The Kepler Mission is by far one of the most exciting things NASA has done in recent memory. It’s goal was simple, observe a patch of stars continuously for a long period of time in order to detect the planets that orbit them. It’s lone instrument for doing so is a highly sensitive photometer designed to detect the ever so subtle changes in brightness of a parent star when one of its planets transits in front of it. Whilst the chances are low of everything lining up just right so that we can witness such an event the fact that Kepler could monitor some 145,000 stars at once meant that we were almost guaranteed to see a great deal of success.
Indeed we got just that.
The first six weeks of Kepler’s operation proved to be highly successful with 5 planets discovered, albeit ones that would likely be inhospitable due to their close proximity to their parent stars. The years since then have proved to be equally fruitful with Kepler identifying thousands of potential exoplanet candidates with hundreds of them since being confirmed via other methods. These discoveries have reshaped our idea of what our universe looks like with a planetary system like our own now thought to be a relatively common occurrence. Whilst we’re still a long way from finding our home away from home there’s a ton of tantalizing evidence suggesting that such places are numerous with untold numbers of them right in our own galaxy.
However earlier this year Kepler was struck with an insurmountable problem. You see in order to monitor that field of stars precisely Kepler relied on a set of reaction wheels to ensure it was pointed in the right direction at all times. There are a total of 4 of them on board and Kepler only needed 3 of them in order to keep the precision up at the required level. Unfortunately it had previously had one fail forcing the backup wheel to kick into motion. Whilst that had been running fine for a while on May 15th this year another reaction wheel failed and Kepler was unable to maintain its fix on the star field. At the time this was thought to be the end of the mission and, due to the specialized nature of the hardware, likely the end of Kepler’s useful life.
However, thanks to some incredibly clever mechanics, Kepler may rise again.
Whilst there are only 2 functioning reaction wheels NASA scientists have determined that there’s another source of force for them to use. If they orient Kepler in a certain way so that its solar panels are all evenly lit by the sun (the panels wrap around the outer shell of the craft) there’s a constant and reliable force applied to them. In conjunction with the 2 remaining reaction wheels this is enough to aim it, albeit at a different patch of the sky than originally intended. Additionally it won’t be able to keep itself on point consistently like it did previously, needing to reorient itself every 3 months or so which means it will end up studying a different part of the sky.
Whilst this is a massive deviation from its original intended purpose it could potentially breathe a whole new life into the craft, prolonging its life significantly. Considering the numerous discoveries it has already helped us achieve continuing its mission in any way possible is a huge boon to the science community and a testament to NASA’s engineering prowess. We’re still at the initial stages of verifying whether or not this will work as intended but I’m very confident it will, meaning we’ll be enjoying Kepler aided discoveries for a long time to come.
The body is a machine, one that consists of innumerable complexities of which modern science is only just beginning to get a grasp on. Still even with our admittedly limited understanding of how many of the bodily functions work we’re still able to figure out how to optimize its performance at various tasks. To that end I’ve personally read through reams of research to find out what I can to do maximise many aspects of my life, from my fitness to my cognitive faculties and even to my skills as a gamer. Of course my process lacks much of the scientific rigour that I’ve come to admire so more often than not I’ve found myself pursuing something without doing the right amount of research into it.
One of the many things that’s been on my to do list for a while was to get my DNA sequenced by 23andMe to find out what my genetic profile is like when compared to the rest of the world. Whilst I’m already somewhat aware of the health risks that run in my family I’ve always thought it would be good to backup the anecdotes with a little bit of data, even if it was only a single sample point. I’m also lucky enough to have a wife who understands biology on a level that far surpasses mine so the possibility of me finding out that I have a propensity for a rare genetic condition and flying into a wild panic are somewhat diminished.
However it seems that others aren’t so lucky and upon finding out the results of their 23andMe test are seeking treatments for conditions which may be completely unnecessary. This has since prompted the FDA to serve 23andMe with an enforcement action, essentially a cease and desist order giving the company a couple weeks with which to comply with them or face the consequences. Honestly when I first heard about it I was wondering why the FDA would bother targeting them, indeed I thought the kinds of people interested in such data would be well equipped to interpret it, however reading over one particular case showed that 23andMe could stand to use a little more rigour.
