Science

The Simple Science Behind Bendy Rivers.

There are some things you just don’t think about until they’re shown to you. Most people don’t think twice about why the same side of the moon always faces us, it’s either just coincidence or divine intervention, but when you learn it’s a relatively simple aspect of gravity (tidal locking) you find yourself asking where else such things might occur. Likewise I had never really thought about why rivers tend to twist and turn, thinking that it was most likely because there were things in the water’s way that it was just getting around, but as it turns out there’s a very clear explanation for why they bend, even without objects being in their way:

Understanding these fundamental principles is what allows us to look at other places in the universe and draw conclusions about what they might have been like billions of years in the past. We’ve long speculated that Mars was once host to oceans and rivers not unlike our own based on ideas like this; their snake like remnants still being visible long after the water has departed. Hopefully one day we’ll find the ever elusive underground reservoirs of water on Mars and maybe, just maybe, find evidence of life that may have once played a role in shaping those long forgotten rivers.

Supercritical CO2 Extraction

Life Without Water.

All life as we know it has one basic need: water. The amount of water required to sustain life is a highly variable thing, from creatures that live out their whole lives in our oceans to others who can survive for months at a time without a single drop of water. However it would be short sighted of us to think that water was the be all and end all of all life in our universe as such broad assumptions have rarely panned out to be true under sustained scrutiny. That does leave us with the rather puzzling question of what environments and factors are required to give rise to life, something we don’t have a good answer to since we haven’t yet created life ourselves. We can study how some of the known biological processes function in other environments and whether that might be a viable place for life to arise.

Supercritical CO2 Extraction

Researchers at the Washington State University have been investigating the possibility of fluids that could potentially take the place of water in life on other planets. Water has a lot of properties that make it conducive to producing life (as we know it) like dissolving minerals, forming bonds and so on. The theory goes that should a liquid have similar properties to that of water then, potentially, an environment rich in said substance could give rise to life that uses that liquid as its base rather than water. Of course finding something with those exact properties is a tricky endeavour but these researchers may have stumbled onto an unlikely candidate.

Most people are familiar with the triple point of substances, the point where a slight change in pressure or temperature can change it from any of its one three states (solid, liquid, gas) instantly. Above there however there’s another transition called the supercritical point where the properties of the gaseous and liquid phases of the substance converge producing a supercritical fluid. For carbon dioxide this results in a substance that behaves like a gas with the density of its liquid form, a rather peculiar state of matter. It’s this form of carbon dioxide that the researchers believe could replace water as the fluid of life elsewhere, potentially life that’s even more efficient than what we find here.

Specifically they looked at how enzymes behaved in supercritical CO2 and found that they were far more stable than the same ones that they had residing in water. Additionally the enzymes became far more selective about the molecules that they bound to, making the overall process far more efficient than it otherwise would have been. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this was that they found organisms were highly tolerant of this kind of fluid as several bacteria and their enzymes were found to be present in the fluid. Whilst this isn’t definitive proof for life being able to use supercritical CO2 as a replacement for water it does lend credence to the idea that life could arise in places where water is absent.

Of course whether that life would look like anything we’d recognise is something that we won’t really know for a long time to come. An atmosphere of supercritical C02 would likely be an extremely hostile place to our kind of life, more akin to Venus than our comfortable Earth, making exploration quite difficult. Still this idea greatly expands our concept of what life might be and what might give rise to it, something which has had an incredibly inward view for far too long. I have little doubt that one day we’ll find life not as we know it, I’m just not sure if we’ll know it when we see it.

Child with learning difficulties

Praising Effort, Process is Better Than Praising Ability.

For much of my childhood people told me I was smart. Things that frustrated other kids, like maths, seemed to come easy to me and this led to many people praising my ability. I never felt particularly smart, I mean there were dozens of other kids who were far more talented than I was, but at that age it’s hard to deny the opinions of adults, especially the ones who raised you. This led to an unfortunate misconception that stayed with me until after I left university: the idea that my abilities were fixed and that anything I found hard or difficult was simply beyond my ability. It’s only been since then, some 8 years or so, that I learnt that any skill or problem is within my capability, should I be willing to put the effort in.

