You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Science’ category.
What could we talk about today other than NASA’s stunning announcement of a “nearby” star system with seven Earthlike planets? Three of these rocky worlds are comfortably in the so-called habitable zone where liquid water exists and earthlike life could be possible. The star is TRAPPIST-1, a small-batch artisanal microstar with only a tenth the mass of the sun. It glistens a salmon hue and is half the temperature of the sun (and emits far less energy). Fortunately, all of its planets are much closer to the pink dwarf than Earth is to the sun, and so the middle worlds could be surprisingly clement. These planets are close to each other and sometimes appear in each other’s skies larger than the moon looks to us! The coral sun would be dimmer… but 3 times larger in the sky! It is a pretty compelling picture! Imagine sauntering along the foamy beaches of one of these worlds and looking up into a pool-table sky filled with Earth sized worlds and a cozy Tiffany lamp in the sky emitting titian-tinted light.
I am leaving out the details we know about the seven worlds because we don’t know much other than approximate mass (approximately earthsized!) and the ludicrously short length of their years. Since the inner three worlds are tidally locked they may have extreme weather or bizarre endless nights or be hot like Venus (or bare like Mercury).
Trappist1 is 40 light-years (235 trillion miles) from Earth in the constellation Aquarius. It seems like an excellent candidate for one of those near-light speed microdarts that Steven Hawking and that weird Russian billionaire have been talking about (while we tinker with our spaceark and debate manifest destiny and space ethics). However, before we mount any interstellar expeditions to Trappist1 (an anchoritic-sounding name which I just cannot get over) we will be learning real things about these planets from the James Webb space telescope when it launches in 2018–assuming we don’t abandon that mission to gaze at our navels and pray to imaginary gods and build dumb-ass walls.
Today’s announcement is arguably the most astonishing thing I have heard from the astronomy community in my lifetime (and we have learned about treasure star collisions and super-dense micro galaxies and Hanny’s Voorwerp). Ferrebeekeeper will keep you posted on news as it comes trickling out, but in the meantime let’s all pause for a moment and think about that alien beach with a giant balmy peach sun…. Ahh! I know where I want to escape to next February!
Today features a traditional-style porcelain Russian decanter in elegant blue and white glaze. The decanter is handmade Gzhel porcelain with traditional Russian folk-art patterns. However the vessel is not completely traditional—it is in the shape of a rocket. The piece commemorates Belka and Strelka, two dogs who went in to orbit on Sputnik 5 in 1960 and returned safely to Earth. They were space pioneers in all sorts of ways!
I like this sort of object–which combines except it commemorates an even which happened more than 50 years ago. Our space milestones are receding in the past, and although the robot probes exploring the solar system are learning amazing things, they do not seem to keep the public’s attention the same way that two lovable Soviet dogs did.
I promised to write about Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a book which I am planning on reading this year (after bouncing off of its deep moral ambiguity once before). However before we get to talking about great literature and right and wrong and how to cynically manipulate people, let’s indulge in some completely frivolous daydreaming.
Longtime readers know that one of my favorite concepts for the not-so-distant future is the establishment of a floating colony in the skies of Venus. A variety of considerable factors make this seem more attainable than the Martian colony which everyone is always talking about (plus I like tropical swamps better than Arctic deserts).
Alas, I am not an engineer, and I cannot bring my dream closer to reality with a slide rule and a spreadsheet full of atmospheric measurements and rocket payloads…or with a thoughtful treatise about making plastics out of the chemicals present in Venus’ thick atmosphere…or with mention of the seemingly inexhaustible thermal energy on its surface. Yet I am imaginative, and perhaps I can share a powerful passing fantasy with you. The other day, while browsing goodness knows what on the internet, I came across the picture above and it struck me forcefully as a perfect structural component of Mary Rose or Constance [astronomical convention dictates that all features on Venus be named after women, so I decided to name my cities after my grandmothers…at least until I know what my billionaire partner wishes to call things]. I had to share the image with you, even though I have lost the real context of the actual inflatable structure 9avionic saftey equipment maybe? That doesn’t actually seem so far off).
First I imagined that this is the lifting body of the colony, which would be suspended underneath…but then it occurred to me that it might be the city (since breathable Earth atmosphere mixtures of gases float on the clouds of Venus). or perhaps it is an agricultural pod or a park or a laboratory, or a factory. Who can say what is in the lovely 4/5th torus, until we complete more of the schematics? At the moment, it is a concept piece…like the whole colony, but the world is filled with clever people, and some of them read this blog. let’s keep dreaming big! Imagine this sparkling with lights as a huge yellow storm boils up beneath and a cloud of drones and gyrocopters approach from a nearby fleet of zeppelin buildings…
Here in the northern hemisphere, we’re moving to the darkest time of the year. I don’t have any white robes or giant megaliths on hand to get us through the solstice, but I thought I might at least cheer up the gloomy darkness with some festive decorations! As in years past, I put up my tree of life filled with animal life of the past and the present (see above). This really is my sacred tree: I believe that all Earth life is part of a larger cohesive gestalt (yet not in a stupid supernatural way–in a real and literal way). Looking at the world in review, I am not sure most people share this perspective, so we are going to be philosophizing more about our extended family in the coming year. For right now though, lets just enjoy the colored lights and the Christmas trilobite, Christmas basilosaurus, and Christmas aardvark.