Of course the big issue here is people using this data in a vacuum and failing to consult with others to get clarity on what the numbers mean in the real world. My sister in-law found herself in a similar situation recently when the doctors refused to guarantee her child would be free of downs syndrome. The reality is that it’s simply something that we can’t rule out, no matter how good the indicators are, however when the chances are on the order of 1 in 100,000 or greater you have to understand that the risk of it actually happening is quite low. 23andMe results need to be taken in a similar light and in the event should they predict something horrific the next stop should be a genetic counsellor, not the surgeons knife.
I still plan to use the service one day as whilst my primary focus would be looking for potential treatments to improve parts of my life I’m also very interested to see what statistics has to say about the things locked away in my genetic code. Whilst I’ll likely research anything that I feel might be a threat I’ll be sure to temper that research with advice from people more qualified on this area than me. Perhaps this is something that 23andMe should look into doing as whilst it’s nice that they don’t alert you to potentially life changing facts without warning you first getting some context from a real person would probably go a long way to solving their problems with the FDA.
It should come as no surprise that my favourite movie genre is science fiction. Even though I was born long after the original Star Wars trilogy had finished watching it with my parents is still one of the fondest memories I have and that has long since bloomed into a passion for the genre. Of course this also feeds into my love of sciences as whilst I also enjoy fantasy, in all its forms, nothing quite compares to plausible futures that are based on real science. Whilst I understand that scientific accuracy will often take a back seat when the narrative requires it I can’t help but feel compelled to point out some of the more obvious flaws, especially when it’s such a big movie like Gravity.
Now before I launch into this let me just be clear: I absolutely enjoyed Gravity. Whilst I was sceptical about George Clooney and Sandra Bullock being able to bring life to the roles they were given it didn’t take me long to warm to their characters. I was also very surprised by how much tension I felt for multiple different scenes, something which I don’t typically feel, at least not to that extent. All this, combined with the beautiful cinematography culminates in a movie that’s thoroughly enjoyable even if you take the hard line with science like I do. With all that being said though there are some points which bear mentioning and should have you not seen the movie I’ll advise you to skip reading on.
PLOT SPOILERS AHOY
The first thing that I, and several others, have taken issue with is the notion that from the orbit of the Hubble Space Telescope you’d be able see both the International Space Station as well as the Chinese Tiangong station (which is way more developed than current plans indicate, but that’s another story). Even if all of them shared identical orbits, which they don’t, the Hubble is in an orbit that’s some 200KM above the ISS and Tiangong making any naked eye visual impossible. Following on from this the idea that you’d be able to then travel between them becomes somewhat difficult as the energy required to do the plane change manoeuvres would be far above the capabilities of Manned Manoeuvring Unit. Indeed the backup plan NASA had for a shuttle that had suffered a catastrophic failure event such as the one in Gravity was to send another shuttle up there to rescue them, dubbed STS-400, which was the reason why we saw 2 fully fuelled shuttles on their respective launch pads the last time we serviced the Hubble.
I’m sort of able to forgive that for the sake of story however one moment that I won’t was when Bullock is holding onto Clooney’s tether and he says he has to let go or they’ll both be doomed. You see at that particular point there’s no more forces acting on them as once they got tangled up and stopped moving all their momentum had been transferred to the ISS, rendering them at equilibrium. If Bullock had simply tugged on the tether slightly Clooney would have then started drifting lazily towards the ISS and Bullock could have pulled herself back along the parachute cords. I would’ve let that slide if it was a minor side point but it’s one of the main turning points of the movie and unfortunately it just has no basis in reality whatsoever.
