Science and Science Fiction: Top Stories and the Year 2017 in Review

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.

Space X launch (credit: Art Brown)

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.

Great Red Spot (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Jason Major)

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.

Saturn by Cassini (Credit: NASA-JPL)

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.

Patagotitan mayorum skeleton (Credit: Museo Egidio Feruglio)
Footprints of Dino (Credit: Reuters)
Sinosauropteryx Fossil (Credit: Jacob Vinther)

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.

Trilobite Fossil with earliest evidence of Eyes (Credit: Gennadi Baranov)

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.

What a living Hyolith looked like

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.

DUNE Experimental Layout (Credit: Fermilab)

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.

Total Eclipse of the Sun (Credit: R.A.Lawler)

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.

Cover The Three Body Problem (Credit: Tor Books)

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’.










The Big Dish: Scientists and Engineers are completing their designs for the World’s largest Radio Telescope, the Square Kilometer Array

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.

Murchison Shire (Credit: Google)

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.

Square Kilometer Array Low Antennas (Credit: SKA)

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.

Murchison Widefield Array Antennas (Credit: SKA)

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.

Pathfinder Dish Antennas (Credit: SKA)

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!)

Square Kilometre Array – Home

Paleontology on Display: Museums, Collections and other places that you can visit to learn more about the History of Life on Earth

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.

Hall of Dinosaurs at the Academy of Natural Sciences (Credit: ANS)

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.

American Museum of Natural History NYC (Credit: AMNH)
Smithsonian Natural History Museum, Washington DC (Credit: Smithsonian)

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.

Trilobite Fossil at Caesar’s Creek State Park Visitor Center, Ohio (Credit: Mary Mae)

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.

Just a small part of the Jurassic Coast (Credit: Devon Guide)

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.

Space New for Dec 2017: President Trump directs NASA to return to the Moon. No Plan, no Timetable and No Money!

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.

Donald Trump proudly shows that he can sign his name just like Big People do (Credit: Chip Samodoevilla, Getty)

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.

Space Launch System (right) and Orion crew Capsule (Credit: NASA)

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.

Kepler Space Telescope (Credit NASA)

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.

Artist’s Impression of Kepler-90 Solar System (Credit: NASA)

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.


Wealth Inequality, How we Study it, How it effects Us and what we can do about it.

I’m going to stray a bit from my usual topics of the physical and biological sciences into the field of Economics for this post. I hope you’ll allow me to do so because I think that the issue of Wealth Inequality, and its effects on us as a society may very well be the most critical, as well as divisive issue in the world today.

We all have a basic idea of just what Wealth Inequality is. The rich own big mansions and their savings and investments are so profitable that many do not need to work, in other words they can literally live off of the labour of others. At the other end of the wealth spectrum the poor usually do not own their homes, instead they rent with the money often going to the rich. Most of us live in the middle somewhere, we may own our home but if so then that’s the most valuable thing we own.

Getting any kind of accurate picture about Wealth Inequality however requires an agreed upon methodology before you even begin to gather your data and analyze it. That’s just a fancy way of asking; how do they measure Wealth Inequality.

Of course a part of it is simply getting the raw data and here in the United States much of which is obtained by census reports and income tax filings. The general picture of wealth distribution developed from this data is startling; the top 1% of households are found to own 35% of the nations wealth while the bottom 40% own less than 1%. Putting it another way the average rich person owns about 1500 times as much as the average poor person. The image below graphically shows how, if the US land mass were allotted as its wealth is.

Graphic Illustration of Wealth Inequality in America (Credit: Common Dreams Org)

While this mass of data clearly shows the distribution of wealth in the USA, or any country, in order to make comparisons between countries, or of the same country over time, economists like to use a calculated index value known as the Gini coefficient or Gini index. The Gini coefficient was first developed by an Italian statistician named Corrado Gini in his 1912 paper Variabilità e mutabilità (Variability and Mutability). I’ll try to describe the Gini coefficient using the graph below.

Illustration of Gini Coefficient (Credit: R. A. Lawler)

In the graph an ideally equal society would be one in which 1% of the people own 1% of the wealth, 2% own 2% of the wealth and so on. 40% of the people own 40% of the wealth, 65% own 65% right up to 100% of society owning everything, 100%. In other words X=Y and you get a straight line at a 45º angle. This ideal situation corresponds to a Gini coefficient of zero (0).

