Thursday, June 29, 2006

What's Old Is Still Old

There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact. ~Mark Twain

(Originally appeared in Gog's Blog 5/12/06; slightly revised)

Sometimes it's remarkable to see how scientists will attempt to repackage an old theory and try to make it sound like a new idea. Recently, a couple of scientists proposed what was purported to be a new idea [http://www.space.com/scienceastronomy/060508_mm_cyclic_universe.html]

about the fate of the universe. To do so, they tried to put a new wrinkle something Einstein called his greatest mistake: The good ol' cosmological constant.

When Einstein was developing his General Theory of Relativity, he ran into a problem. In folding gravity into his Special Theory of Relativity, he found that the equations stubbornly insisted that warped space would result in stars and galaxies drifting together, which in turn meant that space itself would be shrinking. Obviously, Einstein thought, any fool could see that the universe was static. After all, it was billions of years old, although how old was still a subject of spirited debate in his time. So the great theorist inserted a fudge factor, a repulsive force, which he called the cosmological constant.
He hated that.

Fortunately, along came Edwin Hubble whose spectra of distant galaxies showed that, while the velocity of stars might seem to be low, galaxies were moving like bats out of hell. Moreover, the farther away they were, the faster they went. Einstein happily scrapped the constant.

However, the durned thing just wouldn't go away. It turns out that continued observations indicate that something a bit weird is going in the universe. The galaxies should be slowing down. It turns out that the expansion is speeding up, at least according to current interpretations of the data. The only way to explain that is to postulate some sort of repulsive force, an antigravity, as it is called in the popular press.

Now, one of the ongoing conundrums of cosmology concerns the fate of the universe. If there's enough mass, the expansion would halt, and gradually all the stuff in the universe would come back together in a “big crunch.” If there isn't, then the universe will expand forever, getting more diffuse and eventually becoming a haze of elemental particles.

Despite the fact that either of these events is billions of years in the future, people seem bothered by either outcome. Perhaps it's because that a non-eternal universe is disturbing to those who look forward to spending an eternity in some sort of afterlife. Maybe it's just a matter of being depressed by the thought of a cooled down, lifeless void.

The crunch seems to be the preferred option, because, if the current universe started out from some primordial point source, maybe once it finishes crunching, it'll start over again with another big bang. Hence, we have cosmologists invoking dark matter, dark energy, and all manner of other exotica to show that there must be more mass than we can see.

Now the idea of the cyclical universe is not anything new. Hindu religion has postulated such a cycle as part of its own creation stories. In scientific circles, one can find the theory being espoused in the 1970's (Nigel Calder mentions the possibility in Einstein's Universe; Carl Sagan did so in Cosmos). That's why I'm a bit mystified as to what is so new and wonderful about yet another theory of crunch-bang.

The scientists mentioned in the article have dressed up their theory with a cute spin on the cosmological constant, saying in previous universes it was bigger. Their math, which I'm sure I wouldn't understand, must be fascinating. While a cyclic universe works intuitively, it is difficult to see how the universe could come back together with an even bigger repulsive force than is seen today.

The problem is that their conclusions fly in the face of recent findings that seem to indicate that, given the continuing increase in the expansion rate and the fact that no one seems to be able to find sufficient mass to reverse it, the universe's fate would appear to be of the fuzzy void variety. So, if the repulsive force was greater in previous incarnations of the universe, but it's great enough now to prevent the current universe from collapsing, how could it have collapsed previously?

The fact is, we don't know the fate of the universe. And, while the big bang makes an excellent model, we don't really know for sure how the whole ball of wax got rolling in the first place. This is not trivial stuff. We want to know this badly. If we didn't, we wouldn't have string theorists doing mindbending mathematics to come up with an 11-dimension universe coexisting with other universes, each on its own M-brane.

And you though science fiction was weird.

But, the search for the answer is worth it. We find out a lot about who we are when we try to find out about the universe around us. Whether there are parallel universes, Brahma cycles, or pudgy neutrinos, every step we take in searching for them is a step toward our own growth.

When we stop caring about our universe, we'll stop caring about ourselves.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Tangled in Strings

That theory is worthless. It isn't even wrong! ~Wolfgang Pauli

It seems that more people are starting to doubt whether string theory is really going to lead physics anywhere but in circles.

String theory is based on the concept that matter is made up of vibrating strings, rather than tiny particles. It also requires 11 dimensions to reconcile the five or more variations on the theory. Most of the dimensions are compacted down to subatomic levels so that we aren't aware of them. It's immensely complex, but then quantum mechanics is no walk in the park. It's weird, but so is the concept that time slows as one approaches the speed of light. It's red hot popular these days, but so was the Ptolomaic model of the universe once upon a time.

But, and here's the real rub, it doesn't make new testable predictions. String theory explains certain quantum effects nicely, but it is merely doing it in a different way. There's nothing to suggest it is any more correct than the theories we already have. String theory has been around for over twenty years, yet it has yet to bring anything new to the table. In fact, physicist Lee Smolen is quoted in the article as follows: “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."

Instead of providing the Grand Unified Theory that Einstein and others have sought since the 1920's, string theory provides a lovely metaphysical basis for discussing multiple universes. String theory purports to be able to tell us what happened at those infinitesimal moments after the Big Bang when the laws of physics break down. But string theorists also tell us that we need to build accelerators big enough to approximate the energies of those moments; then, they say, string theory will be able to explain what we see.

