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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?

Climate change quickens, geoengineering and animal stories March 10, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Animals, Climate Change, Cybernetics.
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To all the journalists-to-be out there, is this what we’re going to have to do to get jobs now?

There’s been a lot in the news these last two weeks about scientists saying that all our feeble efforts to reduce emissions and slow down global warming may now be to little, too late.

New Scientist had a disturbing article last week. I was surprised to see something so alarming coming from the New Scientist, as they usually seem more moderate. It’s a very bold piece of doom for you to digest before bed. I only wish I could show you the map that illustrated the article in the magazine. Grim. I recommend you read it and then move to Canada.

Basically, scientists are starting to say that things are getting worse, faster. Here’s an example from Scientific American. I’m surprised it even gives climate change deniers the time of day, when you consider just how serious things are starting to look.

This is a good place to find the basics of climate change.

Disturbingly, scientists are beginning to lean more towards geoengineering to stop the atmosphere from heating up. This has been all over the news for the last two weeks or so. Geoengineering is using artificial means to cool the planet instead of letting it cool itself naturally. Ideas for this are varied and extreme, with the most famous one being orbiting reflective shades. Other ideas include filling the atmosphere with a haze to planting especially reflective crops. You can read more about it in any of the links above.

In lighter news, animals! Here’s a story about a clever chimp who hid piles of rocks around his habitat, waiting for an opportunity to throw them at passersby.
For those of you who think they’ve seen everything, here’s an article about (and photograph of) an elephant with a prosthetic leg.
Finally, a baby blue whale was captured on film for maybe the first time ever. See the footage on the National Geographic website. Among other staggering facts, the article says baby blues gain two hundred pounds a day while nursing.

Surprise meteor, Hubble service mission update and China’s lunar probe March 2, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Astronomy, Nasa, Space.
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Woah! What the hell was that? A totally unexpected asteroid sped by on Monday between the Earth and the Moon. It’s travelling at twenty kilometres per second and is between 60 and 100 metres wide. Apparently that’s nothing new, and a lot of asteroids zip by unnoticed. I find that a little unnerving.
The difference between an asteroid and a comet (like the comet Lulin that passed by last week) is in their appearance. Comets have a visible tail (or coma) and asteroids do not. A comet’s tail is water vapour and dust particles that have blown off the body of the comet as it gets close to the sun.
A meteoroid is smaller than an asteroid (and according to the official definition, bigger than an atom). It becomes a meteor when it enters a planet’s atmosphere and becomes visible as a bright streak. Any material from a meteor that makes it to the ground becomes a meteorite.

In other news it looks like the upcoming service mission to the Hubble space telescope will get the go-ahead after all. After the recent satellite collision there had to be some weighing of the risks. If the mission succeeds it would make the Hubble much more powerful and extend its life considerably.

Finally, China’s Chang 1 lunar satellite concluded its mission of mapping the surface of the moon by slamming into the moon in a “controlled collision.” Although it only became the third country to send a person into space recently, it looks like China is pursuing its space program ambitiously, with plans for a space station and manned lunar mission in the works as well.

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.

Orbiting Carbon Observatory Fails to Reach Orbit February 24, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Animals, Climate Change, Nasa.
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AAARRRgh! Seven years of gruelling engineering, testing and planning and 270 million US dollars went crashing into the ocean near Antarctica earlier today.

If you haven’t already heard (and embarassingly it was my mother that tipped me off), Nasa’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) suffered a rocket malfunction three minutes after its launch.

It looks like the two-part (“clamshell”) fairing surrounding the satellite failed to open. The fairing protects the satellite as the rocket leaves the atmosphere, and is very heavy. The rocket didn’t have enough power to carry the satellite and its fairing into orbit so fell back to Earth, crashing into frigid antarctic waters.

The OCO was meant to measure carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere, and hopefully pinpoint previously unknown carbon sinks and sources. This would have helped us understand how our climate is changing. Which it is.

You can read about the mission and its failure right here on the Nasa website. There is a good video here of the moment the failure was announced. Listen for the order not to leak to the press! Also, here‘s a (rather dry) video of the press briefing following the failure, introduced by a bright red man in a bright yellow suit. Extraterrestrial? Must investigate further…The video is full of Nasa vaguenesses like “about eighty milliseconds later…”

If you get tired of the briefing you should watch the Jupiter and Saturn mission videos. Exciting!

The BBC also has a good thorough article about the mission background.

Apparently there aren’t enough spare parts to rebuild another OCO immediately, and we’ll have to wait to see what they decide to do. I feel terrible for those involved. What a crushing disappointment.

All is not lost, however. Japan launched it’s own Ibuki or Gosat satellite last month, which has a similar purpose and is so far doing just fine.

But enough bad news! This is the absolute craziest fish I have ever seen. It’s got a see-through head! And those are its eyes! It’s called a barreleye apparently. I wonder why…

If that’s not freaky enough for you, think about scientists growing human teeth in a laboratory. Your teeth.

Slow day for science… February 23, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Animals, Astronomy, Nasa, Space.
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Not much in the news today, except a couple of obviously fake photos of a giant snake. Why is this news?

A shuttle mission to the International Space Station has been postponed not due to the risks posed by whirling shards of space debris, but instead because of worries over some of Discovery’s gas valves.

Thankfully, the Kepler mission is still on track!

I spoke with a gentleman from the Sheffield Astronomical Association who said I might be able to tag along for a viewing of Comet Lulin this weekend. Woohoo!

Oh, and Scientific American has more from Alan Boss of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on the likelihood of Earth-like planets existing outside the solar system. He’s got some encouraging (and a mind-boggling) numbers.

That is all.

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.

One more thing… February 20, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Astronomy, Space.
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I forgot to remind you that the comet Lulin will be closest to the Earth on the 24th. That’s Tuesday pre-dawn, I think.
I found this far superior blog by an actual scientist that carries a good picture of what we might see with binoculars or a telescope. Apparently we’ll be able to see it with our naked eyes as well.