Monthly Archives: November 2014

Science Thursday: Nov. 20, 2014

Welcome back for the second super science Thursday! Well, this week has been a rollercoaster of emotions following the Philae landing on Comet 67P/C-G. First it landed, then it might not have, then it did again, and now it was going to get enough sun, but it might not now, and now they’re pretty sure it’s going to drain the battries due to a cliff, on a comet. But, before we get to all of that, let’s talk about the 9th planet.

That’s right folks. Just when you got used to Neptune being the doorman for the skyrise apartment building that is our solar system, you might have to relearn it all. But don’t worry, it’s not Pluto coming back. Science News reported last Friday that there may be another planet, some 2 to 15 times the size of Earth, orbiting some 250 AU (VERY far) away from the sun. This notion of a Planet X was something that was dismissed by ‘legitimate’ scientists after the Voyager 2 spacecraft flew past Neptune, but a 2012 discovery of a 450 dwarf planet beyond Neptunes orbit has sparked a new interest.

Speaking of new things being discovered, the good folks over at CERN have discovered some new particles. Essentially, according to this article, again posted on Science News, these new particles reassure scientists that the way they were thinking about quarks interacting is correct. I don’t know exactly what that means, but generally, this is probably a good thing.

Next up, artificial intellegence. In this great day and age before the time where we are overrun by angry robots (This will be some years after robots develop the ability to feel emotions), we have the luxury of debating AI and it’s potential benifits or evils. In the future, we might just have to resort to shooting them with missiles, but that’s not the point. While the threat of AI to humanity is still something that people are arguing about, other people are creating tests to figure out just how intellegent AI really is. Most people know the Turing Test for AI, which was supposed to be able to differentiate between man and machine. This test was deemed inadequate, after some Ukranians beat it, and the Lovelace Test was developed. The Lovelace Test basically challenges a computer to come up with something all by itself, without being programmed to do so. Goergia Tech associate professor Mark Riedl is developing a new Lovelace Test, which challenges computers to be creative, and have an ‘imagination’. What this could mean is that the robot that is attacking you will sing you a song it wrote first, and¬†at least you’ll die amazed.

And now, the thing you’ve all been waiting for; Philae. Last week we knew that it had landed, and bounced, and landed, and possibly even bounced and landed for a third time. The ensuing days were filled with ups and downs regarding the spacecraft’s mission. Like this one, and this one. And despite the fact that a spacecraft which took years to get to a comet had a few days of science gathering, and is now dead, until it passes closer to the sun in a year, maybe, we haven’t reached the most important bit of Philae news. Philae has found organic molecules. The ESA hasn’t released any data about what type of molecules they have found, or their composition, but they have said that they are organic. This could be an existentially¬†thought provoking discovery; comets are one of the ways life is thought to have first reached Earth. So, we’ll see what comes of this, but it is an exciting (and maybe terrifying) bit of news.

Well, that’s the science news for this Thursday. Hope you learned something. See you next time.

So much to learn…

I realized the other day, for the 432930541th time out of the however many number of times I’ll realize this before I die, that there’s so much stuff to learn that it’s just crazy. I’ve done this a few times now (432930541 is something of an exaggeration, but pretty close) and each time I do, I think,’man I really need to do something about that’, and then I usually do. But it still leaves so much stuff left to learn. Frankly, it’s a little intimidating.

In class today the other day, I listened to a man lecture for an hour talking at a rate of about a billion miles an hour (Hey, that’s faster than the speed of light!) about all sorts of things, from biological computers, to improbability, to the Higgs Boson (whatever that is), ultimately ending with a bowl of petunias. This is all well and good, except, each one of these things is so rich in information that it leaves you spinning when you try and think about the things that there are to think about. Take a moment with that one…yes, we’re still talking about all the topics for speculation, and have not yet gotten to the actual speculations themselves. Quite invigorating.

Each of these topics could be explored for years by graduate students. And they’d still have lots of stuff left to learn after they’d finished. It can be a little depressing, to try and learn all of this stuff. The pursuit of knowledge is a noble one, but it’s quite impractical as a purpose of life. When you go about learning something, there’s always a thing that you discover that also needs to be learned. For instance, when you try and learn about math, you think you’ve got it made with addition and subtraction. But then, there’s multiplatacion and devision. And then, there’s integrals and derivitives. And then, there’s double integrals and derivatives. You see where this is going. And that’s just the math that I know off the top of my head, which is not much.

The last time I had this realization about all the stuff there is to know, it came in a slightly different form. I had just completed a diving class and had discovered, through learning all sorts of new things about diving, that I actually knew very little about diving. I had thought that I was a pretty good diver. But actually, I had a long way to go. It is discouraging to discover all the things that you don’t know. It may seem like the more you learn the less you know. This isn’t entirely accurate, you don’t know any less, you just are aware of the all the facts that you don’t know. Wow, that’s hard to follow. Basically, when you set out to learn something, you actually just ending up becoming aware of new things to learn. Yep, still hard to follow.