Well, yes, but it's also possible that string theory won't explain a thing, and some other theory will be required. That's because string theory doesn't really predict what the conditions were like. In fact, it doesn't predict much of anything. As the article says, string theory is more of a framework than a concise set of equations that describes the physical world. Quantum mechanics and Special Relativity are theories; string theory is math.

Worse, the equations that do come out of string theory have multiple solutions, thanks to those 11 dimensions. In the event that it made a prediction that didn't agree with apparent physical reality, it's possible for theorists to claim that the solution is applicable to one of those “other” universes. Predictions that can't be tested are meaningless.

If the only issue was a debate over whether string theory was pseudoscience or not, we'd have an interesting intellectual exercise but no major problem. Unfortunately, string theory has been become the darling of mainstream physics. This means, for example, when a student is looking for thesis material, he or she is going to be pushed toward string theory. The article says, “Virtually every young mathematically inclined particle theorist must sign on to the string agenda to get an academic job.”

This sort of thing is not without precedent. Scientists are no less inclined to go with the flow than anyone else. It is remarkable, though, that the string theory flow has gone on for so long with so little to show for it.

I recently wrote about the GLAST satellite that might provide evidence for the existence of a fourth physical dimension. The upshot of this is that it might provide support for brane theory, a superset of string theory. The problem is that the existence of an extra linear dimension doesn't prove brane theory or string theory. It could, instead, be a missing element of gravity theory, for example. It also could put a dent in the string theorists ideas, because their equations call for 7 physical dimensions to be compacted. While having one of them uncompacted may be nice for the brane guys, it's going to alter all those Calabi-Yau shapes that string theory loves.

As I've said, I respect the minds that have come up with string theory. It is complex and deeply thought out, but that doesn't mean it can't be pseudoscience. But, it's time for some of those great minds to start looking at other paths to follow. Physics has gotten stale, as the article explains, and its best and brightest need to freshen it up.

Einstein spent nearly forty years trying to unify relativity and quantum mechanics. Had he devoted himself to other tasks, who knows what he might have discovered. String theory has tied up physicists for over 20 years now. Who knows what ideas have not been pursued while trying to make sense of its inelegant complexities?

It just might be time to move on.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Pyramids Of Air

People don't like the true and simple; they like fairy tales and humbug. ~Edmond and Jules de Goncourt

The Semir Osmanagic show continues. For someone who hasn't found a single piece of solid evidence that a pyramid exists under a hill in Bosnia, he certainly manages to get a lot of publicity. His so-called wall has been deemed a rock formation commonly found in Bosnia by everyone except his Egyptian “expert”. He hasn't produced a single artifact, much less a carbon-datable artifact. In fact, the only “proof” we have for Bosnian pyramids is Sam's opinion. Somehow, I find the opinions of someone who has theorized that the Mayans were descendants of Atlanteans who were themselves descendants of beings from the Pleiades to be of dubious quality.

Archaeology Magazine continues to try to keep people informed. Mark Rose has written a new update, and Beth Kampschror has written a longer piece, “Pyramid Scheme”, that appears in this month's magazine (an abstract of the article can be found here). Mark Rose's article raises questions about the Egyptian “geologist” (Rose has been unable to track down any evidence that Zahi Hawass sent him), other archaeologists who Mr. Osmanagic claims have visited the site (at two have not and a third doesn't seem to exist), and the fact that mainstream media is ignoring the reports by credible scientists who have declared that the rocks found so far are natural formations.

How pathetic is the mainstream media? Well, an AP story cited by Rose says that Osmanagic has spent 15 years study Latin American pyramids but neglects to mention that his theory that Mayans are of extraterrestrial origin. That is hardly responsible reporting. Other agencies, like CNN and the BBC, are writing the stories more as human interest fluff, but the average reader is not going to perceive the pseudoscience being prattled by Osmanagic if it's not pointed out.

Don Quixote Osmanagic tilting at alien-built pyramids would be humorous if it didn't have a tragic side. To begin with, he is quite probably ruining genuine archaelogical sites. But worse, Bosnia is a country that has no money to support its own archaeologists, scientists, and related institutions. In Sarajevo's National Museum, there is one expert left; the building is unheated in the winter and still bears the scars of war. Yet Osmanagic seems to be getting funding (although he's tight-lipped about the sources). He has sold the government a bill of goods that his finds will lead to some sort of “Pyramid Land” archaeological theme park that will bring in scads of tourist money.

In fact, it is only because of Bosnia's impoverished and chaotic state that Osmanagic can even attempt to go digging. Most of the time, pseudoarchaeologists do not get permission to investigate their off-the-wall ideas. They have to get approval from appropriate national agencies. But, in Bosnia, even though there is a central bureau protecting sites like those where the pyramids are supposed to be, local authorities can do what they want. The central government agencies have little power to stop them. In this case, Osmanagic bypassed those agencies anyway, going to the politicians with his pipe dreams.

In a country that has seen almost continuous war and persecution for the last 70 years, the idea of finding evidence of ancient civilizations based in Bosnia is very popular with Bosnians. They see it as a source of pride, and the vast majority of the population, according to surveys, believes Osmanagic.

I don't know that Semir Osmanagic is a charlatan. In fact, it's possible that he genuinely believes that Mayans come from the Pleiades via Atlantis, even though it's highly unlikely that the stars in the Pleiades, which are very young, even have planets. Sam ignores archaeological evidence, so why should he recognize astrophysics? But, his methods are dubious. He reminds me of the Bermuda Triangle guys, whose evidences are taken from each other's books, when they aren't made up altogether.

