Space News for February 2018

Quite a few items of interest have happened in space in past month. I think I’ll save the big news for last and start with two stories that deal with the International Space Station (ISS).

The International Space Station (Credit: NASA)

The Trump administration has released a draft memo of a policy decision to instruct NASA to end its funding of the ISS no later than the year 2025. The reason for the decision is that the White House wants NASA to concentrate to sending astronauts on deep space missions back to the Moon or on to Mars and with all of the budget woes in Washington NASA can’t afford to pay for the ISS as well.

The hope is that commercial corporations such as Space X or Boeing or Bigelow will step in and take over the US commitment to the ISS but there is considerable doubt that the commercial aerospace sector can be ready by 2025.

One participant in the current ISS consortium who might be willing to take over some of NASA’s commitment is Russia. The Russian Space Agency has recently announced plans to use the ISS as the basis for a space hotel / vacation resort.

The plan is to attach a 20 ton, 15 meter long luxury sleeping module to the existing ISS. The module will house four tourists and even provide then with a lounge area, exercise equipment along with hygiene and medical facilities, the guests will even get ‘free Wi-Fi’. The expected cost for the design, fabrication and launch of the module is around $300 million US dollars and the expected cost for a one to two week stay will be around $40 million per person. See image of possible design below.

Possible Design of Russian Space Hotel (Credit: Anatoly Zak, Russian Space Web)

So it looks as if the ISS might be just another dead end on the road into space. The Apollo program got us to the Moon but when it ended there was nothing to be the next step. The space shuttle flew for twenty years before it had anyplace to go and once the ISS was completed the shuttle was canceled. And now the ISS will be abandoned without any replacement.

We need a long term strategy, a step by step plan for developing the infrastructure of space instead of ‘Let’s try this’, ‘O’k now let’s try this’, ‘Now let’s try something else.”

Earlier I mentioned a few of the commercial corporations that are hoping to play an expanding role in future space development well now there are two newcomers also trying to find a slice of the market. The first of these companies calls itself Rocket Lab, which has recently had a successful second test flight of its Electron launch vehicle. As a part of the test Rocket Lab succeeded in placing three small satellites into orbit.

Launch of Rocket Lab’s Electron Rocket into Orbit (Credit: Rocket Lab)

Now the Electron rocket is a small rocket. Its payload of 150-250Kg is much smaller than Space X’s Falcon 9 rocket but that’s Rocket Lab’s whole plan, to provide a low cost alternative for launching small satellites for companies and countries that can’t afford a bigger rocket.

Another new company trying to find a role to play is Effective Space, a UK company that is planning to develop a technique to extend the usable lifespan of the most expensive satellites that are already in orbit.

These satellites, communications, weather and space imaging to name a few, can only operate so long as their antennas and cameras are pointing in the right direction. Each of these satellites has small ‘station keeping’ engines that keep oriented the way they belong and those engines need fuel. In general the satellites carry enough fuel for a usable life of 15 years, once that is gone your multi-million dollar satellite is just space debris.

What Effective Space is planning is to develop a drone spacecraft that will rendezvous with and attach itself to a satellite that is about to run out of fuel. The drone will then use its station keeping engines to extend the life of the expensive satellite. The drones will be designed to provide another 15 years of useful life and as the drone itself begins to run out of fuel it will send the satellite into an orbit that will plunge it into Earth’s atmosphere so that it doesn’t interfere with the operation of other satellites. The image below shows how this will work.

Effective Space Drone attached to Communications Satellite (Credit: Effective Space)

Effective Space has signed a contract with an unnamed satellite operator to launch it’s first two drones in 2020 so we’re going to have to wait a few years to see how well this scheme works.

Which brings us finally to the big news; the Space X Falcon Heavy has successfully completed its first test launch from Pad 39A at Cape Kennedy. The news is big because the Space X Falcon Heavy rocket is now the most powerful space launch system since the Saturn V rocket that sent the Apollo astronauts to the Moon. Capable of delivering 54 metric tons of payload into low Earth orbit the Falcon Heavy basically consists of three Falcon 9 first stage rockets strapped together, see image below.

Falcon Heavy on launch pad (Credit: Space X)

Like the Falcon 9 rocket, which has now been successfully recovered over twenty times, the trio of first stages of the Falcon Heavy are also designed to be recovered and reused. In this first test flight the two outer first stages were recovered at the land based landing pad but unfortunately the central first stage failed to make its recovery on Space X’s oceangoing recovery barge. This was the only setback in what was an otherwise flawless first test. The image below shows the Falcon Heavy taking off.

