The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Tuesday, June 13, 2017
Outer Space ... Science ... Society ...

Nor will any vicious beast go up on it;
These will not be found there.
Isa 35:9 (NASB)

There’s an interesting article in the May 2017 edition of Scientific American that might interest those of you who are “dog people”. The title of the article is “How to Build a Dog“. No, it’s not that scientists are now so far advanced with DNA manipulation and life incubation techniques that they can custom-design a dog, and then use CRISPR, stem cell activation and artificial incubation technology to grow that customized dog in a lab. No, we haven’t gotten to the point where you can custom order your next dog, mixing and matching features as if selecting from a Chinese restaurant menu, Say, for example a miniature German Shepard with long, fold-over ears, a fuzzy tail, and shaggy white fur with brown patches.

The SciAm article is really about foxes. A number of biologists and naturalists over the years have tried to take foxes from the wild and teach them how to live with human beings. These attempts have generally failed; foxes just have too much “wildness” inside of them. However, one long-term scientific experiment based in Siberia actually has been quite successful in creating a different kind of fox, one that is similar to your average run-of-the-mill pet dog. This experiment was begun in the 1950s at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics at Novosibirsk by a Russian geneticist named Dmitry K. Belyaev. The SciAm article was written by Lydmila Trut, who started working for Dr. Belyaev in 1958 as an intern, and took over the project following Belyaev’s death in 1985. Dr. Trut gained her doctorate in evolutionary genetics and now at age 83, continues to direct the domesticated fox program in Novosibirsk.

The program was quite successful. The SciAm article describes the looks and behavior of their current generations of foxes (and provides pictures), and the parallels with dogs are quite amazing. These foxes like being around people, they want to be petted and have their bellies rubbed; they wag their tails and follow  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:06 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Thursday, March 16, 2017
Outer Space ... Science ...

One of the biggest trends in astronomy in the modern era (say since 1950) has been the decreasing reliance on visible light, and the increased reliance on waves that we can’t see, to observe the cosmos. Our ground observatories and now our in-space observatories look more and more at X-rays, radio signals, ultraviolet rays, infrared radiation, microwaves, and high-energy gamma rays in order to figure out “what’s out there”, and what is it doing.

Over the past century, humankind has come a long, long way in what it knows about the cosmos, including how it started and how it’s probably going to wind up A lot of that was made possible by all of the information gathered through these various non-visible observation techniques. Even more will be learned in the near future as our scientists figure out how to detect “gravitational waves“. Those can help us to learn a lot about exotic stuff like black holes and neutron stars and maybe “cosmic strings”. Oh, another cutting-edge technique — observing neutrino particles from space!

Since 2001, the radio astronomers have had an interesting mystery on their hands. They have occasionally recorded very brief but very powerful radio signals coming from beyond the Milky Way. They call these “fast radio bursts“. Since they come from so far, far away, beyond anything that can be observed with regular visible light, the origin of these bursts are not apparent. Different astronomers have different theories on this, but  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:45 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Wednesday, December 14, 2016
Outer Space ... Science ... Society ...

There are a lot of differing opinions today among astrobiologists and planetary specialists as to whether life is common in the universe, and how many intelligent and sentient life-forms (like humans) are out there in the heavens. On the one hand, paleontologists, biologists and geoscientists have found over the past twenty years or so that life forms can flourish in very harsh environments, places with little or no light or oxygen and very cold or very hot temperatures, even places with relatively high exposure to ultraviolet or radioactive radiation. Of course, most of these life forms aren’t much more than very simple one-celled germ-like things. But they are alive.

Furthermore, the accelerating pace of exoplanet research and discoveries have allowed the detection of a rapidly increasing number of planets whirling around far-distant stars. Our scientists have learned how to distinguish rocky Earth-like planets from “gas bags” like Jupiter and Saturn, and in a few years they might even be able to detect whether these planets have an atmosphere, and what kinds of gasses are in that atmosphere. The boffins are obviously very interested in finding out how many “second Earths” are out there, rocky planets of near-Earth size orbiting a bright but stable star at a distance where liquid water could exist and where a favorable atmosphere could form. Again, we are still some years away from being able to pinpoint such stars and planets, but thus far, a large number of candidates have emerged.

So, given that life can form even under very tough conditions, and given that “habitable zone” planets may relatively common in the cosmos, many scientists are coming to believe in a “cosmic life imperative” in the Universe. But recall that all of this was “on the one hand”. On that other hand is the increasing realization that  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:49 pm       Read Comments (3) / Leave a Comment
Tuesday, November 17, 2015
Outer Space ... Science ... Technology ...

It looks like the whole “space-plane” idea is not dead, even though the US Space Shuttle program ended in late 2011. The British “Skylon” idea has been generating increased press attention lately (you can see the November bump for it on Google Trends), even though the Skylon idea has been kicked around at least since 2000.

