Nowadays computer programs that are capable of translating from one language to another are commonplace. You can be visiting France and whenever you have difficulty making yourself understood you can always use your smartphone to translate what you’re trying to say into perfect French. Or if you want to read a scientific paper that’s written in German you just have to click a key of your computer and you’ll have an English version in seconds. What’s next, are computers going to translate what our pets are saying into English.
Yep! In about ten years we’ll all be able to know just what our pets are saying according to Professor Con Slobodchikoff of Northern Arizona University. Professor Slobodchikoff should know, he spend 30 years expanding our knowledge of animal communications through his study of the complex language system prairie dogs use to alert each other to potential threats from predators.
It’s been recognized for a long time that when a group of prairie dogs is foraging for food, one or two members of the group will stand on guard, ready to chirp a warning whenever they sight a coyote or eagle. What Professor Slobodchikoff has learned in 30 years of study is that those warning signals are actually very complex messages with the size, type and distance to possible threats contained in the various chirps and whistles. Indeed some of the messages can be as detailed as “there are some bison off in the distance, no danger” to “an eagle is swooping down on us, run!!!”
Slobodchikoff has even written a book “Chasing Doctor Dolittle: Learning the Language of Animals”. The book, published in 2013, details his many years, and many successes in understanding the ways animals communicate. Slobodchikoff now says that. “If we can do this with prairie dogs, we can certainly do it with dogs and cats.”
So Professor Slobodchikoff is now studying hours of film of dogs engaged in a wide variety of activities and behaviors. He is hoping to use Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning to understand what all of the different barks, growls and tail positions mean in order to translate just what man’s best friend is trying to tell us.
Once Slobodchikoff has deciphered fido’s language it will be comparatively simple process to develop an app that we can put on our cell phones so that we will all finally know: does that wagging tail mean ‘I love you” or ‘Feed me’.
This kind of technology could help humans better understand dogs and their behavior.” Professor Slobodchikoff says. “You could use that information and instead of backing a dog into a corner, give the dog more space.”
After dogs will come cats of course, then other pets. I don’t know if tropical fish will be worth the trouble, I’m quite certain that all mine are capable of signaling is ‘Feed Me’.
If you’d like to learn more about Professor Slobodchikoff’s research, or even buy his book, click on the link below to be taken to his website.
It was two hundred years ago this month (Jan2018) that the novel Frankenstein was first published and has in that time become one of the best known stories ever written. So famous is the tale of the man who made a monster that I’m going to skip describing the plot in order to discuss less well known aspects of Frankenstein.
Most people know that it was a woman, Mary Shelly, who wrote this tale of horror. However few people know that Mary was only nineteen years old at the time she wrote Frankenstein, nor that the novel was written in Switzerland, the home country of it’s protagonist Victor Frankenstein (Nope, Doctor Frankenstein is not a baron and he’s not even German).
According to Mary’s original introduction, she and her husband the poet Percy Shelly were spending a rainy, dreary evening with their friend the poet Lord Byron when Bryon suggested that they should each of them write ‘a ghost story’. I’ve heard that Byron also completed his tale but I’ve never read or even seen it, only Mary’s story went on to become a cultural icon.
Literary scholars have argued endlessly about the possible inspirations for Frankenstein but I think there were three, two mythical and one scientific. The first myth is the Greek story of how the Titan Prometheus created the first men from clay (that’s right the Greeks didn’t believe that God made man, it was his uncle who made us!). The connection with Frankenstein’s bringing to life a creature of his own creation is obvious.
Not quite as obvious is the connection to the legend of Faust but I think the influence is more important. Now I agree that unlike Frankenstein, Faust explicitly knew that he was making a deal with the devil and that although Faust gained many powers by that deal he never used them to bring anything to life. However it is clear that Frankenstein, as portrayed by Mary Shelly, gives up his humanity in order to acquire knowledge and power. It is this idea of a scientist who creates the instrument of his own destruction that makes Frankenstein the Faust metaphor for the age of science.
The final inspiration for Frankenstein was the rapid advance of science in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In particular the discovery by the Italian physicist Luigi Galvani in 1791 that the leg of a dead frog will twitch when poked by two different metals which led to the idea of ‘animal electricity’, a connection between life and lightning that is used in both the novel and every Frankenstein movie ever made.
Mary Shelly’s novel quickly became a sensation and so it was no surprise that one of the very first movies ever made was a version of Frankenstein. The first film version of Frankenstein was made by no less than Thomas Edison the inventor of the motion picture.
