Category Archives: Science

Animal’s Hump Day News

Happy Hump Day!

Thanks again to The Other McCain for the Rule Five links!

Moving along:  some folks aren’t interested, but I find this fascinating; the latest Kepler survey has revealed thousands of possible new exoplanets.  Ten of those may be earth-like.  Excerpt:

This is the most comprehensive and detailed catalog release of candidate exoplanets, which are planets outside our solar system, from Kepler’s first four years of data. It’s also the final catalog from the spacecraft’s view of the patch of sky in the Cygnus constellation.

With the release of this catalog, derived from data publicly available on the NASA Exoplanet Archive, there are now 4,034 planet candidates identified by Kepler. Of which, 2,335 have been verified as exoplanets. Of roughly 50 near-Earth size habitable zone candidates detected by Kepler, more than 30 have been verified.

Additionally, results using Kepler data suggest two distinct size groupings of small planets. Both results have significant implications for the search for life. The final Kepler catalog will serve as the foundation for more study to determine the prevalence and demographics of planets in the galaxy, while the discovery of the two distinct planetary populations shows that about half the planets we know of in the galaxy either have no surface, or lie beneath a deep, crushing atmosphere – an environment unlikely to host life.

I’d have to add “life as we know it” to that last sentence.  But it’s still amazing.

When astronomers first started looking for exoplanets (planets outside or solar system) nobody knew what to expect.  Nobody knew if planets were common or rare; nobody knew if our life-friendly little solar system was typical or rare.

Now we know that many, many stars have planets.  I suspect it’s only a matter of time before we find a small rocky planet with the spectral lines for oxygen and water coming to us from its atmosphere.  That’s not a sure sign of life, but it’s a pretty decent one.

I hope I’m around when that happens.

Animal’s Hump Day News

Happy Hump Day!

Is it too soon for another aliens post?  Nah.  Let’s have another aliens post!

Why haven’t we encountered aliens yet?  Turns out there are a variety of reasons.  Excerpt:

In 1950, a learned lunchtime conversation set the stage for decades of astronomical exploration. Physicist Enrico Fermi submitted to his colleagues around the table a couple contentions, summarized as 1) The galaxy is very old and very large, with hundreds of billions of stars and likely even more habitable planets. 2) That means there should be more than enough time for advanced civilizations to develop and flourish across the galaxy.

So where the heck are they?

This simple, yet powerful argument became known as the Fermi Paradox, and it still boggles many sage minds today. Aliens should be common, yet there is no convincing evidence that they exist.

Here are twelve possible reasons why this is so.

Go on and read the twelve, but not mentioned is one that I find most likely; alien life may well be so alien as to make any social interaction impossible.

If you haven’t yet, check out the recent sci-fi thriller Arrival.  Movies aren’t usually the best place for possible scenarios for alien contact; nor are sci-fi novels (and I say that as a part-time sci-fi writer.)  But Arrival does a halfway decent job of portraying the visiting aliens as truly alien; they aren’t just humans with odd makeup jobs.

As for convincing evidence; give some thought as to what convincing evidence would be, short of aliens actually showing up here.  In Carl Sagan’s book Contact he had an alien transmission in a radio signal, presenting a string of prime numbers.  That’s a pretty good indicator.

We could always wait for aliens to notice us.  But any such indication would be limited by the speed of light.  Given how long we’ve been broadcasting, that limits our possible contacts to a sphere of about a hundred light years – or less, depending on what specifically any possible intelligence may be watching for.  That’s a teeny, tiny little bubble of our stellar neighborhood.  And there is no reason to think they’d even recognize us as intelligent – or even as life.

The Milky Way may well be teeming with intelligent life.  They’re just beyond our ken.

Climate Hysteria

Today President Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris climate agreement, producing predictable howls of outrage from all quarters but most of all from the political Left and the leaders of other nations who will now be denied billions of dollars in income transfers from Uncle Sam.

Some respected scientists weighed in:

This was a bad deal, True Believers.  I’m not a climate change denier; the Earth’s climate has been changing for 4.55 billion years now, and through most of that time it’s been warmer than it is now.  I also don’t doubt that human activity has some effect, although it isn’t worth crippling the economy over.

This was just a bad deal.  The main feature was transferring billions of U.S. dollars to developing nations who were exempt from any requirement to reduce carbon emissions for decades.

