Thursday, November 30, 2006

Pardon Me, My Tardis Is Double-Parked

I wasted time, and now doth time waste me. ~William Shakespeare, Richard III

John Cramer of the University of Washington thinks he can send information back in time using quantum entanglement and “spooky action at a distance.” Once again, we see that, if you want to do something weird, you only need to go into the quantum world.

Mr. Cramer is not attempting to send a particle back in time. Instead, using a complicated scheme of detection, he hopes to show that a one of a pair of entangled particles has sent its state back into time to alert its partner as to what the partner's state should be. The researchers are also looking for a “signal” of some sort that passes between the entangled particles so that one knows what is going on with the other, although the article doesn't describe how they intend to detect that signal.

Back in “Spooky Entanglement”, I talked about how two quantum particles, a couple of photons for instance, can be “entangled” so that disturbances affecting the state of one immediately affect the state of the other, even if they are separated by vast distances. This is what Einstein derisively called “spooky action at a distance.” The effect is real; it's even been used, as explained in my previous piece, to teleport a particle from one place to another.

To review briefly, if you measure a quantum particle you disrupt it. If you learn it's location, you can't accurately determine it's momentum, for instance. A photon acts as both a wave and a particle. If you set up an experiment to detect its wave properties, you won't see its particle properties; if you set a detector to look for particle properties ahead of the wave detector, then you will only see particle properties. If you have two entangled photons and you detect one as a particle, the other should exhibit particle properties as well.

The U of W experiment will use that to show information going back in time by setting up a detector that will show photon A as a particle or a wave. Photon B, meanwhile, will be taking a leisurely trip through a couple of 10 km spools of fiber-optic cable to another detector. That second detector can be manipulated in some manner to detect it as either a particle or a wave. In Mr. Cramer's theory, photon B has to send the information about its pending state back in time 50 microseconds to photon A so A knows what property to exhibit at its detector.

Well, maybe. All we really know is that measurement of A will disrupt it in a manner that will be duplicated in B at the instant of measurement. However, measurement of B will also disrupt in a way that will be duplicated in A. But, since we've disrupted A already, we really can't tell anything about what B's measurement means without examining A again. In other words, the measurements are independent events. Just because you try to make B behave like a wave and A happened to look like a wave doesn't mean that the B measurement was transmitted back.

To put it another way, I don't think this is going to work.

It doesn't really matter, because the late Dr. Isaac Asimov introduced the world to Thiotimoline, a chemical that dissolves 1.12 seconds BEFORE water is added to it, in 1947.

By the time Asimov was working on his doctorate in Chemistry, he was already being published in “Astounding” magazine (later known as “Analog”). He wrote three stories about the chemical, the first of which was a scholarly-looking document with the ponderous title, “The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline.” The third of the stories was a “speech” given before the “American Chronochemical Society” explaining the dangers the chemical posed to the Free World if it was in the hands of the Soviet Union.

Because Thiotimoline dissolves before water is added, you could use it to predict events. You begin with the “endochronometer”, a device which automatically delivers the water to the Thiotimoline, which dissolves 1.12 seconds before the water hits it. You could hook a second endochronometer to the first which, when the chemical in it dissolved, triggered the first to release its water. You could create a battery of these devices to extend the time from the triggering of the first endochronometer to the dissolving of the Thiotimoline in the last. In fact, about 77,000 of them would result in a process taking about 24 hours.

The practical upshot of this is that you could forecast the result of an event by deciding that, upon one outcome you would trigger the battery while on another you would not. Then, if you checked the last endochronometer 24 hours before the event, you would know the outcome based on whether the Thiotimoline had dissolved or not.

Suppose you wish to bet on a football game. If team A wins, you will trigger the endochronometer batter at 7 PM the day of the game. If they lose, you will do nothing. You check the last endochronometer at 7 PM the day before the game; if it has dissolved, bet the farm on team A. Otherwise, put your 401k on team B.

Of course, Thiotimoline is a fiction, but in one of Asimov's stories on the subject, he builds a wondrous sequence of events to demonstrate its potential for international catastrophe.

At the time he wrote the first story, which had the look and feel of a scholarly piece, Asimov's doctoral review was coming up, and he was naturally concerned that some of the thesis examiners would not be amused by a doctoral student taking time from his work to write a lampoon thesis, so he asked John Campbell, editor-publisher of “Astounding”, to publish the story under a pseudonym. Campbell, who enjoyed the story enormously, agreed then promptly forgot, so the story was published under Asimov's name.

The story was an immense success, and, according to Asimov, the New York Public Library was pestered immediately by students wanting to check the (fake) references from the “article” so they could learn more about the subject. While he should have been pleased, Asimov was devastated. He figured that the academicians at Columbia, where he was taking his doctorate, would not be amused at his lampoon of scholarly writing.

He was, therefore, relieved as he went through his orals that the professors treated him well and made no reference to his story. As he reached the end of the exhausting process, one of the professors intoned solemnly, “Asimov, can you tell us something about the endochronic properties of resublimated thiotimoline?” Asimov, seldom a man at a loss for words, was unable to answer because he was laughing so hard.

He got his PhD, demonstrating that, at Columbia at least, even stuffy professors have a sense of humor.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

More Pontiff-ications

There are some people that if they don't know, you can't tell 'em. ~ Louis Armstrong

Is anyone else tired of Pope Benedict XVI yet?