It was the film version by Universal studios starring Boris Karloff as the monster that remains the Frankenstein in popular culture. Indeed, Karloff’s performance was so iconic that he succeeded in shifting the emphasis from the maker to the monster. Since Karloff there have in fact been numerous movies made that have the monster as a character but no Doctor Frankenstein. For many people today Frankenstein is the monster, not the man who made him.
Mary Shelly’s novel has also had an enormous influence on other writers in the years since it was first published. In his play ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’ (R.U.R.) the Czech author Karel Capek described how a scientist manufactures an army of artificial workers who turn on and destroy humanity. Robot is the Czech word for worker by the way. The link to Frankenstein is obvious. Many of the B-grade movies I saw when I was young had a similar plot with a scientist’s invention becoming a threat to the world.
There were also authors who saw thing differently however. One of these was Isaac Asimov who realized that if we learned how to build a Frankenstein’s monster we could also learn how to make it safe! Asimov wrote many stories and novels with robots playing an important role, and every one of Asimov’s robots were designed and manufactured to obey the three laws of robotics that made them both useful and safe. As much as I love Frankenstein I agree with Asimov, if humanity’s inventions threaten us then it is our fault, not our creation’s. I will leave you today with the three laws as composed by Isaac Asimov.
When I was young the promise of nuclear energy to transform the world was taken for granted. There were even those who predicted that in just a few years people wouldn’t even have to pay for energy anymore it would be so cheap. Things didn’t quite work out that way.
Nuclear Fission, which produces energy by splitting the biggest of atomic nuclei, uranium and plutonium, produced so much dangerous radioactive material that it soon became very costly, and after a few catastrophic accidents Nuclear Fission was largely, and probably correctly pushed well off to the side.
There’s another kind of nuclear power however, nuclear fusion where the smallest of atoms are forced together to release energy. Fusion actually releases more energy than fission, it is the source of the energy of the Sun and while the fusion process does produce radiation it is much less than in fission and there is none of the nasty leftover radioactive waste that can remain dangerous for hundreds of years.
The problem with fusion is that it is much harder to initiate and sustain a fusion reaction than a fission reaction. For example in an H-bomb the heat and pressure required to trigger the fusion reaction in the first place actually has to be supplied by the fission of an A-bomb. Scientists have been trying for the past 50 years to contain and control a fusion reaction in the labouratory as a precursor to building and fusion power plant. The image below shows an experimental fusion setup at Princeton University’s Plasma Physics Laboratory.
Over the past 5 to 10 years it is European scientists who have taken the lead in this effort with the construction of what it is hoped will be the world’s first fully operational fusion power plant. Named the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) the plant’s construction in southern France has now reached the halfway point and it is possible that the first plasma ignition could occur by 2025 with full energy production by 2030. The image below shows the ITER reactor building under construction.
The type of fusion reactor that ITER will use to produce its energy is known as a Tokamak design that employs a doughnut shaped ring of electromagnets 300,000 times stronger than Earth’s magnetic field. This powerful magnetic field is needed in order to contain the 150 million degree hot, electrically charged plasma in which the fusion reaction takes place. The image below illustrates how a Tokamak reactor works.
Thirty-six nations are contributing to the $26 billion dollar cost of ITER with the European Union paying about half. Once ITER is completed humanity will have a new star, a second sun of its own creation right here on Earth providing almost limitless clean energy.
Or maybe it could happen sooner. That’s what a team of researchers led by physicist Heinrich Hora of the University of South Wales in Australia hope to demonstrate with a new formula for the fusion reaction.
The Doctor Hora and his team point out that the Tokamak/Plasma style of fusion reactor like that at ITER has two big drawbacks that are the main reason it has taken practical fusion so long to be achieved. First: the fusion reactions in a Tokamak produce large numbers of neutrons, which can escape from the magnetic field carrying a substantial fraction of the energy produced away with them. Second: the energy produced in a Tokamak cannot be directly converted into electricity, it must be used first as heat to generate steam that then drive an electric generator, with a substantial fraction of the energy wasted in each step.
What Doctor Hora and his team suggest instead is a reaction where a single hydrogen atom, really just a single proton, fuses with an isotope of the element Boron, Boron-11. This reaction would produce three nuclei of helium with no escaping neutrons and since the helium nuclei would be ionized the charged particles could then be directly turned into electricity.
The experimental setup the researchers suggest is to have a small sphere of boron-11 in a hydrogen gas. Powerful lasers are then used to literally drive the hydrogen’s protons into the boron nuclei producing fusion and releasing energy.
