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Not so fast! July 27, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Cosmology.
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Ok, now I usually don’t use this blog to talk about my beliefs (I subscribe to no religious doctrine and am not an atheist), but there are some things I need to say.

I follow Phil Plait’s very informative blog, Bad Astronomy. Recently he linked to this post in Jennifer Ouellette’s blog, Twisted Physics.

In her post In Praise of Insignificance, Jennifer Ouellette says: “If one embraces an atheist worldview, it necessarily requires embracing, even celebrating, one’s insignificance. It’s a tall order, I know, when one is accustomed to being the center of attention.”

Centre of whose attention, may I ask? Are we not still the centre of attention? If we’re not, what is?

It’s a mistake to assume that with atheism comes insignificance. How insignificant are we if everything is “just this,” where the “this” is infinitely amazing? We are the beholders, the consciousnesses. We define our own existences (at least more than free-falling balls of dirty ice do, ie perceive that we define our own existences), make decisions and answer to no one. That’s exactly as significant as you think it is.

The word “significance” loses its meaning when used to describe atheist cosmology. In the atheist universe, nothing signifies anything; at least not in the way that human existence signifies God’s love for creation in Christian belief, or that committing a sin signifies a rejecting of God’s freely-given love.

I find it frustrating when people ooh and aah to great length, sermonizing about our tiny existences. Come on! Are we seriously still having this conversation? The idea itself is old-fashioned. Scale goes on and on in both directions, leaving us somewhere in the middle, just like everything else. On the earth a grain of sand is small, in the universe a galaxy is small. There may be an infinite number of full-sized universes. Let’s stop patting each other on the back for reminding each other that the cosmos is huge.

That being said, I still love a good night sky!

Some atheists argue that they don’t believe in a God because there is no evidence to back up this belief.

This is problematic in two ways. First of all, both atheists and religious believers like to choose their own field of engagement. The atheists say that there is no scientific evidence for God, and the religious say that the evidence is right there in their own canon. Both systems are essentially self-referential.

Second, the claim that there is no evidence for intelligent design (and I do not mean the “Christian” version of Intelligent Design that they say should be taught in science classes; that’s a whole other argument) only really works if God is a separate entity from the universe. St Augustine tackled this question in his Confessions, when he contested the dualism of the tangible and spiritual levels of existence. If we say that God is not separate from the universe but instead that the universe is a facet of God and that the ongoing process of creation is the unfolding will of God, then I’d say that in all the richness of the universe(s), through all dimensions, in all space, all time, and on every scale, there is certainly still plenty of room for believing that we are part of something infinitely greater than ourselves that is intrinsically good, supremely intelligent, and of which our own bodies and minds are simple derivatives.

It’s the same old Socratic chestnut: We don’t know, and those who say they know, know less. I say we try for less self-justification and self-congratulation, and more reasonable, tolerant discussion.

Two Apollo astronauts say manned missions to Mars should be next July 16, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Nasa, Space, The Future.
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Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, has an op-ed in today’s Washington Post. In it, he says that instead of concentrating on putting people back on the Moon, we should be trying to set up a permanent colony on Mars.

He says another race to the moon is a dead end: “While the lunar surface can be used to develop advanced technologies, it is a poor location for homesteading. The moon is a lifeless, barren world, its stark desolation matched by its hostility to all living things. And replaying the glory days of Apollo will not advance the cause of American space leadership or inspire the support and enthusiasm of the public and the next generation of space explorers.”

In support of manned missions to Mars, he says: “Climate change on a vast scale has reshaped Mars. With Earth in the throes of its own climate evolution, human outposts on Mars could be a virtual laboratory to study these vast planetary changes. And the best way to study Mars is with the two hands, eyes and ears of a geologist, first at a moon orbiting Mars and then on the Red Planet’s surface.”

At the same time, astronaut Mike Collins, command module pilot for Apollo 11, (who remained in the part of the craft that orbited the moon while the others walked on the surface) released a series of questions and answers on the Nasa website.

