# Organic Molecules Found on Ceres

[Header image courtesy of NASA]

A team of planetary scientists, led by Maria Cristina De Sanctis, an astrophysicist at the Italian National Institute of Astrophysics in Rome, just announced they have discovered organic molecules on the dwarf planet Ceres. Ceres is the largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The scientific team used data from NASA’s Dawn space probe, which currently orbits Ceres.

By using a visible and infrared light spectrometer, the team was able to examine the light reflected off of Ceres. Because certain molecules absorb certain frequencies of light, the probe can pick up the frequencies that are missing.

Near the Ernutet crater, the probe discovered molecules that have methyl and methylene groups-chemical chunks of carbon and hydrogen atoms. DeSanctis and her colleagues are fairly confident that the molecules formed on Ceres, and didn’t come from a passing asteroid because the heat of impact would have destroyed them.

Why is this significant? Organic molecules are necessary for the formation of life and understanding their distribution across the galaxy could be instrumental in understanding the origins of life on Earth. The findings on Ceres are the most concrete evidence for organic compounds existing on any solar system body other than Earth.

# Getting Time Loopy: The Groundhog Day Effect

[Featured image by freeimageslive.co.uk – fmant0]

There’s an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “Cause and Effect” (episode 518). In it, while exploring an uncharted area of space, the Enterprise and its crew came upon a “temporal flux distortion” out of which came the USS Bozeman. It struck one of the Enterprise‘s warp engines causing a repeating time loop in which Bill Murray woke up in Punxsutawney, reliving the same February 2nd over and over.

Or something like that.

In celebration of the day that we worship a fortune-telling rodent that consistently predicts the weather incorrectly, we’ll take a look at the scientific phenomenon featured in the film most associated with the day, the appropriately named Groundhog Day. But in doing so, we also need to look at another aspect to the same temporal loop phenomenon depicted in that film. Whereas Groundhog Day is about a person living a fairly linear life in a universe caught in a time loop, we should also look at a local time loop while the universe continues a linear existence. That occurs in the aforementioned “Cause and Effect”.

Enter The Wormhole

First of all, we need to look at what would create the physical property of a time loop. The best (and possibly only) candidate would be the wormhole.

Wormholes are common staples in science-fiction. One could even call it a bit of a trope. But are the depictions even accurate? The simple answer is that nobody knows. In fact, wormholes themselves are, at this point, only theoretical and possibly just a mathematical curiosity. However, scientists generally believe that the figures must be accurate and they must be real.

Wormholes are, in theory, shortcut passageways between two points in time and/or space. Based on the curved space-time of relativity, they are tunnels at the shortest distance between points on a curve. Imagine having to get to the other side of a mountain. The only two ways to get to the other side are to go over or around it. Oh, wait. Someone kindly cut a hole through the center complete with paved road. How nice. That’s essentially what a wormhole is like in curved space-time.

However, they’re very small. I mean really small. I don’t think you quite grasp the level of attoscopic diminutiveness that describes wormholes. They’re tiny, is what I’m trying to say. They exist on a quantum scale. And they don’t typically last very long. The theory is that if enough energy is exerted on a wormhole, it can be enlarged and held for a longer period of time, such as long enough for a ship or person to travel through.

And what would one look like? Although most movies and television shows depict wormholes as sparkly vortexes, the truth is that no one has the slightest clue. Perhaps they don’t even all look the same. Some might look like black holes. Some might look like something from a video game portal gun.

They could also be invisible!

That’s The Spirit!

Then there is the issue of memory. How can we explain the fact that the meteorologist named Phil Connors (played by Murray) could relive the day over and over remembering what happened before without ever aging? How can the Enterprise crew experience déjà vu? If there was a full time reset, wouldn’t their memories also reset? And if not, shouldn’t they be aging each time? This is the point where we have to step slightly aside from hard science and start guessing.

Although I and most others, including scientists in all fields, believe in the existence of a non-corporeal self, called a spirit or soul, others don’t, including scientists in all fields. The reason for that is that there is not enough hard scientific proof that it exists.

But we need for people to go back in time with a reset body, including synapses in the brain needed for memory, and still remember what is going on. For that, we have to simply assume the non-corporeal self exists, and that is what gets sucked into a wormhole and dropped into the past. (Though admittedly, it doesn’t really explain an android like Lt. Commander Data. So we’ll just take some artistic liberty on this.)

