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Meanwhile…three quarters of a billion kilometers away, the Juno space probe continues its exploration of the gas giant Jupiter.   The probes orbit brings it to within 4,200 kilometers (2500 miles) of the cloudtops once every 53 days.  So far, Juno has made 10 such passes (out of a planned 12 before the mission’s end in July).  As the astrophysicists and planetary scientists work to make sense of mission data, NASA has made the raw image data available to the world.  Private citizens have used it to create these stunning images of the largest world in the Solar System.  Since I can’t even begin to explain the vast atmospheric complexities behind these swirling psychedelic wonders, I will leave them here without comment.  Marvel at our huge planetary neighbor with its marbelized super storms and spare a moment to thank Gerald Eichstädt & Seán Doran for putting these amazing pictures together.

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It is bitterly cold and wintry in New York today. From Newfoundland to Georgia a winter super-storm is slamming the East Coast of North America (it goes by the amazing marketing name of “bomb cyclone”). As is frequently the case when I am dissatisfied with conditions here on Earth, my mind is wandering off to our sister planet, Venus, where temperatures are somewhat warmer.

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Back when I was a child in living in the countryside I had a lengthy bus-ride to school (this will get back to Venus in a moment). The elementary school library had a copy of The National Geographic Picture Atlas of Our Universe, an astonishing Cold-War era tome of facts and fantastical musings about space. Somebody always checked that book out (indeed, it disintegrated before I reached puberty) and so it got passed around the school bus as we rode to Waterford and back every day. One of the fantasy illustrations which has stayed with me was the painting of the “oucher pouchers” by Roy Gallant (?). These (entirely-imaginary) alien creatures lived on the molten hot surface of Venus, which I guess is why they said “ouch.” They had a plated, heat-proof hide and they were spherical, but if they became too hot, they blasted off into the atmosphere via some sort of posterior rocket-propulsion system (which was of great amusement to the children).

Through the magic of the internet, I found the picture, and I see that the ‘poucher is eating an ill-fated space probe to Venus. They also have scorpion tails (for hunting or protection or goodness only knows). Long-time readers know of my obsession with Venus. I wonder if it started with this concept art (which was made to get kids interested in space). I am including it here so you can think of the molten surface of Venus and of what sorts of life could flourish there, but it is also as a reminder to myself to write more about our nearest planetary neighbor. In 2018 we need to be more imaginative and we need to explore farther (and if anybody is good at engineering we need to do better at that too). This illustration from my childhood is a fun reminder to look back to our childhood dreams in order to look forward to new horizons.

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Every year we close out the year with obituaries.  I feel like the main-stream media does a pretty good job of memorializing the entertainers and showbiz folks who have passed away, so, although I loved Tom Petty, John Hillerman, Roger Moore, and John Hurt (and too many others), I will leave it to someone else to eulogize them.  Additionally, I have had less time to blog this year than I would like, so please don’t be upset if I miss a great and important scientist, algebraist, or artist.  That is what the comments are for!  I also tried to include some eminent scholars and artists from East Asia (since it feels like our counterweight cultures are divided by a gulf of misunderstanding and we overlook the cultural work being done there).  I was saddened to see how many astronauts from the golden first age of space exploration passed away.  Humankind becomes ever more insular and parochial: we squander our resources on useless giveaways to monopolistic companies and crooked oligarchs (who blow their money on status objects or remove it from circulation).  These days we barely even explore the heavens (much less travel there).  I wonder if there will ever be another generation of heroes to walk the moon or orbit the Earth once these figures from fade away.  At any rate, here is a brief list of 2017 obituaries to make us think about the brevity of life and the true nature of accomplishment:

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Zhou Youguang (January 13, 1906 – January 14, 2017) was a scholar who invented Pinyin, a system for the romanization of Mandarin Chinese (a language which does not fit easily into the Roman alphabet).  So excellent was his work that  Pinyin was officially adopted by the government of the People’s Republic of China in 1958.  Pinyin has now largely supplanted the Wade-Giles system and is the method by which Chinese is known to Western scholars or input on Roman keyboards.  Zhou Youguang lived through the dramatically changing China of the Qing Dynasty, The Republic of China, The Second World War Invasion by Japan, and The People’s Republic.  He was “sent down” during the Cultural Revolution and was critical of the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

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George A. Romero (February 4, 1940 – July 16, 2017) was the masterful director of terrifying zombie movies which were thinly veiled allegories for the problems of contemporary society.