One thing I was also going to pan Gravity for was the use of fire extinguishers as thrusters since I figured the amount of delta-v available in them wouldn’t have been enough to provide any meaningful thrust. As it turns out, depending on what kind of extinguisher you have, there could be as much as 100m/s in them, a heck of a lot of thrust by any means. Whilst you’d be far more likely to send yourself into an unrecoverable spin if you were using them in the way shown in Gravity it does lend some credence to the idea of using it to correct your trajectory in order to intercept something else.
PLOT SPOILERS OVER
There were also numerous other minor details but compared to the previous few I mentioned I don’t think they’re worth digging into. Whilst there really were some cringe inducing moments from a science perspective it is a highly enjoyable film, even if you’re not into the whole space scene. It’s also worth it to see it in 3D, something I don’t say often, as the producers have taken care to use 3D as a tool rather than slapping it on in order to increase the ticket price. It might not be super hard sci-fi but then again not many films are and ones of Gravity’s calibre are even rarer.
There’s a lot of things in this world that I think I have a sound understanding of that, usually after a Wikipedia binge or YouTube bender, just aren’t inline with reality. These usually aren’t fundamental things (although my recent dive into corporal discipline of children was something of an eye opener) but more and more I find myself astonished at just how wrong my intuition can be. The most recent example is the simple petrol pump and the mechanism that stops the flow when your tank is almost full.
So in my engineer brain I figured that there was some kind of sensor embedded in the end of the nozzle and, upon fuel reaching the outside of the nozzle the pump would be alerted, stopping the flow. Of course I often wondered how they managed to detect fuel on the outside of the nozzle whilst ignoring the inside but I figured that there were people much smarter than me working on that problem and it was a simple matter of engineering. Of course I was right about the latter but I never expected a fully mechanical solution to it, especially one not as elegant as they show in the video.
It really is true what they say about what happens when you assume something
There’s a long running joke that fusion reactors are always 20 years away, something which people began saying about 60 years ago. It’s not that we get it wrong per se, more that we have a tendency to underestimate the complexity of achieving the next step, something which is usually written off as a simple piece of engineering. We’re now acutely aware of the fact that the practical aspects of running a fusion based power plant are likely going to require significant advancements in materials science and that’s if the theoretical models we have turn out to be correct. Whilst we’ve been able to fuse atoms for a long time now the end goal of fusion power generation, a self sustaining plasma, has yet to be achieved but one theoretical model recently got a jolt of hard science behind it lending a lot of credence to the whole field.
The National Ignition Facility has been dedicated to studying Inertial Containment Fusion, ostensibly because it aligns with most of their overarching goals (one of which is weapons research). Of the two main branches of fusion research, the other being Magnetic Confinement Fusion, ICF is something of a poor sibling in terms of research dollars and large scale experiments. This is not to say its claim is any less valid just that, at least in this armchair physicists understanding, its brand of fusion doesn’t lend itself particularly well to be scaled up to the power generation levels at least not with its current modelling. However NIF has announced today that, for the first time ever for any fusion experiment, their reaction released more energy than what was pumped into it; a sure sign that nuclear fusion was occurring.
It’s a pretty amazing feat and is definitely something that NIF should be proud of, however that does not take into account the total energy of the system which was several orders of magnitude higher than the energy produced at the other end. Thus for such a system to go past full unity it would need an input to output multiplier somewhere in the thousands, much more than what they’re currently achieving. Still as far as I was aware we weren’t even entirely sure if this kind of fusion was feasible, given the strict requirements on many of the parameters. Of course such challenges aren’t entirely unique to this brand of fusion but you have to wonder why after the initial burst of research into ICF things started to slow down considerably with MCF being the reigning champion for many decades now.
From what I can tell though, with my admittedly limited knowledge on the subject matter, MCF has the greatest potential to translate into powerplant scale devices much sooner than those using ICF as a base. Indeed the challenges presented to using MCF do lend themselves well to scale (although large magnetic fields always present some trifles) whereas ICF the challenges increase dramatically with scale as it becomes significantly harder to ensure the right reactions happen to sustain fusion. Of course I’m willing to be told otherwise on this as I could just be suffering from some geek lust for ITER’s sultry designs.
