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.
Click any cover to read an excerpt and buy the book.
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.
November 6, 2019
The Ghosts of Planets Past
Presumably, physics and chemistry are the same as far as the eye can see. It's comforting to get independent verification from far away. A recent study suggests that rocky planets hundreds of light years away have geology similar to our own.
We've sent geologists to the moon, and robots to the planet Mars and a couple of asteroids. Orbiters and landers have surveyed all the planets in our solar system. The geology of planets farther away is beyond the state-of-the-science. The remains of ancient planets provide a glimpse at what they once were.
Common stars, like the sun, glow for billions of years and then die in a blaze of glory. Their final explosion engulfs the inner planets. Those within a couple of hundred million miles are shattered into clouds of dust. Those clouds go on to circle the glowing ember of the collapsed star—a white dwarf. Planetary debris partially absorbs and scatters the dwarf's light when it passes by.
UCLA astronomers have analyzed the spectra of planetary debris clouds transiting six white dwarfs within a thousand light years of earth. In addition to the hydrogen and helium of the spent stars, they see evidence of silicon, magnesium, carbon, and oxygen. Their chemical conditions are comparable to those in terrestrial minerals. These are believed to be the remains of once rocky planets. Iron from the shattered planets is found in iron oxide—rust. These rocky planets of long ago seem to have been made of the same stuff our planet is. That reinforces our confidence that the Earth-sized planets astronomers are discovering may be a lot like ours.
October 30, 2019
Earth" Past, Present, and Future
The sky is a time machine. Our past, present and future is scrawled across it. Billions of stars out there have shown us the life cycle of the sun and other stars from cradle to grave. We've seen stars born in swirling clouds of debris. We've watched suns live, grow old and die. Our sun is a healthy middle-aged star with a couple billion good years left.
We've begun to learn where our solar system came from. Many of the stars around us have planets. Some are younger than us, some our age, and some older. Emerging technology allows us to examine them for the first time. We've watched stellar dust clouds collapse. We've detected mature planetary systems like ours. Our world probably evolved along the same lines. Details will emerge as we collect more snapshots from the stars around us.
A skyful of exo-planets will show us Earth's history and its fate. Data suggest the planet and its moon formed out of debris from the collision of two rocky proto planets. What happened next is in dispute. The answer is in the exo-planets. Ten years ago, a dust cloud thought to be from just such an interplanetary impact was spotted around a young sun. The latest observations indicate that cloud is heating up. Something is happening out there. Maybe a new planet or two will form, maybe not. Humans won't be around long enough to find out. Systems just a few million years more advanced may fill in some of the blanks about the early Earth.
We'll see planets in all stages of development as we explore the planets of alien solar systems. Arranged in chronological order, their pictures will create a video of the Earth past, present and future. Watch for the movie coming soon to a planetarium near you.
October 23, 2019
Movie robots walk erect—real robots, not so much. Walking on two legs is a trick robots have yet to master. Humans spend a year or more learning the art of standing up, balancing and walking. A few other higher primates can walk erect, but often revert to using all four limbs. State-of-the-art robots can walk across a laboratory floor, but stumble in more challenging terrain. Reaction and recovery from a stumble are problematic.
Birds have mastered walking on two legs without large brains or years of practice. Herons strut along the shore or wade through cloudy water without a care. A quick flick of a wing fixes any misstep. Ducks run across the water—wings flapping—to get airborne. Flight makes walking easier.
A robot that walks like a bird has advantages over one that walks like an ape. A Caltech prototype uses vertical thrusters to stabilize walking on more than just flat ground. Leonardo (LEgs ON Aerial Robotic DrOne) can stand on one leg like a flamingo and pirouette like a ballet dancer. It can walk uphill and down like an ostrich. It can hop and fly short distances robin. When it stumbles, its thrusters keep it from falling. Future robots equipped with this technology may be able to work in places where humans can't. Toxic and radioactive environments won't challenge them. They'll be able to explore areas on Mars and Titan too rugged for rovers.
October 16, 2019
One-Way Ticket to Mars
There's no way home from Mars. Rockets big enough to take people to Mars are on the drawing boards today. Rockets to bring them back are a different story. It took a three thousand ton rocket just to take three men to the moon for a week. It'll take something bigger to carry an astronaut crew on a two-year journey to Mars. Their ride home would have to be almost as big. We have no means of delivering that much weight to Mars.
Weight reduction is the sine qua non for any space mission. NASA is searching for ways astronauts can live off the land on Mars. They have visions of robots 3-D printing facilities before astronauts arrive. Recycling and agriculture would be essential for any extended stay. On-site production of propellants might enable a return voyage. An unfueled vehicle would be less challenging to send to Mars—probably in segments. Martian geology may identify candidate materials. Both methane and water have been identified on Mars. Methane would be a fair fuel, but not without an adequate oxidizer. Water could be separated into hydrogen and oxygen. Further processing could address handling and storage issues. Propellant production on Mars may be feasible.
Whatever fuel and oxidizer combination is selected, the ultimate problem is not raw materials, but energy. Propellants must store the energy to move the return rocket from Mars back to Earth. That energy has to come from somewhere. Some robots roaming Mars today use solar energy. Even when the sun is shining, solar energy is only 40% as intense there as it is on Earth. It's weak and intermittent. Newer robots use nuclear energy sources. These could be scaled up to useful production levels. Nuclear powered propellant production seems the most promising ticket home É until nuclear rocket propulsion becomes available.
October 9, 2019
The Palomar Observatory is an engineering masterpiece. It can stay focused on a selected point in the sky all night. To do that, the telescope's massive superstructure with its twenty-two ton mirror rotates west-to-east just compensating for earth's east-to-west rotation beneath it. Any vibration in transit would blur the image being collected. Precise engineering and control meets the demands for high resolution.
The telescope is housed in a building with the familiar observatory shape. In operation, a segment of the dome roof slides open to the sky. That slit rotates with the telescope as it tracks the night's objective. Tons of roof rotate on railroad wheels following a circular track. The entire outer structure is separate and unconnected to the telescope. The mechanical interference of operation is minimized by design.
The observatory was designed in the 1930's, and completed in the 1940's—long before electronic computers or calculators were available. Engineering was done in ink with slide rules back then. The precision demands of the telescope required hand calculations with logarithms.
The technology has not sat idle since the 1930's. The observatory remains an active center advancing astronomy technology. Digital cameras it pioneered have long since displaced film—in astronomy and in everyday life. Computer-based adaptive optics compensate for atmospheric turbulence. This technology has extended the reach of telescopes throughout the world.
The 200-inch Hale telescope was the world's largest telescope for forty-five years, and remains one of Earth's premier science instruments today. Research done there is responsible for much of our current understanding of the universe. Astronomers from Caltech and their partners schedule research every night that weather permits. Today, a parallel program searches the sky for unusual events. Computers analyze the output of a 48" wide field camera looking for changes. A half million hits are checked and the most promising sent to a larger 60" telescope for a closer look. Any special enough event may preempt the main telescope. They've discovered that Pluto is just one of at least a dozen similar-size dwarf planets out beyond Uranus. When two neutron stars collided, the Palomar Observatory was among the first to find the debris cloud and confirm the heavy elements in it. Palomar Observatory will be there to witness nature's next surprises whenever they happen.
October 2, 2019
Our national suicide rate is a disgrace. It is the second leading cause of death among young people, and tenth overall in the United States. Every ten minutes, one of us commits suicide. Three out of four gun deaths are suicides. Confiscating guns won't help. Most victims would just shift to their second-favorite lethal weapons: cars. Suicide-by-car numbers would rise even higher than they are today. Single-car fatal accidents would soar, and more wrong-way drivers would take more carloads of innocent people with them. Gun control won't reduce this death toll; proactive counseling might.
Suicide is a serious problem for active-duty military personnel and for veterans. We lose many fine people who have served our country. Military life demands adjustments, and many veterans encounter difficulties integrating back into normal life. Some have been wounded and have lost parts of their bodies. Others have been traumatized and have lost parts of their souls. Too many end up out of work and out on the street. Post Traumatic Shock Syndrome and Depression form an often lethal combination.
The Defense Department reaches out to distressed military personnel and their families. The Veterans' Administration provides limited support for troubled veterans. Both are stretched too thin. There's no time to wait for them when you meet a veteran on the edge. Help him or her connect with support systems available in the community. The economy is booming. Companies are hiring all over the country. Connect him or her with the suicide hotline 1-800-273-8255 if there's a chance it might be needed. There are trained counselors waiting to help 24/7.
September 25, 2019
Halloween came early to Area 51 this year. Two million signed up to storm the super secret Air Force base. A hundred-and-fifty true believers showed up for a glimpse of the extraterrestrial paraphernalia inside. Actually, the strangest creatures were outside the fence. On-line photos and videos showed a mini-Comic-Con crowd milling about out there. Alien costumes and astronaut get ups abounded There were even a few people wearing tinfoil hats to protect against alien brain scans. The only normal sights were the guard and his dog at the gate.
None of the visitors to "Alienstock" stormed Area 51. The true believers would have been disappointed if they had. Inside, they would have encountered engineers—not aliens. Area 51 geeks and nerds come from MIT, not Mars. They wear glasses, not goggles. They speak jargon, not Klingon. Area 51 staff may seem bizarre, but engineers enjoy a good in-joke as much as the rest of us. They have kept the alien legend alive since 1955. Without it, all work and no play would make Roswell a very dull place.
We owe thanks to the men and women of Area 51 for the work they do there. Now that the circus has left town, they and their extraterrestrial collaborators can get back to work.
September 18, 2019
Dolphins rule the ocean
Dolphins ruled the ocean for millions of years—waiting for aliens from dry land to catch up to them. Dolphins cared for their sick, worked and played together, communicated, used tools, and taught their young long before our ancestors climbed down out of the trees.
Their ocean mastery extended beyond their own species. Coordinated attacks kept predators at bay. Even Great White Sharks avoided them. Dolphins often took interest in other inhabitants and visitors to the deep. On-line videos show dolphins rescuing dogs that have fallen in and whales in trouble.
When the first primates stepped off shore, dolphins were there to welcome a second intelligent Earth species. They have protected human swimmers from the perils of the ocean—and from their own stupidity—ever since. Dolphins still drive fish into human nets for a share of the catch. They still frolic in the bow wake of human ships they could easily outrun.
The dolphin brain is probably second only to the human brain here on planet Earth. Vast differences between species and their environments limit rigorous ranking of intelligence between species. Relative brain weight is thought to be a good measure. The first duty of the brain is to operate the body. The fraction of the brain required to do that grows with the size of the animal. Only what's left over is available for thinking. Humans rank highest in this excess brain capacity. Killer whales—a large dolphin species—rank second.