Child with learning difficulties

It’s a theme that will likely echo among many of my generation as we grew up with parents who were told that positive reinforcement was the way to make your child succeed in the world. It’s only now, after decades of positive reinforcement failing to produce the outcomes it decried, we’re beginning to realise the folly of our ways. Much of the criticism of our generation focuses on this aspect, that we’re too spoilt, too demanding when compared to previous generations. If there’s one good thing to come out of this however it’s that research has shown that the praising a child’s ability isn’t the way to go, you should praise them for the process they go through.

Indeed once I realised that things like skills, abilities and intelligence were primarily a function of the effort and process you went through to develop them I was suddenly greeted with a world of achievable goals rather than roadblocks. At the same time I grew to appreciate those at the peak of their abilities as I knew the amount of effort they had put in to develop those skills which allowed them to excel. Previously I would have simply dismissed them as being lucky, winning the genetic lottery that gave them all the tools they needed to excel in their field whilst I languished in the background.

It’s not a silver bullet however as the research shows the same issues with positive reinforcement arise if process praise is given too often. The nuances are also unknown at this point, like how often you should give praise and in what fashion, but these research does show that giving process praise in moderation has long lasting benefits. I’d be interested to see how well this translates into adults as well since my experience has been vastly positive once I made the link between effort and results. I can’t see it holding true for everyone, as most things don’t in this regard, but if it generally holds then I can definitely see a ton of benefits from it being implemented.

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New Atomic Clock Almost Too Precise to be Useful.

Time is a strange beast. As far as we know it always appears to go forward although strange things start to occur in the presence of gravity. Indeed if you synchronized two atomic clocks together then took one of them on a trip around the world with you by the time you got back they’d be wildly out of sync, more than they ever could be through normal drift. This is part of Einstein’s theory of general relativity where time appears to speed up or slow down due to the differing effects of gravity on the two objects which results in time dilation. This effect, whilst so vanishingly small as to be inconsequential in day to day life, becomes a real problem when you want to tell super accurate time, to the point where a new atomic clock might be worthless for telling the time.

Sr-lattice-optical-atomi-clock_optMost atomic clocks in the world use a caesium atom to tell time as they transition between two states with an exact and measurable frequency. This allows them to keep time with incredible precision, to the point of not losing even a second of time over the course of hundreds of millions of years. Such accurate time keeping is what has allowed us to develop things like GPS where accurate time keeping allows us to pinpoint locations with amazing accuracy (well, when it’s not fuzzed). However a new type of atomic clock takes accuracy to a whole new level, being able to keep time on the scale of billions of years with pinpoint precision.

The Strontium Optical Atomic Clock comes from researchers working at the University of Colorado and can hold perfect time for 5 billion years. It works by suspending strontium atoms in a framework of lasers and then giving them a slight jolt, sending the atoms oscillating at a highly predictable rate. This allows the researchers to keep time to an incredibly precise level, so precise in fact that minor perturbations in gravity fields have a profound impact on how fast it ticks. As it turns out Earth is somewhat of a gravitational minefield thanks to the tectonic plates under its surface.

You see the further away you are from the Earth’s core the weaker its gravitational pull is and thus time passes just a little bit faster the further away you get. For us humans the difference is imperceptible, fractions of a fraction second that would barely register even if you found yourself floating billions of kilometres away in almost true 0g. However for a time instrument as sensitive as the one the researchers created minor changes in the Earth’s makeup greatly influence its tick rate, making accurate time keeping an incredibly difficult job. Indeed the researchers say that these clocks are likely to only be able to truly useful once we put one in space, far beyond the heavy gravitic influences that are found here on Earth.

