Random Ravings of a
Retired Rocket Scientist
Essays on science, engineering and medicine. A rocket scientist reflects on the world around us. A great read for young adults of all ages.
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February 24, 2021
No telling how many black holes there are out there. Not long ago, black holes were some sort of math mistake. Black holes absorbed all light and matter that fell on it. No one had ever seen one. These were the impossible stuff of science fiction—the route to time travel and faster-than-light travel.
Black holes are invisible, but not their effects on their neighbors. A black hole is a bull in a china shop. We see them whirling stars around until tearing them apart. We see them accelerating nearby gas clouds to a fiery death. We see them bend the light from stars passing beyond. Black holes are real after all.
A census of the black holes discovered to date shows two different kinds. Super massive black holes millions of times heavier than the sun lie at the center of our Milky Way Galaxy, and many others. Many more have just a couple of times the mass of the sun. Very few have been discovered in the range between those extremes. The two classes of black holes must have formed in different ways. The lighter ones are thought to be the remains of stars a few times the size of the sun. The giants must have formed in a denser early universe—soon after the big bang.
February 17, 2021
The latest telescopes will let us spy on our neighbors. Current telescopes allowed us to verify we had neighbors. Most nearby stars have one or more planets. There are probably billions of them in our Milky Way Galaxy alone. Twenty-first century astronomy may tell us more about who our neighbors are. Do they have atmospheres? What's in them?
The chemistry of a planet's air will tell us a lot about it. A lifeless planet like Mars or early Earth has a stable atmosphere of carbon dioxide and nitrogen. Oxygen is a giveaway that something is happening there. Oxygen is highly reactive, so it is rapidly depleted. If it's there, something—probably life—must be replacing it. The hunt for life on other planets will focus on oxygen-bearing atmospheres.
The search for intelligent life may take a new direction as well. Radio telescopes have scanned the sky for decades looking for a signal from another advanced civilization without success. NASA has suggested that smog may be an alternative indicator of a technological civilization on a neighboring planet. They have added nitrogen oxides to their shopping list for exploration.
February 10, 2021
The Arab probe "Hope" reached Mars orbit alive and well. Congratulations to the United Arab Emirate team. Mars is a place where space probes go to die. Half of all Mars explorers have suffered an untimely death there. The UAE mission succeeded on its first try. Beyond the reach of human control, the vehicle initiated and managed a critical twenty-seven minute rocket burn to place itself in orbit around the planet. Too short a burn would have let their probe fly past into endless space beyond. Too long a burn would have plunged their probe into the atmosphere to burn up. Just right was the message Hope radioed to a nervous audience back on Earth.
In a few months, Hope will maneuver into its science orbit and begin a (Mars) year-long study of the planet's atmosphere. It will track Mars weather—pole to pole and ground to space through the seasons. Data from the study will support our understanding of the climate of Mars—and of climate in general.
Closest approach has made Mars a busy place. A Chinese probe has now reached orbit as well. The Chinese mission includes an orbiting science satellite, and a lander much like the one they placed on the far side of the moon. The Chinese ground station is expected to touchdown in May. It will deploy a rover to survey the surface and subsurface geology around the landing site.
Next week, the USA will attempt to land its Perseverance rover to search for evidence of past life in a dry lake, and to collect samples for return to Earth labs in a subsequent mission.
February 3, 2021
The moon just got farther away. Congress slashed the NASA. NASA delayed the next step in engineering the moon lander. The USA won't meet President Trump's 2024 at this rate.
January 27, 2021
The age of space tourism has begun. SpaceX just announced its capsule of private scientists headed to the International Space Station. Tickets are reportedly $55 million per seat. That's a substantial savings from the price NASA paid Russia to launch our astronauts. No wonder the flight is sold out. Virgin Galactic and Blue Horizons are preparing to enter the space tourism business offering short hops into nearby space.
SpaceX is rumored to have sold tickets for a sightseeing loop around the moon when its Starship is ready. Round trip tickets are in the neighborhood of $200 million. Watch for my GoFundMe coming soon.
January 20, 2021
Commercial space leapt forward this week. A new contender entered the competition. Virgin Orbital launched ten small satellites into low earth orbit this week. The Virgin rocket was air launched from a modified Boeing 747 over the Pacific Ocean. Pilots flew the jet first stage home—ready for refueling to fly again.
Air launch like Virgin's harks back to the earliest days of the space program. As far back as the 1950s, B-52 bombers carried X-15 planes to altitude. From there, test pilots with the Right Stuff rocketed to the edge of space. Their exploits set records for speed and altitude unmatched by piloted flight to this day.
A dedicated airframe will advance Virgin's initial success in space. Virgin Orbital's sister company Virgin Galactic is developing just such a plane. Its Space Ship 2 will soon orbit satellites up to 500 pounds. With that capability, Virgin will be able to compete for most commercial applications of space.
January 13, 2021
Mars' Valles Marineris Canyon is grander than Earth's Grand Canyon. It's ten times as long and three times as deep. University of Arizona scientists studying images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter are uncertain what formed this—the largest canyon in the solar system. They conclude it was not formed by a raging river like the Grand Canyon. It could be a rift between Martian tectonic plates, or the result of ancient volcanic activity. (The universe's largest volcano is nearby.)
The history of Mars is locked in her canyons. The rugged terrain of Valles Marineris Canyon will challenge its discovery. The jagged boulder fields appear too treacherous for landing. Visiting the canyon rim would be safer. Descending the canyon walls from there would be difficult for human geologists in space suits. Any drone capable of flight in thin Mars air would be cumbersome. A robot donkey may be the best way to get to the bottom. (Current four-legged robots are more agile than their two-legged counterparts.)
January 6, 2021
The James Webb telescope
The next generation space telescope should be launched in 2021. Visible light images from its predecessor have advanced astronomy for decades. The new James Webb telescope will probe even further in the infrared.
Using the infrared, the Webb telescope will see deeper into the past than Hubble can. Intervening molecular clouds absorb and scatter the shorter wavelength light that Hubble sees. Longer wavelength light passing through is less affected. Webb infrared astronomy will take us where we've never been before.
Closer to home, the Webb telescope will support the search for water on the planets of nearby stars. Water in the atmosphere is invisible to the Hubble, but obvious to the Webb. (Water's intense infrared activity makes it Earth's primary greenhouse gas, and would have the same effect on another planet's climate.)
December 30, 2020
The Perfect Storm
Coronavirus and obesity: the perfect storm. The world is weathering two devastating epidemics—COVID-19 and obesity. The virus is receiving a lot of publicity, but both are deadly—especially in combination.
By itself, COVID-19 is a nasty flu, but a survivable one. It can overwhelm the defenses of a body fighting other ailments, thus the high mortality among the ill and infirmed.
Three-fourths of Americans are overweight—nearly half obese. By itself, excess pounds are the harbinger of serious health problems including heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and several cancers.
Obesity is among the conditions that challenge recovery from COVID-19 infection. Overweight victims are more than twice as likely to require hospitalization, nearly twice as likely to end up in intensive care. They are half again as likely to succumb to the disease.
Let's all remain vigilant against both epidemics. Avoid contact with the viruses, eat healthy, and exercise.
December 23, 2020
The Christmas Star conjunction
This week's Christmas Star conjunction of the planets was like two racers passing with their high beams on. In the outer lane, Saturn orbits the sun every thirty years. Jupiter has the inside track where it laps the field every twelve years. Every twenty years, Jupiter overtakes Saturn like it did this week. From the right vantage point, the two planets might look like they have merged. They haven't. They're still four hundred million miles apart.
Earth was treated to a sky spectacular when we happened to be at the right place at the right time. Planets pass each all the time. Adding Earth to make it three in a row was what made the Christmas Star conjunction special. Hope you had a chance to enjoy it.
December 16, 2020
The Sun's place in the galaxy
Mapping the Milky Way is like lifting yourself up by your bootstraps. We're shooting selfies from inside a whirling dervish, and trying to make sense of them.
Our galaxy seems to be just anther galaxy like the billions in the night sky, but local details are hard to determine. Our sun—and a billion other stars—are all swirling around a giant black hole. How far and how fast are challenging to determine from inside the whirlwind.
Computer analysis of data from four Japanese radio telescopes spanning almost 1500 miles has produced precise estimates of the positions of neighboring stars. Shifts in those positions over time reveal their motion relative to our sun's. Computer simulation of the galaxy suggests where our sun and our neighbors must lie. The results indicate the sun is 25,800 light-years away from the galaxy's central black hole, and rotating around it a half million miles an hour.
The Space Launch System
Our return to the moon is under way. The Space Lunch System is undergoing advanced testing in Alabama. Next year, it will move to Florida for check out and test launch.
Initiated by the Bush Administration and boosted under Trump, the Space Launch System is intended to be the workhorse system to open the moon to exploration. Initial configurations will be more powerful than the Saturn V of the 1960's space program. Paired with the Orion crew module, it will transport men and women to the moon's surface for extended stays.
Advanced versions of the System will have even greater payload capacity. That will support more complex moon missions as well as Gateway—an International Space Station circling the moon. The Gateway Station is an integral part of NASA's long-term plan for lunar exploration. It is also a stepping-stone to manned missions beyond.