Our fellow Earthlings are friendly and smart. They rule the two-thirds of our planet we have not explored. What might they have hidden there? My novel Fish Story tells of an advanced dolphin city beneath the Bermuda Triangle, and of captive humans kept in a zoo there.
September 11, 2019
Four billion years later, the solar system is still littered with bits and pieces left over from creation. Fragments ranging from sand grains to Studebakers burn up in our atmosphere every day. Bigger pieces hit Earth like atom bombs every century or so. The biggest impacts can be catastrophic.
Twenty years ago, Japanese astronomers discovered a half-mile wide object among the swarm of debris near Earth. Despite being huge and close, this body had gone undetected until now. It is virtually invisible because its surface is charcoal black and reflects barely 4% of incident sunlight. Careful study of this object, Ryugu, predicts it will not impact Earth in the foreseeable future. How many comparable hazards lurk undetected out there remains unknown.
The Japanese Space Agency sent a probe to learn more about this new class of Near-Earth Objects. Hayabusa2 is in orbit around Ryugu. Photos from there show it is a jumble of black rocks. The mission has landed four probes on the surface. They find two types of boulders resembling the oldest know meteorites. Both types are believed to have formed early in the creation of the solar system. The different pieces have clustered together over the four billion years since. A weak mutual attraction holds them together. Ryugu has an average density closer to ice than to stone, so its rocks must be loosely packed. There's enough gravity to keep the cluster from drifting apart, but not enough to crush it into a dense sphere.
Next, Hayabusa2 will attempt to return samples to Earth. The probe has already approached close to the surface to collect samples. It fired a bullet point blank into it and opened a sampling port to grab a bit of the backsplash. Scientists won't know if or how much rock was collected until the probe's return in December 2020.
September 4, 2019
Those who will not vaccinate endanger those who cannot vaccinate—the very young, the very old, and the very sick. Diseases that shouldn't even exist are rampant among the unvaccinated. The World Health Organization (WHO) is alarmed about the current European measles epidemic. The rate was high last year, but doubled to ninety thousand cases in early 2019.
Measles is a virulent disease easily controlled by vaccination. The measles virus spreads efficiently from one person to another. Germs that fail to find an unvaccinated host die. Containing the spread of disease requires most of the population be immunized. Sickness spreads through populations with inadequate immunity.
Containing measles requires an estimated 93+% vaccination rate. The current US rate is only 90%, so we are in danger of measles epidemics. Last year, visitors from Mexico and Israel imported measles that spread through unvaccinated enclaves across the country. An unvaccinated baby brought measles to San Diego from the Philippines three weeks ago. It is spreading. County health officials are working to contain it. The unvaccinated among us are the express route to epidemic—mostly due to the mistaken notion that vaccination causes autism. That blatant lie was debunked years ago, but continues to spread through a na•ve population.
Preventive medicine is rare among those who can't afford it. Poor migrants from third-world countries bring little immunity with them. Those who have had a disease are often protected from reinfection. Those who haven't aren't. Many of the victims of the European measles epidemic are among their immigrant population.
Measles isn't the only disease uncontrolled despite an effective vaccine. On the US border, mumps are spreading through the Central Americans concentrated there. Hundreds of migrants—and a few unvaccinated government workers—have contracted the disease. Victims are quarantined to limit the spread of the disease. It has not reached the general population—yet. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) are monitoring the situation. Vaccinate you and yours to opt out of the coming epidemic.
August 28, 2019
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 almost 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. Htree 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 21, 2019
Caron dioxide effect on the oceans
A quarter of all of Earth's CO2 ends up in Earth's oceans. CO2 doesn't dissolve in air or in water; it just mingles with them. CO2 molecules are neither attracted to nor repelled by water. They simply meander in, and occupy holes in liquid water. The molecules inside wander through the liquid lattice—some drifting deeper in, and others straying back out. The balance between those entering and those leaving determines the net amount contained. Increasing pressure of CO2 in the air above drives more CO2 into the water. Decreasing it reverses the process. Uncap a soda or pop a champagne cork and watch the excess bubble out.
This is not just for CO2. It's true for most of the constituents of air. N2, O2, and CO2 all behave the same way. Water has no affinity for any of them, so they all just mix with water. Warm the liquid: its holes collapse and the pressure for aliens to leave increases. The gases of life are plentiful in cold water. Abundant CO2 supports simple plant life that is the foundation of the local food chain. Plentiful food and ample O2 support the population. Life grows big in polar waters. Whales, polar bears, and king crabs thrive at the top of that food pyramid. Things are less rosy elsewhere. Tropical seas are warming. Fish suffocate and coral reefs are bleached.
Increasing levels of CO2 are beginning to alter the chemistry of the oceans in important ways. A little of the dissolved CO2 reacts with the water to form carbonic acid H2CO3—the stuff that gives carbonated beverages their taste. H2CO3 is a weak acid because a bit of it combines with water to create a hydrated proton H3O+ and a bicarbonate ion HCO3-. Sea life evolved in a slightly basic environment; some of it may not adapt well to becoming even slightly less basic. Shellfish could be among the first affected. The stuff their shells are made out of dissolves in acids. The populations of their natural predators would suffer if they were diminished. The effect would propagate throughout the food chain.
August 14, 2019
Robots get to go to the most fascinating places. Robots troll our oceans and drive our highways today. They're roaming the moon and colonizing Mars. NASA has announced the best trip yet: Titan. NASA plans to launch its Dragonfly mission to Titan in 2026.
Titan may be a scale model of the early Earth. It's the only other place with rivers and lakes and seas today. Radar data from the Cassini mission show mountains and valleys and volcanoes dotting its surface. Erosion by wind and rain reshapes its geology. It's a picture postcard of what Earth might have been before there was life here. A mission to Titan could be time travel back four billion years. Viewing what might have been on an Earth clone will help us better understand our planet.
This ersatz Earth is a cold dark place. At two hundred and ninety degrees below zero (-290¡F), water is frozen into an exotic solid known as Ice XI. Titan's lakes, rivers and seas are filled with liquid natural gas. When it rains, it rains methane. Volcanoes spew a mixture of water and ammonia. Images from the Huygens lander show "volcanic rocks" there are ice. Titan is a moon of Saturn. Sunlight there is only 1% as bright as it is here. Titan has a deep smoggy atmosphere with clouds. Only a small fraction of that light reaches the ground. Daytime on Titan is like a foggy moonlit night on Earth.
Dragonfly will be a nuclear-powered drone equipped to survey Titan's lands and seas. It will able to land, take samples, and analyze them. Dragonfly instruments will include advanced life detection systems. Life in a methane world may be possible.
Communications to or from Earth will take seventy to ninety minutes each way. They will be blocked out when one or both bodies are eclipsed. Remote operation will be impossible with such delays. Dragonfly will have to function autonomously with only rough mission assignments from home. It will survey an area and return to focus on features as directed by NASA scientists.
August 7, 2019
Robot submarine competition
The deep ocean is an alien place where people can't survive. There, robots work better, faster, and often cheaper than humans. The farther down, the greater the advantage. Divers have to carry their natural environment with them: heat, light, air and water. Robots can be engineered for the challenges. Cold needn't be problem. Sonar vision works just fine. Machines can go on working as long as their batteries last. When one is lost, no wrongful death lawsuits or negligent homicide prosecutions result.
Robot submarines and remote-controlled vehicles are performing complex tasks beneath the ocean. State-of-the-art robot submarines were on display last week. Commercial devices maintain offshore oil wells at forbidding depths. Research submarines study the ocean to depths where people seldom trespass. Smart submarines patrol the Strait of Hormuz. They spotlight hazards to navigation for Navy intervention.
The designers of tomorrow's robot subs met in San Diego for the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Competition—Robosub. Students representing fifty-four leading schools from thirteen countries fielded robot submarines to compete. Their entries were industrial machines bearing little resemblance to traditional submarines and none to R2D2 or C3PO. Instead, each was engineered to complete a series of tasks simulating actual underwater work. The robots had to navigate between buoys, recognize objects by shape or by color, retrieve objects, retrieve or deliver things, open doors, and more – all with no human intervention.
These machines were true robots – trained to do tasks, then turned loose to do them. Their tests were scattered throughout the Naval Information Warfare Command Pacific's transdec pool. The robots decided which tasks to perform and when to do them on the fly. Their onboard computers were programmed to understand the scoring for each task: there were points for how well they performed and points for how fast. They recalculated how to make the most points at every turn.
The ocean is an environment more alien than the moon or mars. Robots on those remote bodies function in little or no atmosphere and under reduced gravity. Those conditions are a lot like those in a terrestrial desert. Underwater robotics face challenges all their own. Robot submarines operate in an atmosphere a thousand times as dense as Earth's surface. Buoyancy competes with gravity, and things sometimes fall up. Robot submarines don't always behave the way intuition suggests.
The student engineers competing at Robosub spent the past year taming their robots to do their work better and faster there. This year's competition displayed a line up of agile robots that accomplished their several tasks gracefully despite their clunky industrial appearance. First place in the competition went to Harbin Engineering University from China. Far Eastern Federal University from Vladivostok, Russia finished second, and Arizona State University came in third. All fifty-four teams can be proud of their robots. Most have just started work on their new and improved entries for 2020.
July 31, 2019
Coral are moving to cooler waters
Coral are seeking asylum in cooler waters. As equatorial seas warm, equatorial coral die off. Their offspring are migrating to new frontiers in cooler waters.
Coral are small animals that wrap themselves in limestone sheaths. Vast colonies pile atop their ancestors' remains to form undersea mounds spanning hundreds of miles. Coral exist there in a symbiotic relationship with local flora and fauna. Their reefs are local ecosystems hosting a quarter of all ocean life. Brilliantly colored plants and animals give the reefs their famous vivid colors.
When water temperature rises, the solubility of the essential gases CO2 and O2 falls. As those gases disappear, life on the coral reef dies off. Plants can't photosynthesize without CO2. They are the base of the food chain. There's nothing to eat, and no O2 to breath. Nothing remains but limestone shells and their starving occupants. The naked coral limestone remains are white, so the coral reef appears to have been "bleached."
The adults are trapped, but their young are free to swim away. Offspring are created in a community event synchronized with the phases of the moon. Simultaneously all across the reef, adult coral eject eggs and sperm into the surrounding water. Fertilization there creates free-swimming zygotes. They travel until they find a spot to light. Then they settle down and begin building their limestone sheaths. Most remain nearby and add to the existing reef. The few that venture beyond create remote reefs. As the oceans warm, the travelers find themselves well situated to initiate future reefs. Nature Is adapting to changing ocean conditions.
