National Geographic Channel’s Genius: A Biography of Albert Einstein.

This week the final 2-hour installment of the first season of the new National Geographic Channel’s Series Genius was broadcast. The first season was a biography of the most famous scientist of the twentieth century, Albert Einstein.

Nat Geo’s Genius: A biography of Albert Einstein (Credit : National Geographic)

The series was produced by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer through their company Imagine Entertainment. Starring Geoffrey Rush as the older Einstein and Johnny Flynn as young Einstein the 10 part series gives an account of Einstein’s life based on the Book ‘Einstein: His Life and Universe’ by Walter Isaacson.

Two Einstein’s for the Price on One. Geoffrey Rush on the Left and Johnny Flynn on the Right (Credit National Geographic)

The first half of the of biography dealt with Einstein’s relationship with his first wife and fellow scientist Mileva Maric’. Now just how much Mileva contributed to Albert’s development of Relativity and his other achievements is a very controversial question. There are many people that believe that if Mileva had not been a woman she would have achieved much as a scientist and that she probably deserved a share of Albert’s Nobel Prize. In Genius they show how Mileva worked with Albert, and was treated as little more than a resource by him. Nevertheless the great insights, the famous thought experiments are portrayed as Albert’s only. This may be as accurate a description of the truth as we can manage after the passing of so many years.

The second half of Genius contrasts Einstein’s strong pacifism against the lives of two of his colleagues at the Kaiser William II institute, Fritz Haber and Phillip Lenard. Haber was a chemist who was born a Jew like Einstein but throughout his life he always considered himself more German than Jewish and converted to Christianity. Haber greatest scientific achievement, for which he received the Nobel Chemistry Prize, was his development of a process to produce ammonia gas out of nitrogen in the atmosphere and hydrogen gas. Although few people know about Haber’s work it this is really one of the greatest discoveries in all of history. The commercial production of ammonia is the foundation of the development of all artificial fertilizers! Half of the people alive today eat food that is grown with fertilizer based on Haber’s discovery!

During World War I Haber also used his discovery to manufacture explosives and more than that he became Germany’s expert in the development of poison gas as a weapon of war! (In Genius Haber is depicted as supervising the first poison gas attack whereas most historical sources have him witnessing it) Neither of these two services to Germany did him any good though, for when the Nazi’s came to power all anyone remembered was that he was born a Jew!

Phillip Lenard, on the other hand may have been a great scientist, his work was instrumental in the later development of vacuum tube amplifiers and the Cathode ray picture tube, but he was a vicious anti-Semite throughout his life. (In Genius Lenard despises Einstein from the moment he hears the name) During Hitler’s reign Lenard was made the head of ‘German / Aryan Science’ and worked hard to prevent the teaching of relativity in Germany. After Hitler’s fall Lenard was a broken man who died only two years later, his reputation today is still that of a racist not a scientist.

But Einstein’s strong pacifisms got him in a lot of trouble as well. In Germany during WWI he was criticized from not helping to defend the fatherland and when the Nazi’s came to power he got out as quick as he could. Even in the US however his outspoken views got him in continual trouble with J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. Einstein never actually worked on the atomic bomb project because he was never trusted with a security clearance.

I guess the lesson to be learned is just that war never really does anyone any good! Now there’s a revolutionary theory!

I do have a few criticisms of Genius. Two physicists who do not appear at all but WHO SHOULD are Karl Schwarzschild and Satyendra Nath Bose both of whom did important work related to Einstein’s. And let’s not forget Hendrik Antoon Lorentz whose work gave Einstein the foundation on which relativity is built! He definitely deserved greater mention.

National Geographic has just announced that there will be a second season of Genius. The subject of next season will be the artist Pablo Picasso. I suppose I’ll watch, at least the first episode but since he’s not a scientist I may not comment on it. We’ll have to see.


Two Science Stories from the Land Down Under

A couple of different science stories have gotten a bit of notice this past week, both originating in the nation of Australia. The items are very different but I’m going to combine them.

