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kottke.org posts about Kurzgesagt

Spinning Tethers for Space Propulsion

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 19, 2019

I love rocket launches. They are loud, carry cool things into space, and last a surprisingly long time considering how fast the rocket is already traveling when it clears the tower. But I think we’re going to look back on this era of space travel and marvel that launches & rockets were our only means of getting things into and around space (planetary gravity assists notwithstanding). We’re already moving in that direction; the initial tests of a space sail inspired by Carl Sagan have been promising. Another space propulsion idea is to use spinning space tethers to whip smaller, slower space vehicles from relatively low altitudes to higher orbits or even to the Moon, Mars, or beyond. This video from Kurzgesagt explains how these tethers work and what we could do with them.

I believe Neal Stephenson wrote about space tethers (or something very similar) in Seveneves.

Neutron Stars and Nuclear Pasta. Yummy!

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 13, 2019

The latest video from Kurzgesagt is a short primer on neutron stars, the densest large objects in the universe.

The mind-boggling density of neutron stars is their most well-known attribute: the mass of all living humans would fit into a volume the size of a sugar cube at the same density. But I learned about a couple of new things that I’d like to highlight. The first is nuclear pasta, which might be the strongest material in the universe.

Astrophysicists have theorized that as a neutron star settles into its new configuration, densely packed neutrons are pushed and pulled in different ways, resulting in formation of various shapes below the surface. Many of the theorized shapes take on the names of pasta, because of the similarities. Some have been named gnocchi, for example, others spaghetti or lasagna.

Simulations have demonstrated that nuclear pasta might be some 10 billion times stronger than steel.

The second thing deals with neutron star mergers. When two neutron stars merge, they explode in a shower of matter that’s flung across space. Recent research suggests that many of the heavy elements present in the universe could be formed in these mergers.

But how elements heavier than iron, such as gold and uranium, were created has long been uncertain. Previous research suggested a key clue: For atoms to grow to massive sizes, they needed to quickly absorb neutrons. Such rapid neutron capture, known as the “r-process” for short, only happens in nature in extreme environments where atoms are bombarded by large numbers of neutrons.

If this pans out, it means that the Earth’s platinum, uranium, lead, and tin may have originated in exploding neutron stars. Neat!

What Would Really Happen if a Nuclear Weapon Exploded in a Major City?

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 18, 2019

Kurzgesagt has partnered with the Red Cross and their “no to nukes” initiative to depict what it would be like if a nuclear weapon detonated in a major city. I’m not going to lie to you here, this is a difficult video to watch. Super bleak. There is no bright side to nuclear weapons.

The reason no government wants you to think about all this is because there is no serious humanitarian response possible to a nuclear explosion. There’s no way to really help the immediate victims of a nuclear attack. This is not a hurricane, wildfire, earthquake, or nuclear accident — it is all of these things at once, but worse. No nation on earth is prepared to deal with it.

Between the climate crisis, the rise of authoritarianism around the world, the AI bogeyman, and other things, nuclear weapons have gotten lost in the shuffle recently, but they remain a massive existential threat to society. A small group of people, some careful planning, years of patience, and you could possibly see an event that would make 9/11 look quaint.

The Global Mega-Colony of Ants

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 01, 2019

Ants are fascinating. They’re small and individually dumb, but together they can form very complex societies capable of activities like farming and altering entire ecosystems. In this video, Kurzgesagt shows how the Argentine ant became one of the most numerous and successful species of ant in the world, forming a single mega-colony across the entire Earth, from Argentina to the US to Japan.

“The enormous extent of this population is paralleled only by human society,” the researchers write in the journal Insect Sociaux, in which they report their findings.

However, the irony is that it is us who likely created the ant mega-colony by initially transporting the insects around the world, and by continually introducing ants from the three continents to each other, ensuring the mega-colony continues to mingle.

“Humans created this great non-aggressive ant population,” the researchers write.

A Visit to the Most Solitary Place on Earth, the Deep Sea

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 17, 2019

For their latest video, Kurzgesagt takes a typically informative journey from the surface of the ocean all the way down to the deepest spot on Earth, Challenger Deep.

In the segment about marine snow — decaying matter and feces that falls from the resource-rich sliver of ocean near the surface to provide the thin sustenance for the entire rest of the ocean — I couldn’t help but think about trickle-down economics.

The Egg by Andy Weir

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 04, 2019

Kurzgesagt are known for their animated explainers about science and society. For their latest video, they’ve applied their signature style to a metaphysical short story by Andy Weir (author of The Martian). It’s called The Egg — you can read it here.

You were on your way home when you died.

It was a car accident. Nothing particularly remarkable, but fatal nonetheless. You left behind a wife and two children. It was a painless death. The EMTs tried their best to save you, but to no avail. Your body was so utterly shattered you were better off, trust me.

And that’s when you met me.

“What… what happened?” You asked. “Where am I?”

“You died,” I said, matter-of-factly. No point in mincing words.

“There was a… a truck and it was skidding…”

“Yup,” I said.

“I… I died?”

“Yup. But don’t feel bad about it. Everyone dies,” I said.