I also decorated my favorite living tree–the ornamental cherry tree which lives in the back yard. Even without its flowers or leaves it is still so beautiful. I hope the shiny ornaments and toys add a bit of luster to it, but really I know its pulchritude is equally great at the end of January when it is naked even of ornaments.
Here are some Javanese masks which my grandfather bought in Indonesia in the 50s/60s. Indonesian culture is Muslim, but there is a deep foundation of Hinduism (the masks are heroes from the Mahabharata and folk heroes of medieval Indonesia). Decorating this uneasy syncretism up for Christmas is almost nonsensical–and yet look at how good the combination looks. Indeed, there might be another metaphor here. We always need to keep looking for beautiful new combinations.
Finally here is a picture of the chandelier festooned with presents and hung with a great green bulb. The present may be dark, but the seasons will go on shifting and there is always light, beauty, and generosity where you make it. I’m going to be in and out, here, as we wrap up 2016 and make some resolutions for 2017. I realize I have been an inconsistent blogger this year, but I have been doing the best I can to keep exploring the world on this space and that will continue as we go into next year. I treasure each and every one of you. Thank you for reading and have a happy solstice.
Imagine a relaxing pine forest with a soft carpet of orange needles and gentle green boughs waving in the breeze. Wood ears grow on fallen logs, and little insects scurry around the ferns and the air is filled with the slightly spicy smell of pines. There are whistles, songs, and clicking squeaks–not unlike the chatter of squirrels and the familiar melodies of passerine birds, but when a chipmunk darts by, you realize that it is no chipmunk at all but a weird miniature running pheasant. Then a further shock comes when you see the miniature pheasant has teeth and claws—it is a tiny dinosaur! You are in a Cretaceous pine wood, and though, there may be primitive birds somewhere, the rustling all around you and the darting russet forms running through the undergrowth are little dinosaurs. Is that crashing noise coming towards you a larger predator?
Paleontology lets us travel to the past and reconstruct such scenes with increasing accuracy. As we gain further fossil evidence and our grasp of zoology, biology, and genetics deepens, we can see further into this vanished world. However, sometimes a literal piece of the past falls directly into our hands.
Look at this incredible piece of amber obtained in a market in China! In addition to beautiful yellow-orange amber and glistening air bubbles, there is a gorgeously preserved ant, some bits of bark & plant matter, and…some sort of weird feathered tail! This is not a recent piece of amber, either, it comes from an amber mine in northern Myanmar, but it really comes from a pine forest 99 million years ago in the Cretaceous: the world I described above.
The tail seemed like the tail of a small bird, but CT scans revealed eight vertebrae from the middle or end of a long narrow tail which was not fused into a bird’s pygostyle (an anatomical feature which allows birds to move their tail feathers as a single unit like a fan). Scientists realized that the amber contains the feathers, skin, and soft tissue of a dinosaur—a juvenile coelurosaur—about the size of a sparrow.
If one of these things got into the office and the office manager had to remove it, I suspect people would say there was a bird in the copy room. Yet it was definitely a dinosaur. The best preserved fossils of this sort of ecosystem come from East Asia—China, Mongolia, and Myanmar. Look at the hints of Chinese ink drawing which have found their way into the paleontological drawing of a coelurosaur below.
As scientists unravel the secrets trapped in the amber, we will be learning a lot more about this particular dinosaur, but other wonders may lie ahead. Myanmar is emerging from isolation, civil wars, and turmoil to rejoin the community of nations. What else lies buried in that mine or others like it?
The first known farmers were apparently…ants. Leafcutter ants have been growing fungus on chopped up leaves for at least 50 million years. It is an amazingly long time. Yet, when one thinks of the astonishing range of different “breeds” of animals and crops which humankind has created through artificial selection during the 10 millenia or so years since we started farming, the ants seem a bit lackluster. For all of their workaholic zeal, ants are not as relentless as us in selecting for traits in their crops.
