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Going direct to heaven, going direct the other way

Category: Science (Page 2 of 3)

Space Loo or, human interest stories are not actually interesting

The last few weeks have been extremly exciting for space aficionados. The Phoenix probe made it’s spectacular landing on Mars – spectacular because this spaceship is so heavy that parachutes were not enough to slow it down and NASA had to go for a rocket assisted descent. Spectacular is also a good word to describe the photos from phoenix’ landing shot by the HiRise spacecraft – see here and here (and while you’re at it read also the rest of Emily Lakdawallas blog at the planetary society website). Already Phoenix is returning fantastic images, including a pic of what might very well be ice on the martian surface (Martianchronicles is a great ressource, too). Water, frozen or not, is a prerequisite for life – either for life that has once existed on Mars, or for life (i.e. humans) that wants to permanently settle there.

STS 124 (Shuttle Discovery) has delivered the other half of the Japanese Kibo Laboratory to the International Space Station – I guess especially Akihiho Hoshide was bursting with pride when the lab opened for business on wednesday.

On other news we learned new stuff about the shape of our galaxy – apparently the milky way has only two major spiral arms (not four like previously believed), and how tightly the arms of a spiral galaxy are wrapped around their center seems to be in part determined by the mass of their central black hole.

ESA has some fascinating images of the planet Venus (taken by Venus Express), and of course we still have Messenger, Kaguya, New Horizon etc.

And yet…..

And yet all these amazing feats and findings combined do not get as much attention as a broken toilet onboard the ISS. I don’t know if this says more about the media or about their audiences, but apparently the assembled wonders of the solar system are less newsworthy than the fact that some astronauts have to (figuratively) pee into a bottle for a few days. I cannot say how much this bugs me.

I have a wonderful book about the Apollo moon landings that was published in the 1970s by the now defunct Kosmos Science magazine – without any “did they really do it or was it a hoax”-bullshit the author discussed the technical challenges and the fantastic success of the Apollo programme. Only at the end of the book he reflected a bit on the public reactions to the space programme. He wondered if the attention span of the public had been already overreached, and asked why NASA deemed it necessary to make publicity stunts like a bible reading from a spaceship, when the mere fact that people where flying around the earth in a spaceship was amazing and marvelous all by itself.

But hey man, at least it was the bible. I mean, there is no god, but the bible is a culturally significant document with an undeniable impact on society. But these days even listening to bible thumping is considered to much of an intellectual effort for the audience – it seems the media prefers quite literaly to serve us shit instead.

    Evolution experiment

    Not much text here, just a link to a text about a very cool evolution experiment with E. coli bacteria (and any commenter who says that microevolution doesn’t prove macroevolution or such nonsense will get kicked in the shins, very hard).

      The machine that will not destroy earth

      Philip Plait of badastronomy.com has a couple of posts about the LHC, the Large Hadron Collider (there’s also a podcast and here’s a link to a video about the LHC). The LHC is run by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (which is abbreviated CERN for historical reasons; CERN is short for Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire ) is the worlds largest particle accelerator and quite possibly the largest science experiment ever (you can find the LHC Homepage here).

      The LHC is a ring with a circumference of 27 kilometres; it produces two beams of high enery protons that smash into one another. A number of instruments monitor the collision event and analyze the makeup of the resulting debris as the protons break up into smaller particles. The LHC looks for particles that have been predicted by theory (especially for a particle called the Higgs Boson) but have not been observed yet since smaller particle accelerators cannot mobilize enough energy to create the conditions necessary for those particles to exist (edit: I realize that this badly phrased. Make that “exist under observable conditions”).

      The LHC is a much more powerful instrument; in fact it uses so much energy that some people think it will destroy the earth by creating a small black hole that will devour the planet. This is rather unlikely for two reasons.

      Contrary to Hollywood lore a black hole is not necessarily some kind of all-devouring cosmic vacuum cleaner; how much damage it can actually do depends on it’s mass. A black hole that is created by the collision of some highly accelerated particles will have about the mass of, well, some higly accelerated particles which is not very much. Even if such a mini black hole would be stable – more likely it would evaporate due to the so called Hawking radiation – I guess it would be too small to interact much with the much more massive planet around it (being a singularity the black hole actually has no size; when somebody talks about the size of a black hole he means the size of it’s event horizon). However that’s just my laymens opinion and the possibility seemed real enough for CERN to study the possible danger – which brings us to the second, rather better reason to dismiss the idea that we are doomed due to the LHC: The people who came up with the theories on how and why black holes form are more or less the same people who tell us that it won’t happen in the LHC. I don’t see why anybody should believe them in the first case but not the second.