On the other hand in the situation where only a very few, or even a single individual owns everything you get a flat line along the bottom going from left to right ending in a straight vertical line on the right hand side. In other words the lowest 99% own nothing and wealth is concentrated in just a few hands. The Gini coefficient for such a society is defined as a one (1).

Both of these situations are unrealistic; every real society has a Gini coefficient somewhere between 0 and 1 with the lower the coefficient the more fairly, more equitably wealth is spread throughout the population. The current calculated Gini coefficient for the United States is calculated to be 0.45, which is one of the highest, that is most inequitable, among the developed world. And it has been steadily increasing since the 1980s with an extra spurt following the financial crisis of 2008. To give you an idea of where the US sits compared to other nations the list below gives the Gini coefficients for 12 representative countries including the USA. By the way the Gini coefficients for the other countries comes from data collected by the Central Intelligence Agency (the CIA) because America’s spies realize that inequality in a country will lead to civil unrest even if the rest of our government denies it.

Nigeria                           0.488

China                               0.465

USA                                   0.45

Russia                              0.421

Japan                                0.379

Viet Nam                         0.376

India                                 0.352

United Kingdom          0.324

Ireland                             0.313

Australia                         0.303

France                              0.292

Germany                         0.27

Notice how only Nigeria and China are more unequal than the US, not terribly good company to be in with. If you’d like to see the CIA’s entire list click on the link below.

So, Wealth Inequality is a real problem in this country and it’s growing. The current Tax Bill backed by the Republican congress and President Trump will only accelerate the flow of wealth to the top while increasing the taxes of the middle and lower class. This state of affairs, where the rich contribute huge amounts of money to political campaigns in exchange for legislation favouring them is destructive to democracy in any sense of the word.

What can we do? First and foremost we must fight for a tax policy that shifts the tax burden onto those who can better bear that burden, the rich. President Obama championed what he called the “Buffet Rule”, named for the billionaire Warren Buffet who maintained that he should pay at least as much in taxes as his secretary. The Buffet Rule was designed to make certain that the very rich could not use loopholes in order to pay little or no taxes. Some such progressive policy has become imperative if we are to continue as a land “Where all Men are created Equal.”

Finally real campaign finance reform must be introduced in order to reduce the influence that those who have the wealth have over out elected officials. Until these reforms are put into effect the attacks on our democratic institutions can only worsen, eliminating all hope of “Making America Great Again.”


Paleontology News for December 2017.

I know, I just wrote a post about paleontology a little more than a week ago (29Nov17) but there have been several interesting announcements including a big one that’s been 20 years in the making. I’ll start with the announcement that those of us who keep up to date on fossil news have been waiting for so long.

The nation of South Africa has for almost a century now been a rich source for fossils related to the evolution of our own species Homo sapiens. In particular explorers have made many important discoveries while searching the limestone caves in the northern part of the country.

In July of 1997, Professor Ron Clarke of the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa was exploring a cave about 40km northwest of Johannesburg from which he and his assistants had already discovered several foot bones along with leg bone fragments.

What they found was the almost complete skeleton of an Australopithecus female, aged about 30.The remains were named ‘Little Foot’ because of the foot bones Clarke had found earlier. Clarke speculates that the young female fell to her death in the cave approximately 3.67 million years ago.

Problem was that over the centuries dirt and other debris also fell into the cave encasing the fragile bones in hard rock that had to be removed VERY carefully so as not to damage the fossil. So Professor Clarke and the other paleontologists at Witwatersrand took their time, 20 years in fact and just this week the fully prepared skeleton was displayed to the public for the first time. The images below show Professor Clarke with “Little Foot’ along with a close-up of the skull and upper body.

Professor Ron Clarke with ‘Little Foot’ (Credit: Themba Hadebe)
Little Foot, a 3.67 million year old human ancestor (Credit: Themba Hadebe)

How much ‘Little Foot’s’ remains will add to our knowledge of human evolution remains to be seen. The theoreticians are going to have to think about it for awhile but ‘Little Foot’ represents an enormous amount of data. And remember no one knows what else is waiting to be found in those caves in South Africa. I expect to hear about a lot more discoveries in the next few years.


A somewhat older fossil find, about 530 million years older, comes from Estonia and gives us our earliest evidence for the evolution of an eye. Now, not a refractive cornea type of eye such as humans and other vertebrates possess but rather a compound eye of the type that lobsters, crabs and insects use.

