Sunday, October 26, 2008

Relativity Still Works - As If We Didn't Already Know That

There were two kinds of physicists in Berlin: on the one hand there was Einstein, and on the other all the rest. ~Rudolph Ladenburg

News Item: Einstein's Relativity Survives Neutrino Test.

This is news? Well, of course it is, to the legion of scientists-trying-to-make-a-name-for-themselves by "disproving" relativity. In fact, in this case, that's precisely what the scientists were trying to do -- disprove relativity.

Of course, I have made note on more than one occasion, like here and here, that Einstein's theories have stood the test of time. Even the cosmological constant that Einstein thought was his "greatest mistake" may yet turn out to have some sort of validity. While Newton's theories of motion and gravitation were considered sacrosanct for centuries, the time since 1905 to 1915, when Einstein published his landmark papers, has been spent by one scientist after another trying to show that somehow the frizzy-haired genius was off the mark.

Seems to be a bit of an absurd use of one's time.

It's not that people shouldn't be out there testing relativity or even the photoelectric effect whenever the opportunity arises. It's that all such experiments always seem to be an attempt, not to verify, but to disprove. Negative science is rarely successful in the long run.

Consider the reactions of these researchers who are the most recent to fall on their collective faces: "Einsteinian relativity lives to see another day."

"That doesn't mean we'll stop looking."

"It may be that the field's effects are so exceedingly small that you'd need extraordinary tools to detect it."

Or perhaps your theory is just plain wrong, Roscoe.

I'll admit it. I have an enduring admiration for Albert Einstein's genius. I've been reading Einstein, His Life and Universe, by Walter Isaacson, and am more convinced than ever that the man operated on an intellectual plane that has not been approached since, with the possible exception of Stephen Hawking's work. In fact, I recommend the book highly to anyone who wants to understand both how Einstein's mind worked and to understand the man himself.

A small digression: These days it also is popular to denigrate Dr. Hawking's work as well and to relegate him to a minor position among the "great" modern physicists. I'm beginning to see a pattern here.

Back to Einstein. Albert Einstein was not always a nice person. He was capable of philandering and being cold and distant in relationships. He was selfish, putting his work above everything, setting conditions in the way even his first and second wife fit into his life. He could also be generous and caring and actually tried to be a good father in his own way. In other words, Einstein the man was very human.

But, as a physicist, he was capable of looking at the world in ways no one had ever considered. His thought experiments are legendary, not only for the beauty and simplicity of the methodology but for their originality. It's not that no one ever thought about riding along on a beam of light before; surely someone must have considered the idea. What set Einstein apart was that he drew conclusions from that thought experiment, then provided the mathematics to back those conclusions.

Interestingly, Einstein was no experimentalist, but he always suggested ways to test his theories. And those tests have rung true time after time.

Was Einstein always right? Nope. His famous battles with Neils Bohr and the other quantum theorists are legendary. Quantum theory works; Einstein was wrong to fight it. But, his battles with Bohr forced the quantum theorists to fix their own theories, which, frankly needed a lot of fixing.

If one wishes to pick a quibble with Einstein, it might be in his single-minded pursuit of his Unified Theory, that would unify gravity and the quantum electrodynamic forces. He was so single-minded about it that he stopped following progress in physics. He was still working to overthrow the Copenhagen Model, whose work had already been refined and, in some cases, superseded.

Ultimately, Einstein was a prisoner of his own deterministic philosophy, which is ironic given that so many philosophers have taken Relativity as a jump-off point to a completely non-deterministic view of the world. In essence, one of Einstein's enduring lessons is the cost of continuing to charge down blind alleys -- like trying to disprove relativity.

I don't understand the desperate desire of modern physicists to make a name for themselves by trying to find a loophole in Einstein's work. Perhaps, I hit on it in the paragraph above concerning Stephen Hawking. It may be that modern theorists are math-bound theorists of mediocre talents who simply can make the kind of intellectual leaps that a Galileo, Newton, Einstein, or Hawking have made. The best they can do is to waste time and resources carping and nitpicking at what greater minds than theirs have wrought.

Strikes me that a change of focus might be in order.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Neanderthal: Smarter than We Thought?

I bet when neanderthal kids would make a snowman, someone would always end up saying, 'Don't forget the thick, heavy brows.' Then they would get all embarrassed because they remembered they had the big husky brows too, and they'd get mad and eat the snowman. ~ Jack Handy

The rehabilitation of the Neanderthals goes on and on.

I have nothing against the Neanderthal folks. They were around for 250,000 years, about 150,000 years longer than so-called "modern man" has been wandering the planet. In fact, while Homo Sapiens might go back 100,000 years, his impact doesn't show up until 50-60,000 years ago. So, basically, we haven't lasted as long as the people we've ridiculed as "cave men." (Insert Geico joke here.)

That being said, anthropologists may be drifting too far in the "Neanderthal genius" direction now.

A few months ago, British experts claimed to have found relatively sophisticated tools being used by Neanderthals in Britain. A more recent report says Homo Sapiens tools were no better than Neanderthal tools. Note that the second report doesn't say anything about the Neanderthal tools being the sophisticated narrow blades mentioned in the first article. Contradictions like that bother me.

How about this for a more reasonable explanation of both events: There was trade going on between Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals. Or, even more likely, either group got the other's tools when happening on an abandoned site or after killing off a bunch of the other side in a fight.