While no experimental tests of the reaction have been conducted so far Doctor Hora hopes to begin labouratory tests soon. If the reaction proves to be practical a hydrogen-boron reactor could be a simpler and cheaper alternative to achieving practical fusion energy.
This month there have been several news items concerning discoveries about ancient life that I’d like to spend a little time discussing. The research spans the whole history of life here on earth from it’s very beginning to just before the start of recorded history. I think I’ll start at the beginning and work my way forward in time.
The first story is actually an update or perhaps I should say progress report on the work being done at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) into the chemical processes that literally came to life almost four billion years ago. In my post of 11Nov17 I described how a team of chemists led by Doctor Ramanarayanan Krishnamurthy at TSRI had discovered that a catalyst called diamidophosphate or DAP could have provided a means for the three basic chemical groups of life, nucleic acids, proteins and lipids to have come together into a single pre-living cellular structure.
Now Dr. Krishnamurthy and his team have gone further, focusing on the chemical reactions that provide energy for cells, the citric acid cycle. Modern living organisms use the citric acid cycle to release the energy stored in sugars and fats. However the chemical components necessary for the critic acid cycle probably did not exist on the early Earth.
What the scientists have now done is to show that two non-biological cycles, the HKG cycle and Malonate cycle could have worked together to accomplish the same metabolic function as the citric acid cycle. Then, as more efficient biological catalysts became available HKG and Malonate could have been replaced by citric acid while leaving the basic structure of the cycle in place. As Doctor Greg Springsteen of Furman University and a co-author of the study stated, “Modern metabolism has a precursor, a template, that was non-biological.” How the HKG/Malonate cycle would work is detailed in the image below.
Now I took two courses in organic chemistry as an undergraduate and I do remember learning a bit about the critic acid cycle but I freely admit some of this stuff is over my head. However, if you’d like to learn more about the research going on at the Scripps Institute click on the link below to be taken to their website.
The next article also deals with early life but a good deal more advanced than that which is being studied at TSRI. In fact the fossils in the study represent the earliest known multi-cellular creatures, organisms that also used photosynthesis and engaged in sexual reproduction. The fossils themselves were collected more than twenty years ago from Somerset and Baffin Islands in Canada but their dating had been in question from their first description. A range of possible dates stretched from 720 million to 1.2 billion years ago which could either make the fossils nothing special or much too advanced for anyone to believe.
The study by researchers at McGill University used new radio-chemical dating techniques to narrow the possible age of the fossils to between 1.03 and 1.06 billion years old, an age that excites paleontologists without giving them a heart attack. The image below shows some of the fossils, which have been given the name Bangiomorpha pubescens because it resembles the modern red algae bangio.
In the image the fossils obviously are multi-cellular and in the image at bottom right asexual spores can be seen. In other examples sexual spores have also been found making Bangiomorpha pubescens the earliest known example of a sexually reproducing species.
My final discovery is much more recent in age and deals with human migration into the Americas. Excavations at the Upward Sun River archaeological site in Alaska have unearthed the remains of an infant girl that have been dated to 11,500 years ago. Preserved by the cold the remains were in such good condition that a genetic analysis was possible. The DNA analysis revealed that the girl belonged to a previously unknown, ancient group of people. The image below shows some of the dig site.
“These are the oldest human remains ever found in Alaska,” says Professor Eske Willerslev of the Universities of Cambridge and Copenhagen. Prof. Willerslev adds that the girl came from “a population that is most closely related to modern Native Americans but is still distantly related to them. So, you can say that she comes from the earliest, or most original Native American group.”
Scientists hope that further studies of the remains along with all of the material finds at the Upward Sun River site will reveal more about how the Americas were first settled and by what kind of people.
A new year always brings in with it the hope for a year full of new and exciting advances and in space the year 2018 could very well fulfill much of that promise. Not only do NASA and America’s commercial space companies have a long to-do list but also the European Space Agency (ESA), the Chinese, Japanese and India all plan ambitious space ventures.
Let’s begin with the possibility of manned space flight returning to American soil as the private companies Space X and Boeing are scheduled to make unmanned test launches of their new crew capable space capsules. Space X is currently scheduled to test launch their Dragon capsule around March while Boeing’s Starliner capsule is scheduled to launch around July. Depending on the success of these unmanned test flights, manned flights could begin before the end on the year. The images below show the Dragon and Starliner capsules.
