Tuesday, October 31, 2006

On Further Review ...

Many years ago, a celebrated newspaper publisher sent a telegram to a noted astronomer: WIRE COLLECT IMMEDIATELY FIVE HUNDRED WORDS ON WHETHER THERE IS LIFE ON MARS. The astronomer dutifully replied: NOBODY KNOWS, NOBODY KNOWS, NOBODY KNOWS ... 250 times. ~ Carl Sagan

The rover Spirit reached the 1000 sol mark on Mars, meaning it had been operating for 1000 Martian days, which is about 910 sols longer than the rover team had hoped for. In fact, considering that its computer crashed within a day or two of landing, its lasted about 998 sols longer than expected at that point. Fortunately, engineers corrected the problem (they had left a pile of files in read-only-memory, so the computer ran out of space as it gathered data; as a system administrator who is constantly fighting with users, especially engineers, about server space usage, I wasn't the least bit surprised).

About half way around the planet, Opportunity has passed the 900 sol mark and is scoping out a new crater to explore. The little-rovers-that-could join the ranks of other NASA successes like Galileo (despite its balky antenna, it operated for about seven years longer than anyone thought it would), Cassini (which sends one amazing image after another back), and its Martian friend, the Mars Global Observer. They have been joined by the the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has already sent back incredible images, including a lovely snap that shows Opportunity quite clearly. All this effort has one purpose, whether stated or not: To try to determine if life ever existed on Mars.

Of course, the situation would be clarified in a moment if, one sunny day, we got a picture back from a rover that showed a Martian insect crawling around on the lens, or maybe a six-legged giraffe walking across the landscape. However, if any life is to be found on Mars, it seems most likely to be of the microbial type. But that sort of thing is very hard to find. We know because we've tried.

In 1976, the Viking missions went to Mars, landing on June 19 and September 3, respectively. They did pretty well, too, with Viking 2 lasting 4 years and Viking 1 sending back souvenir photos until 1982. Both of them had equipment on board to sample the Martian soil for the presence of microbial life. The equipment consisted of three experiments:
  • One added soil to a “soup”; if the soup was chemically broken down, it could indicate that something in the soil was metabolizing with the food in the soup.

  • In the second test, gases were added to the soil; if the gases combined with the soil, it would be indicative of photosynthesizing microbes generating organic matter.

  • The third test, a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer (GCMS), would check heated soil samples for released organic compounds.
The first two tests showed positive results, but the GCMS came up empty. Since there could be alternative explanations for the results in the first two tests (peroxides in the soil, for example) most scientists felt that the weight of evidence was that there was no life currently on Mars.

That didn't mean, however, that there had never been little creepy-crawlies on the red planet. In 1984, a meteorite, prosaically named ALH84001 was found in Antarctica. After sitting around wherever interesting meteorites reside while waiting to be examined, some scientists determined it was actually a piece of Mars and looked into it very deeply. They decided they had found evidence of microbial activity (including a fossilized microbe) in the rock. The news was a sensation and was met with a lot of natural skepticism. As time went on, most of the weight of opinion went against the team, deciding that what was find in the meteorite was simply normal geological goings on. Alternatively, others felt that the meteorite had been contaminated by terrestrial bugs.

In 2001, another review of the rock determined that it had magnetite trails that would be indicative of bacterial activity. But, this finding, following on the original hoopla, seemed to get lost. So, the evidence for current and past life on Mars seemed to be non-existent. But, sometimes a new look at old data can be revealing.

A study has been done on another Martian meteorite that seems to have microscopic tracks, similar to tracks seen in rocks on Earth that are only formed by bacteria. The team studying the tracks has tried to extract DNA from the tracks, as they would be able to in terrestrial rocks. This could mean that there's some other cause for the tracks that we don't understand or that the DNA has been destroyed. However, the bacterial tracks , if that's what they are, would have been set down 600 million years ago, which would make it unlikely for the DNA to have survived.

Of course, such bacterial activity would have required water, the finding of which is the holy grail of Martian exploration. There may not be much water available now, but analysis of rover data indicates now that Mars was covered with a planet-wide ocean. It's not clear how much life, if any, might have been in that ocean, but the data seems to indicate that the conditions could have been favorable to the formation of at least a limited amount of living organisms.

That may be a slim hope, but another interesting development is a finding concerning the GCMS methodology used on the Viking landers. It turns out that the GCMS has been found to be insufficiently sensitive to detect life in Mars-like soils found here on Earth. It would be easy to be critical of the original concept, but keep in mind that it took 30 years to find this out. It took the mineral analysis capabilities of the current rovers to determine the true nature of Martian dirt. Once that was done, someone had to take the initiative to see how the original Viking experiments would have worked against such soil.

Bottom line? Viking 1 and 2 may have detected current microbial life on the planet.

We keep finding out that conditions on other planets and moons are different from what we expected. Titan doesn't have oceans of methane, but Europa probably has an ocean of water. There are volcanoes and geysers where we didn't expect such things. Venus is ridiculously hot with an incredibly dense atmosphere while Mars is very cold with a thin atmosphere – and no canals.

But, life may be out there, although it could be harder to find than we thought. Then again, we may have found it already.

Cosmos, Carl Sagan, Random House, 1980

Mars Meteorite: Proof of Life?

