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    Alpha-dawg Magneto Spectroscopia. It’s a beautiful thing.


    2011 - 05.25

    Going immediately off of my last writing, why do we spend billions of dollars on particle accelerators and millions of dollars on antartic neutrino detectors? Answer: the quest to understand what we are made from, and how that matter is affected by the universe around us.

    It’s the story of where we came from, and how we’re connected–all of us–to events billions of years ago and as many light years away.

    In that spirit, I’m excited that the last flight of the space shuttle Endeavour contained the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer AMS-02. It’s an outer-space particle physics experiment that will study cosmic rays, antimatter, and search for dark matter. In short, it’s tackling the big questions. It makes me happy to think that if this is the second to last shuttle mission, at least it brought up a gigantic, heavy, badass physics experiment that’s going to be probing the secrets of the cosmos for the next decade. This thing is the silver lining in those opaque clouds that hovered over Endeavour’s launch.

    The AMS-02 is a particle detector, the most sophisticated ever sent into space. It was developed by a team of over 500 scientists and tested at CERN in Switzerland where they shot the particle accelerator beam at it. Let me just repeat that: they hit it with the world’s most powerful particle accelerator and now it’s going into outer space to listen to cosmic rays, those invisible beams of radiation that are literally shooting through the entire earth this very moment, emitted from the deaths of distant stars and playing some role in our evolution by causing random mutations. I think the awesomeness-detection circuitry in my mind is fried now. If you’d like to learn more, hit the wikipedia link, it’s utterly fascinating stuff.

    Check out this video to see them install it in time-lapse.  This slow-motion space ballet is the launching of a masterpiece.  So uplifting.

     

    It’s also a nice bit of irony that this big hunk of metal is up there in the sky, out towards the vast infinity of space; it was put there in order to study the tiniest sub-particles hidden deep in the infinity of the very small. There it is, up above the Earth, reaching for infinity in both directions…

    A thought that keeps going through my mind is that galaxies collide all the time, but collisions between stars or planets are rare. I remember watching a captivating animation of this at my local planetarium, where all the stars merged like a cloud of bees, flying in a small area but somehow not crashing. Galaxies, as giant as they may be, are made up chiefly of empty space!

    You could say a smiliar thing about the objects right in front of you on your desk: the spacebar on your keyboard is made up of lots of hydrogen and carbon atoms, jammed in tightly to make a solid piece of plastic. Those atoms are bumped up right next to each other, yet their electrons and nuclei are never colliding. By comparison, the electrons in their shells around the nucleii are just like tiny little planets in far away orbits around the atomic core, where literally >99.9% of the mass is concentrated. Those hydrocarbon molecules are made up cheifly of NOTHING.

    Atoms are made mostly of empty space, and galaxies are made mostly of empty space. Sort of takes me back to the Buddhist idea of emptiness; nothing has a unique identity (ie it’s empty) because it’s completely full of everything else. In this way, a tree is empty because it is filled to the brim with nitrogren from the soil, photons from the sun, carbon dioxide from the air, and maybe even the intention of someone who planted it. Our galaxies and our molecules may be made mostly of nothing, but they are in another sense quite full. Let’s explore!

    Talking Trash About Priorities in Space


    2011 - 05.17

    This week saw the successful launch of the penultimate mission in the United States Space Shuttle program.  This is occasion to be proud of what we’ve achieved, maybe to be a bit sad that a triumphant tale is drawing to a close, and definitely to contemplate what’s next.  I’ve been reading all sorts of articles from space-privitization apologists breathlessly talking about how the lack of a Space Shuttle is going to give private industry this huge incentive-boost to magically do all the work that NASA ever did, better, safer, and cheaper.  I try hard to believe in that John & Paul doctrine of “it’s getting better all the time” but this is one area where skepticism takes over and I’m not so sure.

    One of the articles that bothered me the most was a top-ranked story on Digg, contrasting the tale of the Apollo program with, of all things, two low-paid garbage men who got killed because of occupational hazards.  I read the article trying to be as open-minded as possible, but when I reached the conclusion I felt a wave of outrage: “I’d rather see us prevent poor people from falling into garbage compactors than look at another pretty picture from the Moon.”

    Okay, I’m going to tackle this on a few different levels.

