Science

Fibonacci Zoetrope (Try Saying That 10 Times Fast).

Abstract mathematical principles are often obtuse ideas that don’t have any direct correlation to the real world. Indeed for the majority of the time I spent in university I had no idea how the concepts I was being taught could be applied in the real world, that was until the final unit where they showed us just how all these esoteric formulas and algorithms could be applied. However there are times when the real world and the land of pure mathematics cross paths and when they do the results can be quite amazing. Thus I present to you the Fibonacci Zoetrope:

The Fibonacci Sequence is one of the more commonly known mathematical concepts, one that can be seen often in nature. It can be used to approximate the Golden Spiral which everyone will readily recognise as the shape of a common sea shell. It also appears in sunflowers arising out of the fact that the interior of the flower is most efficiently filled in a Fibonacci like sequence, giving it an evolutionary advantage. The sculptures you see in the video above uses these same sequences to produce some rather interesting patterns which, when combined with a video camera, produce the illusion of motion that isn’t there.

The trick works due to the way modern cameras work, capturing individual frames at precise intervals. If you were looking at this in real life it would look like a blur of motion instead of the strange movement that you see in this video. However you would be able to see this with your own eyes if you used a strobe that pulsed at regular intervals, much like the modern Zoetropes do. Depending on the speed of the rotation and the image capture interval you’ll see very different kinds of motion and, if you time it precisely, it could appear to not move at all.

I really love these crossovers between art and science as they demonstrate some incredibly complicated ideas without having to dive into reams of proofs and scientific papers. The creation of the sculptures themselves is also a feat of modern engineering as some of those structures are simply not possible to create without 3D printing. I might lament not being as talented as the people who created this video but I think it’s for the best as otherwise my hose would be covered in all sorts of weird and wonderful sculptures inspired by random mathematical principles.

Seeing the Invisible, Radiation Peppered World We Live in.

There’s a lot more to the world we live in that what we can see with our eyes. The colours of the world that we see are merely a subset of the wide spectrum of available light, one that extends out in both directions in an infinite expanse of wavelengths. Beyond that there are countless other things happening around us which eyes simply can’t perceive, that is until we construct something that allows us to see the world that’s invisible to us. One such device is called a Cloud Chamber which allows us to see the streams of ionizing radiation that permeate throughout our world. The video below is probably the best example I’ve seen of one and it makes for some extremely soothing viewing:

It’s striking to see the chamber light up constantly with just the background radiation that’s ever present here on earth. Even if you’re familiar with the idea of the  world having a constant source of radioactivity it’s still another thing to see it in action, the ionizing particles whizzing through the space at an incredibly rapid pace. Adding in a radioactive source is a great way to visualize what radioactive decay is and how various materials decay at different rates and in different ways.

Cloud Chambers played an important role in the early days of particle physics with the discovery of the positron (the anti-electron) and the muon. There have been numerous improvements to the devices in the time since they were first used with the modern day equivalents being solid state devices, typically cooled to cryogenic temperatures. Unfortunately the modern versions don’t provide as good of a show as their historic counterparts did but we’re able to do much better science with them than we ever were with a cloud chamber.

Vaccination

Herd Immunity Broken in Parts of Northern California.

Vaccines are incredibly beneficial for two reasons. The first is the obvious one; for the individual receiving them they provide near-immunity to a whole range of horrendous diseases, many of which can prove fatal or have lifelong consequences for those who become infected. The risks associated with them are so small it’s hard to even connect them with the vaccines themselves and are far more likely to simply be the background noise than anything else. Secondly, when a majority of the population is vaccinated individuals who can’t be vaccinated (such as newborns) or those idiots who simply choose not to gain the benefit of herd immunity. This prevents most diseases from spreading within a community, providing the benefits of vaccinations to those who don’t have them. However there’s a critical point where herd immunity stops working and that’s exactly what’s starting to happen in northern California.