Debunking the Martian Meteorite

Mars Meteorite Similar To Bacteria-etched Earth Rocks

Viking landers may have missed Martian life

Soil minerals point to planet-wide ocean on Mars

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Benedict Rides Again

It is now quite lawful for a Catholic woman to avoid pregnancy by a resort to mathematics, though she is still forbidden to resort to physics and chemistry. ~H.L. Mencken

Pope Benedict XVI is turning them out faster than most of us can cope with. First, he decided that he needed to convene a “seminar” to review the Church's position on evolution. Then he announced his support for returning to the Latin mass. The latter is a purely liturgical decision, but it seems to indicate a highly conservative tendency from the Vatican. It appears that it's more than a tendency.

The latest papal wisdom was delivered as a warning to scientists. He said, according to the article, that “by believing in 'artificial intelligence' and technology, they risked the fate of the mythical Icarus, whose home-made wings melted when he flew too close to the sun.”

Oh, enough already. What next, bring back the Inquisition?

Everyone is aware of the Church's behavior of years gone by, possibly the best known example of which is the Galileo Caper. For the most part, though, once we reached the 20th century, the Church let science go its own way, although it expressed some reservations about relativity. In recent times, it's the fundamentalist (non-Catholic) Christians who have decided to stand in the way of progress by trying to stop Darwinian evolution being taught in schools or, failing that, having Creationism taught as an alternative theory. We haven't yet heard the result of Benedict's secret seminar, so we can't tell if the Vatican is going to join them in their pursuit of ignorance.

The pope's most recent statement sounds like something out of a B horror movie. You know, the part where everyone is looking around at the wreckage caused by Professor Dingbat's foray into forbidden realms; suddenly someone solemnly intones, “There are things with which men were not meant to tamper.” Apparently, Benedict is concerned that some latter-day Frankenstein is cooking up a monster in his basement dungeon.

What is the pope afraid of? Cloning? Lifespans being extended? Finding life on another planet? A new superweapon? Maybe that's it; he's concerned about some new terror to spring out of the laboratory to blow us all to kingdom come.

Except that it's not some mad scientist in a dimly-lit lab with Jacob's ladders fizzing all around him that we need to fear. Science as a weapon has never been the realm of evil geniuses. It's the politicians who have weaponized discoveries like the splitting of the atom.

But corrupting discoveries is not the worst of it. The time when the solitary scientist holed up in a garret somewhere worked long hours in obscurity trying to determine why some bit of nature behaved the way it does is long gone. Scientific communities are now just that: Communities. Everyone has an idea of what everyone else is working on. Further, scientists in academia are under constant pressure to publish results as soon as possible. Sometimes, this just leads to some of the unusual, and often rather undeveloped, theories that get tossed out into the journals.

But, often, research is directed by government funding, particularly from the military side. In general, there's nothing wrong with this, except that anything that might remotely have defensive or offensive capabilities is promptly closed off from independent development. For example, if you're wondering whatever happened to government spaceplane research, you'll find Boeing is doing it for the Defense Department, not sharing it with Burt Rutan.

Then, of course, there's the separate issue that research goes where the money is. If the government is giving grants to study A, then few scientists are going to have the resources to study B.

If the Vatican wants to worry about our wings getting melted off, it would be better served to be talking to political leaders, not scientists. Laser technology is all around us in ways that are useful to consumers, but it's the military that sees a laser pointer and thinks “Death ray!” By Benedict's reasoning, laser research should never have taken place.

Of course, I'm assuming that Benedict is concerned about the misuse of science. It is just as likely that he is more afraid of science learning some of the ultimate secrets of the creation of the universe and the start of life. It's the old religious saw about Man's place in the great scheme of things somehow being demeaned if humanity is shown to not be some special creation of God. In fact, the fear of the Church and various Christians who are similarly against scientific progress and teaching is that somehow religion itself will be devalued if humans are revealed to be what they probably are: Small cogs in the machine we call the universe.

This is, of course, absurd. The teachings of Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad are no less valid if people are descended from a 3.8 billion-year-old flake of blue-green pond scum. It is, in fact, vanity on a monstrous scale that causes us to think we are somehow the pinnacle of creation.

Benedict and his co-religionists need to be more concerned with educating our leaders on moral behavior than on cautioning scientists against discovery.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Of Neanderthals and Microbes

The capacity to blunder slightly is the real marvel of DNA. Without this special attribute, we would still be anaerobic bacteria and there would be no music. ~Lewis Thomas

How about a couple of disparate comments on the subject of life?

Neanderthals continue to be hot stuff these days. I recently summarized some of the current findings, but, with these cave folks being so popular at the moment, it's hard to keep up. Most recently, a new DNA analysis has determined that Neanderthals and modern humans are, in fact, completely different species, probably sharing a common ancestor. In fact, Neanderthals has more closely related to chimps than to us.

I don't know that it comes as a huge surprise or disappointment to people that we aren't more closely related to the archetypal caveman. It has been clear for some time that Neanderthal's brain was wired differently than ours, if only based on his lack of change over a few hundred thousand years. It's not known for certain whether he could speak as we do. His brain is physically different from ours. He was a human species to be sure, but he wasn't part of our species.

Yet, I always sense some disappointment on the part of researchers when they discover that the gap between modern humans and Neanderthal is yet greater than we previously thought. There have been scientists who have held out hope for proof of interbreeding between the two species. While there may have been, there's no evidence of any propagation of mitochondrial DNA that contains Neanderthal elements. When the last of the cavemen passed on, there was no biological bequest to us.