In it, Mr Collins also speaks out for at least one mission to Mars, if not to establish a permanent colony.

In answer to the question of what next, he says: “I hope Mars. It was my favourite planet as a kid and still is. As celestial bodies go, the moon is not a particularly interesting place, but Mars is. It is the closest thing to a sister planet that we have found so far. I worry that at NASA’s creeping pace, with the emphasis on returning to the moon, Mars may be receding into the distance. That’s about all I have to say.”

It’s encouraging to see the big guys coming out and speaking their minds in support of sending people to Mars. I hope they still have the influence they deserve.

During the Apollo era humanity was looking forward to a future of space exploration and human expansion into the solar system and beyond.

The day before the Apollo capsule splashed down into the Pacific Ocean, Buzz radioed: “We feel that this stands as a symbol of the insatiable curiosity of all mankind to explore the unknown.”

Now, that vision seems to have faded away. On one hand, robotic exploration has advanced in giant leaps (to borrow a phrase). On the other, no human has gone further than a few hundred miles away from Earth since the Apollo missions. The Moon is an average of about 239,000 miles away.

Maybe Buzz has a good point. A permanent colony on Mars would be able to carry out experiments and maybe missions of its own, given time. I’ve recently begun to think that robotic exploration of Europa, Titan and Enceladus should be the priority, but Buzz’s article has me thinking again about Mars.

After all, we’re still a one-world species. All the eggs, one big blue basket.

I’ll leave you with this. Most people think of the pre-launch countdown as “ten, nine, eight…” but did you know it actually begins 43 hours before liftoff? Read the breakdown in this article from nasa.gov.

Discussions on global warming and manned space flight, Sahara solar power July 9, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Climate Change, Technology, The Future.
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Two interesting discussions to point out today.
First, RealClimate has a brief article about the G8 countries agreeing to try to avoid anything more than two degrees of global warming. The comments vary from hopeful to sceptical and all the way out to cynical.
Second, space scientist Wes Huntress posted an article on The Space Review giving advice about the future of manned space exploration. It’s well worth a read, and the discussion in the comments section is enlightening.
The debate surrounding the future of manned spaceflight is an tricky one, especially as robotic technology gets cheaper and more powerful (see this awesome photo). I would love to see humans land on Mars in my lifetime, but I have a hard time coming up with rational arguments for sending them. Personally, I think we should be looking at the moons of Saturn and Jupiter (specifically Europa, Titan and Enceladus) for signs of life. These would be robotic missions, and I would hate to see them postponed in favour of human missions.
Is human space exploration only considered because of its public appeal, or its space-cowboy, Apollo-era sense of adventure? Is there anything wrong with that? I’d like to see your arguments for human spaceflight if you’ve got any.

There could be some good news coming for supporters of solar power: an article at the Economist says a meeting will take place on July 13 to drum up support for enormous solar power stations to be built in the Sahara. The meeting will be hosted by Munich Re, which has invited 20 other big companies including Siemens and Deutsche Bank.
It would be a hugely expensive project, but would aim to supply %15 of Europe’s power in 2050 as well as most of North Africa’s.

I hadn’t thought about power as a potential export from Africa before. Could generating and exporting power boost the economies of developing nations?

Finally, check out this story about blind people learning to “see” with echolocation! I had no idea!

Kepler reaches its destination, time travel and the Overview Effect May 15, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Animals, Astronomy, Nasa, Space, Uncategorized.
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The Kepler space telescope is trailing Earth in its orbit, and has begun scanning its small patch of sky for twinkling stars. It will be a long time before the telescope finds any extra-solar planets, because it relies on planets crossing between Kepler and their stars, causing the stars to dim. To ensure it really is a planet and not some other phenomenon or glitch, it has to watch for several regular transitions. Of course, each planet will cross its star once a year, so these periodic dimmings are few and far between. This means it will be years before the existence of extra-solar planets is confirmed. In other words, the sooner we get started the better. See my previous blog post with professor Mike Thompson for more information.