First up, a team of ocean biologists from the Museums Victoria in Australia have conducted a month long exploration of the deep waters around their island continent. Led by Dr. Tim O’Hara the team of 58 scientists succeeded in bringing back hundreds of specimens of strange creatures from the ocean’s floor, many of them never seen before.

One creature, that had first been discovered back in 1873 but has been unseen ever since, was a ‘Faceless Fish’, a creature without eyes and whose mouth is hidden underneath its head. The picture below shows this ‘Faceless Fish’.

Faceless Fish (Credit: Asher Flatt)

Among the other bizarre creatures the Australian team found were a ‘cookie cutter shark’, which is bioluminescent with serrated teeth, a red spiny crab and the blob fish, know as the world’s ugliest animal. The blob fish is shown in the picture below.

Blob Fish (Credit: Asher Flatt)

The team of scientists also carried out a survey of the amount of human produced trash that was accumulating on the ocean floor. Even 100 kilometers off the Australian coast the team of researchers discovered PVC pipes, bottles and beer cans along with paint cans, 200 years of rubbish.

Right now the scientists are studying their finds so we will have to wait a while before we know exactly how many new species were discovered. If you’d like to read more about the expedition click on the link below to go to the National Geographic’s webpage.

Before I go to my next story I’d like to add a picture of a ‘peanut worm’ brought back by the explorers. When you see it I’m certain you’ll know why it’s getting a lot of attention.

Peanut Worm (Credit: Rob Zugaro)

The next topic I’d like to discuss concerns the development of ‘Solar Paint’ at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. A team of chemists led by principle author Torben Daeneke has succeeded in producing a paint that is a combination of the white colour in toothpaste with a molybdenum sulphide catalyst. This paint absorbs water vapour from the air during the night and then uses the energy of the Sun to break the absorbed water into Oxygen and Hydrogen during the day. The picture below shows a simplified diagram of the process.

Solar Paint Process (Credit: Torben Daeneke et al)

The Hydrogen released by the process can then be used in either a fuel cell to produce electricity or burning in an engine to provide motion. The nice thing about using hydrogen as a fuel is that the only exhaust you get is water! No pollution of any kind!

Now I have to admit I have a little problem with this invention. Since the paint absorbs moisture during the night it must be open to the air. But then during the day it must be contained in order to collect the released hydrogen. In order to make this process commercially valuable you’re going to need a lot of area to be covered by the paint, you know, roof tops and similar setups. These areas will have to be exposed to the air during the night but covered in some way during the day to collect the produced hydrogen.

Now I can certainly think of ways to accomplish that but over the large areas? I’m afraid it could end up being both complicated and expensive.

Still Doctor Daeneke believes that ‘solar paint’ will become available in about five years and he also believes the paint itself will be rather cheap making ‘solar paint’ a useful source of clean energy. If you’d like to read more about ‘solar paint’ click on the link below.

So there you have a taste of the kind of science being accomplished by our southern friends. Anytime I hear about some new discovery from down under I’ll be sure to tell you all about it.



The Robots are Coming, for Your Job. Part 3 (Cabbies and Truckers beware!)

This is the third installment in what I plan on making an occasional feature on this blog. The effect of automation for both good and bad in our society. As I’ve mentioned in the first two installments I am not anti-automation, far from it. However, I am greatly concerned about the lack of preparation on the part of our government and other civic leaders, indeed on a lack of understanding of the enormous changes to society that are now just beginning.

In this post I’m going to concentrate on how the introduction of the driverless car is going to effect all of our lives. First a little history.

In 2004 the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) hosted the first ever challenge for autonomous vehicles, driverless cars. Fifteen teams competed in a race across 210 kilometers of desert in Nevada. Less than half the vehicles made it further than a kilometer or so and the “winner’, developed by a team from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburg, only succeeded in going 12 kilometers before failing. Based on these results many people thought driverless cars were decades away!

