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Thursday, July 12, 2012

Interstellar Higgs

  There was just one thing going through my mind, when I found this fake Kickstarter campaign, and thought it was real:  "I don't care  HOW much money he's raised, this guy is not getting to the moon!"   It seemed outrageous!  Moon Computing?  Servers on the Moon?  When I discovered that it was a parody website, and not the real kickstarter, all I could do was laugh at myself  -- because all the signs were there.

  I'm worried that a similar thing might be going on with recent developments in the Higgs Boson saga, which is plastering itself over every media outlet.  It seems that the data which seems to prove the existence of the Higgs-boson particle, responsible for the development of mass in the early universe (I hate when people call it the "God Particle"), may have another explanation.  The explanations currently being offered are that this is evidence of an even more exotic particle, which makes me wonder a little bit about whether less exotic explanations have all been fully explored.  I certainly hope they have.  I found this article from 2011, which describes the conclusion that the Higgs-boson probably doesn't exist.  It sort of bothers me when scientists are certain of something that is so hard to know, so I tend to believe that the Higgs-boson DOES exist, but I worry that this will be yet another "discovery" of the particle which turns out to have been hype.  Either way this goes, there was a blanket statement made with certainty, by CERN, which should never have been made.

It's great to have new developments in science.  Don't get me wrong.  But the fact is that there is no absolute certainty about an experiment done on Earth to simulate the Big Bang.  Could it be possible that the "more exotic" explanations indicate that CERN created a particle that didn't exist in the Big Bang, but in fact has never existed before?  The issue here is either decay into photons that are indicated by additional mass, or it could be that the additional mass came from a moment of creation no one understands or has predicted.  The experiment simply has to be repeated, with no assumptions that the Higgs-boson was the definitive result of the first experiment.  Expensive equipment sometimes makes it seem as though rigor is a luxury.  I submit to you that it is not.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Bloom of the New Sun

  Solar storms pose a  grave threat to electrical devices on Earth.  A large enough solar storm could wipe out power across half the globe, but new methods of predicting solar storms could give us enough warning to shut down the transformers in the affected areas so that they don't overload.  A warning would also have to go out to everyone  to turn off their electrical devices, so that the devices would not be irreversibly damaged.  Solar storm forecasting would be useful for rare, once-in-a-lifetime solar storms, but what about ordinary Earth weather forecasting?  It wouldn't be as helpful in preventing outages.

  A recent storm blacked out power to millions of Americans for upwards of five days, while power companies struggled to repair downed lines and power stations damaged in the storm.  It got me thinking about the whole idea of centralized power sources themselves.  Solid Oxide Fuel Cells like those being sold by Bloom Energy could power a house, or more likely a block, with one refridgerator-sized "server" (known as a Bloom Box), without the need for a wasteful and expensive power grid that fails like a line of dominoes when even one part of it is compromised.  Better yet, an SOFC can run on almost any fuel, so scarcity would not necessarily lead to increased prices for the energy.  The biggest hurdle I see to this revolution in energy is that -- at present -- Bloom Boxes are prohibitively expensive for private use.  That could change, however, if enough of them were sold.

  A more immediate application of the technology might be to use Bloom Boxes, or another SOFC, to power the neutron detectors at the South Pole, which would be used to calculate the presence of electrons related to Solar radiation to predict Solar Storm activity [see link above].  Something like that might already be in practice, but my research into the neutron detectors didn't extend to power sources.  If this is what's already being done, bravo researchers!  If not, that's something to consider.  Either way, a future where Bloom Boxes are in wider use has the potential to make a more energy-efficient, lower emission, and generally better world for all of us.  They still would be susceptible to Solar Storms, however, and it would be more of a headache to shut them all down.  Nothing's perfect.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Wrong Tomorrow

  Today, I lost my cell phone, and was unable to locate it -- wherever I looked.  It wasn't in its charger, and it wasn't by my bed.  I started looking in all sorts of crazy places:  drawers I hadn't opened in years, the trash, inside the refrigerator - all to no avail.  Fearing the disaster of not having a phone, I posted to Facebook that someone should call me, so that I could attempt to listen for where the sound was coming from.  Before anyone called, I opened a flap at the bottom of a recliner and my cell phone fell out.  It had fallen out of my pocket while I was sitting in my chair.