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A recent study conducted by researchers working for Kaiser Permanente analysed the vaccination records for some 154,000 individuals in the Northern California region. The records cover approximately 40% of the total insured individuals in the area so the sample size is large enough for it to be representative of the larger whole. The findings are honestly quite shocking showing that there were multiple pockets of under-immunization (children not recieving the required number of vaccinations) which were signficantly above the regional mean, on the order of 18~23% within a cluster. Worst still the rate of vaccination refusal, where people declined any vaccinations at all, was up to 13.5%. It’s a minority of people but it’s enough to completely eradicate herd immunity for several horrible diseases.

For diseases like pertussis (whooping cough) and measles the herd immunity rate may only start kicking in at the 95% vaccination rate, mostly due to how readily they can spread from person to person. That means that only 5% of the population has to forego these vaccinations before herd immunity fails, putting at risk individuals directly in harms way. Other diseases still maintain herd immunity status down to 85% vaccination rates which some of the clusters were getting dangerously close to breaking. It’s clusters like this that are behind the resurgence of diseases which were effectively eradicated decades ago, something which is doing far more harm than any vaccine ever has.

It all comes down to the misinformation spread by several notable public figures that vaccinations are somehow linked to other conditions. It’s been conclusively proven again and again that vaccines have no link to any of these conditions and the side effects from a vaccination rarely amount to more than a sore arm or a fever. It’s one thing to make a decision that only affects yourself but the choice not to vaccinate doesn’t, it puts many other individuals at risk, most of whom cannot do anything to change their situation. You can however and the choice not to is so incredibly selfish I can’t begin to explain my frustration with it.

Hopefully one day reason will prevail over popularity when it comes to things like this. It’s infuriating to think that people are putting both themselves and others at risk just because some celebrity told them that vaccines were doing them more harm than good when the reality is nothing like that. I know I’ve beaten this horse several times since it died but it seems the bounds of human stupidity is indeed limitless and if I can make even just a small difference in those figures than I feel compelled to do so. You should to as the anti-vaxxers need a good and thorough flogging with the facts, one that shouldn’t stop until they realise the error of their ways.

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Creating Dark Matter in the Large Hadron Collider.

It’s hard to understate the significance of the science that has been done because of the Large Hadron Collider. Whilst it’s famously known for discovering the Higgs-Boson, the particle which gives all other particles mass, it has a long list of achievements outside of that singular event. What makes these discoveries even more interesting is that the LHC has been operating at something of a disadvantage since it was first turned on over 6 years ago, operating at around half the potential energy it was capable of. Shortly after the discovery of the Higgs Boson the scientists and engineers at CERN have been working to bring it up to full capacity and with it the potential for some even more radical discoveries.

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The doubling of the collision energy increases the potential for the LHC to generate even more exotic particles than it has previously, ones which can give us insights into some of the most perplexing mysteries in particle physics to date. One such source of intrigue is how our universe, which is composed of nearly entirely matter, came to be that way. Another seeks to explain why the universe seems to be riddled with matter that’s not directly observable but is seen through its gravitational effects throughout the universe. These, and many other questions, have potential to find answers in the newly upgraded LHC which is slated to come online this year.

In the beginning, the beginning of everything according to scientific theory, there existed both equal quantities of matter and antimatter. Upon annihilation these two entities should have completely destroyed each other, leaving behind a wake of energy with no matter to speak of. However casual observation will show that our world, and the rest of the universe, is dominated by matter. This strange preference for matter (dubbed the CP Violation) has perplexed scientists for decades however the newly upgraded LHC has the potential to shed some light on where the Universe’s strange preference comes from. The LHCb detector focuses on the decay of the Beauty Quark, a fundamental particle that decays in all manner of strange ways when created in a collider. Studying these decays could grant us insight into where the CP violation comes from and why we live in a matter dominated universe.