The new Star Trek movie apparently has some time travel in it. I haven’t seen it yet, and am generally wary of movies that use time travel as a plot device. However, there is a very interesting article about some of the false presumptions of time travel at the Discover website. The article answers a lot of questions that I’d had, and things that I’d puzzled over. Check it out!

Here‘s a good article about one man’s plans to examine the Overview Effect, the feeling of oneness that astronauts get when seeing the Earth from space. Apparently, this happens pretty regularly. I heard one Apollo astronaut (I forget which one) mention the feeling in the terrific documentary In the Shadow of the Moon, but I didn’t know it was such a common phenomenon.

Finally, you’ve got to see this slideshow on the National Geographic website featuring glow-in-the-dark animals.

Very smart birds, and Freeman Dyson thinks we should look for flowers on Europa May 8, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Animals, Climate Change, Extraterrestrial life.
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Here‘s a great article by the BBC about how birds are much smarter than we give them credit for. The first video is amazing. The crow sees food at the bottom of a short “chimney,” so takes a piece of wire and bends it into a hook to pull the food out!
For a long time I thought great apes and humans were the only animals that used tools. Now we see that not only do birds (specifically corvids, ie crows, ravens etc) use tools, but they can actually make them too. I had no idea.

Also, check out Freeman Dyson’s argument about methods for searching for extraterrestrial life (especially on Europa) in this New Scientist article. He uses flowers that grow in Antarctica as an example to suggest that we should look where it would be easier to detect, instead of trying to figure out how and where it would have evolved.

As the article mentions later though, the surface of Europa is bombarded with a huge amount of radiation from Jupiter, which could make life very difficult for flowers.

Space.com has an interesting article about how the radiation bombardment might actually give life a boost by producing a wider variety of chemicals that small life-forms could live off.

Freeman Dyson is a climate sceptic, and The New York Times has a very, very long article about him and his views here. Discover magazine blog Intersection has a scathing review of the article here.

National Ignition Facility. And, a waterwheel. May 5, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Technology, Uncategorized, What?.
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It’s been a long time, I know, but I’m back now and I hope to post regularly from here on. I just finished three weeks of work experience at two local papers, and followed that with a week-long, live-newspaper exercise for my course.

Things are back to “normal” now though, and except for looming deadlines (which are also “normal”) I have nothing in the pipeline except achieving 100 words-per-minute of shorthand and waiting for the World Conference of Science Journalists 2009 in London.
Also, my parents are popping by for a weekend in June.

Now that we’ve caught up, here’s the skinny:

First off, the BBC website has this article about a Sheffield group looking for investors to help set up a water wheel which could power “about 40 homes.” 40 homes?! That’s like one street!

The article quotes Rob Pilling, chairman for Sheffield Community Renewables, as saying: “Small schemes like this are nice because they generate lots of energy and people in the community can relate to them.”

Well, that’s nice. Wait a second…you received a government grant of GBP50,000 to help Sheffield become a low-carbon city and you’re using it to “deliver renewable energy schemes in Sheffield by giving local people the opportunity to make an ethical investment in these projects?” So, you’re using GBP50,000 of taxpayer money to encourage taxpayers to invest more of their money in schemes like water-wheels? What’s going on here? What’s this article even about? Give it a read and let me know.

Second, energy on a wholly different scale: The National Ignition Facility in Livermore, California is the first fusion lab that is actually expected to achieve fusion ignition, meaning more energy will be produced than consumed. Is nobody else as excited about this as I am? This changes everything!

192 lasers will hit a target the size of an air-rifle BB with a total of 1.8 million joules of ultraviolet energy, or 500 terawatts in two billionths of a second. This is about 500 times the peak power output of the US. That’s a lot of energy.

Check this article out for a great photo tour of the place. The comments are great too.

The NIF is my new favourite machine, even if countless computer games have warned against doing things like this. Will it open a portal to another dimension or turn someone accidentally trapped inside the chamber into a god? Even the hoped-for results are mind-blowing.