December 2, 2020
Lunar eclipse from the moon
This week's lunar eclipse looked different from the moon. There was no one home on the moon this time. There will be in the near future—unless Biden stifles the US manned space program like his mentor did.
The lunar astronauts' sky will feature earth near a bright sun moving against a background of stars. Occasionally, they'll watch the sun set behind the earth. Sunlight will dim during this partial eclipse of the sun. That's what happened there during this week's penumbral lunar eclipse. Rarely, the earth and the sun will line up just right for a total eclipse of the sun. The sky will turn as black as night. Back on earth, we will see this as a total lunar eclipse. Simultaneous television coverage from both vantage points should make the next one worth watching.
November 25, 2020
Chinese moon mission
A Chinese robot is headed for the moon. China sent the Chang'e-5 system to acquire two kilograms (4.4 pounds) of moon rocks and debris. This autonomous system is on its way to the moon today.
Chang'e-5 is China's latest and most ambitious lunar probe. It is designed to park in lunar orbit on arrival, and then separate into landing and orbiting modules. Two sections will descend to the surface. One will collect samples off the surface, and then drill two meters (6.6 feet) into the moon. Samples collected from that depth will be added to those from the surface. The specimens will be packaged and passed to the companion unit that will boost it to the orbiters. The precious cargo will be transferred to an Earth return vehicle.
If all goes well, Chinese laboratories will get some valuable new specimens by year end. The Moon is a harsh mistress, though. China's lunar exploration will advance despite any setbacks.
November 18, 2020
Books make great gifts
Every reader on your list will treasure a gift of books. Young adults need to discover an alternative to video games. Cooks welcome cookbooks. Buy books direct from the publisher and support a small American businesses.
For medical mystery fans, or anyone interested in epidemics, try The Utah Flu.
Everybody loves Fish Story, a science fiction adventure about people abducted and kept by dolphins.
The whole family will be glad when the cook in the house gets a copy of The Champagne Taste/Beer Budget Cookbook.
Explore the publisher's whole catalog for gifts for the other readers on your list.
November 11, 2020
Deadly debris surrounds Earth. Orbiting refuge from sixty-some years of humans in space pose an ever-increasing hazard to manned and unmanned activity there. We've dumped everything from nuts and bolts to intact rocket bodies there. All travel at orbital speeds, and pack a wallop far in excess of their weight in dynamite or TNT. Even the smallest among them can wreak devastating damage. A single paint fleck chipped the windscreen of a space shuttle.
Projected lifetimes of this lethal litter range from decades to centuries. Collision avoidance is the key to success in space. Some desirable satellite altitudes have already been abandoned as too dangerous. The International Space Station has shifted to dodge threatening objects. Many unmanned satellites are moved to evade debris. The Air Force monitors more than 34 thousand objects softball-size and larger. Another 900 thousand in the golf ball to baseball range are harder for their radar to track. The additional 128 million BB to bullet size shards are invisible, but still potentially deadly.
The problem is growing worse. Launch continues to be a throwaway activity, and dead or dying satellites are abandoned in place. Far worse are antisatellite weapon tests. Both India and China have shot old satellites out of the sky. Impact blew their targets to smithereens. Swarms of thousands of new lethal particles resulted in each case.
Cloud growth exceeds the human contribution. Debris collisions are rare. But when they do occur, two lethal particles spawn thousands. Each of them can go on to impact other pieces. At some undetermined critical density, cloud growth may explode—making space travel even more challenging.
November 4, 2020
A coral reef has been discovered near Australia. It's an undersea mound a third of a mile high on a mile wide base. (We know more about the geography of the moon and Mars than about the geography of our own oceans, No feature this large would go unnoticed on one of them.)
Research submarines confirm it's a living coral reef thriving with the typical biodiversity. A quarter of all sea life lives on coral reefs. Studies of the neighboring Great Barrier Reef have identified at least fifteen hundred species including a few hundred kinds of coral. Rare and unique species have been identified on the new reef.
October 28, 2020
Water on the moon
There's water on the moon. A NASA telescope flying above the atmosphere detected water on the surface. The moon is drier than the Sahara Desert, but there's some water there. It will be a precious resource if we can extract it. Water is essential to human operations, but expensive to ship there. A lunar source could offer substantial savings.
Where the moon's water is and how it gets there will be among the early science objectives of NASA's Artemis moon missions. Wherever it is, it shouldn't be there at all. Water evaporates in the heat of the sun and drifts as a diffuse gas throughout the lunar day. A little of it drifts off into space; a little of it freezes out in areas of perpetual darkness. After forty-some billion cycles, it should be all used up.
Something must be replacing the lost water. Speculation ranges from meteor showers to the solar wind. Many meteors are part ice. Energetic protons from the sun may turn rock oxides into hydroxides. There are hydroxides there. They can decay into oxides and water in the heat of the lunar day.
October 21, 2020
Pluto is more alien than it looks. Its picture-postcard peaks only look like Earth's. Actually they are much different. Earth's mountains are composed of rock and covered with water snow. Pluto's mountains are made of water ice and topped with methane frost.
The 2015 New Horizons fly by provided the first and only up-close look at the dwarf planet. Its data support on-going efforts to understand Pluto. It's cold there. Solid water is a mineral. Methane and nitrogen are rock solid as well. What little atmosphere there is arises from vapors of these surface ices.
The greenhouse effect keeps Pluto's air warmer than the ground beneath it. Methane is a strong greenhouse gas—even stronger than Earth's principle greenhouse gas, water. Warmed by the sun, methane gas rises. It plates out as methane frost when it contacts on the cold mountain peaks. Any resemblance to the Sierra Nevada Mountains is purely coincidental.
October 14, 2020
There are good times to fly to the planets; there are not so good times too. "Shot windows" are the best of times of all. Windows happen when the planets pass closest to one another.
The solar system runs like clockwork with all the planets orbiting the sun at their own pace. When two planets line up like the clock hands at 12:00, they are as close as they can be. By 12:30, they are a long way off. They'll get back together at 1:05.
On October 13, 2020, Mars and Earth lined up like the clock hands at noon. NASA has been launching Mars missions lately to capitalize on their proximity. The two planets will now drift apart, and not come back together until December 2022. The next generation of robot explorers will be ready for their shot window then.
The planets run like a clock with eight hands. Oppositions like the latest Mars/Earth event occur all the time. Many offer opportunities for a stopover, or a boost to places beyond. Three or more planets line up less often. Every eleven years, Venus, Earth and Jupiter line up—apparently affecting weather on the surface of the sun. The major planets queue up for a straight through tour every couple of centuries. The last time—in the 1970s—Congress decided NASA should wait for the next one.
October 7, 2020
Planets beyond our galaxy
We find planets everywhere we look. We've long known they were there. That was an article of faith for over a thousand years—one that could get you excommunicated, even executed. Finally, we found a freakish system where a star staggered as its giant planet orbited it—a tail-wagging-the-dog situation. Closer inspection found other stars subtly swaying. Suddenly, there were dozens of such exoplanets. A star's light dimmed when a planet passed in front of it—like a bug in your head lights. Then there were hundreds more. The count is over four thousand, and rising.
A survey of neighboring stars shows most have one or more planets. There is no reason to believe our region is special. The number of planets in our Milky Way galaxy is expected to exceed the billions of known stars. The search for additional unattached rogue planets is just beginning.
The Milky Way is probably not unique. Other galaxies should host planets of their own too. Harvard astronomers report the first direct observation of a planet in a galaxy some 23 million light years away. It takes special circumstances to be detectable so far away. This new planet orbits a binary star system there. One of its stars is a black hole or a neutron star actively consuming the other. The death throes of the material spiraling into it emit intense x-rays. The large planet eclipses the smaller x-ray source in passing. The resulting on/off effect is measureable from Earth. Astronomers are revisiting x-ray data in search of more planets like this one.
September 30. 2020
COVID Collateral Damage
Government overreaction to COVID-19 is killing people. Seven thousand Americans die of natural causes every day. The Centers for Disease Control has noted a significant increase in our daily death toll since state governments started closing our economy down to "flatten the curve." The coronavirus is just another severe flu—like the dozens we've weathered before. Terminally ill people who contract COVID-19 or another bad flu frequently succumb to their combined effects. The extra deaths reported by the CDC are from other causes.
Panicked governments focused on projected demand for coronavirus treatment. So they shut the rest of the medical community down. Deaths from diseases amenable to medical treatment accelerated. More than 30% of the excess deaths were due to Alzheimer's disease and dementia, followed by 20% too many high blood pressure deaths. Heart disease and diabetes fatalities also increased substantially. Medical treatment could have prolonged these lives. Medical treatment denied has killed almost a hundred thousand Americans—so far.
September 23, 2020
White dwarf's planet
Astronomers almost never say never. With billions of stars among trillions of objects out there, Murphy's Law holds true. Anything that can happen will happen; anything that can't happen still will. University of Wisconsin scientists have discovered a super-Jupiter planet orbiting close to an Earth-size white dwarf.
