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Happy Winter Solstice! I am sorry about 2022. I meant to blog more, and answer everyone’s comments, and write a consolidated treatise defending liberalism against the neo-fascists who are everywhere, and post my new monastic orchid illuminations, etc., etc., etc. Alas, not everything got done the way I wanted and now it is the darkest night of the year (the real end of the year, in my book, although I guess there is a week or so of Saturnalia before 2023 truly gets here according to the calendar).

We will work on all of this next year (and much more besides) but before sending the year off, I wanted to share some pictures of my sacred tree of life (an annual tradition). Look! it has even more cephalopods, turkeys, waterfowl, and ancient mammals (plus all of the animals I could get my hands on from every other branch of the great zoological family tree too).

My flounder art (sigh) was about trying to reposition the natural world at the center of what humans find sacred: the religions of Abraham treat the natural world as contemptible–and we are all suffering because of it. Sadly, the fish gods I made did not grab people’s attentions despite their portentous deep-sea secrets. However a few holiday guests have stared at the holiday tree of life for a looooong time before brushing away some tears–so perhaps it actually does get the point across to some degree.

And of course, I saved the best thing for last! My late feline life companion, Sepia (wipes away a few tears of my own) did not enjoy the public eye and so I did not put her in my blog. My present housecat, Sumi Cat, feels much differently and likes to be the constant center of attention. Here are some pictures of her loving little face to help you stave off the primordial darkness (although, ironically, black cats are always hard to photograph and doubly so on the darkest night of the year). Sumi and I hope that you are safe and warm and happy this holiday season! May your dreams come true and may the great tree of life always bloom with fulsome new growth!

We will talk again before 2023, but for now, season’s greetings and good (longest) night!

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Longtime reader recall Ferrebeekeeper’s strange obsession with the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory (which we have blogged about numerous times). When last we checked in with the National Ignition Facility (which is ostensibly designed to model the behavior of nuclear weapons, but which is really used to research useful mechanisms for generating power from nuclear fusion), the laboratory had successfully obtained a burning plasma by changing up the size and shape of the tiny gold pellet in which they enclosed the nuclear fuel. Great things seemed imminent!

And indeed, this week, the National Ignition Facility has finally made headlines around the world by obtaining more energy from a moment of nuclear fusion than the (enormous amounts of) energy which was used to power the reaction. The facility pointed its 192 super lasers at a tiny gold capsule filled with deuterium and tritium nuclear fuel. Then, for 20 billionths of a second, the lasers concentrated 500 trillion watts of energy on the nuclear fuel and presto! a moment of truly stellar energy output ensued (I wonder what sort of esoteric energy was released during this infinitesimal second). To quote the United States Energy Secretary, “Ignition allows us to replicate, for the first time, certain conditions that are only found in the stars and sun. This milestone moves us one significant step closer to the possibility of zero-carbon, abundant fusion energy powering our society.”

So far the newspapers and blathering heads on TV have all been stressing that the process is not yet ready for commercial use and emphasizing how long it takes to develop commercial procedures of any sort. MBA types call this phenomenon “the valley of doom” which describes a scenario wherein the government discovers something worthwhile and amazing, but trained MBA-economist types think that it will take longer than 10 years to develop commercial technology and therefor do not bother. Anything which takes more than 10 years is effectively non-existent to MBA people because (A) that is how financing works and (B) that is how they are indoctrinated by their shitty schools.

“The more we hurt the world, the happier we are!”

This case may prove an exception since the government (and all people of conscience) have a very strong incentive to move human society beyond fossil fuel dependency which is injuring life on Earth. Unfortunately, fossil fuel companies, Republicans, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and most of the world’s billionaires will now belittle this accomplishment and attempt to squelch it as quickly as possible (since their wealth and power are dependent on the fossil fuel economy). It is up to all of us (including you liberals in the back who have traditionally espoused that anything nuclear is fundamentally unwholesome) to make sure that we don’t squander this stupendous opportunity to move society forward and undo some of the terrible harm our never-ending thirst for dirty energy has wrought upon our beautiful world.

Today’s news contained an astonishing (albeit rather sad) piece of news concerning the Tetraodontiforme order of fish.

