And in this case, I’m sorry to say, the wormhole itself is the problem.

And what do we need to do to travel to the future?

If we want to travel into the future, we just need to go fast. Really fast. And I think the only way we’re ever likely to do that is by going into space. The fastest manned vehicle in history was Apollo 10. It reached 25,000mph. But to travel in time we’ll have to go more than 2,000 times faster. And to do that we’d need a much bigger ship, a truly enormous machine. The ship would have to be big enough to carry a huge amount of fuel, enough to accelerate it to nearly the speed of light. Getting to just beneath the cosmic speed limit would require six whole years at full power.

The piece is written for the general crowd, so it’s very easy to follow. For example, there is no mention of the Minkowski space or the Lorentz factor. I think Stephen Hawking was asked to write to the broadest audience possible, and he has done an excellent job. If you’re interested in learning more about astronomy, space, time travel, and the like, I can’t recommend Briane Greene’s The Fabric of Cosmos enough. It is a spectacular book (I read it in 2009).

Readings vs. Links of the Day

I’ve decided that instead of titling my posts profiling interesting articles on the web as “Links of the Day,” I will instead title the posts as “Readings: ___,” whereby the blank will be replaced with a word or phrase to describe the content of the article(s) I am linking to in the post.

I am currently working through editing the rest of my blog posts to reflect these changes.

[hat tip for this idea: Paul Pedrosky's excellent blog, Infectious Greed]