I think many people are still bothered by the thought that our ancestors might have hastened the demise of these intriguing people. While homo sapiens might well have played a role in the end of the elder species, it is fairly well established that the Neanderthals were in serious decline before the two groups met 40,000 years ago. Perhaps this decline was due to climate change, although evidence suggests that climate variation occurred several times during the caveman's duration on the planet. It does appear, though, that by the time the last ice age would down, Neanderthals were particularly suited to the harsh conditions. When the game patterns began to change, the Neanderthals did not adapt well. And apparently, they didn't compete well with the Cro-Magnons.

How we got to be what we are has been an overriding question for human beings. We have searched our own planet for the history of life, and we search other planets for signs that life as we know it exists or has existed.

Thanks to a veritable fleet of satellites and rovers busily investigating the red planet, we have some very good ideas about whether water ever existed on Mars. All the signs point to the existence of liquid water at one time, but the search for currently available water has so far come up empty. It's thought that there might be considerable water frozen in the sands of Mars, and at least two of the satellites have devices designed to detect it. Those searches are in their early stages.

Now, water on Mars is important for a couple of reason. First, if we ever hope to colonize the planet, a source of water is a necessity. We can hardly hope to establish settlements if we have to haul life's major necessity with us. By the way, previous reports of water ice "ponds" on our Moon appear to have been erroneous, dashing hopes of having an easy source of water for lunar bases. Space colonization is just not going to be simple.

But there's another reason that we would love to find water on Mars.

If there is still some microbial life on the planet, it would most likely need water to survive. The Viking landers sent back ambiguous evidence of the possibility of little bugs existing in the Martian sands, though I think most scientists think that the experiments that indicated life were probably generating false results. But, the possibility exists.

Finding life on Mars would help us find out a little more about how we might have come to be. Europa holds promise of water and possible life, but finding it is a major challenge. The ice might be a mile thick, so aside from all the difficulties of getting a probe all the way to the Jovian system, having it survive the radiation, and land safely, once it gets down it has to bore through the ice, do some science and get the information back to Earth. Oh, and it can't contaminate the moon with Earthly bacteria.

Piece of cake.

Of course, we're taking a detailed look at a laboratory that approximates early Earth: Titan. Saturn's moon has conditions that might have existed before our world became oxygenated, with it's reducing atmosphere raining methane on the surface. There are even those who think that there could conceivably be some sort of proto-life hiding in the mists of Titan.

But, generally speaking, you need some sort of solvent to get chemical reactions working that would generate even proteins. On Earth, we have water (there's that word again). On Titan, it was thought we would find ocean's of methane. Unfortunately, Titan appears to be relatively dry.

To say that scientists have been disappointed by the lack of methane seas is probably putting it mildly. I am reminded of how badly scientists wanted to find that Venus was covered by oceans. When it was found to be hellishly hot, there was a sense of a huge letdown.

It's not that they haven't found any liquid on Titan. It appears that there are transient lakes of methane near the north polar region of the moon. I say "appears" because the lakes have only been imaged by radar, but, at this point, the only explanation for the dark splotches is that they are a liquid surface. But, it appears that our ideas of Titan's chemistry need some reworking.

Interestingly, every time we turn around, we find life in places on Earth where it shouldn't be, like in mines where there's no sunlight or, more famously, around thermal vents in the depths of our own oceans. Life also is more tenacious than we can imagine. Nothing can be better proof of this than the microbes that were found on materials brought back by lunar astronauts from an old Surveyor satellite on the Moon. These were contamination from Earth that got onto the satellite prior to launch (despite efforts to avoid such contamination). The little boogers were subjected to radiation, huge temperature variations, and the near vacuum of space, yet scientists were able to resuscitate the microbes once they were returned to Earth.

It's no wonder we think we might find bugs on Mars, fish on Europa, or methane-munching microbes on Titan. Life is tenacious and pernicious, despite the many vicissitudes that it faces. Once it gets to an advanced stage like, say, being a Neanderthal, it gets more fragile. But at the earliest stages, it takes a lot to prevent life from taking hold. Maybe that's why we're so interested in our fellow species and in extraterrestrial life. If we can find out what did in the former, we might be able to avoid extinction ourselves. If we can find life elsewhere, then we can better understand the survival mechanisms that allow bacteria to make it in extreme conditions.

Either way, we might increase our own odds of survival.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Occam's Raxor, Geysers, and the Eccentric Universe

-The explanation requiring the fewest assumptions is the most likely to be correct.
-Whenever two hypotheses cover the facts, use the simpler of the two.
-Cut the crap.
~ Alternative statements of Occam's Razor

Back in the late 13th or early 14th century, one William of Occam (or Ockham as it was spelled then), a Franciscan monk and philosopher, opined, “Pluralitas non est ponenda sine neccesitate.” To those of you whose Latin stops at “Et tu, Brute”, William said, “Plurality should not be posited without necessity.” The phrase has become known as “Occam's Razor” and has been restated in many different ways, including those above. Note that none of those statements (except possibly the third) really reflect what William was saying very well. There is a very good explanation of how Occam's Razor has been used and misused over the years here. The point, I think that is being made, is that a) William's statement has been modified in use over the years, and b) it's used by people on both sides of many arguments to justify their approach.

I prefer an interpretation best stated here, which translates William's Latin as “ one should not increase, beyond what is necessary, the number of entities required to explain anything.” In other words, once you have a hypothesis that explains the observations, you should not go gilding the lily. Consider that you have an observed phenomenon, which can be explained by hypothesis A or hypothesis B. A provides a full explanation; B also provides a full explanation but requires several additional elements be present to be valid. Or, B may require that other well-established theories be reworked so that B will be valid. In either case, hypothesis B needs to be viewed with a grain of salt.