Only a year later, at the second DARPA challenge a vehicle designed and developed at Stanford University became the first robot to drive more than 100 kilometers as it completed the 210 kilometer course in under 7 hours without any human guidance! Four other robots also completed the course, although not as quickly. Two of the vehicles were from Carnegie Mellon, one a close second to Stanford. The driverless car was now a reality. The picture below shows the winning robot.

Winner of DARPA Challenge from Stanford University (Credit: Stanford University)

Now there was still a lot of work to be accomplished. The course set by DARPA had obstacles and difficult driving but there were no pedestrians or bicyclists, no traffic lights or stop signs. However in the past ten years those technical problems have been largely overcome and the remaining challenges are primarily legal ones.

Several states or countries have now begun to allow driverless cars on their roads. In 2011 Nevada passed legislation allowing testing to take place as did the United Kingdom in 2013. At this time the autonomous vehicle must still have a human being in the driver seat ready to take control if there’s a problem but as driverless cars continue to show themselves to be safer due to the elimination of human error and distraction this restriction will soon be lifted.

The advantages of driverless cars are many, and not just a reduction in sometimes deadly, human related collisions. Because driverless cars can communicate continuously with each other the gap between cars can be greatly reduced even while increasing speed. The ability of local authorities to manage traffic flow would also increase dramatically. Researchers at Columbia University have estimated that these improvements  would increase the number of cars our present road system could handle by 275%, virtually eliminating traffic jams. These improvements on our nation’s highways will also help to reduce the costs of road construction and repair, of auto repair and insurance, think about that! The picture below shows Google’s driverless car which is already on the streets of many American cities.

Google’ Self Driving car (Credit: Google)

Of course there are disadvantages as well and one of the biggest is going to the loss of jobs for people make their living driving, the cabbies, bus and truck drivers. I think the long haul truckers will be first to feel the impact but it won’t belong before the entire transportation industry is changed beyond all recognition. Within 30 years it is very likely that there will be no such things as cab, bus or truck drivers.

Of course this is an old story. Advances in industrialization, mechanization and now automation have made the lives of human beings enormously richer, healthier and even longer but it has also destroyed the lives of those who could not adapt quickly enough to the change. Our government officials need to become aware of this looming problem, not just here in the US but throughout the developed world.


LIGO detects third set of Gravitational Waves

The Laser Interferometer Gravity wave Observatory (LIGO) has recently announced its third detection of gravity waves, further conformation of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. Actually, since the gravity waves that were detected came from a merger of two black holes this announcement confirms two of Einstein’s predictions, gravity waves and black holes.

The LIGO antennas, I think of them as antennas for gravity waves, are the world’s most sensitive instruments of any kind and they have to be since gravity waves are so weak. Even the initial design of the LIGO detector wasn’t able to detect gravity waves. It was only after a program to enhance the sensitivity that LIGO succeeded in the first ever detection of gravity waves in September of 2015. (The success was announced in May of 2016)

In fact the LIGO detectors are so sensitive that a car driving down the road a kilometer away can produce a false reaction. That’s why we have to have two LIGO detectors, located far apart. One of the instruments is in Hanford Washington and the other in Livingston Louisiana. Only if both instruments detect a signal at the same time is it a real gravity wave.

How the LIGO detectors do their job can be understood by examining the picture below. (Credit for the picture goes to : By Abbott, B. P. et al. – Observation of Gravitational Waves from a Binary Black Hole Merger B. P. Abbott et al. (LIGO Scientific Collaboration and Virgo Collaboration)Phys. Rev. Lett. 116, 061102 doi:10.1103/PhysRevLett.116.061102, CC BY 3.0,


Diagram of LIGO Detector

The light produced by a 20 watt Nd:YAG laser is split into two beams, one of which bounces back and forth to the east-west direction over a 4 kilometer path while the other bounces to the north-south along an equal path. Now let’s assume a gravity wave comes along going from east to west. What the gravity wave does is to compress and expand space itself in a repeating pattern. This makes the actual length of the east-west arm vary with the wave while the north-south arm is unaffected. By bringing the beams back together and letting them interfere with each other the gravity wave can be detected.