White dwarfs shouldn't have planets. They are the remains of exploded stars. Stars like our sun burn for billions of years before running out of hydrogen fuel. Then they erupt into red giants consuming everything for a few hundred million miles around. No nearby planet survives. Eventually, the residue collapses under its own weight—crushing the mass of the star and its nearby planets into an Earth-size ball. Only wisps of dust and debris had been detected around white dwarfs until this report.
It's uncertain where this super-Jupiter that shouldn't be there came from. This white dwarf is estimated to be around ten billion years old. A lot can happen in ten billion years. The host dwarf is part of a triple star system. The mystery planet might have been stripped from one of them or from a passing star. An interstellar collision could have knocked it out of a far out orbit.
If there's one white dwarf with a planet, there may be more. The Wisconsin discovery has awakened interest in these obscure bodies.
September 16, 2020
Life on Venus?
Rumors of life on Venus seem like wishful thinking. Preliminary data suggest the planet's atmosphere may contain traces of phosphine PH3. Phosphine is an energetic molecule destroyed by the sun's ultraviolet emissions. If confirmed, its presence in the planet's atmosphere would require some process to replace it. That requirement inspires the rush to judgment that that source must be a living thing.
The leap from traces of phosphine to life appears premature. Solar ultraviolet and nuclear radiation drive exotic reactions in the planet's thick acidic atmosphere. Chemical reactions go fast at 900¡F and 90 times Earth pressure. A lot can happen in the fires of hell without magic or a living source being involved.
Any life on today's Venus would have evolved from a time when Venus was much like Earth is today. A few billion years ago, a younger sun was much cooler. Earth was an ice ball then, but Venus may have had rivers and lakes. (A map of what it may have looked like was published recently.) As the sun warmed, Earth ice melted and Venus water evaporated. Solar-driven radiation chemistry and photochemistry transformed the planet's atmosphere into the harsh, high-pressure oven it is today.
September 9, 2020
Saturn's moon Titan may be the most fascinating object in the sky. If it weren't so far away, it might enjoy a lion's share of the NASA budget. The second-largest moon in the solar system is the most Earth-like body in the solar system. It has an atmosphere, clouds and rain. It has rivers and lakes.
It's cold there: -292¡F. Orbiting probes--and a lander—have mapped Titan's surface, and revealed its terrain. Ice boulders dot the surface, and its streams are filled with liquid methane. That's the stuff of Liquefied Natural Gas here on Earth.
Available data have raised questions about Titan. Life has probably not evolved there. Chemistry moves slow at 292 below. The precursors of life may be frozen out there. The secrets of the early universe await discovery by future explorers. We shall return with ever more sophisticated instruments to unravel the enigmas of our past.
NASA will launch a robot helicopter to Titan is 2026. When it gets there, nuclear-powered Dragonfly will fly over lakes and dunes landing to sample the moon's geology. On-board cameras and chemical instruments will tell us more about this strange neighbor. Signals take an hour-and-a-half to reach to and from Titan. Remote operation is impossible. Dragonfly must be a smart helicopter—capable of piloting itself with only basic input from home.
Titan's seas will remain mysteries even after Dragonfly's mission. NASA has begun preliminary studies aimed at launching a robot nuclear submarine to explore them. No decision has been reached, but launch in the 2030's is under consideration.
September 2, 2020
Many stars are twin stars—far too many to arise from colliding stars. Stars rarely hit one another in the vast emptiness of space. When two stars do bump, they simply bounce off like billiard balls and fly on. To stick together, they have to dump enough energy that they can no longer fly apart. That requires a third star. It takes three to tango. Three star impacts are even rarer than two star ones. There are too many twin stars in the sky for that.
Harvard University radio astronomers probing dust clouds harboring star nurseries find new stars forming in twos there. Analysis by Cal Berkley physicists suggests that pair formation may be the rule—not the exception. Cosmic molecular clouds spawn binary star systems in crowded nursery settings. Sibling impacts strip some of the pairs during their first few million years. A mix of lone stars, twins and triplets results. That's what we see in the night sky.
If our sun was born a twin, where is its brother? The orbits of our solar system's outer planets suggest something as big as a star was there and perturbed them long ago. Astronomers are searching for the culprit in that four-billion-year-old hit-and-run incident. They have yet to identify the perpetrator they call "Nemesis."
August 26, 2020
Krakatoa erupted with the force of ten thousand atom bombs on August 27, 1883. It made the loudest noise in history. Eardrums burst for forty miles around. The sound was heard three thousand miles away. Its explosive shock circled the globe three and a half times. A tsunami with waves up to a hundred feet high killed thirty-six thousand people throughout the South Pacific. Red-hot pumice and ash rained down fifteen miles away.
The volcanic plume lofted cubic miles of dirt and debris into the stratosphere. Once it was up there, the winds spread it across the globe. Worldwide weather was upset for five years afterwards. Temperatures dropped a degree or so the first year. California recorded record rainfalls. Bright red sunsets were misinterpreted as forest fires. Fire departments were scrambled for false alarms half a world away.
Krakatoa was the second biggest volcano in recent history. The eruption of nearby Mount Tambora in 1815 may have been up to ten times as energetic. Its immediate effects killed at least twice as many people as Krakatoa. Its environmental consequences were even more pronounced. The resulting "Year without a Summer" lead to widespread famine, and historic human migrations. Historians say Extreme rain contributed to Napoleon's loss at Waterloo.
Volcanoes as destructive as Krakatoa and Mount Tambora erupt sporadically along the Pacific Ring of Fire. It's been around thirty years since the last one; the next one could come tomorrow or in a hundred years from tomorrow. The next one could be bigger É up to a hundred times bigger. There are twenty super volcanoes—including one beneath Yellowstone National Park—The New York Times says could "end human life on Earth." The eruption would be like no event in human history. Earthquakes would precede the explosion. Then it would spew a lava lake eighty miles wide. Three feet of ash and debris would bury surrounding states. The lofted plume would blacken the sky. The New York Times projects that temperatures would plummet, crops would fail, and the infrastructure would be devastated. A once-in-a-million-years ultra-catastrophe event comparable to the one that wiped out the dinosaurs could result.
August 19. 2020
Subterranean seas crop up in places way too cold for surface water. The latest discovery is salt water inside the minor planet Ceres. Ceres is a rocky body one-third the diameter of our moon orbiting in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. It's airless, cold and dark. Water—even seawater—could only be liquid there under extreme pressure.
Ceres has long been known for its anomalous brightness. Hubble photography and a visit from the NASA probe Dawn have identified the source of that high reflectivity: two white spots at the bottom of a major impact crater. Their spectroscopy identifies them as sodium salt deposits. They appear to be residue from leaks of liquid salt water from an underground sea. Astronomers suspect the impact that made the crater opened cracks reaching to the ocean miles below. Traces of water in those spots suggest the seepage continues to this day.
The minor planet joins a long list of places in the solar system with undercover lakes or seas. There's Pluto plus a half dozen moons of Jupiter and Saturn. What's under the Martian south pole awaits further investigation. Our planet's north and south pole both have ice over water. Earth's polar waters host life. What will we discover in alien waters?
August 12, 2020
Mars is a bright spot in the night sky. It will never appear as big as the full moon—no matter what social media tell you. The biennial conjunction of the two planets on the same side of the sun inspires this misconception in the popular press. Mars's proximity provides good telescope viewing, and convenient commuting. Mars is a mere nine months away today, but it's still a just dot to the naked eye.
August 5, 2020
Perseverance, AKA Mars 2020, is on its way. The most sophisticated in a long line of robot explorers, Perseverance will search for signs of ancient life on Mars. Piloted by advanced artificial intelligence, the mission dares to land in interesting terrain.
The rover is headed for a dry lakebed near what appears to be the delta of a river that flowed into it. If the planet had hosted life, its lakes would have been likely places for it. Remnants of that life might in the lake bottom. If life arose elsewhere on the planet, traces of it might have been washed into the river and been deposited in the delta formation. Perseverance's ambitious program will survey the area's varied geology prospecting for evidence of primitive life and more. The most promising finds will be prepared for return to Earth on a later mission.
Mars 2020 data will advance our understanding of early Mars. Orbiters mapping the planet showed dried up rivers and lakes dotting the surface. Optimists jumped to the conclusion that Mars had once been balmy with liquid water flowing free. The sun was cooler then, and the planet far from it. It could not have been that warm. A recent study from the University of British Columbia presented an alternative interpretation. They compared the Martian riverbeds with some formed by liquid water flowing under glaciers on Devon Island. The match is better than to dry riverbeds from free flowing water.
The temperate Mars theory will be tested by the Perseverance data. Cold enough for glaciers seems credible—maybe cold enough for liquid methane.
July 29, 2020
Venus was Heaven before it was Hell. Once upon a time, Venus was a lot like Earth is today. The younger sun was cooler than it is now. At 70% of current solar intensity, Venus is thought to have had rivers and lakes of liquid water. Over billions of years, the sun's fires grew hotter, and that water evaporated. The solar wind's ionizing radiation plus ultraviolet photochemistry destroyed atmospheric water vapor. Sunlight transformed the once benign atmosphere into the hot, corrosive and dense environment found there today. The most robust Venus lander yet survived two hours on the surface.
