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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!

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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.

Fusion power, new battery technology, and shadow-life March 16, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Biology, Technology, The Future, The Internet.
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There’s a great story in New Scientist this week discussing other forms of life on Earth. There have been a few stories recently speculating on the possibility of extraterrestrial life existing among us unbeknownst to us. I’m not talking about ufo conspiracy theories, I’m talking about microscopic life whose ancestors were carried in on meteorites after life had already begun on Earth.

New Scientist writer Bob Holmes introduces two other possibilities. The first he dubs shadow-life, which is life that began independently from that which came to dominate the planet. If life got going spontaneously once here, why wouldn’t it have happened again? This would be life of terrestrial origin, yet unrelated to most other life on the planet. Also, Holmes predicts that life will soon be created in a laboratory entirely artificially. For a gallery of what shadow life may look like, click here. You can read more about looking for shadow life here.

People have been talking about fusion power (in theory a source of limitless, clean energy) for a long, long time. Scientists have also been saying that fusion power is only fifty years away for a long, long time. However, it might be closer to becoming reality than a lot of people think. Read this very exciting article from The Times Online for more. The comments are good too. I wonder how much of this is journalistic hype and how much is real science.

New battery technology is promising for practical electric cars, among other things. One of the problems with batteries is their charging time. This new technology would charge cell phones in seconds and cars in minutes. Read about it more at New Scientist and The Economist.

Here‘s an interesting piece of information. The idea for linking computers to share information (ie the internet) originally came from Tim Berners-Lee, who was working at CERN in the eighties, planning the Large Hadron Collider. I had no idea that the two were connected.

The Telegraph has a bizarre story of an old Korean man who claims the fish in his backyard pond have human faces. You can decide for yourself.

Finally, a friend of mine sent me this BBC article just before my 28th birthday. Thanks Jane…guess it’s all downhill from here…

North Korea to launch “satellite” March 12, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Technology, What?.
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North Korea says they’re getting ready to launch a communications satellite, but sceptics think it’s just another long-range missile test.
If it’s a missile, it would be able to reach Alaska. If it’s a satellite, North Korea would be beating the South into space (although there has already been one Korean astronaut).
A North Korean space program eh? Sounds familiar

Anyone care to place a bet?

The Oldest Words, Bulletproof Goo and Lunar Robots February 26, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Nasa, Space, Technology, The Future.
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Researchers at the University of Reading have used a computer model to chart the rate of change in the meaning of words, with some interesting results.
It seems like the model basically maps the evolutionary tree of its sample words as they change in meaning and cross into other languages.
According to the model, the words “squeeze,” “guts,” and “dirty” are all headed to extinction comparatively soon. Also, verbs tend to change more quickly than other word types.
They found that the more commonly a word has been used, the more slowly it has changed over time. Some of the oldest words could be dozens of millennia old.
A good quote: Mark Pagel, an evolutionary biologist at the University, said “Here’s a sound that has been connected to a meaning – and it’s a mostly arbitrary connection – yet that sound has persisted for those tens of thousands of years.”
The BBC has a very interesting article on this. It’s well worth a read.

Also from the BBC comes a report of an exhibition of (probably not all) the Ministry of Defence’s new toys for the field. Included in the exhibit is a bright-orange goo that is stretchy and malleable like Silly Putty, but becomes hard in response to an impact and disperses the force safely. There’s a video of a man in a suit hitting a happy soldier’s goo-wrapped finger with a hammer.

Finally, here’s a press release from Astrobiotic Technology explaining how autonomous robots could prepare the lunar surface for a permanent outpost.
Resupply ships would have to land close to the outpost for efficiency’s sake, but without an atmosphere the grit sprayed off the ground from the rocket could be damaging to the building. The article weighs two options: building a berm around the landing site and constructing a permanent hard-surfaced landing pad.

Space Fish Update February 25, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Animals, Space, Technology, What?.
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A small post to let you know that the National Geographic website has the first ever video footage of the incredible and improbable barreleye fish.

Also, check out this amazing photo from Bad Astronomy of a heat shield material test at Space X. The material here will help protect Space X’s Dragon Capsule during reentry. That’s the Space-X Dragon capsule, not these Dragon Capsules. Don’t mistake the two.

More later.

Now you see it… February 22, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Technology, The Future, The Internet.
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There are still some things that humans can do better than computers. According to Vernor Vinge of San Diego State University, we should enjoy it while it lasts. I dug up this very interesting if somewhat bleak paper about technological singularity, and I recommend you give it a read.

Anyway, about what we do better. If you’ve got some time on your hands and feel like helping out, go on over to the Galaxy Zoo and classify some galaxies. Humans are still way better than computers at processing images according to their content, which is why search engines can only sort images based on tags (ie strings of characters) attached to them. Wait, maybe not.

So, after The Sloan Digital Sky Survey photographed a quarter million galaxies, it needs your help to classify them all. Galaxy Zoo will show you a picture of a galaxy and ask you some basic questions about it. Most of the pics are blurry smudges but some of them are startlingly beautiful.

If you’re in the mood for something a little more social, head down to gwap.com. Gwap stands for Games With A Purpose, and the idea is that by playing these (addictive) games you’re helping search engines clarify their results by classifying music and identifying the contents of images. I don’t know if I subscribe to their emphatic statement that “By playing our games, you’re training computers to solve problems for humans all over the world,” but the games are fun and you get to feel like you’re working when you’re actually playing.

While we’re on the topic of helpful websites, if you haven’t checked out FreeRice, you should.

Facebook withdraws changes February 18, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Technology, The Internet.
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The BBC and the Times have now both reported that Facebook admin have withdrawn the changes they made to the Facebook terms of service. Still, I’m leaving my privacy settings where they are.

Facebook warning and Hubble/Kepler update February 18, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Space, Technology, The Internet.
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Before anything else, I recommend you go into your Facebook account and change your privacy settings. here is an article about Facebook’s recent changes to its terms of service (that thing you say you’ve read and understand before you get your account) that supposedly means Facebook permanently owns all the rights to your photos and notes etc. Here is Facebook’s reply, that claims no such thing. I still changed my privacy settings and you should too.

I came across this diagram to give you the idea of how much space junk is orbiting at what altitude, along with other functioning space objects like the Hubble. The accompanying article raises the point that even if there is no direct threat of debris hitting the Hubble or the ISS, there is still the risk that clouds of debris produced by the recent collision could prevent the upcoming Service Mission 4, scheduled for May 12 2009. The aim of the mission is to repair several of the telescope’s systems and install some new hardware that would hugely increase its abilities. Without this mission there would not be a lot of hope left for Hubble’s continuing operation.

Speaking of space telescopes, the BBC ran an article describing how the Kepler Space Telescope will work. I had no idea that the area of sky visible to the Hubble is only as much as would be covered by a grain of sand held at arm’s length! That’s tiny! In comparison, Kepler will be able to look at an area about the size of your hand at arm’s length. Also, its cameras are much more powerful.

The article says we can hope to see our first results within three months or so of launch, but that finding an Earth-sized planet will probably take several years. Now I know everything space-mission-oriented takes a long time, but I’m also very impatient…

The telescope is named after the father of celestial mechanics, Johannes Kepler. Basically he discovered a lot about planetary motion, which is captured in these beautiful and intricate mechanisms called orreries. Check’em out!