Breaking The Loop

Now it’s time to figure out how to break the time loop.

For the Enterprise, the solution is easy. Data sends a message back to his earlier self that said the course of action being ordered won’t work. So he opts to carry out the other option and saves everyone. There is no explosion, and the energy needed to open up that wormhole is never exerted. (Apparently doing BOTH courses of action for greater effect was somehow unreasonable to them. But let’s not split hairs.)

The strange case of Phil Connors is a different story altogether. There seems to already be an invisible wormhole there connecting one point in time with another in the past. It was apparently placed there by the Universe in some form. (Some might say it was chance. Some might say that it was God. But the credits indicate that it was Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis.)

The only real solution in this case is to cause the events in the time line to deviate enough to avoid the wormhole. But no matter what changed in the events throughout the story, it just kept resetting. Then after about forty years (according to one interview with the late Mr. Ramis), he finally managed to change events in such a way as to dodge the wormhole and keep his spiritual essence from being ripped out of him and shot back into the past.

Yes, it took Mr. Connors forty years to get over himself.

So there you have it, the Groundhog Day Effect. You can now rest knowing that the phenomenon has an explanation.

By the way, this is the 2,437th time you’ve read this article.

Sweet dreams.

# Shock People On National Static Electricty Day With This Knowledge

How many times have you shuffled your feet across the carpet, went to an unsuspecting friend and shocked them? Or pulled a sweater over your head just to have your hair make you look like a walking plasma ball? These fun experiences are caused by static electricity. In honor of National Static Electricity Day (January 9), let’s learn a few fun facts.

But first a mini science lesson.

What is static electricity?

Static electricity is an imbalance of electric charges in or on the surface of a material. By rubbing the materials together, you can transfer electrons, or negative charges, from one to another.

Electrons?

Everything is made of atoms. So far scientists know of 118 different kinds, which they call “elements.” There are 94 elements that exist naturally, the remaining 24, synthesized. The core of an atom is a nucleus made of protons and neutrons (except for hydrogen, which has only a proton). Orbiting the nucleus are electrons. Each of these particles have their own properties or characteristics. One of these properties is called an electrical charge. Protons are a positive charge, electrons are a negative charge, and neutrons have no charge.

Now imagine these particles are like magnets. When a positive and a negative end of two different magnets are near, they will pull together and connect. When two positive or negative ends are near, they push away from each other.

How is this related to static electricity?

So, if two items are rubbed together, then the electrons that are spinning around the nucleus of the atom can be transferred. These particles will continue to build up until the surplus is released, which causes the shock to your unsuspecting friend. However, during that build up, all the same negatively charged electrons will push away from each other, which is why the we end up like a puff ball when putting on winter clothing. Static electricity is more common during the winter due to the lack of moisture in the air.

So now that we have a basic foundation of static electricity, here some facts to impress your friends on trivia night:

• It’s called static electricity because the charges remain in one area until released rather than moving or “flowing”.
• While a spark of static electricity can measure thousands of volts, it has very little current and lasts for a short period of time. This means it has little power or energy.
• In 1752, Benjamin Franklin developed a theory that lightning in the sky was the same as static electricity that was generated by rubbing a glass rod with cloth, which was correct. Lightning is electricity, just like static electricity. In fact, lightning is static electricity, a result of two clouds rubbing together. An electrical charge leaves the cloud and connects to another cloud or the ground because of the unbalanced charges.

• Temperatures of a lightning bolt can hit 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit or 27,760 degrees Celsius.
•  70% of people struck by lightning survive.
• Static electricity travels at light speed (186,282 miles per second or 299,792,458 meters per second)
• Static electricity is different than the electricity from a chemical battery.
• Static electricity is used in printers and photocopiers. The charges attract the ink or toner to the paper.

• Static electricity can damage some electronics, like electronic chips. They are stored in special bags and people who work with these kinds of electronics will wear special straps that keep them “grounded” so they do not build up a charge and ruin the electronic components.
• Static electricity is used in air freshener.  Air ionizers strip electrons from dust particles and pollen. They are then attracted to and attach a plate in the machine that Is of the opposite charge, cleaning the air.