I suppose I should appreciate such a gold mine of ideas for posts, but frankly he's getting to be a bore. To wit:
  • Benedict announces a “seminar” to be held to review the Church's position on Darwinian evolution, which prompted me to review the Galileo Caper.

  • He announced a desire to return to the Latin Mass, not necessarily a bad thing in itself, but, in his case, it's an alarm klaxon shrieking about a Pope wanting to return to the past.

  • Back in the science venue, he warned scientists, essentially, that there were things that man was not meant to know, using his Icarus metaphor. Those last two items resulted in Benedict Rides Again.

Now he is warning scientists not to go around making alarmist predictions unless they are absolutely, positively certain that the prediction is accurate, prompting this outburst on my part.

Scientists, the pope says, should know their limits. I wish Benedict knew his.

His latest mouthful is believed to be in response to an assessment that says oceanic fish stocks will be flat gone by 2050. It is quite true that we can't know something like this for sure, but given that we have brought numerous species to extinction or very near to it, the possibility is quite real.

Interestingly, I haven't seen a single word from Benedict about the alarmist press reports that claim terrorists are cranking out sarin in their kitchens from castor beans, some idiot can make “dirty” bombs from the radioactive material in smoke detectors, and someone can mix up a liquid bomb in an airplane toilet using household products that is powerful enough to blow the plane up. A brief reading of the Dick Destiny blog will show you that grinding castor beans does not produce usable sarin, you'd need 10 million smoke detectors to gather enough material to make a dirty bomb (sort of like trying to make an atom bomb by scraping the radium off glow-in-the dark wrist watches), and the liquid bomb requires setting up a titration lab experiment for about three hours in the airplane john.

This and other similar pseudo-science (which is almost a compliment when talking about mainstream media news science reporting) doesn't seem to bother the pope. But, issue a warning based on real data that could have serious ramifications for the world's population is “alarmist.”

This is clearly a pope who would have declared the Copernican system to be a heresy because it upset the Aristotelean framework supported by the Church. He probably would have had Galileo burned at the stake, rather than sentenced to house arrest. In fact, he never would have allowed publication of the “Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems.” He would have proscribed belief in quantum mechanics (he may yet) because it destroys the concept of pre-destination. And evolution would have been right out (and it may yet be).

I'd suggest that Benedict stick to religion for his pronouncements, but given that he's already managed to tick off the Islamic world, we'd be better off if he would simply shut up.

So what does it matter if the pope shoots his mouth off? He's still essentially a religious figure, and religion and science have managed to get along for some centuries now, haven't they? Yes, they have, to a point. But, let's not forget that school systems have been pressured in the U.S. to teach Creationism as a “scientific” alternative to Evolution; some have been faced with campaigns to stop teaching Evolution altogether. While the pope's statements apply primarily to Catholics, fundamentalist Christians would jump on his pronouncements if they supported their blinkered view of the universe.

Benedict is that most dangerous of individuals, an ignorant man in a position of power. Thus far, he hasn't invoked papal infallibility; that would require issuing a papal bull expressing these opinions. But, unless there is someone around him with a modicum of sense, that can't be far off. And, it's unlikely that Benedict surrounds himself with any independent thinkers.

There has been a small but vocal group of atheist thinkers, led by Richard Dawkins, a noted author of books on genetics and evolution, calling for the abolition of religion. I feel that such an attitude is extreme and destructive, but the more Benedict talks, the more I understand why Dawkins and his supporters feel the way that they do, although I don't agree with their draconian approach. Science thrives on open discourse and free communication; religion has always engendered the opposite attitude, restricting free thought, often severely punishing those who would express contrarian views. Benedict would better serve his congregation by keeping his mouth shut and working to ease conflict in the world rather than foment more of it.

Someone needs to explain to the pope that this is 2006, not 1506.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

To Infinity and Beyond!

Hot damn! We is down among 'em! -- Eugene Cernan, Apollo 10

You will be hard pressed to find Gene Cernan's quote on any NASA site. The only way I was able to verify my memory of this moment was by going to Google, where I found a post I made several years on a newsgroup asking if the quote was accurate. Apollo 10, in case you've forgotten (and you probably have) was the mission that tested the LEM, releasing it from the command module and letting swoop down to within 15 Km of the Moon's surface. It was that moment that prompted Cernan's slightly profane outburst.

Of course, NASA didn't approve of one of their boys acting like a human being. But, Cernan was forgiven and even became the last man to set foot on the Moon.

It just goes to show that the spirit of adventure that was the Apollo program seems to have disappeared.

We desperately need to get a sense of adventure again. The Space Ship One pilots had some of that, but they spoiled it by crying after just about every mission. But, given the lack of testing and the last minute changes that were being made just before takeoff, I guess I'd cry for joy about getting back in one piece, too.

But space flight today is so scripted. There are the endless press conferences with shuttle crews, all saying just the right things, thanking everyone until they're blue in the face. The Chinese taikonauts must have taken a set of dialog cards with them. I know things suffer in translation, but the quotes from these men were nothing more than propaganda. They surpassed even the Soviet cosmonauts in praising the nation, the workers, and, of course, the government.