The United States has already led the way in reducing carbon emissions.  As a nation, our carbon footprint is lower than it was in 1992.  We don’t need to give away billions of dollars from our already-broke Imperial government to keep moving ahead on this.

Also:  If this was such a great deal, as former President Obama would have us believe, why did he not present it to the Senate and have it ratified as a binding treaty?

Animal’s Hump Day News

Happy Hump Day!

It seems we’re always twenty years away from fusion power, if you read the popular news sites.  How far away are we really?  Excerpt:

I’d like to think we’re smarter than the Sun.

Let’s compare and contrast. Humans, on the one hand, have made enormous advances in science and technology, built cities, cars, computers, and phones. We have split the atom for war and for energy.

What has the Sun done? It’s a massive ball of plasma, made up of mostly hydrogen and helium. It just, kind of, sits there. Every now and then it burps up hydrogen gas into a coronal mass ejection. It’s not a stretch to say that the Sun, and all inanimate material in the Universe, isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer.

And yet, the Sun has mastered a form of energy that we just can’t seem to wrap our minds around: fusion. It’s really infuriating, seeing the Sun, just sitting there, effortlessly doing something our finest minds have struggled with for half a century.

Why can’t we make fusion work? How long until we can finally catch up technologically with a sphere of ionized gas?

 Well, there is one significant problem; the Sun has one advantage the the folks trying to build an economically viable fusion reactor lack:  Mass.  About 330,000 times the mass of the entire Earth, in fact.

Sunshine has all sorts of benefits for us here on Earth.

The Sun sustains fusion reactions because of this mass.  It has been fusing hydrogen into helium for almost 5 billion years, and will continue to do so for another 5 billion years.  The Sun’s mass and the resulting (enormous) gravity well does the rest.

Fusion reactors face a more complicated problem.  In the lack of a solar-sized gravity well, fusion reactors rely on a magnetic field or focused high-energy lasers to compress hydrogen isotopes into a fusable mass.

But from what I’ve been reading on the topic, it’s not impossible.  Once the basic physics are established, the rest is a matter of engineering.  I’m pretty sure we’ll break the last few barriers eventually; then the Earth will realize abundant, cheap energy.  It’s mostly a matter of effort.

The energy that powers the Sun could power the Earth.

Animal’s Hump Day News

Happy Hump Day!

This is a subject that I find fascinating, especially since I’m a part-time science fiction writer in addition to being a full-time consultant and part-time blogger:  5 Reasons We Shouldn’t Be Afraid of Aliens.  Excerpt:

As we perhaps draw thrillingly/terrifyingly closer to discovering life elsewhere in the universe, the chorus of people warning us to be careful what we wish for is growing louder. Most famously, renowned physicist Stephen Hawking has argued for hitting the brakes, reiterating as recently as 2016 his concern about seeking alien contact in his comments about possibly life on Gliese 832c: “One day, we might receive a signal from a planet like this. But we should be wary of answering back. Meeting an advanced civilization could be like Native Americans encountering Columbus. That didn’t turn out so well.” For example, European germs were deadly for the natives and some fear that could happen to us.

Astrobiologist Lewis Dartnell, however, disagrees with all of this. From his perspective, things are considerably less scary than many think. In an article recently published on Literary Hub, he offers a host of comfortingly solid arguments for why we should stop worrying.

The one argument you don’t see in the article is an obvious one:  Intelligent life that arose on another planet is likely to be so wildly, unimaginably different than us as to make any kind of social interaction impossible.

That doesn’t make for good sci-fi, of course; my own first major work of science fiction centered around a first-contact scenario and a resulting interstellar conflict between humanity and an alien race.  Now, in this scenario the two species were similar enough to make social interaction possible; bilateral, senses in the head, communication primarily through spoken language, same senses, similar home planets.

But as a sci-fi buff and a cosmology hobbyist – and a trained biologist – I knew I was using a massive amount of literary license.

If there are any intelligent, star-faring races in our immediate stellar neighborhood, it’s more likely that they are ignoring us either because we’re just too primitive to be interesting, or they are so biologically and socially… well, alien, that they might not even recognize us as life.

I’m not sure which scenario I find more interesting.

Animal’s Daily Cosmic News

Sitting here on our little blue ball, it’s hard as hell to get even a little understanding on how vast the cosmos actually is.  Now, it turns about that our own galaxy is linked to its smaller satellite galaxies by an enormous magnetic field.  Excerpt:

For the first time, astronomers have detected a magnetic field associated with the Magellanic Bridge, the filament of gas stretching 75 thousand light-years between the Milky Way Galaxy’s nearest galactic neighbors: the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds (LMC and SMC, respectively). “There were hints that this magnetic field might exist, but no one had observed it until now,” says Jane Kaczmarek, at the University of Sydney, and lead author of the paper describing the finding.