So now that your knowledge on static electricity is a bit more complete, go forth on this January 9 have some fun!

# Jet Propulsion Laboratory Celebrates 80 Years with Free 2017 Calendar

{All photos courtesy NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Flickr account}

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is a vital part of our space program. They are celebrating their 80th anniversary, and they want you to celebrate their history with them.

On October 31, 1936, the first rockets were tested by seven men, mostly grad students out of Caltech, who would go on to found JPL.

Sponsored by the U.S. Army and officially named in 1944 (almost 14 years prior to NASA’s founding in July 1958), JPL was initially founded to develop rocket technology and missile systems in response to German V-2 rockets.

The connection between the space race and the Cold War is well documented, and JPL’s first years are heavily steeped in that connection, and included building Explorer 1 in response to Sputnik. NASA’s forming caused JPL to be transferred to this new agency, and the organization switched to focusing more on the payloads of the rockets, placing the lab at the center of the space race.

Unlike other government agencies, JPL is structured as a federally funded research agency, and so is staffed by Caltech employees rather than government employees.

As part of their 80th anniversary, JPL has released a free 2017 calendar you can download, filled with photos from both JPL and NASA, and including anniversaries and events. They also have an interactive timeline of JPL’s biggest moments. You can access both of these, as well as more history of JPL, over on the JPL website. JPL has regular open houses, and I hope to attend one myself one day now that I’m in Los Angeles.

https://youtu.be/bYGiEg-nkIA?list=PLTiv_XWHnOZr1hhI3LTwma-ChrntY5iOF

You can see more of Angie’s work (and her social media connections) over at her website.

# Dr. Vera Rubin, Pioneer Female Astrophysicist, Dead at 88

Groundbreaking female astrophysicist Dr. Vera Rubin passed away on Christmas Day at the age of 88.

During her work in the 1960’s, she and fellow astronomer Kent Ford were studying spiral galaxies when it was discovered that the stars on the outside of the galaxy were moving as fast as the ones in the middle. Remembering Swiss astrophysicist Fritz Zicky’s observations in the 1930’s and building on it, Rubin found the explanation on why the galaxy was working against the Newtonian gravitational theory: Dark Matter.

According to calculations, they were moving so fast, they should have been flying off into space, yet it appeared to be glued together. The edges contained enough mass, and therefore, gravity to keep the stars in place. Or another way to explain it, it’s like a ghost in a horror film: it is not visible but it messes with the things that can be seen.

Rubin’s career was also more than just about her discovery of the invisible dark energy and matter that makes up 27% of the universe. She also made it easier for today’s women to explore a career in the sciences.

Born July 23, 1928, Vera Rubin fell in love with astronomy as a kid, watching the stars from her bedroom window, following invisible precise paths across the sky. She decided to become an astronomer, not realizing that most to all of them were male. Rubin remembered when she told her high school physics teacher she had been awarded a scholarship to the women’s college Vassar in Poughkeepsie, NY. His response was “As long as you stay away from science, you should do okay.”

Ignoring him, she was the only astronomy major to graduate from Vassar in 1948. Rubin received her masters at Cornell after Princeton’s astronomy program rejected her due to their policy on women, which did not change till 1975. She presented before the Astronomical Society by the age of 22 and started her Ph.D. program at Georgetown by 23, with a young child and another on the way.

The turning point in her professional career came after she and her husband spent a year collaborating with fellow husband and wife team, Margaret and Geoffrey Burbidge, at UCSD, who encouraged Rubin, giving her a new sense of professional eagerness. She returned to Maryland, walked into the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism and demanded a job, which she got.

In 1965, she became the first woman to legally be permitted to use the Palomar Observatory at Caltech. A fellow college remembers when she was informed she had no restrooms available to her since women were not permitted to work there, Rubin cut a paper into a skirt and stuck it to the sign on the bathroom door, then stating, “There you go; now you have a ladies’ room.”

Rubin fought for women’s inclusion in the science community every chance she got, including (unsuccessfully) lobbying for women to be included in the first-ever Smithsonian Air and Space Museum planetarium show on the history (all but one white males), pressuring Washington’s elite Cosmos Club to admit women, and openly criticizing the National Academy of Sciences for its lack of female members. She also consistently met with politicians to discuss the need to create more opportunities for girls.