It's about time for the media people to start reporting all of the facts of this so-called discovery. Tell the world about Osmanagic's alien-descended Mayans. Point out that his Egyptian expert doesn't know that the pyramids, to the extent that any mortar was used at all, used gypsum mortar, not sand-based cement. Clearly state that no artifacts, beyond almost certainly naturally-occurring sandstone formations, have been found. Investigate his funding sources. In other words, do some real reporting.

And here's a thought for Semir Osmanagic to ponder. He is building up the hopes of a nation that is desperate for something to believe in. When, and it is almost certainly inevitably, it's determined that his Paleolithic builders, who never put up so much as a house, didn't seem to get around to building a pyramid, I hope he's got a very glib explanation or a quick way out of town.

I don't know what the Bosnian equivalent of tar and feathers is, but it can't be pleasant.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Eleven Years Of Wonder

Nature composes some of her loveliest poems for the microscope and the telescope. ~Theodore Roszak

Because of my busy schedule of writing, working, and eating chocolate, I neglected to mention something rather important last week. Oh, all right, I'm absent-minded, and I forgot. I've been in need of a memory upgrade for years, but that's neither here nor there. I'm here to offer some belated congratulations.

The Astronomy Picture of the Day web site was eleven years old on June 16. They celebrated with a wondrous montage featuring some of the beautiful images they have shared with us over those years. I first discovered the site not long after it began, probably from a post on the alt.sci.astro Usenet group. I check the site every day and have never been disappointed. Often, I've been completely amazed. The wallpaper on my various computers almost always comes from APOD.

If you've never checked out this site, do so. Each day's photo has an explanation with links to even more information on the subject of the picture. And they go beyond the gee-whiz Hubble pictures (and that's a heart-felt gee-whiz, not a sarcastic one) to shots of volcanoes, incredible cloud formations, pictures from probes like Cassini and friends, and much, much more. Thanks, APOD, for the memories, past and future.

Check it out. Take a minute to explore the universe.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

NASA, Planets, and a Certain Satellite

If a little knowledge is dangerous, where is the man who has so much as to be out of danger? ~Thomas Henry Huxley

NASA is at it again

If there's one thing as sure as death and taxes, it's that NASA managers will make decisions based on, well, something. I can't really say what the basis of their decisions is, although I'm leaning toward Ouija boards. Or pure politics. One is as bad as the other.

If you can't figure out what I'm talking about, it's that NASA has announced that the shuttle will launch July 1 or thereabouts (weather and mechanical issues permitting). But in reports here and here, we learn that the decision was made over the objections of the safety managers. Now, given that the Genesis report was just released and given that the last launch revealed a number of unpleasantries, one would expect that NASA would err on the side of caution. Not NASA Administrator Michael Griffin. “I can't possibly accept every recommendation given to me by every member of my staff, especially when they all don't agree. “ Now, this may be the dumbest statement to come out of NASA since “Better, Faster, Cheaper.”

Mr. Griffin, if you'd ever watched a launch, you'd know that all stations must report “Go” before a launch can go forward. The only unanimity that counts is 100% “Go” answers. One station can put a launch on hold. When your safety managers say, “Hold”, that means something isn't exactly kosher. As I've said before, space flight will never be without risk, but taking potentially foolish risks is becoming something of a habit for NASA.

Apparently, NASA thinks that, in the event of a problem, the crew can hide out in the ISS until a rescue mission can be mounted, presumably by sending a bunch of Soyuz capsules up to ferry back seven people. Exactly how long the ISS can support nine people is open to serious question. I presume that the plan actually intends for Discovery to stay linked to the ISS, but even so, the supplies are intended to support two-man crews, not an entire NASA glee club.

I sincerely hope that the safety people have overestimated the danger. But, even if they haven't, the latest NASA administrator is still an idiot. Hopefully, no one will suffer from his folly.

If something does occur, the investigating commission will have a quick job doing their report. All they'll have to do is cut and paste all the management mistakes from the previous ones.

Postscript -- I wrote this over the weekend. Since then, the Safety Officer and Chief Engineer have issued statements saying everything's cool, the crew will be okay. In one breath the safety people say "there remain issues with the orbiter" and "we should redesign the ice/frost ramp before we fly this mission." They follow by saying "we do not feel ... that these issues are a threat" to the crew. You could sprain your whole face trying to talk out of both sides of your mouth like that. I'm wondering how far behind their backs their arms were twisted to get that left-handed blessing out of them.

So, what is a planet, anyway?

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) is going to try to clarify the definition of the term “planet,” or, as the article puts it, “propose wording to delineate planets from other small, round objects.” Presumably, this means defining how Jupiter is different from a basketball. Oh, all right, it's a bigger issue than that. Ever since Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto, astronomers have been questioning whether it qualified to be a planet. The issues has become far hotter of late because of the discovery of Kuiper Belt objects that are similar if not larger than little Pluto.

I am reminded of a prescient article that appeared in “Astronomy” magazine some years ago. It was entitled “Where Have All the Plutos Gone” and discussed the fact that by theory there should be many more Pluto-sized objects out at the edge of the Solar System. It now has been demonstrated that they are, in fact, out there.

The problem with defining a planet is the vague criteria. Size is hard to use because, beyond the fact that the object should be massive enough to be round, there's no reason to say that a 2000-mile-diameter object is any less of a planet than an 8000-mile rock. Orbit is also an issue. Planetary orbits are supposed to be fairly circular (although still elliptical) and in a similar plane. Some of the debated objects (including Pluto) have more eccentric orbits and don't necessarily stay in the main planetary plane.