In December 2021, a dead giant sunfish (Mola alexandrini) was discovered in the ocean off Faial Island (which is part of the Azores–a Portuguese archipelago in the Atlantic). “Giant sunfish” is the common name for this sort of sunfish–but this time it was more than a name. The dead fish was enormous. When scientists dragged it to shore and weighed it with a special forklift, they discovered it had a mass of 2,744 kilograms (6,050 pounds), which means it is the largest teleost (bony fish) ever recorded (although, obviously, some long extinct fossil species were much larger). The fish was 3.59 meters long and had a huge blunt contusion on its head which was clearly caused by a boat collision (as evinced by the fact that there were fragments of boat paint on the affected area).

Scientists are still studying the specimen (indeed, they only just released word of it to the world) and a full necropsy has not yet been performed to determine the cause of death. Perhaps a boat hit the fish after it was dead. Still, it doesn’t take Hercule Poirot to start connecting the dots (which is to say, I have a feeling the fish was killed by a fast moving boat–a fate which is all to common among the larger and faster rorquals). The death of this giant is a tragedy in its own right. Yet it is stunning to me that we only just found the largest specimen of bony fish on record. The ocean still abounds with life and miraculous secrets. It could recover… if only humankind would allow such a thing!

A few years ago, I wrote about Mola alexandrini’s close relative Mola mola, the ocean sunfish (which I misidentified as the world’s largest bony fish). Obviously I was mistaken! However that post summarizes what we know about the way both these pelagic giants live. It also addresses baby sunfish–for both species go through a larval stage when the 2 millimeter long babies (!) drift around as part of the plankton. Weighing less than a gram, the li’l baby sunfish are spherical and covered with translucent triangular spikes to deter predators. The sunfish got its name because it likes to sunbathe near the ocean’s surface (another piece of evidence in determining how the Azores giant specimen met its end), however, I think the little ones actually look like the suns drawn in Renaissance woodcuts.

I will keep you updated when (or if) we learn more, but in the meantime I hope you are struck with wonder by these magnificent denizens of the ocean (and, if you are a boater or mariner, I hope you drive your vessel with care and consideration).

The Dart Impactor (gold) being loaded into the faring of the launch vehicle at Vandenberg Launch Facility

Wow! Have you been following NASA’s DART mission? “DART” is one of those Ghastly-Acronyms-which-Spell-out-the-Project (GASP!) which stands for “Double Asteroid Reflection Test”. Scientists are always discouraged that their jaw-dropping projects conducted in outer space can never garner the same level of attention as inane sports and celebrity folderol–so they give missions these names with futile hopes of grasping the popular imagination. Speaking of whipping up attention, you should immediately google “DART” to see Google’s unprecedented graphic/animation (uh, and all of the information and scientific details about this project, of course).

Anyway, the project’s name aside, DART is a smashing success and something which humankind should have been working on since the dawn of the space age. Ever since we finally understood what caused those craters on the moon (which took longer than you might expect) and the Alvarez hypothesis explained what caused the Cretaceous-Paleogene mass extinction, scientists and engineers have realized that humankind needs a proper planetary defense system to protect us from meteors, bolides, comets, space shards, and whatever cosmic flotsam and jetsam has been drifting around out there waiting to wreck us the same way the poor dinosaurs got creamed.

“Grawwwwwr! Why did we spend so much on stock buybacks and so little on basic science?”

Although some previous asteroid and comet exploration missions have edged towards testing the behaviors of space objects subjected to manmade impacts and forces, the DART mission was designed specifically for the purpose of finding out about such things. Back in November of 2021 NASA launched a 610 kilogram impactor spacecraft to crash into Dimorphos (a tiny asteroid which orbits the larger asteroid Didymos). On September 26 (2022) the impactor crashed into Dimorphos as the Italian mini-satellite LICIACube looked on (as did many of our best telescopes).

Here is a NASA schematic which explains the mission (and its hypothesized outcome) far better than I could.

Of course in the grand scheme of things 610 kilograms is not very much mass–although a 610 kilogram (1340 lb) linebacker smashing into you would probably wreck your day–especially if he was running 6.6 kilometers per second (15,000 miles per hour) which was the closing velocity of the projectile and Dimorphos. Indeed, the Hubble and Webb space observatories were both keeping an eye on the collision and the results were pretty explosive.