“Not only are entire galaxies magnetic, but the faint delicate threads joining galaxies are magnetic, too,”said Bryan Gaensler, Director of the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics, University of Toronto, and a co-author on the paper. “Everywhere we look in the sky, we find magnetism.”

“In general, we don’t know how such vast magnetic fields are generated, nor how these large-scale magnetic fields affect galaxy formation and evolution,” says Kaczmarek. “The LMC and SMC are our nearest neighbours, so understanding how they evolve may help us understand how our Milky Way Galaxy will evolve. Understanding the role that magnetic fields play in the evolution of galaxies and their environment is a fundamental question in astronomy that remains to be answered.”

Visible in the southern night sky, the LMC and SMC are dwarf galaxies that orbit our home galaxy and lie at a distance of 160 and 200 thousand light-years from Earth respectively.

Think about those distances.  160 thousand light  years is 9.405801e+17 miles – that’s 940,580,100,000,000,000 miles.

That’s a pretty good hike.

Our Milky Way galaxy contains somewhere between 100 and 400 billion stars.  Moving out past the Magellanic clouds, we have the Local Group, a group of 54 galaxies with a gravitational center somewhere between our galaxy and the Andromeda galaxy.  The galaxies of the Local Group cover about 10 million light years, and are bound together by a webbing of hydrogen and a few single stars.

The Local Group is part of the Virgo Supercluster, a massive structure of 100 groups of galaxies like the Local Group, and spans about 33 megaparsecs – that’s 110 million light years.

The Virgo Supercluster is part of the Laniakea Supercluster, which contains about 300 to 500 clusters the size of the Virgo Supercluster, and spans 160 megaparsecs, or 520 million light years.  And the Laniakea Supercluster has as its cosmic neighbors the Shapley Supercluster, Hercules Supercluster, Coma Supercluster and Perseus-Pisces Supercluster.

Problems closer to home occupy most of our waking thoughts and that’s as it should be, but once in a while a little cosmic perspective is in order.

Animal’s Daily Testicle Transplant News

Yes, really.  Maybe only on a rat, but the implications… well.  Um.  Excerpt:

Lab rats probably don’t have many deep thoughts. But one of these days, right as a scientist is transplanting a testicle onto a rats’s neck, one of those little furry guys is going to ask itself—what did I do to deserve this? And how will I get my revenge?

Case-in-point, the little guy below. Entire testes have proven especially difficult to transplant back into the same place, at least in lab animals. So, a team of scientists decided to transplant them somewhere else in the case of these rats—onto their necks. And the scientists plan to continue transplanting testes onto rat necks, so that one day, entire testes may be reliably transplanted from person to person.

Testicles are incredibly special organs, since they’ve got something called immune privilege. That means they’re safe from the body’s immune response, and can survive in another body for a while without being rejected. The testicles’ privileged status serves to protect the sperm cells inside from an attack by the body. In theory, this means doctors should be able to easily transplant them between people—which could be useful in cases where a person undergoes a treatment that would kill all of their sperm. That’s why the researchers are doing the research, so they can study this immune privilege.

Ballchinian.

OK, now I will admit to stealing this joke from the article comments, but it’s kind of an obvious one.  Any Men in Black fans out there?  Here’s a surgical technique that could make a real-life Ballchinian.

Jokes aside, this could be pretty significant for a 9-year-old boy who is about to undergo radiation therapy.  It could give that boy the chance to have a family later in life; something that he may otherwise never have known.

It’s an amazing modern era we live in.

Of course, the jokes around this are going to be absolutely nuts.

Animal’s Not-Thought-Through Planet Name News

NASA has spotted auroras on Uranus.  Excerpt:

Uranus is the third largest planet in the solar system after Jupiter and Saturn. It’s quite a bit smaller than Saturn, actually, with a diameter of 15,759 miles (25,362 km). Saturn is more than twice as large, but you could still fit 63 Earths inside Uranus. The Planet appears as a uniform blue-gray globe from a distance, but there are some subtle pattern in the clouds when viewed in certain wavelengths of light. It also has a ring system — it’s no match for the majestic rings of Saturn, but it’s got Jupiter beat in that department. In addition, Uranus has the distinction of rotating with an axial tilt of 97 degrees — almost parallel to the plane of the solar system. Astronomers hypothesize it was struck by a smaller planet in the distant past that tipped it over on its side.