The two black holes that merged are estimated to have had masses of 32 and 19 times the mass of the sun but when they came together 2 entire solar masses were converted into gravitational energy leaving a single black hole with a mass of 49 solar masses. A picture of what the merger may have looked like is below.

Artists Rendering of Black Hole Merger (Credit Caltech)

This latest detection is also significant because the two LIGO detectors, have been able to compare their data to estimate the location of the black hole merger in our sky. While they’ve only narrowed the location down to 3% of the sky it’s still a remarkable advancement.

And things are going to improve even more very soon. A new gravity wave detector is almost completed in Italy and a fourth is under construction in India. With four instruments spread around the world our ability to narrow in on where the gravity waves are coming from will continue to improve.

If you’d like to read more about LIGO and it’s latest discovery I recommend you visit the LIGO website by clicking the link below.

New Fossils of Homo Sapiens extend the Origin of our Species back to 300, 000 Years Ago.

It seems like every couple of years there’s a new discovery of ‘Human’ fossils that ‘Completely Rewrites’ the history of our species. If you’re not paying attention it almost looks as if paleontologists have no idea of what they’re talking about and they contradict each other every time they find a new bone or tooth. Indeed creationists very often make just this argument and it’s hard to know just what the truth is.

The recent publication of the discovery of the oldest fossils of Homo Sapiens from Morocco by Jean-Jacques Hublin et al fits into this drama with even the prestigious journal Nature, which published the paper, used the phrase ‘rewrites our species’ history’. Notice however they don’t say completely rewrites and they’re only talking about our one species, not the ancestral species that evolved into us.

Earliest Homo sapiens skulls (left) compared to modern skull (right) (credit-Nature)

Therefore, before I discuss the significance of the work of Doctor Hublin and his co-authors I’m going to give a little background to add some context.

In 1871 Charles Darwin published “The Descent of Man’ in which he boldly predicted, without any fossil evidence at the time, that the origin of Humanity would be found in Africa. Today the evidence is so overwhelming, in numbers, variety and age of fossils that no paleoanthropologist doubts that Darwin was correct.

In fact much of the confusion that gets into the press is due to the great variety of different ancestors and cousins that working out the precise path that led to us is difficult. There are other species within the genus Homo, upright walking apes who used tools like H habilis, H erectus and H neanderthalis to name the best known members. (it is a common practice to shorten the genus name to just the first letter in multiple usages)

At the same time there are also species of upright walking apes who did not use tools, members of the genus Australopithecus like A afarensis, A africanus and A robustus. I doubt even Darwin would have predicted their existence but I’m certain it would have pleased him.

The basic path from ape to us, and I do mean basic, is that about 7 million years ago the increasing size of the savannas in Eastern Africa induced a tree dwelling ape to move out into the grassland and begin walking upright. There is strong evidence that by 3.7 million years ago the species A afarensis, the famous “Lucy” and her kind, were walking as well as you or I.

There is no evidence of extensive tool use by A afarensis however, the earliest tools discovered so far are associated with the species H habilis at sometime after 3.4 million years ago. In broad terms H habilis evolved into H erectus which then evolved into both H neanderthalis and H sapiens, us that is. If you like a more thorough review of how humanity evolved I strongly suggest the Smithsonian Institute’s ‘Introduction to Human Evolution’ which you can find by clicking on the link below.

Now remember, the new discovery by Doctor Hublin and his co-authors only effects us, only changes H sapiens, the last little part of 4 million years of evolution. This discovery is important but the broad outline of our evolution hasn’t changed a bit.

So now we can talk about what an important find Doctor Hublin has made and just what it means. At a site along the Atlantic ocean in Morocco in North Africa human bone fragments, including skull fragments have been found in association with stone tools. The bones have been identified as belonging to our own species, Homo sapiens and have been dated to about 315,000 years ago. These remains are about 100,000 years older than any previous finds and come from the wrong side of Africa!

According to Doctor Hublin, “Until now the common wisdom was that our species emerged probably rather quickly somewhere in a ‘Garden of Eden’ that was located most likely in sub-Sahara Africa”. The recent finds cast considerable doubt on this scenario indicating that our species evolved more slowly and across the entire continent.