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Kim Jong-nam (May 10 1971 – 13 February 2017): this unremarkable man was the eldest son of the genocidal sociopath Kim Jong-il,the late dictator of North Korea.  Kim Jong-nam was murdered in Singapore at the command of his brother (by means of poison, in a plot worthy of dark fantasy literature).  While Kim Jong-nam’s death is of no consequence in itself, it speaks to the criminal nature of the North Korean regime and foreshadows countless deaths to come at the mercurial will of their fat cruel tyrant.  There are two stories of why Kim Jong-nam was disinherited: in one story he was cut out of the family business for trying to sneak into Tokyo Disneyland (but insiders whisper he was exiled and ultimately murdered for favoring reform).

David Rockefeller (June 12, 1915 – March 20, 2017) was the last surviving grandson of John Davison Rockefeller Sr. (a 19th century tycoon who built the Standard Oil Trust and thus became by far the richest individual of America’s gilded age).  There was a point in the 1970s when David’s brother Nelson was Governor of New York and then Vice President of the United States, and yet David was reputed to be more powerful and connected.

Sir Nicholas Winton (May 19, 1909 – July 1, 2015) was a swordsman, banker and stockbroker who rescued of 669 Jewish children, from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia by means of paperwork wizardry, networking, and money-raising.

Sam Shepard (November 5, 1943 – July 27, 2017) was a playwright and actor who applied the Beckett’s absurd style to themes of family, violence, and substance abuse and thus carved out a uniquely American theater style.

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Hugh Heffner (April 9, 1926 – September 27, 2017) was a controversial publisher whose magazine “Playboy” was famous for cultural articles, progressive editorials, and reproductive advice which challenged America’s puritanical mores.  The magazine was however more famous for lubricious pictures of naked women and espousing a hedonistic (sexist?) lifestyle.  This legacy, and the distasteful…extravagance…of Hugh Heffner’s private life made him a polarizing figure, but he must be mentioned (and honored) because of the debt which generation after generation of pre-internet era adolescent boys owe him.

Richard Francis Gordon Jr. (October 5, 1929 – November 6, 2017) was an American naval officer, chemist, and astronaut.  He is only one of 24 people to have flown to the moon (although he didn’t get to walk on it).  Later he helped design the space shuttle and served as Executive Vice President of the New Orleans Saints.

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Bruce McCandless II, (June 8, 1937 – December 21, 2017) was a U.S. Navy officer, pilot, and NASA astronaut who made the first untethered free flight in space.

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Wang Panyuan (c. 1908 – December 22nd, 2017) was a famous Chinese/Taiwanese painter who brought together classical Chinese painting with expressionism.

 

 

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There are two amazing pieces of space news today to shock and astonish you.  First, we have found a near-analog to planet Earth orbiting a red dwarf star—and it is “only” 11 light-years from our Solar System.  The exoplanet is named  Ross 128b and it is orbiting a quiet red dwarf star (most red dwarves are subject to solar flares which release life cleansing jolts of exotic radiation, but, like our delightful Sun, Ross 128 seems to be much more sedate (perhaps its placid life has something to do with its bland name which makes it sound like a dullard clone friend on an 90s sitcom).  In this age of exoplanet discovery, it is easy to lose sight of what an astonishing find this is, but I grew up in a world with only nine known planets.  Remember back when Ferrebeekeeper was rhapsodizing about weird icy oddballs like Gliese 581 g?  Ross 128B seems like it roughly the same size and temperature as Earth and it is right in our backyard.  Additionally, it is moving towards us, in a mere 78000 years it will be the closest exoplanet to Earth!

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The other “news” is more conditional and vague, but no less exciting to me.  NASA has been floating the concept of a balloon mission to Venus.  I have been hoping for more attention to our nearest neighbor (since I harbor fantasies of living there, in the sweet spot above the merciless clouds) a balloon probe to see what the atmosphere is actually like would let us know whether his fantasy is at all workable.   The Soviet Union actually sent some balloon probes to Venus back in the early days of interplanetary exploration, but they were crude things which were not built to last and they told us little.  Let’s do it right this time and find out everything about our mysterious sister planet!  It is going to be a little while before Ross 128B is in range so let’s explore the immediate neighborhood and get to work on living abroad while there is still time!  

Two years ago, the world astronomy community first directly detected gravitational waves when two black holes collided.  The ability to “listen” to gravitational wave noises has now come in extremely handy as the international astronomy community witnessed (or “detected”?) a new category of astronomical event—the “kilonova”! This August (2017) astronomers around the world observed two neutron stars in a nearby galaxy collide in a high energy event which distorted spacetime and was detected via both the media of electromagnetic radiation and gravitational waves.

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Neutron stars have 10 to 20% more mass than the sun—but all packed into a ball with 15 kilometers of diameter—about the size of a city.  It has been postulated that two of these super dense monstrosities can spin into each other in a bizarre high energy event, but such a thing was never properly detected and observed…until August 17.  You can listen to it here!

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These events actually happened 130 million years ago during the early Cretaceous, but it took the gravitational waves and electromagnetic radiation 130 million years to cross from the nearby galaxy where they were observed (this galaxy is located in the southern constellation of Hydra).