    One: why two garbagemen?  Why not pick a trucker who got killed in a wreck, or the loss of innocent life in a plane crash due to poor saftey?  Maybe the object was to  purposefully select an undignified way of dying?  It seems like an completely randomized circumstance of unfortunate death.  An important thing to point out here is that right now, literally as you are reading this sentence, somewhere, someone is dying an undeserved and tragically preventable death.  This.  Very.  Moment.  Going on a quest to rid the world of this situation is equally ludicrous as trying to rid the world of heartbreak.  It is intrinsically impossible to save all humankind from all humankind’s own foolishness, hubris, or simple bad luck.  I’m not saying that we shouldn’t strive to build an international culture that places the highest value on the preciousness of human life, and protects it accordingly… we SHOULD!  But I AM saying that the death of two garbagemen is an utterly irrelevant and misguided excuse to give up pursuing the highest scientific aspirations of our best and brightest!

    Eisenhower famously said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.”  The thrust of these words is that civilization has finite resources for to allocating.  Bearing this in mind, space exploration should not be ruthlessly pursued at the expense of humane working conditions, and health care.  But I do believe that space exploration should be ruthlessly pursued at the expense of so-called ‘defense’ budgets, tax breaks for wealthy citizens and corporations, and yes, maybe even a few other hard-to-pick good causes which would be hard to cut.  Which brings us to why space exploration is truly that important…

    Two: The essence of what he’s saying boils down to the classic “we need to solve our problems here first” arguement.  The webcomic XKCD recently had a bitingly sharp ancedote hidden in a mouseover caption which would be relevant to reprint in large, obvious text here:

    This is the inevitable and indeed the ONLY end result of the “solve-our-problems-here” line of thinking.  In all of human history there has never been an era in which all cultures coexisted peacefully with abundant food and technological resources.  Nor will such an era will ever arise in the future.  In our timeline we have been fortunate thus far to have never encountered catastrophe on a global scale.  In the future, we will.  Whether it be a barrage of asteroids, avian flu, the collapse of our food supply, a small-scale exchange of ICBMs, or the plain old slow whittling of minor conflicts as our resource supplies dwindle fromoverpopulation; one way or another, we Earth dwellers will face our reckoning.  Best case scenario: 500 million years from now the oceans evaporate as the sun swells to a red giant.  That’s the best-case lifespan of Earth.  Contrast that number with the 4.5 billion years of evolution it took for the current civilization to arise.

    To make the leap to becoming a spacefaring race, we will need more ingenuity and tenacity than currently imaginable.  We must develop interplanetary mining, terraforming, interstellar space travel, interspecies communication techology, inter-intelligence diplomacy expertise, inter-intelligence cultural contexts–possibly intergalactic space travel technology–before the secrets of the universe will reveal themselves.  We will need to accomplish these feats elegantly and routinely, with an untold number of repetitions.  Thinking small, thinking local is not how this will ever occur.

    So let’s take a hard, honest, and clairvoyant look forward and see two possible futures for our descendants: one where Earth becomes the single-planet gravesite of humanity; OR one where we learn to master the aforementioned challenges and survive the apocalypse of our home planet.  We can either start preparing ourselves to live on, or be complacent and leave our die offspring to die among intractibly difficult problems.  Those are the choices, there is not a third option.  Every decade we waste, slashing and debating the merits of the NASA budget, or trying to figure out how to make space tourism profitable is another decade squandered, in which we could have gained a better understanding of spaceflight’s effect on the human body, the psychological and supply difficulties of remote colonization, or the drastically different ecologies of foreign planets, even just here within our own solar system.  We deulde ourselves to think that stalling on these scientific advances is inconsequential.

    Maybe we will be lucky, and have abundant time to tackle these monumental feats.  There is a distinctly real chance that maybe we won’t.  All the eggs are in one basket.  Is it worth squandering the legacy, the blood, and the sweat of every human who ever lived, to bet on hesitance, procrastination, laziness?  Is it worth gambling our entire collective history?

    Three: okay, let’s take a reckless step and just disregard the fact that our entire planet has an expiration date.  Assuming humankind could miraculously have infinite tomorrows, there’s still ample reason to go into space: because it reveals the best within us.

    What’s the greatest feat any human has ever done?  Take a gallup poll: walking on the moon.  What’s the most published image of all time? Answer: the “blue marble” image, which was the first full image of Earth taken from space.  There’s greatness in them there skies.  Untold treasures for explorers, answers for the curious, thills for the daredevils.  It’s all out there, literally.

