Tag Archives: Science Saturday

Science Saturday – October 29, 2011

Science Saturday

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Today’s Science Saturday is a bit short as training for my new job this week has pulled me away from reading and writing for the most part. I did find a few interesting articles however, ranging from a new super-black material to virgin materials of our infant universe recently discovered.

New Super-Black Material Absorbs 99 Percent of All Light That Dares to Strike It
A new blacker-than-black material developed by NASA absorbs virtually all the light in every spectrum. I’m excited to see how much this helps with light back scatter on the next generation of telescopes. I’m sure the military will be interested in finding ways to use the material as well. Some sort of stealth technology could probably be developed from this. Carbon nanotubes are amazing things with such a wide range of uses, I’m excited to see what else they’ll find their way into.

An ‘Operating System’ That Runs on Cells Could Create Whole New Life Forms
Think of your cells as computers. These researchers have just created Windows to install on those cells. Well, on synthetic cells. And it’s probably more on the level of DOS in terms of sophistication at the moment, but I digress. The possibilities with this “software” solution to customizing cells on the fly are quite amazing. The article lists out quite a few, and it really is a situation of your imagination being the limit on this sort of technology. Very exciting to think about, this technology could be massively useful to all of humanity.

Fresh Start: Scientists Glimpse Unsullied Traces of the Infant Universe
For the first time we’ve glimpsed a gas cloud unsullied by star stuff. We are all the stuff of stars, the heavier elements developed within them exclusively. So the discovery of a gas cloud made up of the lighter gases is quite amazing (though as an MIT astronomer says in the article, what’s more amazing is that these unsullied gases seem so hard to find), because it shows just how good our abilities to detect the chemical make up of extremely distant objects has become. Our ability to image the universe around us is absolutely spectacular.


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.

Science Saturday – October 29, 2011

Science Saturday

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Hello and welcome to the first installment of Science Saturday! This week’s stories range from amateur mapping of dark matter  to smartphone integrated prosthetic limbs (and also go back a little beyond the last week since this is my first entry). Along with a link to each article I’ll provide a little “reaction” blurb describing my thoughts on it.

How a Team of Enthusiasts Are Mapping Dark Matter
Dark matter and dark energy combined are estimated to account for over 95% of the mass-energy of the universe (dark matter ~23%, dark energy ~72%), so obviously any attempt to truly understand the structure of our universe must include the mapping of dark matter and dark energy. The fact that scientists from a variety of fields are already working on ways to do so is quite exciting, and this contest was an amazing move by JPL, but even more exciting to me is the methodology used by the winning entry.

While mapping the universe’s mass-energy distribution is fascinating, the near-term usefulness to us here on Earth is questionable. The methodology Kirkby and Margala used, however, is quite interesting in its novelty. Combined with the July news of an artificial neural network created out of DNA, it isn’t a huge leap to imagine truly intuitive artificial neural networks mapping out vast swaths of our universe in the not-too-distant future

Astrophile: Undead stars rise again as supernovae
No, this isn’t an article about a zombified Noel Gallagher. Rather it discusses one possible progenitor of type 1a supernovae, the brightest and most violent explosions we know of in the universe. A single type 1a supernova can outshine an entire galaxy. If the hypothesis of these scientists is correct, observing one in progress would be huge step forward in our understanding of dark energy and, paired with the above article, could really help us begin to understand the true make-up of our universe.

Things were so much simpler when we thought the universe was only made up of things we could actually observe directly, huh? Now in order to solve one mystery we must solve a dozen others, with no guarantee that solving those will lead to a solution to the original mystery.

New Measurements Size Up Distant Dwarf Planet Eris As Pluto’s Twin
Sorry “Pluto is a planet” crowd but I’m on Neil Degrasse Tyson’s side of that argument. The measurements taken last year reveal Eris to be approximately 1,445 miles in diameter (compared to Pluto’s 1,432), making it Pluto’s virtual twin in many respects. Eris is also one of the brightest objects in the solar system, much brighter than scientists initially thought. While all of that is interesting, most interesting about the article to me is the way they took these measurements. As the quality of our telescopes continues to improve, I’m excited to see what else we can learn about the planetary and sub-planetary bodies in our solar system via stellar occultation and other methods.

Shaken, Not Stirred: Scientists Spy Molecular Maneuvers
I’ll be honest: this article is mostly over my head. However I’m truly fascinated by the emerging field of nanotechnology and these peptoid sheets seem like they could be a real step forward in developing workable nanotechnologies. My first real exposure to nanotechnology as an eventual “next step” in personal computing came with the neural nanonics of Peter F. Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn trilogy, and I can’t help but think that is one area where he got our future absolutely right. If these peptoid sheets are the first step toward that, they are a truly exciting development.

Programming Cells to Home in On Specific Tissues May Enable More Effective Cell-Based Therapies
This article fascinates me primarily in relation to the one immediately preceding it here. Assuming that the peptoid sheets above are the first step toward viable, large scale use of nanotechnology, then the ability to program “homing beacons” into these nanotechnologies will allow for direct targeting of injured tissue for repair or, in the case of the neural nanonics mentioned above, graft onto existing tissue to improve their function. We truly could be on the verge of one of those science fiction “holy grails” that seemed impossible only a few decades ago: nano-bots repairing and reordering our cell structures in order to combat aging, illness, and a host of other things.