There used to be a more excited approach to space flight. Perhaps it was a little "cowboy", but it was very human. Alan Sheppard, having sat on the launch pad for next to forever, had to take a whiz in his suit. He later exhorted Mission Control to “fix your little problems and light this candle.” John Glenn, so exuberant he forgot he was supposed to be doing a scientific mission, kept being amazed by the view. Joking and chatter was common, because this was the unknown, and people tend to make jokes to avoid thinking about how scared they might be.

On Apollo 8, Frank Borman read from Genesis as they slingshotted around the Moon. NASA wasn't expecting this. But, this mission was changed at the last minute from an earth-orbital test to the lunar fly-around in an attempt to one-up the Russions. With so much uncertainty about whether they were going to succeed, astronauts giving a nod to the Almighty seemed like a very good idea.

It's not much like that anymore, but maybe it's because of the missions. When you're shuttling supplies to a space station and bring back the trash, it must be a little hard to get cocky. The shuttle doesn't go anywhere. The Mercury and Gemini missions just went up and down, too, but they were preparing the way for the big trips. We don't have any big trips, now, except for the ones run by our robots (who are doing a heck of a job on Mars and around Saturn). Oh sure, there's talk about Mars, but with no funding, no one is going anywhere soon. We need a mission, a real long range goal, to capture the old spirit.

Gene Cernan has another quote, of more recent vintage. As the years since his last trip to the Moon passed with no new endeavors for manned space exploration, he said, “Yes, I am the last man to have walked on the moon, and that's a very dubious and disappointing honor. It's been far too long.”

That's the kind of attitude that will get us to Mars.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Giving Thanks for MGS

Not fare well,
But fare forward, voyagers.
~ T. S. Eliot

As duly noted in Gog's Blog, I have entered into a period of intense goofing off (which has involved doing a bunch of stuff instead of properly lying around watching football), so I intended to just wish the occasionally readers who pass through this spot a Happy Thanksgiving and leave it at that.

But, I can't let the day pass without a kind word for the
Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) which may have sent its last picture post card to Earth (as I recently noted). NASA is about ready to concede that MGS may no longer be reachable. MRO's younger but more powerful sibling, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has looked and looked but has been unable to locate the silent satellite. Without knowing where MGS is and what its condition is, controllers have very slim chances of ever regaining contact.

Well, it's not like MGS has been goofing off. It's sent around 240,000 photographs back that will keep planetary scientists busy for years to come. Only the rovers Opportunity and Spirit approach it for success in exploring Mars.

MGS will hang around in orbit for some years to come before atmospheric drag causes it to drop toward the Red Planet. Given how thin the Martian atmosphere is, it may well reach the surface, creating a small crater. If it does, maybe someday Martian explorers will locate it and say a few words over this device that paved the way for them.

Thanks for a job well done, builders and operators of MGS.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Our Neanderthal Ancestors?

I use the term Struggle for Existence in a large and metaphorical sense, including dependence of one being on another, and including (which is more important) not only the life of the individual, but success in leaving progeny. ~ Charles Darwin

The fascination with Neanderthal just goes on and on.

Given what a lousy rap he had for years, I suppose it's appropriate that we now pay some attention to getting the picture right. We've now definitely established that Neanderthals walked as upright as you and I, were a successful species for hundreds of thousands of years, and probably had brains that made them potentially as smart as we think we are. We don't know, though, why they changed so little in that long period of existence, to the point that they used similar tools from beginning to end, never created cave drawings or other art, and may not have spoken a formal language.

We now know that Neanderthal and our immediate ancestors (anthropologically speaking) Cro-Magnon co-existed in several places quite possibly for 10,000-40,000 years. We have absolutely no idea how the two species got along, whether we lived and let live or massacred them at every opportunity. And, of course, did the two species interbreed?

That last has nothing to do with prurient interests. If there was interbreeding, then the Neanderthals might not have been wiped out by Cro-Magnon or simply died out on their own. The two species might have merged, at least to some extent.

So far, DNA analysis has not revealed any traces of Neanderthal genetic inheritance in modern humans. That isn't a definitive “no” to the interbreeding question because there's a lot more DNA to investigate, but so far it doesn't look good. In fact, scientists might have thrown in the towel on the subject by now were it not for some very suggestive discoveries. (No, I'm not going to make any cheap jokes about football defensive lineman, tempting as that may be.)

The most recent data comes from an analysis of bones discovered in 1952 which appears to clearly show a mix of modern human and Neanderthal characteristics. It's not the only such skeleton, and it falls into that tantalizing overlap era by being 28,000 years old. To date, though, no one has been able to successfully extract DNA from such a skeleton, which could potentially put the issue to rest once and for all.

The possibility of interbreeding is certainly imaginable, but the question is whether such a mating could produce any offspring. If it could, would the offspring be sterile, like so many hybrid species are? We have hints, but nothing definitive.

In general, I think a lot of people, including scientists, would like to think that there was successful interbreeding between the species. It would be nicer to think that the older species merged into ours rather than being killed off or wandering off into the Stone Age sunset to die in some lonely place. In fact, it's interesting that scientific attitudes have changed to some extent regarding whether modern humans were running woolly mammoths, saber-toothed cats, and woolly rhinos into extinction.