    The quest to understand space is also the quest to understand the origins of life–as well the scarcity, diversity, preciousness, and potential fruits of life.  These are the BIG questions.  Should we stop asking these?  Should we just give up and admit that because the answers are unknowable within the span of thousands of lifetimes that they are not meant for our kind to comprehend?  Should we abandon the quest for intelligence?

    Even if our species just never quite amasses the smarts needed to travel to the nearest star, even if we remain stuck here in our stellar oasis, surrounded by bigger, better civilzations who laugh at the smallness of our attempts, there is an inherent value in TRYING.  Even if our brains are too limited to grok the interconnectedness of the cosmos, or the purpose of our collective Endeavour within it, there is inherent value in attempting.

    The following video made the rounds a little while ago with the discussion of SETI; it holds relevance here too.  If you haven’t watched it, it’s worth your time.

     

    Let the Space Riffing Continue


    2011 - 05.09

    I’ll keep things rolling on the space tip with this incredible compilation of slow-motion footage of the space shuttle.  Some of you may have seen this already; it made the rounds sometime around christmas last year.  And it’s LONG!  If you want to skip right to the money shot, go to 34 minutes, on the dot.  Don’t forget to hit the 720p! Simply breathtaking.

     

    You can listen with the commentary on if you really want.  I recommend putting on your own tunes while watching this gorgeous explosion of rocketry.  This is what I liked the best.  It’s good for reflecting on the ends of things.  The conclusion of something glorious.  On one hand, it makes me feel like I just got handed a copy of this:

    On the other hand, I suppose all things, both good and bad, must come to an end; phases of life, our favorite restaurants, our favorite thursday night routines… and our lives, our planet, our sun, and the space shuttle program.  A clichéd expression that does give me some optimism is “don’t be sad that it’s over; be glad that it happened.”  That is true.  It’s been an excellent 30 year run.

    Only 2 launches left!  Plan your parties now.

    A little moment in the sun!


    2011 - 05.04

    Part I: blowin like supernovae

    I’m still buzzing from what went on this weekend!  I spent maybe two or three solid nights last week putting together that SETI infographic and wow, was it ever worthwhile!  (Understatement.)  On a lark, I sent an email to Phil Plait, formerly of the Hubble Telescope project and famous astro-blogger extraordinaire who has a devout following on his site Bad Astronomy, where he writes about all things cosmical and skeptical.  I’m surmising most of you are probably intimately familiar already, but just in case, this whole incident made me notice that I never called out his site on here–I check it nearly every single day and there is always something wonderful there.  If you aren’t familiar, get at it, post-haste!

    Yeah, so Phil liked it, put up the infographic on his site which also linked here, and then posted it to reddit.  Ho-leee bandwidth batman.  Site=crashed.  Blown up.  I was floored.

    This is my first time experiencing something of this magnitude.  Quickly the image was captured and rehosted elsewhere since the site was barely accessible.  I awoke Sunday morning to a whole bunch of email and a rapidly exploding string of comments, especially on reddit.  Reading the wealth of opinions has been fascinating!  Phil sent a message saying I should swap the infographic over to flickr, which I hastily did.  As of this writing it’s at 21,031 views and still climbing almost every time I hit refresh.  The one the redditors used for a mirror is at 3,983 views.  Considering it had almost 12,000 of those in the first 12 hours…  That kinda blows my mind.

    And delights me.  I’m happy that after reading science blogs and surfing sites like digg and reddit for so long I finally made something of interest to give back, something worth looking at.  Reading all the thoughts people have chimed in with has been simply excellent, and, AND!!  There have been some even cooler things that happened!  Let’s go down the list:

    1. People started talking.  Other bloggers chimed in, and Florian Freistetter, a PhD astronomer in Germany even wrote a blog post about it. (tip: use google translate) This thing went around the whole world!  CRA-ZEE

    2. I got to talk with the Bad Astronomer a little.  Phil is a really cool guy!  He was super nice to me, and generally a peach about everything.  I hope that maybe in the future I will come up with something else worth emailing him about (hint: it’s not this post!)

    3. Crossing over into the realm of ridicu-cool: one of the comments on Bad Astromony was from Jill Tarter.  Yeah.  That’s the woman who Jodie Foster’s character is based upon in the movie Contact.  Wow.

    So hey, there you go!  I really should try infographics more often.  I guess having a good idea for one is really the hard part.

    Part Deux: So You’re Here!  Now what?