Rubin received numerous prices for her work over the years. She was elected to the National Academy of Science in 1981, the first woman to receive the Royal Astronomical Society’s gold medal since Caroline Herschel in 1828, and the Nation medal of Science in 1993. However, one she was never awarded, much to her colleague’s disappointment, was the Nobel Prize.

Her love of science inspired her family. Her four children grew up to become scientists, an astronomer, two geologists, and a mathematician.

Rubin’s husband, Robert Rubin, a mathematician and physicist, passed away in 2008.

# Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Lab Becomes a World Historical Site

The last remaining laboratory of Serbian-American inventor, Nikola Tesla, seemed doomed up until four years ago. A massive crowdfunding campaign was created to raise funds by a local community group to purchase the Wardenclyffe property with a goal of turning it into a science center.

On December 11, the Tesla Science Center was presented with a plaque from the American Physical Society (APS) declaring the Shoreham, New York lab a world historical site, honoring its role in raising awareness of physics, honoring its past scientific progress, and paying tribute to Tesla’s achievements. The site was designated a historic landmark by Brookhaven town in 2014. Joining in on the ceremony was a large crowd of local dignitaries and community members. In gold, the plaque reads, “while long-distance wireless power transmission remains a dream, worldwide wireless communication was achieved within a century.”

Wardenclyffe joins on 40 sites that the APS, the largest professional committee of physics in the United States, have deemed worthy of recognition since 2004. The APS is a national nonprofit headquartered in Maryland that promotes education and advancement in physics. Their interest in Wardenclyffe stems off the work of the Tesla Science Center, the nonprofit group who purchased the land with the lab and has turned it into a hub for science education, to inspire the Teslas of tomorrow.

Thomas Edison’s rival, Tesla’s pioneering work of using an alternating current (AC) is used in electrical systems today, powering everything from laptops to streetlights. In 1887, he designed an induction motor that used an alternating current, a power system used in Europe and the United States due to the advantages in long-distance, high-voltage transmission.

He’s still the underdog in the sense that he’s not part of American schoolchildren’s curriculum. Until he’s part of the curriculum, I could say he’s still not recognized for what he did. Here we are using alternating current for the electric grid. We wouldn’t be powering our homes the way we are if it weren’t for Tesla. And yet whose name do we know? Thomas Edison.

Tesla established Wardenclyffe in 1901 with the help of investors like J.P. Morgan. In 1903, he completed a 187-foot transmitter tower designed to broadcast messages and transmit wireless transmission of electric power. He envisioned creating a community of homes on the Wardenclyffe’s 200-acre site, called Radio City, for the workers who would operate his transmission systems.

Unfortunately, he lost the property to foreclosure, which sold for $20,000 ($473,300 in current US money). The tower was brought down by dynamite on July 4, 1917 with its parts sold to pay off Tesla’s debt. In 1925, ownership of the property was transferred to Walter L. Johnson of Brooklyn and purchased by Plantacres, Inc in 1938. They leased the land to Peerless Photo Products who manufactured emulsions for photo paper. AGFA Corp bought the property, using it between 1969 to 1992 before closing the facility. During that time, they funded a massive environmental waste cleanup, under the scrutiny of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which included untreated water that was contaminated with silver, cadmium, lead and other chemicals that had been dumped there over the years.

In 2009, AGFA placed the property on the market for $1,650,000. At the time, a group formed in 1996, called Friends of Science East and later renamed the Tesla Science Center feared the site would be sold to developers. They struggled to find the funding to purchase the land until popular webcomic artist, Matthew Inman, began an online fundraising campaign called “Let’s Build a Goddamn Tesla Museum.” The successful Indiegogo campaign, with additional help from the popular comic website, The Oatmeal, they were able to raise nearly$1.4 million dollars to save Tesla’s lab.

President of the Tesla Science Center, Jane Alcorn, stated they found the site to be “quite a jungle. We actually had big machetes and people with clippers and chain saws because where we’re standing now, in this parking area, it was so covered with vegetation you couldn’t even walk through it,” which created an eerie vibe to the abandoned industrial complex.