July 24, 2019
Seasons of the sun
A solar flare in our direction could set the world back to 1950. Its intense radiation would hit us like a nuclear attack in space. Set nuclear bombs off out there, and fry the electronics in every satellite, and scramble half the stuff on the ground. Television, internet, and GPS would be gone. No soaps, no facebook, and no way home. It would be back to magazines, conversations and maps. Life as we know it would end until our electronic infrastructure was rebuilt.
It could happen someday. The sun is a turbulent place with flashes and flares spurting out all over. The study of the sun began with the invention of the telescope. Storms have come and gone with an eleven-year cycle ever since. Solar observatories monitor the sun today, and a NASA probe is on the way to explore its outer atmosphere. We still don't understand the sun well enough to predict the big one.
Tides drive weather on the sun. The sun is a ball of plasma—a fluid that flows like a liquid or a gas. The sun's plasma has tides much like Earth's oceans. Here on Earth, the moon's gravity tugs ocean water toward it, raising the sea level. Halfway around the planet, water flowing toward the moon drops local sea level. High and low tide trail the moon as the Earth rotates under it. The sun is a lot farther away, but a lot bigger, so its tidal effects are noticeable. When the sun and the moon line up, their tides add and the highest tide of the month occurs.
The planets drive the tides on the sun. The nearby planets Venus and Earth create tides like our moon does on Earth. Jupiter is far away, but gigantic. It adds a sizeable tide of its own. When two planets line up in a row, their tides add—like high tide on Earth. That rare event occurs when one planet overtakes the other. Earth and Jupiter work like the hands of a clock. Jupiter—the hour hand—goes around once in twelve hours. Earth—the minute hand—goes around once an hour. The minute hand passes the hour hand every hour and five and a half minutes. When the Earth lines up with Jupiter, every thirteen-plus months, the planets tides add together. It's the same with any pair of planets. An even bigger effect occurs when all three planets align. That happens once every eleven years. The maximal tides damp the surface storms. Thus the sun's eleven year cycle of weather.
July 17, 2019
Technology for organ transplants
Organ transplants race the clock. Your organs won't outlive you by much. They depend on the body's support systems, and start to fail once they're cut off. Critical organs must be sustained just to accommodate surgery for the living. Organ transplant is even more challenging. Organs are harvested, packed in ice, and sped to their new host. Tissues start dying in transit. Every second counts.
Technology to the rescue. Drones fly organs between hospitals faster than a speeding ambulance. Drones deliver farther and faster so organs arrive healthier. Transplant success increases. A lung perfusion machine from XVIVO Perfusion prolongs lung life in the operating room while recipient preparation proceeds.
Portable versions of operating room systems are extending the time constraints for organ transport. Systems maintaining normal temperatures and body fluid flows are being tested for human organs. A portable organ support system from TransMedics Inc was used in a recent liver transplant operation. That procedure succeeded despite distances that wouldn't have been tried with conventional transport. The company also has an experimental lung machine in advanced development. That system even maintains the organ's breathing function. They report progress toward a heart carrier as well. Their products are expected to double the time available for organ transport. An advance of that magnitude would expand the outreach of organ transplant programs. More organs would reach more recipients. Fewer people will die waiting for an organ.
Technology notwithstanding, there will always be a demand for organs. Leave what you can.
July 10, 2019
Return to the moon
President Trump has announced a return to the moon, and skeptics ask Why? It's our first step back into space after a fifty-year hiatus barely off the ground. Living and working on the moon will teach us to be a space faring race.
The moon can serve as Mars-lite—the next step beyond Hawaii's Mona Loa volcano. All of three are barren and lifeless. Space suits are required just to step outside. The last HI-SEAS exercise ended with a medical rescue within hours of an accident. On the moon, help from home is three days away—a bit more forgiving than Mars nine-month distant. The moon and Mars are bathed in the solar wind. Both astronauts and their equipment must be hardened to survive radiation. The alien environments of the moon and Mars may pose surprises for men and machines. Don't leave home with them.
The moon can be a lot more than just a dry run for camping on Mars. Moon minerals resemble Earth's. Heavy low-tech items like engines and propellants could be manufactured there and launched into nearby space at a fraction of the energy cost. Only a few high tech items would have to come from Earth. With no atmosphere to worry about, the Mars mission could forgo streamlining.
An industrial outpost on the moon would develop into a settlement—just like every other human venture into a new world. It would follow the Dulles Airport experience. Sited way out in the middle of nowhere, a community sprung up around it. Industrial suppliers came first, and then alternatives for essential services followed. A growing population provided a market for nonessential services. Moon populations would grow. Local alternatives to import from Earth would spring up, and the colony would approach self-sufficiency.
Exports could support growth—but what? What have they got that Earth doesn't have? Cold and vacuum. Almost no known material is worth the cost of shipping to Earth. A few large-scale industrial processes require high vacuum. Pumping costs were the reason for citing uranium isotope separation in Tennessee. It provided access to TVA electricity. Hard vacuum is readily available all over the moon. Specialized highly processed materials may turn out to be economically feasible.
Astronomy loves a vacuum too—especially on the far side of the moon where Earth's radio emissions don't interfere with looking back toward the big bang.
There's a market for information because information is weightless. Lunar computers may have an edge there. Terrestrial data centers spend more energy on cooling than they do on computing. That's why they're migrating farther and farther north today to reduce cooling costs. Lunar data centers might prove worth the investment of moving there. Lunar temperatures may even open new horizons in computing. Superconductivity is the Holy Grail for electronics. Its zero electrical resistance would drastically reduce energy costs for computing. The search for room temperature superconductors continues. Meanwhile the moon's cryogenic temperatures may be low enough to accommodate these ideal electronic components.
The moon will open a new frontier, like no other. The possibilities are endless.
July 3, 2019
An explosion aboard Apollo 13 on its way to the moon captured the world's attention. The success of Apollo 11 had begun a campaign of lunar exploration. Samples returned by the Apollo missions revolutionized our understanding of the moon's formation and geology. The moon is not an alien rock, captured later. The Earth and the moon formed at the same time in the same place. Moon science and adventure continued until Congress cancelled funding for it. Robot probes have explored the solar system and beyond, but humans haven't ventured farther than low Earth orbit in the fifty years since Apollo.
I remember following the Apollo 13 progress over the radio in Toronto. (Still no television.) An oxygen tank had blown up on the way to the moon. All three astronauts survived, but mission critical systems were lost. The crew had to move from the crippled Command Module into the Lunar Lander for the duration. It was cold and cramped in there. The CO2 scrubber wasn't working. Cabin air was bad and getting worse. Computer controls were lost. Essential engine burns were timed with the second hand of an astronaut's wristwatch. The vehicle was on an assured-return trajectory. The craft would make it back to Earth. Could its crew survive until then? Could they land their crippled craft? The world held its breath as Apollo 13 skated far out beyond the moon before lunar gravity flung it back toward Earth.
Back on Earth, NASA engineers raced to jerry rig patches to failing life support systems. Use anything aboard—and nothing you wish you'd sent. They did their damnest with no holds barred. Three astronaut lives depended on them. Thanks to NASA engineers' ingenuity and the astronauts' skills, the Apollo 13 astronauts returned to Earth safely.
The spirit of the Apollo 13 rescue was an inspiration for my Stranded on Mars novel where a hardware failure maroons NASA pioneers a hundred million miles from home with no Plan B.
June 26, 2019
The first moon landing
An American dream came true fifty years ago. President Kennedy had challenged the nation to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth within the decade. On July 20, 1969, the world watched in awe as America dared to do just that.
Most Americans 55 and older remember where they were that day. I was in my in-laws' living room watching live coverage on their television. (I didn't own one then.) The tension was palpable. Could they reach the surface of the moon? Could they land safely? What was the moon made of? Would it support the lander? The uncertainties were endless. I paced through the entire descent until Neil Armstrong announced, "The Eagle has landed."
President Nixon phoned his congratulations to the astronauts. Man had reached the moon. It was the culmination of a Herculean effort. In a single decade, American engineering had gone from orbiting a man in a can to landing a crew on the moon. Most of this had all been done by hand. Computers were just coming along. World computing capacity of the day couldn't match a single modern cell phone. Computers were new, and not really trusted. Electronic computer calculations were checked by human computers before NASA risked using them.
Time dragged by. I paced the living room while the astronauts suited up to leave the lunar lander and step onto the moon. Walter Cronkite's news coverage alternated between the moon landing and the other big story of the day. On the eve of realizing John Kennedy's legacy, his brother Ted had gotten drunk, and driven off a bridge into a lagoon. Kennedy escaped the car, and swam to safety. He left his escort behind to drown.
Our eyes grew tired, but we stayed glued to the screen until Armstrong climbed down the ladder to make his "One small step for [a] man É" and grab the first sample of the moon's surface.
A few hours of science followed. Then the astronauts returned to the lander for another first: the return trip in the untested Lunar Return Module. Only years later would we learn how worried we should have been throughout the Apollo 11 mission. The planned landing field was strewn with hazardous boulders. The pilot rejected it at the last minute. The mission flew on searching for a safe spot. They landed with twelve seconds of fuel left for the descent engine. A key Return Module switch broke off and had to be jerry rigged for take off. There was no Plan B for those men on the moon.
The ascent engines worked as designed. They blasted of and returned to the Command Module orbiting overhead. From there, they flew back to Earth and splashed down safe. President Kennedy's challenge had been meet. All three Apollo 11 astronauts were welcomed as heroes.
June 19, 2019
The history of earth's air
Planetary atmospheres have been changing billions of years. The solar system began in the collapse of a cloud of dirty hydrogen. There was a bit of helium and traces of other elements in there. Helium is inert, the rest combined with whatever they encountered—generally hydrogen. The original gas has hydrogen with traces of carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen hydrides. As the largest blobs coalesced into gas giant planets, hydration proceeded to saturation—methane CH4, ammonia NH3, and water OH2 formed. The atmospheres of Jupiter and Saturn remain that way.
Geology transformed the atmospheres of the smaller rocky planets. They cooled enough to allow the elements to rearrange into things other than their hydrogen compounds. The planets grew as bits and pieces bombarded them. Volcanoes spewed hot reactive materials into their air. Atmospheric chemistry evolved toward the most stable gases carbon dioxide CO2 and nitrogen N2: the composition of today's Martian and Venusian atmospheres.