So what's the big deal? Well, in the great cosmic scheme of life, it probably isn't all that important, but science is built on clarity of definitions and rules. Vagueness is not just sloppy, it leads to sloppy theories. Defining these objects is important to developing theories about the formation of the Solar Systems.

Which is a cosmic question.

What's in a name?

Russia, Italy, Germany, and Sweden have teamed up to launch an interesting new satellite designed to study dark matter, the stuff we can't see that makes up most of the universe. It's an ambitious project that will hopefully find out information to help better define the nature of universe. However, I think I know now why so many space exploration and science projects are delayed. The name of the satellite is “Payload for Antimatter Matter Exploration and Light-nuclei Astrophysics” or (are you ready for this?) PAMELA.

Can you even imagine how long it took them to come up with a name for the device that would spell Pamela? Probably added a couple of years to the development cycle.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Better, Faster ... Oops

Things are not as bad as they seem. They are worse. ~Bill Press

The report on the Genesis mission has been released. You remember Genesis, don't you? When last seen, it was, as aeronautical engineers say, “buying the farm”, slamming into the desert because its parachute failed to open. It turns out that the early findings were correct: The parachute didn't open because the sensors that were supposed to tell the satellite that it had entered the atmosphere were installed backwards.

That, however, is the least of what the report reveals.

It seems that the problematic installation wasn't detected because the sensors weren't tested in a centrifuge, which would have revealed the problem. The engineer performed a different test, one that would check that the sensor wouldn't be damaged by atmospheric buffeting. Somehow, mission managers assumed either that this test also checked orientation, or that the orientation test had been run, even though it wasn't. But, it gets worse.

It seems that the sensor was the same type used in the highly successful Stardust mission (in which the parachute did work). But, when the Genesis team used the “heritage” technology (in line with better, faster, cheaper, and do things the same way we did them before), they made a few changes that added considerable complexity to the sensor system. The review of the drawings was done by an electrical engineer who didn't know how to review mechanical drawings.

Frankly, I find this hard to believe, because, as a quality engineer, I was expected to be able to review all the details of a drawing, mechanical, electrical, hydraulic, and so on. If I didn't understand something, I was expected to consult someone who did.

But drawing review has always been a sloppy business. I once received prints from a major manufacturer of batteries which had added metric dimensional equivalents to the english dimensions already on the drawing(this was during the metric push of the 1970's). Some of the metric equivalents were off by a factor of 10, yet the drawing had been reviewed and approved by two people besides the originator. You know, I wonder if that engineer went to work at Lockheed-Martin.

At any rate, here we are again, with another report that say NASA management and contractors don't check their work, don't communicate with each other on possible problems, and cut corners to stay within budget. If, however, a satellite becomes a pile of trash on a desert floor, I'd say that an entire budget has been wasted, which makes coming in under budget prior to launch look kind of stupid.

But there's yet another punchline. Not too long ago, I took NASA to task concerning their requirement that the CEV use “heritage technologies.” The Genesis report has a few things to say about the need to verify that “heritage technology” is properly verified (their redundancy, not mine). In other words, using something you used before doesn't mean it will work elsewhere, especially if it's not used in precisely the same way. Further, just because you used the technology before doesn't mean that you can skip testing and verification steps.

At the bottom, though, is that NASA management has done nothing to correct problems that have been around since Challenger. It doesn't help that NASA is always looking over its shoulder at a Congress that wants to cut its budget and administrations that want to get rid of it altogether. I mean, let's face it, every Republican president since Nixon has tried to slash NASA's budget for science and exploration. And the two Democratic administrations did little more than pay lip service to the mission of the agency. It's been no great secret that the Defense Department wants to control space for weapons, spy satellites, and unfeasible “Star Wars” defense systems. President Bush may talk about going to the Moon and Mars, but his budget says the closest we ever get will be rides at Disney World.

Just to add a little color to all of this, Stephen Hawking has recently said that we need to be getting serious about space colonization, and not just colonizing Mars. He says that if we don't destroy ourselves over the next 100 years, we should be making every effort to find habitable planets and the means to get there. His point is that the possibility is very real of a Chixulub-sized impact, climate change, or some other catastrophe coming along and sending us to the same place that the dinosaurs went.

We're not going to the stars from the ISS or the Moon, and we're not going in chemical-based rockets. We need a launch platform in orbit where we can build ships for the long journey to the stars, perhaps using ion propulsion or some sort of engine that hasn't even been imagined yet. I don't know the answer, but there are minds on this planet now who could figure it out, and the resources are available if we stop trying to kill each other off and begin to work together.

If we don't start thinking less about space tourism and more about technological breakthrough, we're just going to be the fossils below an extinction layer being pondered by the life form that next inherits the Earth.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Branes, Bursters, and Black Holes

In physics, you don't have to go around making trouble for yourself - nature does it for you. ~Frank Wilczek

Around about August of next year, assuming NASA's science budget hasn't been completely gutted, the Gamma Ray Large Area Space Telescope (GLAST) will be launched, much to the delight of a couple of physicists, Charles Keeton of Rutgers and Arlie Peters of Duke . GLAST is going out to collect information in the gamma ray spectrum, but thanks to its precision, Keeton and Peters think it will be able to detect “wiggles” in the spectrum of Gamma Ray Bursters (GRB's). This, they say, will be an indication that small primordial black holes exist, perhaps in our own solar system, which will be proof of a fourth spatial dimension, which will support the Randall-Sundrum “braneworld” model of the universe, which says our universe is floating in a large universe in a fourth dimension.