Up to a few years ago, it seemed like every time an animal species and humans existed at the same time and place, it was assumed that the brainy hunters must have wiped out any species that no longer existed. The biggest problem with this idea is that it ignored the biggest extinction factor, climate. It also ignored that fact that, world-wide, the human population was a few million. There were almost certainly a lot more woolly mammoths on the planet than there were humans, and humans had other things to hunt for as well, including things that weren't as likely to fatally step on them. This is not to say that humans didn't hunt mammoths; they almost certainly did. But they also probably scavenged dead ones.

It's quite possible that humans killed the last mammoth, but the mammoths were on the way out due to major changes in the ecosystem that had nothing to do with human activities.

Having freed ourselves of killing of the mammoths, it appears that we'd like to be declared “not guilty” in the matter of Neanderthal's passing. Much as I hate to disappoint everyone, but evidence of interbreeding won't prove anything. The history of human warfare is filled with tribes and civilizations being destroyed with survivors being taken as captives, generally to be made into slaves. The slaves interbred with other slaves and with the conquerors. That is not a peacefully “merging” of two groups.

I don't think we'll ever conclusively know the answer to this one, but my money is on a declining Neanderthal population that was wiped out by a growing Cro-Magnon people. I am certainly willing to maintain an open mind on the subject, but it's difficult to imagine that a behavior pattern that's manifested itself throughout the historical period and shows itself even in the prehistoric evidence, where sites have been found showing signs of conflict with bodies having spear and/or arrow points embedded in them.

I guess one might be able to argue for coexistence if one could find a site that clearly showed simultaneous habitation by Neanderthals and modern humans. There have been sites located that were inhabited by both species, but one could have followed the other (or killed off the other and moved in). The problem is that both groups were not yet producing the kinds of artifacts (like pottery) that could help pin down whether they were trading and getting along with each other.

Someday a site may turn up that will clear us of the onus of having started our career by killing off the competition.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Retirement Planning for Real?

There is just one thing I can promise you about the outer space program: Your tax dollars will go farther. ~ Werner Von Braun

I want to be very clear on this: I had nothing to do with it. I knew nothing in advance, I've got no friends on Mars (well, except for my able assistant), and I had no communications with the satellite before it went bonkers.

Of course, I'm talking about Mars Global Surveyor, which has gone incommunicado for the last couple of weeks. After writing about satellite retirements, though, I feel like I put a general hex out into space, looking for a victim. To bring you up to date, MGS, which has been returning high-quality pictures from Mars for nearly 10 years. MGS was to spend a Martian year photographing the planet as it went through seasonal changes, but, like the rovers, it was working so well that its mission was extended a couple of times.

In fact, MGS has been up there so long, it's become part of a crowd, what with Odyssey and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) having arrived to look for water. Good a job as MGS has done, MRO takes things to a new level, taking pictures with such a high resolution, they can clearly show the rover Opportunity and its shadow). MRO has a new assignment right now, though: Find MGS and take its picture.

Back on November 5, MGS phoned home to say that it was having a problem with one of its two solar panels. Since the panels provide all the power for the satellite (there's no RTG), the loss of 50% of its power-generating ability was potentially serious. Soon after sending the message, MGS went silent, except for a brief transmission that seemed to indicate that it had gone into safe mode.

“Safe mode” is a condition used by satellite computers when something has gone seriously wrong. Basically, a condition has occurred which the device can't deal with, so it essentially “reboots” and sends an identification signal to let Earth know where it is. Then it waits for instructions. Unfortunately, since no one has heard from MGS, we can't say for sure where it is. If one of the panels has gone bad, it's possible that the satellite turned its remaining operational panel into a position to maximize the power generation. Unfortunately, this could result in the probe's antenna pointing in the wrong direction to communicate with ground controllers.

Ideally, once it's batteries were charged, the satellite would occasionally turn toward Earth and operate off battery long enough to communicate. But, it doesn't seem to be doing that. So, the MGS team has asked the MRO folks to try to find and photograph MGS. Assuming MRO can find MGS, given MRO's resolution capabilities, it's just possible the team might see enough detail to be able to formulate a plan to recover the Surveyor.

Even the rovers might get into the act. There is a possibility that Opportunity and/or Spirit could pick up a beacon signal from the ailing spacecraft. If they can, then the team might be able to get a fix on its position. It's a long shot, but no one is ready to give up.
The biggest problem is that time is running out. If enough power isn't being generated, MGS might not be able to communicate anymore.

Wayne Sidney, the MRO Flight Engineering Team Lead, is quoted in the Space.com article, pointing out that, even if MGS can't be recovered, it's been a game trooper that has been operational from Mars longer than any other satellite or lander. In other words, even if MGS has gone to the old satellite's home, no one can complain about its performance. Like the rovers, the Voyagers, Galileo, and the Pioneers, it has worked longer and better than anyone hoped. As I've said before, when we get it right, we really get it right.

He also mentioned that November 7 would have been the tenth anniversary of MGS in space. By coincidence, that was the very day that MRO fired up its main science equipment. “It really seems like there's fate involved in all this,” said Mr. Sidney. “MGS knew it was time to retire.”

I swear it wasn't my doing.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Spooky Entanglement

We become what we behold. We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us. ~ Marshall McLuhan

When people think of science fiction, there come to their mind almost automatically certain devices: Faster-than-light spaceships; sentient robots; and everyone's favorite, teleportation. The Star Trek transporter often figured heavily in plots and is probably the one thing from Trek shows (after Spock's ears) that comes to the average person's mind. If you asked those same people which of the inventions I mentioned above is least likely to see the light of day, I think most would say, “Teleportation, of course.” And, they'd be wrong because, while no one has beamed people up to the ISS yet, scientists have been teleporting quantum particles since 1997.

