You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Science’ category.

1280px-BH_LMC.png

Hey, remember the super-massive black hole at the center of the galaxy?  Well, scientists have been thinking about it too, and they concluded that other black holes should sink into the middle of the galaxy near to the central monster.  To find out if this holds true, they utilized the Chandra X-Ray Observatory (an x-ray telescope located on a satellite in orbit around Earth) to observe stars near to the center of the galaxy.  Black holes can’t be detected on their own, but if they interact with nearby stars they produce esoteric x-rays which can be detected (so long as the x-ray telescope is outside of a planetary atmosphere, which absorbs x-rays, thank goodness).  Within the tiny (er, relatively tiny) three light year area which they scrutinized, the astronomers discovered dozens of black holes.  Extrapolating this data leads them to conclude there are more than 10,000 black holes at the center of our galaxy.  I wish I could contextualize this for you, but I just can’t… the concept of 10,000 super-dense gravity wells flattening and tearing all of the spacetime in the center of the galaxy into Swiss cheese is to disturbing for me to deal with (in any other way than blurting it out in a midnight blog).  I’m not sure this universe is safe at all. I am going to go lie down.

Chandra-x-ray-Observatory.jpg

SUWTZLHLRJGRZEJ4IPPQOK3RTI.jpg

So, the super massive ulti-mega-omnibus funding bill passed today (despite a last-minute executive tantrum) and the bill is…good?  This goes against all of the doom-and-gloom scenarios which dominate the news (and this blog), and it is unpalatable to praise any product from the 115th Congress of the United States of America, but, despite the president’s recommendation for massive cuts to fundamental scientific inquiry, Congress coughed up a LOT of new money for science.

I know you are all smart, so let’s get straight to the numbers. For its annual budget, the NIH received 3 billion dollars more than last year (an 8.7 % increase). The National Science Foundation got a $295 million budget raise (3.9 % increase).  The USGS received a $63 million budget (6%) expansion, while Congress increased the budget of the NOAA by $234 million (4%) to $5.9 billion.  The Department of Energy received a whopping 16 percent raise of $868 million dollars: their annual budget is now $6.26 billion (obvs. we need shiny new nuclear weapons…but maybe there is some money for fundamental nuclear research in there too). Even the EPA kept the same budget as last year and experienced no cuts.

215660main_art_gall_wrmhole_1200x900_full.jpg

Best of all NASA gets a much-needed lift.  To quote The Atlantic (which was the source of these numbers):

Nasa will receive $20.7 billion, $1.1 billion more than the previous year. The space agency’s science programs will increase by about 8 percent to $6.2 billion and its planetary-science program, in particular, by 21 percent, to $2.2 billion.

Of course, the biggest slice of the pie goes to the military, however a lot of Defense Department money ends up going to research too… although I would be happier if, instead of building manned aircraft appropriate for the Cold War, they spent more money on blue sky research and moonshot scifi stuff like wormholes, grasers, super robots, and railguns.  But that research (and more) is in there too…somewhere…so hooray!

I have been marching around with a pitchfork and a torch demanding that Congress be defenestrated…but this budget unexpectedly satisfies my most cherished demands.  Maybe if there were more blueprints like this I could swallow some more tax give-aways and religious idiocy and what not.  When I am having political arguments, I always say I will support any stupidity as long as there is more money for fundamental scientific research.  This government has really pushed just how far such a bargain extends…and yet they came through in the end.