It's not that speculative hypotheses are a priori bad; quantum mechanics is a vast playground of out-there theories, all trying to explain what's going on down there in quarkville. But, that understandable because there's so much we haven't been able to determine at quantum levels. Similarly, when speculating over cosmological questions, we have to expect the scientific mind to go way out there because our observational information is constantly increasing, and what we observe keeps changing our outlook. In other words, sometimes you have to guess at what's going on because you don't have enough information yet.

That being said, some theorizing often seems to be speculation for the sake of publication. Here are a couple of recent examples.

As Cassini has been chugging around Saturn, it has revealed all manner of wonders among the moons of the planet. For example, Enceladus apparently has geysers or “plumes” like those seen on Triton by Voyager. The going explanation for this phenomenon has been tidal warming. Saturn's gravity “massages” Enceladus much the way Jupiter works over Io. On Io, that results in volcanism; on Enceladus, it's geysers. But another group of researchers has what they think is a better idea: Cosmic rays.

Now cosmic rays are everybody's favorite phantom. It's not that they don't exist; they are most certainly real. But, they are credited with many effects from causing mutations (which they probably do) to causing computational errors in computers (which is much more unlikely). The team in Maryland thinks that cosmic rays react with water ice on the surface of the moon, breaking loose free oxygen, which then seeps into the planet where it meets with ammonia ice. Oxygen and ammonia react violently when brought into contact, which would cause heat that would result in water being violently rushed to the surface.

Very elegant, except for one thing: Cassini has not found ammonia on Enceladus. Moreover, as another scientist points out, Mimas, farther away and smaller than Enceladus should have geysers also, if cosmic rays are the cause, but it doesn't.

In other words, tidal heating explains everything we've so far observed about Enceladus without conflicting with any other information we have. The cosmic ray theory needs something we haven't seen (ammonia) and requires further amplification to deal with places like Mimas. Occam's Razor comes down in favor of tidal heating.

On a grander scale, a group of Italian scientists think that the universe is shaped like a pill, not a sphere. The basis for this new view of the cosmos is none other than our old friend, the cosmic microwave background (CMB), which has been a topic in this blog recently on a couple of occasions, most recently here. Looking at data from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), they have found that, when sampling large areas of the sky, microwave radiation seems to be under-represented, while on small samplings the radiation is at expected levels. Their explanation for this is that the universe is ellipsoidal, not spherical.

Now, we're not talking about a universe shaped like a football; the eccentricity is about 1%, but at cosmic distances, that's meaningful. So their theory explains an observed variation; what's wrong with that?

What's wrong is that it doesn't begin to explain how the universe would have become ellipsoidal to begin with. There's no mechanism in the Big Bang theory, which is otherwise well-supported by WMAP, that will cause this eccentricity. As one scientist put it, to explain a “mild anomaly”, the Italians have introduced an unexplained new feature of the universe. It's quite correct to point out anomalous data; it's yet another thing to change the shape of the entire universe based on that single data set.

The article supplies a hint for the anomaly at its end when it mentions that the theory will be tested when future CMB-measurements are taken by satellites that can analyze the polarity of the microwave radiation. In other words, variations in polarity, rather than squishing the universe, could explain the data.

Once the data is in, we'll see if Occam's Razor slices and dices or not.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Constructing Reality

The world we have created is a product of our thinking; it cannot be changed without changing our thinking. ~Albert Einstein

I'm usually on top of science programming, so I was surprised when my wife mentioned to me that there was a science show on one of those specialty movie channels. I was dubious, but sure enough on a channel supposedly devoted to mystery films (although it seldom seems to show real mystery films) was a program purporting to talk about quantum physics. When I looked at the video guide, though, I noticed that the topic was being discussed by scientists and “mystics.”

Say what?

When I snorted at the description, my wife said, “Oh, you're just being closed-minded.” My wife is into shows about the paranormal, ghosts, and sundry weird happenings. She also is into horror, the more grisly the better. “Mystics” are just another day at the office.

So, I gave the show a chance. It started promisingly enough, attempting the difficult task of explaining the weird world of quantum mechanics, where matter pops in and out of existence and particles can live in a state of probabilistic superposition until some event collapse the probability wave function to force the particle into one state or another. This is not easy to express; I know because I've tried it myself. They did get a little carried away, describing how electrons, protons, and neutrons within atoms pop in and out of existence, which, so far as I know is not the case. Electrons will jump from one energy state to another without passing through any intermediate levels (this is part of “quantization”), but, for all practical purposes, it's the same electron. Protons and neutrons are pretty stable entities unless some other protons or neutrons are smashed into them.

As the program went on, the mystics started weighing in, and the point of the filmmaker began to show itself. At the quantum levels, all states of a particular particle exist at once until an observer “settles” the issue by observing that particle. Therefore, we have before us all possible outcomes in our macro-sized world and can control those outcomes through our minds. That, dear reader, is one serious quantum leap. One person, presumably one of the mystics, said that each morning he visualized how his day would go, evidently in an attempt to drive the direction of coming events. He did not offer how well this worked.

They next moved to some pseudo-science about distilled water forming different crystals based on the thought patterns of a researcher. At that point, I moved back to the History Channel.