We will await the exact numbers (scientists speculate that such an impact should release 20-30 gigajoules of energy–approximately equivalent to detonating 6 or 7 tons of TNT). Also, an EU spaceship named Hera is being dispatched to survey the results in 2026 (so more to follow). For now though, I am already breathing easier knowing that someone is finally working on this problem. Now we just need to work on the 8 billion other problems which are affecting Earth and casting a pall over humankind’s glorious future,

We knew that, if the Webb telescope could make it to the L2 Lagrange Point in one piece and deploy properly, this would be an exciting season for astronomers–but, even so, the parade of stunning new images from outer space are marvelous and demand comment. Today’s treasure is a picture of Planet Neptune and its moons as imaged by the near-infrared camera on Webb. The ice giant Neptune is made of strange cold things with a great pall of methane gas over them. Methane gas is very opaque to infrared light (which it absorbs) and so the planet looks like a frosty, haunted bowling ball with glass rings.

Ever since Pluto got demoted to “dwarf planet”, Neptune is the outermost world of our solar system. Yet the great gas giants…or even the trans-Neptunian objects like Eris and Haumea get all of the attention. No space craft has even visited Neptune since Voyage II rolled by in 1989 (the first and last time a probe entered the Neptune system).

Aside from the spectral rings, the image shows some bright sparks in a line along Neptune’s Tropic of Capricorn (which is not called that, but you get the idea). These bright spots are caused by high altitude methane clouds which are made of methane ice (which reflects infrared light better than methane gas does).

The full Webb photo has a striking focal point! Pulling back we see that Neptune’s largest and strangest moon Triton outshines the giant world it orbits. This is because Triton (which is named for the Greco-Roman deity Neptune’s merman super-son) is covered in a sheet of frozen nitrogen which reflects 70% of the sunlight which strikes it–so Triton glows like an aquamarine star in this photo. Ultimately Triton might well turn out to be be more interesting than Neptune: it is the only large moon in the solar system with a retrograde orbit (an orbit opposite of the planet’s rotation). Such an unusual orbit suggests that the moon was a little world captured by the ice giant long ago.

Triton is larger than Pluto and is one of five moons in the solar system known to be geologically active (the others being Io, Europa, Titan, and Enceladus). Voyager II spotted geysers of nitrogen gas venting from the moon. Clearly cryovolcanic activity is taking place below the strange patchwork of old ice (as explained in this confusing yet compelling map/diagram) and lakes of liquid water may exist below the moon’s crust.

I am going to keep staring at images of our strange far-off neighbor world, but I can’t wait to see what Webb photographs next!

The world’s fifth largest river (by volume of water discharged into the sea) is the mighty Yangtze River of China. Unfortunately, like most of the world’s great rivers, the Yangtze is currently drying up because of global climate change. While this has some pretty negative ecological implications (and, likewise, bodes ill for the future of human habitation on the planet), it is a boon to archaeologists who get to see sites which have been inundated for centuries by the once mighty watercourse.

Chongqing China

Particularly striking are these three Buddhist statues from Chongqing, a “second-tier” city in China with a municipal area which is home to 32 million people (although admittedly, through some sort of administrative foible, Chongqing’s municipal area is about the size of Austria). Chinese archaeologists speculate that the statues date back to the Ming Dynasty (the various stories about this subject which I found online almost all dated the statues as being “600 years old” but then add contradictory details which muddy the date–so a reliable date for the statues is still pending). Irrespective of when they were made, the works are located within alcoves carved into the stone of Foyeliang Island Reef–a submerged hazard in the river for as long as anyone can remember.

A once submerged Buddhist statue sits on top of Foyeliang island reef in the Yangtze river, which appeared after water levels fell due to a regional drought in Chongqing, China, August 20, 2022. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

The real purpose of this post is to serve as a reminder that, even if the International Union of Geological Sciences is dithering on approving the name, the Anthropocene is real and that environmental conditions which we took for granted back during the Holocene (the last geological age, which apparently ended around the time of “Howdy Doody”) do not necessarily apply. There is also something splendid and unnerving about the figures themselves. The brown water-smoothed rock gives the ancient monks and bodhisattvas a forboding cast–as though they were lurking river monsters–and yet the serenity and delicacy of the figures clearly identify them as East Asian votive art (which is not traditionally found underwater). To be blunt, they look as eerie and ominous as the circumstances which brought them back to sight. I will fill you in on any updates about these statues, but for right now, maybe we should all pray for sweet rain.

Hey remember that Japanese mission to drop adorable little hopping robots onto an asteroid? Wasn’t NASA planning on doing something like that so that the good ol’ US of A could get its hands on some asteroid bits too? Ummm yeah, NASA was planning to drop by near-Earth asteroid 101955 Bennu and pick up comet bits and they actually did do that…back in October 2020. I guess I got a little too distracted by whatever else was going on in October of 2020 to write about the mission. Sorry… (apparently I did manage to write about some pretty special bats though).

