America’s Science Decline: Part 4, Where did we lose our Way and how do we get back on Track.

This is the forth and final in a series of posts discussing what I see as the decline of Science in the United States. In part three of this series I discussed how the United States not only invented the particle accelerator as an instrument of science but how by building ever larger and more powerful machines American scientists made discovery after discovery in sub-atomic physics from the 1930s right to the end of the century. Today the standard model of how the universe works at its most fundamental level is primarily ‘Made in the U.S.A’.

But no longer, with the Large Hadron Collider at CERN Europe has discovered the Higgs Boson and is pressing on with experiments to make other discoveries. Also, unlike the United States Europe is already making plans for an even more powerful accelerator leaving America falling behind for decades to come.

How did it come to this? The United States became the richest and most powerful nation on Earth precisely by making certain that our nation had the best scientists and the best scientists must have the best equipment. Our founding fathers knew this and each generation of Americans that followed was willing to support the advance of science knowing that is the way nations advance. Today however, America’s attitude toward science, toward basic research is more antagonistic than supportive.

Of course such a major change in a country’s behavior takes a long time. I think America’s view of science began to change a little over a century ago when a large number of States began to pass laws prohibiting the teaching of evolution in their public schools. The idea that in a democracy the people decide what is right and what is wrong seems natural and reasonable. But no matter how people vote, no matter how many pieces of legislation are passed 2+2=4, fact are facts and democracy really only works when the people are wise enough, and educated enough to recognize the truth of that statement.

Then in the 1950s there was the controversy over the use of pesticides such as DDT. Scientists such as Rachel Carson (See my post of 25January17) had found a enormous amount of evidence that the long term effects of DDT were very harmful to both animals and humans. The chemical companies, who were making a lot of money off of DDT, argued with their evidence that DDT was both safe and effective. Both sides had their facts and finding the truth between short term and long term effects is not an easy thing to do. Now I am very much on the side of the environmentalists but it is worth remembering that DDT is both safe and effective; if you only use it once!

Then, in the battle over smoking the fighting became much more bitter, much dirtier. The difference this time was that there was never any evidence that smoking was safe, no one could argue that smoking had any benefit of any kind. It was simply a drug that people got hooked on, a poison that eventually killed them.

Therefore the tobacco companies had to argue that the evidence against smoking wasn’t sufficient, that statistics aren’t really facts. They asserted that the scientists studying the long term effects of smoking didn’t understand their own data. The lawyers working for the tobacco companies had no facts to support their case so they argued against factual evidence itself. In a sense they argued that facts aren’t the truth!

Now we come to global warming and there is now so much money involved that assertions and arguments disguised as facts have so overwhelmed the actual evidence that even very intelligent people don’t know which end is up.

And this portrayal of assertion and opinions as truth has completely infected our media and political systems. Thanks to the internet (yes I’m biting the hand that feeds me) there are so many lies being told and retold and elaborated upon that reality itself has become virtual and many people believe we pick and choose our truths as we please.

No wonder that our congress, more concerned with fighting amongst themselves than doing their job of running our government, has little enthusiasm for supporting scientific research. One specific problem is that the federal government has so much trouble passing a budget each year that they keep the government working by passing ‘continuing resolutions’. But you can’t fund new projects by a continuing resolution.

So what can we do about this? How can we get America back on track? Well it won’t be easy and I think progress will be slow but we must start by simply respecting science again. We must learn to distinguish between opinions and fact, between assertions and actual evidence. We must become critical thinkers so that we are not fooled by the false facts being continuously hurled at us.

We can also promote the idea of science as something valuable, first of all by valuing it ourselves. There are plenty of science museums to go to, I’ve writing several posts about ones here in Philly. Of course the internet has a mountain of information about science but do be cautious, a sand dune on Mars that from a certain angle looks like a face isn’t solid science.

We can promote education, not just science but good education of all subjects. Again, education is an issue that our governments seems to endlessly argue over without accomplishing anything.

As I said at the start of this series of posts I’ve become very concerned about the health of scientific research in this country. I hope these posts may help a little in finding a cure. I will continue to speak about the need to find a solution from time to time and I thank you for being kind enough to listen.


America’s Science Decline: Part 3, Our Forgotten Atom Smashers

This is the third in a series of posts discussing what I see as the decline of Science in the United States. In part two of this series I talked about how for more than a century the United States built ever larger and larger telescopes, the largest in the World. I spoke of how those instruments made some of the most important discoveries in the history of science. I ended that post by pointing out that America no longer possessed the World’s largest telescope. I described how our largest scopes now had been built back in the 1990s and that while Europe and the rest of the World were planning to build the next generation of telescopes the United States was not.