In any case it’s extremely exciting to see the progress that’s being made as it bodes well for a future that could be free of fossil fuels. Whilst I’d love to believe that we’re 20 years away now (and indeed ITER’s schedule puts the first DT reaction within that time frame) I’m going to need to see a few more milestones like this one to start believing it. We’re tantalizingly close however with the evidence constantly building that we’re on the right track to producing all the energy we need without having to dump untold tons of carbon back into our atmosphere.
And that’s why it’s worth spending billions of dollars on researching every possiblity for developing a sustainable fusion reactor.
So there’s a lot of diseases in the world, ones that were responsible for a lot of human death, that we’d pretty much eradicated. The primary mechanism for this is has been vaccines as they’re the only proven way to guarantee that an individual won’t contract the disease again and, more importantly, not be a carrier for that disease in the future. However there’s a small, determined minority who think that vaccines do more harm than good but they seem to conveniently forget that none of their friends have polio or any other of the myriad of diseases that have been readily preventable for the better part of a century.
That little bugger above, the measles virus, is one of them. I can’t name a single person I’ve known that has had the measles and I can wholly attribute that to the fact that MMR vaccine, the one so many people wrong assume is the cause for autism, has been in widespread use long before I was born. Of course thanks to the misguided efforts of some high profile individuals we’ve ended up with pockets of ignorance which in turn have led to clusters of people who lack these vaccinations. Now it’s been hard to track this as whilst small clusters of outbreaks of certain diseases have occurred in the past there hasn’t been a convenient cluster that’s undergone an epidemic.
That was until just recently of course.
The Eagle Mountain International Church has been known for its skepticism over vaccines and it appears the teachings have not gone unheard in the congregation as many chose to forego vaccinating their children. Then, thanks to someone travelling overseas and then returning home, they were introduced to the wonderful virulent disease is measles. This has since led to at least 10 children becoming infected and, funnily enough, the isolation granted to them by the “protection” of home schooling (which is mandated by the state, since unvaccinated kids can’t be allowed in public schools) was made completely irrelevant by their church going ways.
What’s particularly interesting though is that has then led on to news that the Netherlands is actually suffering through an epidemic of its own (currently down, but the Google cache of it shows all the facts) with over 1160 cases reported. This, conveniently, ties in with their own “bible belt” which is vehemently against vaccination. Those figures are just from May to August for this year as well which means that there’s potentially more out there and it will only continue to increase until all of them are infected.
I’ve talked about herd immunity and how disease spreads in its absence and these outbreaks are a classic example of what happens when people refuse to vaccinate. Make no mistake measles is an entirely preventable disease and its prevalence in these areas is wholly due to their willful ignorance about the efficacy and safety of vaccines. So don’t be daft, don’t buy into whatever malarkey you might have read on the Internet about the dangers of vaccines because the simple fact is they work and these recent outbreaks are proof that failure to use them is doing far more harm than good.
I’m absolutely terrible at cooking. It’s not that I can’t follow a recipe or anything like that, more it’s to do with the fact that I don’t particularly enjoy the cooking process all that much, seeing it as more of a necessity rather than something that can be enjoyed for its own right. There’s a few reasons for this, mostly being that I’ve got many other things I’d rather be doing, but I’ve also got something of a weird attitude to food that I can trace back to my childhood. Essentially it’s something of a disinterest in eating, something which I’ve struggled with as I’ve transformed myself from a 185CM 65kg person into the 90KG man beast I am today, So you can then imagine when I saw Soylent I instantly drew parallels to my own life and I was drawn in by the promise of convenience and optimal nutrition.
Soylent, for those who are unaware, is a food replacement product that’s the brainchild of Rob Rhineheart, a Y-Combinator alum who’s background is in electrical engineering, computer science and the Silicon Valley scene. It’s goal is to be a nutritionally complete food replacement that contains all the necessary things to keep your body going, and nothing that it doesn’t. Rhineheart has been working on this formula for quite some time, documenting his escapades on his personal blog, and has been fine tuning it based on how his body has been reacting to his use of it. Since he’s still alive and doesn’t appear to be suffering any ill effects there appears to be some credence to his claims although, as always, this is the Internet so it’s not surprising that a healthy dose of skepticism has been thrown his way.