Renovations are still in the beginning stages. The organizations first priority is to have the location look like it did during Tesla’s time. They have received about $3.5 million in donations and grants. CEO of Tesla Motors, Elon Musk, who named his electric car company after Tesla, announced on the inventor’s 158th birthday in July, their pledge of$1 million as well as rocket company SpaceX who pledge the same amount two years ago. Fans of Tesla have traveled from as far away as Italy, California, and South American to volunteer cleaning up the site.

They hope to open two buildings, redeveloping the lab and reintroducing Tesla’s work to the public by January 2018.

# Volcano Response Workshop to be Held in U.S. for the First Time

[featured image: G.E. Ulrich, USGS]

The United States Geological Survey has announced that the international Volcano Observatory Best Practices workshop will be held in the United States. Normally located in Italy, this year’s meeting will be at the Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Washington.

August 6th marked the 30th anniversary for the Volcano Disaster Assistance Program (VDAP), which is a joint venture between the The USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory (CVO) in Vancouver, Washington, has invited the news media to visit on November 14th and interview VDAP scientists about their work with their foreign counterparts. This includes responding to eruptions and promoting hazard awareness and preparedness.

On hand for interviews will be VDAP scientists Andy Lockhart, Martin LaFevers, Aron Rinehart, Heather Write, CVO Scientist-in-Charge Seth Moran and Samuel J. Heyman Service to American Medal finalist, John Pallister.

“In order for volcano observatories to create the very best assessm , they collaborate and exchange information, methods and insights with international counterparts,” said Pallister. “One of the many ways that scientists collaborate is through meeting face-to-face at international workshops.”

The program was a response to the 1986 eruption of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano in Colombia that killed over 23,000 people. The USGS and USAID/OFDA formed VDAP after they recognized that the tragedy could have been avoided with assistance before the eruption. The program brings together the scientific community in the different countries to address common problems. The U.S. and its territories have more active volcanoes than any other country except Indonesia. Having access to the volcanoes worldwide (approximately 1,550 potentially active) together with cooperation among the scientists helps improve the ability to understand potential threats and develop ways to best present disasters from happening.

In VDAP’s 30 years, they have sent teams to more than 30 foreign volcano crises, assisting with hundreds of volcanic events, and they’ve strengthened monitoring and response capacity in 12 countries.

Not only does it allow them to avoid tragedies, it also build international relationships. Based on the situation, VDAP will supply satellite data, donate monitoring equipment and any other support functions depending on the situation. The program also trains and helps countries establish and/or enhance their own capabilities to prepare in advance and manage volcanic crises. They also help with installing scientific instruments to monitor networks.

In return, the work gives the U.S. access to other active locations to improve the ability to understand potential threats and develop strategies that will be most effective in preventing disasters. Some of these include on ground assistance or remote. VDAP can supply satellite data, donate monitoring equipment and other support functions.

Some of the successes of VDAP include:

• Nicaragua – On December 1, 2015, Momotombo volcano had its first eruption in 110 years. VDAP assistance included advising local scientist on eruption forecasting and providing equipment to allow real-time delivery of volcano motoring data based on monitoring sulfur dioxide volcanic gas.
• Indonesia – VDAP has been assigning the Indonesian Center for Volcanology and Geologic Hazard Mitigation (CVGHM) since 2004 to improve its monitoring networks. Indonesia is the world most volcanically active nations. Mt. Merapi had its largest eruption in more than 100 years in October 2010. Thanks to the evacuations from the VDAP assistance, preemptive evacuations saved thousands of lives.
• Chile – After an entire town of about 5,000 people were evacuated when Chaitén volcano reactivated in 2008, VDAP worked with the Servicio Nacional de Geología y Minería to install the first radio-telemetered monitoring instruments at the volcano. This allows transmission of information to scientists for rapid analysis. They also prompted a new plan ensuring adequate monitoring of the country’s hazards.
• Colombia – erupted in 2007 and 2008 after being dormant for hundreds of years. Before the eruption, Servicio Geologic Colombiano reached out to VDAP, improving monitoring and establishing warnings that allowed evacuations ahead of time. This shows huge progress since the 1985 disaster at Nevado del Ruiz.
• Philippines – VDAP worked with the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology to install an entire volcano-monitoring network to issue warning prior to the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo. They were able to evacuate and save thousands of lives before the massive eruption in June of 1991 with the help of their government and the U.S. military officials at Clark Air Base and U.S. Naval Base Subic Bay.