Got all that? Perhaps, we should take this a bit more slowly.

Let's take the “easy” one first: GRB's. Gamma Ray Bursters are something that sends out unimaginable amounts of energy for very short periods of time and are scattered around the universe more or less randomly. At this point, no one knows what they are. The thinking is that they may be colliding neutron stars, merging black holes, or, well, something really big blowing up. The energy is released directionally and when it's pointed at Earth, we see an intense flash of gamma radiation coming from a point source in space. Occasionally, optical telescopes get the word quickly enough and may find some sort of dimly glowing object in the area that reveals little about the cause of the outburst.

(The reason directionality is important is that if the energy were radiated in all directions, the masses involved would be so large as to be unrealistic. But, if you can't get that much mass together, E=mc2 bites the dust. But, beams and jets are commonly observed coming from active galaxies, pulsars, and potential black holes, so the directional energy hypothesis seems a good one.

So, one thing GLAST will no doubt study is GRB's, but it will be looking for other high-energy sources of gamma rays, too. Now, if there happens to be something massive between us and the gamma rays, it's lensing effect could be detected as a “wiggle” in the spectrum. No, I don't know what they mean by a wiggle, either, but presumably it's some detectable anomalous distortion of the spectral data. If there are a lot of little black holes in the galaxy, it's possible one of them might cause such distortion.

All righty, you say, where did the little black holes come from?

Well, let's go back, waaaaaaay back to the Big Bang. The Big Bang has proved to be a good model for describing the current state of the universe, although it has its problems. Alan Guth's inflationary universe solution solved a number of these, but there was still nagging issues, like the singularity (if nature abhors a vacuum, physicists loathe a singularity), what triggered the bang, what happened in the very initial instance of the bang (where the laws of physics break down), that sort of thing. Enter the string theorists.

Even though I dislike string theory, I admire the kinds of minds it has taken to come up with it. It is the most complex, intricate, and downright convoluted mathematics that has ever been invented. So far, it's been so complex that it consists mostly of approximations. As such it's not a good theory for predicting things, yet. But, it does purport to be able to deal with that initial instant of time. And, it has spun a new idea, that of branes.

“Brane” is probably short for “membrane”, although there seems to be some debate about that. There's M-brane theory, p-brane theory, and others. One of the consequences of brane theory is that the universe is one big happy (mem)brane (an easy way to think of it) floating with other brane universes. In one version of the theory, the brane universes float about and undulate (due to gravity waves) and occasionally touch, The point of contact is a creation event for a new universe.

(This is wildly simplified, but I don't think I'm doing any violence to the theories here.)

Now, the creation of the universe (ours) results in a lot of small black holes being formed. Stephen Hawking found that all black holes “evaporate”, emitting what has come to be called Hawking radiation, gradually dissipating into space until they cease to exist. This served to explain why there didn't seem to be a surplus of black holes floating around. But, a consequence of braneworld theory is the presence of a fourth spatial dimension. According to Keeton and Peters (remember them?), this extra dimension would somehow slow the Hawking radiation, with the result that there ought to be lots of these little black suckers floating around.

Of course, “lots” is a relative term, but apparently we're talking about enough that there should be some in our own solar system, which, by their nature, would produce the “wiggle” in the gamma ray spectrum. And that would be an indication that the braneworld theory might have substance to it. There's a lot of work to do (GLAST has to get off the ground for one thing), and it's almost a sure thing that any data will be subject to interpretation, but the possibilities of lending some credence to string theory is exciting because of what the theory might be able to tell us about how we got here. Which would be pretty amazing for an ugly theory. But, who knows, if they got some hard data, they might be able to pretty it up some.

The idea of so-called parallel universes has always had appeal to the sci-fi writers. Actually, though, it's not proper to think of these as parallel in the three dimensional sense, since they are actually suspended in a fourth dimension. They could actually be within each other, as far as that goes, without the inhabitants of one universe knowing anything about the inhabitants of another.

Which might be a good thing for them and us.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Lost In Space

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled. ~Richard P. Feynman

Space.com had an article about the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) that will replace the shuttle, take us to the Moon and Mars, and generally go where no man has gone before. The story is essentially upbeat, but it contains some information that should give those who have hopes for revitalizing manned exploration considerable pause.

Lockheed-Martin and a Northrop-Grumman/Boeing consortium are vying for the opportunity to get lots of government money to build something that will replace the space shuttle. It's doubtful to me, based on what I'm reading here, that it has little chance of succeeding as any kind of interplanetary vehicle.

Here are a few gems from the article:

-- The CEV has to fly by 2014 because it "is vital to what's dubbed the Constellation Systems, the spaceship, boosters and interrelated hardware needed to tend the International Space Station, return to the Moon by 2020, and plant footprints on Mars in future years.” Yet later we're told that the shuttle will be out of business by 2010. So evidently we're going to outsource support of the ISS to the Russians or the Chinese.

-- “ 'NASA is not pushing a lot of technology around the exploration program at least I don't see it," said Art Stephenson, Sector Vice President, Space Exploration Systems, Northrop Grumman Integrated Systems. 'They are more interested in getting the job done. To do that you need to reduce risk and that means using existing technology,' he told SPACE.com.” With this kind of attitude, we'd have tried to get to the Moon in 1969 by using a modified Wright Flyer.

-- Stephenson then qualifies his statement to say that NASA will be embracing some new technologies, but he then puts his “management hat” on and says, 'But when budgets are tight, its hard to bring in new technology. That adds risk and cost to the program.' ” He justifies the use of old technology by saying that Apollo technology was far less than what's available now, conveniently omitting to mention that it was light years ahead of what was available THEN.