Of course, there may be some people who cry out that all of those millions and billions could be given to impoverished communities (Democrats) or to needy multi-billionaire plutocrats (Republicans), but ensuring scientific research and keeping Visigoth hordes from swimming the ocean and sacking our cities are the two things the government MUST do to ensure there is a future….and they have done that.  The future generations who will have to pay this leviathan $1.3 trillion tab, might actually get something for their money: a yet-unknown equivalent of the internet, the capacitor, the moon landing, or the wonder vaccines of yesteryear. At least the government is trying to fulfill humankind’s most fundamental aspiration—to know more about the universe and how it works so we don’t destroy ourselves (sadly, this great quest, as construed by the powers-that-be, involves building tons of super-weapons with which to destroy ourselves, but nobody said life was easy).

shareables_future.png

Of course it is a tumultuous time and I may be saying a very different thing next week, but for the present the seed corn for the crops of the future has been stowed away.  I am pleasantly surprised to say “Good job!” to our elected officials.

igardenflounderHere are two more little flounder doodles which I make during the spare moments of the day.  The one at the top is a garden flounder which makes me think of spring…but with some sort of automated gardening machine that looks like a bug sitting atop of it.  Below is a post-apocalyptic fluke in the middle of the desert badlands of the grim future.  I have no idea what it means.  Maybe these have something to do with that perplexing German flounder fable about what we really want.

iodine flounder

apocalypto story teller.jpg

I hope you enjoyed those three allegories of human destiny.  By the way, the first fable is from the peculiar 2006 film “Apocalypto”.  The movie begins when a rainforest shaman gathers the hunter-gatherers of his village around him and tells them that myth. Then the little society falls under the boot of the Mayan empire and the real fireworks start.  The second story is from the King James Bible (the second and third chapter of Genesis).  I properly attributed the magic flounder story to the Brothers Grimm.

 If I asked what these stories have in common, my ex-girlfriend would be quick to answer “misogyny”: women act selfishly in the second and third stories and don’t even appear in the first one! Who writes this stuff? Mel Gibson, Biblical Patriarchs (or God?), and the Brothers Grimm? Pshaw!  She always had a point about men’s use of language and eagerness to make women take the fall for their actions (and she still does: look at me use her as a straw-man), however, the gender dynamics truly are of secondary importance in these stories.  In each tale, all human protagonists are really “humankind”  and, throughout, it seems we are out for nothing less than godhood.

The idea that human existence is a multi-generational struggle for apotheosis is an appealing concept!  Indeed, that is essentially the linear “upward” narrative that western historians and scientists are always accused of telling.  The march upwards narrative has been useful for us: we need to get back to it… but we have to ask some pointed questions about what exactly “godhood” means in global scale macro context.  Upward to where? The idea of super-powered alien gardeners with ultimate magical power (or, you know, omnipotent flounders) is clearly another symbol.  But a symbol for what?   Could that silly fisherman not ask for a comprehensive explanation of gravity…or, better yet, ask what the flounder wanted?

A very legitimate reading of each of these tales is “You may have everything you want, but don’t aspire to Godhood.” Man’s attempt to master and surpass the abilities of every animal only leads him to want more…to the point of undermining the life-giving ecosystems of earth itself.  This is a familiar story…out the window  in our world of rampant consumerism, crony capitalism, and mass extinction.

In the Eden story, humankind’s attempts to grasp God’s knowledge results in Adam and Eve’s expulsion from paradise into a world of constant struggle and death.  No longer are we pampered children in a garden of plenty: we have to be farmers, clerks, and soldiers struggling for some venal king or CEO who always wants a bigger palace. Our drive for knowledge and self-mastery is constantly undone by our self-defeating need for social ascendancy.  Yet without social ascendancy we are unable to grapple with problems of planetary scale engineering which we will soon need to stay alive (much less to move onward to other worlds).  This is a paradox.  Look what happened to the United States (in case you are reading this essay on a blackened parchment found in some ruins, we have been shamefully taken over from within by a risible strongman who loves pomp more than the pope himself does).   Trying to grasp the powers of the creator will not work unless we can master ourselves.  Doing so always requires political struggles which supersede the important things (science and engineering…and the underlying creative animus which gives context to fundamental knowledge).