Anyway, this discussion inevitably ends up returning to the same point. That is; why? Why bother learning all of this stuff? If I don’t learn about stuff, then I don’t know how much I don’t know, and I’m able to sleep at night. Why learn at all? Why explore? Why question things? Why not just accept the way things are? What if, you might say, we learn things that make our exiesential situation worse than it is already?

Those are all good questions. The answer? 42. No but seriously, it might as well be. There’s no real answer to these questions. For some people, the quest for knowledge is made for the sake of knowledge itself. What good (or bad) comes of that knowledge is irrelevent. Other people need a reason to know something. Neither is wrong. Nobody really knows enough to say one way or the other. Regardless of why we are here to see the sun come up each morning, the sunrise is still beautiful. Is it really all that beneficial to know why we’re here? That’s a decision that eveyrone has to make for themselves.

As far as what I think? Well, I think it’s clear. There’s a Doctor Who episode that sums it up pretty well. The Doctor is trapped in a house with, I believe, the Queen of England, in like the 1800s or something, and they are being attacked by a werewolf. Naturally. Anyway, they are trapped in the library, because it’s the 1800s and all houses in the 1800s had one of those. The Doctor, being a genious, says something along the lines of, of course we can defeat this ceature, we’re in the greatest arsenal there is, a library.

When you write a book, or learn a thing, or answer some question that’s been on your mind, it doesn’t have to be for a specific reason. Sometimes it is, like when you’re being attacked by a werewolf, but, it doesn’t have to be. The thing is, sometimes, you can’t know what good will come of learning a thing. But sooner or later, for some reason or another, it will make a difference. That’s my answer. What’s yours? Thanks for reading.

Science Thursday: Nov. 13, 2014

Well, hello world. Happy Thursday. This is the first of what will (hopefully) be many super science thursdays, where I’ll put a bunch of cool science things down that may have happened over the past week. You can then go investigate them on your own and figure out just how cool they actually are. Why, you ask? Because science is cool. And space is big.

Speaking of space, let’s dive right in. So, space IS big, in fact, so big that even the littlest distances on a cosmic scale seem monumental to us humans. None-the-less, it is a monumental occaision when we cross them, for the time being anyway, and that’s where we have to start. Yesterday, the ESA’s Rosetta mission succesfully landed (twice?) on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Geaskimenko. It was a very intersting spectacle to watch. Being that the ESA has considerably less experience broadcasting these kind of events live, the viewer was treated to the glorious sight of a bustling control room with no commentary what-so-ever, which all of the sudden erupted into cheers and embraces to let you know they’d done it. (Since they were the first, and second people to land on a comet, were they twice as happy? I don’t think so…)

The Philae lander (Image from NASA)

The Philae lander (Image from NASA)

Despite this, this is a really cool thing. The Philae lander (named after Philae Island) has several science experiments on it such as PTOLEMY, a gas analyzer, CONSERT, the Comet Nucleus Sounding Experiment by Radiowave Transmission, and my personal favorite, MUPUS, which measures desity, tempureature, and other methacnical properties of the comets surface. More information about the instrumentation can be found here.

Philae's landing sight, outlined in red.  (Image from JPL)

Philae’s landing sight, outlined in red. (Image from JPL)

In other news, the Higgs Boson! Who doesn’t love the Higgs Boson? Well, be careful. The Higgs Boson might not be what we think it is. This is only somewhat disconcerting because we don’t really know for sure what we think it is anyway. Some scientists from Denmark, Belguim, and the UK, have gone about interpreting the Higgs data from the LHC in 2012 in a slightly different way. Essentially they say, in this paper, what CERN found might not be the elementary Higgs that fits into the Standard Model of the universe, but something called a techni-Higgs. This could be interesting because it’s a possibility that we don’t really know anything about. The LHC at CERN will be coming back online in early 2015 with twice the power it was running on in 2012 (or, the same amount of power it was SUPPOSED to be running on all along), and hopefully this will help clear things up.

If that’s not enough to make you love science, here’s something else. Apparently, human brainwaves have been used to control genes in mice. This study explains that this is done by using brainwaves to manipulate devices that can change the genes using light. So, no telepathy, but still, pretty cool.

And for those of you following the commercial space investigations, the NTSB announced yesterday that the surviving SpaceShipTwo pilot was unaware that the suspect feathering system had been unlocked during the flight. Also, according to Orbital Sciences, a turbopump in one of the Antare’s two AJ-26 engines has been implicated as the cause of the launch failure.

So those are some sciency things that are happening. Thanks for reading, we’ll be back to our regularly scheduled progamming tomorrow.