You looked around. There was nothingness. Just you and me. “What is this place?” You asked. “Is this the afterlife?”

“More or less,” I said.

Is Your Phone’s Electromagnetic Pollution Making You Ill?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 08, 2019

According this video by Kurzgesagt (and their extensive list of sources), the answer to that question for now is: no, our electronic devices are not causing long- or short-term health problems in the brains or bodies of people who use them.

Electrosmog is one of those things that is a bit vague and hard to grasp. When personal health is involved, feelings clash extra hard with scientific facts and there is a lot of misinformation and exaggeration out there. On the other hand, some people are really worried and distressed by the electricity that surrounds them. And just to wave this off is not kind or helpful.

While there is still a lot of researching being done on the dangers of constant weak electromagnetic radiation, it is important to stress that so far, we have no reason to believe that our devices harm us. Other than… well… spending too much time with them.

On the Safety of Vaccines and the Low Risk of Side Effects

posted by Jason Kottke   May 13, 2019

The development of vaccines against infectious diseases is among the greatest of human accomplishments and has saved ten of millions of people from dying. And yet some are still hung up on their side effects (and also the widely disproved and debunked fraudulent claim that vaccines cause autism). In this video, Kurzgesagt looks at how vaccines work and compares the impact of their side effects (minuscule) to the potential effect of the diseases they protect against (children dying).

The extensive list of sources they used for the video can be found here.

The title of this video is “The Side Effects of Vaccines - How High is the Risk?”, which seems like it’s maximized for clicks and to spread amongst anti-vaxxers on social media. I wish it had a more accurate title — something like “The Absurdly Low Risk of Vaccine Side Effects” or maybe “Vaccines. And Now My Kids Don’t Die.” — but perhaps positioning it this way is a good strategy to get folks who may not be quite so radicalized to watch it.

Strange Stars and Strange Matter

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 17, 2019

Nuclear physicists hypothesize that when the cores of neutron stars are subject to enough pressure, the quarks that make up the core can turn from up and down quark varieties into strange quarks. As this Kurzgesagt video explains, this strange matter is particularly stable and if it were to escape from the core of the neutron star, it would convert any ordinary matter it came into contact with to more strange matter. If you hadn’t heard about this hypothesis before, you can read up on it in their list of sources for the video.

Where Did Consciousness Come From?

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 18, 2019

Religion and philosophy have their own answers as to where our consciousness comes from, but in this video, Kurzgesagt explores how scientists believe consciousness first evolved, from organisms moving more quickly when consuming food to animals being able to animals who can remember where they hid food to reading the minds of competitors and allies.

The main source for the video is Rupert Glasgow’s Minimal Selfhood and the Origins of Consciousness (available as a free download). The complete list of their sources is here.

Regarding the Thoughtful Cultivation of the Archived Internet

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 06, 2019

Kurzgesagt is one of my favorite YouTube channels. Their videos are entertaining & thoroughly researched, and the subject matter is right in the kottke.org wheelhouse. (This one on the physical limitations of humanity when it comes to space exploration is a particular recent favorite.)

So I appreciated their latest video called Can You Trust Kurzgesagt Videos?

In it, they detail the process of making their videos, which has gotten more extensive as the channel matures. The second half is about a pair of videos that didn’t meet their current standard: one about addiction (which I posted about here) and another about the European migrant crisis of 2015. The addiction video represented only one side of a controversial issue within the scientific community while the migrant video was hastily produced and poorly researched. As a result, they deleted both videos, even though they were among the channel’s most popular and plan to publish a future video about addiction that will look more broadly at its causes.

With 20+ years of kottke.org archives, I’ve been thinking about this issue as well. There are many posts in the archive that I am not proud of. I’ve changed my mind in some cases and no longer hold the views attributed to me in my own words. I was too frequently a young and impatient asshole, full of himself and knowing it all. I was unaware of my privilege and too frequently assumed things of other people and groups that were incorrect and insensitive. I’ve amplified people and ideas in the past that I wouldn’t today.

My process today is more rigorous (but not as rigorous as Kurzgesagt b/c we have different aims) and I’ve gained some wisdom (I hope!) about when vigor or sensitivity are called for. I still place a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of the reader — you are a smart bunch and I expect you to read and view everything here with a critical eye — but I am also more aware of my (small but not insignificant) responsibility as an informational gatekeeper.

But so anyway, I don’t know what to do about those old problematic posts. Tim Berners-Lee’s idea that cool URIs don’t change is almost part of my DNA at this point, so deleting them seems wrong. Approximately no one ever reads any post on this site that’s more than a few years old, but is that an argument for or against deleting them? (If a tree falls in the woods, etc…) Should I delete but leave a note they were deleted? Should I leave the original posts but append updates citing my current displeasure? Or like Mister Rogers used to do, should I rewrite the posts to bring them more into line with my current thinking? Is the kottke.org archive trapped in amber, a record of what I’ve written when I wrote it, or is it a living, breathing thing that thrives on activity? Is it more like a book or a performance? In my mind it’s both, which is why the site is compelling (IMO) but also makes this issue so thorny for me. The web is weird that way…but how do I embrace the weirdness re: this issue?

