Yuri Milner’s 10-year alien-hunting project just posted its first data

  • Yuri Milner began a $100 million effort to listen for aliens in 2015.
  • It’s called Breakthrough Listen, and it’s a network of radio telescopes that target nearby stars and galaxies for 10 years.
  • The first batch of data found 11 significant “hits” out of millions.
  • None of them are evidence of aliens, but the project is just getting started.

alien spacecraft extraterrestrial propulsion lasers illustration m weiss cfa

In July of 2015, Breakthrough Initiatives — a non-profit dedicated to the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, founded by Yuri Milner — announced the creation of Breakthrough Listen.

A 10-year initiative costing $100 million, this program was aimed at using the latest in instrumentation and software to conduct the largest survey to date for extraterrestrial communications, encompassing the 1,000,000 closest stars and 100 closest galaxies.

On Thursday, April. 20th, at the Breakthrough Discuss conference, the organization shared their analysis of the first year of Listen data. Gathered by the Green Bank Radio Telescope, this data included an analysis of 692 stars, as well as 11 events that have been ranked for having the highest significance.

The results have been published on the project’s website, and will soon be published in the Astrophysical Journal.

Since 2016, Breakthrough Listen has been gathering data with the Green Bank Radio Telescopein West Virginia, the Lick Observatory’s Automated Planet Finder on Mt. Hamilton in California, and the Parkes Radio Telescope in Australia. This data is analyzed by the Listenscience team at the Berkeley SETI Research Center (BSRC), who rely on a specially-designed data pipeline to scan through billions of radio channels for any sign of unique signals.

green bank radio telescope nrao aui nsfThe Green Bank Telescope (GBT), a radio telescope located at the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia.NRAO/AUI/NSF

While the results were not exactly definitive, this is just the first step in a program that will span a decade.

As Dr. Andrew Siemion, the Director of the BSRC, explained in a BI press release:

“With the submission of this paper, the first scientific results from Breakthrough Listen are now available for the world to review. Although the search has not yet detected a convincing signal from extraterrestrial intelligence, these are early days. The work that has been completed so far provides a launch pad for deeper and more comprehensive analysis to come.”

The Green Bank Telescope searched for these signals using its “L-band” receiver, which gathers data in frequencies ranging from 1.1 to 1.9 GHz. At these frequencies, artificial signals can be distinguished from natural sources, which includes pulsars, quasars, radio galaxies and even the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB).

Within these parameters, the BSRC team examined 692 stars from its primary target list.

For each star, they conducting three five-minutes observation periods, while also conducting five-minute observations on a set of secondary targets. Combined with a Doppler drift search — a perceived difference in frequency caused by the motion of the source or receiver (i.e. the star and/or Earth) — the Listen science team identified channels where radio emission were seen for each target (aka. “hits”).

CSIROs Parkes radio telescope dishThe Parkes radio telescope, one of the telescopes comprising CSIRO’s Australia Telescope National Facility.CSIRO

This led to a combined 400 hours and 8 petabytes worth of observational data. All together, the team found millions of hits from the sample data as a whole, and 11 events that rose above the threshold for significance.

These events (which are listed here) took place around 11 distant stars and ranged from to 25.4 to 3376.9 SNR (Signal-to-Noise Ratio). However, the vast majority of the overall hits were determined to be the result of radio frequency interference from local sources.

What’s more, further analysis of the 11 events indicated that it was unlikely that any of the signals were artificial in nature. While these stars all exhibited their own unique radio “fingerprints”, this is not necessarily an indication that they are being broadcast by intelligent species.

But of course, finding localized and unusual radio signals is an excellent way to select targets for follow-up examination. And if there is evidence to be found out there of intelligent species using radio signals to communicate, Breakthrough Listen is likely to be the one that finds them.

Of all the SETI programs mounted to date, Listen is by far the most sophisticated.

Not only do its radio surveys cover 10 times more sky than previous programs, but its instruments are 50 times more sensitive than telescopes that are currently engaged in the search for extra-terrestrial life. They also cover 5 times more of the radio spectrum, and at speeds that are 100 times as fast.

Between now and when it concludes in the coming decade, the BSRC team plans to release updated Listen data once every six months.

lick observatory automated planet finder copyright laurie hatchAerial view of the Automated Planet Finder at the Lick Observatory.UC Berkeley/Lick Observatory/Laurie Hatch

In the meantime, they are actively engaging with signal processing and machine learning experts to develop more sophisticated algorithms to analyze the data they collect. And while they continue to listen for extra-solar sources of life, Breakthrough Starshot continues to develop the first concept for a laser-driven lightsail, which they hope will make the first interstellar voyage in the coming years.