Water altered the composition of planetary air. Venus cooled enough to host standing liquid water back when the sun was less intense. Earth's liquid water probably began beneath ice. Much of it still is under Antarctica today. Venusian geochemistry at that time is unknown, but probably paralleled Earth's. Cold water dissolved a lot of atmospheric CO2 that reacted with seabed minerals to form carbonates.
Life evolved about that time. The first forms derived their energy from dissolved chemicals. When life diversified to take advantage of dissolved CO2, life began to affect the atmosphere. Primitive plants practiced photosynthesis: consuming CO2 and excreting O2. Oxygen reacted with everything it encountered—iron, sulfur from volcanoes and atmospheric methane residues. Converting a strong greenhouse gas like CH4 to a weak greenhouse gas like CO2 precipitated a prolonged global ice age. Once those fuels were depleted, oxygen began to build up in the water and in the air. Oxygen was toxic to many early life forms, and a massive die off followed.
Oxygen in the atmosphere made modern plant and animal life possible. The symbiotic relationship between green plants and animals grew to dominate the planet. Atmospheric O2 levels reached as high as 30% and now hold steady around 21%.
We don't know yet whether Venus went through a comparable phase of life modifying its atmosphere before the sun grew too hot for liquid water to exist there. Since that time, solar heat and radiation have driven the planet's atmosphere back to its most stable form: CO2 and N2. One day, our robots may explore Venus to understand what happened there and to prepare for what will happen here.
He who will not study history is doomed to repeat it. [George Santayana]
June 12, 2019
The most important sky show of all times will be rerun starting this week. Grab your binoculars or your telescope and witness what Galileo saw back around 1500 AD that changed the world.
See Jupiter as Galileo must have seen it. The brightest star in the sky will be obvious to the naked eye. Three or four of its satellites should be visible to amateur astronomers. It happens when Earth is aligned with Jupiter. The solar system moves like clockwork with Earth on a short minute hand revolving twelve times to Jupiter's one time—a longer hour hand. The view from one hand to the other is best when the two of them line up an opportunity that comes every thirteen month.
Professional astronomers will join amateurs taking advantage of this chance to view Jupiter up close. Their telescopes will survey the planet and its moons in detail. They'll pay special attention to the planet's atmosphere because something is changing in Jupiter's famous red spot—a storm that has been raging there for hundreds of years. NASA's Juno probe will continue its mission to Jupiter. It will swoop through intense radiation fields to take close up photos of the red spot and the planet's poles. We will continue to learn more about this behemoth every time it passes by.
June 5, 2019
Global warming: dŽjˆ vu all over again.
Global warming: it's dŽjˆ vu all over again. What we're seeing today is just part of the natural climate cycle. We're all familiar with the twenty-four-hour temperature cycle we call day and night. We're all familiar with the twelve-month temperature cycle we call seasons. There's also a thousand-year temperature cycle we call climate. It's manifested in tree rings, in sedimentary rocks, and in ancient glaciers through the ages. Data spanning the last ten thousand years show Earth's average temperature oscillating by a degree or two on a thousand-year cycle.
The latest rounds are now history. The last epidemic of "global warming" ushered in the Medieval Warm Period that ran from around 950 to 1250 AD. The one before that was the Roman Warm Period that lasted from around 250 BC to 400 AD. There were lows between the highs. We're just recovering from a period labeled "The Little Ice Age."
Warm periods have always been high points in human civilization. In ancient times, Egyptian culture thrived in one warm period. Their architecture and construction have survived five thousand years so far. Greek civilization prospered in a later warm period. They invented philosophy and literature. More recently, the Roman Empire laid down the basis for modern society during the so-called Roman Warm Period. Elsewhere around the world, the Chinese united their country and built the Great Wall. Mayan architects and engineers built cities and turned swamps and jungles into farmland.
The cooling that followed the Roman Warm Period reduced crop yields. Starvation drove hordes from the north and east to sack Rome. The ages that followed were dark and cold.
The dawn of the Medieval Warm Period reversed those effects. The Renaissance resurrected art and science from obscurity. Agriculture spread north relieving hunger and breaking the stranglehold of feudalism. Vikings rowed their longboats through an ice-free ocean to settle in northern Canada. Further south, Inca and Aztec civilizations flourished. Their math and science led the world at the time. The ruins of their cities remain among the wonders of the world.
Progress slowed as the Medieval Warm Period came to an end. The Black Plague swept the Eastern Hemisphere and the Great American Epidemic devastated the Western Hemisphere. The interlude that followed hasn't been as dark as the one that followed the Roman Warm Period, but things are picking up as The Little Ice Age draws to a close.
There are good times ahead. The next warming period could herald another two or three centuries of progress and prosperity – led by America and China. It's coming. Don't fight it. It's be a blessing, not a curse.
May 29, 2019
An asteroid flew by
Earth dodged a bullet Saturday night, May 25, 2019. An asteroid and its moon whizzed past. A mile wide rock approached at almost fifty thousand miles an hour. If it had hit Earth, the impact would have been an explosion bigger than all Earth's nuclear weapons combined. That would have been devastating, but it missed us – again. A miss is as good as a mile – or three million miles in this case.
This asteroid is an object whose orbit around the sun passes through Earth's orbit every six months. There was probably a lot of debris like it crossing Earth's path in the early solar system. In four billion trips around the sun, Earth has captured most of those. The few that remain are synchronized so they miss us on every pass – so far. No hits in four billion at-bats — impact seems unlikely, but it is not impossible.
Smaller bodies hit the Earth everyday. Most burn up in the atmosphere; a few survive to hit the ground. An explosive meteor strike in Siberia made the news recently. Truly catastrophic collisions are rare. One impact a hundred-and-sixty-five-million years ago is thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs. It could happen again. Astronomers track known asteroids and comets. They have predicted no major impacts during our lifetimes. Sky surveys identify more neighbors like Saturday night's visitor as well as interstellar intruders like 2017's Oumuamua. So far, no imminent dangers have been identified.
May 22, 2019
Marianas trench dive
More alien than the moon or Mars and right under our noses, the ocean is cold and dark and deep. We've mapped the moon and Mars and South Dakota, better than we've mapped the ocean floor.
More people have been to the moon than have been to the bottom of the ocean—and they stayed longer when they got there. Texas multi-millionaire Victor Vescovo has set a depth record reaching the lowest point in the Mariana Trench 35,853 feet down. Upon reaching the bottom, he set another record by remaining at that depth for four hours. The first visitors to the moon stayed almost a day.
His Marianas Trench dive was the fourth in Vescovo's plans to visit the five deepest spots in Earth's oceans. The other four—runners-up to the Marianas Trench—have never been explored before. His fifth target—in the Arctic Ocean—awaits clearing of its ice cover by fall. Films of his adventures will be presented as a Discovery Channel series.
With no known energy source, it had long been theorized that there could be no life down there. Someone forgot to tell the natives. Vescovo viewed local animal life swimming under his submarine's floodlights at the bottom of the Marianas Trench. These included at least three previously unknown species.
Extreme depths occur at cracks in the Earth's surface. Shifting tectonic plates collide, and one sheet is thrust under the other and recycled back to the planet's liquid core. Elsewhere, cracks between spreading tectonic plates expose the molten magma of Earth's core. Volcanoes dot these fissures. Deep-water volcanoes superheat water and percolate minerals into the surrounding ocean. Smoking chimneys develop where hot water meets cold, and oases of exotic life form around them. Ecosystems based on hydrogen sulfide thrive in perpetual darkness there.
Two-thirds of Earth's surface remains uninhabited and unexplored. The variety there rivals anything we can hope to encounter elsewhere in our solar system. There's a strange new world just off shore waiting to be discovered.
May 15, 2019
Genetically engineered viruses to kill drug resistant germs
Medical science hopes to open a new front in the war on infection with specialized viruses that kill lethal germs. Genetically engineered viruses may counter drug-resistant infections someday. A hundred years ago. infectious disease killed millions of people. Penicillin changed all that. It cured most infections and extended human life expectancy. Germs fought back. They evolved resistance to antibiotics. Higher doses and longer treatments were required. New drugs were developed, and germs beat them too. The fight goes on.
Experimental viral therapy may have helped fight one patient's deadly drug-resistant infection. The young woman was suffering from multiple life-threatening conditions. She became infected with Mycobacterium abscessus—a relative of the bacterial tuberculosis germ. Her infection did not respond to combined medical treatment for her infection plus her other ailments.
She needed something new. Doctors turned to an experimental therapy. They identified three viruses known to infect those specific bacteria. Yes, bacteria get sick and die—like every other living thing. All three viruses were genetically modified to make their attacks lethal to the host bacteria. The custom-made viruses were added to the patient's therapy regime. Her infection responded favorably to treatment.
These results are encouraging, but inconclusive. It's an isolated case—only the second apparent reversal of a drug-resistant infection by virus therapy. This patient was being treated for a laundry list of serious medical conditions. The contribution of her other therapies to the defeat of her bacterial infection is unknown.
Initial results seem promising. If custom-made viruses were required, wider application would be prohibitive. Leading laboratories are pursuing potent viruses for general application against drug-resistant infection.
May 8, 2019
Venus had liquid water once
Venus had lakes and rivers and seas once. Venus hosted liquid water while Earth was covered with ice and snow. If life evolved there during those billions of years, Venus might have been the Garden of Eden. Today, Venus is Hell and Earth is Paradise. What happened?
Our sun has been getting hotter since its creation. It was born in a swirling cloud of hydrogen. Gravity tugged the gas inward. Core pressures rose in the collapsing cloud. Hydrogen atoms were crushed to extreme densities. Those ignited nuclear fusion and a star was born. The collapse continued drawing more hydrogen fuel into the nuclear inferno. The sun's rays have been growing hotter throughout its four billion year history.
The sun bakes all planets. Planets too close to the sun are too hot to host liquid water. Far removed planets are too cold. Only those in between can have liquid water on their surfaces. The boundaries of that just-right zone vary with the sun's heat. They extend farther out as the sun warms.
When the sun was half as bright as it is today, Venus had water—and possibly life. Earth was a barren ice world. As billions of years passed, the sun grew hotter and the liquid water zone expanded. Earth's ice melted and Venus's seas evaporated. Solar radiation, heat and light transformed Venus' environment into today's toxic inferno.
Earth has basked in the liquid water zone since entering it billions of years ago. The sun continues to grow hotter, and the habitable zone boundaries continue to spread. The too-hot limit is approaching Earth's orbit. As it does, the planet will heat up. (This is not the "Global Warming" of political hysteria fame.) Liquid water will vanish, and air will grow poisonous. There will be no witnesses. By the time that happens: humans will be either elsewhere, or nowhere.