The event at CVO will take place on Monday November 14, 2016.

# Science Geeks Unite at VOYAGE OF TIME Premiere

Science geeks came out to the California Science Center Wednesday for the red carpet premiere of Terrence Malick’s epic sci-fact masterpiece Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience. A 45-minute documentary that encompasses all there is on this resilient planet called Earth, the film also boasts the compassionate and yearning narration of Brad Pitt. You might’ve heard of him. The premiere was the result of 30 arduous years Malick and producers worked on the ambitious story of the beginning of humanity and the stars were out to take it all in.

[slideshow_deploy id=’60536′]

I had the great pleasure of speaking with the producers of the long-awaited film as well as legendary director Dennis Dugan (Happy Gilmore, Big Daddy and Grown Ups) who gave a hint at an upcoming project with long-time collaborator Adam Sandler.

After the red carpet entrances, the press was invited into the IMAX theater to view the short film. It was an immersive experience that placed the audience into the environment in various ways and was unlike any movie I’ve seen in recent years. Being as short as it was, one would imagine how much more immersive the experience would be in the feature length version. All in all, it was well-directed and impeccably produced. The only down side was the incessantly pretentious narration from Brad Pitt (which was reminiscent of his Chanel No. 5 commercial from a few years ago). Brad Pitt, I’m sorry for my harsh words. I know you’re going through a difficult time but I have to be honest.

The after party was pretty chill too. Lots of movie people and their publicists schmoozing and boozing all through the night. The atmosphere was nice and the music was repetitive. At the end of the night, guests were provided a gift bag and sent on their merry way.

Be sure to catch exclusive IMAX showings of “Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience” when they come to an IMAX theater near you beginning October 7th. It really was a wondrous experience when Brad wasn’t speaking. Again, sorry Brad.

# Overcoming Challenges To Mars

We can’t stay on Terra Firma forever. The stars are calling. And it’s not just about adventure, exploration, and discovery. It’s about survival. Neil DeGrasse Tyson said it best when he said, “Asteroids are nature’s way of saying: ‘How’s that space program coming along?’ ”

But asteroids aren’t the only threat to our survival. Yellowstone National Park is a volcano and an overdue ticking time bomb. Coronal bursts from the sun aren’t exactly predictable. New and more dangerous plagues and super bugs are constantly threatening. And that’s just scratching the tip of the iceberg of the dangers humanity has to face in its constant struggle for survival. Although the human population is large and growing, it might not take much to undo that, and not in very pleasant ways. Nations have globe annihilating weapons pointed at each other and are just waiting to push the button.

Yoko Ono is still capable of releasing a new album.

We’re quite a way from traveling between star systems. Our current hope is within our own solar system. Luckily, Mars isn’t too far away. But it’s far enough away to create a plethora of problems in trying to get there. So do we currently have the solutions? A few weeks ago at Worldcon 74, I had the opportunity to sit in on a panel by NASA astronaut Stan Love about the difficulties in getting to Mars and back. And it got me thinking about possible solutions.

Ship and Propulsion

To start off, let’s talk about the ship. We’re not talking about some Soyuz capsule or Columbia class orbiter. It has to be a vessel made for long trips. I mean loooong trips! And there must be a brief colonization period while Earth and Mars align just right to send a ship out and back again. Using an orbital slingshot effect, which was standard practice when going to the moon, fuel for the chemical rockets can be minimized. But there’s also no margin for error. The slightest miscalculation or misexecution (which apparently wasn’t a word until just now) would result in nothing more than a lost ship and dead astronauts. In case you’re wondering, that’s not a good thing.

Of course, that wouldn’t be a problem using nuclear thermal propulsion. And like many nuclear reactors that were used in major universities and are used on a lot of ships in the U.S. Navy, the base isotopes are not dangerously radioactive, the harmful radiation occurring only once the reactor is switched on. So it’s safe to launch into space, right?

Well, not everyone understands the science. Doing so would invoke a major political backlash. Extremists on the far left have a hard time grasping that the reactor isn’t being used to poison the skies and the isotopes aren’t radioactive enough to cause any environmental problem if there is a disaster on liftoff. Extremists on the right would have the concern that the construct might be, you know, a weapon of some sort. And until the lawyers and business people who comprise the House of Representatives, being the ones who control the federal purse, are outside of such influence, the reactor propulsion system isn’t going to happen. So gravitational slingshots and even greater danger of failure it is!