But I have to say for myself, if you look at the ancient skull in the picture above, the brow ridge over the eyes, the wide face and low cranium say Neanderthal to me. Now we know the Neanderthals were living in Spain by 250,000 years ago and Spain is just north of Morocco. Could these humans have crossed the Straight of Gibraltar and become the Neanderthals? We need more data, more finds.

That’s the real point here. We need more finds, more bones. The broad outline of how our species came to be is well understood. We need to fill in all the details. If you’d like to read more about the finds by Doctor Hublin and his associates click on the link below.


Space News for June 2017

It seems as if every time I decide to write an update on new events happening in our exploration of space SpaceX corporation has to get a mention. Every month it seems like Elon Musk and his engineers are achieving some new goal toward increasing humanity’s access to outer space.

First Reused Dragon Capsule Docking at ISS (Credit NASA)

This month SpaceX has not only launched its 11th resupply mission to the International Space Station. Not only successfully landed the rocket’s first stage for the 11th time. But the pressurized Dragon capsule that was launched and is now docked at the ISS is itself a reused capsule from SpaceX’s fourth resupply mission back in 2014. This means that only the rocket’s second stage was lost in the mission, a degree of reuse not achieved since the Space Shuttle. Progress, progress.

The nation of India has also achieved a milestone in the past week with the first launch of its new heavy GSLV Mark III rocket, see picture below. The GLSV Mark III is the Asian nation’s attempt to catch up to the space big shots in the growing space industry and India even plans on using the rocket to begin manned launches starting in 2024!

India’s New GSLV Mark III Rocket (Credit BBC)

There is also some tantalizing news from NASA’s Curiosity Rover which is still exploring Gale Crater on the Martian surface. Now NASA’s three rovers; Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity have already found a considerable amount of evidence that Mars once possessed large bodies of water that could have supported life 3.1 to 3.8 billion years ago. Recently however Curiosity has been able to show that the lake that once filled Gale Crater had different levels of oxygen at different depths, a type of environment similar to lakes on Earth and providing multiple opportunities for many forms of life.

Sedimentary Rock on Mars in Gale Crater (Credit NASA)

Before you get too excited it is likely that these conditions occurred naturally on Earth and life evolved to fit those conditions but it is still strong evidence that conditions favourable to life existed on Mars some 3 billion years ago.

But to my mind the big news in space exploration is NASA’s announcement of a spacecraft that will be sent much closer to the Sun than any probe has ever gone. The Parker Solar Probe is named for Doctor Eugene Parker who named and studied the solar wind starting in the 1950s. The spacecraft is expected to come as close as 6 million kilometers to the Sun, even dipping inside the Sun’s ‘Atmosphere’ which is called the corona.

Mission Patch for the Parker Solar Probe (Credit NASA)

As a comparison the Earth orbits about 150 million kilometers from the Sun and even Mercury, the nearest planet maintains a distance of 60 million kilometers. That means Parker will come ten times closer to the Sun than boiling hot Mercury!

Getting so close to the Sun means that the Parker Solar Probe is going to require special protection for it’s vital instruments and equipment. This is provided by an 11.5cm thick shield made of carbon composite materials. This shield will allow Parker to survive temperatures as high as 1400 degrees Celsius.

The Parker Solar Probe will be launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center between 31July and 19 August of 2018. This timing is especially critical because the probe’s mission includes seven, count’em seven flybys of Venus to use the planet’s gravity to alter the spacecraft’s obit bringing it ever closer to the Sun. Unfortunately that many gravity boosts are going to take seven years to accomplish so this is going to be a long mission.

If you’d like to read more about the Parker Solar Probe, and keep track of the mission as I plan on doing, click on the link below to go to the official NASA site for the mission.

That’s Space news for this month. Till next time.

Donald Trump on Climate Change, “a dumb brute that simply smote thee from blindest instinct.”