It’s amazing that we have the ability to create something like this which throws all our understanding and perceptions around such a common and supposedly well understood phenomenon into question. That, for me, is the true heart of science, uncovering just how much we don’t know about something and then hunting down answers wherever they may lie. Sure, often we’ll end up having more questions when we come out of the end of it but that’s just a function of the vastness of the universe we live in, one that’s filled with ceaseless wonders that we’re yet to discover.

 

Lockheed Martin Compact Fusion Reactor

Lockheed Martin Promises Fusion in 5 Years.

There’s little question in my mind that the future of energy production on earth lies within fusion. There’s simply no other kind of energy source that can produce energy on the same scale, nor over the extended periods of time that it can. Of course the problem is that fusion, especially the net energy positive kind, is an incredibly hard thing to achieve. So much so that in the numerous decades so far no one has yet made a device capable of producing sustained power output and the one project that might, ITER, is decades behind schedule. Thus you can imagine my scepticism when I hear that Lockheed Martin expects to have a device operable in 10 years with it being widely available in 20 (snicker).

Lockheed Martin Compact Fusion Reactor

The Compact Fusion project comes out of Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works labs which have delivered such things as the venerable SR-71 in the past. They’re a highly secretive bunch of people which is why this announcement, along with a rather well designed website, has attracted quite a bit of interest as typically any project of theirs that might not deliver won’t see the light of day. Thus you’d assume that Lockheed Martin has some level of confidence in the project, especially when they’re committing to delivering the first round of these devices to the military in the not too distant future. Indeed if their timelines are to be believed they could even beat ITER to the punch which would be a massive coup if they pulled it off.

Their design has the entire reactor fitting on the back of a truck (although the size of said truck is debatable it looks to be the size of a tanker) which is an order of magnitude smaller than all other commercial fusion reactor designs. This is somewhat perplexing as the style of containment they’re going for, the tokamak style which ITER uses, scales up quickly (in terms of power) with increased plasma volume. There are limits to this of course but it also means that the 100MW figure they’re quoting, which is 20% of what ITER will produce, comes with its own set of problems which I don’t believe have good solutions yet.

Indeed whilst the project will be standing on the shoulders of numerous giants that have come before them there’s still a lot of fundamental challenges standing between them and a working reactor 5 years down the line. However should they be able to achieve that goal it will be the start of a new age of humanity, one where even our wildest energy demands could be met with the use of these clean running fusion reactors. The possibilities that something like this would open up would be immense however the the long running joke that fusion is always 20 years away still rings true with Lockheed Martin’s compact reactor project. I would love for my scepticism to be proven wrong on this as a fusion powered future is something humanity desperately needs but it’s always been just out of our reach and I’m afraid it will continue to be for a least a while longer.

bulletcluster_comp_f2048

Dark Matter in our Back Yard.

The spiral shape of a galaxy is an image that would be familiar to many of us but the story behind that shape is much less understood. We all know that gravity inexplicably pulls all matter together however if we were to weigh everything we could see it wouldn’t fully account for the resulting shapes and distributions we see throughout the universe. The missing mass is what is commonly referred to as Dark Matter, a theorized type of matter which is incredibly hard to detect directly yet must be pervasive throughout the universe due to its gravitational effects. However that might soon change if observations from our own parent star prove to be correct and we’ll be able to detect dark matter in our cosmic backyard.

bulletcluster_comp_f2048

The picture above is what’s known as the Bullet Cluster, the collision of 2 galaxy clusters with each other which is thought to provide some of the best evidence  for dark matter. It’s theorized that in a collision of this nature the dark matter would avoid interaction with all the normal matter and would essentially race ahead. This theory is supported by the gravitational lensing observed between the two galaxies as without some form of dark matter the lensing would follow the matter consistently whereas here it appears to be ahead of its observable matter brethren. There’s still not enough evidence  here to call it a direct detection of it, especially when other modified standard models can accommodate the effect readily enough.