As someone who already consumes quite a bit of liquid calories the appeal of Soylent to me was the fact that I could have it as an on-demand meal replacement that wasn’t stupendously expensive. You see whilst I work out a lot more than your average person the kind of gains I see are quite limited and that’s entirely due to the fact that I struggle to get enough calories in me to support said gains. Soylent then could prove to be the kicker to get me over my current gain hump as well as being that convenient meal replacement that I could go to when I just couldn’t be bothered going down to the shops to pick something up. Of course I had to start doing some digging to find out if Soylent could really do all the things it said it could do and this is where things started to unravel a bit.
The idea of a nutritionally complete meal replacement isn’t new with the most prevalent product being Ensure Complete. These products are pretty expensive by comparison however with a typical daily intake being almost an order of magnitude more expensive than Soylent claims it will be. However these other products were developed by people who are in the business of doing this and whilst I’d love to believe that Rhineheart managed to cram decades worth of biology and nutrition information into Soylent you can’t really be confident in his expertise in this area. He does say he’s been consulting with experts and that all his ingredients are FDA approved however that doesn’t mean the end product is safe, especially if it’s going to people’s sole source of nutrition.
Indeed whilst many of the short term experiments appear to have positive outlooks I can’t help but feel that Soylent may be overreaching with some its claims. This is somewhat par for the course in Silicon Valley as in order to attract attention over there you have to be “disrupting” or “reinventing” something in order to get noticed but this isn’t a photo sharing app, it’s a product that’s being marketed as being the last source of food you’ll ever need. In that regard I feel they need to temper people’s expectations as it’s entirely possible that Soylent works brilliantly for the precious few who’ve tried it (read: relatively slim IT folks, most of whom already have a healthy lifestyle) and could be an absolute train wreck for others. This is true of all nutrition and I don’t see why the current mono-formula of Soylent would be any different.
In all honesty I really want something like this to be real, safe and successful as I know it’s a product that I would end up using. However at the same time I want it to be based on solid science with the appropriate trials and review mechanisms done in order to ensure its safety. This is the same amount of scrutiny I’ve applied to all the other supplements and powders I’ve ingested over the years and I’m not about to break my rule just because it’s coming from Silicon Valley. I’m hopeful that the Soylent crew will eventually get to that point but for now I’m going to plant myself firmly on the fence.
I’m sure I’m not alone in being someone who loves playing around in the sand at a beach even though I’m pushing 30. My friends and I always seem to end up building some kind of sand castle whenever we all make our way down there even though we usually have no intention of doing so. There’s probably some nostalgia at work there, I mean almost everyone has great memories of playing the sand as a child, but I’ve also been told it’s actually quite therapeutic something a cursory stroll through Wikipedia appears to verify. However bringing the beach with you is usually frowned upon (What do you mean I can’t make sand castles on the carpet??) but it seems like there’s a pretty awesome substitute in the form of Moon Sand.
It’s a pretty awesome substance, one that’s been around for some time from what I can gather, as it emulates the properties of wet sand pretty well without requiring water. I haven’t been able to track down the exact polymer that they use (confusingly the hydrophobic sand I blogged about also carries the name moon sand) but it seems a workable substitute can be made with good old fashioned corn starch. That does require water however which leads me to believe that the polymer they use has some non-Newtonian properties to it as that’s exactly what you get when you mix corn starch and water. If I could find the exact polymer they’re using (searching for non-toxic non-Newtonian polymers didn’t give me any viable leads) so if you happen to know what it is I’d be keen to hear from you.