However what’s far more interesting (for me at least) is that the LHC could have the potential to generate dark matter, the highly pervasive as-of-yet unobserved substance that binds galaxies together via its gravitational influence. There’s numerous theories that posit dark matter being made up of WIMPs (Weakly Interacting Massive Particles) which could potentially be generated in the LHC. It’s highly unlikely that we’ll be able to detect them directly, their very nature means that they’re far more likely to simply pass through the detectors, however should we generate them their signature will be left on the reactions. Essentially we’ll be looking for a reaction that’s missing energy and then seeing if that can be explained by a WIMP being generated. Should we find that we’ll have a solid basis to further investigate this elusive form of matter, furthering our understanding of just what makes up our universe.

It’ll likely be another few years before we hear any further news from the LHC as it’s going to take time to generate the data and even longer to sift through it to find the reactions we’re looking for. However I’m very confident that the results will forever change the scientific landscape as either confirmation of current theories or evidence against them will provide dozens of more avenues for further research. That, to me, is the beauty of science, the never ending search for answers that inevitably lead to more questions, starting the process of discovery all over again.

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Curiosity Smells Farts on Mars.

There’s many ways to look for life on other planets. Most of our efforts currently focus on first finding environments that could sustain life as we know it which is why the search (and subsequent discovery) of water on other celestial bodies is always a cause for celebration. Once we’ve got a target though the search needs to become more nuanced as we have to seek out the clues that life leaves behind or the blocks that build it. For life as we know it one of the first things we can look for is the presence of organic molecules, the essential parts that make up all of life as we know it. One of these such molecules is methane, reknown for being a component in flatulence, something which Curiosity recently detected on Mars.

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Methane, and other organic compounds, don’t necessarily require life in order to form however their presence does indicate that there was an environment favourable to life at one point in time. For Mars this was some time ago, on the order of billions of years, and so it’s highly unlikely that any remaining methane is due to microbial activity. However there has to be some local source of methane near Curiosity as it detected a ten fold spike in the amount of methane in Mars’ atmosphere, something which it has never seen before. Additionally Curiosity detected other organic molecules in a rock it drilled into recently, indicating that there was a time when organics must have been prevalent across the entire surface of Mars.

The discovery was made sometime ago however the researchers needed to rule out the possibility that the reading was caused by organics that were trapped in Curiosity’s sensors from Earth. Things like this happen more often than you think as whilst we take every precaution to ensure that there isn’t any contaminations on craft like this it’s inevitable that the sensors, all of which are highly complex machines, end up having stray molecules trapped within them. Because of that however we’ve gotten pretty good at identifying when things came along for the ride and this particular methane spike didn’t originate from Earth.

The organics in the rock are most intriguing however as they tell a story of Mars’ atmosphere that stretches back to the point where it still held liquid water on its surface. The ratio of isotopes in the water (which I talked about yesterday in regards to the discoveries Rosetta has made) indicates that the mineral formed some time after Mars lost much of its water, if we assume that the water on Mars and Earth came from the same place. However the ratio is also radically different to the water in Mars’ atmosphere today indicating that it formed before Mars lost the rest of its surface water. It will be interesting to see how this sample compares to other places around Mars as it will paint a detailed picture of the planet’s surface over time.

It seems like it will be only a matter of time before we find a large source of water on Mars, buried deep beneath the surface somewhere. From there we’ll have an exciting period of analysis to determine if microbial life still thrives on what appears to be a dead planet. Unfortunately that’s not likely to happen any time soon, at least not until we get people there anyway, but with NASA recommitting themselves to such an endeavour it might come sooner than many first thought. Honestly I can’t wait for that to occur as it will shed so much light on how life evolves and, possibly, what it can become.

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Rosetta’s Data Provides Clues to Origins of Water on Earth.