Launch of the Falcon Heavy (Credit: Space X)

As a bit of frivolous fun, the payload of this first test launch was Space X CEO Elon Musk’s own red Tesla electric car, Musk is also CEO of Tesla motors. The car has now left Earth orbit on a trajectory that will take it as far out as the asteroid belt.

There will be plenty of opportunity for more useful payloads in the coming years. Large communications satellites, spy satellites and even manned flights. Musk has even suggested that a manned flight to orbit the Moon could be carried out this year although right before the Falcon Heavy test he indicated that the schedule for such a flight was being pushing back.

Nevertheless the success of Falcon Heavy’s first flight is certainly good news for Space X and by extension a significant mark of progress in man’s exploration of space.




Has the Voynich manuscript finally been deciphered, and is there actually anything to decipher.

Many people have heard of the Voynich Manuscript, sometimes called ‘The World’s most Mysterious Book’ but few know many of the details of this strange volume. Purchased by a Polish book dealer named Wilfrid Voynich in 1912 the manuscript consists of 240 pages that are not only written in an unknown language but which employs a completely unknown set of symbols as its script. The image below shows a close up of a section of some of the writing.

Close-up of Voynich Characters (Credit: Yale University)

The manuscript also contains dozens of hand drawn illustrations that are if anything stranger than the writing. There are detailed drawings of plants that don’t exist, astronomical diagrams that don’t correspond to anything in our sky along with pictures of human beings, some of them nude, involved in unknown activities. Check out some of the images below to get a feel for just how strange the Voynich manuscript is.

Voynich Flowers (Credit: Yale University)

The pages of the Voynich manuscript are vellum, which means that they are made from animal skin. The material of the manuscript has been radiocarbon dated to between 1404 and 1438 AD making it just about six hundred years old now. Presently the manuscript is a part of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.

Voynich, something to do with Stars? (Credit: Yale University)

As you might guess ever since Mr. Voynich announced the discovery of the manuscript some of the world’s best linguists and cryptographers have tried to unravel its secrets. Over the last twenty years even computers have been employed in the effort to solve the mystery, all to no avail. Some researchers finally declared that in their opinion there was nothing to decipher, that the manuscript was a complex hoax perpetrated in the 15th century for an unknown reason. The whole book they believe is nothing more than a detailed and elaborate doodle.

Voynich what?? (Credit: Yale University)

Now a new attempt to is underway at the University of Alberta in Canada. Professor Greg Kondrak of the computing science department there along with his graduate student Bradley Hauer are using Artificial Intelligence to unlock the manuscript’s code. Using samples of 380 different languages in use today Professor Kondrak ran a series of algorithms that led him to initially conclude that the language in the Voynich manuscript was Arabic. After fine-tuning his results however the researchers decided that the language was Hebrew. Professor Kondrak now asserts that he has succeeded in connecting 80% of the ‘words’ in the manuscript to words in a Hebrew dictionary.

Voynich, Naked Ladies in a Pool (Credit: Yale University)

The researchers have even released their translation for the first line of the manuscript. “She made recommendations to the priest, man of the house and me and people.” A full translation of the text will probably require the assistance of experts in both ancient Hebrew and Jewish history so it may be several years before we learn all of the manuscript’s secrets.

Voynich, more Plants (Credit: Yale University)

Personally I’m not so confident. Other cryptographers have claimed that they had deciphered Voynich only to have their claims reversed on closer inspection. I think that the key is in those illustrations of non-existent plants and astronomical diagrams of non-existent skies. If back in the 1420s some monk or scribe enjoyed himself drawing pictures of nonsense then the ‘words’ between the pictures are probably nonsense as well.

Voynich, you figure it out (credit: Yale University)

If that is the case then we will never decode Voynich, because it simply isn’t a code. The mystery then will be what is it about human beings that we so enjoy making up these elaborate fantasies.




A new Fossil find from Israel calls into question the dating of Human Migration out of Africa. Plus: Superbowl 52

Here we go again. News headlines are proclaiming that a recent discovery of a fossil jawbone in Israel will ‘completely rewrite’ everything we knew about human evolution.

Well no. First of all this new find does not effect at all our understanding of human ancestral species such as Homo habilis or Homo erectus, nor related species such as H. neanderthalensis. Secondly, it is only the dating of the jawbone, which is yet to be confirmed by the way, which is a surprise to anyone. What this fossil is likely to do is push backward by some 50,000 years the date of the migration of our own species, H. sapiens out of Africa.