-- A bit of praise for Lockheed-Martins development of heat shields states that the Genesis and Stardust probes “hit right on target” when returning to Earth. In the case of Genesis, that's a particularly apt description.

-- The CEV is old space capsule technology (hence all the references to Apollo). Here we are, 50 years after the X-15, 40 years after designs for Dyna-Soar, and what are we talking about? Space capsules. Why? Because they're proven technology.

So, basically, space exploration is going to be driven by MBA's instead of Ph.D.'s.

Somehow, these people (and presumably NASA) have determined that using technologies that have resulted in two failed space stations, two shuttle disasters, and astronaut deaths in Russia and the U.S. during the race to the moon is somehow now going to to be all safe and warm.
My god, has the Enron management team taken over NASA?

If spaceflight is ever going to become practical, the current methods of sending people up and getting them back is going to have to change drastically. Ironically, new technologies have been tested by NASA, most notably Deep Space 1. But that's science stuff, and NASA and the government have decided that space is business, not science.

Interestingly, there seems to be no tie-ins with the private sector rocketry. These guys are all using old technology, and most of them can't even get off the ground. Even Burt Rutan hasn't even run a test flight since winning the Ansari Prize. So, evidently, that supposed we-can-do-it-without-federal-money philosophy has proven to be nothing more than fantasy.

Without a radical change in technology, spaceflight is going to be very costly. The only sensible way to pursue manned exploration is with international efforts. The ISS has shown it can work, unless one of the main partners has a bankrupt space program and the other has an aging one. The main reason that the ISS hasn't lived up to its promise is that the main delivery and maintenance vehicle, the shuttle, has become a liability. The U.S. has let its partners down. Now, CEV promises to be another let down. If all we want is a glorified Apollo capsule system, we might as well buy Soyuz capsules from the Russians, which might help their solvency problems. Or maybe wait for the new improved version from the Chinese.

When it comes to learning what's out there, we found that robots can do the job amazingly well. The reason for sending people out into space should not be for gathering some rocks; it should be for colonization, as a stepping stone to the stars.

And we're not going to the stars with yesterday's technology.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Catching Up

I find that a great part of the information I have was acquired by looking up something and finding something else on the way. ~Franklin P. Adams

I seem to have collected a number of unrelated items in my pending ideas bucket, so allow me to clean some of them out before they age too much further.

Paleofarming
Among the great inventions of all time is farming. But it has proved difficult to determine how and when a bunch of nomadic hunter-gatherers got the idea to stop moving from here to there and set down roots -- literally. The "how" is still a mystery, but the "when" may be a little clearer after a discovery in Jordan. Ancient figs dating from 11,000+ years ago were found, and they appear to be of a variety that only be grown with "human intervention." Neolithic farming is remarkable to consider.

We take growing food for granted, but imagine if you didn't have any idea how plants came to grow. You had to draw a correlation from seeds that were dropped to the sprouts that appeared days or weeks later. That's a stretch for humans who probably had their heads on a swivel worrying about getting eaten by bears or wolves. Give thanks to the neolithic genius who picked up on that one.
Dwindling Impact Possibilities
Catastrophism freaks the world over are no doubt saddened to learn that the chance of Apophis clobbering the planet in 2036 are down to 1 in 24,000. This drops it to a "1" on the Torino Scale. Believe it or not, there is a ranking scale for objects and their likelihood to ruin your day. A "0" is an obvious miss; a "10" means "kiss your butt goodbye".

We already have the Fujitsu scale to tell us that tornado was a humdinger, the Saffer-Simpson to advise us that, yep, a hurricane with winds over 200 mph is gonna really wreck things, and even the Beaufort scale, which tells us the difference between a fresh breeze and a hurricane. I know we have a fascination for measuring and categorizing things, but sometimes I think we get obsessed.

Let's put it this way. If it's announced that some 20-mile wide block of rock has a 1 in 3 chance of hitting the Earth, it's not going to mater to me that it's a 9 or 10 on the Torino Scale. I'm cashing in the IRA based on those odds.

Where The Permian Critters Went
Thanks to some fascinating measurement methods, a crater formation has been found under the ice in Antarctica that makes Chixulub look like a dimple on a golf ball. They used a combination of gravity fluctuations and airborne radar to determine that there was a crater with a diamter of 300 miles hiding down there. It's speculated that this rock arrived explosively at about the time of the Permo-Triassic extinction, and, oh by the way, may have resulted in the formation of Australia.

The probable causes of the P-T extinction have generally been thought to be massive volcanism combined with intense climate change, probably caused by the volcanoes. The Siberian Traps have been thought to be a candidate for this event. Interestingly, this places another impact and volcanic outburst into the same time frame. Chixulub and the Deccan Traps in India are thought to have occurred at roughly the same time. Could there be a connection with massive hits on one side of the planet with major vulcanism on the other? I have no idea, but it sounds like a good show for Discovery Channel to produce.

The Bosnian Pyramids: Could They Have Found Something?
If you have read my post about Osmanagic's Bosnian Adventure on Gog's Blog (and why haven't you?), you know what I think. But, just to churn the pot a bit, Sam Osmanagic found a genuine Egyptian to look at it and announce that, by golly, that thing there's a pyrmaid. The Egyptian, Dr. Aly Abd Alla Barakata, is not from the Supreme Council of Antiquities, but from Egyptian Mineral Resource Ministry. He claims, among other things, that the sand between the rocks is similar to that used in ancient Egypt. If he's implying that the blocks were cemented together, he's barking up the wrong tree. Ancient Egyptians used gypsum cenemt, not sand-based cement. Check out the linked article has a nice summary of the news and some healthy skepticism.

