What If? Rejects #6.1: A Well-Balanced Meal, Part 3

Two years ago, I began a series of posts based on Randall Munroe’s book, What If? The What If? book and website are described as “serious scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions.” However, there were some questions that were too absurd even for Randall. He printed a couple dozen of them in his book without answering them, just for the humor value, but I decided I would answer them. Thus, the What If? Rejects series was born.

Unfortunately, my life went nuts while I was finishing my doctorate, and my blogging mostly fell by the wayside for the past year, leaving the series half finished. But now, I’m bringing it back!

When last we met, I was in the middle of answering “Weird (and Worrying) Questions from the What If? Inbox #6”, Question 1: What is the total nutritional value (calories, fat, vitamins, minerals, etc.) of the average human body?

I calculated the calorie count of the average human body in this post: 560 servings of 200 calories each. In my second post, I calculated the macronutrients: fats, carbs, and protein, including sugar and cholesterol. Now, it’s time for the micronutrients: the vitamins and minerals.

The FDA only requires vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron, and sodium quantities to be listed in products’ nutrition facts labels, but lets do all of them. There are 13 essential vitamins and 15 essential minerals that are needed by the human body, and calculating how much of them can be found in the body is actually quite a bit easier than figuring out carbs, proteins, and fats.

You see, each vitamin and mineral has something called a biological half-life. This is a little like a radioactive half-life, but instead of the time it takes for half of a substance to decay, it’s the time it takes for one half of a particular chemical to be eliminated from the body. So in order to find out how much of a vitamin or mineral is in a healthy human body, you just take its Reference Dietary Intake (formerly Recommended Daily Allowance), multiply by its biological half-life, multiply by 1.44 because logarithms, and you’re done.

Finding out the Daily Value per serving is even easier. The biological half life times 1.44 tells you the number of Daily Values in the body directly. Then just divide by the number of servings. For many vitamins, the number is zero: they get metabolized into other chemicals in the body in a matter of hours. Minerals, on the other hand, can stick around for a long time. You can look up the numbers for yourself, but here’s the end result:

Vitamin A: 64%          Vitamin B1: 3%          Vitamin B2: 0%

Vitamin B3: 0%          Vitamin B5: 0%          Vitamin B6: 0%

Vitamin B7: 0%          Vitamin B9: 3%          Vitamin B12: 2%

Vitamin C: 4%          Vitamin D: 4%          Vitamin E: 1%

Vitamin K: 0%

Sodium: 5%                   Magnesium: 11%          Phosphorus: 5%

Chlorine: 3%                  Calcium: 4,629%          Potassium: 4%

Chromium: 158%          Manganese: 10%          Iron: 469%

Cobalt: 1%                       Copper: 5%                   Zinc: 72%

Selenium: 26%                Molybdenum: 1%          Iodine: 21%

Note that the average of the human body (as opposed to particular tissues) is not particularly edible because you are liable to overdose on iron.

Book Review: Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel

Sleeping Giants is one of those books I picked up blind. I knew nothing about the author, and I hadn’t heard the book recommended. All I knew was what was printed on the dust jacket.

And I loved it.

Sleeping Giants, the debut novel of Québécois author Sylvain Neuvel, is a sci-fi thriller told in the style of The Martian and World War Z, through journal entries and interview transcripts with someone who seems to be a scary, faceless government agent.

It all started when a young girl named Rose Franklin fell down a hole and landed on a giant metal hand. Years later, Rose is a scientist recruited to study the hand and find more pieces of what turns out to be a giant alien robot, which in ancient times was the inspiration for the Greek goddess Themis.

Or, if you're Neuvel's son, a cool action figure. Credit: The University of Chicago Magazine.

Or, if you’re Neuvel’s son, the backstory of a cool action figure. Credit: The University of Chicago Magazine.

Of course, after that, everything goes wrong, and disaster, destruction, political scheming, and the specter of the aliens noticing something amiss all mean that the robot causes a lot more trouble than it solves.

Sleeping Giants is a page turner for sure. It has plenty of personal drama, political machinations, and pretty good science, too. The plot also has at least three big twists coming out of left field to keep things exciting.

I admit I wasn’t completely sold on the book until the very end. I didn’t particularly like where Mr. Neuvel was going with it for a while, but I changed my mind immediately when I saw he was teasing a sequel. The final twist kept the mystery alive and completely changed my perspective on the story without feeling cheap. The sequel, Waking Gods, will be released next April, and I am eager to read it.

My rating: 5 out of 5.

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child


Well…here we go.

I’m a big Harry Potter fan, so when I heard that J. K. Rowling was writing a stage play to follow the adventures of Harry’s son, Albus, and Draco Malfoy’s son, Scorpius, I was disappointed that I would have very little prospect of seeing it…and then excited when I heard that the script would be published on premier night…and then disappointed again at the quality of that script. But it was better than it could have been.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is the latest installment in the Harry Potter universe. It’s a stage play, and the script is available in bookstores everywhere. But the reviews have been…mixed. Viewers who actually watched the play on stage loved it, but those who read the story in cold paper and ink were not so enamored. And I’m not just talking about the people who were mad that it’s a script and not a book. Many readers had far more substantive problems with it.