But wait, what about the newly developed and state of the art Electromagnetic drives, or EM drives, that I keep hearing about in the media, the so-called “impossible drive”? Oh, you mean the one that’s only starting to be studied and nobody knows how it would perform on an actual vessel without lots of further testing? Yeah, great idea. But it needs, you know, lots of further testing. Although it shows a lot of promise, most of the rumors of progress and seemingly impossible feats (like making lasers exceed the light barrier) are just that: rumors.

Since we’re on the subject of hypothetical propulsion, let’s consider another possibility. What if a nuclear reactor was put on a vessel to power an Alcubierre drive? Although still theoretical, the math behind it has yet to be disproven. The Alcubierre drive is intended to be a real-world warp drive.

But to exceed the light barrier (if that is even possible with the drive) would require the use of antimatter. The longest antimatter has been held stable is 16 seconds, which is immensely longer than any previous record. And the amount was almost negligible. But what if a reactor was used? Sure, if it works, it would travel much less than 10% the speed of light. But it could possibly be faster than the chemical rockets used today and even more efficient. So is it practical in any way? The jury may be out on it, but it’s worth thinking about! Even more so if it can shorten a trip to and from Mars.

As fun as it might be to speculate as to how to get to Mars faster, the sad reality is that by current technology, it’s a bloody long trip. Being without gravity for so long can do nasty things to the human body. An artificial gravity system like those typically found in science fiction would be a wonderful thing. But coming up with such a system is difficult when so little is known about gravity.

There are three different theories (Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, and M-Theory/Superstring Theory), and all of them are completely different. It’s hard to apply something without even knowing what it is! So there has to be another way. Well, there has to be two different ways, to be exact.

The first is to completely ignore gravity altogether and have astronauts exercise on a daily basis. This is the current method of keeping the body intact on the International Space Station. Perhaps a bit inconvenient. But if it works, then it’s rather hard to complain too much.

The other is to replicate the effects of gravity through centrifugal force. That means the ship’s main body remains upright while the crew’s living area spins. This is the kind of thing one would see in movies like 2010 and, appropriately, The Martian. Just don’t get dizzy from staring out the window.

What’s On The Menu?

Then there’s the issue of feeding the space explorers. Packing sack lunches for a full crew on a long voyage isn’t so easy. There has to be months worth of storage for all of the astronauts. After all, in space, you can order as many pizzas as you want, but they’re not going to deliver.

And it’s not like you can grow food that easily. The light needed would exceed anything that the ship’s systems or solar panels could provide. While a nuclear reactor powering the ship could solve that problem, the likelihood of that kind of power being used is slim. So what could be grown? Is all hope lost?

One would have to use the fact that there’s not enough light to one’s advantage. That means growing food that requires little to no light. As was seen in The Martian, the main character grew potatoes in the crew’s stored dung. While that might be a crap way of doing things, it can be quite effective.

Then there’s the possibility of a high protein source. Mushrooms require no light, just a damp enclosure with nutrients. That means shiitake mushrooms could make it onto the menu. When cooked right, they can have a similar taste and texture to meat, and provide a higher concentration of complete proteins than steak.

And if there can be salt water bins (even though it might take up too much room and over-complicate setup before launch because of it), perhaps they could grow dulse. Dulse is a red algae seaweed that is said to be healthier than kale. One strain of dulse being grown at Oregon State University is supposed to even taste like bacon when fried up.

Now, with a nuclear reactor, there would be enough energy to “greenhouse” various food plants. But if one can’t be used, all hope is not lost. In fact, it might not exactly be steak and potatoes, but it would sure come close. Now that’s some good eats, at least by space standards.

Health and Fitness

Finally, there’s the general health and wellness of the crew to figure out. Right now, the only way to combat the negative effects of weightlessness is constant exercise. Without it, there would be muscular atrophy and osteoporosis due to the muscles and bones not having the benefit of normal use. And there’s little to no way to maintain full physical monitoring until astronauts are back on Earth. Throw in the mental psychosis, and you have an overall medical nightmare!

But then again, just as so many other solutions found by the space program, overcoming those obstacles can have much greater benefits to all of humanity than just space flights.