The evidence comes from a specimen of one of my favourite types of extinct animals, a trilobite. The fossil in question, see image below, has been analyzed by Professor Euan Clarkson of Edinburgh University. The pictures below show the entire fossil from above alone with a side view of one of the compound eyes.

Trilobite Fossil with earliest evidence of Eyes (Credit: Gennadi Baranov)
Side view of Earliest Eye (Credit: Gennadi Baranov)

According to Professor Clarkson the eye is remarkably modern, the only noticeable difference is the lack of a lens like structure. Although the animal probably had poor vision compared to modern insects or crabs it nevertheless could detect predators and obstacles.


My final fossil discovery for today lived during the Triassic period, about 245 million years ago, but concerns the line of animals that are the closest living relatives of the Trilobites, the Horseshoe Crabs.

A new fossil species of horseshoe crab has been discovered in the state of Idaho by a team of paleontologists led by Allen J Lerner of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science. The shape of the animal’s shell, see image below, reminded the discoverers of the helmet of the famous villain Darth Vader from the ‘Star Wars’ series of movies so they decided to name their find Vaderlimulus.

Vaderlimulus (Credit: Tricki, New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science)

Now Vaderlimulus is an important find, being the first known fossil horseshoe crab from the Triassic in North America but let’s be honest, it’s that name that got it publicity.


Inspired by Origami; Artificial Muscles that are Flexible, Strong, Low Cost and easily Fabricated.

(Credit: Wyss Institute, Harvard University)

We’re all familiar with what a robot looks like. Whether it be Star War’s C3PO or an actual robotic arm on a automobile assembly line they’re made of metal and gears and while they can sometimes move quickly they are never agile or flexible. The robots you see on ‘BattleBots’ have joints and manipulators that are powered by little electric motors that are costly, use a lot of power and are prone to break downs.

For years now scientists and engineers have been trying to develop ‘artificial muscles’ that would provide greater strength and dexterity while at the same time being lower cost and more efficient. Various different materials have been tried. Some, such as Shaped Memory Alloys or twisted polymer fibers were found to be energy inefficient (about 2%), slow and plagued by hysteresis, that is repeated on-off cycling does not always bring them back to their original starting point.

High-pressure actuators, either pneumatic or hydraulic, have also been widely studied but their contraction ratios are limited to about 35%, in other words they can only pull so much. Furthermore the use of high pressure can be dangerous.

Now a team of engineers at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering is trying a new track, low pressure vacuum rather than high pressure. The team consists of Shuguang Li, Daniel Vogt, Daniela Rus and Robert Wood and they have developed a basic design of a muscle that they call a Vacuum-Actuated Muscle Inspired Pneumatic Structure (VAMPS). According to the engineers VAMPS are strong (Power density greater than 2kW/kg), lightweight, are able to contract to 10% of their initial length and can be cheaply fabricated by a variety of techniques.

The figure below illustrates the operation of the VAMPS. At the top, the Pin=Pout drawing, the triangular line represents a skeletonal structure that is wrapped inside a skin made of thermoplastic polyurethane coated nylon fabric which is fluid tight. As Pin<Pout, the middle drawing, the muscle begins to contract and as Pin gets close to a vacuum the VAPMS reaches its full contraction.

VAMPS (Credit: Wyss Institute, Harvard University)

These VAMPS can then be used as buildings blocks to construct entire robotic manipulators and limbs that are known as Fluid-driven Origami-inspired Artificial Muscles (FOAMs). These FOAMs can then be designed to fulfill a large variety of different tasks. One of the manipulators that have been designed and constructed by the Harvard group is shown in the Image at the top of this post while another is shown below, notice the one below is grabbing and lifting an automobile tire.

Origami Artificial Muscle (Credit: Wyss Institute, Harvard University)

By the way the team at Wyss is being partially funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA which has already received mention in several posts on this blog (June17, September 23 and November 8, all of 2017).

The Harvard engineers working on the VAMPS and FOAMs are also testing their designs in a variety of different environments. In doing so they hope to be able to demonstrate that their innovations can be employed anywhere from the deepest oceans to the rigors of outer space. If you’d like to learn more about the work going on at the Wyss Institute click on the link below to be taken to the official website.