Of course, finding sand between rocks and drawing the conclusion that they were assembled into a pyramid is like finding sawdust between some fallen logs and determining that Fort Apache was in the woods behind your house -- in Duluth.

Was Grandpa a Neanderthal?
Well, maybe, but it's not because he was related to one. Scientists have managed to extract some mytochondrial DNA from a Neanderthal tooth and have found that these ancient humans were a lot more diverse than has been thought. But it doesn't mean that they were interbreeding with Cro-Magnons. Yet, the Neanderthals lasted for around 200,000 years, a milestone we've got a ways to catch, which means they had to have something going for them. Keep in mind that they succeeded under far harsher conditions than our own ancestors had to deal with. Even though there was a period of coexistence, it seems that the Cro-Magnons came from friendlier climes while the older group survived the tougher surroundings of Europe.

Of course, Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon remains have been found in the same caves, some in more termperate areas. The ongoing question is: Did the Neanderthals die out because they couldn't adapt or because the Cro-Magnons wiped them out? Given what we know of human nature, the latter is not unlikely. The picture gets a little more complicated by finding that their genetic diversity was greater than previously assumed. To me this speaks against dying out just because conditions changed.

Something Else for the Mars Rovers to Look For
Stromatolites are fossilized bacteriological life. And they're really, really old. Now some have been found in Australia that date back to 3.43 billion years ago. But, as with the legendary Martian meteorite, scientists are debating whether these stromatolites are really formed by biological processes or merely by chemical processes. Some stromatolites are known to be biological, because they're still alive today. But, as the article acknowledges, similar structures can arise without the intervention of any living organisms.

The new finds approach the age of rocks in Greenland dated to 3.75 billion years ago that have the appearance of biological activity, which is also argued to be inorganic by some. Since, if this is biological activity, it arose so soon on Earth that the probability of some sort of life arising on Mars, even briefly, seems to be higher.

The intriquing bit about this concept is that it would neat if the Mars Rovers managed to stumble on to a stromatolite or two on Mars. Of course, it wouldn't settle anything because the whole chemistry-vs-biology argument would fire up again, but it would certainly provide some interesting cirumstantial evidence. The main problem, though, is finding one in the first place. Even on Earth, you don't find stromatolites on every beach, or former beach. Often they're buried and hard to recognize. So hoping the Rovers can find one is a bit like hoping to find a twenty-dollar bill lying in the street. It could happen, but it's unlikely.

If a Rover does happen to locate one, we'll have to hope it's Opportunity. If Spirit happens to find one, it can't drill into it for a sample, because its rock drill has worn down. That sucker has done a serious amount of work for a machine whose warranty expired a long time ago.

But, then, you almost have to feel if there are stromatolites on Mars, the plucky Rovers will somehow locate them. They just seem to keep redefining "unlikely".

Hobbit Pets?
Well, no, but a new dwarf dinosaur apparently has been identified (dinosaurs would have been long gone by the time of Homo floresiensis, otherwise known as the hobbit). This little fellow is a diminutive theropod (that's as in apatosaurs), a mere 20 feet long. Now that seems large, but compared to his gigantic cousins, that's pretty diminutive. It does add evidence to the idea of dwarfism occuring because of isolation on islands, which is the argument used by those supporting the theory that the Indonesian hominids are dwarf Homo erectus.

In the case of the dinosaurs, a new technique has been developed to determine whether these are adult animals. Basically, this involves examining the bones for growth marks that would identify whether the animal had reached adulthood (by measuring the spacing between the marks; older animals have marks that are closer together). Since theropods had puny brains, I doubt there will be an issue of microcephaly with these creatures.

So dwarf dinosaurs look like a fact. An entire species of dwarf hominids is still up in the air.

On the other hand, we finally have a good idea of what Fred Flintstone's dog was like.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Discovery Mauls KV-63

I wish there were a knob on the TV to turn up the intelligence. There's a knob called "brightness," but that doesn't work. ~Author Unknown

Last night, the Discovery Channel managed to make utter hamburger of an amazing event: The discovery of the first new tomb in the Valley of the Kings since Howard Carter found Tutankhamun's perpetual digs. This show violates so many of my Guide to Documentary Television, I would normally have dispatched it in the first five minutes. For example:

-- We had the repeated introduction.
-- We had the long list of questions to which we got the Guide's standard answers.
-- We got "the show so far" almost continuously.
-- We saw the same graphic and interior shots of the tomb about 100 times.

Besides this, the "reporter on the spot", supposedly an archaeologist, was not the brightest bulb on the tree. When an investigator was digging natron and human tissue out of a jug, this dimbulb practically stuck his nose in it and probably would have had he not started coughing and had not the investigator suggested rather strongly that he put a mask and gloves on.

Oh, and since Tut's tomb is in the area, this guy had to tell us that Tut died under "suspicious circumstances." Evidently, he doesn't watch Discovery or National Geographic, because it's been pretty solidly determined that Tut diesd of a horrifically broken leg.

The tomb is a fascinating find, although it may not be a tomb at all, but an "embalmer's cache" of used embalming materials. That doesn't make the find any less exciting, and the program could have discussed this aspect in some detail. But, they were absolutely focused on two coffins that might contain bodies. Nothing else mattered to the producers but those two coffins, so they showed them and foreshadowed about them until I was ready to scream "Uncle!"


