Living in Space; Detox and Cleanliness

Today some more substantial links from the past week or so.

  • Going into space for art;
  • Why detox treatments are nonsense;
  • Our obsession with cleanliness.

There have been thoughts recently about the very plausibility of mankind living in space, or settling on Mars (let alone traveling to the stars). Just in November, there was a book called A City on Mars: Can we settle space, should we settle space, and have we really thought this through? by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith. The idea is not new in science fiction; the likely unsuitability of planets around other stars for human beings was the central theme of Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel Aurora in 2015. (My review here.) Other SF writers have acknowledged that visions of interstellar empires — including the variations of Trek and Wars — are likely complete fantasies. They are stories we keep telling ourselves, because they appeal to our nature. We project our local circumstances onto a vast universe we don’t actually understand.

Here’s an essay that suggests there might well be other reasons for going into space. Recall the effusions of William Shatner after his SpaceX trip. Recall the book The Overview Effect by Frank White (now in a fourth edition!) about the “profound shift in worldview they experience when viewing the Earth from space and in space.”

Washington Post, Bena Venkataraman, 26 Dec 2023: Opinion | The best concert of your life might not be on Earth

But what if it were possible to go to space to experience something transcendent, something that helps us better understand ourselves as humans and earthlings? And what if living in, or at least traveling to, space could yield incomparable beauty in the form of art and music? These questions came to mind recently as I watched Glenn Kotche of Wilco, one of my favorite drummers, in concert. At moments, his hands looked like trapeze artists back-flipping over the cymbals. The heartbeat of the kick drum came from a foot firmly anchored to the ground. Ricocheting off the snares and toms, his drumsticks appeared at times in free fall — like paint dripping down a canvas. Gravity was the invisible conductor, as it is of our everyday lives.

She goes on to invoke the idea of a musical concert in space.

It got me daydreaming about what it might be like to one day watch a live musical performance in space. Not in the void, where sound waves cannot travel, but within built habitats in near-Earth orbit — such as the International Space Station (ISS). Forget U2 in the Las Vegas Sphere. Take me to a real concert in the round, where I can float 360 degrees around the stage, watching a guitarist shred from the perspective of a fly and inventing dance moves that Earth’s gravity would forbid.

And discusses researchers who are promoting the idea.

Now of course one of the problems with this idea is that, floating up in orbit in a space station or equivalent, it will be difficult enough to look out at the Milky Way, and one will never see the phony grandeur of galaxies and nebulae that old science fiction movies so often depicted. You might not even see the stars; they’re too faint when other light sources are nearby. Sunsets and sunrises, sure; ISS sees many of those everyday.

The big advantage would be zero-G, or low-G, as the article discusses. But science fiction has been there, done that. Heinlein’s “The Menace from Earth” from 1957, about performing in Lunar gravity; John Varley’s “Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance” from 1976, about human-symbiont pairs who create works of art in Saturn’s rings; and Spider and Jeanne Robinson’s “Stardance” (1977) about how interpretive dance performed in space is a key to communicating with aliens. And those are just the first ones that come to mind.


Slate, Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz, 29 Dec 2023: Reminder: You Don’t Need to “Detox”!, subtitled “Indulging during the holidays doesn’t do some kind of dramatic harm to your body.”

The idea:

The idea of a detox is as simple as it is alluring. We spend most of the holiday season being as unhealthy as possible, piling on the booze and calories while trying desperately not to start a fight with our family over politics, and then go back to real life feeling, if not terrible, then at least a bit guilty about ourselves.

Maybe you’re worried about how all of the things you just ingested might impact your health, maybe you’re just feeling a little bit bloated from baking and consuming all of the seasonal cookies offered on the New York Times Cooking app. Time for a reset, you might think. A week or two of apple cider vinegar and supplements, and all of that unhealthy stuff you’ve ingested will be flushed away, never to return (until you do it all again next year).

The reality:

The problem with this, of course, is that it’s complete nonsense. Your body generally doesn’t need help getting rid of toxins, and if you do find yourself in a situation where it does, you probably will feel more than simply bloated.

You are, in fact, technically exposed to innumerable toxic substances each day. That’s because most things can be toxic in high doses. A great example of this is caffeine: Most people don’t realize that they’re chugging down a serious neurotoxin with their pumpkin spice lattes and oat milk cappuccinos, but it’s true. At low doses, caffeine is one of the safest things you can consume regularly, with few if any negative health effects. At higher doses it can kill you quite quickly. That’s why Panera is now displaying warning signs about its caffeinated lemonade, and it’s how some scientists once seriously injured their research participants by giving them too much caffeine in an experiment.

It strikes me that fads like detox treatments are just a step below conspiracy theories; they both derive from simplistic, superficial understandings of how the world works. In fact, the human body is extremely efficient about warding off toxins; it’s had millions of years of evolution — the bodies that did it best are the ones that have survived — to refine its processes. But, as with conspiracy theories, fads like this are driven by cultural imperatives. Conform with your tribe. Feel special about being one of the few who know the truth.

The sad fact is that the best health advice anyone can give you is boring, simple, and just plain hard to follow. Don’t smoke, it’s extremely bad for you. Drink as little alcohol as possible—ideally, none at all. Eat a varied diet, try to limit calories. Exercise, ideally every day for at least 20 minutes, if not more. If you’re feeling really under the weather, see a licensed professional who is legally obligated to care about your health.


On a related note is that book by James Hamblin, Clean: The New Science of Skin, that I’ve mentioned at least once (on 29 Nov), that floats the idea that our modern obsession with cleanliness might actually be detrimental to our health — because, again, we’re overthinking the idea of cleanliness, which is antithetical to how our bodies, through evolution, have adjusted to live with the environment — the microbiomes in our guts and on our skin. We scrub our bodies, and then replace all the natural oils we’ve washed away with all sorts of lotions. There’s a vast industry encouraging us to do this.

Actually today, I’ve just started reading his book, the first 35 pages. But I have questions. OK then, if you bathe less often, what about body odor? If he doesn’t shower, how often does he clean his “bits”?

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