Orbiting radar has mapped the planet lying beneath thick clouds. Geothermal models support interpretation of the three dimensional data available. Studies from the University of Maryland and the Swiss Institute of Geophysics suggest that Venus remains an active planet. Thirty-seven recently active volcanoes have been identified in the data. These are localized in a few distinct areas—probably at the intersections of tectonic plates. It appears our big sister planet has geology a lot like our own. Plans are afoot to return there to see what else we can purloin from her closet.
July 22, 2020
Health hazards in space
The Flight Surgeon was the unsung hero of the Mars 1 mission. Beneath all the publicity about biology and geology research, Mars 1 was really a medical experiment. Could humans survive in space? Col Buzz Sherman MD carried the crew through nine months in space followed by six months on the ground before they became Stranded on Mars.
Everyone knew the dangers going in; no one knew the consequences. Zero gravity was hazardous. Muscles atrophied and bones weakened from lack of use. Bodily fluids couldn't flow "down" when there was no "down." Eyeballs shifted shape and space travelers became far-sighted. Pressure in their inner ears led to disorientation. Earth-orbiting astronauts often returned to Earth in wheelchairs.
Mars 1 crewmembers would be on their own when they got to Mars. Nothing, not even his aerospace medicine residency at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, had prepared Sherman for their landing. Would the planet's one-third gravity be an easier adjustment? How much would it foster repair of the zero gravity damage? How soon?
Unprecedented radiation exposure began on Day 2 of the mission. Beyond Earth's magnetosphere, space was filled with ionizing particles. The cumulative effects of exposure were unknown. Circulatory system tissues suffered the first damage. Generalized organ degradation continued throughout the mission. (Mars offered no protective shield.) He'd seen it all back in medical school, but was he ready for what lay ahead? NASA needed to know what happened, and when.
Then there were human issues. Eight astronauts spent nine months in an RV-size tin can going to Mars. On the planet, they shared a Spartan habitat only twice that size. Sherman wished he hadn't skipped that psychiatry rotation before leaving Howard Medical School.
July 15, 2020
Are you lonesome tonight? Elvis Presley sang a dismal picture of loneliness fifty years ago. It's even worse now that politicians have hijacked our public heath care. Loneliness may be more than just having a bad day now and then. It has consequences. It can contribute to clinical depression and post-traumatic-stress-disorder. Such despair ruins victims' lives and often ends them. Since we've been closed down and locked in, California has had more suicides than coronavirus deaths. Suicide rates are surging all over the country. (And those virus deaths have been greatly overstated. A recent analysis of the so-called coronavirus fatalities in San Diego county found 97% had preexisting serious illnesses.)
Loneliness like COVID-19 adds to death by natural causes. A list of the physical diseases thought to be exacerbated by loneliness include AlzheimerÕs, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer—tumors seem to metastasize faster in lonely people. It's unlikely that loneliness causes many of these illnesses, but it probably inhibits recovery from them. It's the placebo effect or faith healing in reverse. Belief accentuates the ups and diminishes the downs; the patient feels better and gets better. Loneliness masks the ups and highlights the downs; the patient feels worse and gets worse. Attitude cures or kills.
It's time to hand medicine back to the doctors. COVID-19 is just another virus—like MERS, SARS, H1N1, etc. The world survived all of those. Observe normal hygiene: wash your hands, avoid touching your face, sanitize high-touch areas, avoid sick people, and stay home if you get sick. Forget the wannabe dictator governors whose overkill measures are aggravating domestic violence and increasing suicides while sabotaging the economy.
Oh, and reach out to someone who may be feeling lonely tonight.
July 8, 2020
There's more liquid water than we thought. Once, we believed the elixir of life made Earth unique. Then we realized other planets just the right distance from their star might have liquid water too. The latest models have extended this Goldilocks zone. Atmospheric dust clouds could alter alien planet weather just as volcanic plumes have affected Earth's. Water's intense infrared spectrum provides evidence of water on a few planets of nearby stars. The search for more continues.
Liquid water showed up in impossible places. Ice-shrouded moons of Jupiter and Saturn hosted vast lakes and seas beneath miles of ice. There may even be liquid water under Pluto's ice cover. Water is unusual in that its solid form is lighter than its liquid. Ice floats on water. Liquid water must expand to freeze. It requires energy to solidify under pressure. There's sixteen hundred atmospheres pressure for every mile of ice. Deep water remains liquid. It happens under Antarctica, as well as on far-away moons.
There's life under South Pole ice; there may be life in the seas of some icy moons and planets. Both NASA and the European Space Agency ESA are planning missions to Jupiter' moons to look for it. Their targets are dotted with jets spewing material from deep within. The space probes that discovered these cryovolcanos flew through the spray and confirmed they contained water plus more. Future probes will be instrumented to obtain more detailed data—especially on possible indicators of life beneath the ice.
July 1, 2020
Quantum weirdness may appear near absolute zero. Electrons in select materials flow without resistance there. Electrical resistance consumes 5% of all the energy generated. That constitutes a substantial overhead expense to our electric economy. A practical superconductor would avoid that cost. The search for materials that superconduct under ambient conditions has been one of the Holy Grails of science and engineering since 1911. The current record holder is a super hydride that superconducts near room temperature—but only under two million atmospheres pressure. Quantum effects require under extreme conditions.
At just two degrees above absolute zero, liquid helium changes to a superfluid. Its atoms move in lock step so they flow together with no viscosity. (Viscosity is that thickness that slows pancake syrup pouring out of the bottle.) Superfluid sits still in a spinning bottle, or spins forever if stirred into motion. It flows through cracks too small to pass any other liquid. Such super leaks challenge containment of superfluid. All liquids wet the sides of their containers; superfluid keeps right on climbing—up the wall, over the top, and down the other side. Super siphoning is also another problem in handling superfluid. This phenomenon is the result of a unique aspect of quantum statistics. It occurs for the common isotope of helium—and only that isotope. It has never been observed for other materials of at higher temperatures. Superfluidity remains a laboratory curiosity.
June 24, 2020
The moon is drifting away
The moon is drifting away from the earth. At an inch and a half per year, the moon has retreated a tenth of a mile since the pyramids were built. The process continues.
This wouldn't happen if the earth and the moon wee immutable objects, but they are not. The moon's gravity distorts the earth as it passes over. The oceans respond with tides up to several feet high. The earth's solid crust is stiffer, so it has much shallower tides. The resulting bulge does not relax instantly, so it leads the moon's gravity by a little. That creates a slight tug on the moon above. This pull produces drag that slows the moon. It adjusts into a higher orbit to compensate. (This works like an ice skater extending her arms to slow her spin.)
Earth's stronger gravity once induced similar tides in the moon's solid crust. The resulting distortion left a slow-to-relax swelling. The tow of earth's gravity on that bump slowed the moon's rotation until it stopped all together. Today, the moon is tidally locked to the earth, so we see only one side of it.
June 17, 2020
Proxima Centuri c
Astronomers have confirmed the existence of Proxima Centuri b—the home of the aliens of Dead Astronauts. Proxima Centuri b is an Earth-like planet orbiting our nearest neighbor star. In my novel, it's an ocean-covered world where an aquatic population has evolved a technically advanced civilization. Traveling at a hundred times Apollo speeds, a visit to Earth would still take them a thousand years. A lot can go wrong on a journey of a thousand years.
Proxima Centuri b is not alone there. Careful analysis of its star's motion reveals a Neptune-size companion, Proxima Centuri c. Neither planet's trajectory crosses the line of sight from Earth. However, the big one is far enough from its star to be seen as a separate point of light with the Hubble telescope. It shines far brighter than it ought to, and irregularities in its orbit suggest there may be yet another planet in the Proxima Centuri system.
The next generation James Webb Telescope should obtain data that will tell us a lot about this alien planet. What makes it shine so bright? What's out there perturbing its path around its star?
June 10, 2020
Tomorrow's technology is unlocking yesterday's secrets. Airborne lasers are mapping the lost world of the ancient Americas. Five hundred years ago, the Spanish conquered the advanced civilizations of the New World. They burned the literature of those people and defiled their institutions. Since that time, the verdant jungles of tropical America have retaken the domain of a once-great society.
All was lost to history until the advent of laser radar, lidar (LIght Detection And Ranging) technology. Today, aerial surveys use lasers to map the terrain beneath the Central American rain forests. Reflected laser pulses indicate the elevation of the ground they bounce off. The remains of vast ancient cities are emerging from the data. The Mayans were more advanced than previously expected—and much earlier.
The recently discovered Mayan city Aguada FŽnix is an engineering marvel. The city was built 3000 years ago—during the same global warming period that gave rise to the Greek city states. Aguada FŽnix is built around a ceremonial plateau more than four football fields wide and almost a mile long. The surrounding metropolitan area included buildings, plazas, and reservoirs to support a sizeable population.
The laser is proving the next best thing to a time machine in the archeologist's bag of tricks.
June 3, 2020
America is a space-faring nation again—at last. Watching the launch on the small screen seemed like dŽjˆ vu all over again. There were weather delays and nervous moments just like the early days of US rocketry. Then a feeling of pride at a picture-perfect launch to orbit. It was like the good old days—but in color this time.