Now, I like Neanderthals. Any group of beings that could survive a quarter of a million years through the most significant ice ages since the snowball Earth were not a bunch of dummies. But, the flip side is that after 250,000 years, their technology (tools, hunting methods, manufacturing methods) had scarcely changed. Compare that to Homo Sapiens. In the last 50,000 years, modern humans have gone from living as hunter-gatherers to developing farming, writing, buildings, and modern technology.

Yet, Homo Sapiens was on the verge of extinction because of climate change in Africa while Neanderthal was booming in Europes ice fields. Somehow, modern man managed to hang on long enough to move out of Africa and co-mingle with Neanderthal. Not only that, Sapiens was coming up with one technological improvement after another. Spear throwers, pre-Clovis tools, art, and, perhaps most important, communication.

Sapiens had some sort of advantage, and communication just might have been it. It's generally held now that Neanderthal had the equipment to engage in speech, but no one knows if they did. What we do know, though, is that they didn't create cave drawings or leave any other evidence of communication behind.

All animals have certain things hard-wired into their brains. That's instinct, and modern humans have it just as much as the Neanderthals did. But, in the case of Neanderthal, the next step seems to have been missing. Early in their history, they made some intuitive leaps that gave them better tools than earlier humans, perhaps had better hunting techniques than their predecessors. But once they made that initial leap, that was it.

The same thing can be said of earlier human ancestors. Homo Erectus, for example, who was around for a million years, was still using the same primitive methods at the end of their time as they had near the beginning. It was as if each step up the evolutionary trail was triggered by some great idea, but then the existing humans couldn't get to the next step. Until Homo Sapiens.

We don't know if any of those earlier humans could speak, but we sure know that Homo Sapiens could, because we can.

Something sparked a change in the way humans think around 100,000 years ago. It could be a mutation that changed the wiring in our brains. Or it could be the ability to communicate ideas, which would stimulate different thinking centers in the brain. Sapiens clearly had an ability to think ahead and play "what--if" scenarios out that Neanderthal could not. That small group of Sapiens that were on the edge of extinction evidently began to plan and find ways out of their predicament in way that the earlier humans could not.

Sometimes I think we're losing that ability, but I don't feel like going there today.

At any rate, by the time Neanderthal and Sapiens began to cross paths, the more modern group was on the way up, taking over prime hunting grounds and growing in population. While there may have been some peaceful coexistence, at some point conflicts occurred. The Neanderthal population was shrinking, so they may have tried to fight back to get resources away from the Cro-Magnons. Or the Cro-Magnons just may have been like modern people and decided that taking what they wanted was easier than bargaining for it.

It's unlikely, based on current thinking, that the two groups merged into a single modern humanity. It's not that there wasn't any pre-historic hanky-panky going on, but, either the differences between the species were great enough that no children issued, or the resulatant children may have been sterile. Or there just may only have been a little hanky-panky.

So we're here and Neanderthal isn't. That doesn't mean they were stupid; it just means they were wired differently. If things had been different and Neanderthal had developed creativity like Homo Sapiens did, things would have been very different indeed, especially given 300,000 years of development.

Presumably, some Neanderthal anthropologist would be wondering about whether those tall, slender guys out of Africa ever would have amounted to anything if they hadn't been wiped out when the Sahara got paved.

Then again, maybe things wouldn't be so different.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Viruses in Spa-a-a-a-a-ce

I think computer viruses should count as life. I think it says something about human nature that the only form of life we have created so far is purely destructive. We've created life in our own image. ~ Stephen Hawking

There was general consternation the other day when it was announced that there was a computer virus on a laptop aboard the International Space Station. People were shocked--SHOCKED, I say--that such a thing should have occurred.

Lemme tell you a little story about the Federal Government and viruses.

Back in the mid-1990's, I was a contractor working for an Army Reserve unit. Viruses were already pretty big stuff, although many were ill-designed and did very little. Enough of them were nasty enough, though, that anti-virus software was considered to be a pretty standard piece of software to have on hand.

The Feds were a little late to realize this.

One virus in particular, Form, got the nickname "the Government virus" because you could readily find it on military and civilian government employee computers. We had put antivirus software into place on the servers which caught infections as they got onto the file system, but no one would spring to install the software on all systems.

One day, a group of non-comms and officers showed up for a promotions meeting, the purpose of which, I guess, was to discuss potential promotions (I'm a life long civilian; I don't know about this stuff). I got a panicky call, asking me to come to the meeting room with an antivirus floppy disk (programs were still small enough to fit on a floppy). The way they shared data was to pass floppy disks to one another to copy to each individual laptop. As it turned out, virtually every laptop was already infected with something; by passing the floppies around, most of the laptops now had four or five viruses.

It took a couple of hours for two of us to clean up seven laptops. Miraculously, no data was lost, although recovering some of it took a mixture of skill, luck, and magic.

So, I'm not at all surprised that a laptop on the ISS should have a virus. In fact, I suspect that infected laptops have been on more than one mission. It's just that this time, they detected it.

Of course, there's a big brouhaha over how such a thing might have happened. Well, here's two ways for you. One, the laptop was connected to the Internet, either at the station or on Earth prior to going to the ISS, and someone went a-browsing where they maybe shouldn't have been a-browsing. Two, someone carried a USB flash drive up with data or software, stuck it into the laptop and infected it.

The sad truth is that it is very easy to get infected.