    Well, I suspect that there is now a new crowd around here, or at the very least, a handful of elite surfers still hanging out.  And you’re probably interested in space.  Okay, space, we can do that! I’ll separate it into two nice categories for you:

    Category Alpha: “I’m one of those brainy types who needs in-depth, thoughtful prose to hold my attention”

    “oh, by the way” (a reminder of just how large the universe really is)

    Putting Things In Perspective: NEAT!

    When I’m Feeling Down, These Are Some Things That Bring Me Back Up (a roundup of inspiring projects)

    Surfing the Nebulae

    Category Beta: “Who are you kidding, this is the internet!  I need short, quick space porn to gawk at between twitterati meltdowns and clicking refresh on gadget blogs”

    Sweet Shuttle Shot

    The Cassini Flyby of Saturn (real life, not CG) – video

    Take a Ride on a Solid Rocket Booster! – video

    Kepler Space Telescope Exoplanets visualized (great video comparing sizes and orbits) – video

    Just Some Awesome View of the Sky

     

    And lastly:

    If you liked imaginary numbers, get a load of these: Imaginary Colors.

    A SETI Infographic


    2011 - 04.30

    UPDATE: At the behest of team SETI, a sequel to this infographic has been produced, showing how we can all pitch in a small amount of money, and DO something to restart the ATA.  SETIstars.org, get at it!

    So it looks like the Allen Telescope Array (which I mentioned previously on here) is falling onto the chopping block in this era of fiscal “emergency.”   To me, this sounds a lot like the recent battle to defund NPR or PBS, in that the money they need to continue is just . . . chump change in the grand scheme of finances.  They’re $2.5 million short, and for that, they’ll need to stop taking data and shut down the telescope array.  It deeply bums me out to think that such a low value is placed on the quest to find other intelligence in our universe.  When compared with so many other things that gladly get millions or billions of dollars, it’s maddening to see SETI so marginalized.  Do we really just not care??  Seriously??

    There’s an awesome article over at Wired Science, interviewing Jill Tarter about the whole deal.  Go check it.

    And to put things into perspective, I’ve whipped up this handy infographic, comparing how $2.5 million compares to so many other things that we absolutely must have, and will not hesitate to pay for:

    When I created this, I deliberately chose things that weren’t the most supreme.  For example, I priced a Predator drone @ $4.5M, instead of a Stealth Bomber, which is a cool billion.  The iPad sales dollars are probably much higher than I showed.  And I showed the Citigroup portion of the bailout, instead of the full bailout ($300B).  I also swapped the second and third to last entries in order to put the NASA budget immediately next to the DOD budget.  Imagine what we would know about the universe if those two were swapped.  (And maybe we could still lead the world by sheer power of inspiration.)  It’s the stuff of pipe dreams!

    Since the dawn of time, humans have looked up at the stars and wondered what they were, wondered what was out there.  Now that we have the technology to actually look, and even a good idea where to look, thanks to the Kepler Space Telescope, it’s all the more maddening that it should fall under the axe, deemed unimportant, unworthy of those precious dollars.  Sure, it’s true that there are innumerable causes out there which pull at our emotions and demand the attentions of our pragmatic sides.  But what outcome has higher stakes than finding out we’re not alone in the cosmos?  When that happens, human history will be split into two neat periods: before we knew about them, and after.  BC will stand for before contact, and AD will be replaced by AC; after contact.  Nothing else would transform our cultures, our politics, our religions, our folklores like knowing we’re not just a lone voice, but part of a galactic chorus.  The most recent findings tell us that “within a thousand light-years of Earth,” there are “at least 30,000” habitable planets, and there are “at least 50 billion planets in the Milky Way” of which “at least 500 million” are in the habitable zone.  The glorious Milky Way, with its wealth of diversity and abundance of worlds  is right there waiting for us, if we could but pick up the receiver and listen.

    Sweet Shuttle Shot


    2011 - 04.14

    Check out this badass picture of the shuttle Discovery, launching on its final mission.

    It’s so very sad that the shuttle program is ending, particularly so from the lack of any replacement waiting in the wings.  True that NASA can still accomplish mind-exploding feats with only robotic spacecraft, and true that those robotic missions may be more valuable at our current stage in the space exploration game.  But still.  Sending humans up is just… so important.  For our growth as a species technologically, for our survival in a chaotic universe, for the inspiring of new generations, for so very many reasons.  It’s a great thing that companies like Space X will now have a role to step into, and an impetus to grow, but I question whether cosmic expansion should be undergone for the profit, rather than the glory.  I suppose the glory will always be there, no matter what.