May 1, 2019
What filled Martian rivers and lakes?
There's ample evidence that liquids flowed over the ancient planet's surface. There's plenty of wishful thinking and zero evidence that that liquid was water.
Mars has never been warm enough to host liquid water. The sun warms all the planets. The close ones are too hot for liquid water. The far ones are too cold. In between, The temperature is just right. This is the so-called Goldilocks zone where liquid water can exist. The sun has been warming over the past four billion years expanding this special region. Earth is nearing the end of billions of years in the zone. Mars has yet to enter it.
Mars was once in the Goldilocks zone for liquid natural gas, LNG. That liquid may have filled Mars' rivers and lakes then. That time has passed. Modern Mars is too warm for LNG and its rivers and lakes have all disappeared. Traces of methane in the atmosphere may be residuals of the planet's ancient climate. A vast liquid lake has been detected a mile beneath the south polar ice cap. Temperatures there make liquid water unlikely, but seem about right for LNG. Still more methane may be sequestered in Martian sands, just as it is on Earth.
Ancient Mars was not like today's Earth. It must have been more like Saturn's moon, Titan. Titan is in the LNG Goldilocks zone today. Data taken by the Cassini probe are showing an LNG-based climate remarkably similar to our own water-based climate. It rains LNG there. The seas, lakes and rivers are filled with LNG.
April 24, 2019
The sky gets more complicated
The sky got more complicated with the invention of the telescope around 1500. The center of the universe shifted from the Earth to the Sun. Planets grew moons. Some stars split in two or three.
The deeper we look, the more magic we find out there. More planets, more moons, and more debris. Some points of light turn out to be distant galaxies with billions of stars of their own. A black hole looks like Einstein's equations predicted. Nearby stars have planets—four thousand and counting. We see them jiggling their stars, or blocking a bit of their light. Many are bigger than Jupiter; others are smaller than Earth. Many are blazing hot; others are freezing cold. The variety seems endless.
George Lucas took us to Tatooine, a planet with twin suns. Astronomers are beginning to detect planets in solar systems with more than one sun. Two stars tumbling across the sky alternatively flash and eclipse each other. One moves away while its partner flies forward. Their light is both red-shifted and blue-shifted. A mere planet swinging around them is but a minor perturbation. Exacting measurements are required to detect those. Scientists are beginning to map solar systems around dual suns. Two new ones were announced last month. One has at least three rocky planets orbiting a pair of stars. The other includes a gas giant thirteen times as big as Jupiter around a red dwarf/white dwarf pair.
Such planetary systems are yet another mystery in the sky. Where did they come from? Colliding stars will ricochet off one another. Two stars can bind only if there's a third to carry away so much energy and angular momentum they can no longer fly apart. Astronomers see stars forming in vast interstellar nurseries. Most star pairs must form in that early crowded region. The young stars disperse and further pairing becomes rare. Was this month's gas giant a failed star orbiting one of the dwarfs and nearly ejected in capturing the other? Is our nearest neighbor star Proxima Centuri caught in a half million year orbit around Alpha Centuri A and B, or is it just passing through?
As astronomers' tools grow more sophisticated, we're uncovering more and more of Nature's secrets. Gravity waves have spotted neutron star and black hole collisions. A black hole's neighborhood looks like we expected. Solar systems come in many sizes and shapes. New telescopes and new technologies will show us things beyond our imagination.
April 17, 2019
Imaging a black hole
Optics as big as the Earth took a black hole's picture.
Optics demands a telescope that big. Imagine looking at a distant star. When the cone of its light intersects a mirror, each ray bounces off at the angle it hit with. If the mirror is concave, the rebounding rays are focused inward. The right curvature directs them toward a point. It isn't actually a point; it's a blob that can't get smaller than the wavelength of the light. Now imagine a second star near the first. It casts a slightly different cone on the mirror, so light bounces off at slightly different angles. If the second focuses inside the blob of the first, there's only one image.
A larger mirror samples more of both light cones. Focal points shift with widening observation angles. A wide enough mirror resolves the separate spots. Alpha Centuri, the brightest star in the Southern sky, is a single point to the naked eye, but three on closer inspection. Quantum mechanics limits the size of optics to separate objects at a distance. Resolving the neighborhood of a black hole light hours across from a distance of fifty-five million light years requires planet-size optics.
You can't build a mirror that large. Fortunately, a less-than-complete mirror can still produce an image. A mirror with a piece missing will still make an image—just a little darker. The same with two pieces missingÉor three. The remaining pieces still direct light toward the focal point. An international team of astronomers, the Event Horizon Team, combined eight telescopes scattered across a hemisphere to obtain the now famous black hole photograph. The entire network focused on the target for simultaneous observation. The light received was not reflected to a physical image plane. Instead, the photograph was computer-generated. Volumes of data far too large for modern data transmission technology were recorded and delivered on hard discs. The individual calculations involved were straightforward, but the number required took a supercomputer.
The black hole picture was the first of its kind. Now that the technology has been demonstrated, the sky is full of mysteries waiting to be seen. Proxima centuri b and other nearby exo-planets are obvious targets. If Moore's Law (computer technology doubling every eighteen months) continues, observations like these may become routine in fifteen or twenty years. The next step beyond will expand to the moon and its Lagrange points. That would add a ring of detectors: one on the moon and three more trailing one third, one half, and two-thirds of the way around the moon's orbit. With Earth-based systems in the center, those would create a virtual telescope with a half million mile wide mirror.
April 10, 2019
Neutron star collision
Long ago and far away, two neutron stars collided. Their violent impact scrambled local space and time. The bang sent a ripple spreading across the universe. It was so intense that it was still detectable when it reached Earth 135 million light years away in 2017. All astronomers' telescopes turned to view the cosmic debris from the most powerful explosion ever recorded.
A gamma ray burst followed close behind the gravity wave. It signaled nuclear reactions never seen before had happened out there. The glow from the ejected cloud showed heavy elements—probably the products of those reactions. In the beginning, everything was hydrogen. Stars turned hydrogen into helium. Dying stars collapsed and crushed all that was left into additional elements up to iron. Production of elements beyond—gold, silver, platinum, and fifty more—required far harsher conditions.
Shock waves in neutron star collisions generate temperatures and pressures even beyond those inside stars. They are thought to be high enough to host heavy element production. Neutron star collisions' contribution to the inventory of heavy elements is undetermined. Are they the source? Are they the only source?
Future neutron star collisions will provide scientisits with data to advance our understanding of the nuclear physics of element synthesis. Heavy element nuclei are believed to grow through addition of neutrons in a neutron-dense environment. The nuclei created by neutron addition are usually unstable. They decay quickly. When another neutron is absorbed before that decay, the rapid process—physicists call it the r-process—builds heavier and heavier nuclei. Most fall apart. A few emit a gamma ray and become stable. Some emit an electron to become a different element. Theoretical calculations estimate neutron densities and energies are high enough to support such r-process syntheses during neutron star collision shock waves.
Detection of heavy elements in the aftermath of this first impact incident is consistent with their production during the event. The output of the next one will provide further data to better understand the nuclear physics within. The astrophysics community is preparing for the next alert by surveying known isotopes to identify signatures that might help bound the nucleosynthetic processes happening during such collisions. A Notre Dame group identified Californium-254 as an isotope to look for. It lasts weeks: long enough to be detected but not long enough to have come from somewhere outside. Its presence would confirm synthesis of elements beyond uranium there. The forthcoming Facility for Rare Isotope Beams at Michigan State University will generate a host of previously uncharacterized isotopes. Understanding these may highlight specific data to be sought the next time. Colliding neutron stars will provide a nuclear physics laboratory not possible on Earth.
April 2, 2019
Vaccines save lives
Fake news is making children sick. The most diabolical post of all time is the claim vaccinations cause autism. Its author was a physician employed by a law firm then suing a pharmaceutical firm that made vaccines. The alleged study was pure fiction. The paper has been retracted, and its claims rebuffed. The author's medical license has been pulled. Nevertheless, mistaken claims still flood the Internet today. Concerned parents believe them, and refuse to vaccinate their children. Unvaccinated children are vulnerable to whatever scourge they encounter.
Vaccines make the world a healthier place. Nightmare diseases like polio have been all but eliminated. Only a few zealots—like the Taliban—refuse polio vaccination and allow pockets of the disease to persist.
Measles were eliminated throughout the Unites States decades ago. The rest of the world trails behind. Unvaccinated world travelers bring measles home with them. A single Disneyland visitor infected with a Philippine strain started a measles epidemic among the unvaccinated a few years ago. This year, an Israeli strain is spreading among the Ultra Orthodox Jewish community, and a European strain has infected hundreds in other communities. As the disease spreads, so do efforts to contain it. Unvaccinated children have been asked to stay home from school. Quarantines are now in effect in hard-hit areas: unvaccinated children are banned from public places. Vaccinations can stop this epidemic in its tracks.
Vaccinations won't cause autism in your children, but they may cure ignorance in their parents. VACCINATE!
March 27, 2019
Some planets have suns; some don't. The more we stare at the sky, the less special we learn we are. There are two hundred billion stars in the Milky Way. Many of those may be suns hosting solar systems of their own. Nobody has actually seen an extra-solar planet yet, but we've detected four thousand of them orbiting nearby stars. Astronomers have seen stars stagger as giant planets swing around them. They've detected planets' shadows as they block their star's light in passing. Next generation telescopes may capture images of exo-planets reflecting their host star's light.
Planets floating free of any star will be even harder to detect. It's dark out there. There's no light for them to reflect. It's cold out there. Their outsides have cooled to the near absolute zero temperature of space, so they don't glow. Some twenty rogue planets have been detected when they fortuitously obscured the light from a distant star. Bending of that light by the rogue mass indicates it's there, and hints at how big the thing is. If twenty have shown up already, there must be a lot more out there,
Where did all these mysterious planets come from? Planets form along with their host stars. The unattached had to have gotten separated from their solar systems. Violent incidents capable of separating a planet from its star are most common early in the life of a solar system. Stars form in vast interstellar clouds. Hundreds of them form there around the same time. Many have planets growing in the dusty discs swirling around their midsections. Juvenile stars bump each other in that overcrowded star-forming pocket. A University of Leiden study illustrates the effects of stars' violent beginnings. The team simulated a swarm of fifteen hundred sun-like stars formed in such a cluster. They let their model star system percolate for a million years to remove any bias caused by arbitrary selection of the cloud's initial conditions. Then the team added planets orbiting five hundred stars—four, five or six apiece. Their computer tracked the motion of these more than four thousand objects through the next ten million years as the cluster drifted apart.