Yet, as we learn more about the ants and their empire, the amazing extent of their symbiosis with the plants they use is beginning to become more apparent to us. Because of the vastly greater timeline of their endeavors, they have coevolved in astonishing ways. An example of this can be found in the homes of Philidris nagasau, a species of leaf cutterant native to Fiji. These ants literally grow their homes out of Squamellaria, an epiphytic plant which grows on tropical trees.
The Economist described the mechanism through which the ants grow a home (or, alternately, the way the epiphytic plant obtains an army of insect servants):
P. nagasau worker ants harvest seeds from their epiphytic homes, carry them away, and then insert them into cracks in the bark of suitable trees. That done, they patrol the sites of the plantings to keep away herbivores, and also fertilise the seedlings as they grow by defecating into hollow structures called domatia that develop in the bases of the plants’ stems. As a Squamellaria grows, its domatium swells (see picture) and develops galleries that can accommodate ants—which then move in. This, and the plant’s habit of growing flowers that generate nectar long after they have been pollinated, provide the evolutionary quid pro quo that makes the relationship between insect and epiphyte work.
It is incredible that the ants grow their own houses. Yet, as one looks more closely at familiar domestic arrangements with this story in mind, they start to seem less familiar. Is farming really as unique as we make it out to be, or does it resemble mutualistic arrangements found throughout the natural world.
We would never say we co-evolved with goats, cows, and horses: their domestication seems like a one way exchange to us. Yet an outside observer might look at our leather sofas, cheeseburgers, cavalry charges, or angora sweaters and come to a different conclusion.
Last week I meant to include an elegiac post to Rosetta, an astonishing space mission, which stretched out over a dozen years and logged 4.9 billion miles of travel. Rosetta was launched way back in 2004. It was originally supposed to rendezvous with comet 46P/Wirtanen in 2011, but problems with the launch in Guyana caused the probe to miss the launch window for the primary mission. The ESA changed the mission parameters so that the spacecraft ended up exploring Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko instead (this second comet was functionally the same as the first—except for a much more difficult-to-say name). During its journey to the comet, Rosetta also flew by Mars and two asteroids. After flying by Mars in February of 2007, the craft flew by Earth in November of 2007. It caused a miniature panic when astronomers of the Catalina sky survey spotted it and misidentified it as a 20 meter near-Earth asteroid on a possible collision path with Earth!
The spacecraft arrived at Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko in August of 2014 and the most famous…and infamous…part of the mission took place in November of that same year, when Rosetta launched the Philae lander to harpoon itself to the comet. Although Philae (which was named after a Rosetta-like obelisk with the same text in Greek and Egyptian) succeeded in landing and not bouncing off into the void, sadly the little lander came down in a miserable crevasse. Scientists intimately studied pictures of the comet (from Rosetta) until they found the lander in the icy chaos. It was a pretty ghastly scene which reminded me of my sock drawer (if it were dropped from space onto Tungnafellsjökull glacier).
(See it there at bottom right?)
Rosetta’s long and mostly successful mission came to an end last Friday in a truly operatic fashion. Mission controllers chose to use the last vestiges of power to smash the orbiter into the comet! Well, although I am saying “smashed” what actually happened was more like a grandmother walking into a snowbank. The lander was lowered onto the comet at about one mile per hour. Except, despite the fact that Rosetta traveled more than 5 billion miles (“uphill both ways”) it was not designed for landing and its last communication was a photo just above the comet surface. RIP Rosetta, you were one good probe!
When I was a five-year old child, my whole family went on a trip out west. We traveled from Utah up through Wyoming, Boulder, and Idaho. My parents rented a big taupe car, but my grandparents, my uncle, and my cousin all had trucks with campers (my cousin even had a CB radio!). It was amazing fun and the undiluted beauty of the mountains and the joy of family time made up for the long days of being trapped in a car with leg cramps from running up and down said mountains. Many are the storied adventures we had…and the western legends have grown in the telling. A particular favorite is the tale of how my grandfather and my uncle obtained a special blacklight so they could spot uranium ore (which was at a great premium in the seventies). They turned the light on in some forsaken midnight desert and not only did they discover a shocking number of scorpions EVERYWHERE, they also found huge mounds of uranium ore in immense abundance—a multi-million dollar strike! But when they picked up the precious ore it was soft and friable, and when they fumbled their flashlights on, it turned out to be cow manure covered with a fungus that glows under black light….
At any rate, among all of these travel yarns, a story shines out in my mind as being unusually important. Sadly the story paints me as a callow & greedy brat, but it is still worth recounting, because of the tremendous lesson embedded in it like a razorblade in a mallomar. My great grandmother was traveling with us on the trip. She would switch between vehicles and share her stories of the days before airplanes, motorcar, great wars, or radios. It was wonderful to have her with us and I feel incredibly lucky that I got to know her and hear her stories, however some of her folk traditions caused…trouble…when I attempted to apply their mythical wisdom to the real world.