The above images show bright auroras glowing in the clouds of Uranus, a phenomenon that was only confirmed in 2011. Astronomers had previously seen auroras on other gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn, but never Uranus. Auroras are caused by streams of charged particles like electrons picked up by the solar wind or from a planet’s own ionosphere. They are channeled into the upper atmosphere by the planet’s magnetic field, where they interact with gas molecules like oxygen and nitrogen. The ionized gas then gives off light, which we can observe.

Auroras on Uranus

Insert obligatory “Uranus” pun here.

It’s a common observation among astronomers that the universe is not only stranger than we imagine, but stranger than we can imagine.  Not only is the universe pretty strange in places, our own solar system is pretty weird.  The semi-cool outer gas giants are interesting and strange, and it’s only recently we’ve started getting good looks at them.

Like many biologists, though, I’m still holding out for whatever we may find under the icepack on Europa.

Goodbye, Blue Monday

Goodbye, Blue Monday!

A 20-mile long ‘spacescraper’ dangling from an asteroid: Could it work?

Not sure I’m buying it – not with current building materials.  Excerpt:

Clouds Architecture Office espouses a dream-big-or-go-home philosophy with its plan to construct the world’s “tallest building ever.” The 20-mile high (or long) megastructure would dangle from an asteroid suspended by a cable system tens of thousands of miles long.

A number of engineering hurdles stand in the way, so would-be atmospheric settlers of tomorrow will have plenty of time to save up for a down payment. Nevertheless, today’s humble surface-dwellers may see inspirational value in proposing such castles in the sky, regardless of their feasibility.

Clouds AO’s “Analemma Tower” riffs on the concept of the space elevator, an orbiting counterweight tethered to Earth by an unimaginably long cable that, once built, could provide more affordable access to space.

But rather than a fixed line to the ground, the firm proposes an apartment building hanging off the lower end of a very, very, very long cable attached to an asteroid. The entire system would orbit at the same speed the Earth turns, so it could hover over a relatively narrow area, rather than zipping around many times per day, like the International Space Station does.

Now, I’m saying this as a guy who once wrote a sci-fi book in which a planet-to-low-orbit space elevator called a “Skyhook” figured heavily.  But at least that scenario depended on future technology that enabled the builders to ‘grow’ carbon fiber nanotubes.

(What’s fun about writing science fiction is the abandon with which we just make shit up.)

But let’s just assume for a moment that this suspended tower notion could be built.  Imagine what will happen when something inevitably goes wrong.  Hopefully the dangling skyscraper (skydangler?) won’t be over a populated area when the cable somehow breaks.

The very thought would be enough to give Damocles nightmares.

Animal’s Daily Massive Footprint News

Holy custom footwear, Batman!

Article here.  Excerpt:

It was found among an “unprecedented” 21 different types of dinosaur tracks and dwarfs a metre-long footprint discovered in the Gobi desert by a team of Japanese and Mongolian researchers.

Palaeontologists from the University of Queensland and James Cook University said their find was the most diverse array of dino footprints in the world.

The remains were unearthed in rocks aged up to 140 millions years old in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.

Steve Salisbury, lead author of a paper on the findings published in the Memoir of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, said the tracks were “globally unparalleled”.

He added: “It is extremely significant, forming the primary record of non-avian dinosaurs in the western half of the continent and providing the only glimpse of Australia’s dinosaur fauna during the first half of the Early Cretaceous Period.

A modern-day dinosaur.

I remain as fascinated by dinosaurs as I was as a little tad, and have made a point of staying abreast of new discoveries.  I’m also fond of correcting folks who say that dinosaurs are extinct; they aren’t extinct at all.  In fact, there are more species of dinosaurs around today than there are species of mammals.

We call them birds.  Birds are dinosaurs, specifically, they are coelurosaurs, a branch of the theropods and therefore cousins to the raptorian dinosaurs and the iconic Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Still, fascinating as they are, I’m just as glad most of the non-avian dinosaurs aren’t around any more.  Imagine a sauropod big enough to make the footprint shown above; one animal could block the interstate for half an hour just crossing over.  And some of the big carnosaurs wouldn’t be too much fun to have around, either.

Still – a big bull T-rex – what a hunt that would be!