Science Saturday – October 29, 2011

Science Saturday

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This week’s Science Saturday entry includes everything from the glory of big data to the discovery of a planet orbiting in a binary star system. As always, I’ll have a bit of reaction following each link. Also this week a couple of stories came via twitter and I’ve noted both the twitter name(s) and their link where applicable.

The Glory of Big Data
This was one of the first articles of PopSci’s Data Week, where they provided several articles on data. What it is, how it works for us, how it can help us define our universe, and what many of the world’s largest data crunching devices, mammoth supercomputers such as Ranger and Jaguar, are up to recently. I encourage you to check out all the articles under the “Data Age” badge on their site, as each one is interesting, but this (and one other below) stood out to me as the most interesting of the bunch.

The glory of big data, they hypothesize, is the fact that with our growing ability to understand and harness the massive amount of data in our world, anticipated to be 1.8 zettabytes (or 1,800,000,000,000,000,000,000 gigabytes, if like me prior to this article you had no clue what a zettabyte was) in 2011, we are very quickly reaching a point where can use that data to actually construct new forms of existence. I’ll allow a quote from the article to explain what I’m driving at far better than I can:

We of course know quite a bit about how life is expressed—in the four letters of DNA, in more than 20 amino acids, in thousands of proteins. We can copy life through cloning. Now we are beginning to be able to rewrite life, not just gene by gene, but entire genomes at a time. This is the difference between inserting a single word or paragraph into a Tolstoy novel (which is what biotechnology does) and writing the entire book from scratch (which is what synthetic biology does). It is far easier to fundamentally change the meaning and outcome of a novel, seed, animal or human organ if you write the entire thing.

That is a massively exciting and scary prospect.

New galactic survey reveals relatively few stars have the right stuff to create life
(via tweet by @io9)
Trailing last weekend’s post about the apparent abundance of planetary systems and relatively low-mass planets orbiting other stars we’ve studied, this article might serve as a “pump the brakes” reality check on the prospects of finding life elsewhere. There is more to life than just a planet in the right area, it begins before the planets even form. If the right materials aren’t in the gas cloud surrounding a young star, organic compounds will have a very hard time forming. The amount of methanol, one of the primary building blocks, seems to vary significantly from gas cloud to gas cloud, as you would expect.

There seems to be a goldilocks zone for gas cloud make-up as much as for orbital distance. Too much of certain elements and methanol won’t have time to form before it gets iced over in the depths of space, too little and there won’t be enough of a reaction to actually form methanol. So it takes a lot of luck for life to form. It should be noted that the article ends optimistically: our own solar system was relatively methanol poor and it didn’t stop us from coming around.

One Step Closer to the Borg
(via Alexia Reed’s blog, retweeted by @RoniLoren from @alexia_reed)
Machines and human beings are incompatible technology. I’ll admit that I wasn’t really aware of this. Electronics as we know them, as the term might suggest, transmit data via electrons. The human body, and indeed pretty much all biological life as far as I can tell, uses protons and ions to do the same thing. So while plugging a piece of electronic equipment directly into our bodies wouldn’t necessarily yield the destructiveness of, say, plugging an AC device into a DC power supply, it would be rendered pretty useless and unable to interact directly with the human body.

This new research, using equipment constructed from the shells of crustaceans, seems to be the first major step toward true cybernetic implants becoming a possibility. Machinery we can quite literally control with our minds. This breakthrough makes another of science fiction’s holy grails that much closer to being science fact.

Evolutionary Timeline for Machine Intelligence
(via One Hand Publishing/Ralph Ewig’s blog, tweeted by @OpenAerospace)
The machines are becoming more intelligent at an exciting rate. Or an alarming rate, I suppose, depending on how things ultimately shake out. Within 20 years the idea of having a robot with rudimentary, human-like intelligence will no longer be outlandish. If Moore’s Law holds (and there is some genuine debate as to whether it will or not, as you can see on the wikipedia link), machinery with human level intellect could be in existence before the end of the century.

That will raise all sorts of moral conundrums, I imagine. What happens when the machines start demanding the same rights as us? What happens if the machines decide we’re inferior and they no longer need us (the Terminator franchise comes to mind)? A sci-fi writer’s dream, questions like that.

PopSci Q&A: How Digging Through Discarded Data Uncovered A Real Tattooine
Another feature from PopSci’s data week, this story describes how one group’s “trash” is treasure for another set of astronomers. Kepler-16b, a circumbinary world discovered sifting through data from the Kepler Space Telescope, is a world with two suns. Not that long ago I’d thought it would be almost impossible for a system with two close binaries such as this to exist, one would think the physical forces would prevent a planet from forming and give any rogue worlds captured such unstable orbits as to send them plummeting into one of the two stars or slingshotting back out of the system.

Shows what I know I guess. Questions of physics aside, this article struck me because of the sheer amount of data Kepler has produced for the scientific community (a key point of the article, you might imagine, given its presence as part of data week):

In the pantheon of modern astronomical explorers, the Kepler Space Telescope ranks right near the top, uncovering more than 1,200 worlds outside our solar system while staring at just a small fraction of the sky. Kepler has unveiled searingly hot, tiny terrestrial worlds, planets potentially sharing an orbit, an especially inky light-absorbing planet, and 54 planets comfortably ensconced in the Goldilocks zones of their stars.


Kepler has looked continuously at 155,000 stars for going on three years now. That’s kind of a lot of data. And in addition, you’re looking at data that is 100 times more sensitive than has ever been done for stars before. We’re looking at light curves. Kepler doesn’t measure color or spectra, it just stares and very precisely measures the changes in brightness of stars. You can learn a huge amount about stars just with their variability with brightness over time.

The Eclipsing Binary Working Group had to go through 155,000 light curves, and pick out the eclipsing binary stars. There are about 2,000 of them.

Kudos to the builders of Kepler for creating an instrument of such amazing quality and fidelity as to flood astronomers with this quantity of data, but even more kudos to the eight (that’s right, only eight!) astronomers of the Eclipsing Binary Work Group who spent two years sorting out the star systems that matched their desired criteria before they could even BEGIN looking for planets around them. That is the coalescing of data and persistence in its most beautiful form as far as I’m concerned.


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