      If there is no threat then why should we (as in “we laypersons”) care about the thing? Um, that’s a bit hard for me to explain; I read enough books  to give the impression that I know something about the matter (unless I accidently talk to an astronomer in which case I give the impresson of being a total twit), but I do not actually understand the stuff. Still…

      There a a number of things that seem rather fundamental but cannot, at the moment, be explained very well – like, why is gravity so weak when compared to the other fundamental forces, or why do have some particles have mass in the first place. There are some hypotheses to answer these questions and they propose the exististance of certain particles (like the aforementioned Higgs boson). If the LHC produces these particles it promotes these hypotheses to theories and yet another gap will be closed in our understanding of the universe – well, not my understanding obviously, but on behalf of the laymans part of mankind I’m still proud that somebody gets it. If my choices are to go through life like through some kind of video game (you know, “the story sucks but the graphics are incredible”) or to at least try and make some sense from the world around me, and be it by beating the hell out of some innocent protons– well, you read this blog. I think you can guess how I feel about this.

        Yes, that’s us

        If you want to see something very, very beautiful you should point your browser to this page by the japanese space agency (do’h – broken link is fixed now) . It shows earthrise as seen from the Kaguya space probe that currently orbits the moon. That tiny blue marble that slowly climbs above the moons horizon, that’s us – the whole human habitat from a perspective that makes it look even more fragile.

        This is a dumbed down version for the web – the full res video (Kaguya carries a HDTV camera) is apparently available only for teachers and educators on DVD. I hope some day this will be released to the general public.


          Space shuttle Atlantis (STS 122) is scheduled to launch Thursday, Feb 7, after the mission had been repeatedly postponed due to technical problems. Atlantis will carry the Columbus laboratory to the International Space Station which will greatly (finally!) enhance the stations capability to do some actual science.

          I hope everything works out this time. I’m a bit of a space enthusiast, so it would be such a perfect birthday present for me.

            I am footnote

            Yesterday I went to the movies to see “I am Legend”. I love Mathesons novel, so I knew I would be disappointed. But I had at least hoped for some kind of mindless action flick, a dumbed-down version of the original story with cool special effects. The movie was mindless, alright, but in a annoying rather than a fun way.

            It was probably not the fault of the leading man. I had seen Will Smith first in Men in Black and had cast him down as a decent Eddy-Murphy stand-in, but had really come to like him after his performance in Ali. Smith makes an excellent Robert Neville; here he is very much a character actor, and at the end of the movie he looks exhausted and even old, an Robinson Crusoe without hope for rescue on his desert island of Manhattan. So, no objections here.

            Nor was it the scenery, the desert Manhattan through which the Protagonist stumbles. Of course the movie is in large parts a Quiet Earth-ripoff, with much better production values and a lot less atmosphere. But plagiarism is a form of flattery, plus IaL had some potentially cool monsters thrown in so that was okay also.

            (massive spoilers below the fold)

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              It might help to read some Books besides the Bible

              “Intelligent Design” is a fundamentalist religious movement that, despite it’s claims that physics, chemistry, biology, history, archeology etc are all wrong and the world has been created relativly recently by some superbeing (okay, let’s not play games here, they mean the christian god) tries to disguise itself as a science. At the moment most supporters of that idea live in the USA – I sometimes wonder if they have some kind of contest over there like, you know, “who manages to do the most damage to the countries reputation” (at the moment they have a tie between warmongers and religious nutjobs).

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                In case you wondered

                A picture of the earth globe with its tilted axis featuring the slogan: The reason for the season

                (Source: The slumbering lungfish )

                  Sixty Days and Counting

                  Kim Stanley Robinson is a man after my own heart, and the Science in the Capital-Series deals with one of the most important topics of our days, so it’s a bit of a pity that I cannot praise him without reservations. But while the writing here is competent it’s never compelling, and for a book it’s not enough to deal with an important topic (not in fiction anyway), yet I found it not particularly entertaining or inspiring.