1200px-Fischer_und_Frau.jpg

Although…there are literary critics who argue that the flounder gave the fisherman and his wife what they asked for with the last wish.  When last seen in the Bible (in the New Testament), God had come to Earth as a poor human.  Perhaps the fisherman and his wife are happy enough as ordinary garden-variety humans. We can’t go back to the garden of Eden and live as dumb happy subordinates…or can we?  I sure spend a lot of time arguing with fundamentalist Christians and with utopian left-leaning environmentalists about why we need space colonies.  There are a lot of people who don’t want to move forward anymore.  In their vision, we can put aside some of our gifts and just exist?  I am maybe mischaracterizing this, but it sounds ridiculous to me: we are like a shark.  If we stop moving for any length of time we’ll just die.

So why do we need a space colony anyway?  It is perilously close to the religious vision of heaven: living in the sky in a magical city where everyone exists in perfect harmony.  Did I escape the hegemony of Judeo-Christian hierarchies only to try to recreate that hierarchy with science and engineering (that is a very legitimate reading of contemporary society too).

I don’t have the answers to these questions and I see the plastic detritus and toxic waste of our struggles blotting out the natural world we depend on. Maybe we can hook the flounder one last time and ask for an explanation (that is what my weird art is about, by the way).  Or maybe we must trudge on from Eden as best we can, looking for a paradise which will never be more than a mythical archetype.  Yet I like snakes, and I didn’t see the serpent’s words as inherently untrue.  Also, from a literary perspective, why would God even create such a tree, if we weren’t supposed to eat of it. A divinity that wanted obedient little children forever could have done things very differently.  Growing up is hard and sometimes involves painful disagreements with your parents (and some people can’t do it at all).  But here we are, with the strengths of all of the beasts, and the knowledge of good and evil.  We must throw down our strongmen and false gods (gods are all metaphors, people, for goodness sakes!) and reach farther and think deeper than ever before. Eden is lost, but our arms are growing longer.  We can reach forth from here, to other worlds, or we can squabble like children for petty status objects until we destroy ourselves with the foolish struggle.  Metaphors or no, all individual humans are going back to the mud anyway, but while we are alive we can redeem ourselves: we can save the earth (and all its lovely animals) and we can give our children everything, if we can just ask the right thing…

657e0beaffa2369a64efd3ca896dca5c

piero_di_cosimo_prometheus_1.jpg

Last week’s essay about fear has made me think about the opposite of fear: desire.  I don’t mean romantic desire (although maybe that too), but instead what we really want…not just over the course of an afternoon or in junior high school, but for all of our lives. It is a big question!  And it becomes bigger when we start talking about what people want collectively at a city or national level (or at a level beyond that). What do we want for ourselves within a decade? What about a lifetime?  Or many lifetimes? But, whereas fear is very miserable, at least we tend to have a strong sense of what we are afraid of, and why.  Desires (beyond immediate obvious sorts like mates, status objects, good outcomes for our loved ones) are abstruse and inchoate.   We seem to know exactly what we are running from, the question of what we are running towards is much more elusive.

Humankind is a hive organism… a super colony like mole rats or termites, but we exist at a planetary scale, so it maybe behooves us to honestly talk about the things we all want and the directions these aspirations are leading us in.

836c91e0797991fcd5993f8daf4c4fcd--animal-painter-early-american.jpg

This week, in order to more fully explore these issues, I have chosen three animal fables concerning what humankind wants and the lengths to which we will go to obtain our desires.  They seem like simple stories, however, the more you think about them, the less facile they become.

I say these are animal stories because, in each case, the guide/interface to humans reaching what they want is an animal.  The animals in these stories represent the “natural” world with its power, glory, and strength.  The tales seem to set humankind apart from that world and from other creatures–as a different sort of being even from magical talking animals–yet I am not sure we are so different (neither from real animals nor from the ones in the stories).  Religious people see humans not as animals at all, but more like a sort of lesser “junior” deity.  I think we are an extreme manifestation of the animal kingdom and there are no gods–divinity is only an abstruse concept we have created to give shape to our fears and desires. Yet maybe that is not so different from what the religious people think (the idea of divinity makes a big appearance in these three fables as well).  I love animals and I mostly like being one (although greedy angry primates aren’t my favorite creatures).  I have my own strong ideas concerning where humankind needs to go and it seems like we are going the wrong way.

