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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.