Black holes could delete the Universe

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 25, 2017

In their latest video, Kurzgesagt takes a look at black holes, specifically how they deal with information. According to the currently accepted theories, one of the fundamental laws of the Universe is that information can never be lost, but black holes destroy information. This is the information paradox…so one or both of our theories must be wrong.

The paradox arose after Hawking showed, in 1974-1975, that black holes surrounded by quantum fields actually will radiate particles (“Hawking radiation”) and shrink in size (Figure 4), eventually evaporating completely. Compare with Figure 2, where the information about the two shells gets stuck inside the black hole. In Figure 4, the black hole is gone. Where did the information go? If it disappeared along with the black hole, that violates quantum theory.

Maybe the information came back out with the Hawking radiation? The problem is that the information in the black hole can’t get out. So the only way it can be in the Hawking radiation (naively) is if what is inside is copied. Having two copies of the information, one inside, one outside, also violates quantum theory.

So maybe black holes holographically encode their information on the surface?

The size of life: the differing scales of living things

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 10, 2017

In the first in a series of videos, Kurzgesagt tackles one of my favorite scientific subjects: how the sizes of animals governs their behaviors, appearance, and abilities. For instance, because the volume (and therefore mass) of an organism increases according to the cube of the increase in length (e.g. if you double the length/height of a dog, its mass roughly increases by 8 times), when you drop differently sized animals from high up, the outcomes are vastly different (a mouse lands safely, an elephant splatters everywhere).

The bit in the video about how insects can breathe underwater because of the interplay between the surface tension of water and their water-repellant outer layers is fascinating. The effect of scale also comes into play when considering the longevity of NBA big men, how fast animals move, how much animals’ hearts beat, the question of fighting 100 duck-sized horses or 1 horse-sized duck, and shrinking people down to conserve resources.

When humans get smaller, the world and its resources get bigger. We’d live in smaller houses, drive smaller cars that use less gas, eat less food, etc. It wouldn’t even take much to realize gains from a Honey, I Shrunk Humanity scheme: because of scaling laws, a height/weight proportional human maxing out at 3 feet tall would not use half the resources of a 6-foot human but would use somewhere between 1/4 and 1/8 of the resources, depending on whether the resource varied with volume or surface area. Six-inch-tall humans would potentially use 1728 times fewer resources.

See also The Biology of B-Movie Monsters, which is perhaps the most-linked article in the history of kottke.org.

Information Age automation is coming for your job

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 09, 2017

This new video by Kurzgesagt examines automation in the past (“big stupid machines doing repetitive work in factories”) and argues that automation in the information age is fundamentally different. In a nutshell,1 whereas past automation resulted in higher productivity and created new and better jobs for a growing population, automation in the future will happen at a much quicker pace, outpacing the creation of new types of jobs for humans.

Their two main sources for the video are Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots and The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee.

  1. The German phrase “kurz gesagt” means roughly “in a nutshell”, so this is a pun. Laugh now!

Are we thinking about addiction all wrong?

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 29, 2015

A group called Kurzgesagt, in collaboration with author Johann Hari, made this video about taking a new approach to understanding addiction. You’ve probably heard of the experiments where rats in cages were given access to drugs. The rats quickly became addicted to them and used them heavily until overdosing. But perhaps the problem is not the drugs but the cage. Later experiments showed that if rats were given plenty of alternate activities, freedom, and room to roam, they were not likely to become heavy drugs users or overdose.

Human studies are more difficult to come by, but it still appears that when available, living life, family, and friends are more addictive than heroin. And so, according to Hari, who wrote a book about all this, what we should be doing is not isolating those who become addicted to drugs, alcohol, and other things. Instead, we should build a society that reconnects people to each other so that the drugs become unnecessary.

In addition to the video and the book, there’s an interactive version of the video as well as an article by Hari on Huffington Post. (via @gavinpurcell)

Update: Hari is out with a new book on the topic, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression - and the Unexpected Solutions. There’s an excerpt in The Guardian.

I started to research my book, Lost Connections: Uncovering The Real Causes of Depression — and the Unexpected Solutions, because I was puzzled by two mysteries. Why was I still depressed when I was doing everything I had been told to do? I had identified the low serotonin in my brain, and I was boosting my serotonin levels — yet I still felt awful. But there was a deeper mystery still. Why were so many other people across the western world feeling like me? Around one in five US adults are taking at least one drug for a psychiatric problem. In Britain, antidepressant prescriptions have doubled in a decade, to the point where now one in 11 of us drug ourselves to deal with these feelings. What has been causing depression and its twin, anxiety, to spiral in this way? I began to ask myself: could it really be that in our separate heads, all of us had brain chemistries that were spontaneously malfunctioning at the same time?

Update: Kurzgesagt deleted this video from their channel. You can view the deleted video (they gave people permission to repost it) and hear why they deleted it. As for Hari’s view on addiction, neuroscientist Dean Burnett addresses the controversy in a pair of posts for The Guardian and there are others within the east reach of a quick Googling.