It was the first astronaut launch from US soil since 2011. That's when President Obama grounded the Space Shuttle and cancelled the NASA follow-up program. Since that time, we've spent nearly a billion dollars flying US astronauts to the Space Station on Russian rockets at $86 million/seat.
Commercial space flight promises to make manned space flight more affordable. Two US companies have won NASA support to develop new generations of rockets. This week's SpaceX launch was the first. Routine operation will deliver astronauts to the Space Station at a projected cost of $55 million/seat. The Boeing program is not far behind. A few eccentric billionaires are supporting alternative programs of their own. Soon we'll have at least two vendors competing for transport to space.
Space exploration will not be confined to low-Earth orbit for long. SpaceX and Boeing are both preparing for the next step outward. Bigger rockets and more advanced crew capsules will be needed to fulfill President Trump's vision of returning people to the moon, and then on to the planet Mars. A SpaceX heavy-lift rocket has already launched a Tesla beyond Earth orbit. They have reportedly sold tickets for a loop around the moon. The future may not be far away.
May 27, 2020
The North Pole
The North Pole is moving. It wasn't until 1831 that maps and compasses pointed at different North Poles. Long the province of Santa Claus and a few intrepid explorers, the North Pole of globes and maps is a cartographer's convenience. James Clark Ross found Earth's magnetic North Pole laid a thousand miles south of geography's north.
A swirling blob of molten iron at the center of the Earth creates the planet's magnetic field. Eddies in the flow shape that field. Ross discovered magnetic north lay in northern Canada. Further study found magnetic north wandered around an area south of the geometric pole. For the next 160 years, it meandered up to 9 miles a year. Around 1990, it accelerated, making a beeline toward northern Siberia at 30 to 40 miles a year. Rapid changes in the position of the magnetic pole are forcing frequent recalibration of precision guidance and navigation systems.
Recent polar motion is unprecedented, so the pole's future is uncertain. It may settle in Siberia or snap back to Canada. It may also be the onset of bigger change. The polarity of the planet's magnetic field has flipped many times over geological time. The process appears random. There are data indicating some inversions happened on a time scale of days; other data suggest millennia. The planet's magnetosphere would be realigned in the process. The protection against the radiation of the solar wind might be reduced or lost. How much would that affect life on Earth? Éand for how long?
May 20, 2020
Black holes are invisible. We know they are there by the mischief they do. We see the x-ray death throes of stars torn asunder and swallowed. Galaxies orbit central giants—as big as a billion suns. Their closest neighbors swirl in unnatural orbits. A black hole's disruption shows how big it is. Black holes range from a few solar masses to a few billion.
Astronomers have found only a few black holes so far. There must be many more. Over the life of the universe, countless stars have been born, lived and died. Many dying stars collapsed into black holes. A few hundred million of their black hole corpses are thought to inhabit our Milky Way Galaxy. That's about one for every ten stars today. Only the vandals among them can be detected. A new one has just been reported at the center of a nearby binary star system. The dance of its two visible stars indicates a heavy third object at their center. It's a four solar mass black hole.
There's a minor black hole only a thousand light years away—a thousand light years is less than 1% of the way across the galaxy. If there's one phantom that close, how many more are lurking nearby? There are an estimated eight million stars within a thousand light years There must be a million more black holes waiting to be discovered out there.
May 13, 2020
Coronavirus Death Toll
How many people has the coronavirus killed? That's not as easy a question as it sounds. You can't just count the number of death certificates listing it as the cause. That's the fad among the medical profession this month. By that measure, cancer deaths and the like are way low. A terminal cancer patient who contracts the coronavirus and then dies is scored as a coronavirus death. That's not accurate. Cancer killed him.
A New York Times analysis dated May 5 and updated May 8 gave a truer count. They compared this year's total deaths with their estimate of those expected in a normal year. They presented week-by-week results for New York City and most of the states.
They padded the statistics with deaths they knew about that hadn't yet been incorporated into the CDC database yet. That, no doubt, contributed to the unusual excess of New York City and New Jersey death tolls they reported.
Their mathematics was sloppy in that they glossed over the sizeable uncertainties in their baseline model. They reported total numbers rather than the number per hundred thousand. Nevertheless, they found coronavirus causing "extra deaths" in New York City, New Jersey, Illinois, and Massachusetts. The rest of the country showed little or no significant effect. Even for giants like California and Texas, the results were in the calculation noise.
No nationwide total numbers were presented. Inspection of the limited data provided suggests that more reliable calculation would show little or no "extra deaths" nationwide. The coronavirus pandemic is just the latest in a series of bad flus sweeping the globe. Bird flu, swine flu, SARS, MERS, the list goes on and on.
May 6, 2020
Obesity and the Virus
Coronavirus makes sick people sicker. Most healthy people who contract the virus recover with no ill effects. It complicates unhealthy people's problems. Breathing difficulties compound the effects of whatever else ails them. Moderate illnesses are escalated to the intensive care unit. More severe cases require mechanical help to breathe. Terminally ill patients may be pushed over the edge. Most of the coronavirus deaths reported are from that group. The contribution of cancer, heart attack, and more has been neglected in public health accounting. The coronavirus deaths reported have shifted medical statistics more than they have added to the country's death totals. The coronavirus is just another bad flu.
Common killers like heart disease and cancer certainly contribute to the mortality and morbidity of coronavirus. Medical statisticians are uncovering a common disorder with a surprisingly large effect. Obesity aggravates the severity of coronavirus infections among otherwise healthy individuals—especially younger ones. The fatter they are, the more likely they are to end up in intensive care—and the longer they are likely to stay there. The Body Mass Index is a convenient measure of obesity. In the metric system, a BMI around 25 is good; 17 is model skinny, and 30 is obese. There are dozens of BMI calculators available on line. You can calculate your own using a simple formula
BMI = 703 x weight (pounds) / height (inches) ** 2
Scientists in the UK and elsewhere are finding a BMI of 30 doubles the potential trouble with coronavirus. 35 doubles it again. Fatality is not uncommon for the super obese with BMIs of 40 and above.
The correlation of coronavirus severity with obesity is suspected to be a contributor to the severity of the pandemic in the American black and Latin communities. Both exhibit higher than average rates of obesity and diabetes; both are suffering disproportionately from coronavirus.
April 29, 2020
Locked down? Astronauts are locked down for six months at a time. Three to six of them share the international Space Station. With a sixty million dollar cab fare, nobody commutes to and from the ISS. The astronauts eat, sleep and work there—almost never going outside.
The Space Station is the size of a small mansion. It boasts government-blah dŽcor, but offers the world's greatest views. Six months is a long time. Working from "home" helps astronauts avoid cabin fever. Scientists and engineers aboard perform experiments that could not be run on the ground: How do plants and animals grow in zero gravity? What about crystals? Or fires? Busy beats bored.
At the same time, the ISS astronauts are part of NASA's effort to discover how humans could travel in space. Prolonged exposure to weightlessness saps muscle tone. Astronauts find returning to gravity challenging. Many need wheelchairs. How will the first Mars visitors cope? Can exercise in transit help?
Space poses mental problems as well as physical ones. How can those travelers handle the stress of extended travel in small spaces? A one-way trip the Mars is eight months jammed in a can with fellow astronauts. Mars explorers will spend another eight months or so on the ground operating out of a cramped structure, before another long ride back to Earth. NASA simulations of the ground phase suggest psychological issues in it—without even considering the effects of extended isolation coming and going.
Could you make the trip without losing your marbles? A lot of us couldn't. After two months staring at four walls, overeating and drinking are rising. Domestic abuse and suicide are too. You can do better. This is the opportunity to do that thing you never had time for. How about polishing your resume for a better job? Volunteer: there are lots of lonely people out there who would love a call from you right now.
Coronavirus is a paper tiger. But for the media hype, COVID-19 would be just another in the seemingly endless parade of cold and flu mutations sweeping the planet. Left alone, 2020 would have been just dŽjˆ vu all over again. The same cast of deathly-ill people would die of respiratory complications. Millions would call in sick and miss days or weeks of work. Business would go on, and nobody would lose a job.
COVID-19 is a cousin of the common cold virus. Both are coronaviruses. They spread the same way. Identical protective measures work against both. Wash your hands, and keep them away from your face. Sanitize surfaces around you. Exercise, eat, and sleep well. Avoid sick people. Self quarantine or seek medical help if you come down with anything. Locking the rest of the population in solitary confinement is overreaction.
Normally reputable newspapers have descended to the level of supermarket tabloids. Irresponsible reporting has created panic, and government has overreacted to it. Neither journalists nor politicians understand medical statistics. Hapless victims of this misinformation are plagued with pantries of perishing perishables, and lifetime supplies of toilet paper. Millions are out of work; their retirement funds have evaporates. Domestic abuse and suicides are rising. Let's return to reality before hysteria makes things even worse.
Water! Water! Everywhere! We find it wherever we look. Solid water sublimes off comets as they fly near the sun. Rocky bodies beyond the Goldilocks zone are covered by ice. So are Earth's poles. Space probes even find ice secreted in shady places on the moon and red-hot Mercury. As technology advances, we've begun detecting water vapor in the atmospheres of planets beyond our own solar system.
The liquid form is special. Life probably began in the liquid water of Earth's oceans. Chemically, living things—from protozoa to people—are still just polluted seawater. Life as we know it requires liquid water, so we search for it.