As everyone now knows, this week Donald Trump decided to pull the United States out of the Paris accord on fighting global warming. This disastrous decision could severely reduce humanity’s ability to limit the rise in the world’s temperature caused by greenhouse gas emissions to 2 degrees Celsius. We are already seeing the effects of our reckless abuse of the planet in which we live and if the nations of the world do not succeed in achieving the goals set out in the Paris accord then global warming will be a grave threat to our species for the foreseeable future.

Now I don’t intent to defend climate science here. Other scientists have done a much better job than I am capable of. However, for anymore who is still unsure of the reality of climate change I cannot do better than to recommend the sites listed below. The ‘Union of Concerned Scientists’, The ‘American Association for the Advancement of Science’ and the peer reviewed journal ‘Nature’ are all a part of the foundation of what we call SCIENCE!

Before I go any further the quote in the title is from the novel “Moby Dick” or “The Whale” by Herman Melville, and I’ll bet you didn’t know Moby Dick was one of those books with two titles. Now, by that quotation do I mean to imply that Donald Trump is like Moby Dick? Well he is undeniably a larger than life figure, one that arouses passions of both abhorrence and it must be admitted admiration. And I think even most of his supporters would agree that Trump is a creature capable of much chaos and destruction, after all they voted for him to shake up Washington.

My main focus however is on the phrase ‘ blindest instinct’ because I think that is the best way to understand not only Trump but climate change deniers in general. It’s all about instinct over reason.

Look at it this way; throughout a billion years of evolution living creatures had no real control over the world around them, they adapted to their environment not their environment to them. Even animals like the beaver or social insects can only make minor changes to their environment.

This impotence, this ‘Fact’ that the world is what it is and nothing can change it is built into our genetic makeup and despite all the evidence that this is no longer true for our species it is nevertheless still our automatic, instinctive response to the idea that we are causing climate change. I’ve personally known otherwise intelligent engineers who deny global warming simply because “the world is so big it can take a lot more abuse than we can give it”.

As I sit here writing this post all the 24 hour news channels are falling over themselves asking the question ‘does Donald Trump believe in climate change’ and the White House is working to avoid answering the question. The answer is simple, you can’t just see climate change happening so of course Donald Trump does not believe in it. If he cannot instinctively react to something then it just doesn’t exist.

Understanding global warming requires either surveying enormous amounts of data taken over decades from thousands of locations and then corroborating that data with the known properties of greenhouse gasses or else accepting the judgment of someone who has done that work, someone who knows more than you do. Donald Trump is capable of neither of these mental efforts.

This is the hallmark of the anti-intellectualism growing in the United States at the present. “I will not make the mental effort to understand this complex subject,” the new Neanderthals say. “And don’t you think you’re smarter than me because you have.”

These are just a few of my reasons for considering Donald Trump to be ‘a dumb brute’ whose behavior is ruled by ‘blindest instinct’. Of course however there is one way in which Donald Trump is very different from Moby Dick. Unfortunately Donald Trump is not a fictional character.

To those of my frequent readers who may disapprove of this post’s rather political theme I can only beg your pardon and remind you that climate change is a scientific problem as well as a political issue. I would much prefer for the blog ‘Science and Science Fiction’ to remain true to its name and I assure you that my next post will do so.

Book Review: Death Wave by Ben Bova

Anyone familiar with Science Fiction knows that Ben Bova is SF royalty. Author of over hundred fiction and non-fiction books Ben Bova has received six Hugo awards, been the editor of both Analog and Omni science fiction magazines as well as a being a former President of the Science Fiction Writers of America. I need to take a breath after all that.

Death Wave is Bova’s latest title; actually he’s so prolific I may already be wrong about that. Death wave is a sequel to his earlier novel New Earth so I’ll have to catch you up on what happened in that story.

Death Wave by Ben Bova (Credit Tor Books)

Jorden Kell is the leader of humanity’s first expedition into interstellar space. The expedition finds the dead remains of alien civilizations, their planets sterilized by a wave of gamma radiation that has erupted out of the black hole at the center of our Galaxy.