Of course, NASA people were quick to point out that they have Norton Anti-Virus installed. They also pointed out that it was updated on August 22. Translation: It wasn't up to date. I'm not going to throw stones at Symantec, who is responsible for the Norton product, because there's no telling the last time anyone on the ISS actually updated their antivirus definitions. Typically, these are updated by antivirus vendors daily, sometimes several times a day. An antivirus product that hasn't been updated for a week isn't going to protect anything.

Once upon a time, NASA wouldn't have been worried about viruses because they ran Unix. There are attacks for Unix systems, but they're fewer of them, and the normally require action from the user to actually get installed. Unfortunately, NASA decided Microsoft Windows was the way to go, which opened them up to attacks from every quarter, including apparently legitmate web sites that have been compromised by malware artists. One of these days, if NASA doesn't get to providing adequate protection to their systems, a damaging worm is going to get loose on their computers.

Somehow the mental image of all those big displays at Mission Control displaying Blue Screens of Death is not a comforting thought.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Shuttle Fleet Lives On?

In order to put crew on the space station between the end of 2010 and … 2015, we will be buying rides from the Russians with their transportation system. Now that’s a concern on several levels. First of all, it’s money that we’re not spending on the U.S. aerospace establishment. Second of all, it means that the world’s space transportation system is down to one vehicle, and that vehicle could have an accident, has had accidents. Third, frankly … I find it unseemly for the United States to be dependent in a core strategic capability upon other nations, even if they are partners. It’s unseemly. ~ Michael Griffin, April, 2007

Well, it's taken a year, but NASA director Michael Griffin has evidently begun to take his own words seriously. The only question is what took him a year to realize that 2015 was five years after 2010. It would appear that some blue-sky types around NASA were thinking they could get Ares/Orion going by 2013 (which is still 3 years of hitiching rides with our partners). Not long ago, there was a quiet little announcement that things weren't going so well with Ares, along with some rather loud articles about NASA engineers who said, basically, that Ares stinks and that they had a better solution -- which NASA managers immediately shot down.

At any rate, in the quiet little announcement, it was admitted that there definitely wasn't going to be a shuttle replacement before 2015, a point we discussed some time ago. If we choose to be realistic, given the state of manned spaceflight these days, 2015 is probably a very optimistic estimate.

The problem here is the options are pretty limited. The shuttles for all their issues over the years, have proven to be pretty durable. But these vehicles are subject to the immense pressures of blast-off, the incredible heat and stress of re-entry, and the extremes of the environment of space. A shuttle can only take so much punishment. With only Atlantis, Discovery, and Endeavour left, the fleet is thin.

The obvious solution is to build a couple of more shuttles, which, of course, would break NASA's budget for the foreseeable future. It would also be an indictment of the entire Ares/Orion fiasco. Now, if our government could quit starting wars for a while and stop throwing trillions down that particular rat-hole, the money would actually be there. But, the shuttle is a dead end in that all it does is go up to orbit and come back. It can't go anywhere else, like, say, the moon.

An imaginative option would be to build a shuttle capable of interplanetary flight, but that would require a completely new engine technology. However, it would be incredibly exciting to imagine a shuttle going to the moon, launching a lander from the payload deck, retrieving it and coming home.

Another alternative is to turn the ISS into a way-station for building interplanetary rockets. If you don't have to escape Earth's gravity, an interplanetary ship becomes a different animal, capable, perhaps of using ion engines to get to Mars and deploying landers and supply missions. When a crew returns, they stop at the ISS, get picked up by a shuttle, and return to cheers all round.

There are many imaginative solutions out there, just waiting for someone to act on them.

Buzz Aldrin has a little ad on one of the science or history channels in which he says something to the effect that private enterprise could get us to Mars in 20 years. Now, I've had a beef with some of Mr. Aldrin's statements before, but this one is a doozy. Private enterprise has less imagination than Michael Griffin, and unless someone convinces Exxon that there's oil on Mars, no one has the resources or the will to send a commercial mission to the Moon, Mars, or any other place that doesn't involve a quicky up-and-down ride.

The only imagination private enterprise has shown is in coming up with novel interpretations of failure. Even Director Griffin isn't calling for them to come to the rescue of the ISS.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Falcon Flops and Phoenix Foibles

Research is what I'm doing when I don't know what I'm doing. ~ Wernher Von Braun

SpaceX must be doing lots of research, because they sure as heck don't know what they're doing.

When last I took note of this particular private-enterprise attempt at space flight (funded in large part with taxpayer bucks), Falcon 1 had just bought the farm after its second launch. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk promptly announced that the failure to reach orbit was a rousing success. In fact, showing cohones the size of bowling balls, he proceeded to call a rocket
operational that, on its only two launches, had blown up after going a kilometer and failed to reach orbit respectively (for reasons which were never determined, but I'd put a bet on it having something to with staging).

Well, even the ever-optimistic Mr. Musk is having trouble calling the most recent flop a success. It seems this time that, on stage separation, the first stage didn't shut down before the second stage ignited, thereby crashing into the second stage. Oopsie.

Of course, Mr. Musk isn't saying that they've got any problems, since he's saying that this little timing thingy is no problem. All they've got to do is adjust the timing a skosh, and everything will be just peachy. Mind you, this is the same person, who after the last flop said that SpaceX had "really retired almost all the risk associated with the rocket." And then there's the business of calling it operational.