Liquid water flows on the surface of the Earth, and no other body of the solar system. Only planets with temperatures between the freezing and boiling points of water can host liquid water on their surfaces. Sky surveys have identified hundreds of planets around nearby stars that satisfy that criterion.
Liquid water flows under the icy surface of many bodies in the solar system. Antarctica has rivers and lakes of fresh water beneath miles of ice. Several moons of Jupiter and Saturn host lakes and seas under thick layers of ice. New Horizons data suggest that even distant Pluto may have deep water below its frozen exterior. Probes of Antarctic lakes find life under that ice shelf. Could life have evolved in other ice-covered waters?
April 8, 2020
Drugs and coronavirus
Drugs and viruses don't mix. Coronavirus—the current scourge—is a chest cold that can make healthy people sick and sick people sicker. Coronavirus fatalities parallel existing heath problems.
Weakened lungs are especially susceptible to coronavirus damage. The deaths in China and Italy—and even the age and gender disparities among them—correlate with tobacco usage in those countries. Millions of Americans quit smoking decades ago. Their lungs have recovered to varying degrees. Some suffer from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD); others breathe free. The effect of coronavirus infection on these reclaimed lungs remains to be seen.
Other lung-damaging habits are expected to have comparable consequences. Incapacitating and sometimes fatal consequences of vaping have been in the news in recent months. E-cigarettes are new, and their effects not fully understood. Their damage to the lungs should make their users as susceptible to coronavirus as tobacco smokers. Marijuana has long been illegal, so its injury to the lungs hasn't been as well studied as tobacco's. The two are expected to be comparable. Marijuana users should be about as vulnerable to coronavirus as tobacco users.
Most illegal drugs damage their users' health in general and their lungs in particular. Opioids slow breathing. Combined with coronavirus infection, reduced levels of oxygen in the bloodstream lower the thresholds for brain damage or death by overdose. Methamphetamines constrict blood vessels throughout the body. Constricted blood flow taxes the heart and reduces the efficiency of the lungs. Coronavirus infection adds insult to that injury. Narcotics and coronaviruses are a dangerous combination. Watch for a string of big-name entertainers' deaths blamed on the coronavirus.
April 1, 2020
Polio created a true medical crisis. Americans over seventy remember growing up during the polio epidemic of the early fifties. Our mothers dreaded summer. That was polio season. Every year, kids all over town came down with the disease. Polio wasn't a bad cold that lasted a week or two. Polio could be a life sentence. Polio killed a few thousand kids and maimed tens of thousands more. Victims' lungs might be damaged or disabled. Many lived out their lives with "iron lungs" breathing for them. Nerve damage crippled many of our playmates. Every school had a couple of kids who walked funny, a few more on crutches, plus some in wheel chairs. Polio vaccine ended that horror. Memory faded with time.
Our parents were part of "The Greatest Generation." They had survived the Great Depression and World War II. They didn't panic or retreat from the polio epidemic. They fought the menace with contributions to the March of Dimes and soldiered on. They would be ashamed of their grandchildren's wimpy overreaction to the coronavirus.
March 25, 2020
Binary Star Systems
Planets pop up in the strangest places. Five hundred years ago, the Inquisition burnt heretics at the stake for suggesting the stars in the sky might be suns with planets of their own. Thirty years ago, astronomers finally discovered a planet outside our own solar system. A nearby star staggered as it moved across the sky. Its massive planet was invisible, but the star's alternating jerks and starts told its tale. Since that discovery, starwatchers have looked at sun-like stars, then dwarfs and giants. They have cataloged over four thousand planets around nearby stars. Astrophysicists estimate there are at least a billion stars in our Milky Way Galaxy alone.
Advances in search technology open new frontiers in the quest for alien planets. Roughly half of the points of light in the sky turn out to be systems of two or more stars orbiting one another. Variations in the light from orbiting pairs mask the subtler effects of any captive planets. Observations spanning many cycles are necessary to distinguish a planet's effects against the variable starlight background. Only a few fast binaries have been assessed so far. Those proved to have planets.
A new study looks at the planet-forming discs around nineteen young binary systems. (Those vast dust clouds are easier to map than the planets they will eventually spawn,) The planets of binaries detected so far orbit in the plane of their stars. Closer pairs orbiting faster had dust clouds revolving in that plane as well. Slower, more distant, pairs were different. Their dust clouds could be skewed as much as ninety degrees out of plane and might favor one star over the other. If these preliminary data prove to representative, they may offer new insight into the common phenomenon of binary formation.
March 18, 2020
The coronavirus pandemic is not Armageddon. Contrary to media hype, you are not going to die of the coronavirus. Many Americans will catch this nasty contagious disease. Only hypochondriacs like being sick. It promises to be an unpleasant experience for the rest of us. 98% of coronavirus victims will recover with no lasting effects. The other 2% will die when the coronavirus aggravates a serious pre-existing condition.
We would all rather avoid this epidemic. Fortunately, things you should already be doing can reduce your chances of being infected. The coronavirus is a close relative of the common cold virus. It spreads the same way, so ramp up your good health practices for this malicious cousin.
á Wash your hands vigorously. Use hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available. Contaminated hands introduce the germs to your nose and mouth.
á Touch your face with your hands as little as possible.
á Gargle. Coronavirus is thought to incubate in the throat before attacking the lungs. The blue stuff that used to say "Fewer Colds Milder Colds" on the label might nip the virus invasion in the bud.
á Skip shaking hands until the pandemic passes. Fist bumps are in these days.
á Avoid touching possibly contaminated surfaces—especially in public places. A paper towel is a good way to open a public bathroom door.
á Sanitize surfaces people touch frequently. Bleaches are effective. Use hydrogen peroxide on sensitive areas, and chlorine bleaches wherever you can.
á Stay away from sick people.
If you feel sick, keep the disease to yourself.
á Stay away from well people. Stay home from work or school. Go out only to seek medical help toward your recovery.
á Get plenty of bed rest.
á Antibiotics don't work on viruses. Eat chicken noodle soup instead. Complications like bronchitis or pneumonia may call for antibiotics. Consult your physician about medical measures.
If you caring for an infected individual at home, try not to catch their disease,
á Isolate the patient—preferably in an area that is easily sanitized.
á Limit contact with the patient. Reduce the time spent with the patient, and minimize physical contact. Wash your hands often and thoroughly.
á Decontaminate the patient's area with disinfectant sprays, and bleaches regularly.
á Ask for help.
Stay calm. Don't overreact. We will get through this year's pandemic paranoia if we just exercise common sense in our health practices. I'm not sure what the toilet paper hysteria is all about. Probably just some harmless prank to sell newspapers.
The CDC and other government medical agencies deal with deadly outbreaks in a calm and rational manner when they are plagued by media hype. Read a fictionalized account of one campaign in my medical mystery The Utah Flu.
March 11, 2020
The Search for Alien Life
Chauvinism limits our search for life. The assumption that life anywhere must resemble life here could lead us to overlook alternatives. Because Earth life requires liquid water, the search for life becomes a search for water. Other candidate solvents like methane are never considered. Because Earth life evolved on this small rocky planet, the hunt may overlook exo-planets far different from our own.
The search for life focuses on rocky planets in the narrow Goldilocks Zone where liquid water could exist. That's over-restrictive. Even in our own solar system, there's liquid water under the ice on several moons far beyond that zone. Saturn's moon Titan has an Earth-like ecosystem based on liquid methane.
Life on a planet should show up in its air. The evolution of plants shifted early Earth's from a blend of carbon dioxide and nitrogen to a mixture of oxygen and nitrogen. Astronomers are just beginning to probe the atmospheres of the convenient exoplanets. Initial data on one or two large planets of the nearby red giant star K2-18 hint at life may be possible on larger planets. The planets appear to be between super-Earths and mini-Neptunes. There's water vapor there. Computer models of these planets suggest any oceans would be under high temperatures and pressures. Those conditions argue against the possibility of life there. Given the abundance of life around Earth's deep-water volcanic vents, those conditions don't sound like deal breakers. Additional data shows less methane and ammonia accompanying their water. That suggests some active chemistry is occurring there. Could it be some form of life?
The James Webb telescope—about to be launched—will probe these planets' atmospheres in greater detail, and survey hundreds of additional candidates for life—even if we don't really know what we're looking for.
March 4, 2020
Lab tests STAT! The faster your doctor sees your test results: the sooner your recovery begins. Your prognosis depends on speed. Delay can kill more than just your good mood. Drones are going to save lives at University of California at San Diego hospitals.
Drone transport systems are being developed at the University Health Campus. Traffic and parking are atrocious there. The slowest step in a patient's assessment may be delivering specimens to a lab a block away. Soon, drones will hop over bottlenecks to expedite lab work on campus.
When the bugs are worked out, the University drone system will set a new standard for medical care. Off-campus facilities will have to keep pace. Plans to extend to nearby sites are already in the works. Watch for drones flying over your neighborhood soon. Once they deliver specimens STAT, can pizza STAT be far behind?