For example: we were camped in some paradisiacal glade in Wyoming, when I found a winsome wildflower with little golden anthers (in my memory, this flower looks like a cross between a mimulus and a columbine, but who can say what it really was) and I rashly picked one for grandma. She was delighted by it and she said, “if you leave these out overnight, the fairies will turn them to gold” Just what I would have done with whole bushels of gold was somewhat unclear, but I was a tourist out west where every little tourist-trap is all about GOLD, plus I had some heady ideas from old-fashioned chivalric tales of dragons, knights, and kings.
I began making an altar of flower heads, when my mother, a modern woman with an abiding love for nature (and for rules) found me decapitating unknown wildflowers in a park in order to transmute them to gold via fairy magic. This was the beginning of a stringent & powerful LESSON concerning (A) the nature of endangered plants, (B) wise environmental stewardship, and (C) national park rules. I tried to interrupt the flow of the moral lecture with the puissant rejoinder that “Great Grandma says the fairies will transform them into gold!” However this did not have the desired effect. In fact, in addition to learning about wildflowers in national parks, I also learned that (D) the mythical wisdom of beloved superannuated ancestors does not overrule parental fiat (or park rules). Not at all.
Of course there is only one truly ironclad rule in life, which all other things must pay obeisance to…and that is the primacy of what actually happens. I assumed that after that long-ago summer night had passed I would have a great rock heaped with gold which would convince my mother that she was wrong and great grandma and I were right. However, sadly, in the pink dawn light when I went out to my flat mudstone to look at the gold (maybe I would share some with my parents so they could see how foolish they had been) all that was there were a bunch of mangled wildflowers which I had mutilated with my lust for gold. Come to think of it, this was a real lesson about world history too, I guess. Anyway it was obvious that dealing with the fairies is tricksy. Dealing with reality is inexorable. I killed a bunch of potentially endangered wildflowers for a pretty lie. I felt so ashamed. I still do.
After the fairy gold incident, the other supernatural entities in my life started to fall like big jeweled fabulated dominoes. The Easter Bunny was always pretty suspicious anyway—a magic rabbit who hands out chocolate malt balls (a confection which my mom and nobody else likes)? Soon he was gone, never to hop back. I learned to read, and I read up on UFOs and monsters: it became perfectly obvious to a second grader that they were all hallucinations of stressed or otherwise addled people. It wasn’t long before Santa himself, the great undead demigod of winter and giving was exposed…well, not as a fraud (I still have some of his wonderful toys) but certainly not exactly real in the way that you and I are, gentle reader. All that was left was the big bearded guys–the sort who flout the temple rules of the Pharisees or build allegorical gardens with forbidden trees–and the curiosity of adolescence (and knowledge of astronomy, biology, and history) put an end to them except as symbols. It’s a humorous story…but it isn’t so funny when I see my roommate wishing away her life on horoscopes and homeopathy or look at the NY Times and catch a glimpse of what ISIL is up to.
Everywhere, still, I find people who believe in the fairy gold despite the irrefutable evidence of the dawn. I almost didn’t write this because I was afraid somebody would push a wildflower towards extinction so they can make their car payments. What are we going to do? How are we going to make our way to Venus (or anywhere other than extinction) in a world where fairy gold is still so much in circulation, even if nobody has ever seen a single speck?
OK, yesterday I promised we would get to the space news. Clearly the real story is the earthlike planet right in our backyard (erm, relatively speaking). However it isn’t going anywhere right now so I am going to blog about it later when we have all had a moment to think about the real implications. The space story I am looking at today is closer to home, but still takes place out there in the black: back in October of 2014, NASA lost communication with Stereo B one of two paired spacecraft which orbited the sun from the distance of Earth.
The solar observatory spacecraft allow stereoscopic viewing of the sun. One spacecraft Stereo A was ahead of Earth on its orbit, whereas Stereo B trailed behind us. The two observatories allow us to study coronal mass ejections and other stellar phenomena. In 2011, the craft were 180 degrees apart from each other—allowing humankind to view the entire sun at once for the very first time (a truly remarkable milestone, when you think about it, which I heard nothing about at the time).
Sadly, however, in 2014, as part of an automation and attitude test, Stereo B began to spin. Mission controllers then lost contact with the craft which (because of the nature of its work) was on the other side of the sun! NASA has patiently waited till the orbital path of Stereo B carried it further towards Earth and has used the Deep Space Network, a networked array of radio telescopes to find the errant craft.
We are still working on figuring out what sort of shape the poor guy is in (and maybe rehabilitating the spinning observatory), however I feel the story is worth telling as a sort of reminder of the fleet of crafts we have up there, which we don’t think about very often.