Now let's consider how long multi-stage rockets have been in use. Normally, the only problems that can occur are a) stages don't separate or b) a stage doesn't fire. I won't say that a separated early stage has whacked into an upper stage, but I can't ever recall hearing of one. With the ability of this group to come up with new and imaginative ways to destroy a rocket, I can hardly wait for the next launch. Perhaps they'll mount it upside down on the launch pad.

If the big brother to this firecracker, Falcon 9 (what happened to 2 through 8?), is as much of a success, Russia is going to have to supply a veritable stream of Progress missions to keep the ISS supplied until NASA comes up with something to replace the shuttle. Since that won't happen before 2015, and the shuttles supposedly quit flying in 2010, the Russian space program is going to get wealthy on US taxpayer money.

Presumably the European space bus will also pick up some slack for supplies, but the Russians will still be busy ferrying astronauts to and fro using Soyuz, probably well past 2015, if the current progress on Ares is any indication.

Then there's Phoenix. Phoenix can, I guess, be considered a success, if you define success as "doing something that's been done before" and "finding out stuff we already knew". Phoenix has found water ice on Mars. Big whoop. Radar explorations, rover data, and just plain common sense reviews of photographs have determined that. Oh, and you can grow asparagus on Mars (if it was a lot warmer) thanks to the minerals in the soil, again something I think we already knew.

Then, recently, stories were floating around the Web about some sort of really big announcement to come out of the Phoenix team. In fact, they had supposedly been briefing the White House about the pending news. Now, there's been a lot of discussion over the years about what protocol would be followed if life was discovered on another planet. While no one seems exactly sure about what to do, one major element would be to talk to the President first thing. Why? I have no idea, because one of the main purposes of all the space flitting about is to find out if life could have existed anywhere else in the solar system.

So if we find it, the President has to decide if NASA can tell anyone? Oh, well, that's the protocol.

So anyway, the Web is abuzz. Unfortunately, the announcement that came is that perchlorates were found and that said perchlorates were entirely enimical to life. So, no life on Mars. Sorry, Martian Chronicles fans.

Except that within a week, scientists were jumping all over themselves to set the record straight. Actually, it seems that finding perchlorates didn't necessarily mean anything negative after all. In fact, you can find them on Earth in places where things live.

In fact, you can find them on rockets, which may mean that, even more embarrassingly, Phoenix may have found its own exhaust.

Ultimately, what made this whole brouhaha ridiculous is that Phoenix isn't designed to find life (unlike the Viking missions, which may or may not have found evidence). About the only way Phoenix can determine if life exists on Mars is if a Martian giraffe comes strolling through one of its photographs.

Phoenix got its mission extended, probably in the hopes that it will find something to justify its half-billion dollar cost. There won't be many more extensions because once the Martian summer ends, Phoenix will be in darkness most of the time. Since it was not designed to have a nuclear power source that could keep it functional under those circumstances, it will stop working.

Meanwhile the rovers Opportunity and Spirit continue wandering around the planet, providing more science data than Phoenix ever could, even if it did have a means to survive the darkness.

I've never figured out what Phoenix was supposed to be good for, other than to try to make up for the embarrassment of the Mars Polar Explorer (both were built by the same people). With the success of the rovers, it would seem that the next step should have been a super rover with more chemical testing capabilities. Yes, that would be expensive. But then there's a half-billion bucks worth of very minor science sitting on Mars that could have been put toward a new rover.

Not to mention all that money going down the SpaceX rat-hole.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Grumpy Old Astonaut

Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science fiction is the improbable made possible. ~ Rod Serling

Buzz Aldrin has always been a little outspoken. Of course, it doesn't hurt that his quotes are sometimes edited to make them more so (like his mention of a UFO in a recent TV series, which was cut to make it sound like he thought the Apollo 11 command module was being shadowed by little green men). But reading this article, it doesn't sound like anything has been altered. It just sounds like Buzz is off base.

Basically, the second man on the moon complains that the boredom most kids (and, though he doesn't say it, the rest of us) feel about the space program is due to science fiction movies "where they beam people around" making space look easy.

Maybe he's tired of being called "the second man on the moon" or maybe the ice cream was hurting his teeth, but to blame sci-fi for the general any ennui on the part of the younger generation is like blaming "The Natural" for steroid abuse in baseball.

Now I think pretty highly of science fiction. I've also heard more than one scientist and engineer say that he or she was inspired by some sci-fi story or another to pursue his or her field. I went to school with a lot of geeks in the 1960's who were found in works by Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, and others goals for which to strive. Sci-fi talked about things like teleportation and faster-than-light space flight. Why not try to find ways to achieve such things?

We all knew about Einstein, so the idea of whizzing between stars did not seem to be an easy thing to achieve, but that didn't stop anyone from dreaming. And no one looked at a movie or at a Star Trek episode and said, "Well, they make it look so easy, there's no way I should imagine doing that."

It's possible that some kids get lazy attitudes about how much real work it takes to get into space, as opposed to the whiz-bang propulsion methods of Star Trek or Star Wars. Assuming there are kids dumb enough to feel that way, we shouldn't be concerned because those are the kids who are going to grow into scientists and engineers.

If there's a problem, it's that it is very hard to get excited about space travel today, as I've written on numerous occasions. I have trouble imagining some kid getting all excited about piloting a garbage-return mission to a space station that isn't doing much of anything.