February 26, 2020
The smell of pedophiles
Dogs are sniffing out pedophiles. Deviants like them engage in kiddie porn and other sick images on their computers, on their cell phones, and on their tablets. Electronic searches with warrants can uncover incriminating caches of such material, so users avoid storing them there. Most browsers allow viewing run-of-the-mill adult entertainment from the web without leaving a trace on their machines. (Their Internet provider knows what they watched.) Illicit material exploiting children comes from sources outside the regular web. The perverts who collect those things hide them from authorities on separate dedicated devices—thumb drives, hard drives, and more.
Human investigators may miss hidden electronics, but their canine associates don't. Electronics have an inherent odor that dogs can sense. Thirty-one dogs have been trained to lead their handlers to concealed devices. The program is just beginning, but it has already resulted in arrest and conviction of some people who endanger our children.
February 19, 2020
Weedy sea dragons
Australian dragons are breeding in San Diego. The land down under boasts a menagerie of exotic creatures. The surprises don't end at the water's edge. Australian seas host their own collection of unique creatures. The dragons lingering among the kelp forests there are remarkable. These six-inch long cousins of sea horses masquerade as seaweed. Their bodies look like sticks; leaf-like appendages complete the camouflage effect.
These bizarre creatures are rare in captivity, and have almost never reproduced there. The Birch Aquarium in San Diego announced successful breeding of weedy sea dragons—capping a twenty-five year effort there. Curators created a huge sea dragon-friendly tank and populated it with two species: weedy sea dragons and leafy sea dragons. Live birth produced two one-inch-long weedy babies. Both newborns are reportedly eating and growing. The Birch Aquarium's success inspires hope for captive breeding programs to preserve these endangered species.
February 12, 2020
Hit and run
A hit-and-run collision may have skewed our solar system. There's evidence that the early solar system was deformed in at least one grazing impact with a passing star and its planetary system.
Suns and planets form in a swirling collapse of an interstellar cloud. Solar systems like ours arise in crowded interstellar nurseries. Models suggest star collisions are common early on. Accompanying planets are then jostled, swapped, or ejected in those impacts. Planets form from a disc revolving about the same axis as the star growing at the cloud's center. The planetary systems spin around the common axis. Our solar system is still a lot like that today.
Only a major catastrophe could have perturbed the dynamics of our solar system. Pluto's orbit is ow far from circular and tilted out of the plane of the other planets. Neptune and its moons spin backwards around an axis 97¡ off the planetary plane. Neptune and Pluto must have been on the wrong side of the sun when a passing star grazed the early solar system.
February 5, 2020
There's more to sunshine than just sunlight. Beyond the sun's welcome warmth and light, there are hazardous emissions. Ultraviolet light is high-energy light. The solar wind is a shower of nuclear radiation. Earth's atmosphere filters out most of the sun's ultraviolet. Earth's magnetic field deflects most of the dangerous nuclear radiation toward the planer's poles. Life evolved on Earth protected from the harmful rays of the sun.
This was all academic until humans ventured beyond the protection of Mother Earth. People live and work in space stations today. We've been to the moon and we're going back to stay. Orbiting electronics have become an integral part of everyday life on Earth. People and their computers communicate via satellite. Planes, ships, and automobiles navigate by GPS. Eyes in the sky track hurricanes and tsunamis. We're leaving the comforts of home behind.
To venture into space, we need to protect ourselves from the environment of space. The radiation levels of the solar wind challenge the survival of men and machines. Protection is heavy, awkward, and expensive. Good engineering practice aims for survival against hazard levels up to twice normal. Storms on the surface of the sun can erupt with many times that fury. A powerful radiation pulse can cause transient or permanent disruptions of human assets in space.
Weather on the sun can affect human life on earth and in space. Science is working to understand solar weather well enough to predict dangerous events there. Advanced warnings would support protective responses. The Parker probe is dipping into the sun's atmosphere to unravel some of its mysteries. (The surface of the sun is 11,000¡F; the atmosphere above it is 3,000,000¡F. No one knows why.) The world's newest solar telescope—the Inouye in Hawaii—has collected high-resolution images of the sun's exterior. They show bubbles "as big as Texas" appearing on the plasma surface. Continuing study by Parker and Inouye will help us understand out host star well enough to anticipate its angry eruptions.
January 29, 2020
There's a new kid in the neighborhood. Watching the sun's nearest neighbor, Proxima Centauri, suggests she may host not one, but two planets. The earth-size planet Proxima b has been known for some time. Now spectral analysis indicates it may have a heavier companion Proxima c.
Four thousand exoplanets have been discovered when they passed directly between their home star and our observatories. Slight dips in a star's intensity signals a planet's transit. How large the decrease is and how long it lasts tells more about the planet. It is surprising that so many planets rotate in this narrow plane.
Many other planets revolve around their suns on paths that do not block our view. Astronomers watch their stars staggering across the sky to study these out–of-plane stars. It's a tail-wags-the-dog effect. Precise measures of a star's light tell how fast it is traveling. We can measure the oscillation; it tells a lot about the planet.
Proxima Centauri's planets don't lie in a convenient plane. Initial scrutiny of the star's light revealed an earth-size planet orbiting every eleven days. Careful examination of seventeen years of its history suggests a second planet—six times earth's size—orbiting with a five-year period.
Should initial estimates about Proxima c be confirmed, it may offer an unique opportunity to study exo-planets. It's far enough removed from its star and near enough to us that the James Watt telescope may be able to image it.
January 22, 2020
Under Ice Rover
Is there life under alien ice? The moons Europa and Enceladus host vast oceans beneath miles-thick layers of ice. Other moons and Pluto may as well. These waters are cold and dark, but they are the most likely spots for other life in our solar system.
The seas of Europa and Enceladus were among the surprise discoveries from interplanetary probes. Moons with more water than Earth exhibited strange magnetic fields. Their cryovolcanos spewing liquid water were unexpected.
Future NASA missions will return to Europa. They'll map the surface in detail, and land on the surface. Access to the seas beneath miles of ice is far in the future. NASA is testing a prototype for an under ice rover when that happens. The Buoyant Rover for Under Ice Exploration (BRUIE) is being tested in waters under ice in Alaska and in Antarctica. The test vehicle is injected into water under the ice. It floats up against the ice above. There, its wide saw tooth wheels drive along the ceiling. Lights and cameras on board return pictures of the bottom of the ice sheet. Robot prodigies of this machine may someday explore the worlds under alien ice.
January 15, 2020
There may be a pill for that. Exercise and fasting can delay or reverse the debilitation of aging. Medical science has long sought ways to achieve the same results.
Michigan scientists have identified a protein that mimics the benefits of exercise in flies and mice. Means of stimulating its production have yet to be identified.
California scientists have correlated age-related muscular degeneration with loss of mitochondria—the organelles that provide energy to cells. Their studies of dark chocolate and other heart-healthy foods found they stimulated mitochondria replacement. That research identified the hormone responsible for that benefit. Development of an exercise-in-a-bottle pill will begin shortly.
January 8, 2020
Water on the moon
Watch for black ice on the moon. Computer models suggest there's ice we can't see at the bottoms of craters near the moon's poles. Everywhere else on the moon, ice boils away in the monthly solar heating. Holes near the poles have been frozen for the last couple of billion years—ideal for ice accumulation. Lunar orbiters have looked for polar ice there, but can't seen it. There's too little reflected light to tell what's there. We'll need boots-on-the-ground to verify lunar ice, and determine if there's enough there to be worth mining.
Comets and meteors have bombarded the moon for four billion years. Those cold rocks from the depths of space carried ice with them: water ice as well as carbon dioxide ice, methane ice, and more. The ices stayed where they landed until the sun came out. Then they evaporated into wispy clouds. After sundown, those vapors became frost on the rocks beneath them agaibn. The process repeated the next month—and every month thereafter until the gases either found a safe location or were destroyed by the sun's ultraviolet rays. Computer simulations from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab suggest as much as 15 or 20% of the ice comets brought may have ended up in the polar cold traps. How much that is remains to be seen.
January 1, 2020
Once upon a time, Venus probably had liquid water—maybe even oceans.
Our twin planet spent its first few billion years in the Goldilocks zone. ThatÕs the region around the sun where liquid water could exist on a planetÕs surface. Any closer and it would be too hot. Any farther and it would be too cold. In between, itÕs just right.
Venus lived its first few billion years in the Goldilocks zone, but then Armageddon happened. The juvenile sun matured. It glowed hotter as its fusion fires raged. The Goldilocks zone boundary stretched beyond Venus. Temperatures on the planet rose and its oceans evaporated. Solar flares and the sunÕs ultraviolet radiation split water molecules in the upper atmosphere. Oxides, hydroxides, and peroxides formed along with molecular oxygen, ozone and hydrogen. The ultra light hydrogen molecules diffused into space. Gradually the planetÕs hydrogen supply dwindled. Temperatures were high and leftover oxygen reacted with carbon or sulfur to create todayÕs Venusian atmosphere.
Life as we know it requires liquid water, so thatÕs where we look for it. Life might have evolved there during VenusÕs first few billion years. Armageddon may have annihilated itÉand even any evidence that it ever existed. WeÕll want to look for hard signs of it—and any extremophile descendants—when we develop the technology to explore Venus. Probes last hours in todayÕs hot, corrosive, crushing atmosphere.