Meanwhile Space X also intends to perform the first test launch of its new Falcon Heavy launch vehicle this very month. When successfully launched the Falcon Heavy will become the most powerful rocket in operation anywhere in the World. Also, since the Falcon Heavy is designed to be reusable like its little brother the Falcon 9 it will also help to bring down the cost of getting into space. The image below shows the Falcon Heavy on its launch pad being prepared for its test flight.
As far as NASA itself is concerned its main emphasis in 2018 will be on inter-planetary probes like the InSight Mars lander (short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport), which will be launched in May and is expected to reveal many of the details of the interior structure of Mars. Another probe scheduled for a July launch will be the Parker Solar Probe which will come closer to the Sun than any previous spacecraft and actually become the first to enter and study the Sun’s atmosphere or Corona. Also in August of this year the OSIRIS-Rex space probe (which was launched on 8Sept2016) will reach its destination of the asteroid Bennu to begin a three-year mission that will include collecting a sample of the asteroid for return to Earth. The images below show the InSight, Parker Solar and OSIRIS-Rex space probes.
The space agencies of the rest of the World have an equally busy schedule with the ESA launching its BepiColombo spacecraft on a seven-year voyage to the planet Mercury, arriving in 2024, see image below. Meanwhile Japan’s JAXA space agency is anticipating the rendezvous of its Hayabusa 2 probe with the asteroid Ryugu in June. This mission also includes a sample return with the sample arriving on Earth in 2020.
On the other hand China and India have both set their sights on exploring the Moon with China’s Chang’e 5 attempting the first ever landing on our satellite’s dark side. The Chang’e 5 is also a sample return mission so we may learn a great deal about that relatively little know side of our nearest neighbor.
India’s Chandrayaan 2 vehicle, scheduled for a March launch, is a combination of an orbiter and lander with a lander also carrying a small rover down to the lunar surface. Once on the surface the rover’s instruments will study the lunar soil.
Now remember, these are the scheduled space events. You never know, there could be important discoveries by the Juno spacecraft now orbiting Jupiter or the Kepler exo-planet hunting telescope. All in all 2018 looks to be an exciting year.
One of the earliest known scientific ‘Laws’ dealing with electricity is called Ohm’s law after it discoverer, Georg Simon Ohm. As usually stated Ohm’s law asserts that when an electric voltage is placed across an object it will cause an electric current to flow through the object and that the amount of current you get for a certain voltage is a property of the object called the resistance. In equation form:
Here voltage is V, current is I and resistance is R. In other words double the voltage and you get double the current through an object or one third the voltage will get you one third the current through the same object.
But even before Ohms time scientists knew that some materials, mainly metals, allowed a great deal of current to flow while other materials allow only a tiny current. In terms of Ohm’s law metals had a low resistance while most non-metals had a much higher resistance.
This is why we use metals like copper to conduct electricity and non-metals to insulate us from electricity. The range of possible resistances in different materials is enormous, the resistivity of glass for example is a million trillion time higher that of copper!
Scientists also soon learned that the resistance of metals depends on temperature with lower temperatures causing a drop in resistance. In 1911 the physicist Kamerlingh Onnes was trying to see how far this reduction in resistance would go when he discovered that the resistance of Mercury suddenly dropped to zero at a temperature of about 4 degrees Kelvin (about -270 degrees C).
Before long many elements were found to have similar critical temperatures where their resistance disappears, although it is a curious fact that the two best normal conductors, silver and copper, never become superconductive. The image below shows the familiar periodic table of the elements with those elements that have been found to go superconductive highlighted.
Now in practical terms the use of superconductive materials in our electrical systems would be extremely valuable. This is because almost one half of all the electricity the human race produces just gets eaten up by the resistance in the wires getting to your house. (For example your toaster uses the resistance in its coils of wire to generate the heat that toasts your bread)
However superconductors only exist at very low temperatures and even after a hundred years of research the quest for a ‘Room Temperature Superconductor’ has only progressed to a temperature of about 90K (around -180ºC). Very strangely the materials that are now known to become superconducting at the highest temperatures are ceramics that at room temperatures have very high resistances.
At present the best theory we have to explain the phenomenon superconductivity describes it as a pairing up of the electrons in the material, one electron having it’s spin up while its mate’s spin is down. The pair as a whole therefore has no spin and in the strange world of quantum physics they can now zip past the atoms in the material without the collisions that cause resistence.
The image below shows one of the stranger aspects of superconductivity where a magnet is actually being repelled by, and therefore floats above a slab of superconducting material.