Let's be rational for a moment. There are basically three overlapping levels of existence: The quantum world, the non-relativistic work, and the relativistic world. The quantum world is the universe of the very small, where probability rules, where a particle can act like a wave, and where our observations impact the behavior of what we are observing. At the opposite extreme is the relativistic world, the universe of the very large and the very fast, where clocks slow down, where things physically contract, and where observations are relative to the inertial frame in which they are taken.

In the middle is where we live, a charming little world governed by Newton's Laws of motion, where effects have sensible causes, where 1+1=2 at all times, and where what you see is what you get. Yet the other universes impinge on ours. Relativistic effects can be detected using fast high flying aircraft; during eclipses we can observe the bending of light due to the warping of space by the Sun. At the other end, quantum theory is behind our computers and the electronics in our radios and televisions, We live suspended between the relativistic and quantum worlds.

Those two worlds, though, are irreconcilable, at least so far. Einstein's equations from Relativity theory work wonderfully well, even down to our level, where they transform into Newton's approximations. But, they fail miserably at the quantum level. Similarly, the mathematics of quantum mechanics, which works so well that we can manipulate what we can't even see, fails at the macroscopic level. The quest to connect these two worlds is the search for the Grand Unified Theory, which no one is even close to finding despite concerted efforts for almost 100 years now.

The problem with the program is that it tried to extrapolate upward from the superpositional world of sub-atomic particles to the macroscopic world in which we live. It combined ideas from the multiple universe crowd (which is a construct that isn't necessarily tied to quantum mechanics) and the existentialists to end up with something that sounded a lot like the concept of “visualizations.” In visualizations, you can achieve a goal simply by visualizing the outcome in your mind intensely. To focus yourself, you write down the outcome on a sheet of paper 15 or 20 times each day. Eventually, without any additional effort on your part, the goal comes true Scott Adams, author of Dilbert, is or, at least, purported to be a proponent of visualizations; he devoted a chapter in one of his books to the topic. I am a fan of Dilbert, but I've always wondered if Mr. Adams was just a couple of bits shy of a byte. Then again, maybe he was joking.

It didn't sound like it, though.

At any rate, the business of trying to extrapolate quantum effects to the macro world just doesn't work. For starters, we are a huge aggregations of sub-atomic, atomic, and molecular particles ourselves. Each of these has its own wave function with various possible states. Yet we don't spontaneously disassemble into our constituent bits or have the ability to will our atoms to move through solid walls, despite all the space that's between those atoms. That's because there's a lot of aggregate averaging happening that keeps things stable. We aren't a double-slit experiment, watching each of our atoms do it's thing and forcing it into a given state. We're a multitude of simultaneous activity that, thanks in part to the forces in and between particles, acts in concert.

The program even invoked Schrodinger's Cat when it discussed “the observer.” I'm not going to repeat the entire description of Schrodinger's complaint against Neils Bohr's Copenhagen Interpretation or the description of Schrodinger's box in which a cat would be dead and alive at the same time until an observer determined what the cat's state was. What I wanted to mention was that one of the questions raised by some was, “Why is the cat's state dependent on a human observer?” In other words, isn't the cat an observer? At what level does “observation” occur? Is it when a detector is activated or its dials read? Does the observer need to be intelligent or merely living and able to determine that an event has happened?

Rather than dealing with these questions, the film had a “scientist” going on about searching the human brain for an area that was “the observer.” What was he expecting, a CAT scan showing an eyeball in the middle of someone's cerebellum? “Observation” is a collective set of events in our brain where information is received, sorted, sifted, calculated, assessed, and recorded. It is a collection of neuro-chemical activities that add up to a recognition that something has identifiably occurred or been experienced.

I never did understand exactly why the scientist was so determined that the lack of “an observer” in our heads was somehow significant in and of itself, but I think it showed how much they missed the point. If these scientists and mystics were looking to use quantum theory to control their world, they need to look no farther than their own brains, a place where all possibilities exist as thoughts, plans, and dreams. It's not what we wish or visualize that frames reality.

It's what we actually do with those quantum interactions in our heads that determines how our world is shaped.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Nobel and Ig Nobel

I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious. ~Albert Einstein

The cycle of announcements for the annual awarding of Nobel Prizes is underway as I write this. At the same time, the Ig Nobel prizes have also been awarded. You have probably heard of the former, but the latter may be new to you. After a look at one particular Nobel award, we'll explain the other in turn.

Nobel's Prize. Everyone knows that Alfred Nobel, having feelings of guilt over having grown rich in the explosives business, left an endowment to be used for awards for accomplishment. This endowment became a a series of prizes for significant achievement in various sciences, literature, economics, and the search for peace. Being a wannabe physicist, I'm always most interested in the prizes for physics. This year's prize went to John Mather and George Smoot for their work on the cosmic microwave background (CMB).

Now I doubt the Nobel judges read Explorations, but by amazing coincidence, I wrote a piece about this very subject, dealing with the discovery of the CMB by Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias, who received the Prize in 1978. As I noted, no one was given an award for predicting the existence of the CMB due to a controversy concerning precedence.

As you can imagine, cosmologists who favored the Big Bang theory, upon learning of the Wilson-Penzias discovery were all jumping up and down in glee and shouting, “Yippee-skip!” Okay, cosmologists very rarely jump up and down and practically never yell things like “Yippee-skip”, but, however they expressed it, they were overjoyed for this significant piece of evidence supporting the Big Bang. As time went on and more data came in, the scientists' joy became tempered somewhat. According to the theory, the CMB should be all around us and be very uniform. Trouble was, the CMB was too uniform.