Armageddon awaits Earth. WeÕre next. Earth formed in the heart of the young sunÕs Goldilocks zone. The warming sun extends the habitable zone farther every day. The inner boundary is approaching. Earth will repeat VenusÕs fate. Within two billion years, EarthÕs temperature will exceed the boiling point of water. Long before then, our oceans will have evaporated and our hydrogen drifted away.
December 25, 2019
The Bad-at-Math Tax
Did you pay your bad at math tax? The lottery is a tax on people who donÕt do the math. The state pays out thirty cents on the dollar. Play ten dollars and get three back. The mathematically challenged gambler ÒwinsÓ three dollars. Math majors point out that the state kept the other seven—thatÕs the bad at math tax. The gambler keeps Òwinning,Ó but his money keeps disappearing. Maybe next time, he prays: Lord, let me break even. I need the money.
The payout is a little shy of the full three dollars. The state hangs on to a bit of it for bait. The usual Powerball hoopla is an extreme example. News of the billion-plus-dollar jackpot spreads like the plague. People line up to pour billions more into the pot. Their return on investment will be incredible, they think. The state rakes its share off the top. In one recent case, three players and the Internal Revenue Service split the $1.6 billion that was left. (The IRS got the big half.) The rest sighed next time.
To paraphrase the lottery ads: You canÕt lose it you donÕt play.
December 18, 2019
Some exo-planets have water
Astronomers have discovered water on some exo-planets. In less than fifty years, technology has advanced from detecting hot Jupiters to discovering Earth-size planets and beyond. Technology is just beginning to examine those planets beyond our own solar system. Initial successes have been achieved in investigating the atmospheres of a few giant exo-planets. Only the very brightest materials can be seen so far.
Water seems to be widespread throughout our solar system and beyond. The strong infrared activity that makes it Earth's principal greenhouse gas allows its remote detection in the atmospheres of far off planets. Carbon dioxide's very weak infrared spectrum would not be measureable. Methane has been nominated as an indicator of life. Its intense infrared spectrum would render it easily detectable. None has been noted in initial results.
New telescopes and refined technology will expand the catalog of detectable chemicals and extend to smaller planets. The European Space Agency's "Characterizing Exoplanets Satellite" (CHEOPS) will take the first look at exo-planets in the super-Earth to Neptune size range. We'll gain more understanding of the worlds around us. They'll provide a mirror to better appreciate our own planet.
December 11, 2019
"Dog years" don't work. Humans live seven times longer than dogs, but dogs' lives don't just parallel ours along the way. A one-year-old dog may have puppies, but there are few seven-year-old human mothers around. My thirteen-year-old Scotty is nowhere near as frail as my ninety-one-year-old neighbor lady.
A dog spends most of its life in the prime of its life. A new study from the University of California at San Diego offers a more accurate way of comparing a dog's age to a human's. Medical scientists studying the aging process have identified DNA degeneration as a useful marker for age. They demonstrated a progression in DNA samples from 320 humans ranging from 1 to 103. To reinforce their hypothesis that this process was an integral part of the physiology of aging, they looked for comparable results in dogs. A survey of more than a hundred Labrador Retrievers demonstrated a similar aging pattern, but not at the same rate. Puppies matured rapidly, reaching the development of a thirty-one-year-old human at age one and forty-two at age two. Adult dog aging slowed after that, reaching the "dog years" formula of seventy at age ten. Aging beyond that laged traditional wisdom. My thirteen-year-old is the equivalent of a spry seventy-two-year-old human.
For the mathematically inclined, the researchers published the best fit of their aging data. They found
Human Age = 16 * ln (Dog Age) + 31
for Labrador retrievers. The results vary significantly for other breeds. You can calculate your dog's "human" age with the calculator on your cell phone if you turn it sideways. Or you can just be happy knowing your dog will enjoy years of happy and healthy life with you.
December 4, 2019
Black hole planets
Four thousand planets are only the tip of the iceberg. There are an estimated billion planets in our Milky Way Galaxy alone—a billion billion within the range of modern telescopes. Five hundred years ago, heretics were burnt at the stake for suggesting stars might be suns with planets. Fifty years ago, there were nine planets and suspicion there might be more out there somewhere. Today, we've seen four thousand around nearby stars and are confident these are just the beginning.
As technology advances, we're finding planets around every spec of light in the sky. It's not just stars like our sun that have planets. Giant stars, dwarf stars and pulsars have stars too—plenty of them. We've even detected a few rogue planets flying free of any stars. Rogues are dark objects ejected from their birthplace in some cosmic collision long past.
Planets accompanying stars are born from the collapsing interstellar cloud forming the star itself. Dust and debris not incorporated into the nascent star swirl around it. Bits and pieces of that protoplanetary disc bump into one another from time to time. Sometimes they stick and the chunks get bigger. After a few million years, planet-scale pieces evolve. The known planets are believed to have developed this way.
Theoretical calculations suggest an additional source of even more planets. Super massive black holes are shrouded in clouds of inter stellar debris thousands of times larger than those that grow into solar systems. Captive clouds and stars have been detected spiraling to their death around such black holes. Models of their clouds suggest conditions in their far reaches might be amenable to planet formation. Thousands of super-earths could orbit light-years from super massive black holes. The technology to look for these postulated planets does not exist yet.
November 27, 2019
Imagine being immersed in the exotic world of inner space. It's dark there—darker than the darkest night. Exotic shapes beyond your wildest imagination glide past. Here and there, faint flashes of light beckon. You are spying on the most alien environment in the solar system: Earth's oceans.
Few humans have ventured beyond the top hundred feet of the ocean. Professional divers work down to two hundred feet or so in cumbersome diving suits. Ocean scientists reach miles deep in massive metal spheres called bathyspheres. They study the strange world down there and its bizarre occupants through narrow windows. Once saucer-sized, windows as large as dinner plates are now possible.
Emerging materials are opening the depths. Strong transparent plastics like polycarbonates (bullet-proof glass) and acrylics are able to withstand deep ocean pressures. They make larger windows possible. In fact, clear plastic spheres are providing unprecedented all around views. An acrylic bubble with walls six-and-a-half inches thick has taken people three quarters of a mile down. One under construction is expected to reach twice that depth with one-foot thick walls. Greater depths still require classical metal spheres—for now.
Long the province of ocean scientists and the military, plastic bubble submarines are opening the depths to recreational use. Richer billionaires can flaunt personal subs for their mega yachts. Models built to carry up to seven passengers are available for dives lasting up to twelve hours. (Their interiors are luxurious, but don't include bathrooms. Every bathysphere has sign posted on the entrance hatch PB4UGo.) Their guests are viewing the denizens of the deep in their natural surroundings.
November 20, 2019
Invasive heart procedures may be overrated. A major medical study designed to display the advantages of stents and bypass surgery disappointed its proponents. In extreme situations such as heart attack or left coronary artery blockage, prompt surgical intervention is critical. In less time-critical circumstances, noninvasive medical treatment options proved as good as surgery.
Over five thousand patients were selected for long-tem monitoring. These were nonemergency heart patients diagnosed with moderate to severe coronary blockage. The study divided them into two groups: one half would be treated with drug therapy; the other half would receive standard surgical treatment. The control group procedures combined cholesterol-reducing drugs, blood pressure control drugs, and blood thinners. Members of the other group were treated with stents or bypasses according to standard medical practice.
The two groups fared equally well over the three and a half year duration of the test. Subsequent heart attacks and deaths were evenly distributed among the test groups. Some 11% of these heart patients suffered a heart attack and 4% died. No advantage for surgical intervention was demonstrated.
The drug therapy alternative seemed to offer some advantages beyond just survival.
á It costs a whole lot less.
á It avoids the stress of surgery.
á It avoids exposure to a hospital environment.
á It treats all blockages—not just the main problem ones,
á It doesn't preclude the surgical option if things get worse;
November 13, 2019
Feeling tired, drained, trapped inside? Blame it on the calendar. You've got SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder. It's winter and our bodies are missing the activity, the fresh air and the sunshine of summer. The causes of SAD are not well understood, but the effects are. We feel overly tired and crave sleep. We feel emotionally drained, even depressed. Cabin fever draws the walls in around us. We mope around the house—eating too much and doing too little.
We can hang around the house waiting for spring, or we can fight back. Follow the sun south for the winter. I hear Acapulco is nice and Australia is balmy this time of year. There are more practical things we can do around home. Spend more time outside when the weather permits. Soak up all the sunshine you can get. A little physical activity will chase away the boredom. Besides, it's the antidote for Christmas cookies. Share what you're doing with a friend to chase away winter loneliness. Supplement your diet with serotonin and vitamin D to get your body back to summertime levels. Increase your garlic intake to stimulate your nervous system. Don't wait until New Year's to make these resolutions. Spring is just around the corner.
It could be worse. You could be a Martian colonist. Sunshine there is only 40% as intense as here. A Martian summer day is as dreary as a winter day on Earth. Most of a colonist's day will be spent crammed inside a NASA habitat. Simulated Mars missions have survived cabin fever up to six months. Longer mock missions have been terminated for social and psychological problems in less than two years. Mars colonizing is a life sentence.