I’m going to be nice and #KeepTheSecrets for now. I’ll probably revisit the substantive plot problems later.

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Movie Review: Star Trek Beyond


Well, it’s been a long time coming. It’s crazy how busy it is trying to finish a dissertation. But here it is: my review of Star Trek Beyond. (Dramatic pause…)

That was awesome!

Star Trek Beyond, directed by Justin Lin, is the thirteenth Star Trek film and the third of the reboot/new timeline. And it is hands-down the best of the new movies. I thought Star Trek was pretty good. Star Trek: Into Darkness was a mediocre remake of The Wrath of Khan. So according to the curse, in which alternating films are good and bad, this movie ought to be good…and it delivers. This is the best Star Trek since First Contact.

This isn’t your typical Star Trek film. The Enterprise is destroyed in the first half hour with little more than a glimpse of the mysterious villain, Krall. But that’s thankfully pretty much the only nod to Star Trek III and IV. The story of Captain Kirk and his crew picking up the pieces and stopping a deadly plot is original and brilliantly pulled off, complete with humor, drama, adventure, and a surprise twist at the end.

And don’t get me started on the visuals of Starbase Yorktown. That was some of the most beautiful sci-fi scenery I’ve ever seen. The artists really outdid themselves on that one.

If you haven’t had a chance to see it, definitely check out Star Trek Beyond.

My rating: 5 out of 5.

Classic Sci-Fi Recommendation: A Case of Conscience by James Blish

A Case of Conscience, a 1958 novel by James Blish, is one of the few sci-fi novels that really tackles religion and theology head-on, especially in a setting with aliens. I’ll admit that the writing is not stellar, despite the Hugo Award. It’s decent, but the plot is rushed in many places and in my opinion does not explore several key issues in sufficient depth. However, the theological questions it raises are most intriguing.

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Flight Training

A Short Story

In a scene that looked almost like it could have been in an ordinary classroom, about fifteen middle children from the ages of five to fifteen were sitting in a lecture hall, waiting for the seminar to start. They all looked normal enough, but you could never tell these days. Twenty or twenty-five of their parents sat in the rows behind them, regarding the scene playing out between the front and back of the room.

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Book Review: The Dark Forest by Liu Cixin

The Dark Forest is the sequel to the The Three-Body Problem, which I reviewed previously. This is the second book in Liu Cixin’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, the bestselling science fiction saga in China. The English translation came out last year, and I’ve finally had time to read it.

The Trisolarans, technologically advanced beings from a dying planet around Alpha Centauri, have sent an invasion fleet to conquer Earth and wipe out the human race. But this isn’t the kind of invasion we normally see in fiction. The alien fleet will not arrive for 400 years. The bad news is that they’ve sent sophons–artificial intelligences imprinted on subatomic particles–to interfere with our scientific experiments and stop our technological progress.

Humanity has but one advantage: the Trisolarans are telepathic, and that means they don’t understand secrecy and deception. The United Nations chooses four people to be the Wallfacers–people who will invent secret plans in the privacy of their minds to fight the Trisolarans and will be given great resources to carry them out. Two of the Wallfacers are military leaders and one a brilliant scientist, but the fourth is an unknown Chinese astronomer, Luo Ji, with no major accomplishments to his name. He has no idea why he was chosen and no idea how to save the world. But for some reason, the Trisolarans want him dead…

The Dark Forest is, in many ways, a mystery novel, but with many mysteries to untangle. It’s very well written, with plenty of twists of plot and turns of fortune. Each of the mysteries is well-crafted, and most of them had the desired effect on me (as David Brin says) to make me say, “Of course! Why didn’t I see that before?” The storytelling is top-notch and successful drives the plot from “all is lost” to “all is won” and back more than once while still seeming (mostly) believable. It’s thought provoking, too, and the ending was positively brilliant.

I have to issue a couple of criticisms, however. The first, relatively minor, is that Mr. Liu’s lack of technical knowledge shows more here than in the previous book–thinking that large telescopes are made with lenses instead of mirrors, for example. But my main problem with the book is its deep cynicism. That the United Nations would rule trying to build an escape fleet a crime against humanity because no one could decide who got to go on it may be believable from a Chinese perspective (although I can’t state that with confidence one way or the other), but it seems absurd from my American perspective. And at risk of spoilers, the foolish way Earth’s fleet meets the Trisolaran probe is even worse, and the whole concept of the Dark Forest of space that Luo Ji lays out seems to be obviated by the existence of the sophons.

This cynicism definitely detracted from the story more than in the first book. And yet, the quality of the storytelling kept it very compelling. And with an ending that looks at first glance like a final curtain call, I’m very interested to see what new challenges await in the final installment, Death’s End, which will be available in English this September.

My rating: 4 out of 5.