The origin of Earth’s water is still something of an open debate. The popular theory at the moment is that the primordial Earth was far too hot to contain any form of liquid water, its molten surface still reeling from the cataclysmic events that led to its creation. However others postulate that the water was trapped deep below the surface, only to arise later on as the Earth cooled and an atmosphere developed. It’s an interesting question not only because of how fundamental water is to life but also because we seem to have a lot more of it than any other planet in the solar system. Thus the question of where it came from, and why it’s managed to stick around for so long, is one of continuous scientific enquiry, including such missions as the recently celebrated Rosetta probe.

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If we run with the theory that Earth’s water came from some extraplanetary source then the question turns to what the original source might be. Comets seem like a good candidate as they’re primarily water ice by composition and were far more common during the early stages of Earth’s life than they are now. However measurements of isotopes within water of several comets, including Halley, Hyakutake  and Hale-Bopp has shown that they are not likely the primary source of water that’s currently on Earth’s surface. The composition of water found on asteroids and other water formed minerals on the Moon seem to indicate that a source closer to home is far more likely which Rosetta’s latest data appears to confirm.

The comet that Rosetta was investigating, the romantically named 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, has a ratio of isotopes that is completely different to anything that’s seen on Earth. The reason that this is important is due to it’s orbit as 67P is what we call a Jupiter class comet, a collection of various comets that have orbits that don’t extend far past Jupiter. It was thought that these kinds of comets would have been more likely to have been involved in the creation of Earth’s oceans than comets from further out, due to their proximity. However 67P, with its wildly different composition to Earth (and even other bodies in the same vicinity), lends credence to the idea that comets aren’t the likely source of Earth’s oceans. Indeed it’s far more likely that water and minerals trapped in asteroids are the likely source, based on how similar their composition is.

Now this doesn’t rule out comets completely as there’s potential for further out Kuiper belt class comets to have the composition we’re looking for but it’s looking far more likely that objects from within the asteroid belt are responsible for the oceans we have today. What the mechanism was for them making their way to Earth, whether it was early on in the cataclysmic forming of our solar system or later on when things calmed down, is something that’s still an open question. It’s one we might also have answers to very soon as Dawn is scheduled to arrive at Ceres early next year, the biggest object in the asteroid belt. What Dawn finds there might be the key to unlocking the secrets of our Earth’s oceans and, potentially, the asteroid belt itself.

Super Cereal.

Looking at the ingredients labels on food can be both an insightful and frightening affair. I’ve long been in a habit of doing it and I always find it fun to research some of the more esoteric ingredients, well that is right up until I find out where some of them come from. It’s the old adage of not finding out how the sausage is made, although in reality you should probably consider that with all things that you put in your body. Still when I watched the following video I was honestly surprised to see the outcome, as I didn’t think the effect of extracting iron from cereal would be so dramatic:

The first half of the video explores the idea that there’s elemental iron within cereal which can then be attracted by a magnet. Whilst this is true to some degree, the iron within the cereal will feel an attraction to a magnet, you can actually perform the exact same experiment with cereal that is bereft of any elemental iron content. This is because water is a diamagnetic material which is a fancy way of saying that in response to a magnetic field it will create its own inverse field in response. For the cereal and magnet experiment this means the water actually divots around the magnetic field which the piece of cereal then falls into. The iron in the cereal helps this process along of course, but it’s not the only force at play here.

However the extraction of the iron from the cereal was pretty astonishing, especially considering just how simple it was to do. Trying to extract other elements from the cereal would prove a much harder endeavour which is why I think an experiment like this is such a powerful visual aid. You’re literally seeing the iron being pulled from the food you eat which, in turn, makes you think about all the other things that are listed on the ingredients label. It might not be a particularly pretty picture that you end up with, but at least you’ll be far more aware.

I wish I knew about these kinds of science experiments when I was a kid!

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Interstellar Brings Hard SciFi Mainstream.