Approaching stars jostled planetary systems. A crossing star's gravity distorted bound planets' trajectories or yanked them from their orbits. Interplanetary collisions exacerbated the passing star's effects. Gravity scrambling of a planetary system or intrusion of another star's planets led to occasional impacts. Planets ricocheted out of their paths. About one in seven planets was ripped from its star over those ten million years. A few of those were captured by another star later on. The rest became rogue planets. Most drifted out of the star cluster within the time span of the simulation. Extrapolating the Leiden study results suggests that processes like the ones they studied may have generated fifty billion rogue planets—Earth-sized to Jupiter-size and beyond—in the Milky Way Galaxy.
If there is that much planet-size debris, there must be a lot more rubble out there. Oumaumau is an asteroid-sized bit of rogue space junk. It came out of nowhere in 2017, raced through the plane of the solar system, and out the other side. Had it been a Jupiter-class rogue, our solar system might be a different place today.
March 20, 2019
The solar system bears the scars of growing up in a rough neighborhood. Pluto's orbit is squashed and skewed. There's been a planet or two knocked out. The giant planets are far removed from where they were formed. Comets come predominately from one small sector of the sky. Most of these things happened before life on Earth began.
The sun—like most stars—formed in a vast star-forming cloud four billion years ago. Hundreds of stars all formed there around the same time. Many had planets growing in the dusty discs swirling around their midsections. Juvenile stars bumped each other in that overcrowded star-forming pocket. A University of Leiden study illustrates the effects of stars' violent beginnings. The team simulated a swarm of fifteen hundred sun-like stars formed in such a cluster. They let their model star system swarm under its own gravity for a million years to start. This would remove any bias caused by arbitrary selection of the cloud's initial conditions. Then the team added planets orbiting five hundred suns—four, five or six apiece. Their computer tracked the motion of these more than four thousand objects through the next ten million years as the cluster drifted apart.
In the Leiden simulation, passing stars jostled planetary systems. Planetary systems were scrambled, and orbits distorted. Some planets were even yanked them from their host stars. Interplanetary collisions compounded the passing star's gravity effects—especially among the outer planets. Gravity-induced planet shuffling and intrusion of another star's planets both caused impacts. Ricocheting planets were thrown into new orbits or ejected from their solar system all together. About one in every seven planets was detached from its star over those ten million years. Planets not ejected often had their orbits perturbed. Many—especially outer planets—were shifted into elliptical orbits often out of their original plane.
Our solar system shows the vestiges of this kind of violence in its past. The giant planets of the outer solar system are out of place. They have to have formed close to the sun where the primordial cloud carried enough material to make them. This is the normal pattern seen in the four thousand known planets of other stars. Many are "hot Jupiters" gas giant planets orbiting close to their stars. The sun's giants must have formed near the center of creation—not in the wispy outer regions. Only extreme violence could have dragged the solar system's four giants out to the edge of the universe where they sit today. Computer simulation of that process shows there must have been five or six in the beginning. Collisions with Jupiter are thought to have ejected the one or two missing planets from the solar system.
That incident was probably only the most severe of a number of early impacts shaping the solar system of today. Pluto revolves around the sun in a squashed ellipse torqued away from the plane of its fellow planets. Similar orbit distortions were found in the Leiden simulations. Most comets come from one area of space where a companion star grazed the outer solar system a few billion years ago. Astronomers are just beginning to map what lies beyond Pluto. Preliminary results suggest some kind of shepherd acted on the far-flung bodies out there. Astronomers are searching the sky for the postulated Planet Nine—a super-Earth orbiting far beyond Neptune.
March 13, 2019
Drug overdose fatalities
Combat is safer than doing drugs. According to the latest National Institute of Health statistics the 702,566 twenty-first-century drug overdose deaths (1999-2017) exceeded the 641,005 US combat deaths in all our wars combined. The number of peripheral drug-induced disabilities among our fellow Americans compounds this tragedy. These numbers do not include the carnage here and in Mexico in gangland wars over who sells us this poison.
The 399,232 opioid overdose deaths alone are approaching the 426,069 US combat losses in all our twentieth-century wars put together. The synthetic opioid fentanyl is singled out. It has killed 93,151—more than our 81,110 combat losses in Viet Nam and Korea combined—nearly twice the 53,402 Americans killed in World War I.
The war against drugs is a world war—a world war we are losing. Afghan opium growers and Chinese fentanyl labs are killing Americans. Controlling those sources and their pipeline into our country may be part of a winning strategy. In 2018, ICE intercepted enough fentanyl to kill the entire US population, but that wasn't enough. As long as there is a demand for drugs, there will be a supply. An assault on the criminal elements that market these lethal drugs to us is necessary, but it will not be sufficient. Even prosecutions for capital murder have not deterred drug dealers. Rival gangs are a more credible threats than any US law enforcement.
We need to get today's users off drugs and discourage tomorrow's users from starting down the path to hell. Medical intervention and organizations like Narcotics Anonymous can't keep up with the onslaught. More is needed.
March 6, 2019
Manned spaceflight is returning to the USA. Ongoing success of SpaceX tests promise crewed flight within the next few months. That will be the first time Americans have flown into space on American rockets since Obama cancelled the US manned space program in 2011. Private companies are stepping in to the market for spacefaring with SpaceX and Boeing leading the way.
An unmanned SpaceX Dragon capsule was launched on a SpaceX Falcon rocket. It navigated to the International Space Station where it docked automatically. (The current space taxi—the Russian Soyuz capsule—requires human guidance and a mechanical assist with the Station's robot arm.) When Dragon splashes down in the Atlantic Ocean, it should be authorized for human transport. The Dragon/Falcon configuration may begin ferrying astronauts to the Space Station by summer.
Engineering is mere months behind for the competing Boeing system. Their Starliner capsule is poised for a comparable test flight in April. By 2020, these two companies should begin competing for the taxi-to-orbit business. One or two other firms should follow soon after.
The SpaceX and Boeing capsules are designed for a full-fledged return to space. They will soon go beyond the International Space Station. SpaceX is reported to have already sold tickets for a round the moon loop in a Dragon capsule launched on a Big Falcon Rocket. That trip will zoom out past the moon on an assured-return trajectory. The passengers—the first space tourists—will look down on the far side of the moon as they fly over it. The Boeing system will be moon-capable as well.
The two company's systems will enable the USA to orbit the moon or land on it. President Trump has directed NASA to prepare to do so. Landings, extended exploration, and settlements should follow. Commercialization of space may begin. FedEx long range planning is rumored to include lunar deliveries.
February 27, 2019
Kelp mops up CO2. A quarter of all the CO2 humans emit ends up in the ocean. There, kelp and other green plants can sequester it in the biosphere. The underwater process happens just like the one on dry land. There another quarter of available CO2 is removed. Photosynthesis transforms the gas into sugar. Plants and animals then further convert that sugar into all the other organic materials of life. Little is returned to the environment as CO2.
Kelp is giant green algae with a ferocious appetite for CO2. Given ample sunlight and CO2, it can grow two feet a day. Underwater jungles of 175-foot tall kelp store vast tonnages of CO2. Like most sea life, kelp flourishes in cold water, but suffocates in warm. The main components of air—N2, O2, Ar, and CO2—all boil away like the bubbles from an open soda. There's little CO2 available to store energy and little O2 to use it. Life grinds to a halt. A series of warm water events have devastated Australian and Californian kelp fields. Recovery is slow.
Excess CO2 acidifies water. In normal water, a few H2O molecules break apart into an H+ ion and an OH- ion. Ideally, there are about a hundred parts per billion (ppb) of each. Dissolving other things in water may shift those concentrations: more H+ is acidic, and more OH- is basic. Solubility varies with the H+/OH- balance. When CO2 dissolves in water, some of it reacts to form carbonic acid H2CO3. Like water, a few carbonic acid molecules fall apart into a H+ ion and a HCO3- ion. The additional H+ ions shift the balance toward acidity.
Life in the ocean evolved in water with a few thousand ppb of OH-. The few extra H+ ions from CO2 shift the ocean environment. Much ocean life is affected. Shellfish are especially sensitive to this shift because acids dissolve their shells. Shellfish farmers are testing kelp plantings for possible local relief from acidifying their clam and oyster beds.
February 20, 2019
What's Mars made of? NASA's newest Mars mission is about to find out. The latest robot, named Insight, is parked near the planet's equator with a suite of geophysical instruments. Astronomers' telescopes and orbiting spectrometers have mapped the surface composition. Earlier Mars probes brought chemistry sets to spot check those results. Mars is covered with dry dirt and rocks—no surprise. Satellites have charted local gravity variations and applied ground-penetrating radar to identify subsurface features. Like Earth, there's even a lake buried deep under Mars' south pole. Many assume it's filled with brackish water, but liquid natural gas seems just as likely.
Insight's data will help us better understand the modern-day structure of our sister planet, and its evolution. The rocky inner planets of the solar system—Mars, Earth, Venus, and Mercury—were formed together. The more we learn about their similarities and differences, the better we can understand our Earth—where it came from and where it's going.
Mars must have had a molten core like Earth's at one time. The planet's hosting the universe's largest volcano attests to that. Martian volcanoes are all quiet now. What happened? Are the core's remnants still hot and conducting heat into the surrounding body of Mars? Insight will try to drill a 16-foot deep hole and place thermocouples there to measure subsurface heat flow. If Insight doesn't hit a rock along the way, a clear picture of the evolution of Mars may be forthcoming.
Seismic events and their echoes will reveal what lies beneath the Martian surface. Insight will use classic seismology techniques to measure the structure in depth. Here on Earth, engineers set off explosions and use echo location to map geology. They listen for shock waves coming straight from the explosion, and then those bouncing off underground layers. The echoes produce a three dimensional image of what cannot be seen. Insight will try to do something similar on Mars. It will have to get along without explosives though. Instead, Insight will wait for Marsquakes and meteor strikes on the surface. The planet's thin atmosphere offers little protection from meteors, so 10 to 200 detectable events per year are expected.
Insight data will provide the first detailed look at the interior of another world. Similarities to Earth's geology will help us better understand our home planet. Differences will generate new mysteries. We'll have to wait and see.