First a few facts. The fossil jawbone was discovered in the Misliya cave on the western slope of Mount Carmel in Israel, see images of the cave and jawbone below. The jawbone was found in association with stone tools of a type known as the Early Middle Paleolithic. Based upon the tool type and dating of the soil deposits in which the jawbone was found the fossil is considered to be between 177,000 and 194,000 years old.

Misliya Cave in Israel (Credit: Rolf Quam)
Human Jawbone found in Israel (Credit: Garhard Weber, University of Vienna)

That date makes this jawbone the earliest known fossil of H. sapiens outside of Africa by 60,000 to 80,000 years. This tremendous leap backward in time implies that our species had left Africa much earlier than anthropologists had previously thought. In fact until recently it was thought that H. sapiens had only evolved 200,000 to 250,000 years ago.

However in June of 2017 fossils of H. sapiens from the Jebel Irhoud site in Morocco were dated to around 315,000 years ago pushing back the origin of our species by almost 100,000 years. These finds correlate quite well with the new find in Israel and some researchers are already using this data to develop a new timeline of human evolution.

With all of these new finds paleontologists are bringing us ever closer to a clearer more detailed picture of the evolution of our species. One thing is certain, more fascinating discoveries are certain to be made.


Before I go I’d like to take a few minutes to talk about tomorrow’s Superbowl, number 52 in case you’re counting. I know what your thinking, sports isn’t science, what is the Superbowl doing here. Aren’t I really just doing this because my hometown team the Philadelphia Eagles have been the surprise of the NFL season by going from a losing record last year and making it all the way to the Superbowl this year. But please bear with me.

Superbowl 52 (Credit: WTOK TV)

It’s true; nobody picked the Eagles to go very far this season. Their record last year was 7-9 and although they had some good young players all of the analysts agreed that they needed more experience before they’d go very far. Hey, even their coach was inexperienced, last season was his first year as a head coach anywhere.

From the first game of the season however the Eagles have played with a great deal of enthusiasm and in this town when the players try hard the Philly fans will support them like no other fans anywhere. Really the feedback between players and fans in this city is something to behold. So that’s the Eagles strength, youth, enthusiasm and a desire to show that they really are as good as their 16-2 record indicates.

Our opponents are the New England Patriots, making their eighth appearance at the Superbowl in the last seventeen years. Generally considered the strongest dynasty in football (American football that is) during the modern era the Patriots have all the experience you could ask for. In addition the Patriots have the calm, deliberate confidence that comes with repeated success, with knowing for certain just how good you are.

That’s what this year’s Superbowl is really about: experience versus enthusiasm, confidence versus desire. And if you think about it, isn’t that a big part of life in general, the differences are just usually not that clear cut most of the time.

I think that makes this Superbowl a bit more interesting than in most years, or is it just that my hometown Eagles are in it?

A New Specimen of Archaeopteryx is Discovered, and the Miraculous Fossils of the Solnhofer Limestones.

Two years after Charles Darwin published his book “On the Origin of Species” in 1859 a fossil was discovered at the Solnhofer Limestone quarry in Bavaria in Germany. Even today that fossil is considered one of the most important pieces of evidence for the theory of evolution. The fossil was that of a small animal, a lizard-like creature with a mouth full of teeth, a long bony tail and three fingered claws on each arm.

The animal also had feathers, hundreds of beautiful feathers preserved in such detail that there could be no doubt but that these were flight feathers. This was a flying reptile, a transition species between the reptiles and birds, just the sort of creature that Darwin had predicted. This was Archaeopteryx. The image below shows that first specimen of Archaeopteryx.

Archaeopteryx lithographica
late Jurrasic
155 – 150 million years ago (Credit: PD)


Other specimens of Archaeopteryx have been discovered in the century and a half since that first find, and paleontologists have also found other species that show combinations of bird and reptile characteristics. Now a 12th specimen of Archaeopteryx has been found at the original Solnhofer limestone pit. The specimen, discovered by researchers from The Ludwig Maximilians Universitaet in Munich is dated to the Jurassic period, 150 million years ago and is believed to be the oldest Archaeopteryx ever found.

Today paleontologists place Archaeopteryx near the theropod dinosaurs on the evolutionary tree making the early bird a close relative of the mighty T-rex. Indeed many modern evolutionary biologists advocate separating the dinosaurs entirely from the reptiles and classifying them with the birds instead. That would mean that there are still dinos alive today, one just flew past my window.

It is hoped that the new specimen will help to clarify the relationships between the theropods and the earliest birds. The image below shows the new specimen of Archaeopteryx.