Piero_di_Cosimo_012.jpg

Enough blather: I am losing the thread!  I will present each of these tales without commentary.  We can talk about what they mean after they are done, however, as you read them, please keep thinking about what you want the most both for now, and for the far future when you are long gone.

Eye-spires-Cfish_3559-750.jpg

Exciting news from the world of mollusk research! Scientists have discovered new insights into how cuttlefish blend in so seamlessly with their underwater world.  Cuttlefish are chameleons of the undersea realm: they have the ability to change their color and texture in order to blend in with seaweed, coral, the ocean floor or whatever habitat they encounter.  Yet, even more remarkably, they can mimic the rough coloration and shape of other organisms, thereby fooling predators and prey by mimicking crabs and fish.

36147.ngsversion.1422031575673.adapt.1900.1.jpg

Cuttlefish copy the textures they find in their environment by means of small nodules known as papillae.  The cephalopods extend and retract these intricate bumps using muscles. They can become perfectly smooth in order to maximize their speed and maneuverability or they can take on the texture of rocks, coral, or even seaweed.  Scientists have discovered that the cuttlefish accomplishes this not by means of continuous concentration, but instead with muscles which can be locked in place by means of certain neurotransmitters (it pays not to contemplate the vivisection through which this knowledge was obtained).  If a cuttlefish takes on a certain texture and then promptly loses use of the relevant muscle nerve, the neurotransmitters remain active and it takes hours for the creature’s metabolism to return it to its neutral shape.

gjzg5ob7zit8tyjygpnm.jpg

This may seem like a minor insight, but learning that cuttlefish (and presumably the squids and octopuses which use the same sort of papillae to alter their texture) are utilizing a muscle trick which is not unlike mechanism by which clams lock their shells in place is another step in unlocking the mysteries of these remarkable tentacled masters of disguise.

Papillae-plates_3542-800

nigel-gannet

For Valentine’s Day, I have saved this troubling obituary from the animal world.  Last month, Nigel the lonely gannet died.  Nigel lived on Mana Island, a desolate stony island about 25 kilometers northwest of Wellington, the capital of New Zealand.   Mana Island was once the home to many sea birds, but after the island was intensively farmed during the 19th and 20th centuries, the colonies failed. The…nutrients…provided by the birds gave the island rich soil but, without the birds this abundance faded away and the island’s ecosystem crashed (this is a sort of microcosm of what happened to the larger New Zealand ecosystem during the 19th and 20th centuries as waves of invasive creatures swept the remote archipelago).  New Zealand conservationists have been working to restore the empty island however they were left with a problem.  Gannets live where other gannets live.  How could they lure the oceangoing birds back to start a new bird colony?

The solution they settled upon was to play bird calls on electronic speakers and put out concrete decoys painted the handsome black white and ocher of live gannets, however this strategy did not lure gannets to Mana…except for Nigel.  He arrived a few years ago and selected a beautiful replica gannet and began to woo his concrete love with mating displays, nests, and excited chatter.  He even tried to preen her concrete feathers and explore physical intimacy with her.  Videos of Nigel trying to impress his inanimate mate became a real hit in the human world (where analogies are not unknown).  This year other living gannets finally arrived at Mana Island, and naturalists hoped that Nigel could find fulfillment and raise a family with a real bird, but it was not to be.  In late January of 2018, a ranger found Nigel dead upon his nest next to his concrete consort.  The futility of his life and bleak melancholy of his end have attracted worldwide attention.

ceafc7cc7c04b1b22da4c2b5bd11caf6--jean-baptiste-venus

Ornithologists have speculated that Nigel was an odd bird, somehow injured, addled, or damaged, which is why he left his original colony. His defects, if any, were certainly not visible to the human eye and he looked like a healthy handsome seabird. Gannets dive from 30 meters (100 feet), and achieve speeds of 100 kilometres per hour (62 mph) as they enter the water.  Their speed and mass, and matchless skill as divers enables them to catch large fish deeper than most airborne birds can venture.  Nigel did all of this, but things just didn’t work out.