February 13, 2019
A true two-dimensional material, graphene fascinates physicists. Graphene is even stronger than diamond. It wouldn't melt on the surface of the sun. This recently isolated carbon crystal also conducts heat faster than diamond, and transmits electricity better than silver. It's the basic building block of familiar forms of carbon as well as some of the latest carbon composites. It's a subject of active research interest in both fundamental and applied physics.
One atom thick, graphene acts as a two dimensional material. One pound of graphene has an area estimated to cover more than half a square mile. Its structure gives it some unusual physical and electrical properties. It's a sheet of six carbon atom hexagonal unit cells like chicken wire. There, each atom is locked to three adjacent atoms—thus its phenomenal strength. Each carbon atom contributes one extra electron to a delocalized swarm of electrons above and below the plane—thus its special electrical properties.
The electrical properties of graphene suggest practical applications. Electrical uses under investigation range from quantum computers to improved solar panels. Those could be more efficient and would avoid the exotic metals of today's units. Something strange happens when two layers of graphene are laid one atop the other. Usually they exhibit the same electrical properties as single layers. But when they are cooled almost to absolute zero (-459¡F) and twisted ever-so-slightly by 1.1¡, their electrical resistance vanishes and they superconduct. This magic angle shifts only slightly when the two sheets are crushed together under thousands of atmospheres pressure. Why and how this happens is a subject of active research at laboratories worldwide. Understanding its origin may contribute to the search for practical superconductors that could reduce the cost of transmitting electricity.
February 6, 2019
Sickle cell anemia
Gene therapy may cure sickle cell anemia. The first test subjects have achieved healthy red blood cells running through their veins. Only time can tell whether their relief is permanent. A practical and effective cure would be a boon to the hundred thousand Americans with the diseaseÉas well as millions more worldwide.
Sickle cell anemia evolved as the lesser of two evils in malaria-prone areas. Malaria bacteria cannot live in the diseased red cells of sickle cell anemia. The carriers are immune to the world's leading killer of women and children. It's not much of a trade off though. Sickle cell's defective hemoglobin lasts weeks instead of months, leaving victims anemic. Misshapen blood cells get snagged in narrow blood vessels, cutting off circulation to critical organs. Sickle cell incidents are painful, often deadly.
This is a well-understood hereditary disease, so it's an obvious starting point for gene therapy. The disease stems from a single protein defect in the hemoglobin produced by the victims' bone marrow. That deficiency is the result of one mutation of a single gene. Correcting that one error should be the route to a cure. Two such promising approaches are under study. One tactic harvests stem cells from patient bone marrow and uses special viruses to inject proper hemoglobin genes into them. Another approach uses gene-editing techniques to correct the stem cell genes. Stem cells with the corrected genes are infused back into the body intravenously. Those returning to the bone marrow begin making normal hemoglobin. Both are showing preliminary signs of success.
Another alternative takes a quite different track. The body has two seperate ways to produce hemoglobin: fetal and adult. In utero, a baby's blood is normal. Only after birth does the body produce the defective hemoglobin. Reactivating the fetal hemoglobin cells while suppressing the adult ones also appears promising.
All three methods are being explored in parallel. Initial successes have encouraged the National Institute of Health to increase research funding to cure sickle cell anemia. A cure may become available in three years or so. Progress here will lay the groundwork for other advances in gene therapy.
January 30, 2019
Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation
Martian explorers lived in Hawaii. There was a Martian outpost atop Mauna Loa, an active Hawaiian volcano. NASA sent Mars astronauts to its Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) facility to study non-engineering aspects of visiting Mars. Crews spent months in mock Mars missions to test the psychological effects of isolation and crowding.
Teams of six explorers lived and worked in a 1200 square foot structure—a cramped dome small enough to be transported to the red planet. They existed on government issue freeze-dried meals and limited water. Communications with home were delayed 40 minutes—just like a real Mars mission. Weekly 30-second showers and a shared chemical toilet added to the ambience of the facility.
Going out for a walk offered no relief. The mountaintop was barren and virtually lifeless—much like real Martian terrain. Once a week, crew geologists explored the lava fields in full space suits. Habitat maintenance was also performed in cumbersome space suits. Remote-controlled robots performed more distant outdoor tasks.
Expeditions lasting up to one year ended without serious psychological or morale issues like those encountered in earlier longer-duration experiments. This is about as long as the first Mars mission is expected to spend on the planet. The results encourage NASA planners that a Mars mission could succeed.
The Martian explorers have gone home. HI-SEAS is being reconfigured for new guests: moon people. We'll return to the moon—this time to stay—long before sending astronauts to Mars. We'll debug lunar living atop this Hawaiian volcano.
January 23, 2019
New England: the devil's playground
Clearly the handiwork of the devil, lunar eclipses terrified our ancestors. They were omens scary enough to alter history. A total lunar eclipse like the one this week almost ended English colonization of America in 1635.
New England was cursed. The devil was working his evil magic everywhere there. The young colony was struggling. Colonists were freezing. Colonists were starving. Colonists were dying. A storm beyond their wildest nightmares struck on August 16, 1635. Class 3 hurricane winds toppled trees and drove twenty-foot surf ashore. People were dragged out to sea. Heavy rains compounded the flooding. Crops were ruined. Ships in port were dashed against the shore and shattered with nearly total loss of their crews. Plymouth reported forty-six killed. (The actual number was probably higher—women, children, sailors, servants and Indians werenÕt necessarily counted as people then.)
Eleven days later, the devil attacked the little settlement again. The storm survivors watched the moon rise and then disappear. In an eclipse much like this weekÕs, a shadow spread across the moon. The moon vanished for hours before slowly reemerging in the sky. This was the work of the devil. The colony was cursed.
New England was the devilÕs playground. Many colonists wanted to return to England. If they had, the local geography and history would be different today. Instead, they stayed and spent the next fifty-eight years purging New England of the devilÕs disciples. He had spawned many witches and warlocks in that tiny outpost. Their zealous persecution forestalled further evil events like lunar eclipses.
January 16, 2019
Big Falcon Rocket
SpaceX's Starship, nee Big Falcon Rocket, solves the easiest of the problems of colonizing Mars. It's just engineering. Humans already know how to make rockets, and have been building larger ones for nearly two millennia. SpaceX unveiled a prototype rocket large enough to carry men and machinery to the moon or Mars.
The rocket science is the easy part. Humans are not so easily reengineered for this new environment. Mars immigrants face eight months to a year on weightlessness in transit. The crippling effects of six months of zero-g aboard the International Space Station does not bode well for the colonists' condition on arrival. Their recovery to a new normal condition under one-third gravity is unknown. The psychological effects of years crammed together may be as debilitating as the physical effects. Simulated Mars missions atop a Hawaiian volcano highlight potential problems. Crew relations sour and crew morale degenerates. Remember those experimental astronauts arrived by car, not after being jammed together in a Greyhound bus-size space capsule for eight months.
Radiation exposure compounds the problems of weightlessness, loneliness, and overcrowding for Mars's pioneers. Beyond Earth's magnetic field, intense radiation from the sun, the solar wind, beats down. Radiation health effects are cumulative. It damages DNA. All the body's cells are vulnerable—especially reproducing cells. Replacement blood cells are diminished. White cell shortage leaves the patient vulnerable to infection; red cell shortage makes the patient lethargic. Nausea and vomiting are common even at therapeutic doses. Exposures exceeding radiation therapeutic doses will occur with lethal consequences. Systemic damage from higher doses cripple or kill the victim.
Adequate shielding for the trip to Mars will be heavy. Radiation protection on the Martian surface will be developed to support the lunar outposts that must come before them. Practical protection for man and machines may prove inadequate against solar flares. Man's final frontier will not be easily conquered.
January 9, 2019
Are you lonesome tonight? Elvis Presley sang a dismal picture of loneliness fifty years ago. It's no better today. Researchers report an epidemic of loneliness across the country today. (It's unclear how much of the increase cited is just someone finally stopped and looked at all the lonely people.) Studies show loneliness peaks in three age brackets:
á Twenty-somethings torn away from school. Their friends scattered to the four winds. Thrust unprepared into the adult world.
á Mid-fifties sensing they are not immortal. The kids have moved away, and the social structure built around parenthood crumbles.
á Eighty-year-olds who have outlived their social structure.
Loneliness has consequences. It may be more than just having a bad day now and then. It can contribute to clinical depression and post-traumatic-shock-syndrome. Such despair ruins victims' lives and often ends them. The current rash of suicides among young veterans may be one manifestation of the loneliness epidemic.
Loneliness also 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.
Seek professional help when loneliness seems serious. Be proactive to avoid its growth. Communicate better with the people you meet. Look them in the eye when talking, and really listen to them. Listen to respond, not to rebut. Organizations like Toastmasters can help.
Go out and find unconditional love for yourself. GET A DOG.
January 2, 2019
Water is weird
Water is weird. The gas is far from ideal. The liquid is odd. The solid is bizarre.
Ice, the familiar solid form, packs water molecules in an open crystal structure. The oxygen atoms are bound into hexagons held together by bridging hydrogen atoms. The whole assembly looks like a microscopic honeycomb. There's lots of empty space within. Add a little heat and the bridging bonds shake and begin to break. The lattice structure collapses. The shards tumble into the voids. The ice has melted. More heat breaks the fragments up further. The smaller bits fill the open spaces better, and liquid water contracts as it warms. It reaches its peak density at 4¡C (39¡F) and then expands like a normal liquid after that.
Molten ice is denser than its solid form. So ice floats on water. (Other solids precipitate in their liquids.) Ice displaces its own weight in its water host—exactly the volume it will have when it melts. That's why melting ice doesn't overflow your glass, and why melting icebergs don't raise sea level.
Liquid water expands when it freezes. There's a considerable force required for that. It's strong enough to shear rocks, or burst water pipes. When outside pressure becomes too high, liquid water remains liquid. Its freezing point drops. The continent of Antarctica, and the moons Europa and Enceladus are blanketed with miles of ice. There, rivers and lakes of liquid water flow beneath tons per square inch of ice overhead. Pressure can melt ice—that's how ice skates work. Put your entire weight on the area of the blade and you exert enough pressure to melt the ice beneath. You glide on that film of wet ice.
Common ice is only one of many forms of crystalline water. Water molecules are like a triangular Lego blocks. They lend themselves to assembly into a variety of shapes. Today, seventeen stable or metastable crystalline ice structures have been identified—most have been created in the lab. Two low-temperature solid forms exist at normal pressure. A dozen more ice crystal forms occur under higher pressures. The full map of their preferred temperatures and pressures resembles a patchwork quilt. Water may exist naturally in some of those forms on giant planets.