If there's a problem, it's that kids are hearing that the only way to get into space is to pay a few million bucks to hitch a ride to that boring space station or, worse, to take a suborbital ride to nowhere that's about as exiciting as some amusement park rides. If it weren't for the element of some cheap part or short-cut engineering killing the rider, the park rides would be more exciting altogether.

Kids aren't as dumb as people like to think. They can see the excitement of a Cassini mission or a New Horizons trip to Pluto. They can also see our approach to Mars exploration and question just what NASA is thinking, sending dead-end missions like Phoenix instead of sample-return missions or more exotic rovers.

(Yes, I know those projects are "on the drawing board", but they certainly aren't getting off the board and onto spaceships.)

They can hear pronouncements about going to Mars in 2020 and draw the obvious conclusion that it ain't going to happen since governments would rather spend money on war than on space. More important, they can see that there's no plan or goal with respect to Mars. I mean, go to Mars just to plant a flag? A rover can do that. It's 40 years since we went to the moon, and we still haven't followed up with any kind of colonization or utilization.

If kids are bored with the space program, we shouldn't blame sci-fi movies. We should blame the people in charge of the space program.

And their bosses.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The Flop of the Phoenix?

Well done is better than well said. ~ Benjamin Franklin

Some man-made probes have performed so incredibly well that it beggars belief.

Tied for number one on the all-star team are the Mars rovers, Opportunity and Spirit, still chugging along on the red planet years after they were supposed to be done. They continue to provide discoveries, and, barring NASA budget-cutting stupidity, could continue to explore Mars for some time to come.

Stardust, which went comet-sniffing, captured so many particles that scientists are still trying to find sort out data. A recent release showed that at least some comets have a makeup similar to that of asteroids. In a way, that news is confusing. Comet Wild 2, which Stardust sniffed, is supposed to have come from the Kuiper Belt or beyond, which means it should have been made up of pristine material from 4.6 billion years ago. Most of the material being found is newer, forcing scientists to do some rethinking about comet and/or asteroid makeup.

Even Genesis, which bought the farm on its return, is turning out to have some stories to tell. Despite having cratered in the desert, it turns out that the Genesis payload was at least partially recoverable, thanks to some incredible efforts by the team. Genesis is telling us something about the makeup of the sun, finding it to have more of some oxygen isotopes than Earth and meteorites.

Then there are the Voyagers, which are still sending data back to fascinated scientists. Both Voyager 1 and 2 have now reached the heliopause, and they're telling us that the heliopause is sort of squished, for reasons that aren't yet clear.

Even the Pioneer 10 and 11 probes, precursors to the Voyagers, which were launched in 1972 and 1973 have left us with the puzzle of why they aren't exactly where they're supposed to be. Of course, this anomaly sends some people down the old "Einstein's theories must be wrong" road, but I suspect they'll find, eventually, that, as usual, Einstein was right and that the Pioneers have revealed something else more interesting.

And then there's Phoenix.

I'll admit to being very excited when Phoenix landed, even though it seemed way too much was being made about a powered descent onto Mars. After all, we managed to land Viking 1 and 2 that way in 1976. Surely we should be able to duplicate something we did 32 years ago. How are we ever going to land explorers on Mars if we can manage a soft powered landing?

At any rate, it was exciting to see the first pictures back from Mars' polar region. I was struck, however, by the rather Rube Goldberg method of relaying information. Phoenix uploads its data to either Mars Odyssey or Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which relays the data to Earth. The orbiters also relay instructions to the lander. What this means is that doing anything takes a couple of days. The situation has been further complicated by the fact that both orbiters have had their relay systems go into safe mode at least once since Phoenix started trying to phone home.

I'm presuming that this arcane method of communicating is being done because of Phoenix's position near the polar region, which must put Earth below the horizon. At least, I hope that's why, because no other reason makes sense, when we've had five other probes on the planet that were able to directly communicate to Earth-based handlers.

They almost couldn't unencumber the digging arm, which would have been a disaster as it would have rendered Phoenix useless.

Then there was the clumping problem. It seemed that scientists weren't planning on Mars dirt clumping up, despite every indication that, if there was water immediately under the surface dirt anywhere, it would be at the poles. Thanks to the clumping, it took several days to get any dirt delivered to the little oven to burn some for analysis.

Now it turns out that the lander may only be able to bake one more sample, thanks to a short circuit.

I doubt we'll be seeing two years of extended missions for this lemon.

Frankly, the entire design concept for Phoenix seems wonky. To begin with, we got a lot of experience from Viking on digging and testing Martian dirt. We've also been seeing for some time now that Martian dirt clumps, thanks to the Rovers. Third, we know there has been water on Mars and have detected subsurface water on the planet thanks to ground-penetrating radar.

It would have made much more sense to dedicate resources to making a super rover that would be designed to cover large distances for a long period. Instead of concentrating on grinding rocks like the current Rovers, this one could have carried testing equipment for bacterial life. We've learned a lot about testing for extremophiles that would allow design of more sophisticated tests than were carried by the Vikings.

So Phoenix scraped some dirt and found something that looks like ice. A roving probe could have done that and looked for it in more places.

Phoenix was originially designed years ago and effectively cancelled. It was resurrected for reasons that aren't really clear, probably because there were no realistic plans for new probes that were anywhere near ready to go. Whatever the reason, Phoenix represents a lot of money and time being spent to accomplish very limited goals, goals that were being accomplished very well, thank you, by other devices.

I wish the Phoenix team well and hope that they get some meaningful return for their efforts. In fact, I hope they get any kind of return.