However physicists at the University of Leicester in the UK have detected what could be the decay of dark matter particles coming from our sun which, if proven to be correct, would be the first direct detection of dark matter. The theory goes that axions, particles which were theorized to solve one of the more puzzling problems in quantum chromodynamics and are theorized to be a component of cold dark matter, are created in the sun and make their way to earth. Much like neutrinos they don’t interact with matter very often and thus race from the core at light speed, unimpeded by the sun’s great mass. When they reach our magnetic field however they decay into a x-ray photon which means that the level of background x-rays should be higher within the earth’s magnetic field. This is what the researchers have found and data from other orbital observatories seems to corroborate this.

Of course the theory is not without its problems, notably that the properties of the axion that they’re theorizing would be different to the one that’s predicted by the current model. There’s evidence to suggest this from other observations so in order to prove the theory one way or the other further analysis with that additional data will have to be taken into consideration. It’ll likely be years before we’ll have a definitive answer on this particular theory thanks to the large data sets that they’re working with but either result will provide some insight into where dark matter might be hiding.

A Treatise on Battling Global Warming Bollocks.

The war against bullshit is asymmetrical. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve had someone stumble across my blog post and rattle off a paragraph or two which then took me 10 times as long to debunk. It’s not so much that I don’t have the evidence, they are always demonstrably wrong, however the amount of time required to provide the proof to debunk them always outweighs the time it takes for them to spout it. Thus whenever I come across something that can aid me and my fellow crusaders against bullshit I feel compelled to share it, in the hopes that one day we can turn the asymmetry over to our side so that, one day, spouting bullshit becomes the harder proposition.

And to that end I share with you the below video:

I’ve come across pretty much every argument in that video before however I’ve often struggled to find an answers that are succinct as his. Of course I’m under no delusions that this video would turn a hardcore denier around, they’re a different breed of stubborn, however it does a great job of highlight the faults in the arguments that many more reasonable people make. His previous videos showed just how scattered the public’s knowledge is on this subject and so this follow video will hopefully go a ways to improving that.

There’s still a long fight ahead to convince the right people that proper action needs to be taken, something which us Australians should hopefully be able to rectify at the next election.

The Speed of Light vs The Speed of Sound.

There’s a saying that goes “The speed of light is greater than the speed of sound, which is why some people appear bright before they open their mouths”. Whilst I’m sure that we can all remember someone who fits that description exactly not many people appreciate just how vast the difference is between the speed of light really is. Indeed in everyday life you can pretty much consider light to travel instantaneously since it could reach any point on earth in under a millisecond. That also means that visually observed phenomena can help us determine other things, like how far away the boat in the below video was from the volcano that erupted:

From the first point where you can see the eruption beginning to the time when the shockwave hits the camera approximately 13 seconds elapses. Taking into account that the speed of sound in air (roughly 341 m/s, although it could be slightly faster depending on the temperature) that gives us an approximate distance of 4.4 km from the eruption site. To put that in perspective the light that brought the picture traveled the same distance in about 0.01 milliseconds, an imperceptibly short amount of time. If you were so inclined you could also figure out all sorts of other kinds of information from this video (like the height of the plume, it’s velocity, etc.) but they’re an exercise I’ll leave up to the reader.

This video also showcases one of the coolest (in my opinion) visual phenomena related to massive explosions like this. You can see the shock wave propagating out from the epicenter very clearly, something which always happens but isn’t usually visible to the naked eye. Here you can see it travelling outwards thanks to it compressing the air in front of it which changes the refractive index of light. With explosions of this magnitude the amount of compression, and the resulting shock wave, are enough to produce a significant bend in the light passing through it.

I probably wouldn’t want to be that close to the explosion though!

Earth, Milky Way Galaxy, Laniakea Supercluster.

How much do you know about where we are in the universe? I’d hazard a guess that nearly everyone can say that we’re the 3rd planet from our sun and that we reside in a large spiral galaxy called the Milky Way. You might not know though that we’re towards the end of one of the Milky Way’s tendrils and that we’re part of a larger group of galaxies called the Local Supercluster. However the definition of what constitutes the Local Supercluster had always been a little loose, essentially just a sphere of space in which all contained galaxies were defined as part of it. Scientists in Hawaii though, led by R. Brent Tully, have come up with a new way of defining superclusters and have dubbed our new home Laniakea.