The Skylon spaceplane would be different in many ways than the Shuttle was, although the overall goal is similar (i.e., a rocket that takes off into orbit, drops off a payload in space, and then returns to a landing field so as to be used again). In an important sense, Skylon is even more of a “space-plane” than the Shuttle was; it looks more like a regular airplane than a rocket (somewhat reminiscent of the X-15 “semi-spaceplane” experiment of the early 1960s). By comparison, the Shuttle was just the reverse — mostly a rocket with a plane on its back.

So Skylon’s differences from the Shuttle are significant; one big factor is that Skylon would be a “single-stage-to-orbit” vehicle, something that hasn’t yet been achieved. But these differences might also be seen as an evolution of the overall space-plane concept, and not as a radical shift from the Shuttle’s basic intent. Skylon would be a bit smaller than the Shuttle was, perhaps around half as large. It would be un-manned, and is designed to put a 15,000 kg payload into low earth orbit. The Shuttle, by comparison,  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:34 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Saturday, December 20, 2014
Art & Entertainment ... Outer Space ... Science ...

I’ve read a lot lately about the movie “Interstellar”. I haven’t seen it, and I probably won’t see it anytime soon. But it sounds pretty interesting given that it uses some very heavy ideas from modern physics and cosmology to cobble a science-fiction / outer-space / dark-future story together. I’ve read that the producers enlisted a world-class physicist, Kip Thorne, to help them “keep it real”. But in the end, Hollywood is Hollywood and entertainment comes before accuracy. From what I’ve read, the whole thing turns into a hot scientific mess, with the hero-astronaut falling down into a black hole past the event-horizon “point of no return”, and yet somehow getting out intact.

This is where the filmmakers obviously told Kip to stay away. (Although, Dr. Thorne is known for some pretty wacky ideas, including the very unlikely idea of using a portable wormhole as an escape hatch from the gravity time dilation effect, thus allowing a person subject to relativistic time slow-down to live in both his or her past, and in his or her present!) Under the laws of physics as we know them, you can’t venture past an event horizon and get out. There are various theories as to how the information about you or anything else that would fall through an event horizon can get out (although you wouldn’t know how to reconstruct and interpret it), and how eventually over many billions of years, perhaps everything in a black hole gets out via some sort of quantum evaporation process. But you can’t send a probe down get any sort of an immediate and usable signal back from it, not even a “gravity wave” signal (which currently cannot be detected anyway for being so faint).

And then there’s the spaghetti-ification factor, the fact that as you approach the core of the black hole, tidal gravitational forces would stretch you into a thin string of matter. Oh, and as if that’s not enough, now there’s the firewall paradox, the possibility that  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 5:02 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Sunday, May 25, 2014
Outer Space ... Society ...

One of my interests as a kid was space exploration and rocket launches. I grew up during the exciting days of the “space race” in the 1960’s, when the Soviets and the USA were competing to outdo each other in putting men into space and making machines sail to Mars or Venus (or even to the outer planets, such as the Pioneer 10 mission in 1972). Teachers would bring TV’s into classrooms on days when a manned Mercury or Gemini mission was to be launched, and we would interrupt our boring history or english classes to “join the countdown” at Cape Canaveral in Florida.

Thus I became something of a space geek, reading up as much as I could about the US and Soviet space programs. Since my father worked for a defense contractor (Bendix Aerospace) that made stuff for certain NASA rockets and satellites, he would occasionally chat a bit with me about the latest space shots. (He didn’t really like to do it too much, though, as it sort-of put him on my level, or vice versa. My father had an old-school “I’m the boss and you’re the kid” parenting mentality. But not to complain, as he was relatively gentle about it, he wasn’t a tyrant. Nonetheless, he was definitely not like today’s parents, who want to be “friends” with their kids – and we’re now seeing just how well THAT turned out.)

So I was recently looking at some YouTube videos of rocket launches, reveling in the clipped, precise communications going on between the ground controllers and technicians, and the hushed sense of anticipation and danger that eventually gave way to the goose-bumping final countdown and  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:55 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Friday, August 9, 2013
Outer Space ... Science ...

I’m currently reading a book by Dr. Lee Smolin on the quantum gravity dilemma in modern physics (Three Roads to Quantum Gravity). Quantum gravity relates to the unsolved problem dating back to Einstein on how to unify General and Special Relativity (with their treatment of the big stuff in the universe), with quantum theory and its treatment of the tiniest stuff in the universe. In a nutshell, when physicists try to mix the two theories, they get crazy, impossible results. There has to be a broader theory out there that includes both relativity and quantum physics — but we still don’t know what that it. Thus the on-going search for “quantum gravity”, the search for a way of wrestling gravity (which is the core of General Relativity and which powers the planets, stars, galaxies and mega-clusters out in the heavens) into a quantum framework (i.e., finding and studying a tiny, irreducible “bit” of gravity akin to how a photon is an irreducible “bit” of visible light).