As I hope is blatantly obvious by now I’m very much a fan of the sci-fi genre. It started out as a fascination with the future, with all the tech wizardry that it promises us, however it’s long since grown into a full fascination with the world of science and what plausible futures could arise from it. Thus, whilst I enjoy a good story in its own right, sci-fi movies and other media are a great opportunity to explore scientific principles and I love to see how they’re used as plot devices. Of course the narrative will often take precedence over the laws of the universe and whilst I can appreciate a departure for the sake of plot I have my limits, like Gravity’s take on how orbital mechanics work. However there’s been quite the hubbub around the science behind Interstellar and I finally managed to catch it over the weekend.

interstellar.black_.hole_In terms of basic science Interstellar gets top marks for getting so many things right. Things like travel time between planets in the solar system, gravitational lensing of light around objects that have heavy gravity or spacetime warping properties and the handling of relativity all line up with my (admittedly limited but I’d hazard a guess better than average) understanding of how those principles work. The black hole itself was absolutely stunning with the interaction of the accretion disc with the strong gravitational lensing, something which now seems so obvious, giving us a new perspective on what these monsters would actually look like out in space.

The robots are also one of my favourite aspects of Interstellar as they go from being what appears to be some kind of clunky, cumbersome relic of the pre-blight era they’re in fact highly capable machines. The designs are incredibly interesting too as whilst many movies would’ve gone for the stereotypical humanoid Interstellar instead opts for a HAL-9000esque monolith. It’s hard to discount that their personalities play a big part in this too, especially with all the humour around their programmable emotional settings.

PLOT SPOILERS BELOW

There are numerous liberties taken with certain mechanics however, all which are somewhat forgivable since they’re in aid of the plot. The small craft which are quite capable of achieving orbital velocities would have to have some kind of advanced engine that doesn’t rely on propellant and has the required thrust and specific impulse to achieve such feats. This is somewhat hinted at the start when the craft they use to get to Saturn makes it there in 2 years (I’d assume without any gravitational assists) however it’s still something that bears mentioning. It’s mostly only because if they had technology like that then it’d be quite easy to get a lot of people into space, potentially making that habitat they were working on viable without needing the secret “gravity” source.

As with all movies that like to play around with the notion of time things start to get a little hand-wavy once you start mucking with the timelines. Once Cooper’s character is stuck in the tesseract he’s essentially creating a paradox since he wouldn’t be there without the manipulations he caused, yet he is already aware of them when he’s making them. The one way to rationalize this away is to eliminate the prospect of free will within that world and so Cooper was compelled to do that no matter what happened. Otherwise he could, say, send the quantum data to someone else through another method, rendering the whole mission moot (but then introducing yet another) paradox to contend with. Indeed whilst this later part of the movie is a great piece of cinema it’s riddled with scientific problems, one that likely needs a novel to explain them away.

One thing that does irritate me about films of this nature is that they usually follow the format of “everythings going ok for a bit until things go all Event Horizon on you”.  I get that this is playing into the fragility of the human condition, where our survival instinct makes us do things we otherwise wouldn’t, however it does feel like the trope has been done to death. There’s multitudes of other avenues to pursue to provide that kind of tension without relying on humans going postal, but it seems human fallibility is still the route of choice. Then again hard sci-fi is a hard sell without a relatable human element, which I guess is the reason we keep seeing it.

PLOT SPOILERS OVER

All in all I thoroughly enjoyed Interstellar despite the last sections wandering into extreme hand-waving territory. The scientific basis which it begins from flows through the entire movie, providing a great backdrop for the rest of the movie to build on. I’m looking forward to seeing a breakdown of how all of the strictly-not-scientific elements were developed as there’s a lot of questions I’d like to see answers to. In the same vein though I’m also completely ok not knowing as the discussion my wife and I had afterwards were just as interesting as watching the movie itself. Definitely a must see for all sci-fi fans out there.

 

The Tiniest Electric Train.