I can give only you a very vague idea of how this works because, quite frankly, it's complicated and downright spooky. In fact, it involves something Einstein once called “spooky action at a distance.” I'm going to try to summarize Brian Greene's excellent discussion of teleportation from The Fabric of the Cosmos, but if you find it hard to follow, don't blame Dr. Greene. The whole subject is typical of any quantum mechanical discussion; that is, it sounds like swamp gas to anyone who hasn't done the math and the experiments. But, like most things that rely on quantum theory, somehow it works.

Teleportation relies on something called “quantum entanglement.” Two particles, say a couple of photons, can become couple such that anything that happens to one of them is reflected in the other, even if they are separated by vast distances. How such coupled particles come about is beyond the scope of this blog (actually this whole discussion is beyond the scope of this blog's author, but I'm giving it the old college try), but suffice it to say that the effect works.

Therefore, I could have a photon in my lab in Alabama while my able assistant has its coupled partner on Mars (how he got to Mars, we'll leave to your imagination). If I perform a measurement on the photon in my lab, thanks to the vagaries of the Uncertainty Principle, I will alter some characteristics of my photon. Those alterations will immediately show up on the photon in Ohio. I don't mean the alterations will show up 18 minutes later by traveling at the speed of light; I mean they will occur at the same instant in both locations. That is Einstein's “spooky action at a distance.”

Before you go buying stock in AT&T Hypertelecommunications Inc., Dr. Greene says there's a fly in the ointment. The entanglement can only be determined by comparing the results of my measurements with data on the Mars base. To send that information, I have to call Mars by conventional means so my able assistant can compare them. In other words, the instantaneously transmitted spooky action is “coded”, and the only way to decode the result is the get my data.

So, we're not going to communicate faster than light, according to Dr. Greene, but entanglement can be used to teleport particles at the speed of communications, which means, in our example, getting to Mars in 18 minutes (plus the time to receive and assess all the data, as we'll see). So, how does teleportation work?

To begin with, you've got to keep in mind that, in quantum mechanics, one particle of a given type is identical to any other particle of the same type. All electrons, for instance, are created equal, as are all protons, quarks, leptons, muons, and so on. So, armed with that intelligence, let's teleport a photon.

To do so, we'll need three photons: Photon A, the one we want to teleport to Mars; photon B, sitting in my lab next to A; and photon C, located on Mars which happens to be entangled with B. Now, I could measure a property of A, but all that would do is alter some characteristic of that photon. I can, however, measure a joint property of A and B, such as whether the direction of their spins is the same or different. I don't measure what the actual spin direction is, just whether or not they're the same.

So, now I know how A's spin is related to B's, which means I also know how A's spin is related to B's entangled Martian buddy, C. Now it gets complicated (as if it wasn't already). I send my data to Mars, where my able assistant can take that data and manipulate C. Before we go further, keep in mind that my act of measuring the relationship between A and B has, by quantum theory, disrupted A and, more importantly, B. C, then is also disrupted in exactly the same manner as B. Still with me?

Here's the magic. My able assistant utilizes my data and the observed disruption of C to put C into the quantum state A was in before I made my measurement! In other words, in my lab, photon A is no longer in the state that it was in when I wanted to teleport it, but C on Mars is. Therefore, photon C is now photon A. Or, to put it another way, A has been teleported to Mars.

Now, this sounds like a nice academic exercise, but it's not. You can argue that all I've done is change properties at my lab and at the Mars lab. But let's take it another step. Suppose we teleport YOU to Mars (you don't think I'm crazy enough to experiment on myself, do you?). Here's what we need to do.

In my lab and on Mars, we have chambers filled with enough electrons, protons, neutrons, and so on to construct whatever object we wish to teleport (in this case, you). All of the particles in my chamber are entangled with those in the chamber on Mars. I also have a device capable of taking measurements of the joint properties of all the particles in you with the particles in my chamber. In the process, I'm going to have to alter all the particles in your body, which could involve disassembling your constituent atoms (you see why I wanted someone else to test this). After taking those measurements, I send the results to Mars, where my able assistant uses the data to set the quantum states of all those particles back to what they were before I took my measurements, and voila! There you are, standing on Mars.

This does raise an interesting metaphysical question, namely, is the you on Mars the same being that used to be on Earth? According to Dr. Greene, since at the quantum level all particles are equal, and we have replicated the states of all those particles to be the same as they were here in Alabama, at the quantum level you are the same. If you're the same at that level, you're the same at the macro level. But we're a long way from having to deal with this issue since this is all horrifically complicated and well beyond our current capabilities. Just trying to take the trillions of measurements (not to mention disassembling your body into atoms) is a staggering concept, as is the idea of setting up two chambers containing millions upon millions of entangled particles.