And of course, we here in the Solar System are looking forward to missions in the coming decade that will search for life right here, in our own backyard. These include missions to Europa, Enceladus, Titan, and other “ocean worlds” where life is believed to exist in some exotic form!



7 books that will give you the tech knowledge you need to start a business

We hear of Mark Zuckerberg’s possible interest in running for president. We refer to Elon by his first name. Bill Gates is the richest man in the world.

And every college kid dreams of becoming a tech billionaire. There’s a certain ‘hollywoodization’ of entrepreneurship.

man reading on bench

It’s also much easier to start a business. Throw up a website using one of the many templates out there, host it on Amazon Web Services or GoDaddy, find a problem you think exists, and go about trying to solve it.

In some cases, folks even try to raise money before the idea is fully fleshed out. It feels that easy. What this has led to is a false narrative about the required level of understanding of what you need to build a business.

It’s the easiest time in the world to start a business, but it’s also never been harder to build one.

I hear this gap in the foundational understanding of business and technology in the many conversations I have with founders. While I recommend that actually doing the work of starting a business and screwing it up is the best way to learn, I also share the story of ‘the Elephant and the blind men‘:

A group of blind men all touch an elephant to learn what it is like. Each one touches a different part and consequently think it is something other than an elephant.

One cannot tell the whole from the parts; just because you think you see a small part of a problem in an industry does not mean you understand how to solve the problem. Most entrepreneurs jump into solving a problem without truly understanding the whole picture, or the ‘why’ of the problem.

To help these founders along, I recommend some books that provide a systems understanding of technology. Here are nine books that’ll ramp you up quickly so that, when you do step out there to start your business, you understand the trends you’re riding, what part of the business cycle you’re in, and what foundational systems/models you’re going up against.

Penguin Books

1. ‘What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly

A good friend and fellow utility tech enthusiast friend (Eugene Granovsky) clued me into this book. Kevin Kelly would be considered the opposite of Neil Postman (below), as he is one of the foremost proponents of the value that we can gain from the technological changes that are inevitable in our lives.

He shares more of the expectations that he has of the technological systems changes around us in his newest book “The Inevitables.” We’re already seeing the HOLOS = Tech/The Machine + 7 Billion Souls, a force he expounds upon, at play around us.

Chelsea Green Publishing

2. ‘Thinking In Systems: A Primerby Donella Meadow

This book explains the need to understand systems as a whole. A holistic understanding of systems and the models that operate within these systems at all times is necessary before any disruption can happen. As I like to say (and unfortunately I cannot remember where or from whom I first heard this quote): “to disrupt a thing, you have to truly understand it.”

W. W. Norton & Company

3. ‘The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson, Andrew McAfee

The current backlash against AI, robots, etc., is nothing new. This book focuses on the impact of exponential and combinatorial technological change on human work. Read this as much for the message (we need to proactively do something to push back the worsening conditions of income disparity brought on by technology) as for the study of the systems that are impacted by game-changing technological advances like AI and machine learning.


4. ‘The Master Switch by Tim Wu

I’m a big Tim Wu fan. In this book, he discusses the impact of technology (and the information flow that our technology makes possible) on the TV, movie and internet industries.

The book is as much a journey through the life of these industries as it is a description of the cycles that technology goes through as they become ubiquitous; all useful technology is innovative until it becomes commonplace. Pair the book with his new one “The Attention Merchants to learn more about how we got to this point in the life of the internet.


5. ‘Future Shock by Alvin Toffler

I am currently reading this book again, and amongst the many quotes that one can pull from this prescient book, one that speaks to the now of communication technology, is: “…but in almost every other communications medium we can trace a decreasing reliance on mass audiences. Everywhere the ‘market segmentation, process is at work.”

Another quote that is closely related to the premise of “The Second Machine Age” (above) in the age of AI is: “there are discoverable limits to the amount of change that the human can absorb, and that by endlessly accelerating change without first determining these limits, we may submit masses of (hu)mans to demands they simply cannot tolerate.”

While some of the context might be outdated, as the book was written in 1970, the overarching musings (the accelerating pace of change and of information overload) still hold true today. Probably more so.