This week I’m going to tell a very similar story about the scientific instruments that allow scientists to see the smallest objects in the Universe. I’m talking about the particle accelerators, the Atom Smashers with which we study the fundamental building blocks of creation.

The first scientist to smash one kind of particle into another was the Englishman Ernest Rutherford, who aimed the alpha particles from radioactive Uranium at a thin film of gold atoms. The scattering pattern from those alpha particles revealed the basic structure of the atom as a dense nucleus surrounded by a cloud of electrons.

Now Rutherford only aimed his alpha particles, collimated is the technical term. He couldn’t increase their energy in any way but other scientists soon began looking for techniques to do just that. Attempting to build instruments that would accelerate sub-atomic particles and use those particles to probe deeper and deeper into the atom.

The first really practical such atom smasher was the cyclotron, developed by Ernest Lawrence at the University of California at Berkeley in 1932. To understand the operation of the cyclotron, and particle accelerators in general, refer to the picture below.

Workings of a Cyclotron (Public Domain)

In a cyclotron charged particles, usually protons, are confined to move in circular orbits by a large external magnetic field. The size of the orbit is determined by the velocity / energy of the charged particle. The particles orbit inside two metal “D”s that are connected to a high voltage oscillator that gives one of the “D”s a positive voltage and the other a negative voltage with the voltages flipping back and forth at very high frequency.

The positively charged protons are repelled by the positive “D” and attracted to the negative “D”, but by the time they get to the correct side the voltage has flipped causing the protons to fly back and forth, gaining energy with each orbit. The increasing energy increases the size of the orbit until the protons reach the outer edge of the “D”s where they are extracted and fired at a target being studied.

The “D”s in Lawrence’s first instrument measured only 11 inches (28cm) across and could only accelerate the protons to an energy of 1.2MeV. (An eV is an electron volt, it stands for the amount of energy that an electron will gain as it crosses a potential of 1 Volt. an MeV is a million eVs, GeV is a billion eVs and TeV is a trillion)

In the years that followed Lawrence built progressively more powerful instruments including a 184 inch (467cm) device that was used during the development of the atomic bomb to study the separation of uranium isotopes.

In the 1950s a new design of accelerators was developed where the strength of the confining magnetic field was synchronized to the energy of the accelerated particles. These accelerators were christened synchrotrons and they continued to grow in size and energy. The Bevatron, still at UC Berkeley succeeded in producing the first the anti-protons and anti-neutrons while the Cosmotron at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island discovered the Delta particle and produced the first artificial mesons. The picture below shows the Bevatron at Berkeley.

The Bevatron Particle Accelerator (Public Domain)

The rest of the world just couldn’t keep up. The US just kept building the most powerful instruments and making all the discoveries. In 1960 Brookhaven got a new 33Gev machine called the Alternating Gradient Synchrotron, which is still making important discoveries today. In 1983 a brand new facility was opened outside Chicago called Fermilab with an accelerator ring over one and a third mile (2.2km) in diameter. The instrument named the Tevatron because it not only accelerated protons to over a TeV but it also accelerated anti-protons in the opposite direction and studied the collisions between them. The discoveries made by American Atom Smashers formed the basis of what physicists call ‘The Standard Model’. In 1995 the Top quark was discovered at Fermilab, the last elementary particle to be discovered at an American facility.

At almost the same time the US congress cancelled the next great American accelerator, the Superconducting Super Collider or SSC, whose ring would have been over 17 miles (27.7km) in diameter and whose total energy would have reached 40TeV.

Instead the Europeans have taken the lead with their Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN. This is the instrument that finally discovered the Higgs boson in 2013 with its 8.6 km ring (5.4miles) and energy of 13Tev. It is worth keeping in mind that America’s SSC would have been completed earlier than Europe’s LHC and still been more powerful if the politicians had not fought over a deficit that they’ve pretty much ignored since then anyway. And now even the Tevatron at Fermilab has been shut down over budget concerns.

Europe meanwhile is pressing on. There are plans under development at CERN for an even bigger, more powerful machine. Called the Future Circular Collider it will have a ring 32 km (20 miles) in diameter and a top energy of 100Tev. So therefore it will be Europe that in the next decades will lead the search for physics beyond the standard model.

In my next post I’ll conclude my discussion of how the United States is losing its once predominant position in Science.

Post Script: Even as I was writing this post the Physicists at CERN have announced the discovery of a new particle! Now this is not a new fundamental particle but rather the first composite particle with two heavy quarks. Worse yet, Fermilab had published data over ten years ago indicating the possible existence of this particle but the Tevatron was not quite powerful enough to meet the tight requirements needed to officially announce a discovery.