Someone should tell Walter Wagner about this. He’s the guy that filed the lawsuit against starting up the LHC for fear of it creating a black hole, and he gets torn to shreds (metaphorically) in this hilarious Daily Show video. Thanks to Bad Astronomy for catching it.

Classified Atlantis mission nearly ends in disaster, hopes shattered for Alcubierre “warp drive” April 5, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Cybernetics, Nasa, Space, The Future.
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www.spaceflightnow.com tells a dramatic story of when NASA almost lost space shuttle Atlantis on a “blacked out” mission to bring a top-secret spy satellite to orbit. So, a piece of insulating foam fell off the shuttle’s external fuel tank and took huge chunks out of the ceramic tiles that make up the shuttle’s black underbelly. These tiles protect the shuttle from the heat of re-entry. Remember Columbia? This was before that.

So the astronauts on board took a look at the underside (with the Canadarm maybe?) once they’d reached orbit and saw the catastrophic damage. However, because of the secret nature of the mission, they could only send back low-resolution video. People on the ground couldn’t make out the broken tiles, and ordered them to continue and land as normal…read the story. It’s really good. I found it via Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog for Discover magazine.

In other news, an article on www.technologyreview.com shattered the hopes of hard-core space-travel fans everywhere by claiming that the Alcubierre warp drive might not work after all.
Although there has been no evidence whatsoever that matter can travel faster than light, the physicist Miguel Alcubierre proposed a means of travel where the space in front of a ship is compressed while the space behind it is stretched. The ship wouldn’t be travelling faster than the speed of light compared to “local” space (ie “flat” space within the “warped” bubble), it could go from one point to another faster than the time it would take light to travel in a line through “flat” space.

One of the interesting side effects would be that people on the ship wouldn’t feel the acceleration because the ship wouldn’t actually be moving in the conventional sense. Also, the clocks on the ship would run at the same speed as the clocks on an observer’s wall. Normally something travelling at (or near) the speed of light would experience time dilation, in which a traveller might experience one year of time while the observer would experience five, etc. etc.

One question that I haven’t seen answered though (maybe because the explanation would be way over my liberal-arts head) is this: Even if space could be compressed and stretched like this, wouldn’t the ship eventually have to travel the distance through “flat” space one way or another? Wouldn’t the ship just end up back at its starting point when the space around it snapped back to its “flat” state? To actually land on (or even communicate with) a planet the ship (or its broadcasts) would have to cross the space between it and the planet, no matter how compressed or twisted that space would be. Follow me?

Regardless, the article says it would actually be impossible for a number of reasons. Too bad…although supposedly creating a bubble of warped space around a spaceship would take as much power as would be produced if all of Jupiter was converted to energy. That’s a little beyond our meagre fossil-fuel methods these days.

There’s a story on the National Geographic website about a robot controlled only by the power of human thought. Pretty neat, but I ask you this: Aren’t all machines controlled by human thought? I guess this demonstration just cuts out the middle man.

According to the North Korean media, they have successfully put a satellite in orbit, which is now transmitting revolutionary songs. Other countries are sceptical, and the claim has not been independently confirmed. Some think it was a cover for a long-range missile test. Read about it here.

Whoops! Scratch that. Satellite failure. Two stages of the rocket and its payload crashed into the Pacific Ocean (BBC used the term “landed,” which I think might be a little generous). Thanks for breaking the news, Twitter!

Finally, take a look at some of these great space photos! There’s a beautiful one of the ISS as seen from shuttle Discovery‘s window.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, gigantic space artefacts, and some news-in-brief March 28, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Science Fiction, Space, The Future.
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I’m derailing from science FACT to science FICTION for today’s post.

Before I begin, here’s some quick Mars news. A Rhode Island PhD student is finding evidence of a mineral that could explain the presence of both methane and minerals thought to be produced by reaction with water. There was a lot of hype when plumes of methane were discovered on Mars, as methane is produced on Earth primarily as a by-product of life. Read more here.