6. ‘Technopoly by Neil Postman

The copy of this book I read is actually my wife’s copy from her undergraduate degree days. Apparently, in her major at Stanford, she had to read this and share her views on the perspectives provided by Neil Postman.

It’s the most marked book I’ve ever read (she’s studious like that) but that element of it (someone else’s notes) makes it a fantastic read of a great book that focuses on the inequalities that technology brings to society.

Mariner Books

7. ‘The Life of Pi by Yann Martel

This might seem like an odd one to include on here until you read why. I was having a conversation with Jeremy Adelman about this blog post and… you know what, I’ll let him explain more eloquently than I could why this book helps you understand technology (hint: it helps us understand our biases, and we all know our biases seep into the products we build):

“Few books force you to confront who you are and your perception of situations and trends. We all have filters and lenses through which we perceive the world and our interpretation of our present and future is wholly through these lenses. This is a critical realization if you want to look at technology trends and build a product that is both on trend and lasting in its ability to solve human pains. Life Of Pi truly makes us think about these lenses and biases.”


How to deal with people you don’t like

Unless you’re a genetic anomaly, it’s likely you will meet people you don’t like throughout your lifetime. Whether it’s your mother-in-law or one of your colleagues, you’re bound to come across someone you simply don’t click with.

According to Deep Patel, author of the book A Paperboy’s Fable: The 11 Principles of Success, it helps to remember nobody’s perfect. That includes you.

In a blog post for Entrepreneur.com, Patel highlights some tips successful people use to deal with people they don’t get along with. After all, it’s unlikely you’ll simply be able to avoid people you don’t like — in fact, Patel argues if you restrict who you can work with, you are only limiting yourself.

Instead of burying your head in the sand, try and shift your perspective in the ways successful people do. Here are some tips from Patel and other sources such as Psychology Today.

woman success
1. Accept that you can’t get on with everyone.

As much as we hope to like everyone we meet, it often simply isn’t the case. Patel says the first step to dealing with the people you don’t click with is accepting nobody gets on with everyone, and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, and it doesn’t mean they are either (not necessarily, anyway.)

According to psychologist Dr Susan Krauss in a blog post on Psychology Today, it’s likely that you and the person just aren’t a good fit. Consultant and author Beverly D. Flaxington explains in another blog post on Psychology Today that our behavioural styles can get come between people. Some are dominant, whereas others are timid. Some people are optimists and others consider themselves “realists.”

A research paper by Hamstra et al looked at something called “regulatory fit,” which translates as: we are much more likely to put effort into the things we like doing. Chances are you don’t enjoy interacting with the people you don’t like, and so you don’t put much effort in. Over time, this lack of effort can turn into contempt.

2. Try and put a positive spin on what they are saying.

Krauss says you could try and look at how people are acting differently. Your in-laws might not have meant to imply that you aren’t smart, and your co-worker may not actually be trying to sabotage you.

Even if the person you’re having difficulty with is aggravating you on purpose, getting angry about it will probably just make you look bad. So try and give them the benefit of the doubt.

3. Be aware of your own emotions.

Patel says it’s important to remember your own emotions matter, but ultimately you alone have control over how you react to situations. People will only drive you crazy if you allow them to. So don’t let your anger spin out of control.

If someone is rubbing you the wrong way, recognise those feelings and then let them go without engaging with the person. Sometimes just smiling and nodding will do the trick.

The key, Patel says, is in treating everyone you meet with the same level of respect. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with a person you don’t like or go along with what they say, but you should act civilised and be polite. In doing this, you can remain firm on your issues but not come across like you’re attacking someone personally, which should give you the upper hand.

4. Don’t take it personally and get some space.

More often than not a disagreement is probably a misunderstanding. If not, and you really do fundamentally disagree with someone, then try and see it from their perspective.

Try not to overreact, because they may overreact in return, meaning things escalate quickly and fiercely. Try to rise above it all by focusing on facts, and try to ignore how the other person is reacting, no matter how ridiculous or irrational. Concentrate on the issue, Patel says, not the person.

If you need some space, take it. You’re perfectly within your rights to establish boundaries and decide when you interact with someone. If you feel yourself getting worked up, take a time-out and get some breathing space. President of TalentSmart Dr. Travis Bradberry explains it simply in a post on LinkedIn: if they were smoking, would you sit there all afternoon inhaling the second-hand smoke? No, you’d move away and get some fresh air.