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It’s reminiscent of when the International Astronomical Union refined the definition of what constitutes a planet. Sure the new definition might mean that some previously neighbouring galaxies will get excluded, and new ones included, however rigorous definitions like these are what form the basis of good science. We might feel some kind of attachment to the ideas (I was honestly surprised by how many people were outraged by Pluto losing its planet status) however science abhors hand waving and sometimes we have to accept some loss in order to make further progress.

However I find the science behind Laniakea to be incredibly beautiful. Instead of our local group of galaxies being defined by some arbitrary points we’re now a group of celestial bodies all sharing the same journey. We might not ever see each other, nor ever cross paths, but the idea that we’re sharing the same galactic journey with billions and billions of other balls of matter is, to me, incredibly poetic.

Giant_prominence_on_the_sun_erupted

Finally, Confirmation of How the Sun Works.

The sun is an amazing celestial object. Even though it looks about the same size as our moon when viewed from Earth’s surface it’s almost 400 times further away which should give you an idea of just how unfathomably large the sun is. It also heavily influences nearly every aspect of our Earth, providing nearly all of the energy that we, and all other lifeforms on this planet, consume on a daily basis. You’d be forgiven for thinking that we understood it completely however as whilst nearly anyone would be able to tell you that the sun is powered by fusion we, funnily enough, didn’t actually have proof of this.

That is, until now.

Giant_prominence_on_the_sun_eruptedIt sounds silly right? The theory of the sun being a giant ball of fusion has been around for 75 years and is pretty much established as a scientific fact. Indeed many of the observations that we’ve made of the sun support that theory and the small scale replicas we’ve made also seem to exhibit similar properties. However the surface of the sun, as we see it, doesn’t really tell us the whole story. Indeed the light emitted from the surface of the sun is hundreds of thousands of years old, spending most of its life worming its way out of the deeper layers of the sun. Should we want to verify that for sure we need to observe the products of fusion reactions happening now and, bar venturing into the sun itself, there’s only one way to do that: by observing one of our universe;’s most elusive particles, the neutrinos.

Specifically the neutrinos are called PP neutrinos, those which arise from the fusion of two protons to form helium. A fusion reactor on the scale of the sun generates countless numbers of these particles every second and, thanks to their near massless nature, they rush out unimpeded directly from the sun’s core. However the same properties which allow them to move at such great velocity away from the sun also prevents them being easily detected. Combine this with the fact that PP neutrinos carry less energy than regular neutrinos do you can see why definitive proof of fusion happening within the sun as eluded us for so long. Researchers in Italy though crafted an experiment to capture these ever elusive particles and their research has finally bore fruit.

The Borexino experiment uses a large device called a scintillator, essentially a large array of light detecting devices immersed in ultrapure water. It’s then buried deep underground (about 1.4KM) in order to shield it from cosmic rays and other stray radiation. This experiment was specifically designed to verify the solar output of neutrinos against the standard solar model in order to verify that fusion was indeed occurring within our sun. It began collecting data about 7 years ago and at the beginning of this year they had enough data to submit their final report. The results line up perfectly with what the standard solar model predicts which, for the first time, verifies that fusion is indeed occurring within our sun and has been for a very long time.

It may seem like a silly thing to do but verifying things like this is the key to ensuring that our understanding of the universe is in line with reality. We might have known that fusion was going on the sun for decades but without definitive proof we just had a good model that matched some of the observed behaviours. Now we know for sure and that means that our standard solar model is far more robust than it was previously. Thus, with this new information at hand, we can dive even deeper into the model, probing the various curiosities and figuring out just what makes our sun tick. We might not ever know everything about it but part of the fun of science is finding out what you don’t know and then trying to figure it out.