But, unlike faster-than-light-drives, at least quantum teleportation is a fact, and it has ramifications for the future of computing. Quantum computing, which puts forth promise of incredibly fast and powerful computers, has a potential problem . Data is stored in quantum bits or qubits which, to be useful, have to be transported from the material in which they are held to other computers. A good way to do this is by sending the state information from one particle to another particle using a using a third particle. In other words, you have to use quantum teleportation to transport the state in one computer to another. The initial experiments, described above, used identical types of particles. Now, a team at USC has managed to use a photon to transport the state of one cesium atom to another, taking a major step forward in both quantum computing and teleportation.

Scotty may not be beaming us up any time soon, but computers may be beaming our data from one place to another in our lifetimes.

Reference:
The Fabric of the Cosmos, Brian Greene, Alfred Knopf, 2004

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Retirement Planning

Live every day as if it were your last and then some day you'll be right. ~H.H. "Breaker" Morant

Space.com has an interesting article on the ultimate fate of Cassini, the thusfar hugely successful probe circling Saturn and peeking through the clouds of Titan. The article brings up something we don't often think about: Sooner or later, our wonderful satellites that circle various planets and meander through the Solar System, these magnificent machines, wear out.

We're not talking about the ones that bought the farm due to human error or aliens shooting them down (those pesky Martians) but ones that complete their missions and just run down. Many that orbit the Earth just sink lower and lower until the atmospheric drag becomes too great, at which point they “nose in”, ending as flaming streaks in the sky. Occasionally, though, very large things come down, like Skylab and Mir, which require a more controlled approach. The usual intent is to drop them in the Pacific Ocean because, well, it's big and hard to miss.

Of course, Australians might point out that every time something large is brought down, pieces of it end up scattered across the Outback, but what's a few dead kangaroos amongst friends.

Some satellites were intended to come to a violent end. The Ranger series was designed to look for potential lunar landing sites. I vividly remember the pictures coming back as they descending rapidly to the Moon's surface before cratering. We had never seen the ground of a non-terrestrial place with such detail before. Even though the picture quality would be considered miserable today, it was great science then.

The Surveyors follow the Rangers, testing out landing methods that would ultimately be used by the LEMs. The Surveyors actually touched down softly on the Moon, where they sit to this day. The Apollo 12 mission, I think it was, landed near one and brought back a chunk from the satellite. This is the famous bit of jetsam that, when returned to Earth, was found to have bacteria on it that could be resuscitated, giving us the realization that microbes could conceivably hitch a ride inside a meteor and arrive on Earth.

Other probes were like that annoying little rabbit; they just keep going and going and going. Two of the Pioneer probes that sent back grainy pictures of Jupiter are chugging along at the edges of the Solar System. One of them was still transmitting weakly up to a couple of years ago. But the long distance record for both distance traveled and furtherest area code calling in belongs to Voyager 1 and 2. These puppies passed the Pioneers long ago, thanks to the gravity boosts received from the gas giants and are either headed for, are passing through, or are nearing the heliopause, depending on whose interpretation of data you believe. Thanks to their radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs), they still have a trickle of power to run instruments and transmit back to Captain Kirk's ancestors.

Deep Impact, which shot a probe into a comet, is still chugging around the inner Solar System, fully functional and waiting for someone to come up with something for it to do. Ditto Deep Space One, which is putting along with its ion engine, patiently hoping for an assignment (I think there was a plan for a cometary flyby, but it's been a long time since I've heard anything about).

Occasionally, we've deliberately brought at least part of a satellite back. Stardust successfully landed in the desert, bearing interplanetary dust and comet grains. Genesis, as we painfully recall, had a little miscue in its circuitry that caused it – how shall I put it – to come a' tumblin' down and smack into the desert floor. There is an ongoing effort to recover the samples solar particles it gathered, but while the Genesis team is still assembling broken pieces, the Stardust team has so much data, they're letting the general public look for potentially interesting impacts in the aerogel.

Then there's NEAR, a mission to take an up-close-and-personal look at asteroid Eros. Seems the team had a dirty little secret they had kept since the outset of the mission. After accomplishing the mission goals, they took a device with no landing gear that was never designed to touch down anywhere and gently deposited it on the surface of the asteroid, a magnificent achievement.

Galileo, a warrior of a satellite, met a fitting end. On a mission to Jupiter, it had a malfunctioning high gain antenna that forced engineers to develop new data compression schemes. Then, despite going through intense radiation around the largest planet, it's mission was extended twice, and it sent back amazing images and data, kept on a tape drive that should have been fried several times over. It was the little-satellite-that-could.

It got to go out like a star, directed to dive into Jupiter's clouds, where it would burn up, becoming more atoms in the dense Jovian atmosphere. Galileo went out like a trooper, sending data to the last.

There are thoughts about doing the same for Cassini when it gets old in the tooth come 2012 or thereabouts. The trouble is that Saturn is surrounded by those beautiful rings, and any attempt to send Cassini into Saturn's clouds would have it passing through a dense portion of those rings. Once it started getting bounced around by the chunks of rock and ice in the rings, it's anyone's guess where it would end up. I'd have to believe, though. that more than a few scientists would like to take a shot at this option because so much could be learned about the makeup of Saturn's trademark rings.

Another possibility is to crash land on one of Saturn's moons. But, the RTGs would still be functioning and generating heat (there's almost zero risk they would burst open and contaminate the surface), and the heat could melt the surface ice, possibly doing localized harm to any potential ecosystem. Now, a functioning ecosystem on, say, Enceladus may seem like a long shot, but one of the overriding concerns of space exploration has been to not louse up anyplace we visit. Yes, we've been litterbugs on Mars and the Moon, but maybe we'll get to those places and clean up one day. Every attempt has been made, though, not to introduce anything that would alter even the immediate environment of probes to these planets.