Except, maybe they did: there are now gannets nesting on Mana Island, brought there not by statues, but by a live gannet.  As one contemplates Nigel’s lonely life, it is hard not to imagine HIM transformed into a beautiful statue which says “Our Founder.”  We will watch the colony with interest and see if the gannets make it after their 40-year absence from Mana.

TELEMMGLPICT000153060405_trans_NvBQzQNjv4BqNJjoeBT78QIaYdkJdEY4CnGTJFJS74MYhNY6w3GNbO8

Nigel’s life and his death raise bigger questions about the nature of life and how organisms work together, collectively and individually.  This blog has visited these issues before in posts about blood, clonal colonies, lonely geese, and siphonophores (animals made of other animals where the individual zooids serve in the capacity of organs).

p-5824-doc

I have a long running philosophical argument with a friend concerning the nature of humankind.  He asserts that each person is a magnificent individual—a whole self-contained universe. I don’t think that is correct.  No animal is quite so solitary (unless it is the last of its kind) and especially not us: we are colony animals like mole rate or termites or honeybees.  If you see one human, you have a whole infestation.  This means our culture is as much who we are as ourselves (as becomes incredibly evident in heartbreaking cases of feral children or abused hermit loners).  The splendid fantasy of being alone is just that—a fantasy.  In reality we are as tied to our banks, gas companies, annoying colleagues, and odious loudmouth leaders more than we would ever like to admit.  We will come back to these ideas in subsequent posts, but for now Happy Valentine’s Day and RIP Nigel.  There really should be a statue of him, we could all see some of ourselves in that stone mirror…and some of humanity’s real nature in the living colony birds coming back to roost on desolate Mana Island.

Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus), sky pointing courtship display

Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus), sky pointing courtship display

180206160159-spacex-falcon-heavy-2-1024x576.jpg

Congratulations to SpaceX, Elon Musk’s private space company for successfully testing its new heavy lift rocket, the Falcon Heavy, a reusable multi-stage heavy lift rocket for delivering large cargoes to Earth orbit or for traveling on cislunar or even interplanetary trips.  The rocket is the largest conventional rocket built since the mighty Saturn V which took humankind to the moon (although the space shuttle’s elaborate  boosters were capable of greater thrust).  The Falcon Heavy vehicle is capable of  producing 5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff–which means it can heft around around 63,800 kilograms (140,700 pounds) of payload into low-Earth orbit.

104988333-Capture.1910x1000.JPG

Today’s launch from Kennedy Space Center was largely successful: the top and bottom boosters landed safely on designated platforms.  The center booster, alas, did not quite perform as hoped and slammed into the ocean.  The rocket’s payload, Mr. Musk’s electric Tesla roadster (with a mannequin and sundry pop-culture science fiction novelty items) successfully entered a heliocentric orbit which will bring it back and forth between Mars and Earth as it loops around the sun.  The launch paves the way for a new era of private industry in space (SpaceX plans to monetize subsequent Falcon Heavy rocket missions for government and commercial payloads and missions), but it is only a step on the way to a planned BFR (Big “Falcon” Rocket) for interplanetary missions.  I am excited by that concept, though I hope Mr. Musk will take a moment to think about the top of Venus’ atmosphere as a potential destination as well as cold arid Mars. For right now though, hooray for this thrilling milestone!

Blueoriginvsspacex.jpg

juno-jupiter-37.png.jpg

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.

juno-jupiter-11.png.jpg

juno-jupiter-1

main_1500.jpg

juno-jupiter-5.jpg

aHR0cDovL3d3dy5zcGFjZS5jb20vaW1hZ2VzL2kvMDAwLzA3My8xNDcvb3JpZ2luYWwvYm9tYi1jeWNsb25lLWdvZXMtZWFzdC5naWY=.gif

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.

3a731dd64707670fb2927166970ae4b7

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.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

April 2018
M T W T F S S
« Mar    
 1
2345678
9101112131415
16171819202122
23242526272829
30