Maybe a Martian abominable snowman will come wandering by the camera.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Whaddya Know? Einstein's Right -- Again

We all agree that your theory is crazy, but is it crazy enough? ~ Niels Bohr

You've probably never heard of PSR J0737-3039A/B, but that's okay; it's never heard of you either. It turns out that
PSR J0737-3039A/B is a catalog number for the only known binary pulsars. It's a significant pair in that it has been used to confirm -- once again -- Einstein's theory of General Relativity.

Yes, yet again, old Albert has been shown to have been right.

In this particular instance, the prediction being tested was that an object in orbit around another would develop a wobble known as precession. Earth has such a wobble, a precession that causes the North Pole to point at a different star every 25,000 years or so. In a planetary system, what with collisions and all, precessions can come from a variety of sources, but in a pulsar pair, it's going to be caused by one thing: Gravity.

Using sophisticated techniques, astronomers confirmed that one member of the pulsar pair has just the precession predicted by Einstein. We should be used to this by now.

Trying to prove Einstein's General and Special theories of relativity to be wrong seems to have become a cottage industry in modern physics. I'm not sure why, but it probably has something to do with winning Nobel Prizes. People seldom win Nobels for confirming existing work. Disproving Einstein would be original work indeed, if anyone could do it. But, it has proved difficult.

Time dilation, physical compression in the direction of travel, frame drag, the warpage of space: The list goes on and on of things which have been observed directly. In fact, the same pulsar pair was used by the Jodrell Bank Observatory to verify gravitational redshift, Shapiro delay (an effect caused by the gravitational warpage of space and time; no, I don't know who Shapiro is), and gravitational radiation and decay.

Not too long ago, some yahoo had a program on the Science Channel, proposing once again the conundrum of the changing speed of light, a theory proposed about 10 or 11 years ago, which gets ressurected every few years. Basically, the program consisted of the guy doing his autobiography (explaining how brilliant he was), providing an overview of current cosmological thinking (done reasonably well), and then throwing out the old "variable speed of light" canard as new and original, implying that E=mc2 might have to be changed.

Which, even if the speed of light did change, would hardly be necessary.

It's all string theory's fault, you know.

Many physicists have invested time and grant money in this apparent dead-end, claiming that it will provide the long sought-after Grand Unified Theorem, while getting nothing from it. It's the flavor of the decade, and it's got little or nothing to show for all the time and effort spent on it. It's been so bad that a cottage industry in creating even goofier theories has sprung up. By the way, the linked article is the one where I first mentioned the Jodrell Bank data.

Now I'm not saying that scientists should quit trying to come up with new theories or that they should accept everything Einstein or Newton or any other great theorist ever said without question. But, when something doesn't work, it's time to move on.

The string is broken already. Find something new to work on.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Coming of the Plutoids

Let no one expect anything of certainty from astronomy, lest if anyone take as true that which has been constructed for another use, he go away...bigger fool than when he came to it. ~ Copernicus

Those wild and crazy cats at the International Astronomical Union
(IAU) are at it again. As if they hadn't caused enough consternation with their decision to demote Pluto to a "dwarf planet", now they've testing the waters about a possible new classification of objects: Plutoids.

A "plutoid", it seems, is a "bright dwarf planet" that spends most of its time out past Neptune. This "classification" currently covers two objects, Pluto and Eris. Eris, of course, was the object that started all this fuss in the first place (you may have heard it referred to as Xena; fotunately cooler heads prevailed). It's a somewhat torturous definition, given the business about spending most of its time beyond Neptune. This caveat was needed because Pluto periodically cuts across Neptune's orbit, which used to make it the eighth planet from the sun -- when Pluto was a planet.

Frankly, "plutoid" sounds like an alien from a 1950's B sci-fi flick, as in "Attack of the Plutoids!"

It's interesting to note that this is not an official declaration by the IAU, because those only come out after their regular meetings, the next of which won't be until 2009. Evidently, they're tossing a crumb out to see if all the people they ticked off by demoting Pluto will gobble it up. It doesn't appear to be working so far.

What irritates most scientists, I think, is what bothered me about the whole planet-not-a-planet brouhaha: The inability of scientists to come up with a definition in the first place. Even the new plutoid designation will run into trouble if New Horizons arrives at Pluto and finds it to have a significant amont of dust on its surface. There would be a delightful irony in the namesake of plutoids turned out not to be one.

Then there's another fascinating issue I hadn't even considered. Even after the discovery of Pluto, many astronomers thought there still had to be another large planet out there to explain some of the orbital anomalies of Neptune. In recent years, it's been thought that the tenth planet (remember, Pluto was number nine back then) wasn't necessary, because the anomalies might be due to collisions with other objects from the Kuiper Belt.

Now, though, a computer simulation has been run that posits the putative large planet. The simulation attempts to tackle the weird orbits of some Kuiper Belt objects and does it by putting an object a lot bigger than Pluto out there in the realm of the icy dwarfs (or whatever the IAU is calling them this week). Computer simulations should always be viewed with some caution, because they depend heavily on the assumptions used in creating them. But, the idea of another giant planet past Neptune has been around for a long time, and real orbital data from objects like Sedna were used, so we can at least consider the result possible in real terms.

The trouble is that this thing, which anyone would consider a planet, will be a plutoid because it's out past Neptune and shiny. I'm assuming that it will be shiny, because it will most definitely be frozen, but, it could conceivably be covered in dark dust.