Now a group of scientists at the Institute for Theoretical Physics of the University of Heidelberg in Germany has succeeded in opening a new avenue for research by creating a two-dimensional structure of atoms and observing the behavior of the electrons of the atoms. They did this by using focused laser beams to confine the atoms of an ultracold gas into a layer just one atom thick. According to Professor Selim Jochim who heads the research “This means that electrons in the system can only move in two-dimensional planes.”
Then using a technique called radio-frequency spectroscopy, similar to a medical MRI, Professor Jochim’s team discovered that the electrons were pairing up in the same manner as in a superconductor. More than that, they found that they were able to cause the pairings to occur at temperatures several times higher than the known critical temperature of the atoms of the gas. The image below shows a representation of the experimental result.
Whether and how soon this research will lead to large-scale use of superconductors in our electrical grid is unknown. However every new discovery about the phenomenon of superconductivity brings that day a little bit closer.
We’re down to the last few days of the year 2017 and all of the news outlets are doing special reviews of the ‘Top Stories’ that they covered during the past year. With this in mind I’ve decided to use my final post of the year to review some of the stories I’ve written about in 2017.
First of all let’s look at some of the numbers. Over the past 52 weeks I’ve now published 102 posts so it hasn’t quite been two posts a week. Of those posts 88 have dealt with topics in one of the many fields of science while 13 have been reviews of science fiction novels or movies. (Looking at these statistics I realize I need to do some more SF posts.)
Starting with the science we’ll begin by looking at some the events that took place in man’s continuing exploration of space. A lot happened both with robotic probes throughout the Solar System as well as preparing for future manned mission beyond low Earth orbit. In my opinion however the big story in space has bee the continued success of Space X corporation. (posts of 8Mar, 1Apl, 17May, 7Jun and 14Oct)
Space X, the Hawthorn California based commercial space launch company, succeeded in launching 18 of their Falcon 9 rockets in 2017 placing a variety of satellites into orbit including two resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS).
In addition to launching 18 of their rockets Space X also able to land 16 of the rockets. (The two that were not recovered were not failures but rather missions requiring so much fuel that a recovery was not possible.) Indeed one of the Falcon 9 rockets that flew this year had already flown in 2016 and represented the first reuse and re-recovery of the Falcon 9.
With these successes Space X has proven beyond doubt its ability to reliably reuse the Falcon 9 and hopefully this will soon lead to a considerable reduction in the cost of getting into space. The image below shows the last Space X launch of 2017, one from Vandenberg Air Force Base and which gave the southern half of California a spectacular show.
On the interplanetary exploration side of space the biggest news came from the arrival of the Juno spacecraft at Jupiter (19Jul) along with the Cassini Spacecraft’s ending its mission to Saturn with a final plunge into the atmosphere of the planet itself (15Apl, 13Sept and 14Oct). Juno has already given us the closest views ever of the biggest planet in our Solar System and has allowed scientists to study phenomenon like the great red spot in greater detail. The image below is the Great Red Spot from the Juno spacecraft.
The Cassini spacecraft had already been orbiting Saturn for more than a decade sending back breathtaking images of the Solar Systems most beautiful planet (My opinion) and its mission was coming to an end due to lack of fuel. Because the data sent back by Cassini had indicated the possibility that two of Saturn’s moons, Titan and Enceladus might harbour life it was decided to send the probe to burn up in the giant planet’s atmosphere rather than risk contaminating those moons. The image below is one of the last from Cassini.
For manned space flight the year 2017 was more a waiting year as the ISS continued to be manned by Russian spacecraft but America is still hoping Space X and Boeing will begin test flights of their new manned capsules in 2018.
In the political / budget front President Trump ordered NASA to plan on a return to the Moon but there was no mention of money so no bucks, no Buck Rogers (16Dec).
In the science of Paleontology this has been a year of new discoveries along with the resolution of some long standing mysteries. New dinosaur species included the Patagotitan (16Aug), the Kayentapus (known only from its footprints) and the Sinosauropterys (both 28Oct). See images below.
For those of us who love Trilobites, and who doesn’t, we had the most detailed description ever of the digestive system of a trilobite (29Nov). There was also a paper examining the earliest known eye that was found on a fossil trilobite (9Dec). The image below is the fossil trilobite with the earliest known eyes.
To me however the biggest news in paleontology came from a paper examining the anatomy of the ancient extinct creatures called hyoliths, small conic shaped fossils whose taxonomic place among living things had been a mystery for almost 200 years (15Jan). After studying and dissecting, yes they can dissect fossils, the best specimens of hyoliths it was found that hyoliths belonged in the same group of animals that contained the brachiopods. The image below shows an artist’s representation of a hyolith.