5. Express your feelings calmly and consider using a referee.

Usually, the way we communicate is more important than what we actually say. If someone is repeatedly annoying you and it’s leading to bigger problems, Patel says it’s probably time to say something.

However, confrontation doesn’t have to be aggressive. Patel recommends you use “I” statements, such as “I feel annoyed when you do this, so could you please do this instead.”

Being as specific as possible will make it more likely the person will take what you’re saying on board. It will also give them a better opportunity to share their side of the story.

Krauss says it might be a good idea to use another person as a mediator in these discussions because they can bring a level of objectivity to a situation. You may not end up as friends, but you might find out a way to communicate and work together in an effective way. She says learning to work with people you find difficult is a very fulfilling experience, and it could become one more way of showing how well you overcome barriers.

6. Pick your battles.

Sometimes it might just be easier to let things go. Not everything is worth your time and attention. You have to ask yourself whether you really want to engage with the person, or your effort might be better spent just getting on with your work, or whatever else you’re doing.

Patel says the best way to figure this out is weighing up whether the issue is situational. Will it go away in time, or could it get worse? If it’s the latter, it might be better expending energy into sorting it out sooner or later. If it’s just a matter of circumstance, you’ll probably get over it fairly quickly.

7. Don’t be defensive.

If you find someone is constantly belittling you or focusing on your flaws, don’t bite. The worst thing you can do is be defensive. Patel says this will only give them more power. Instead, turn the spotlight on them and start asking them probing questions, such as what in particular their problem is with what you’re doing.

If they start bullying you, call them out on it. If they want you to treat them with respect, they have to earn it by being civil to you, too. Dr Berit Brogaard, a neuroscientist, explains in a blog post on Psychology Today that workplace gossip and bullying can be a method of power play, or a way of bullying others into submission.

If you want to be sneaky to get someone to agree with you, there are psychological tricks you can use. Research suggests you should speak faster when disagreeing with someone so they have less time to process what you’re saying. If you think they might be agreeing with you, then slow down so they have time to take in your message.

8. Ultimately, remember you are in control of your own happiness.

If someone is really getting on your nerves, it can be difficult to see the bigger picture. However, you should never let someone else limit your happiness or success.

If you’re finding their comments are really getting to you, ask yourself why that is. Are you self-conscious about something, or are you anxious about something at work? If so, focus on this instead of listening to other people’s complaints.

You alone have control over your feelings, so stop comparing yourself to anyone else. Instead, remind yourself of all your achievements, and don’t let someone gain power over you just because they momentarily darken your day.


Never Put Two Spaces After A Period

Can I let you in on a secret? Typing two spaces after a period is totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong.

And yet people who use two spaces are everywhere, their ugly error crossing every social boundary of class, education, and taste.

You’d expect, for instance, that anyone savvy enough to read Slate would know the proper rules of typing, but you’d be wrong; every third e-mail I get from readers includes the two-space error. (In editing letters for “Dear Farhad,” my occasional tech-advice column, I’ve removed enough extra spaces to fill my forthcoming volume of melancholy epic poetry, The Emptiness Within.)


The public relations profession is similarly ignorant; I’ve received press releases and correspondence from the biggest companies in the world that are riddled with extra spaces. Some of my best friends are irredeemable two spacers, too, and even my wife has been known to use an unnecessary extra space every now and then (though she points out that she does so only when writing to other two-spacers, just to make them happy).

What galls me about two-spacers isn’t just their numbers. It’s their certainty that they’re right. Over Thanksgiving dinner last year, I asked people what they considered to be the “correct” number of spaces between sentences. The diners included doctors, computer programmers, and other highly accomplished professionals.

Everyone—everyone!—said it was proper to use two spaces. Some people admitted to slipping sometimes and using a single space—but when writing something formal, they were always careful to use two. Others explained they mostly used a single space but felt guilty for violating the two-space “rule.” Still others said they used two spaces all the time, and they were thrilled to be so proper.

When I pointed out that they were doing it wrong—that, in fact, the correct way to end a sentence is with a period followed by a single, proud, beautiful space—the table balked. “Who says two spaces is wrong?” they wanted to know.

Typographers, that’s who. The people who study and design the typewritten word decided long ago that we should use one space, not two, between sentences. That convention was not arrived at casually. James Felici, author of the The Complete Manual of Typography, points out that the early history of type is one of inconsistent spacing.