One of the interesting points that came up in my research to this is people wondering whether or not this would be anything like real moon sand. Strangely enough the surface of the moon is coated in a layer of what you could classify as sand but it’s formed quite differently and it’s called regolith. Sand on earth is made by rock being slowly eroded away, typically by some form of moving water. Regolith on the other hand has rather violent origins with its primary mode of creation being through impacts on the surface by meteors. That’s why you don’t have regolith on earth as the amount of impacts required to generate it simply don’t happen (thankfully) due to our atmosphere. The moon on the other hand isn’t so lucky and gets bombarded constantly with generates the layer of dust upon it.
However that regolith isn’t composed of worn particles like sand is, instead the base structures are typically jagged and this actually became an issue with the early sample return missions to the moon. Those jagged particles stick to everything they and actually punctured the vacuum membrane on the sample return jars, contaminating them. More interesting still is that regolith appears to be highly reactive as Armstrong and Aldrin (and many other astronauts) reported smelling gunpowder after completing their moon walks something that wasn’t reported by scientists studying the samples back home. Moon Sand by comparison is quite inert and not at all abrasive.
Now I just need an excuse to buy some of this. I mean it’d be completely normal for a near 30 year old to do this, right?
Superconductors are an incredible scientific discovery and not just because they have the oh-so-nice property of having 0 electrical resistance. They also have the peculiar property of ejecting all magnetic fields from within them, an interesting phenomena considering the duality of electromagnetism. Unfortunately traditional superconductors required extremely low temperatures to exist, usually not far off absolute zero. This made them impractical for the many uses we could think of for them as whilst the lack of resistance would prove a boon for power transmission the ongoing maintenance would prove to be far too costly. However recent materials advancements have given rise to what we call high temperature superconductors which has opened up many new avenues of research.
Don’t let their moniker fool you though, the temperatures that most of these operate at are still well below freezing, however they do become superconducting at temperatures that are achievable using coolants like liquid nitrogen rather than exotic solutions relying on cryogenic fluids like liquid helium. This has lead to a lot of research with these particular kinds of superconductors and interestingly some demonstrations that almost appear like magic when you first see them:
As I mentioned earlier superconductors expel all magnetic fields from within them, however when the superconductor is thin there will be little areas of weakness where the magnetic field can get through. Since the superconductor is trying its darnedest to expel those fields it locks them in those small areas allowing the superconductor to levitate on the field. The locking happens in the direction of the magnetic field which actually allows you to do some very interesting things (as demonstrated in this video). The effect only lasts as long as the cooling however and once that’s gone the levitation effect disappears instantly.
Really hammers home Arthur C. Clarke’s quote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” doesn’t it?
Most people have a rough idea about what plasma is, usually thanks to the plasma TV craze that hit many years ago and has since been replaced by LCDs, but few will know that plasma is actually one of the 4 fundamental states of matter right along side solid, liquid and gas. The transition between a gas and a plasma is done through a process called ionization/deionization which converts the gas into an electrically conductive cloud which can be done by either inducing a large voltage difference or by subjecting the gas to extremely high tempreatures. The following video shows the latter and is a rather cool demonstration of the transition process.
The short run time for sustaining the plasma cloud is simple, given enough time that superheated cloud of carbon atoms would start to melt the pyrex container which would free the plasma to wreck all sorts of havok on the microwave itself. I’m not sure how long it’d last though as it looks like the atomised carbon atoms need to be cluster together for it to work, hence the spool up time require to set up the initial plasma reaction. Indeed if my experiments with bananas are anything to go by (it’s relatively safe but still, I’m not going to recommend you do it) you’d instead get little flashes rather than the sustained cloud.
What really interested me was the hum that was generated as it was pretty regular and I couldn’t really figure out what would be causing it. As it turns out there’s actually a couple things that could be responsible and, interestingly enough, the frequency could change depending on the input frequency of the power source going to the microwave. That link also suggests another, similar experiment with cut in half grapes that’s supposedly a lot safer (although this site argues otherwise) and the results look very similar to my results with bananas. It seems there’s all manner of things you can use to create plasma in the microwave, something I didn’t expect.
This is one of those experiments that I reckon would be really great for class demonstrations (this is probably also the reason why I shouldn’t be allow to teach science in schools but come on, fire and explosions are awesome!).