Now I’m a physicist by training so in the past year there were a lot of posts about new developments in that field. The detection of gravity waves at the Laser Interferometer Gravitywave Observatory (LIGO) probably being the most noteworthy (14Jan, 7Oct and 22Oct). In fact the observation of gravity waves won the Nobel Prize for the chief scientists at LIGO Rainer Weiss of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) along with Kip Thorne and Barry Barish of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).
Now the first two observations of gravity waves both came from the merger of two black holes and as you may guess aside from the gravity waves there was little else to see. The third detection on August 17th however was caused by the merger of two neutron stars resulting in an explosion so huge that it produced enough radiation to be picked up by a Gamma Ray satellite along with optical and radio telescopes. The fact that we can now integrate gravity wave observations with the observations of other astronomically instruments opens up entirely new ways of studying the Universe.
I also wrote two posts about new experiments to study the sub-atomic particles called neutrinos, the ghost particle of the atom. In particular I wrote about the design and construction of the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE) (30Jul and 2Dec). Now the DUNE experiment will use the Tevatron particle accelerator at Fermi-Lab to produce large streams of neutrinos that will travel beneath the Earth to a huge neutrino detector in an old gold mine outside of Lead, South Dakota. (Neutrinos interact so rarely that hardly any will be absorbed). The way the neutrinos change during the 2000km flight will tell us a great deal about this most mysterious of elementary particles. The image below shows the setup of the DUNE experiment.
Oh, and before I forget there was the post about my trip down to Sweetwater Tennessee to view the ‘Great American Eclipse of 2017’ (24Aug). It really was an awesome sight that I’ll never forget. The Image below is one of my pictures of the eclipse.
Now as I said earlier most of my posts have dealt with science but during the past twelve months I did get to review three SF movies and six novels, I even spend four posts describing what Science Fiction is in my opinion.
The three movies I reviewed were: Guardians of the Galaxy vol.2 (20May), Blade Runner 2049 (25Oct) and Thor, Ragnarok (15Nov). All of them were interesting but all of them had their faults as well. To my mind a really good SF movie is that rarest of gems that only comes around once a decade or so. Oh well, I guess maybe I’m just asking for too much.
The same is pretty much true of the six novels I reviewed. The novels were: Dark Secret by Edward M. Lerner (18Jan), New Moon by Ian McDonald (1Mar), Saturn Run by John Sandford and Ctein (12Apl), Death Wave by Ben Bova (31May), the Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu (30Aug) and Galactic Satori Chronicles Book 1: Earth by Nick Braker and Paul E. Hicks (27Sept). Each of these novels would appeal to some but the one I found most interesting and best written was The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu. The image below shows the cover of the Three Body Problem.
Well this has been quite a long post but then it’s been a long year and a lot happened. I’m sure that next year will be just as interesting; I hope you’ll stop by on occasion to check out ‘Science and Science Fiction’.
When most people think about telescopes they immediately think of a long tube with either lenses or mirrors to gather visible light and magnify the resulting image. For a good three hundred years from the time of Galileo until less than a hundred years ago these were the only type of telescope that existed.
Starting in the 1950s however a new kind of telescope came into use by astronomers, radio telescopes. Telescopes that were designed to gather radio waves from outer space and whose images allowed astronomers to look at the universe in a whole new way.
Radio telescopes however have one big disadvantage when compared to their optical cousins. Since a radio wave is a million or more times longer than a wave of visible light a radio telescope has to be a million times bigger than an optical telescope in order to see with the same precision, the same definition. In fact you’d need a radio telescope 120 kilometers across in order to have the same resolution as the little 12cm telescope I had when I was growing up. Because of this the need to built ever bigger radio telescopes, and to find ways to still keep the costs down, has been one of the key engineering problems of modern science. A big step forward will be the construction of the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) radio telescope in western Australia.
Now Murchison Shire in Western Australia is probably the best place in the world to build a radio telescope because in an area the size of New Jersey there are less than a thousand residents. The image below gives some idea of the emptiness of Murchison Shire.
Because Murchison Shire is so uninhabited that means the place is radio quiet, no TV stations, no radio stations or cell phone towers to generate signals that could interfere with the signals coming from pulsars or stellar nurseries or distant galaxies.