    The Cassini Flyby of Saturn. This is real life, not CG.


    2011 - 03.21

    5.6k Saturn Cassini Photographic Animation from stephen v2 on Vimeo.

    When I’m feelin’ down, these are some things that bring me back up


    2011 - 03.16

    When I started this blog I told myself I would use this space to talk about things that inspire me and highlight the best in human character. I want it to be more about building things up, and talking about what is possible, rather than tearing things down or endless snark, cynicism, pessimism, paranoia, etc. The headlines lately have been dominated by disheartening news, particularly in my home state of Wisconsin, but there have been some awesome things going on, which I want to spend time thinking about.a

    There’s been some great press on the Ice Cube Neutrino Observatory lately, including an excellent article in IEEE spectrum.  I had previously blogged about Ice Cube, and it continues to remain in my thoughts, how awesome this thing is. Every time I read dismaying political news or feel despair at the missteps of our society, I remind myself that we’ve got dudes at the south pole tracking cosmic rays, and I feel a little bit better about our species. It’s reassuring–maybe the large majority of people are too caught up in the hustle of daily-life to bother with such existential “big-questions” but there is a tiny group of people working to answer these questions for our behalf. Those people are called heroes.

    Something else which is very, very cool is the STEREO spacecraft. Thanks to these guys, for the first time ever, we have a full 360 degree view of our sun. Sitting in same orbital position as earth, one satellite sped up and one slowed down, so that eventually (read:now!) they are positioned on opposite sides of our star. If I extrapolate correctly from the image above, it looks like from now and until around 2018, we can actually see the whole sun–enabling scientists to track sunspots, and the massive bursts of radiation that periodically spew forth. Although the odds of these radiation bursts and magnetic storms just so happening to align with Earth’s position are low, when it does happen, it directly affects all of our lives, in the form of blackouts, GPS interference, and slowdowns in many global industries affected by this radiation.  The rotating image at right is the first 360 degree composite they made of the sun.  There will be a lot more of these to come!

    The STEREO satellites, to me, represent some small measure of mastery over our cosmic front yard. It’s good to have a window to know what’s happening outside. And it excites me to think that we’re doing it. Not only do we have the technology to do it (the most obvious barrier), but we also have the political willpower to spend them dollas to get up there and DO it (this is the real obstacle to most awesome science). That, my friends, is what you call rad.

    I’ll sandwich in an honorable mention slash eulogy here for the NASA Glory satellite, which recently crashed into the Pacific. It’s a sad thing to think about, but worth mentioning, because hopefully they will try again. Long story short it was intended to monitor a whole slew of climate-related metrics to get us closer in touch with what the Earth is doing. Obviously very important work. This is actually the second satellite of this nature which failed to achieve orbit, so conspiracy theorists unite! (that’s the extent of my negativity here today)

    Another neat thing I read about recently is the All-Sky Fireball Network. In addition to having a maximum ass-kicking name, the project monitors the sky with a nationwide network of smart cameras, with the aim of tracking any meteors burning up in the atmosphere. William Cooke, head of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office states coolly, “nothing will burn up in those skies without me knowing about it!” Sweet!!

    Tracking these meteorites also gives them a vector for both where they should land and where they came from. Thus, if any of the meteorites leave remains that can be retrieved upon impact, the guys can study them, knowing a bit about their origin. Doublesweet. In effect it’s like getting free samples from outer space, without the need to launch costly rockets. Their data will also enable spacecraft designers to learn more about the nature of hole-punching threats that meteors would pose to future vehicles. Triplesweet.

    Learning about something like that is exciting, but I also get the feeling like, geez, this is so great, why didn’t we start doing this like 30 years ago? Again, the technology is nothing new, it’s simply summoning the will to pay for it that holds us back. Every time something like this gets funded, our priorities inch a little closer toward making sense in my mind. It’s reassuring to think about!

    Take a ride on a solid rocket booster


    2011 - 03.06

    You may want to skip around to watch all the cool parts, like separation and splashdown, but damn, this video knocks me out.  These are some impressive views of the space shuttle Discovery in action, on its last mission.

    Just some awesome view of the sky


    2011 - 03.02

    During ongoing updates to the poetics section I swapped my background image of the Milky Way to a better image I found on wikimedia commons. Here is a cropped sample with a little photoshop sauce on it. Click the image to see the giganto-ramic original version, of which this is but one tiny section