New Specimen of Archaeopteryx (Credit: O. Rauhut, LMU)

Along with the specimens of Archaeopteryx the Solnhofer limestone quarry in Bavaria has provided science with many of the best-preserved and studied fossils from the Jurassic period. At that time the area we now call southern Germany was a series of tropical coral reefs and lagoons where the water was often cut off from the nearby Tethys Sea. The heat of the Sun caused rapid evaporation that increased salt levels and reduced oxygen levels to the point where microorganisms could not survive. Any living creature that wandered into, washed into or in the case of Archaeopteryx fell into these waters sank to the bottom and did not decay! Because of this fossils in the limestone are rare, but they are exquisite. The images that follow are example of some of the finds discovered there.

Lizard Fossil from Solnhofer (Credit: Wikimedia)
Pterosaur Fossil from Solnhofer (Credit: Fossil Mall)

Another transition between two well-known groups from Solnhofer is shown in the image below. Officially classified as a crab the fossil obviously has a much larger tail than any crab you’ll find in the oceans today. Clearly this creature is a lobster caught in the act of evolving into a crab.

Is This a Crab or a Lobster? (Credit: Fossil Mall)

The limestone sheets from Solnhofer are of such fine grain and uniform consistency that they have been used to make lithographic prints since the Middle Ages. So fine are the deposits that even the wings of insects and soft-bodied animals like jellyfish are fully preserved.

Dragonfly Fossil from Solnhofer (Credit: Fossil Mall)

Paleontologists call fossil sites like Solnhofer ‘Lagerstätten’ or mother loads because the fossils are so valuable in our efforts to understand the history of life on our planet. The Burgess shale in British Columbia is another famous Lagerstätten where soft bodied animals from near the beginning of multicellular life are amazingly preserved. Someday I’ll have to tell you all about that.



NASA to begin testing of Small Nuclear Reactor designed for Space Missions.

From the very beginning of space exploration the possibility of using nuclear reactors to power our spacecraft and inter-planetary probes has both excited and frightened NASA scientists. The amount of energy that could be generated by even a small reactor makes that generated by the big solar arrays on the International Space seem piddling. At the same time however the possibility of something going wrong, of radioactive material falling back to Earth made nuclear reactors seem just to dangerous to attempt.

Only once did the United States put a small nuclear reactor into orbit. The SNAP-10A satellite was designed to provide over 500 watts of power but the failure of a voltage regulator caused the reactor to shut itself down after only 43 days. The image below shows the SNAP-10A with the reactor at the top and the cone shaped radiator for heat removal taking up the bottom 3/4 of the entire satellite. That’s something to remember, in space getting rid of the waste heat is the most important, and hardest part of the design.

SNAP-10A Nuclear Reactor Satellite (Credit: NASA)

Now however NASA is reviving the concept of using nuclear reactors to power larger space probes and maybe one day manned bases on the Moon or Mars. In association with the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) they have designed a series of reactors from 1-kilowatt (kW) to 10-kW in power and have built a 1-kW demonstration unit. The design uses an enriched Uranium 235 core about the size of a roll of paper towels along with passive sodium heat pipes that will conduct the heat to simple-high efficiency Sterling engines. The image below shows the 1-kW demonstration model.

Kilowatt Nuclear Reactor Demo Model (credit: NASA)

Now it’s worth noting that the average household uses about 3-4kW of power so the 10-kW unit would provide enough power for a small Lunar/Martian outpost. Meanwhile the smaller 1-kW model would power probes to the outer planets where sunlight is so weak that solar panels are useless.

One possibility that would open up with the greater electrical power possible with nuclear reactors is the use of electric propulsion, ion or plasma rocket engines. These propulsion techniques provide enormous amounts of thrust with only small amounts of fuel but require a lot of electrical power. The image below shows a possible design for a nuclear powered, ion rocket inter-planetary probe. The reactor and radiators are on the right hand side and notice how much it resembles the SNAP-10A satellite.

Proposed Nuclear Powered Space Probe (Credit: NASA)

The 1-kW model is now undergoing labouratory testing but in November of this year the reactor is scheduled to begin a year of outdoor testing at the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Nevada National Security Site.

In the long run nuclear powered facilities on the Moon or Mars would provide the power required to covert ice into water, some of which can be separated into oxygen and hydrogen, in other words air to breath and rocket fuel. Eventually nuclear reactors will even power manufacturing facilities to allow our colonies to become independent of supplies.

Of course talk like that is just Science Fiction isn’t it. But then, this blog is called Science and Science Fiction isn’t it.