The idea that most (or all?) of the universe’s extremely dense metals such as gold and platinum came from neutron stars is a fairly recent concept.  It was largely theoretical and seemed a trifle…preposterous (since neutron stars are not exactly everywhere to fall into each other) yet the recent kilonova has proven the concept and has provided a bonanza of information for astronomers.  Of course it has provided a literal bonanza too—the universe now has the equivalent of several earths worth of newly created gold and platinum. Admittedly that vast treasure trove is 130 million light years away in the southern sky—yet that still seems closer than the Federal Reserve Depository or some Swiss vault.

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Has anyone noticed the rash of giant snake attacks in Indonesia?  These alarming stories of giant snakes  follow a very ancient (and horrifying) narrative pattern: a lone villager or traveler chances across an enormous predatory reptile from 20 to 30 feet in length.  Mayhem ensues.  Usually the human survives and fights off the monster with a machete (or with aid from a torch wielding mob), but sometimes the human vanishes…only to be found being slowly digested inside a reticulated python.

Taken from an individual human perspective, it is hard not to think of the pythons as the insatiable villains of such stories, but the real narrative is more complicated.    Palm oil is made from fruit of the palm oil plant, a tropical generalist. Not only is this oil a lucrative (and delicious) additive to desserts and other processed foodstuffs, it is also extensively used in cosmetics, shampoo, and soaps.  Indonesia has the third largest rainforest in the world, but palm oil growers are destroying these forests at an unprecedented rate. Indonesia’s tropical rainforests are vanishing even more quickly than the rainforests in Brazil or the Congo.  These forests are cut down and replaced with palm oil plantations, enormous monocultures where most traditional rainforest animals cannot live, however rats can and do live there on the oily palm fruit.  The pythons are hunting rats in these plantations because their forests were destroyed.

 

Humankind the great hive organism is swallowing these forests whole (in the form of delicious candy and aromatic toiletries).  The animals which live there are likewise being eradicated. Indeed the most recent giant python to attack a villager who molested it was literally cut into pieces, fried, and devoured by hungry villagers.  It makes one wonder if the Saint George and the Dragon pictures were not so much about humankind surmounting evil as about the tragedy of deforestation in medieval England.

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Here is one of the world’s rarest and strangest fish, the golden cave catfish (Clarias cavernicola) which can be found only one place on Earth, the Algamas/Dragonsbreath cave in the Namib Desert.  This incredible cavern is 100 meters (300 feet) beneath the desert and it holds the world’s largest known underground lake (discounting all subglacial lakes—which can be huge).  Above ground is an arid desert wasteland, but in cave is a huge lake where unfathomed waters may descend another 100 meters into the Earth.  Since only a narrow chasm opens to the sky, the lake has a very limited ecosystem built around whatever falls into this chasm (which was only discovered by science in 1986).  These blind ascetic catfish dwell on such scraps and on the white shrimp and strange aquatic worms which live in the water beneath the desert.  Though they have lost their eyes, their other senses have become extremely acute in order to find every bug or speck of nutrient which falls into the hidden lake.  Additionally, these small (16 cm/6 inch) fish have a limited ability to sip air–so that they can better survive the still and anaerobic depths of their hidden lake. The entire species may only consist of a few hundred (or thousand) individuals.

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This Friday September 15th is the final day of the astounding Cassini mission. The robotic space probe just took a final picture of Titan (which was arguably the site of the mission’s most breathtaking discoveries) and now the little spacecraft turns towards Saturn’s north pole and the grand finale…a plunge into the crushing atmosphere of the gas giant planet. A joint effort between NASA and the Italian space agency, Cassini launched in 1997 (the year I came to New York) and for 20 years it has sailed the solar system. In 2004, the craft reached Saturn and it has been discovering moons, taking pictures, and otherwise exploring the system ever since. Cassini even launched a lander to the surface of Titan, a super moon with a thick atmosphere and methane oceans.
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All good things must end though, and Cassini is out of fuel. Mission scientists did not wish to leave the craft orbiting for thousands of years and they also hoped to get a last trove of data (and jolt of publicity) from the mission…so the controllers opted to fly Cassini straight into the planet to learn whatever they can before the minivan sized probe blows apart and/or is crushed. Sadly there is no camera to record this melodramatic demise (which the denizens of Earth will want to see) so I have created my own rendition of the craft’s final descent using the magic of art (image at top). Since Saturn does not have an oxidizing atmosphere (probably?) and Cassini does not talk (probably?) I took a few artistic liberties, however I think I got the great hexagonal storm on the gas giant pretty well and I also captured some of the endearing personality of an astonishing robot explorer which will be dearly missed.
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I have been wanting to write about a troubling news story from the summer, but every time I start, I get frustrated by the shortsighted selfishness which has overtaken our culture. Sometimes it seems like the very fate of our society and our planet is writ in this regional fishing controversy. Naturally it is a story about flounder—more specifically, the summer fluke, (Paralichthys dentatus). These fish are beloved by commercial and recreational fishermen who catch millions of pounds of the flatfish between Maine and the Carolinas.