Only a race of machine intelligences has managed to survive and they warn Jorden Kell and his crew that the Death Wave will reach Earth in 2000 years. The machine intelligences also give Kell the necessary knowledge to produce a force field type technology that can protect us from the Death Wave. In exchange for this assistance humanity is to send space missions to six nearby intelligent but pre-industrial alien species in order to protect them.

All that is back story to “Death Wave” which begins when Jorden Kell and several other members of his expedition have returned to Earth and try to convince the governments of the World of the danger to Earth and the nearby civilizations. But 200 years have passed since the astronauts departed on their mission and the World is not the one they left.

In particular Anita Halleck, the Chairwoman of the World Council is too busy trying to bring all of the Solar System’s bureaucracies under her control to concern herself with a threat to humanity 2000 years in the future, or any threat to alien civilizations at all. What does concern Halleck is her suspicions that Jorden Kell is trying to use his notoriety to supplant her, something she will prevent at any cost.

Add in terrorists who believe Jorden Kell is actually paving the way for an alien invasion, security personnel who do the Chairwoman’s very dirty work and a trip to an orbiting habitat for 200,000 humans and you get a pretty wild escape story. The problem is that most of the science fiction is actually left over from the first novel leaving “Death Wave” with little more than political machinations and a good chase sequence.

I don’t want to give away too much but I think that even Ben Bova felt that way because the ending comes as a bit of a letdown. The bad guys get the drop on the good guys then good guys turn the tables and it’s over!

I’m not saying “Death Wave” wasn’t good. In fact it was quite exciting. It just wasn’t as interesting as “New Earth”. There is a third novel coming in the series, “Apes and Angels” which may already be available. This third novel is going to follow one of the expeditions to rescue the alien civilizations and I think there will be more SF in it. I’ll be certain to let you know after I read it!


Is an Alien Supercivilization Causing Taby’s Star to Flicker?

Two years ago the star KIC 8462852, also know as Taby’s star created a bit of a sensation in the press and all over the web. The reason for all the excitement was the suggestion that the star’s irregular light curve, the amount of energy generated over time, could be explained by the existence of an ‘Alien Megastructure’ built around the star. Well Taby’s star is acting up again and we still know very little about the cause.

Let’s start with a few things we do know for certain. First of all KIC 8462852 is an F spectral type star in the constellation of Cygnus. Now the F spectral class is the next class bigger and brighter than our Sun, which is spectral class G. Taby’s star is in fact estimated to be about 1.5 times as massive as our Sun and about 5 times brighter. Despite its brightness however, at an estimated distance of 1300 light years Taby’s star cannot be seen with the unaided eye. The picture below shows Taby’s position in our sky.

The Position of Taby’s Star in Cygnus

In many respects KIC 8462852 should be just an average, normal main sequence star, a star as stable and constant as our own Sun. Taby’s star is anything but stable however, its brightness has been observed to drop by as much as 22% and even after years of observations astronomers have been completely unable to find any pattern in the variations of its light. The picture below shows KIC 8462852’s light curve for the 17th of April in 2013 as measured by the Kepler Space Telescope.

Taby’s Light Curve (Credit NASA)

Several possible mechanisms for the variations in KIC 8462852’s brightness have been suggested. A system of one or more planets passing in front of the star can produce small and periodic dips in brightness; in fact this is how the Kepler space telescope has succeeded in discovering hundreds of planets outside our solar. However KIC 8462852 has larger reductions in it’s light output than could be caused by a planet, as much as 22% remember.

Other possible explanations include a swarm of asteroids or giant planets ‘flying in formation’ in highly eccentric orbits that sometimes bring them close to the star and other times take them far away from it. If the idea of three, four or more Jupiter sized planets orbiting as a group seems unlikely, well many astronomers agree with you. Bare in mind though, that astronomers have examined the light curves of millions of stars by now so it’s quite possible that Taby’s star is that one in a million oddball.

A recent suggestion has been made that the fluctuations in the light output from KIC 8462852 may be due to the star’s having swallowed a planet a couple of thousand years ago and in a sense its stomach is still upset.