  This incident from my life kind of reminds me of what has happened with the 2012 Mayan Apocalypse idea.  So you discover this highly-accurate, fascinating calendar, and you notice that it only covers a limited (albeit large) period of time.  You discover more calendars, and they all end at the same date.  You scour the remains of the Mayan Empire for more calendars, but by the time you find a calendar with a later date, everyone in the world has started to fear disaster from the missing years.  They did find a new calendar (link here), and they discovered a symbol for an even longer period of time, roughly equivalent to the period of time depicted in the present Mayan Calendar (link here).  The missing years have an explanation, and it wasn't any of the outlandish theories investigated by predictors of doom, many of whom still believe the world will end on December 21, 2012.

  I can't put a date on it, but a real world-ending event could loom for us.  Recently, the crater of an asteroid impact large enough to wipe out all life on Earth was discovered (article here).  Well, at least, all higher life would be destroyed, leaving only bacteria behind.  The date of this asteroid impact was 3 billion years ago, long before life developed into the myriad forms that it takes today, so it probably didn't kill any plants, animals, or fungi -- but the fact remains, today we'd all be dead from the extinction level event that would occur after that impact.  After 3 billion years, are we "due" for another impact of that size?  All we can do is watch the sky, and hope that we are not.  Regardless of what tomorrow holds, someone will be wrong.  It's more likely that you'll be wrong, however, if you speak with certainty about something that can't be measured and predicted.  Uncertainty is never the enemy of good science.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Bas Lansdorp of Mars

  I never saw the movie, John Carter, but I heard it was a movie, with groundbreaking special effects, that didn’t make enough money to cover the enormous expense.That was what I was worried about when I read about MarsOne, a project by Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, which plans to monetize the colonization of Mars by turning the mission into something resembling a Reality Show. Generous estimates of the show being as widely-viewed as the Olympics place the profit margin at just barely under the estimated cost of the mission, unless of course we have multiple seasons consecutively, which doesn’t seem to be the plan, unless I’m mistaken. At the moment, however, the company is relying on sponsors to get the show up and running (initially detailing astronaut selection and training for the mission), so it’s entirely possible that I’ll be proven wrong. I hope I’ll be proven wrong. (my excitement over the announcement that this was not a hoax waned when I read this).

  The idea is a valid thing for explorers to do.  The first Europeans to reach the Americas regaled anyone who was listening with tales of their exciting adventures in the new world.  They also pressured nobles into funding their expeditions.  Television and advertising are both susceptible to this kind of pressure, and it is possible that the company will put the research time at a premium, so that scientists and universities will have to shell out money for their experiments to be conducted, or perhaps put on the air.  Not quite a sugar plantation, for profit-potential, but it’s the best we can do until space is more fully-colonized.

  It reminds me of 2005, when I was very excited about Bigelow Aerospace’s $50 million America’s Space Prize (article here), which nobody won, after which I had the distinct impression that Bigelow had failed, to make room for SpaceX.  They actually did accomplish quite a bit, getting two prototypes into orbit, and, even early-on, I was looking at how Robert Bigelow made his money, and thinking intensely about the Space Hotel he’s no longer doing press about (at least, not recently, on what I could find in a Google search).  So, here’s my thoughts on the MarsOne mission:  it may not be a hoax, right now, but will the reality show come to pass, or will it turn into a potential Mars mission that government space agencies eventually get involved in?  I’m sure no one thinks so, yet, but there’s no way to be sure what’ll happen by 2023.  Here’s hoping we really do get to Mars that soon. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

E-Turing-ity Road

  A recent BBC report states that, potentially, the Death of Alan Turing might not have been a suicide [article here].  While reports of how “happy” or “good-humored” Turing seemed to others, after his chemical castration due to homosexuality, are not to be trusted (he could have been putting on a brave face out of fears of worse punishment), the description of the circumstances of his alleged suicide are a little inconsistent.  The half-eaten apple was part of his daily routine, and he was working with cyanide in one of his experiments.  Perhaps it wasn’t so much a conscious suicide as an accident resulting from a general depression he was careful to conceal.  After all, he was by no means under ordinary pressures or circumstances -- great scientist though he was.

  Aside from his many accomplishments, Turing is famous for the “Turing Test”, which measures the ability of a hypothetical machine to imitate a human (some say to “fool” a human) in the context of a “parlor game” where an interviewer asks questions and hears back responses that are meant to be “male” from first a woman and a man, then a computer designed to sound like a woman pretending to be a man and a man.  No computer has yet been made that would satisfy the requirements of this “test”.