Book Review: “Artemis” by Andy Weir

‘Artemis’ is the highly anticipated second novel by the science fiction author Andy Weir. Following the enormous success of his first novel ‘The Martian’ Weir found himself under considerable pressure to prove that he was something more than a one hit wonder. He needn’t have worried; ‘Artemis’ is every bit as meticulously detailed, imaginatively described and fast paced as ‘The Martian’.

Andy Weir author of ‘The Martian’ (Credit: Andy Weir, Crown Publishing)

Artemis is mankind’s first, and at the time of the novel only city on the Moon. (Artemis is the Greek Goddess of the Moon by the way) With a population of 2,000 and an economy heavily dependent on space tourism, the Apollo 11 landing site is only 40 Kilometers away; Artemis is a frontier boomtown with resemblances to both Tombstone Arizona and living on board a nuclear submarine.

It’s in the descriptions of Artemis and the surrounding area that Andy Weir is at his best. A dozen pages into the novel and you really feel as if you’re right there on the Moon. The way Andy does this is simple, like the engineer that he is before he wrote a single word he made certain that Artemis worked. In his mind everything from the design of an EVA suit to where the city’s air and water come from. Hey, he even drew himself a map of Artemis and it’s surroundings that is provided at the very front of the novel.

Map of the Lunar city Artemis (Credit: Andy Weir, Crown Publishing)

Just to give you an example of how much thought went into the way things work the city is composed of five pressure domes that for safety are all doubled walled with lunar material in between for packing. The inside pressure is 21 kilo Pascals, that’s only a fifth of Earth’s pressure but with pure oxygen it’s all you need and the lower the pressure the less air you lose because of leaks. Outside is a vacuum and Andy makes the pressure between the walls only 20 kilo Pascals so that if a pressure sensor detects a drop in pressure then you know the problem is with the outer wall but if the pressure goes up the problem is with the inner wall. Figuring out things like that is called engineering!

The main character in ‘Artemis’ is Jasmine Bashara, a young, and rebellious Saudi woman who was brought to the Moon by her father at age 6. Jasmine’s, Jazz for short, legitimate job is as a porter delivering goods to the various businesses in Artemis. Jazz is also a small time smuggler bringing in cigars and other contraband, although she draws the line at guns or hard drugs. It’s when Jazz gets involved in a big time criminal conspiracy that the novel’s plot gets going with murder and mayhem aplenty.

Now I have to warn you. I grew up watching so many crime dramas; my mother loved them, and I’m sick of them. To me the weakest part of ‘Artemis’ is the crime related plot, but once again that’s just me. However, at the same time I must admit that Weir packs in so much action that the crime aspects became a background issue.

All in all I certainly recommend Artemis. The novel is clever, beautifully detailed and described and packed with plenty of action. Andy Weir’s second novel is undoubtedly a worthy successor to ‘The Martian’.

Front Cover of ‘Artemis (Credit: Andy Weir, Crown Publishing)

The movie rights to ‘Artemis’ have already been sold although I don’t suppose production has started yet. Since so much of the story depends on how the conditions of living on the Moon differ from that on Earth it will be interesting to see how they manage the special effects. Still, in a year or two I hope to be reviewing the movie version of ‘Artemis’.



Scientists hope to use Artificial Intelligence to develop a Computerized Doctor Dolittle!

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!!!

Prairie Dog giving the ‘All Clear’ signal (Credit: Montana State Parks)

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’.

Actually we’ll use our phones to understand what they say

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.

About Con’s Work

Frankenstein: First Published Two Hundred Years Ago

Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein Monster (Credit: Universal Studios)

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.

Engraving from 1831 Edition (Credit: PD)

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.

The Monster as seen by Thomas Edison (Credit: PD)

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.

A Scene from R.U.R. by Karel Cepek (Credit: PD)

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.

Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics (Credit: Isaac Asimov, R.A.Lawler)


Sooner or Later we’ll get Nuclear Fusion, I think.

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.

Experimental Fusion Reactor at Princeton (Credit: Elle Starkman, PPPL)

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.

ITER Reactor Building under Construction (Credit: ITER)

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.

Elements of a Tokamak Fusion Reactor (Credit: PD)

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.



Paleontology News for January 2018

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.

HKG/Malonate Cycle (Credit: Greg Springsteen, Ramanarayanan Krishnamurthy)

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.

Bangiomorpha pubescens (Credit: Nick Butterfield, University of Cambridge)

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.

Upward Sun River Archeological Site (Credit: Ben Potter)

“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.