Soon after the Big Bang, the universe was a hot mass of plasma. If that was a completely uniform or smooth mass, there would be no reason for the gas to begin to clump together to form stars and galaxies, which would mean that there would be no planets, people, or chocolate chip cookies, either. Therefore, the observational community started looking very hard for any discontinuities in the CMB.

Unfortunately, Earth-based observations are difficult because the atmosphere, while being a wonderful thing for all us air-breathers, tends to be a royal pain for making delicate observations. What was needed was a satellite. Enter George Smoot and John Mather with the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE).

When, in 1992, COBE returned its famous map of the CMB showing the predicted temperature variations, Smoot said that it was like “seeing God.” Mather likened it to finding the Holy Grail. Hyperbole aside, the temperature fluctuations they noted (30 millionths of a degree Kelvin and less; we're talking small here) provided another huge chunk of evidence supporting the Big Bang.

That's the stuff of a Nobel Prize.

Ig Nobel-ity. There is a magazine called The Annals of Improbable Research, which reports on slightly off-the-wall but otherwise more or less legitimate research that is constantly going on. This year's prizes were awarded recently at Harvard University for such ground-breaking research as:
  • Curing hiccups by inserting a finger into the anus (orgasms work as well and are more fun);
  • Why woodpeckers don't get headaches (spongy skulls that are like packing foam and eyeball “seat belts”);
  • Why fingernails scraping across a blackboard is so irritating (the sound is remarkably similar to chimpanzee alarm shrieks; it might be a primal thing).
That's nothing. At the Ig Nobel site, you can peruse the many winners of this not-always coveted prize. It's a wonderful look into the slightly nutty side of science.

Now, to be sure, in most cases the guys doing the research did not feel in the least nutty, although they sometimes did afterwards. Some winners don't like being included with the likes of those researching penguin pooping pressure. Most, however, seem to join in the spirit of the awards, showing up at the presentation ceremony and giving speeches ranging for the nearly serious to the very funny.

The Ig Nobel ceremony has one leg up on the other awards. It has its own Nobel Laureate, Harvard physicist Roy Glauber, to sweep up the paper airplanes traditionally thrown on stage by the audience.

Who knew Harvard had such a sense of humor?

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Cutting the Strings

To know the history of science is to recognize the mortality of any claim to universal truth. ~Evelyn Fox Keller

It may be that the blush is off the rose of string theory. According to an article at Wired, string theory is under attack, and scientists are starting to look elsewhere for their grand unification theories (GUTs).

Peter Woit of Columbia University has written “Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory”; Lee Smolin has a new book with the rather cumbersome title, “The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of Science, and What Comes Next.” Of course, I've had my say several times, including here, which contains a quote from Mr. Smolin: “When it comes to extending our knowledge of the laws of nature, we have made no real headway [in 30 years] ... It's called hitting the wall."

And therein lies the problem. Since the 1970's, string theory has been a hot commodity, despite the unsettling fact that a) it doesn't make testable predictions, and b) the complex equations that do come out of string theory have multiple solutions, which certainly helps the theory conform with existing theories and data, but makes it a less than precise way to attempt to describe the quantum world, much less the relativistic universe.

So, if string theory is losing favor at last, what next? According to the article, we have:

Twisters. A while back, Roger Penrose of Oxford University invented a mthematical tool called “twisters.” Twister theory is actually a restructuring of string theory that stays in the comfy four dimensional world with which we are comfortable. That's nice, but it sounds very much like someone has just lopped off the more unacceptable parts of string theory, generating more solvable equations, but that's all. There appears to be no cohesive theory coming out of the math so far.

Loop Quantum Gravity (LQG). According to the Wired article, the physics bookies are betting that, if string theory does fizzle, this baby is going to be the Next Big Thing. LQG is coupled with something called Spin Foam Theory, which ought to make it suspect right now. The cuter the theory's name, usually the less likely that it will amount to anything. At any rate, the Loopy Foam Theory utilizes “loops of field lines”, which sound suspiciously like stringy sorts of things. The idea is that, at quantum levels, Einsteinian spacetime breaks down, a distinct possibility. While no one has seen down to Planck distances (the extremely small length that defines the quantum world), it's generally felt that it's a seething froth of particles coming and going in that superpositional world of multiple probabilities all existing at once.

The trouble is that for LQG to make it as a GUT, conventional spacetime ought to fall out of the equations when you move above the Planck limit. So far it doesn't.

Interestingly, fans of the theory are looking at the GLAST satellite for support in its measurements of the cosmic background radiation. What makes this interesting is that string theorists are look to the same satellite to provide proof of the additional dimensions that they need to support the brane model.

Causal Dynamical Triangulations (CDT). Don't like strings? How about tiny little tetrahedra? This theory breaks spacetime down into these regular solids. Why? You got me, especially since it looks like this theory has a problem generating testable hypotheses, just like string theory.

Non-commutative Geometry. Basically, this theory admits that the Uncertainty Principle is right. Thanks, but we knew that. What it does is use non-commutative methods (in other words A+B does not equal B+A) to describe the spatial geometry in which the Principle operates. Now this may be a lovely mathematical exercise, and, according the story, it has played a part in string theory and LQG. Since neither of these seem to work, it's hard to see where NG is going to take us, but perhaps it will provide a tool to develop a theory that, at the least, has a reasonable chance of being viable.

No Unified Theory. That's right; maybe there is no single set of equations that can reconcile the quantum world with the relativistic universe. After all, scientists have been trying for around 90 years now, and they seem no closer now than they were when Einstein intoned that “God does not play dice.” Would this be so tragic? After all, if we have two sets of rules, one for the very large and one for the very small, and those rules work quite well, is it so necessary to reconcile them?