Drexel Physics Seminar: Doctor Sowjanya Gollapinni on the current state of research on Neutrinos, the Ghost Particle of the Atom.

I took in a physics seminar at my old alma mater Drexel University on November 30th. I like to stop down once in a while to see what’s changed, a lot, as well as see who’s there that I still remember, seems like fewer each time.

The topic of the seminar was certainly one that interested me, Neutrinos; a kind of sub-atomic particle so difficult to detect it has been called a ghost particle. The German physicist Wolfgang Pauli first predicted the existence of neutrinos as a way of making the books balance in the radioactive process called beta (β) decay. Careful studies of the process showed that some energy was missing, and the angular momentum before and after didn’t match. Pauli suggested that if another particle was involved, one without electric charge and little or no rest mass, it could account for the differences while being very difficult to detect. The images below show the Nobel Laureate along with a diagram of the β decay process.

Wolfgang Pauli (Credit: Public Domain)
Beta Decay Process (Credit: Public Domain)

So difficult were neutrinos to detect that it took more than twenty years to prove that they existed. In fact neutrinos react with normal matter so rarely that while about ten billion (billion with a b) neutrinos are flying through your body every second only two or three will interact with a particle inside you during your entire life. Even today the way we study neutrinos is to arrange for zillions to fly through a detector so sensitive it can measure the properties of the one or two that interact.

Arranging that intense beam of neutrinos, and building that detector is the job of Doctor Sowjanya Gollapinni of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Dr. Gollapinni is one of the chief researchers of the MicroBooNE experiment currently running at Fermilab outside of Chicago along with being one of the chief designers of the future Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE).

The MicroBooNE, BooNE stands for Boosting Neutrino Experiment by the way, is a new type of detector using a design known as a Liquid Argon Time Projection Chamber (LArTPC). In the detector scattering events (really just two particles bouncing off of each other) between neutrinos and Argon atoms occur inside a very large, uniform electric field. The electric field pulls the ionized atoms generated by the collision toward an incredibly fine mesh of detecting wires. The resulting data plots are then interpreted to determine the kind of neutrino (see below) as well as its energy. The images below show the first high-energy neutrino collision captured by MicroBooNE along with the first recorded cosmic neutrino event.

First Recorded Neutrino Event at MicroBooNE (Credit: MicroBooNE, Fermilab)
First Cosmic Neutrino event at MicroBooNE (Credit: MicroBooNE, Fermilab)

One of the reasons I like MicroBooNE so much is that it uses the Fermilab Tevatron as its source of high-energy neutrinos. The Tevatron was the world’s most powerful ‘atom smasher’ until the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN took the top spot in 2008. In the world of particle physics however being number two gets you nothing so the physicists at Fermilab have been working hard to reconfigure their equipment in order to continue to study new physics and MicroBooNE is a big part of that effort.

After talking about some of the results from MicroBooNE Dr. Gollapinni spent a little time talking about the next generation neutrino detector known as the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment or DUNE. As shown in the figure below, DUNE will have two detectors, one just a short distance from the neutrino source at Fermilab while the second will be buried deep inside the Homestake Mine in South Dakota, a distance of 1300 kilometers away. When completed the DUNE detectors will be 400 times larger then MicroBooNE providing 400 time the data.

DUNE experimental setup (Credit: DUNE, Fermilab)

Now the reason for having a second detector a long distance away is to give the neutrinos produced at Fermilab time in order to change from one type or flavour of neutrino to another. You see one of the things we do know about neutrinos is that there are three flavours. One flavour is associated with the familiar electron, a second is associated with a particle called the muon who is like a heavy cousin of the electron while the third is associated with an even fatter cousin called the Tau particle. Even stranger is the fact that the three flavours will oscillate from one kind to another. Learning more about this oscillation process is one of the major goals of DUNE.

At the end of her discussion Dr. Gollapinni mentioned some preliminary but very exciting news. The results so far from MicroBooNE and several other neutrino experiments indicates, just indicates right now, the possible existence of a fourth flavour of neutrino, which would be a stunning result if proving to be true. Right now it’s just an indication, hopefully the DUNE experiment, scheduled to start collecting data in 2024, will give us the answer.

During the question period one of the students who were attending asked Dr. Gollapinni how many flavours of neutrino she thought there were and she answered ‘Well if we find a fourth it’ll be a Nobel Prize and that’s enough for me’.

I certainly wish her luck.