Also, because there are different types of radio waves, long waves, short waves, microwaves the SKA will actually be composed of three different antennas occupying the same area of land. One of the arrays, the SKA Low (SKAL) antennas will receive signals in the 50 to 350 MHz (that’s 50 to 350 million cycles per second) frequency range. The entire SKAL will consist of tens of thousands of antennas that resemble wire Christmas Trees, see image below. One of the advantages of Radio Telescopes is that it is relatively easy to add the signals from two or more antennas in order to get an effectively bigger telescope.
The Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) will operate in the same manner, a huge number of small antennas combining their signals in order to do the job of one huge antenna. The image below shows some of the first antennas of the MWA.
The SKA will also have some of the large dish antennas commonly associated with radio astronomy. 188 dishes between 13 and 15 meters in diameter will make up the SKA Pathfinder telescope. The Pathfinder telescope will also digitally combine its signals with another set of 197 radio dishes in South Africa effectively making them a telescope whose resolution is equivalent to one the size of the Indian Ocean. The image below shows some of the dishes of the Pathfinder telescope.
It is estimated that with the current level of funding from ten member nations the Square Kilometer Array will be completed by 2025 but another advantage about combining thousands of small radio telescopes into a big one is that even a partially completed array can still do useful work. Astronomers hope that the SKA will soon be giving them a better view of objects in space that cannot be studied in visible light. I expect the discoveries to start very soon.
If you’d like to learn more about the Square Kilometer Array click on the link below to be taken to their website. (You can also find out if your country is a part of the SKA organization!)
I get comments about Posts on this blog several times a day and I want to thank all for you for both your encouragement and kind messages. I recently received one such comment from a visitor named Bianca who wrote in response to my post about Paleontology back in November 2017, “It’s nearly impossible to find experienced people on this particular topic but you seem to know what you’re talking about.”
Now I don’t want you to get the idea that I’m the sort of person who turns down flattery when it’s offered but there are a lot of people out there who have a much greater knowledge of Paleontology than I do. I know quite a few of them.
Bianca’s comment got me thinking however about all of the many places that people like her can go in order to see some truly beautiful fossils and learn more about the kinds of living creatures that preceded us on Earth. All too many people aren’t even aware that many of these places exist. So in this post I’m going to talk about some of them.
Now I live in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and here in Philly we are fortunate to have the Academy of Natural Science, which has a very nice collection of fossils on display including the very first dinosaur skeleton discovered here in the United States. The image below gives an idea of the Academy’s hall of Dinosaurs.
Not far away in New York City and Washington DC we also have the American Museum of Natural History and Smithsonian Natural History Museum respectively. These museum’s are among the best in the world in terms of their fossil collections and I’ve visited them both on several occasions. The images below give just a taste of the exhibits that can be found at these museums.
O’k, so the big museums in the big cities have big collections but a lot of people can’t get to New York or Washington. Well other cities have museums as well. Chicago has its Field Museum, Pittsburgh the Carnegie Museum, Atlanta its Fernbank Museum of Natural History and Los Angeles has the La Brea Tar Pits Museum.
In addition to the big museums however there are also all of the parks that have fossil connections. The US National Park Service lists eleven Nation Parks, such as Dinosaur National Park, Florissant Fossil Beds National Park and even Grade Canyon National Park, where visitors can see many of the fossils that have been uncovered there. The link below will take you to a National Park Service site giving information on the eleven national parks with fossil connections.
We mustn’t neglect State Parks either. One park I’ve often visited is Poricy Brook State Park in New Jersey. The visitor center there has a nice fossil collection on exhibit along with instructions on where to go in the park to find your own fossils!! Caesar’s Creek State Park in Ohio is much the same, a nice exhibit and directions to the local fossil site. The image below shows a 62cm long specimen of a trilobite on display at the Caesar’s Creek State Park visitor’s center.
So far all of the museums I’ve mentioned have been in the United States but that doesn’t mean other countries don’t have museums with equally impressive fossil collections, far from it. The Natural History Museum in London has one of the world’s largest collections, including specimens collected by Charles Darwin.
The UK also possesses one of paleontology’s real jewels along England’s south coast; known to fossil hunters as the Jurassic Coast. The Jurassic Coast covers almost 250 million years of Earth’s history and so extensive are the fossils in this region that every little town has its own museum or visitor center displaying fossils discovered there. The image below shows just a bit of the Jurassic coast fossil location.
There are many websites dealing with the fossils of the Jurassic Coast, the one below will provide you with a list of some of them.
Other countries have their own museums as well. In Berlin there is the Museum fűr Naturkunde while there is the Jurassic Land Museum in Istanbul. Brussels boasts of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Science and Cape Town in South Africa has the Iziko Museum (they have a wonderful collection of fossils of human ancestors).