Latest Finds from Archeological Site Gobekli Tepe: Evidence of a Shull Cult at the World’s Oldest Temple.

I’m going to take a little time out from my series about America’s science decline to discuss some of the recent finds made at the archeological site Gobekli Tepe, considered the world’s oldest known temple complex. The discovery of human skulls that had been deliberately modified indicate that the ancient people who erected the monumental T-shaped carved stones may have decorated the structures with the skulls.

First a bit of background. Gobekli Tepe (which means Potbelly Hill in Turkish) is an archeological site in southeastern Turkey (see map below). Dated to about 8,000 BCE the “Temple” consists of four oval shaped stone walls each of which contains a number of T-shaped, stone slabs with exquisitely carved animal representations on them. To date there is no evidence of human habitation at the site, it appears to have been used solely for ritual ceremonies. See pictures below the map to get an idea of the site.

Location of Gobekli Tepe in Turkey
Gobekli Tepe Site (Credit Nico Becker, Gobekli Tepe Archive)
Decorated Stone Slab at Gobekli Tepe: Credit Dieter Johannes and Klaus Schmidt, Gobekli Tepe Archive)

In a recent article in the journal ‘Science Advances’ by Julia Gresky, Juliane Haelm and Lee Clare of the German Archeological Institute, the discovery at Gobekli Tepe of three human skulls was reported. Now these were not burials, only skulls were found and the skulls had been deliberately modified by flint tools to produce linear grooves in them. Doctor Gresky et al suggest that these skulls may have been used as decorations on Gobekli Tepe’s stone slabs. One of the skulls discovered also had a hole that had been drilled very precisely into it’s top that could have enabled it to have been hung with a short piece of rope.

This discovery fits in with similar finds from other sites in the region, finds that indicate that Anatolia (an old name for Turkey-Syria) was the home for a skull-cult culture where people would bury their dead and then later dig them up, removing the skulls for display. The question of whether these skulls were venerated ancestors or mutilated enemies is unknown at present but Doctor Gresky hopes further finds will give us an answer.

Indeed the studies going on at Gobekli Tepe in the twenty years since its discovery have raised many more questions than answers. Other evidence from the time period indicate that the surrounding region was inhabited solely by small groups of hunter gatherers, not the sort of society normally associated with the construction of monumental stone structures. Did groups of nomads use Gobekli Tepe as a meeting place, perhaps as a fixed boundary marker as well. Both uses intended to keep peace between the different clans.

If that is true, how did these different groups organize themselves for the construction, feed themselves etc. Hopefully more excavations, more finds will help us learn some of the answers. If you’d like to read more about the recent Skull finds at Gobekli Tepe click on the link below to read the National Geographic’s article.

Next time I’ll return to my discussion concerning the decline of American Science.


America’s Science Decline: Part 2, Optical Telescopes

In my last post I began a series discussing what I see as the decline of Science in the United States. Part one of this series consisted of a little history lesson on the importance of Science in both the founding and the growth of the USA and ended in the middle 20th century when American Science was dominant.

Today I’m going to discuss the impact of America on astronomy and our knowledge of the Universe by the construction of a series of ever larger and more powerful optical telescopes. Then I will show how, after more than a century in the lead in astronomy, the United States has lost that lead and presently has no plans to even remain in the pack.

As I mentioned last time colonial America already had a famous astronomer in David Rittenhouse whose observations of the transit of Venus in 1769 helped to make the first accurate measurement of the distance to that planet. However the man who took American astronomy to levels of achievement that most scientists had considered to be impossible was George E. Hale.

Hale was a solar astronomer whose own discoveries included the first detection of the presence of carbon in the Sun. Today however Hale is best remembered for organizing and directing the construction of a series of progressively larger telescopes. The 40-inch (1meter) Yerkes, the 60-inch (1.5meter) Carnegie, 100-inch (2.54meter) Hooker and 200-inch (5.1 meter) Hale telescopes were each in turn the world’s largest scientific instrument, until Hale built the next one. (For those who aren’t familiar with telescopes the size given, 100 inch for example, refers to the diameter of the lens or mirror that gathers the light. The larger the optics the more powerful the telescope.)

The 100-inch telescope is probably the most famous. That is because it is the instrument that Carl Hubble employed to show that Andromeda and other ‘nebula’ were in fact Galaxies like the Milky Way and that the entire Universe was expanding. It was these observations that led to the big bang theory. The picture below shows the 100-inch telescope in its dome at Mount Wilson observatory.

100inch Telescope on Mount Wilson (Credit: Public Domain)

From 1948 into the late 1970s the 200-inch telescope remained the World’s largest. Since then there has been flurry of new telescope construction with even larger sizes made possible by a ‘segmented mirror’ design approach. The picture below shows the segmented mirror design as used in Gran Telescopio on the Canary Islands.