Contestants are set to enter the mock-up of a Mars mission spaceship, in order to test their psychological reactions to being cooped up with each other with nothing to do for months on end. It looks like hell but I would have liked to try it out. I imagine it would be fun for about three hours. We’ll see how they do!

I just got a bunch of books in the mail as part of my birthday Amazon.com shopping spree…among them are hardcover editions of one of my favourite SF works of all time, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars are about the gradual human colonisation of the Red Planet. They do a very good, thorough job of speculation on all aspects of the epic undertaking. It’s very convincing. Also, with a launch date of 2026, it may even coincide closely with our first actual manned journey to Mars (a guy can hope, can’t he? Bush suggested it in 2004, but then again, he said a lot of things). However, like most science fiction that takes place in the achievable future, the book will probably become more inaccurate as it approaches and passes its speculated date of occurrence. 2001: A Space Odyssey is perhaps the best example of this. Dr. David Scott, the seventh man to walk on the moon, said in 2002 that he didn’t think we’d get to Mars for hundreds of years.

I wonder how Robinson would have changed the science in his books, had he known what we do now about Mars.

Another book I received in the mail today was Eon by Greg Bear. It’s about an asteroid that flies into our solar system and contains a chamber that is infinitely long. That’s all I know. It looks intriguing, and my test of opening to a random page and reading the first paragraph was fruitful. There are a LOT of SF books about some huge artefact that arrives or is found, and how people discover what ancient civilisation built it and what its story is etc., etc. Some of them are highly acclaimed works by some of the best authors in the genre…some aren’t. Just to name a few:

Ringworld, Larry Niven, 1970
Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke, 1973
Eon, Greg Bear, 1985
Helix, Eric Brown, 2007

Finally, let me leave you with this creepy photo of a cannibal frog.

Inteview with Professor Mike Thompson on Kepler and astroseismology March 23, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Astronomy, Nasa, Space.
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There has been a lot of talk about the Kepler space telescope and its mission to find Earth-like planets outside the solar system. Its lesser-known but perhaps more important mission, however, is to collect information about the internal sonic vibrations of stars (expressed as small, periodic variations in emitted light) in order to learn about their evolution and structure.
I interviewed Professor Mike Thompson of the University of Sheffield, who will be analysing the information sent back by Kepler for this purpose.
Mike Thompson is a professor of applied mathematics and solar physics, and head of the school of mathematics and statistics at Sheffield University. He studies astroseismology and helioseismology, in other words the vibrations of a star. He also studies solar physics, stellar structure and evolution, and astrophysical fluid dynamics.

Can you tell me about what you are doing for this mission?

My own scientific interest actually is in terms of the stars themselves rather than the planets that are going around them. I use a technique called astroseismology. Many stars oscillate because of the presence of sound waves that are travelling inside them. These sound waves, if they have the right frequency and wavelength, will actually set up certain resonant oscillations of the star. We measure these frequencies at which stars vibrate by making careful observations of the variations of their light. We can use those frequencies, combining many of them, to measure how temperature varies inside the star, what its composition is, even how fast it’s rotating inside.

A good analogy would be of an organ pipe. And organ pipe of a given length will only sound certain notes. If you measured the frequency of those notes or listened to them you would be able to tell something about the structure of that organ pipe. How long it is or what it’s made of, combined with something about the composition of the gas inside it or the composition of the gas. We’re doing similar things with stars.

What sort of practical applications could we see coming from the information that you’re going to analyze?

I think the main practical benefit of learning about stars is what it tells us about our own sun. One of the things we want to understand better is how the magnetic activity cycles work. So in the case of the sun the magnetic activity cycle manifests itself as a sunspot cycle and that’s connected with highly energetic and potentially damaging explosive events (such as flares and coronal mass ejections). These things come out in ways we don’t fully understand and can’t yet predict at the earth and can have serious impacts on our technological society, on communications satellites, on our power grids and so on.