Necessary? Perhaps not, but it is desirable. For one thing, a unified theory might go a long way toward explaining what went on during that annoying period very early in the Big Bang where the known laws of physics break down. It would also help in defining mysterious aspects of the universe like dark energy and gravitational repulsion. These are questions that are basic to our understanding of the cosmos, so these are not just annoying trifles.

And, it continues to look as though any theory had better be in excellent agreement with Einstein's theories, because, despite frequent pronouncements of the pending demise of General Relativity, observational evidence continues to support it. After three years of observing a double pulsar system (and how odd can that couple be), a team at the Jodrell Bank Observatory has presented data supporting Einstein's predictions to within 0.05 percent. They test aspects of gravitational redhift, Shapiro delay (pulses being delayed by the warping of spacetime), and gravitational radiation and decay (loss of energy due to gravity waves).

When the Loopy Foam Theorists can match that, call me.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Still Lost In Space

My bottom line is that we have to have some kind of breakthroughs. What's needed is to create an environment to have breakthroughs and to try things that may seem illogical at first. ... When we're done with this, if it worked, could it lead right into flying the public? Could it be safe? I don't think that's been done to go to orbit. ~ Burt Rutan

What what's going on in the final frontier these day?

Atlantis survives. I don't know, but each successive mission looks more like a kindergarten fire drill than the last. Misbehaviing sensors on the pad that suddenly start working in time for launch, spacewalkers losing fasteners (which, at least, are smaller than spatulas), finding flotsam floating all around the ship, and through it all, Wayne Hale, Shuttle Program Manager, telling us over and over again not to worry, this stuff has always happened.

Well, Mr. Hale, if it has, how come nobody mentioned it?

To top it off, during the press conference the day all the stuff was found fluttering around the shuttle, Mr. Hale answered a question by saying, “You have to realize that this is still an experimental spacecraft.” (I'm going from memory here; he may have said “aircraft”). Let me see if I understand this: A spacecraft that's been in use for over twenty years is still experimental. So when does it become operational, Mr. Hale?

A reporter tried to bail him out by asking if they were seeing these things because they were looking at the ship “differently” now. Mr. Hale jumped on that one gratefully, saying that attention to these details showed that the lessons of Columbia had been learned.
Of course, if they had learned the lessons of Challenger, we might not have had to learn from Columbia.

Do you smell something? We can't leave this mission without a passing word to the ever-predictable Elektron oxygen generators. Basically, one of them isn't working. Evidently the Russians are no better at learning from mistakes than the Shuttle program is. Given the incredible number of problems encountered on Mir with these balky devices, one would think something would have been done. I guess the Russians are caught up in that “proven technology” nonsense as much as NASA is.

One of our rockets is missing. UP Aerospace christened the New Mexico spaceport by watching one of Spaceloft XL rockets go meandering to a place far, far away. The rocket got to 40,000 feet before coming back to Earth, and it took UP quite a while to find it. There were several stories about this failure, but the Space.com contained the most memorable quotes:

“The craft appeared to go into a corkscrew motion that was not part of the plan.” I don't think I've ever heard of a rocket trajectory where corkscrewing was considered SOP. Neither does UP, either. “It should not have wobbled,” said launch coordinator Tracey Larson.

Unbelievably, UP considered the launch a success, according to Bill Heiden, UP's CFO. “We gave young people ... a real look at what is involved. We're thrilled with what we accomplished today.”

If that's a success, I'd hate to see what UP considers a failure. But, what really bothered me is how they simply let an out-of-control rocket continue on. Where was the destruct mechanism? From 40,000 feet, the missile could have gone anywhere. Did Mr. Heiden consider the launch a success because they didn't come down in downtown Albuquerque?

Now, this is where someone comes along and chides me for forgetting that we learn more from failure than from success. That's true, if we recognize the event was a failure. It doesn't seem that UP is clear on the concept.

One of our partners is missing. Rocketplane Kistler, who has 207 million of our taxpayer dollars pointed in their direction, has lost partner Orbital Systems. It seems that Orbital Systems wasn't too thrilled with RK's business plan. RK, on the other hand, says Orbital wanted design changes that Rockeplane Kistler found unacceptable. These changes would have involved an “impact” to the timeline given to NASA, so RK decided to terminate the relationship. Interestingly, Orbital Systems was to put up $10 million of their own money, indicating that RK is little cash-tight, which usually translates into cutting corners somewhere down the line.

But, it's all good. RK has another partner ready to go. They aren't saying who it is, but they've got one. Honest. Really. They're comfortable with their new partner and feel it's a “good fit.” They're just happy as clams.

Personally, since part of the $207 million is mine, I'm not happy ... not happy at all.

Another blimp in space. Well, Mr. Bigelow is going to launch another blimp, Genesis 2, which, if successful, means he'll have Motel-6-in-space launched in 2009 or 2010. Genesis 1 is floating around doing not much of anything, and Genesis 2 will apparently do the same. Oh, there are “experiments” aboard Genesis 1, so we keep being told. After searching around, the only “experiment” I've been able to identify is a shoebox-sized package from NASA called Genebox to determine the effects of weightlessness on the genetic structure of microorganisms. No doubt this is a fascinating little package, but it means that, once again, NASA is helping fund a private enterprise project.

