Science

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Death Valley’s Sailing Stones Mystery Revealed.

The Sailing Stones of Death Valley have been a scientific curiosity for numerous decades. These rocks seemingly spring to life at various times throughout the year, blazing long trials across the desert’s floor before coming back down to rest. Whilst there have been numerous theories as to what causes this movement, ranging from the plausible to the downright insane, no one had managed to verify just what exactly was going on with these strange rocks. Well now thanks to researchers at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography we now have evidence of just what’s causing this to happen and it’s pretty fascinating.

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The video largely supports the theory put forth by Ralph Lorenz some years ago whereby the the rocks are trapped within ice sheets which are then moved by the prevailing winds. What’s interesting about this video is that it shows why the previous experiments, which were largely inconclusive as to ice sheets being responsible, produced the data that they did. It also shows why there seems to be similarities between some movements whilst others seem to be completely random. Pretty much all of these can now be explained by the ice sheets breaking up and bumping off each other, leading to the wide variety of patterns and behaviours.

Like the video says this might not be the most exciting experiment to conduct however it’s always interesting when a long standing phenomena like this finally gets explained. We might not be able to use this knowledge to further other research or develop some novel product, however as we begin to explore further out into our universe knowledge of strange things like this becomes incredibly valuable. When we see phenomena like this elsewhere we’ll be able to deduce that similar processes are in action over there and thus further our understanding of the places we explore.

SCIENCE MOUSE

First Whole Organ Grown Inside Mice.

The need for organs for transplants has always outstripped demand and this has pushed the science in some pretty amazing directions. Indeed one of the most incredible advances is the ability to strip away host tissue from organs, leaving behind an organ scaffold, that we can then regrow with the recipient’s own cells. This drastically reduces the chance of rejection and hopefully avoids the patient having to take the harsh anti-rejection drugs. However such a process still relies on a donor organ which still leaves us with the supply problem to deal with. Whilst we’ve made some advances in creating parts of organs (some even done with biomedical 3D printers) growing a full organ has still proven elusive.

That is until recently.

SCIENCE MOUSEResearchers at the University of Edinburgh have, for the first time, managed to grow a full functioning organ within a mouse using only a single injection. The organ that they created was the thymus, an organ that plays a critical role in the production of T-cells. These cells are the ones that are responsible for hunting down cells in your body that are either showing abnormalities or signs of infection and then eradicating them. What’s so incredible about this recent achievement is that the functional thymus developed after the injection of modified cells, requiring none of the additional work that’s previously been associated with creating functional organs.

The process starts off with cells from a mouse embryo, which from what I can gather were likely to be embryonic stem cells, which were then genetically programmed to form into a type of cell that’s found in the thymus. These, along with supporting cells, were then injected into the mice and the resultant cells developed into a fully functioning thymus. Interestingly though this didn’t seem to be the outright goal of the program as the researchers themselves stated that the result was surprising. Indeed whilst it’s been theorized that stem cells could be used in this manner it was never thought to be as straight forward as this and with these results further research is definitely on the table.

Whilst this research is still many years away from being useful in human models it does pave the way for research into how far this typical method can be applied. The thymus is a relatively simple organ when compared to others in the body so the next steps will be to see if this same process can be used to replicate them. If say a liver or heart can be reproduced in this manner then this has the potential to completely solve the transplant organ supply issue, allowing patients (or a surrogate) to grow their own organs for transplants. There’s a lot of research to be done before that happens however but this latest advance is incredibly promising.

 

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Your Children’s Well Being Begins Before Conception.

I was never a particularly fit or active child. It wasn’t for lack of encouragement from my parents, they had me try all sorts of different activities in the hopes I’d find something that I enjoyed, more it was that I just never felt as capable as other kids when it came to physical endeavours. This, of course, fed into my love of all things gaming and other sedentary activities. It wasn’t until over a decade ago that I started to take my health seriously, transforming myself from a chronically underweight individual (BMI 17) to the more athletic person that I am today. Mostly I did this for myself however I always had a view that I needed to do this for my future children and today brings word of new research that shows I was on the right track.

Family_Portrait_It’s common knowledge that your parent’s genetics play a major role in your development and health throughout your life. Indeed it’s to the point now where we can identify many genes that are precursors for many conditions and diseases, allowing us to engage in preventative treatment long before the condition manifests itself. It’s also well known that the mother’s health, as well as the conditions she exposes herself to during pregnancy, have long lasting effects on the child after birth. However many believe that beyond those two factors the health of the parents doesn’t really factor into the child’s long term health, I.E. that your health prior to conceiving doesn’t have much influence over the child’s long term wellbeing. The latest research out of our own University of Adelaide turns that assumption on its head showing that the parents’ health before conception plays a significant role in the child’s well being throughout their life.

Essentially it boils down to the accumulation of environmental factors in the egg and sperm of the parents which are then passed on to any progeny. The good news is for parents that are looking to conceive is that this mechanism works both ways and that improvements in your health before conception will then also lead to better outcomes for your child. Whilst the study says that the impacts can be seen even months before conception effecting real change in such a short time frame is highly unlikely and such changes should be undertaken much earlier. Unfortunately since I don’t have journal access anymore I can’t comment on just how effective such intervention is but the researchers comments don’t seem to indicate that it’s small.

For me this just reinforces the view that your health is far more important than a lot of people give it credit for. Whilst I always lament when people derive motivation from a wake up call like this I can’t deny that it’s an effective mechanism for most. Indeed it seems for many that their child’s health is a primary motivator for a lot of decisions, even if some of them are rather ill-informed. So if improving your own health could vastly improve your childs then I’m sure many parents would take the initiative and live better lives as a result. Hopefully that would then lead onto keeping those improved habits long after the children were born as whilst your genetic influence may have ceased you will still have huge impact on their habits, many of which they will carry with them for life.

 

On The Importance of Sunscreen (Or What You Look Like in UV).

We Australians are leaders in many things we shouldn’t be, like our climbing obesity rates or per-capita carbon emissions. As it is with a lot of things like this the causes are readily preventable and it is up to us to take action in order to ensure that we lose our world leader status in these less-than-desirable categories. However there is one issue that, even despite years of campaigning and education programs, we Australians just never seem to get: we are the most likely people in the world to get skin cancer. This is an almost entirely preventable condition, one that requires almost no effort to ensure that you’re highly unlikely to suffer from it.

The video below shows just how effective sunscreen is at doing it’s cancer preventing job, blocking harmful UV rays:

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Now the shocking discovery of UV freckles that many of the people in this video saw isn’t necessarily a bad thing (those are simply concentrated spots of melanin, your skin’s natural defence mechanism) however the application of sunscreen, as well as the glasses appearing to be opaque, should drive home the message that sunscreen does indeed work as advertised. UVA and UVB are both completely blocked by your regular over the counter sunscreens, providing full protection against the damaging rays of the sun. Sunglasses are also a vital if you’re spending a lot of time outdoors as continued exposure can lead to things like cataracts.

I know I’m probably preaching to the choir here but honestly when our incident rate of melanoma and other skin cancers is this high I feel it bears repeating. We’re a nation of people who love our beaches, sports and the outdoors and there’s really no reason that we should subject ourselves to unnecessary risks like this. Really taking 5 minutes to lather yourself up before hitting the beach isn’t a big ask and it could save you years of pain down the line.

You don’t have to end up as a statistic.