Finally we have the proposed explanation that has everyone talking. There is a definite possibility that an alien supercivilization is building a structure similar to one described by Physicist Freeman Dyson and known as a Dyson Sphere. The idea of a Dyson Sphere is simple, in fact it’s the ultimate in solar power. By enclosing a star in a sphere an advanced civilization would have access to its entire energy output.

In this scenario the aliens are in the process of building the Dyson sphere around KIC 8462852 so that at present it is only capturing a small portion of the star’s total energy. This would still be more energy than the human race has used in its entire history.

All these possibilities are just that however, possibilities. We need more and more careful observations before we can make any kind of definite statement about the cause of the irregularity of Taby’s star. Since KIC 8462852 is now once again varying in brightness maybe soon we will learn more.

Before I go I do want to say one more thing. While much of what we know about KIC 8462852 comes from the Kepler space telescope or other professional observatories much of it has also come from observations by amateur astronomers. Throughout history these scientific hobbyists have discovered much of what we know about the Universe by their searches for comets or asteroids or by their measurements of the light curves of variable stars like Taby’s star.



Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy vol.2

I know, I know, Guardians of the Galaxy is really more of a roller coaster ride than a science fiction movie but it does have spaceships and aliens and while it may just be a distraction from the real world it is a well made distraction.

Guardians of the Galaxy vol.2 (Credit Marvel Studios)

Guardians of the Galaxy is a part of the “Marvel Universe” produced by Disney and which includes Iron Man, Captain America and etc. and which may very well become the most successful movie franchise in history. Disney / Marvel is building this universe by combining individual superhero movies like “Doctor Strange” with ensemble movies like “The Avengers” and now “Guardians of the Galaxy”.

In vol.1 of Guardians we were introduced to our group of heroes as they were introduced to each other. Peter Quill is a Earthling who was kidnapped by alien “ravagers” as a child, the ravagers are a collection of outlaws / pirates. Quill is joined by Gamora, an alien woman who was raised to be an assassin but to wants to escape that life along with Rocket, a genetically engineered intelligent raccoon and his friend Groot, a semi-intelligent tree-man. Rocket and Groot are bounty hunters. The final member of the Guardians is Drax, a powerful fighter.

For a moment can I just stop to ask why our culture at present seems to connect to the idea of pirates and assassins and bounty hunters as being saviors of galaxies??? Seventy to eighty years ago the heroes were like Superman or the Lone Ranger, so perfectly upstanding and morally virtuous that they were boring!

Then, when I was a kid there were superheroes like Spiderman, a typical teenager who didn’t really want to be a hero. Ben Grimm of the Fantastic Four also did not want his superpowers. Nowadays it seems like you had to have been a bad guy before you can become a good guy. This may make for more interesting characters but to my mind it doesn’t make them any more realistic. I’ll stick with the Spiderman type, just a normal person who is a reluctant hero.

Anyway, back to the Guardians of the Galaxy vol.2. In this story Peter Quill meets his mysterious and very powerful father EGO. I don’t want to give away any of the plot but let’s just say that EGO’s desires for his son’s future are not quite paternal.

That’s just the main plot, there are complications aplenty. With a race called the Sovereigns pursuing the Guardians because Rocket stole some of their batteries while Gemora’s sister Nebula is trying to kill her, to say nothing about the mutiny of Yondu the Ravager’s crew there are fights galore. There are several times during the movie when it’s hard to keep track of who’s on who’s side or not but you know that in the end Quill, Gamora, Rocket Groot and Drax will all stick together.

During the fights there are more than a few “Come ‘on” moments, like when Gamora picks up a cannon from a broken spaceship and starts firing it at her sister or when Drax ties a rope around himself and jumps out of the Guardian’s ship to shoot at an enemy.

Despite it’s drawbacks the movie is well made with easy to like characters. Guardians of the Galaxy vol.2 isn’t thought provoking science fiction, it’s a roller coaster, but it is a good one.