I'm not sure how launching two nearly empty “habitats” is supposed to provide sufficient information to turn around and launch a living facility. It would seem one would want to test docking, passenger transfer, and habitability before actually launching the real thing. But nothing about these commercial efforts seems grounded in real life.

The WOW factor. And then there's Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic pipedream. Hey, he says, we've got pictures of what it's going to look like! Well, I've got books that have pictures of Dyan-Soar, too, and I don't see those flying around anywhere. Mr. Branson got Brian Binnie, SpaceShipOne survivor, to talk about the joys of sub-orbital spaceflight. “Everything you see with your eyes is wow,” said Binnie, sounding like a stoned hippie of the sixties.

As if that isn't silly enough, Alex Tai, VP of Operations for Galactic said basically anyone who could hear thunder and see lightning would be able to fly on SpaceShipTwo, an interesting statement given the quote from Burt Rutan that starts this piece. But, then Mr. Rutan is building SpaceShipTwo despite that comment, or so everyone is assuming, since no one has been taken for a tour of the construction facilities. Supposedly, we'll see tests in 2008 with the system operational by 2009.

Oh, and if the sucker trade gets tapped out, SpaceShipTwo can carry a payload of up to 1763 lbs. Given that the average telecommunications satellite weighs about 4000 lbs., this means Galactic is planning to carry a lot of Genebox-sized experiments.

Mr. Bigelow better hurry up and get his Motel 6 up there before Mr. Branson takes away his only source of income.

An elevating experience. With far less fanfare than the original event, a new X-prize competition is about to take place. This one is for the only innovative space project happening anywhere, the space elevator. In October, teams will compete in two events, one to test a climbing robot and the other to demonstrate tether material. Unlike the original million dollar Ansari X-prize, this event gives only $200,000 for each event. Also unlike the previous X-prize, this one actually features a radically different approach to getting to space.

The space elevator has been determined to be theoretically possible for years. Moving from theory to practice is a huge step. So far, the teams working on this have not been awarded massive amounts of taxpayer money, so they're looking for ways to generate income in the meantime, like using the technology to provide Wi-Fi to rural areas.

Personally, I'd like to see what these guys could do with $207 million.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Lucy's Ancestor

There's nothing worse than having a skeleton and you don't know what it is. ~ Tim White

In 1974, Donald Johansen and his team found the bones of a hominid that they named Lucy. This turned out to be a bit informal, so they later dubbed it Australopithecus afarensis. The completeness of Lucy's skeleton enabled scientists to learn about about her. Most importantly, they learned that she was bipedal, which was a revelation. Lucy was apparently our earliest ancestor found to that time.

Hominid bones are extremely rare. Probably this is because, first, there weren't many of them relative to other species. Second, it appears that they tasted good to the various predators, so hominid bones got crunched and munched and scattered about. What bones are found are often a bit here and a bit here. A significantly complete skeleton is a find to get scientific blood coursing.

But, anthropologists are often cautious about making rash judgments. Partly, I think it's the ghost of Piltdown Man haunting them. In addition, there is the danger of making a preliminary finding that's overturned when others have a chance to review the evidence. At best, this leads to embarrassment, while at worst it can lead to divisions within the field. In a field as speculative as the study of early Man, divisions have been common enough.

So, it's not surprising that we are just now hearing about a group of bones that were initially discovered in 2000. The bones are still encased partially in a block of sandstone, but, after five years of hard work, a team led by Zeresenay Alemseged from the Max Planck Institute For Evolutionary Anthropology, has begun to free the bones. And they have revealed Lucy's little sister.

Well, not exactly. Actually, the Dikika girl (named for the area where she was found) is considerably older than Lucy, running about 3.3 millions of age. Articles are also calling the child Lucy's baby, all of which is catchy as all get out. What's important is that these are the bones of a child of about 3 years old. A. afarensis finds are extremely rare to begin with; juveniles are almost unheard of.

So why is it so important that we find young hominids? Well, it's just like finding juvenile dinosaurs; scientists can learn a great deal from juveniles by their developmental stages.

The completeness of this skeleton has already produced some interesting findings. The bones include the torso, parts of the arms and legs, and, most importantly, the skull and brain case. That last has revealed that the child's brain was smaller than that of a chimp of similar age. Why does this matter? Chimp brains grow to their maximum size more quickly than human brains (we're slow developers; what can I say?). For Lucy's baby to have a brain at a similar level of development to modern humans indicates that A. afarensis had already diverged significantly from the line that leads to modern chimps.

The find is so well preserved that the team also found a hyoid bone. This is a delicate bone found in the tongue which is necessary for speech, which is not to say that Australopithecenes were chatting among themselves about what wine to have with scavenged kill. In fact, the hyoid is similar to the one found in apes rather than the one in modern humans. What makes it important is that it's the first found in any hominid species other than a single Neanderthal hyoid.

It's becoming clear that A. afarensis was a great climber as well as an upright walker. No doubt, they felt as comfortable in the trees as they did on the ground, perhaps more so. Lucy and her kin, therefore, are not to be considered to be fully human by any stretch, but they were “stepping” in the right direction.

There's still a huge amount of work to be done on the skeleton, and it's probable that even more findings will be made as the bones are freed from their sandstone encasement.

But you can bet there's a bunch of happy anthropologists doing it.

Resources used in this article:

The amazing fossil of 'Lucy's little sister

'Lucy's baby' found in Ethiopia

Earliest Baby Girl Ever Discovered: Australopithecus Afarensis Child Sheds Light On Human Evolution