Are there health implications for these coronal mass ejections?

Yes, there certainly are. If an astronaut is in space when one of these things goes off then they could get seriously fried. People have looked at the occurrence of these against the times when the manned Apollo missions were up in space. The Apollo astronauts were quite fortunate. There were some big explosive events that went on and very fortunately there were no Apollo missions up there at the time. But if we want to send manned missions to Mars which of course is now being talked about, then those astronauts are going to be in space for a considerable period of time.

At the moment one of the very big concerns for those of us who study solar variability is the high likelihood that there would be events that would happen during that time which would actually be fatal to the astronauts involved. So how do you develop technologies, perhaps using magnetic fields around the spacecraft, to protect humans in space?

An artificial magnetosphere would actually deflect these particles away. The alternative would be to have large amounts of lead around you, but of course the expense of getting that mass into space is absolutely prohibitive.

How often do these coronal mass ejections occur?

They happen quite frequently. At the height of the solar cycle there could be one a day of these going off, but most of them aren’t coming towards us. But occasionally you get one of these guys and it comes in full face on at the earth, and then it shakes the Earth’s magnetosphere and causes interesting and very exciting aurora displays. They can knock out power lines.

These coronal mass ejections will take a few days to get from the sun to the Earth, whereas light takes eight minutes. Nonetheless, you don’t get much warning. So, better understanding of the sun, better understanding of what the precursors are for predicting these things would be very valuable.

That’s all for today. He gave me some interesting info about Kepler which I will save for a later post.
Purely by coincidence, New Scientist had an alarming article about the disastrous potential consequences of coronal mass ejections in this week’s issue. Read about it here, with an interesting comment here.

Also, take a look at these amazing robot fish!

Video conference with International Space Station crew March 20, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Nasa, Space, The Future.
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Four members of the International Space Station crew answered questions from the press in a live video conference this evening.

Answering questions were flight engineers Koichi Wakata and Yury Lonchakov from Japan and Russia, Commander Mike Fincke and STS 119 mission specialist Sandy Magnus, both from the USA.

Several of the questions were about the threat of space debris and the recent evacuation of the crew into the Soyuz space capsule/escape pod. If you hadn’t heard, there were two (relative) near-misses with pieces of space debris last week.

Fincke said “Yuri is the commander of the Soyuz spacecraft. Had we had to close the hatch and go, we would have.”

“Just goes to show that things are getting more and more busy up here.”

The Russian escape capsule is ready to go at a moment’s notice, and there are plans for another Soyuz capsule to attach to the station as a second escape pod.

When asked about preparations for longer space journeys such as to the moon or Mars, Fincke said that one of the most important things to keep morale up is contact with the ground. He said, “It’s tough to be away from friends, family, and all those excellent things.”

He also mentioned that shuttle Discovery will be bringing back samples of the crew’s bodily fluids (yes, including pee-pee) to be examined by scientists, to see how the human body changes over long periods of time in space.

Commander Fincke said he hopes humans do try to explore further into space in the near future. He said, “I’d like to see us in the near future go back to the moon and on to Mars.” He said he would like to eventually see humans explore further into the solar system.

Wakata spoke about his plans to don traditional Japanese clothing to see how it moves in space. PR stunt? Real science? Maybe it doesn’t matter (it’s not like anyone has a problem with national pride in space). He said that all he’s learning right now is like “drinking water from a fire hose.” He said “I’m still learning a lot here but I am enjoying every moment.”

Sandy Magnus commented that if we plan on going back to the moon there will need to be some basic nuts-and-bolts changes to the organisation of the mission. She said “To go to the moon we would need to split up some of the planning differently because of the distance.” Specifically, the crew will need to take over more of the technical specialisation and the ground would need to do more of the strategising jobs.

Sandy has a very interesting blog about life onboard the ISS, which includes tidbits about her experiments in cooking.

Commander Fincke finished by saying that the ISS is a symbol of what humans can do when we work together constructively instead of destructively.

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