                  Sixty Days and Counting is the closing book in a trilogy about man-made global warming, after Fourty Days of Rain and Fifty Degrees below. The main story is about humanities (that is US-American with the Russians and Chinese on the sidelines) attempt to mitigate the consequences of global warming by large-scale carbon sequestration projects and other terraforming stuff. And then there are a few subplots that do not seem strictly necessary, like about rogue Black Ops and wisdom-dispensing Bhuddist immigrants.

                  It might be that I missed some important parts though – the books violates quite gratitously what I’ll call for the moment “Eikes law of typesetting” which dicates that italics are strictly for emphasizing words, so don’t use them on whole chapters if you actually want somebody to read them – anybody who can read ten pages of 10 point italics has clearly better eyes than me.

                  The whole shebang from 40 to 60 is not bad, it’s just that it’s boring, which might as well be a matter of taste, so you might give it a try. As for me I rather watch An Inconvenient Truth on DVD to learn about the global warming thing. But I’m still going to try Robinsons Mars-Trilogy because – did I mention it? – as far as his politics and general Weltanschauung are concerned he seems to be pretty much a man after my own heart.

                    To the moon!

                    Autumn is killing me (metaphorically) – with shorter days and the lack of sunlight I’m continually tired, an at the moment I’m glad when I finish paid work in time, so I would ask the people who asked for held for a little more patience (I know I make these excuses quite often, but there you go).

                    So while I can’t provide an update on the module I can at least give you a small update on what’s happening in space, because these last few days have been a good time for space exploration.

                    At Oktober 21. a soyuz capsule returned to earth from the ISS; part of the crew was Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, the first astronaut from Malaysia. I was actually a little annoyed that his religion was so much a matter of public display – but then it’s probably just fair, Christians did it before with bible readings from orbit, and one has to commend Malaysias religious authorities that they managed to reconcile not religion and rationalism, which I think is impossible, but at least religion and pragmatism in such matters as prayer times and such. But as a life long Saganite I’m much more pleased with international cooperation.

                    A new crew member and new equipment is on it’s way to the International Space Station with STS-120 and the Orbiter Discovery. Shuttle Commander Pamela Melroy and her Crew deliver a new module – Node 2 a.k.a “Harmony” – to the station which will mainly serve as a connection point for other modules, including the european Columbus. Speaking as a european I can hardly wait. And it’s time that a bit more science happens at the ISS.

                    The International Space Station has been pretty much a failure so far, and I think this can be largely attributed to the fact that construction lags so far behind the planned schedule – Russia had a delay in manufacturing station components and there was another shuttle accident and the thing is by now much more expensive than planned (I nearly wrote “as expected”) and generally things haven’t been going to well. Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy fame hinted somewhat subtle (and a number of commenters brought the point home quite bluntly) that the station should be dropped althogether (if this were possible). I usually agree with what Dr. Plait says, not so much because he’s an expert but more because he is an expert who will happily eat his own words if it turns out he was wrong. But I still think the station should be finished, because if we – and it’s “we”, this is an international project – can’t even finish a project more or less at the front door then how can we ever think about building more ambitious projects (like e.g. interplanetary spacecraft) ?

                    But maybe there should be a lesson learned for later projects. I’m all for international cooperation (that Sagan thing again), but if possible partners should contribute complementary, not interdependent parts, so that a mission can still be sucessful when one piece is delayed or even fails.

                    Of course some people try to do things on their own (especially since they were obviously shunned from working on the ISS, I hadn’t been aware of that), which makes for the most exciting news – China has sent the Chang’e 1 probe to the moon, and that is only the first step in an rather ambitious space programm that is supposed to sent a man to the moon in the next 15 to 20 years. I guess by now a manned flight to the moon is not so much a matter of available technology and more a question if you are willing to spend the ressources (I’d venture that a moon base would be less expensive than the US war in Iraq…), which makes China the best candidate for a return to the moon – the Chinese seem to only ones willing to pull this off. Perhaps if we ask nicely they will sell us some tickets 😉

                    And speaking of the moon, Japan Kaguya probe has now reached an orbit from which it can start scientific observation – it’s a pity I don’t speak japanese (or ‘scientese’ for that matter), but I expect sooner or later some bits of data will trickle down to us english-speaking laypersons.

                    As I child I used to watch Space 1999 on television and being a child an sometimes unable to distinguish fiction from reality I was convinced that there would be a permant presence on the moon by the time I would grow up and I could buy a ticket to get there. Most annoyingly this hasn’t happened. But even if I can’t go there I hope somebody will.

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