Hundreds of years ago some typesetters would end sentences with a double space, others would use a single space, and a few renegades would use three or four spaces. Inconsistency reigned in all facets of written communication; there were few conventions regarding spelling, punctuation, character design, and ways to add emphasis to type. But as typesetting became more widespread, its practitioners began to adopt best practices. Felici writes that typesetters in Europe began to settle on a single space around the early 20th century. America followed soon after.

Every modern typographer agrees on the one-space rule. It’s one of the canonical rules of the profession, in the same way that waiters know that the salad fork goes to the left of the dinner fork and fashion designers know to put men’s shirt buttons on the right and women’s on the left.

Every major style guide—including the Modern Language Association Style Manual and the Chicago Manual of Style—prescribes a single space after a period. (The Publications Manual of the American Psychological Association, used widely in the social sciences, allows for two spaces in draft manuscripts but recommends one space in published work.)

Most ordinary people would know the one-space rule, too, if it weren’t for a quirk of history. In the middle of the last century, a now-outmoded technology—the manual typewriter—invaded the American workplace. To accommodate that machine’s shortcomings, everyone began to type wrong. And even though we no longer use typewriters, we all still type like we do.

 The problem with typewriters was that they used monospaced type—that is, every character occupied an equal amount of horizontal space. This bucked a long tradition ofproportional typesetting, in which skinny characters (like I or 1) were given less space than fat ones (like W or M).

Monospaced type gives you text that looks “loose” and uneven; there’s a lot of white space between characters and words, so it’s more difficult to spot the spaces between sentences immediately. Hence the adoption of the two-space rule—on a typewriter, an extra space after a sentence makes text easier to read. Here’s the thing, though: Monospaced fonts went out in the 1970s.

First electric typewriters and then computers began to offer people ways to create text using proportional fonts. Today nearly every font on your PC is proportional. (Courier is the one major exception.) Because we’ve all switched to modern fonts, adding two spaces after a period no longer enhances readability, typographers say. It diminishes it.

Type professionals can get amusingly—if justifiably—overworked about spaces.

“Forget about tolerating differences of opinion: typographically speaking, typing two spaces before the start of a new sentence is absolutely, unequivocally wrong,” Ilene Strizver, who runs a typographic consulting firm The Type Studioonce wrote. “When I see two spaces I shake my head and I go, Aye yay yay,” she told me. “I talk about ‘type crimes’ often, and in terms of what you can do wrong, this one deserves life imprisonment. It’s a pure sign of amateur typography.”

“A space signals a pause,” says David Jury, the author of About Face: Reviving The Rules of Typography. “If you get a really big pause—a big hole—in the middle of a line, the reader pauses. And you don’t want people to pause all the time. You want the text to flow.”

This readability argument is debatable. Typographers can point to no studies or any other evidence proving that single spaces improve readability. When you press them on it, they tend to cite their aesthetic sensibilities. As Jury says, “It’s so bloody ugly.”

But I actually think aesthetics are the best argument in favor of one space over two. One space is simpler, cleaner, and more visually pleasing (it also requires less work, which isn’t nothing). A page of text with two spaces between every sentence looks riddled with holes; a page of text with an ordinary space looks just as it should.

Is this arbitrary? Sure it is. But so are a lot of our conventions for writing. It’s arbitrary that we write shop instead of shoppe, or phone instead of fone, or that we use ! to emphasize a sentence rather than %. We adopted these standards because practitioners of publishing—writers, editors, typographers, and others—settled on them after decades of experience. Among their rules was that we should use one space after a period instead of two—so that’s how we should do it.

Besides, the argument in favor of two spaces isn’t any less arbitrary. Samantha Jacobs, a reading and journalism teacher at Norwood High School in Norwood, Col., told me that she requires her students to use two spaces after a period instead of one, even though she acknowledges that style manuals no longer favor that approach. Why? Because that’s what she’s used to. “Primarily, I base the spacing on the way I learned,” she wrote me in an e-mail glutted with extra spaces.

Several other teachers gave me the same explanation for pushing two spaces on their students. But if you think about, that’s a pretty backward approach: The only reason today’s teachers learned to use two spaces is because their teachers were in the grip of old-school technology.

We would never accept teachers pushing other outmoded ideas on kids because that’s what was popular back when they were in school. The same should go for typing. So, kids, if your teachers force you to use two spaces, send them a link to this article. Use this as your subject line: “If you type two spaces after a period, you’re doing it wrong.”


Turning down your heat could improve your life

My dearest wish is to one day have the pleasure of living in a small cabin in the frigid wilderness.