  Thinking about the Turing Test got me wondering about a test, or “quiz”, I made (link here -- if you’re under 18, please choose the “Family” setting while browsing other quizzes on this site; my test will still be visible), and -- more relevantly -- some of the IAT tests I’ve been taking (take IAT tests here).  Though the IAT test is not perfect (randomization of the order and some other factors would help it out tremendously), it’s one of the best measures of actual attitude the social sciences have ever come up with -- primarily because it doesn’t measure what you say, but how your behavior is within a given set of parameters.  How might things have changed, for Turing, if this test were in use prior to his death, in 1954?  What might this kind of test have revealed about homosexuality and chemical castration?  As to the castration question, recent studies have proven that an experiment can still be done, without castrating any humans.  Monkeys were shown to be able to provide interpretable results from an AIT test.  With a comparison, on a variety of tests, between castrated monkeys and monkeys that have not been castrated, we might learn a lot about the ancient (and uniquely human) practice of castration, and that data would be imminently useful to Veterinarians and pet owners.  I’m a little worried, though, about the implications if desirable traits in humanity (lack of prejudice, self-esteem, resistance to stereotypes) were shown to improve in the subjects who had been castrated.  It seems unlikely, from my experience, for animals castrated after adulthood, but it could be entirely possible for those castrated young.  We, as a species, might be closer to that anthill or beehive, with a single breeding pair or artificial wombs to provide us with children, than anyone would hope for or want.  That is, however, no reason for it not to be tested, or for the results not to be seen.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Time Routine

  I’ve been wondering, lately, if some of my ideas are ahead of their time.  Two examples of this:  robots are expensive, and open source novels haven’t been successfully monetized.  I have full confidence that the things I write about here have SOME possibility of coming to pass, but will it be in my lifetime? 

  History is funny that way.  The history of science -- even more so.  How many times has a person with an accurate idea been scoffed at, only to be proven right by the progression of knowledge?  I’m not saying I’m a great scientist; I’m just using the examples that I have at my disposal.  We often think that we’ve entered an age of perfect knowledge where only the best ideas receive attention, but I don’t believe we’ve ever reached that point.  I often think that modern science, for all its wonders, might be farther from the fundamentals of the scientific method than science in the 20th Century, but I never see that thought gaining much traction.  It might be because business and culture are more receptive to the potential of technology -- but does all that money and interest really help us understand the universe?

  How many times have we seen this headline?  The historic moment when the Voyager spacecraft officially “leaves” the Solar System would be an important event, if we knew precisely when it would come.  It was announced that the exit would be imminent before, but then the rate of change in the factors we consider characteristic of the Solar System -- as Voyager moves farther away from the sun -- was smaller than expected.  Now, it’s greater than expected.  The more scientists are wrong in public promises, the less people trust science.  So, why not simply announce when the Voyager probe has exited the Solar System, and then let history document the process afterward?  The attention is a distraction from the real down-and-dirty WORK of science:  the solid routine of observation, analysis, and progress toward a conclusion.  There’s nothing worse than a highly-publicized, failed attempt to get ahead of time…

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

That Hideous Length

Eunectes Murinus, the Green Anaconda, is a massive snake, but not as huge as it is rumored to be.  It is accepted wisdom that this species is the LARGEST species of snake in the world, but it is not the LONGEST.An abnormally-large reticulated python was longer than the longest Anaconda ever observed, and the average length of this species is greater than the average of the Green Anaconda.

Both of these species are dwarfed by the prehistoric Titanoboa, a 2,500 pound, 43 foot-long snake that lived in the Paleocene Epoch.  Compared to dinosaurs, this is a fairly recent time period, and -- compared to the Anaconda -- this species of snake was a giant.  But which modern snake is most closely-related to Titanoboa?  Is it either of the two current record-holders?  Unfortunately, the fragility of ancient snake-bones makes it extraordinarily difficult to determine their precise evolutionary tree.  Length is one of the few measurable characteristics we have about snakes, and even that isn’t perfect.

Snake-length got me thinking about the length of different forms of literature throughout the ages.  Specifically Edmund Spenser’s unfinished The Faerie Queene, which -- even unfinished -- is the longest poem in the English language.  It’s long, but -- compared to even an abridged World-Book Encyclopedia -- it’s really not that long.  And, with digital technology, much longer “books”, or collections of knowledge, are eminently possible.  Does the future perhaps hold an open-source novel that would fill a 40-gig hard drive?  Has this astonishing feat already been accomplished?  I picture a world where a grandmother begins reading the novel at 10, then passes it on to her children, as an heirloom.  The children then begin reading where the grandmother left off, and pass the novel down, until eventually it’s finished.  The form of the novel would probably be sort of a James Michener style of book -- possibly following a family through the history of mankind.  Now, wouldn’t that put the Titanoboa to shame?