So, to quickly recap, 101955 Bennu is a carbonaceous comet about 500 meters (1640 feet) in diameter which orbits the sun in the Apollo group of asteroids (a group of solar-system asteroids which orbit the sun inside the orbit of Mars–see the diagram immediately below). Bennu looks roughly like an old fashioned spinning top–if that top were enormous and made out of garbage from outer space (as stunningly depicted in the never ending movie at the top of this post). Because of its (relative) proximity and strange composition, Bennu was chosen as the target of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission.

M is Mars; E is Earth; V is Venus; The Yellow Dot is the Sun; The Green Cloud is the Apollo Asteroids

OSIRIS-REx launched back in 2016 and spent two years flying to Bennu. From 2018 to 2020 the spacecraft made extensive surveys of Bennu in preparation for the October 2020 landing event (when the mothership sent down a lander to take a bite out of the ball of dust and ice). This is where the story gets interesting, since, apparently Bennu is not really one big gray ball, but a big gray ball made of lots and lots of little pieces of rubble. NASA scientists have likened the landing to landing in a ball-pit in one of those 80s/90s theme restaurants with extensive play facilities for children.

The Surface of 101955 Bennu as described by top NASA scientists

As the lander took a sample bite of asteroid it actually began sinking into the gray nodules like a child lost at Chuck E. Cheese’s and the whole mission seemed in danger until the controllers decided enough was enough and blasted right out of there. Apparently this “ball pit incident” also explains why the lander could not quite bite down on its whole load of carbonaceous astro-bits and spewed some of its precious payload back into space before being secured. Don’t worry though, mission controllers confirm there is still plenty more than the minimum required 60 grams of sample asteroid material (some of which consists of mini-pebbles caught in steel velcro-style loops put inside the sample collector for exactly this purpose).

Also, there are pictures of all of this! Thanks NASA!

Now that Bennu has been mapped and sampled, OSIRIS-REx is returning to Earth to drop the precious sample into the Utah desert. After this cosmic layup, the spacecraft will then set course for 99942 Apophis, a space lozenge, approximately the size of the Empire State building, which briefly alarmed the good people of Earth back in 2004 when astronomers estimated it had a 2.4% chance of striking our planet (spoiler: it did not). Apophis is arguably less interesting to science in that it has less of a heterogeneous assortment of stuff than Bennu, but it might be more interesting to the brave cadets of the Space Force (does that still exist?), in that it is more characteristic of the sort of object known to threaten our beautiful blue-green world of delicate lifeforms with selfish genes. Ferrebeekeeper will keep a better eye on these asteroid missions and report about subsequent developments (provided that we don’t face more home-made challenges to our survival like we did in October 2020).

Artist’s concept showing the Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security – Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft contacting the asteroid Bennu with the Touch-And-Go Sample Arm Mechanism

Hey everybody! Sorry I went awol for a little sabbatical from writing. It is summer plus I felt burned out after the last two (or 20) years, and none of my blogging pleasure centers were registering any joy. However today there is something to be quite joyous about: the President of the United States released the first deep field image from the James Webb Space telescope, a colossal near-infrared eye in the sky, which is now unfurled, debugged, and fully operational at Earth’s second LeGrange point! Huzzah!

Courtesy NASA Webb Space Telescope

And what a picture it is. It is so good and so spectacular that it almost looks like background art from a disco album rather than a colossal galaxy-studded expanse of outer space as it existed billions of years ago. The image is a composite of multiple scans taken with the space telescope’s Near-Infrared camera over a 12.5 hour window (the world famous ultra deep field photo from Hubble which rocked the world back in 2004 required closer to 12 days of scope time and did not peer early so deeply into the universe).

The Webb image shows the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 which is 4.6 billion light years away. Because this galaxy cluster is (or was?) so massive, it acts as a gravitational lens and much more distant galaxies can be glimpsed in the curvy fisheye at the center of this image. I am no galactic astronomy expert (here are some vague pointers about what the color means from an earlier post), but the beauty and grandeur of the image is evident to even the rankest layman…and this is the first real image. There are going to be lots and lots of additional pictures coming in of every conceivable sight out there in the universe and we are going to be blown away by what we see. I can hardly wait for more!