The most likely possibility is to simply leave Saturn altogether. Cassini could be sent toward interstellar space, following the Voyagers and Pioneers; depending on the state of its much more advanced instrumentation, it could send back some interesting data. Alternatively, it could be sent inward, maybe to follow Galileo into the Jovian mists, or, with a gravity assist from Jupiter, it could head inward and possibly crash on Mercury or into the Sun.

Personally, I'd like to see it sent outward. It's just barely possible Cassini could send back data on Kuiper Belt objects and someday investigate the heliopause. Galileo, if I may be allowed a little more anthropomorphism, got to have its warrior's funeral, a blaze of glory no doubt. Cassini stands to still have some functionality, being more of a veteran explorer looking for one more mountain to climb or river to cross.

It's a big universe. Having one more human mission heading out into it seems like a fine idea.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Spreading the News

Whenever science makes a discovery, the devil grabs it while the angels are debating the best way to use it. ~Alan Valentine

So, the other day I was discussing how the Viking landers may have found life on Mars after all. When I think about finding life on other planets, I think in terms of how exciting it would be. Apparently, there are other people who are concerned about the concept. In fact, not too long ago, an article appeared that held that a policy was needed by NASA to provide guidance on how best to inform the ignorant masses that life had been discovered on another world. The centerpiece of the article is the brouhaha that surrounded our old friend, ALH84001.

When scientists announced that they thought they had found signs of microbial presence in the Martian meteorite, they were all over the news. As I discussed in my earlier article, there came to be considerable debate about what they found, and ultimately, it was held to be inorganic. Yet, when additional claims for that meteorite showing signs of bacterial activity and, even more recently, similar tracks were found in another Martian meteorite, the media at large ignored it.

The biggest difference is that NASA made a big deal the first time, with a press conference (which was hastily moved up due to a leak) and lots of hoopla. The more recent findings have simply been released by the researchers, with no press briefing, no media glare, just a paper to a scientific audience.

Of course, none of the evidence, including the new view of the Viking data, is definitive. All of it is open to other interpretations. What we need is to bring back some chunks of Mars that haven't been baked coming through the atmosphere and examine them in a proper lab. There was such a mission on the books, but, thanks to NASA's shuffling of money to the shuttle (and to the commercial rocket kiddies), it's been shelved.

Should there be a change of heart (and head) in Washington, the mission could be back. Should life be discovered beyond a shadow of a doubt, NASA has concerns about disseminating that information. On one level, premature release of findings could prove embarrassing should it turn out, for example, that results were skewed by terrestrial contamination. On another level, there seems to be a fear of panic in the streets.

Perhaps there's some cause for their caution. Given the state of reportage today, the first thing out of the media's collective mouth would be “PLAGUE!” or something similar. Reporters would be quoting from “The Andromeda Strain” and the end of H.G. Wells “War of the Worlds”, to show how when a life form meets bacteria from another world, the bacteria win.

By the way, has it ever bothered anyone else that Wells' Martians died from Earth's bacteria but no hunans were felled by the Martians' bacteria?

Considering that Martian meteorites have been falling to Earth for countless millennia and that we've found that bacteria can survive extreme conditions like those in space, we should have all turned green and died by now. Proper precautions should be taken, most certainly, but it should be as much to protect any possible Martian life as much as to avoid plague and catastrophe.

Of course, the possibility exists that, somewhere out there, there are life forms considerably beyond the bacteria stage. According to a recent article, we should be careful about trying to contact them. Apparently, some folks feel that, in projects like SETI, we might be inviting the Vogon Constructor Fleet to show up and build a hyperspace bypass.

I suppose that's natural given our own human history. We haven't done all that well when discovering new civilizations. It seems like, after an all too brief honeymoon period, one side decides that the other has to conform to its idea of civilization. This usually ends up with one or both of them severely dead.

I've written about the odds (here and here) of actually contacting other civilizations, the upshot of which was that it's a long shot. Even if we do manage to receive a signal from way out there, as things stand now, the conversations will be extremely slow. Personally, I'm not worried that Ming the Merciless is going to be showing up any day soon.

UFO fans, it goes without saying, would argue that aliens have been showing up for years, but I'm trying to stick to reality here.

I can't help having the nagging feeling that what worries people is not that the Galactic Empire is going to show up with a fleet to enslave us. What they're worried about is humanity losing its exalted position at the center of the universe. Every religion makes humans the central creation of God (or the gods, depending on your persuasion); finding out that there are sentient beings on a rock circling 51 Peg or wherever is going to seriously rock some people's psyches.

It's hard to imagine how the general populace will react. In some theories, people will be panicked or distressed; in others, people, realizing we are just one aggregation of beings among many others. Perhaps, they would work to find ways to go meet those beings.

I really don't know how the majority of people will react. I do know that working out some convoluted means of distributing the news will only sow confusion and possible distress. Just tell us what you're finding, NASA and other searchers. Don't sugarcoat it, and don't overhype it. If you find bugs on Mars, show them to us. If ET calls, display the message.

Most of us are all grown up; we can handle it. The rest will just have to deal.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Everyone Talks About The Weather ...