I’ve never really been one for trains, neither those that serve as public transport or their diminutive brethren that grace the basements of many, but the technology behind some of them is quite impressive. Indeed you can’t go past the Shinkansen of Japan, trains that are so fast that they regularly compete with airlines for the same passengers and have recently achieved astonishing speeds. However beneath all the technical wizardry that powers those impressive machines lies some incredibly simple physical principles, ones that can be replicated with some copper wire, a couple magnets and a battery:

The way it works is incredibly simple. The “car” of the train is made up of a couple high-strength magnets that are oriented in the same direction, ensuring that their magnetic fields flow in the same direction. Then when the car is placed onto the track  of coiled wire they help complete a circuit with the coil of wire around it. This then creates a magnetic field around the car and the resultant force between it and the permanent magnets results in a force that’s vectored forward. However the time it will be able to do this is limited however as the creation of the magnetic field consumes power from the battery. Most estimates online have the run time somewhere around 30 minutes or so from a typical alkaline AA battery.

Indeed one interesting thing about this train is that it relies on the high internal resistance of regular alkaline batteries to function properly. You see a typical battery has what amounts to a current limiter inside it, preventing anything from drawing current too fast from it. If they used say a NiCd style battery, which has an incredibly low internal resistance, I can see the results being either much more spectacular (like the car flying around the track) or catastrophic (like the battery overheating and the wire melting). Actually now I’m kinda curious about what would actually happen.

Now where’s that old battery charger of mine…

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DNA Can Survive in Space, Re-Entry into Atmosphere.

There’s a few competing theories around how life came to be on our planet. One of them is the theory of abiogenesis, the idea that the building blocks of life assembled themselves from the primordial soup of the Earth to eventually give rise to life as we know it today. As an origin for all life it makes sense as it had to come from somewhere although whether or not it was how life came to be here is still up for question. Indeed the competing theory for how life originated here comes in the form of panspermia, the notion that our world was somehow seeded with life from planets elsewhere. Whilst it’s likely impossible to prove either of these theories they do lead to some interesting  areas of scientific research, the latter of which just bore some interesting fruit.

DNA HelixOne of the biggest questions with the idea of panspermia is whether or not the building blocks of life could survive in the harsh climate of space. We have known for some time that simple forms of life are able to tolerate the conditions of space for what seems like an eternity but given the time frames involved it’s far more likely that their genetic components would be the only things that would survive the long journey through space. Whether or not DNA could survive some of the most harsh conditions, like plunging back into the Earth’s atmosphere at re-entry speeds, is a question that researchers at the University of Zurich attempted to answer.

The results are quite intriguing, showing that the DNA molecules (which were applied to the outside of the craft with no shielding to speak of) was still viable upon returning to Earth. Whilst it’s far from a long duration spaceflight, the TEXUS launch system is a sub-orbital platform, it does show that DNA is very resilient to the harsh conditions experienced in space, lending credence to the idea that our Earth may have been seeded with genetic material of alien origin. Just how that material would have ended up finding it’s way here though is another question entirely, although it is an interesting one.

Genetic material lacks the capability to launch itself into space and so the only way it finds its way off a planet (bar ours) is to hitch a ride on a cataclysmic event. Large asteroids that impact a planet shoot up all manner of ejecta, some with enough energy to escape their planet’s gravity entirely. It’s a rare event, to be sure, however it’s happened often enough that we’ve got numerous bits of Mars scattered on Earth’s surface and likely bits of other planets that we don’t yet know about. If just a few of these kinds of asteroids hit Earth at the right time our origins of life might lie far beyond our own planet, or possible even our own galaxy.

It never ceases to amaze me just how resilient the building blocks of life are, being able to survive the harshest conditions and still remain viable. This then leads onto us finding life in all sorts of weird places, ones where you’d think it’d be impossible for anything to survive. I honestly can’t wait for the day when we find life on another planet, even if its microbes, as it will tell us so much about who we are and where we came from.