I'm sure astronomers hope that it's icy, because, if it exists, a dark planet out in the Kuiper Belt region will be devilishly hard to find. Even an icy object will be difficult. Of course, it could be neither dusty nor icy if the object has internal heating like some of the gas giants have.

I'm rooting for a large object to be found out there, especially a gaseous one, because it might force the IAU and the Pluto-is-a-planet fan club to actually decide what a planet is, once and for all. What would really be a monkey-wrench in the equation is if the object turned out to be something akin to a brown dwarf.

That's unlikely, of course, because something of that mass most likely would have been discovered by now. But, think of the arguments that could start. It would have to be bigger than Jupiter but small enough to have eluded discovery, so it would be a dwarf brown dwarf in or around the Kuper Belt. So it wouldn't be a planet either. Maybe they could all it a trans-Neptunian non-plutoidic ... thingy.

Hey, that's as good as calling it a plutoid.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Ever More Lost In Space

Fair is foul, and foul is fair. ~ William Shakespeare, Macbeth

A little more than a year ago, I wrote about the failed launch of the SpaceX joke Falcon I. Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and a one heckuva comedian, proceeded to lable the launch as a success because this one got off the ground. Not into orbit, mind you, as it was supposed to , but into the air, which was a considerable improvement over the first attempt which bought the farm about a kilometer from the launch site. That launch failed because of an error a second-year engineering student wouldn't make - corrosion between dissimilar metals.

The "successful" flight turned into a pinwheel for reasons which were never accurately determined as far as I know. Despite that lack of cause (or perhaps because of it), Mr. Musk proudly declared that his 0-for-two missile was now operational. Evidently, the hacks pretending to manage NASA these days decided that, if it was good enough for Elon, it was good enough for them, because they have awarded SpaceX an indefinite contract for launch services.

Dave Barry couldn't make this stuff up.

Let's see ... the Shuttle is going out of service in 2010, and its replacement is nowhere in sight. Oh, NASA says it will be ready to go in 2015, but given the history of the gestation of spacefaring projects, 2020 might be a more reasonable target. To fill the gap, I guess, the sturdy old Soyuz will be used to ferry astronauts back and forth between planet Earth and the tinkertoy that is the ISS. That is, the Soyuz will be used until one of them pancakes the next time it comes down in a ballistic trajectory for reasons unknown.

At that point, presumably, the occupants of the ISS will be looking to hitch-hike a ride from the nearest passing UFO.

And now NASA is handing out launch contracts to companies that don't even have a working launch vehicle.

What manner of vision is this?

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Big Bangs

I have had my results for a long time: but I do not yet know how I am to arrive at them. ~Karl Friedrich Gauss

Wired recently interviewed Neil Turok about his theories concerning the start of the universe. I suspect the interview is poorly edited, since the questions and answers are somewhat disjointed, but the point that comes across is that Mr. Turok thinks that the creation of our universe is just one creation event among many that have and will occur. His mechanism of choice for creation events is the collision of branes.

Frankly, this isn't really news. I don't know if Mr. Turok was the first to suggest it, but the theory has been around for a long time; I even discussed it a couple of years ago. "Branes" or m-branes or p-branes, whichever you prefer are an offshoot of string theory, the tangled theory of everything that doesn't actually predict much of anything.

The reason that string theory maintains its hold, I think, is that the conventional Big Bang theorists have their own dirty little secret: The singularity. Everyone agrees that the universe is expanding (at what rate is open to question). Since it's now expanding, it's logical to assume that, if you could run the cosmic clock backwards, you could arrive at some sort of starting conditions that would, basically, be the moment of creation. The problem is that you can run that clock back to some ridiculously small amount of time immediately after the initial event (the Big Bang itself), but you can't get back to the initial condition because at this point the laws of physics break down. They break down because the collapsing of the universe into its starting point arrives at a singularity, which, mathematically speaking, is a point where all the equations blow up.

Physicists do not like singularities.

It is because of this dislike that string theory has found as many adherents as it has, because it has various ways around the singularity. One of these is brane theory. Basically, a universe is a brane (or membrane, if you prefer) flopping around in one of those eleven dimensions that string theory demands. Branes allow theorists to play funny with a lot of things, like assuming that gravity is weak in our brane because it comes across as "leakage" from a neighboring brane where gravity is strong as all get out.

It also allows for a creation event to be caused by the branes. Imagine, for a moment, a brane to be a sort of sheet flapping in the breeze. Now imagine two of these sheets with their broad sides parallel to one another flapping in the breeze. If they're close enough together, they will occasionally touch. Now if we accept the notion that there are many universes or branes undulating about in some extra dimension that our three-dimensional senses can't detect, it is possible, even likely, that they might occasionally touch in this manner. The touches are the points where Big Bang events occur. The new universe (brane) simply begins expanding "between" the two that touched and beings in the initial universes are none the wiser that some monumental event has occurred.

Now, people who are not disposed to like string theory, like Alan Guth, don't care for this theory. Also, the Catholic Church isn't crazy about it either, because it takes away the unique creation event that can be associated with God reaching out and saying, "Let there be light!" Why the Church should be upset is beyond me, because if God starts the universe, He has to be somewhere at the time. Why not be in a another brane?

Personally, I'm more interested in what the scientists think than the Catholic Church when it comes to the realm of physical knowledge and theory.