There is only one nature - the division into science and engineering is a human imposition, not a natural one. Indeed, the division is a human failure; it reflects our limited capacity to comprehend the whole. ~ Bill Wulf

If you put two people who have never met together in a room, it is a near certainty that they will, at some point, begin to talk about the weather. It is amazing that the one thing that we all have in common is a thing that practically no one really understands.

The weather and the climate, which is, of course, weather over a long time period, have always been a prime concern of human beings. This makes sense because, in a very real sense, the climate affects our well-being, even our ability to exist. Despite the importance of the topic, it's very clear that we don't understand much about how the planetary weather machine works. If we needed proof (and we get some very regularly in the form of the daily weather guess by meteorologists), this year's dire hurricane predictions should have clinched the case. By now, we should have suffered up to 17 named Atlantic tropical storms according to the people put out statements on the subject. Well, even with the predilection the hurricane people have developed for naming every patch of clouds running around in the tropical latitudes it has been a blissfully quiet year.

Believe me, having had three hurricanes pass over my house in three years (and I live a hundred miles from the Gulf Coast), I am very glad that they were wrong. But, such failed predictions, coupled with what appears to be a global lack of understanding of global warming and cooling, is worrisome. It's fairly clear that no one has a clue about what is really going on in the atmosphere.

In fact, it seems that weather experts aren't even clear on what has gone on in the past. For example, the global warming people seem intent on blaming everything on human intervention. While global warming does seem to be occurring, laying the blame for it solely or primarily on controllable effects like industrial carbon dioxide emissions may be burying our collective heads in the sand.

To wit: It's been typical to make it sound as though current global warming is somehow something that is different from past climatic variations. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Temperatures during the age of the dinosaurs were higher. In fact, during the Earth's oxygenated history, polar caps have not been the norm. It further turns out that the idea that there were few climatic variations during so-called stable periods has, in fact, been an illusion.

Evidence has been found that surface ocean temperatures during one part of the Cretaceous varied by as much as 11 degrees F. If you're wondering, that's considered to be a lot of variation. As one scientist put it, “We're learning that our climate, throughout time, has been a wild beast.” Indeed.

I'm not trying to downplay global warming. If it is occurring, and it appears to be (right now), puny attempts to reduce industrial emissions may have little or no effect on it. There's a lot going on that can affect the climate, and we have barely scratched the surface when it comes to finding out what that is.

For example, the Earth sits at an angle of about 23 degrees relative to its orbit around the sun. This tilt in our axis is what gives us the seasons. But the Earth is like a gyroscope which precesses or wobbles around, changing the angle of that axis tilt. It turns out that some scientists think there's a correlation between that wobble and some species extinctions. Why? Because the precession causes climatic changes and major climatic changes can cause a serious species reshuffling. There's also a longer term wobble of the orbit itself that factors in.

Then there's the sun itself. Like any star, it varies in output. There's an 11-year cycle that is typically identified with sunspot activity, but the sun can also be more or less intense. These fluctuations are small, but they don't have to be very large. In fact, such a small variation is thought to have been a cause of the Little Ice Ages that have occurred in historic times.

Of course, when no one is quite sure why something happens, you can get some way-out-there ideas, the latest of which seems to be to invoke cosmic rays. I mentioned in a recent piece how these cosmic phantoms have always been a popular thing to invoke when a mysterious intervention was required. Sure enough, a group has gone so far as to claim cosmic rays could be a cause of global warming. They feel cosmic rays help cause clouds by releasing electrons from atoms which act as catalysts to form cloud-building compounds. It seems, though, that the sun's magnet field has increased over the 100 years, which reduces the number of cosmic rays reaching the Earth, cutting down on the clouds and increasing the amount of global warming.

As a digression, this hundred-year or so period coincides very nicely with the rise of industrial gases normally blamed by the more traditional global warming crowd.

At any rate, the fun-loving gang at CERN, who are willing to give most anything a try, are going to run an experiment to see if they can show the cloud-making capabilities of high energy particles like cosmic rays. In an experiment called CLOUD (tortuously derived from Cosmic Leaving Outdoor Droplets – yeesh), a high energy beam will be shot into a chamber of the purest air on the planet to see what the effects are. If this sounds very much like a juiced-up version of a Wilson cloud chamber science fair project, the principle is similar. Except with a whole lot more energy involved.

But all of this is getting away from the main point. If global warming is happening, there are going to be large effects on life on this planet. As we've seen based on last year's hurricane predictions, no one really knows what all of the effects might be, but I can suggest a few. For starters, ocean levels will rise, meaning that I am likely to have a lovely beachfront view if I last long enough. Secondly, areas that are some now prime crop growing areas will become deserts while the total land area is declining; a lot of people are going to be very hungry. You don't have to be a genius to see these things in the offing, yet no one seems to be taking any steps to deal with them.

It is well and proper to study the causes of weather and climate variation, but we should also be concerned with dealing with the impending effects. Better, if these studies help us predict climate change with something that resembles accuracy (as opposed to the by-guess-and-by-golly method used now), we'll know what preparations to take. But, as long as we think that reducing some emissions (not a bad thing in and of itself for our health and well being) is somehow going to change the course of climate change, we're probably fooling ourselves into not taking the actions we need to take to ensure our continued existence.