There I will spend my nights covered in heavy wool blankets, eating smoked fish and dried fruit.

Over time, my beard will grow to the point where I’ll be indistinguishable from a medium-sized woodland creature.

The villagers I’ll come to know during my rare visits to town will call me “the wolfman,” not least because I will communicate solely by howling and scratching out messages with my clawlike fingernails.

For now, I live in a big city, where such unconventional grooming habits are frowned upon, but I make a point of using very little heat.

 cold weather

I’ve suffered for living the no-heat lifestyle. Friends will come to my apartment from time to time and ostentatiously shiver, as if to tell me that I am somehow letting them down by not swaddling them like newborns in a pillowy bosom of artificial heat.

There are times when I’ve been tempted to fill my bathtub with molten lava. If you like artificial heat so much, I say to them in my imagination, why not soak in this magma bath?

Though it is not my job to tell you how to live — I respect you too much for that — I urge you to at least consider turning down your thermostat too.

I ask you not because of the devastating environmental consequences that flow from your heat addiction. I know you well enough to know that you don’t give a damn about this planet we call home, which you routinely defile with your candy bar wrappers and the greenhouse gases that belch from the airplanes you love to fly.

Instead, I will appeal to your selfishness, you heat-loving scalawags. All of that heating oil, natural gas, and firewood you’re burning up is sapping you of your emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being.

To my lasting dismay, Americans routinely heat their living rooms to 70 degrees Fahrenheit, and their bedrooms to a balmy 68 degrees. That anyone can sleep in such temperatures boggles the mind.

It is a minor miracle that US homes aren’t being overrun by lush tropical plants, even in the dead of winter. What is it that you people are doing at these temperatures? Are you stripping down to your underpants and performing ritual dances in worship of Ra, the sun god of ancient Egypt, even as snow falls outside?

That I can understand, and indeed I’ve been known to indulge in a bit of Ra worship myself every now and again. But surely this is not an every-night activity. Are you grilling Italian sausages on top of your radiators? As delicious as this sounds, it is generally best to grill such protein-rich delights in the device George Foreman builds expressly for this purpose.

Are you slow-roasting yourselves for the benefit of the wandering ogres who will one day devour you? Fair enough. Yet you should know that your average ogre prefers to eat his humans al dente.

Granted, there are some for whom lower temperatures are simply intolerable. My parents, for example, were born and raised in a semitropical part of the world, and they find the cold hard to bear. Having been raised by heat-lovers, it took me a while to fully adapt to the no-heat lifestyle.

At first I’d turn down the thermostat and bundle up. When I’d lounge around my apartment, I’d wrap myself in multiple layers of high-tech synthetic fabrics. I’d cover my body so thoroughly that I’d look much like a bulky snow ninja, complete with balaclava.

While wearing this getup, I’d alternate between doing jumping jacks and karate-chopping the cold. Truth be told, I felt rather proud of myself. But that’s before I realized that I was cheating myself of the full benefits of going without heat. No, if you’re going to really embrace the no-heat lifestyle, you can’t wear 12 sweaters and a knit cap (a look I like to call “freezecore”) to bed. Instead, you have to turn down the thermostat … and then get naked.

There is growing evidence that shivering can transform white fat into brown fat, a transformation that appears to protect animals from diabetes and obesity. I won’t pretend to understand this strange alchemy. This “science” of yours frightens and confuses me.

My crude understanding is that while white fat simply stores energy, brown fat burns energy to keep us from turning into popsicles. The more time we spend in artificially hot environments, the more our brown fat deposits just wither away.

One result is that we grow plumper, and more vulnerable to all manner of maladies. You don’t have to shiver to activate your brown fat deposits. Simply lowering the thermostat to, say, 60 degrees will keep your brown fat active.

So no, I’m not telling you to let indoor temperatures fall below zero, or to allow your pipes to freeze and burst. That would be foolish. Rather, I am urging you to endure uncomfortably low temperatures.

Potential health benefits aside, the no-heat lifestyle will put you in touch with the rhythms of the natural world. Winter is with us for a few months at most. Why not lower your defenses and savor it?

Instead of turning up the heat, you ought to eat more soup. Let the brown fat deposits build. Invite the snowperson you’ve built in your backyard to move in, and to pay her share of the rent. Let the cold chisel away your weakness, leaving behind a lean, wolflike creature ready to take a bite out of life. You will thank me later.


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