Mr. Turok even offers a means of testing his theory, in a negative sort of way. If Guth's Inflation theory is correct, he says, we should detect gravity waves from the event. Very cute, because, of course, we haven't detected any gravity waves. However, lots of events should create gravity waves, like the formation of a black hole or collisions between black holes, among other things, and we haven't detected any gravity waves from them either. The problem is that gravity waves would have a very long periodicity and would be very weak. They're bloody hard to detect, and in fact no one has yet.

However, no one has detected evidence of all those extra dimensions that string theory needs yet either, and I don't see Mr. Turok pointing out how that would seem to disprove the theory that forms the basis for the existence of branes.

There's also the pernicious question of where all this started. There must have been a first brane at some point, one would think. No, says Mr. Turok, because time runs forward, then backward, then kind of mills around and then runs forward again. If you though Stephen Hawking's concept of imaginary time was sort of out there, this one should set your head to spinning. Even Mr. Turok isn't exactly betting the farm on it, saying he's more interested in our creation event (and its singularity) and let future physicists try to deal with others.

I found especially disturbing was his response to the question that, irrespective of what he finds, it isn't going to "have much everyday importance." Mr. Turok agrees with this: "
No, but one of the extraordinary things about the field is that whatever culture people come from, they all love this stuff." I beg to differ. Should Mr. Turok or some other physicists determine beyond a shadow of a doubt how we came to be, it would have a huge impact on how people view their own lives. Furthermore, understanding the mechanism of creation would have a huge potential to lead to new methods of generating energy, which in turn could change the very economic structure of our world.

And that's just one potential consequence of finding out what happened at the singularity. Mr. Turok is downplaying what would conceivably be the most incredible discovery in the history of mankind. Why? Probably because all he has right now is a shaky theoretical construct based on a shaky theoretical foundation (string theory).

Something incredible happened 15 billion years ago. Even if it was one event in an infinite series of creations that have happened and will happen, We can look back to within an infinitesimal fraction of a second of the event, but there we are denied access. Gaining that access, should we ever do so, will change mankind forever.

That ain't small potatoes, Neil.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

The Dark Stuff Conundrum Goes On

For every fact there is an infinity of hypotheses. ~Robert M. Pirsig

Another day, another rationalization for why we can't find dark energy.
If it seems that I talk a lot about dark energy and dark matter, it's because I do. As soon as scientists stop issuing their theories du jour about the stuff, I'll stop. Today's stab in the dark is brought to us by Dr. HongSheng Zhao of the University of St. Andrews. If you recall, a big chunk of our universe appears to be missing, around 96% of it according to the article (it used to be 75%, but we've apparently lost even more lately). Physicists, cosmologists, and assorted other scientists have decided that this means there is something out there we can't see, taste, smell, or otherwise detect. They started out calling this "dark matter".

Along the way, the theorists decided that dark matter didn't account for everything that was missing, so they decided there was something called "dark energy" out there, too. It is even more mysterious than dark matter. Dark matter has been indirectly detected by examining the motion of stars around distant galaxies. Dark energy, on the other hand, hasn't been detected at all. In fact, it's only inferred effects have been found to not be working exactly as they ought.

Well, says Dr. Zhao, your problem is that dark energy and dark matter are actually the same thing. Now, the perceptive reader might well say, "Well, duh. Einstein demonstrated energy-mass equivalence a century ago, as in E=mc2. Nothing to see here, move along." Well, that does not appear to be what Dr. Zhao means. He means that, in fact, they are manifestations of the same thing, like, say, water and ice. He calls it "dark fluid." Furthermore, says the doctor, dark energy has already shown itself by masquerading as dark matter. Because, after all, they are equivalent.

Yes, that sounds like a rather circular argument to me, too.

The problem is that we need are this dark whatever-it-is because of what is perceived as the expansion rate of the universe, a rate determined by examining the distances to distant objects and the speed at which they appear to be receding. Unfortunately, the apparent speed is dependent on the apparent distance, which is dependent on a lot of assumptions about how we can tell how far away something is.

And those assumptions have changed enormously over time.

So scientists are searching for something that could conceivably not be nearly as abundant as they currently think it is, should the reigning "standard candle" (the type I-A supernova) turn out not to be such a standard after all.

And then there's this. According to what passes for the standard model of the universe these days, all galaxies are surrounded by dark matter. As noted above, this has been determined by studying the motions of stars in galaxies and finding out that stars well out from the galactic nucleus are going faster than they should. In fact, the only thing that would keep such fast-moving stars in the galaxy would be some unseen amount of mass in a halo around the galaxy.

Unfortunately, there's a galaxy with the prosaic name NGC 4736. This stars in this galaxy behave exactly as one would expect if there were no such thing as a halo of dark matter. So what, you say? What's one exceptional galaxy in a universe full of them? That's the problem. The universe is full of galaxies; we've looked at an incomprehensibly small number of them. Yet we've managed to find one that violates the idea that galaxies must be surrounded by dark matter.

The standard model (this week) considers dark matter as an essential construct in galactic formation. It is not good to find a perfectly normal galaxy out there that doesn't have any. Of course, many scientists aren't buying in to this announcement, primarily because they have too much invested in the dark matter-energy model (it's still a little early for the fluid part to be included).

What remains to be seen, of course, is whether any other galaxies will be found that appear to have no dark matter. If some are found, the naysayers will have to start coming up with theories to explain where the dark stuff went. It may even lend credence to the dark fluid interpretation.

They'll be able to say it floated away.