In recent years China has become one of paleontology’s hotbeds and the Zigong Dinosaur Museum has many of the latest discoveries on exhibit. And let’s not forget Australia where the National Dinosaur Museum displays specimens only found down under.
I hope by now you realize that there are Natural History and fossil museums almost everywhere, you just have to go looking for them. Be careful however, seeing all of those fossils may inspire you to start looking to find some of your own. I can give you some advice on doing that as well but that’ll be another post.
To celebrate the 45th anniversary of the final Apollo mission to land on the Moon President Trump has announced (11 Dec 2017) that he is directing NASA to return American astronauts to the Moon before continuing on to Mars and ‘to many Worlds beyond’. Vice-President Pence, the head of the Council of Astronautics stood proudly beside his boss as did Harrison Schmidt, a member of Apollo 17 and one of the last two men to set foot on the Moon along with Buzz Aldren, the second man on the Moon. See image below.
Now I have published several posts (22 Feb 2017 and 19 July 2017) recommending exactly this strategy. At present NASA is nearing completion of two major space systems that could easily be employed in an updated version of the Apollo missions. The Space Launch System (SLS), which is scheduled for its first unmanned launch next year, could serve as the main launch vehicle as the Saturn V rocket did. At the same time the Orion capsule, also scheduled for a test flight next year, would take the place of the Apollo Command and Service modules. See images below.
That would mean that the only major system required to achieve President Trump’s goal is a lander module, that is an updated version of the Lunar Module or LM, a task that could be completed in 4-6 years given adequate support! My support for this strategy comes from the fact we will soon have much of the equipment necessary and it would actually allow NASA to do something after 40 years of, let’s be honest stagnation.
But here’s the problem; we’ve been through this before, many times now. A new President will come into office; directs NASA toward a completely different goal from his predecessor and does not even bother to try to get the funding necessary from Congress.
Ronald Reagan ordered NASA to build a Space Station (I did some preliminary design work on that by the by) but never funded it. George H.W. Bush told NASA to go to Mars instead but again, no bucks no Buck Rogers. Bill Clinton was less ambitious, he went back to Reagan’s Space Station idea, got some other nations, especially Russia involved and managed to get the International Space Station built! After that George W. Bush decided it was time for us to go back to the Moon so NASA came up with the Constellation Program from which came the initial designs for the SLS and Orion capsule. But President Obama thought the cost of Constellation was too high so he instructed NASA to use a mission to an asteroid as a stepping-stone to an eventual Mars Mission.
Think of all of the billions of dollars that have been wasted going back and forth from one plan to another. Maybe if two Presidents in a row stuck to the same plan NASA might actually have gotten somewhere. And that’s my concern; with all of Trump’s problems what are the chances that he’ll be able to support, or even care about his space vision at all. And then the next President will just scrap all the work done on going back to the Moon for whatever his or her vision is.
Meanwhile however NASA continues to show how it can perform miracles even without adequate funding. Scientists at NASA’s Ames research facility in Sunnyvale California have collaborated with their neighbors Google to use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to review the massive amounts of data gathered by the Kepler Space Telescope.
Now, in case you’ve forgotten, the Kepler satellite (see image below) was designed to observe thousands of stars looking for slight dips in their brightness that could be caused by planets. The stars that Kepler detected as possibly having planets were then examined more closely by ground-based telescopes to confirm the existence of planets. To date Kepler has examined 150,000 stars found over 3,000 confirmed planets orbiting other stars.
But the scientists managing the Kepler mission were convinced that more planets could be hidden inside the Kepler data so they teamed with AI engineers at Google to use machine learning to review the Kepler data and they’ve already found a big one.
Two days ago, 14 Dec2017, NASA announced that the star Kepler-90 possesses a solar system of eight planets, a number equal to our own solar system. Now Kepler-90 is a star similar to our Sun at a distance of about 2,500 light years and the Kepler satellite had already discovered several planets orbiting around. How many the researchers weren’t certain so they used the data from Kepler-90 as some that would be reexamined by Google’s AI and the computer learned how to sift through the observations to find eight planets. The image below shows an artist’s impression of what Kepler-90’s family of planets could look like.
With this early success behind them the Kepler-Google team will surely go on to discover thousands of more planets orbiting other stars and many of those planets could be a home to who knows what forms of life. This is a lesson to be learned about America’s scientists. Even when the politicians bicker about and underfund science, they keep finding ways to make amazing discoveries.