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Unfortunately, the ever-growing hordes of fishermen have grown too numerous and rapacious for the poor flounder to replenish themselves. The summer fluke fishery on the East Coast of the United States has been collapsing this summer (2017). The Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office “has determined that fluke are being overfished, with an estimated population that is 42 percent below the level regulators consider to be sustainable.” To keep the flounder alive for future generations of anglers, the Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office imposed new restrictions on how many fish can be caught and killed.
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Here is where the story takes a peculiar turn. Wilbur Louis Ross Junior “The King of Bankruptcy” is a billionaire banker and vulture capitalist. When Donald Trump’s casinos went bankrupt due to mismanagement, overspending, and bad deals, Ross stepped in to restructure the casinos, bail out Trump, and dump the bad debt onto others. This has had a lot of consequences, but one of them is that Ross is now the United States Secretary of Commerce.

When New Jersey’s charter captains, commercial fishermen, and sundry interested parties who make a living off flounder, heard about this year’s reduced catch limits, they wrote up a counter-proposal (which involved catching a lot more fish than recommended)—and they presented this plan directly to the Secretary of Commerce (who is originally from New Jersey and has some of his palatial mansions and nine figure art collection there).

Naturally Wilbur Louis Ross Junior could not care less about the fate of a species of fish. He happily overrode the catch limitations on summer fluke. After all it makes fishermen happy and who cares about the opinion of NOAA scientists? Indeed, the NOAA is a division of the Commerce Department and it turns out that its real purpose is not to understand the ocean and the atmosphere but to make people like Ross much richer. He is probably out there somewhere right now tenting his fingers and saying “exxxxcelllent!”
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[Here he is marveling at how the subjects of the Saudi king do not dare to protest because they are beautifully afraid]

If only New Jersey and its reckless and uncaring anglers flout the rules and fish their stocks to extinction, summer fluke on the East Coast can probably still rebound, however Ross’ cavalier disregard for the ordinary procedure of fisheries limits and his inability to care about (or understand) the scientists’ rationale for fishing limits raises the all-too-real possibility that other state and national fisheries will no longer be bound by evidence-based rules.

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I suspect many people will regard the summer fluke as an immaterial victim of the corruption which is a more and more the principal feature of American business and politics, yet the flatfish is a keystone species which is located between the small prey and the large predators (I sort of look at them as the middle class of the ocean). Wilbur Louis Ross Junior was born in the thirties. What does he care if one of the dominant species of teleosts in our part of the Atlantic is overfished to the point of vanishing? Yet one would think that the watermen who live in tandem with these flounder and have made their lives off the lives of the fish might care somewhat whether the species lives or dies. I guess that is wrong though. There is a reason Wilbur Ross, The Bankruptcy King” is rich beyond reckoning. He knows how far people will go (way too far) and he knows how to exploit that for himself. I wonder what other decisions will come from the Commerce Department.

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In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, we are all worried about the residents of Houston and the Galveston Gulf Coast. Hurricanes and flooding are a deadly serious matter and my heart goes out to everyone dealing with loss or damage caused by the disaster. As Houston residents and first responders worked together to survive and mitigate the floodwaters with boats, pumps, sandbags, and evacuations, they were treated to the (horrible) spectacle of a very different group of social animals responding to the crisis with a different group strategy.

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Red fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) are a tough species of stinging fire ants from South America. Like humankind they are invasive generalists which can survive anything and have quickly spread worldwide because of their hardy resilience and various ingenious group strategies. I have been meaning to blog about them because they are a sort of alien red mirror of humanity (and I have been trying to get back to writing about superorganisms and the question of what constitutes an organism anyway). Because of the hurricane, the fire ants have injected themselves into the news cycle, so I am going to mention their flood strategy now and we can return to write about their other interesting behaviors.
Fire ant bodies are waxy and light. They float! But they would all be drowned or swept apart in a serious flooding event (and a single ant separated from the group is effectively dead). Thus when the fire ants sense rising waters they group together in a ball and tightly cling to each other. These living rafts of clamped together ants can float for many days.
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If you are in a flooded area and a ball of furious stinging ants floats by you, entomologists and fire ant experts recommend that you not molest it. Like Voltron, the ants can break apart into autonomous fighting units before reforming. Ants do not breathe like people and they drown sort of gradually. We will leave the ants alone and concentrate on human group strategies for getting through crises.

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