I really like Dr. Smolin’s way of explaining the really hairy, abstract ideas of modern cosmological physics to laypeople like myself. Thus I’m thinking about buying his latest book “Time Reborn”. It may be a while until I can get to it, but I took a look today at some quotes from it, and I like what I read. I especially enjoyed his critique on the current darling theory of modern cosmology, i.e. the “multiverse” concept. I have written a bit on my own distaste for what a lot of high-powered physicists (including Steven Hawking, Leonard Susskind, Brian Greene, Sean Carroll, et al) are now selling as “the big picture”, i.e. an unending hyper-process that cranks out universes with varying physical laws and characteristics, one of which just happens to be our own. Some of these support life as we know it, while most of them probably don’t. This solves the problem of needing an intelligent creator, and you know how unpopular intelligent creators are these days with most academic PhD’s. The question is, is the “multiverse” right? Well, for now we can’t know; but is it even a good theory?

Dr. Smolin doesn’t seem to think so. I don’t believe that Lee Smolin is trying to defend God here, but what he does say about the multiverse idea reflects  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 6:35 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Sunday, May 12, 2013
Outer Space ... Science ...

When I was a kid back in the late 50s and 1960s, I recall there being a lot of cheezy Sunday-afternoon science fiction entertainment available at the local movie house and on the black-and-white TV stations. One of the most popular cinema genres back then was for our planet to be invaded by aliens from space, who arrived on big saucer-like ships and had no use for the human race and all its cities, roads, factories and other accoutrement of civilization. These invaders had superior military technology including death-rays, and put it all to use in order to push the homo sapiens species aside and adopt our planet for their own uses.

There were sometimes variations on these themes; some invaders couldn’t just blow us away all at once, so they used various tricks to enfeeble, enslave or infect us. Sometimes they played power games with our leadership, more interested in domination than extinction. But always, they were up to no good; they were never stopping by just to take a few pictures, buy some souvenirs and maybe swap recipes, like any good human tourists would.

Some of the classics from the 50’s and early 60’s included War of the Worlds, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing from Another World, Earth Versus the Flying Saucers, Plan 9 From Outer Space, Killers From Space,  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:58 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Saturday, September 8, 2012
Outer Space ... Science ...

After two political conventions in two weeks, it seems like a good time for a diversion, a look into the world of 21st Century physics. I’d like to share some recent developments of interest (they interest me, anyway!). These papers have not gained as much public attention as the recent confirmation of the Higgs boson or the controversy over possible faster-than-light neutrinos from last year. But I myself believe they have a lot of potential in defining or altering what the physicists will teach future generations about how our Universe works.

The first item regards a recent experiment involving the decay pattern of sub-atomic particles called B mesons. As you probably know, there are only a handful of stable particles which make up the stuff that we experience in our regular lives; i.e., mixtures of top and bottom quarks arranged as protons and neutrons, along with electrons and the ghostly neutrinos. There are many, many other kinds of particles, but they only exist for a tiny fraction of a second and usually only manifest themselves in rare circumstances involving very high energy levels (as are created in research particle accelerators). B mesons are such a particle.

Even though exotic particles like the B meson are not typical, physicists can still  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:16 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Thursday, August 30, 2012
Current Affairs ... Outer Space ...

The press recently marked the passing of the first man to walk on the moon, astronaut Neil Armstrong. Ah, another famous figure from my youth has gone to the great round-up out in the blue. And another reminder is had that life is not to be taken for granted.

The RealClearScience web site published a tribute to Mr. Armstrong just after his passing, making the point that he probably saved the Apollo 11 mission from being aborted or even failing tragically during the last minute when the lunar module approached the moon’s surface. As the story goes, the “LEM” (lunar excursion module) with Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin was off course a bit and was heading towards a rather rocky and dangerous landing spot. Armstrong decided to over-ride the computer controls and pilot the craft himself, which required him to fly horizontally over the moon’s surface, looking for a nice flat spot to land. This maneuver used up a lot of fuel, such that the LEM was less than a minute from running on fumes (which it basically doesn’t do). But Armstrong stayed cool and finally found his spot, and the rest was history.

Not long after reaching the moon, Armstrong took the first walk on lunar soil. It obviously was a moment for the history books, and Armstrong had a good line prepared for the moment. As his boots hit the lunar dust, Mr. Armstrong spoke into his helmet microphone “that’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”. It was a big moment (recall the scenes of CBS News anchorman Walter Chronkite being flabbergasted and losing his words), and this line sounded really good. Only later on did anyone think about what Armstrong had actually said. Man . . . mankind . . . what’s the difference? One small step for humanity, one giant leap for humanity? What’s this, a Zen koan or something?

No, Armstrong was trying to contrast how his stepping off the LEM platform was physically just  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:04 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
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