Unfortunately, the coffins haven't been reached yet and won't be reached for some months. Now, they could have been honest about that, because they had all those urns, the funereal masks that they could reach, and a marvelous tiny gold leaf (not solid gold, as the show implied) coffin of marvelous workmanship. But, no. Violating yet another of the Guide's principles, we got to the end of the show to find out we hadn't found out anything.

Boooooooooo.

They will undoubtedly show this sad effort a dozen times between now and the fall (when the coffins are expected to be open). Avoid it. Instead, here's a good article from the New York Times (which may require registration), some more coverage from U. of Memphis, and a detailed article and interview from Archaeology Magazine, always a good resource. In the event anything new is learned at the site, we can depend on those sources, Science Daily, and/or New Scientist (links at the right) to be quick to let us know. Of course, they have a KV-63 web site, as well, but, it's actually a bit bland. However, it does have pictures and a decent list of articles about the site, so it's worth a look.

Besides, those guys are busy investigating; they ain't got time to do websites with little dancing mummies and singing sphinxes.

Thank god.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Save It or Pave It?

If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday. ~Pearl Buck

Not long ago, there was a program about moving historical buildings. Now, I've always been fascinated by this business of moving large structures. I've seen houses being trolleyed from one place to another, and I'm always amazed that you can pick up something that big, cart it down the street, and plunk down in a new location in a way that will make it look like it's always been in the new location.

One of the buildings that was being moved gave me some pause for thought about this whole saving history idea. The building was the King of Prussia Inn, located in – surprise, surprise – King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. The inn is famous because, during the American Revolution, the Hessian mercenaries were housed in and around it. These are the same Hessians who awoke one morning to find George Washington in their midst telling them to kindly stick 'em up. It seems that the clever General Washington had engineered a little amphibious landing from one side of the Delaware River to the other, catching the Christmas-celebrating Germans sleeping off the festivities.

So, the old inn, which ultimately lent its name to the surrounding village, is justifiably famous and presumably worth saving. But, the old stone building was in horrific shape; there was considerable doubt as to whether it could survive a move. Finally, after an incredible amount of trussing, bracing, and binding together with steel rods and a generous amount of chewing gum and bailing wire, the building was successfully moved. My thought was, “Is this really worth the trouble?”

One can question why the people of King of Prussia let the old tavern get into such horrid shape. One can also wonder, beyond the “George Washington nabbed a bunch of Hessians here” provenance, was there anything sufficiently unique about the building to make it worth saving? If the locals hadn't worried about keeping it up, why go to this sort of trouble?

Perhaps naively, my feeling is that they would have been better served to just take the old building down, construct a new building using the old stones but with a reconstructed interior. This could have been turned into a living museum, rather than an abandoned wreck. I can't imagine that it could have cost any more than it did to move it.

The real question, though, is, was the building even worth saving?
Beyond Washington and the Hessians, there is nothing particularly unique about this tavern. There are probably dozens in better shape up and down the eastern seaboard. Given that there are only so many dollars to spend saving historical sites, was this a case of squandering scarce resources?

I don't know the answer in this case, but I suspect that we have an almost knee-jerk reaction to the demolition of old things. Now, don't take me for someone who wants to turn everything into a strip mall. I am impressed by efforts of cities like Montgomery, Alabama, where a lot of effort has been put into saving old buildings by moving them to an area called “Old Alabama Town”. But the buildings are “adopted” by organizations who provide some of the cost of maintenance. These houses are fun to visit and are kept in good shape. Sometimes, though, no one adopts an old house. If that happens, this old house becomes this old empty lot, available for development.

Probably very soon after people began building structures, they also began tearing them down and reusing the materials and the land to build new structures. There is plenty of evidence for this in Egypt, Greece, and wherever one finds Roman settlements. But they also built some things to last. The Parthenon, the Pyramids, the Pantheon, even the Coliseum are still with us. Some are the worse for wear, usually thanks to armies using them as ammunition dumps and forts, often due to earthquakes and similar natural disasters. Yet, they still stand, providing evidence of the skills of these ancient civilizations.

My father, by the way, grew up in Hungary and his gymnasium (equivalent to an American high school) was a several-hundred-year-old pile built by the Turks, which is an excellent example of retaining a historical edifice while putting it to a new use.

The important structures are the ones that teach us about how people lived or represent something very meaningful historically speaking, like Independence Hall in Philadelphia. It's necessary, though, to actually assess the historic importance of the site, and one should try to err on the side of safety.

In Europe, where land has always been a precious commodity, any acre may contain layer after layer of different habitations. Often, these are discovered when a new building or other improvement is going in. Most of the time, such a discovery brings everything to a halt until archaeologists can investigate the site and save as many artifacts as possible. Occasionally, though, there is a rush to develop. Recently, in Spain, a Roman settlement was found during construction of a parking lot. Work was halted only for the briefest time before the site got paved, causing much potential information to be lost.

Perhaps the greatest measure of whether a site should be saved is what it can teach us about those who built it. The Roman settlement could have filled in a few of the gaps in our knowledge about the Roman Empire. Paving it was a terrible loss. In the case of the King of Prussia Inn, though, what cam we learn that we don't already know? If the idea is to commerae a significant event, a reconstruction would be as meaningful and potentially more useful for education than a dangerous ruin that no one can safely enter.

There is no easy answer to what to do about the clash between history and progress. But perhaps by making decisions about what's important to save and what is not, we can learn more about what is important history and what is merely nostalgia.

Maybe then we'll appreciate both more.