Segmented Mirror of Gran Telescopio (Credit: Miguel Briganti)

At the present time the US is in second place with our 10meter (396-inch) Keck telescope in Hawaii being only slightly behind Europe’s 10.4meter (412-inch) Gran Telescopio. The problem as I see it however, is not so much that the rest of the World has caught up with us but that the US is no longer even trying to keep up.

While Europe has several new telescope projects under construction, including the 39.3meter (That’s 1556-inches!!!) European Extremely Large Telescope, the US has yet to begun construction on its 30meter (1188-inches) Telescope due to delays in permits and funding. It seems as if funding and just a general enthusiasm for developing the new equipment necessary to continue exploring the Universe has declined in the US. A decline that started in the middle to late 1990s, the time when the Keck telescopes were completed.

Telescopes allow us to study the largest and furthest objects in the Universe, including the Universe itself. Next time we’ll discuss the scientific instruments that allow us to study the smallest objects that exist, these are the particle accelerators, the atom-smashers that enable us to investigate the very nature of space itself.

America’s Science Decline: Part 1

In several previous posts I have commented on the current anti-Intellectual, anti-Science sentiment presently growing here in America. As I’ve thought about it and done a little investigating I’ve only grown more concerned for the future of Science in the USA. I’ve therefore decided to spend three or four posts going into greater detail on what I see as the decline of American Science.

First a little bit of background history. Most people are aware that Science has been a part of the United States from the very beginning. Everybody’s heard about Ben Franklin and electricity, we all know about Thomas Jefferson’s passions for Science and invention. But there were many others, men such as David Rittenhouse, America’s first astronomer whose observations of the transit of Venus in 1769 were important in the first accurate measurement of the distance to that planet. The picture below shows the diagram Rittenhouse made of his observations of the transit.

Diagram of the 1769 Transit of Venus (Credit: David Rittenhouse)

Other colonial scientists include Benjamin Rush the physician, Charles Wilson Peale the naturalist and John Bartrum the botanist.

And we mustn’t forget George Washington himself, the father of the nation whose first occupation was that of a surveyor and who in his later years spent much of his time working to improve farm implements while at the same time introducing the mule to American agriculture.

All these men were members of the American Philosophic Society, which was founded in 1743, more than 30 years before our revolution. The picture below shows the headquarters of the APS in Philadelphia.

The American Philosophical Society (Credit: APS)

You get the point. Indeed it could be argued that the very possibility of a new nation on this continent could only have been conceived by men with considerable intellectual and scientific minds.

Then as America grew it was her scientists and engineers who gave her strength. There were the practical men like Robert Fulton, Samuel Morse, John Ericsson, Thomas Edison along with hundreds of others. Then there were also the pure scientists, like Henry Rowland who developed diffraction gratings to study the Sun’s spectra, Albert A. Michelson whose famous experiment led to Einstein’s theory of relativity, and Isabelle Stone the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in physics in the USA. And we can’t forget Edward Cope and Othniel Marsh whose ‘dinosaur wars’ changed forever the way we view Earth’s history.

I realize that I’m saying nothing new here. Any textbook on American history will devote a chapter or so on the scientists and engineers, the people who gave us the tools needed to build the richest and strongest nation in the world.

And we haven’t even gotten to the 20th century yet! By the middle of that century the United States dominated science to a degree that no other nation ever had. Name a scientific instrument or laboratory and America had the biggest and the best.

The largest telescope in the world was the 200-inch telescope at mount Palomar in California.

The largest radio telescope was the 300-foot dish at Green Bank in Virginia.

The first Neutrino Telescope was at the Homestake Mine in Lead, Colorado.

The most powerful atom smasher was either the Bevatron at the California Institute of Technology or the Cosmotron at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York depended on the year.

The first nuclear reactor was at the University of Chicago.

The first transistor was fabricated at Bell Labs in Holmdel New Jersey.

You get the point. Twenty years ago the United States had the largest, or the most sensitive or simply the best of every kind of scientific instrument. America was dominant in the World because American Science was dominant.

Next time we’ll begin to examine how that is no longer true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Two Science Stories from the Land Down Under

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

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

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

Faceless Fish (Credit: Asher Flatt)

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

Blob Fish (Credit: Asher Flatt)

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

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

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

Peanut Worm (Credit: Rob Zugaro)

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

Solar Paint Process (Credit: Torben Daeneke et al)

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Google’ Self Driving car (Credit: Google)

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

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


LIGO detects third set of Gravitational Waves

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

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

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

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


Diagram of LIGO Detector

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

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

Artists Rendering of Black Hole Merger (Credit Caltech)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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