Water is everywhere in the universe. Most of it is in none of these forms. Transition into and between these ordered forms takes time and energy. Most extraterrestrial objects are too cold for that to happen. Water molecules or droplets are flash frozen on capture in space—an amorphous blob results. This disordered mass is a supercooled liquid. It's cold and it's hard; it's just another part of the strangeness of water.
December 26, 2018
Water on mars
There's water on Mars—solid water. Mars Express, a European satellite, has mapped a patch of ice twice the size of Rhode Island. This mile thick slab of ice lies at the bottom of a deep crater near the north pole of Mars.
Water is nearly everywhere throughout our solar system. There's ice in the canyons on the dark side of Mercury. The sun's heat and the solar wind have driven water off Venus. Here in the Goldilocks zone, Earth has solid, liquid, and gaseous water. Solid water is common out beyond Earth's orbit. Comets are icy rocks. Their ice sublimes away during close encounters with the sun. (A comet's tail is just the light of the sun reflecting off its trailing water contrail.) Asteroids, moons, and planets orbiting out beyond the Goldilocks zone host year-round patches of ice. Some—like the moons Europa and Enceladus—are covered with miles of ice on top of lakes or seas of liquid water. Antarctic rivers and lakes are thought to be similar to those of these alien moons.
Water on Mars does not equate to life on Mars. Neither does its solid state negate the possibility. The search for life on Mars continues with the robots roaming the planet's surface, and new ones on their way there.
December 19, 2018
Too many young people are dying
Despite advances in medical science, life expectancy is falling. Too many young people are killing themselves—killing themselves with drugs, killing themselves with cars, killing themselves with guns, killing themselves with,..
Drug overdoses are the biggest cause of preventable death in America today. Fentanyl and other opioids are killing users, plus those who treat them, and those who police them. Almost fifty years of our war on drugs hasn't worked. The next step toward controlling this opioid epidemic may be political. These deadly drugs are smuggled across the Mexican border to domestic drug distributors. Tightening controls at the border could strangle the illegal drug traffic. These drugs are not made in Mexico; they're imported from illicit labs in China. Diplomacy may induce China to police its pharmaceutical industry. These are just two of the ways the president is working to combat our opioid overdose epidemic.
Drunk driving, drugged driving, and distracted driving kill nearly as many people as opioids do. Severe penalties and rigorous enforcement have done little to curtail that one more for the road. Again this year, drunk drivers will ruin the holidays for families all over the country The struggle against drugged driving has only begun. We can't fully assess how big a problem it is. The statistics aren't available yet. The surge in traffic accidents and traffic deaths in states legalizing marijuana are the tip of the iceberg. They demonstrate the problem is huge. And then, there's the cell phone. Our young are talking and texting themselves to death while driving.
Drunk drivers, drugged drivers, and distracted drivers don't do a whole lot better when they step out of their cars. Every week, we read about someone who walked or biked into oncoming traffic or in front of a train. Bicyclists and pedestrians don't fare well in those encounters.
Suicide is growing to epidemic proportions. Three out of four gun deaths in this country are self-inflicted. Too many of these are young veterans neglected by the VA. Victims using other lethal means exacerbate this death toll. The true suicide rate is seriously underreported. What fraction of the so-called traffic accidents are actually suicides? How many one-car accidents? How many wrong-way freeway drivers? We're losing a lot of people we shouldn't. Many of their deaths could be prevented. If you know someone on the edge, get help. Call the suicide prevention hotline 1-800-273-8255. Remember the holidays are peak suicide season. When in doubt, help out.
December 12, 2018
Octopus and Squid
Octopus and squid are smarter than they ought to be. They use simple tools in the wild. They solve mazes and puzzles in the lab. They poach fish from neighboring aquariums in captivity, and slink down lab drains back to freedom. Born orphans—these animals are neither trained by their elders, nor socialized by their peers. They're smart without education.
Their ancestors evolved the brainpower to rule the oceans 275 million years ago. Their progress ended there and the world passed them by. Life in the ocean went from sponges and snails to dolphins and whales. Life crawled out of the oceans and joined primitive cockroach ancestors on land. Life here advanced into today's flora and fauna. Octopus and squid—once top predators—remained as they once were.
Each octopus or squid is limited to the brains it was born with. There's no telling what they might have achieved if they had educated their young. What might they have become with few hundred million more years of evolution? Could they have developed an advanced civilization? That's the history of the extraterrestrials visiting Earth in my Dead Astronauts novel. Read an excerpt.
December 5, 2018
Start a lifelong habit of reading
Give a child a book to plant the seeds for a lifetime of success. Reading for homework garners the stigma of "work." Reading for fun creates a healthy addiction to books instead. This year, make sure there's a book under every kid's tree.
Readers prosper. Ben Carson is the poster child for reading. He escaped the depths of the ghetto through books. His uneducated mother demanded better for her sons. She required they read two books a week. Those inspired Carson's pursuit of learning. Books transported him from abject poverty to the pinnacle of success. This offspring of a single mother grew up to be one of the world's top neurosurgeons, then a candidate for President of the United States, and now the Secretary for Housing and Urban Development. Dr. Carson is a model for what is possible.
Ben Carson also the inspiration for Col James "Buzz" Sherman MD, Flight Surgeon and Deputy Commander of the Mars 1 mission in my novel Stranded on Mars. Like the real Dr. Carson, books raised the fictional Dr. Sherman to prominence. By contrast, his political appointee crewmate, Luther Queen, is into video games.
Young adults of all ages may enjoy reading Stranded on Mars. (This is hard science fiction in that the science is solid.) Any of my fiction or nonfiction books offer entertaining reading for the future booklovers on your gift list. Click on any cover above to sample your gift to them. Their journey to a life of literacy starts with you.
November 28, 2018
Water on mars has been overestimated
The vast Martian oceans are a figment of some computer's imagination. Mars rovers detected traces of perchlorates in Martian soil. Mars satellites mapped perchlorate deposits all over the planet. Here on Earth, perchlorate formation is often associated with ocean water. Wishful thinkers interpreted the prevalence of perchlorates on Mars as evidence of past oceans there. Rigorous reexamination of Mars orbiter data shows the inference of perchlorates is a computer programming error. The reported perchlorate expanses do not exist. The data do not support aqueous oceans on Mars.
Mars orbiters survey the planet with hyperspectral technology—technology at the forefront of the state of the art. On Earth, or on Mars, high-flying or orbiting camera-like instruments collect light from below in a line of pixels. Move forward: click another line, and another, and another. Line-after-line creates a picture of the terrain. Recording only the brightness of each point makes a black-and-white image; three colors yield a normal color picture. Hyperspectral imagers capture a few hundred infrared colors. The local spectrum of each pixel is inverted to infer the composition of the area imaged. The results provide detailed maps of the chemistry of the zone.
Hyperspectral data overwhelms computers. There's just too much of it. Sophisticated algorithms handle straightforward situations. There's always a complex condition beyond the computer's competence. Programmers can't think of everything. That's when humans need to step in. For the Mars orbiters, areas including mixed terrain weren't handled properly. The erroneous results suggested perchlorates in the shadows. Hurray! That's what the investigators wanted to see. Human checking discovered the misinterpretation. Perchlorates and oceans vanished.
November 21, 2018
Dolphins—the other intelligent earthlings
We are not alone. There is other intelligent life on Earth. It's swimming just offshore.
The more we learn about Cetaceans—toothed whales—the more like us they become. Dolphins and orcas are the oceans' top predators. They rule the seas much the same way humans rule the land. Advanced communication and social skills make us number one. We both apply those skills to pass our cultures on and to train our young. We work together to address threats beyond our individual abilities. Lions and tigers and bears seldom eat humans; sharks flee dolphin packs.
A considerable level of communication has been established between members of the planets two dominant species. Captive Cetaceans have been trained to perform complex tasks for humans. Killer whales have been found to adopt personality traits emulating those of their trainers. Earth's intelligent creatures are interested in the animal life around them. Humans have pets, rescue animals, and keep zoos—including aquariums for dolphins and killer whales. A pod of beluga whales has adopted a narwhale calf. Tales of dolphins rescuing people abound. How interested are they in the humans they share the planet with? Fish Story tells a tale of people kept by dolphins. Read an excerpt telling of their capture.
November 14, 2018
Carbon compounds on mars
Organic compounds on Mars don't indicate life on Mars—or not. NASA's Curiosity rover found carbon-bearing compounds in a dry Martian lakebed. Interpreting those results as indicative of life there would be premature. Once upon a time, humans thought carbon compounds could only be made by living things—thus the study of carbon chemistry was mislabeled Organic Chemistry. That idea was debunked centuries ago, but label lives on. Life as we know it means carbon compounds, but carbon compounds do not mean life.
Some meteors from Mars carry collections of carbon-bearing compounds comparable to those Curiosity discovered on Mars. Close examination of those Mars rocks finds build ups of organics close to catalytic inclusions. The researchers hypothesize these carbon-rich deposits could have formed by electrochemical or catalytic inclusion of carbon from the planet's carbon dioxide atmosphere. No biological processes required.
The initial NASA reports compared the composition of Curiosity's organic deposits to that of kerosene. That would be consistent with them being the residue of a natural gas lake—like the ones on Titan today.
November 7, 2018
Jupiter has more asteroids than the asteroid belt. The giant planet has sixty-seven moons (and counting) and more than seven thousand trapped asteroids.
The gravity around any two objects combines in a complicated way. Five special points track the two bodies as they whirl around each other. One at 10 o'clock and another at 2 o'clock are stable. At special spots in those directions, centrifugal forces balance the combined forces of gravity, and objects there rotate with the rest.
Every set of two bodies carries similar potential wells—larger ones in proportion. Two faint dust clouds accompany the Earth and its moon. There's more debris at the sweet spots of the Earth/sun pair. The behemoths of the solar system—Jupiter and the sun—have trapped a lot more. Jupiter cleared its path around the sun long ago. Interlopers that wandered onto its track were either consumed by the planet or captured in one of its two stable spots. Over seven thousand objects large enough to be detected from Earth—many large enough to merit names—have been swept up and now orbit with the planet/sun system.
Recent human missions have explored asteroids in the belt between the inner and outer planets. The next step outward will explore Jupiter's asteroids. NASA's Lucy mission has been approved to investigate Jupiter's trailing asteroids—the so-called Trojan asteroids at 10 o'clock. (The 2 o'clock asteroids are the Greek asteroids. Objects in the two clouds are named for legends from the siege of Troy.) Proposed for launch in 2021, Lucy's twelve-year mission will visit one belt asteroid and then eight Trojans.