Planet search finds lots of little guys
I remember reading the news of the first exo-planet to be discovered orbiting a main sequence star with breathless excitement. It didn’t matter that it orbited far too close to the star to support “earth-like” life, it was beyond exciting to my ten year old imagination.

Reading this article brought back that same prickle of excitement. Long ago I made the assumption in my head that other relatively earth-like worlds MUST exist, it’s just a mathematical eventually. With this study’s suggestion that more than 50% of sun-like stars have planets around them, coupled with their findings that lower mass planets are apparently far more common than Jupiter-mass worlds, I can’t help but imagine some (if not most) of those worlds harbor life. Is there really any question that we aren’t alone in the universe? Mathematically, I don’t see how there could be.

UK Man Gets Prosthetic Limb With A Smartphone Dock Built In
So, Robocop or Bionic Barry he ain’t, but Mr. Prideaux is nonetheless on the cutting edge of prosthetic technology and, as the article says, one can’t help but imagine the possibilities for advancement upon such technology. This article struck me particularly due to my own disability (quite a few of the nerves suffered full avulsion in my case), because I have to be honest in saying there are times during my childhood where I wondered if I’d have been better off just having my arm lopped off and replaced with a prosthetic.

Even though a surgery in 2000 gave me a bit of use of my arm, if this technology advances to the point of true cybernetic limbs in my lifetime I may be forced to reconsider at some point in the future. We could be only a few short leaps away from that technology, especially if some of the technology in the articles above ends up panning out.

Enforcing a schedule

I was talking to my best friend this afternoon, trying to help him work through some self-esteem issues and generally get him back on his feet, when a piece of advice I threw out to him actually resonated quite well with me. Sometimes I surprise myself with such things; I pull things out of seemingly nowhere that actually make sense and are helpful. The collective subconscious? Something I’d heard once, filed away, and forgotten about until I need it? Who knows, I’m just glad that I can impart kernels of wisdom every now and then (at least I think they’re wisdom, could just be a bunch of drivel I suppose).

My advice to him today was that he needs to set a schedule for himself and stick to it. He’s been working on creating daily task lists for himself but hasn’t really been putting himself into a position to complete those task lists. Time management is his biggest issue and mine as well, so it was a subject that hit pretty close to home in our conversation. So I told him that, rather than simply give himself a task like “look for a job on Monster,” he should add a timeframe for that. Either a certain number of hours spent doing that, or a certain SET of hours within the day (i.e., “look for a job on Monster from 2pm to 4pm”). No matter what he does or doesn’t find in that timeframe, at least he spent it doing a task on his list.

Partition off every task like that, and before you know it you’ve got a full day where you’re actually DOING something rather than just sitting around wondering what to do next or how long the next task on your list will take you. Even as I write this blog I think I’m beginning to coalesce in my mind where the advice was pulled from:  I’ve been hearing for years now that in order to write successfully one must actually dedicate time to writing. Some people set specific wordcount goals for a day, other people simply set a specific amount of time aside to write, and yet others do some kind of mixture.

I’ve tried to apply that to my own writing habits with varying degrees of success. I will say that I definitely agree with the sentiment, as I said in my earlier blog on procrastination if I don’t write every day (or nearly every day) I tend to lose touch with the story I’m working on and find myself having trouble maintaining a consistent voice throughout. Having realized this, I’ve gone on to endeavor to write 1,500 words a day or for two hours, whichever comes LAST (i.e., if I hit 1,500 words in an hour I keep going until I get to two hours, or if I’ve  hit two hours and only have 800 words I soldier on until I hit 1,500).

In that same spirit of time management I’ve decided to enforce a schedule for myself on this blog too. A month into it now and, as you can see looking over the calendar to the right, I’ve been admittedly a bit scattered in my blog updates. As I try to move from “writer,” aka guy who likes writing stories, to “author,” aka guy who likes writing stories then makes a business of selling them, I’ve been reading tips on building a social network. One of the things I’ve seen over and over regarding blogging is that a consistent posting schedule, combined with worthwhile content of course, is a major key to having success in this vast and varied blogosphere.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to enforce a posting schedule for myself. With the exception of any spectacular news I just can’t wait to share with you, dear readers, from now on I’ll be posting four times a week.

Monday, Wednesday, and Friday will be my weekday posting schedule. These blogs will be on a fairly wide variety of subjects, though primarily writing, food, or hockey related (go Stars!), or some combination thereof. Starting tomorrow I’ll be using Saturdays to post up Science Saturday: a weekly compiling of links to various science/science fiction articles I’ve read and found interesting during the preceding week. Some Saturdays it will only be one or two things, others it might be a dozen or more; it all depends on what happens in science during that particular week.

An added benefit of this Science Saturday concept is the fact that it will force me to keep up with scientific knowledge. Given that my desire is to write more or less hard sci-fi, I think it will be a good use of my time even though some of it may not be directly related to writing.

I look forward to pushing forward with this blog in a more consistent and interesting fashion, I hope you’ll enjoy the ride as well.