This is the season where winter has outstayed its welcome but spring has only made the most halting and rudimentary progress (although there is progress–more on that next week). In order to fulfill the pent-up need for garden beauty, here is a still life painting by one of the greatest Dutch masters of the golden era. This is Still Life with Rose Branch, Beetle and Bee which was painted in 1741 (the work can today be found in the Kunstmuseum Basel). I wrote about Ruysch’s remarkable career in an earlier post, but her exquisite work demands further attention. Although she is famous among painters for her flower painting, within medical/bioscience circles she is known for the work she made in collaboration with her father, the great anatomist. Those works are…uh…found object installation art (?) made of exquisitely arranged and preserved human body parts (particularly stillborn infants). They are too disquieting and extreme (and probably poisonous) for contemporary art tastes, but believe me they are among the most remarkable works in the whole pantheon.

Still Life with Rose Branch, Beetle and Bee (Rachel Ruysch, 1741)

But let’s talk about this wonderful rose painting! Although the composition is small and modest (for a floral still life), it is also extremely beautiful and showcases the strengths which made Ruysch one of the greatest flower painters in art history. For one thing, the characteristic black background of golden age Dutch flower paintings is gone and has been replaced by a neutral parapet against a neutral wall bathed in sunlight. The glass vase–which typically forms the compositional foundation of still life paintings–is likewise gone! Instead we have a great translucent pink rose surrounded by supporting flowers cut and cast straight onto the platform. A stag beetle leers up in dismay at the fulsome disaster (looking quite a lot like a Dutch burgher throwing up his hands at the scene of a shipwreck). The high baroque drama of radiant glowing colors against darkest black has been replaced with greater realism which invites us to contemplate the radical difference of the textures of petals, leaves, and thorns. The viewer can almost feel the prickle of that rose stem. The fading light and the bee burrowing into the cut flower for a last sip of nectar remind us of the transience of the things of this world.

Ruysch’s artwork, however, is not transient–it stands the test of time (and is so well painted that every thorn, stamen, and antennae endures). Ruysch herself was more immune to time than most artists and she continued painting (as well as ever) into her eighties.

Hopefully you enjoyed the 2022 Winter Olympics! Whatever you may have thought about the participants or the hosts (or winter sports in general), I don’t think anybody could complain that the Beijing competitions lacked old-school Olympic drama. Now that I have had a relaxing fortnight of watching the contest (on the sofa, as far from winter as I can get), I will try to blog more regularly! First of all, let’s get to some overlooked news from a few weeks ago.

The good news of the world tends to get overlooked either because it is quotidian, or because it is esoteric/perplexing (with equally incomprehensible ramifications). This news bulletin definitely falls into the latter category! Remember previous posts about the National Ignition Facility, a colossal laser array at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory which is experimenting with alternate methods of initiating nuclear fusion? There has been a update or two since I first wrote about the place a dozen years ago (sigh), but thus far the lab has not produced the desired results. Suddenly, however, events on the ground are moving more swiftly.

The National Ignition Facility attempts to bypass costly and difficult mechanisms to reach nuclear fusion (like, you know, setting off nuclear fission bombs or building magnetic doughnuts the size of Malta) by concentrating a prodigious amount of energy at a tiny nuclear fuel capsule by means of an array of 192 super lasers all aimed at the tiny capsule (you should maybe imagine that this is being explained by someone with chaotic white hair and a German accent). Thus far, progress has been slow and incremental (at best). Four weeks ago, however, the researchers changed the size and shape of the capsule, and they achieved a new milestone on the road to nuclear ignition: a burning plasma, in which the fusion reactions themselves are the primary source of heating in the plasma.

In some ways this was the goal of the National Ignition Facility–to get more energy out of their process than they put into it. However, now that the experiments are starting to truly pay off, scientists will be working even harder to maximize energy output and efficiency and further optimize the encouraging results. Sadly, this potentially world-changing news, has received limited media attention (aside from within the pages of, you know, Nature and Ferrebeekeeper), however, I have a feeling that much more news will be forthcoming from Livermore. Hopefully some of this news will capture the public attention since prodigious energy breakthroughs are exactly what we need to break free of the prison of fossil fuel consumption which world society remains trapped within. We will keep you updated as more information becomes available, but for now, for the first time in a while we can at least fantasize of a world of abundant cheap energy which does not cause environmental devastation.

OK. the fantasizing is over, now go back to watching Russia use oil and gas to kick Germany (and its EU underling partners) around. Oh, maybe keep an eye on the rising global temperature too. Gee whiz, why aren’t we spending more money on ignition research?

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