First of all, there’s the physical exercise issue. Electrostimulation to prevent atrophy might be good, but it’s far from ideal. Providing an artificial gravity should solve that problem, even if it’s just spinning the crew compartments. But having a gym of some sort is still a good idea, if not imperative. The difficult task is finding ways to exercise as much of the body as possible as thoroughly as possible in as little space (no pun intended) as possible. Luckily there are a lot of multi-gyms marketed for use in the home. I’ll leave it to the NASA eggheads to decide which is best.

But how does one monitor the overall health of an astronaut from such a distance? Imagine being able to conduct a physical examination on an astronaut in deep space while still on Earth. There are automated blood pressure cuffs which can be found in drugstores and even in some doctor’s offices. It can give information on both blood pressure and heart rate. There are devices for checking vision, blood saturation levels, temperature, and much more.

By using piezo microphones, one can listen to heartbeats, breathing, and gastric sounds. Small cameras can be used to look at the ears and nose and so on. So observation and auscultation can be covered. All that are lacking are palpation and percussion. Perhaps something like ultrasound can check inner organs without palpation.

So a doctor wouldn’t have to be in the same room as a patient to conduct a head-to-toe physical assessment. That means an exam could be performed on a patient in quarantine, or even with a doctor in another part of the world. By sending the data as a package, it could even be done on an astronaut with doctors on Earth. It would be a 20 minute delay using current technology. Then after review by a doctor, a further set of test requests can be sent back for needed follow-ups.

Then there’s one more health issue that must be addressed. That is the subject of mental health. Put a handful of people, even trained professionals, for an isolated trip through space, and you have the perfect setup for murder. The issue becomes dealing with potential psychosis from that isolation. Phone calls to friends and family are out of the question with nearly a half hour delay. Using Facebook or YouTube to pass the time are also a bit of an issue. So other than having a library of movies, books, and video games already on board, there isn’t much escape from the isolation. So what can be done to keep those with the “right stuff” from going lethally coo-coo?

One possibility would be to try to send communications faster than light. This is a difficult task given things like the freaking laws of physics. Luckily, quantum mechanics may hold an answer that relativity doesn’t provide. That possibility is quantum entanglement. Although the jury is still out on it, some think that entanglement could transmit information instantaneously. It is to my understanding that the Chinese plan to launch a satellite within the next couple of years to test entanglement communication between China and Tibet. We’ll see how that goes. If communication could be instantaneous, then important matters can be attended to such as mission control monitoring, real time updating of critical systems, and updating Snapchat.

Another more likely option would be better training to deal with psychological stress. Different states of mind translate to different brain frequencies. By training those frequencies with electroencephalography (EEG) much like one can exercise a muscle, one can become more relaxed and focused, and more resistant to the negative effects of isolation psychosis. And when EEG headsets cost as little as $79 (approximately$22,135 in government dollars), it’s a solution that is actually affordable and doesn’t challenge the known laws of nature.

What’s even better is that it has uses well beyond keeping astronauts sane. Mind frequency training can be used by ordinary people to learn and master skills faster. It can be used for therapy and relaxation, especially for those with issues relaxing who need guidance. It can be used by children and adults who are dealing with trauma or abuse to not only gain strength but also make it easier to open up in therapy. But for the purposes of this article, we’ll keep astronauts from going off the deep end.

Conclusion

Getting to Mars is loaded with challenges. Overcoming those challenges won’t be easy … or cheap. But in the long run, it might just be worth it. After all, we can’t stay planted on Earth forever. Granted, there are issues not discussed here … like colonization. But we still need to get there first. One step at a time.

# What’s so Special About General Relativity? Part II

In the previous article, I covered the Principle of Equivalence and some preliminary concepts that lead up to what is known as the Special Theory of Relativity. Though most people have had some exposure to the consequences of this theory through television, movies, books, or articles, I often find that they really don’t get what it’s all about, or there are misconceptions about what it really means. Being the kind of teacher that digs deep to find ways to simplify complex concepts, I find that it’s hard for many people because it’s usually presented using big numbers or just the letter c. Either approach can go deep enough into levels of abstraction that it just becomes gibberish to many people.

The very first dip into this pool of abstraction in math is going from apples and oranges to numbers, and most handle that fairly well. But introduce fractions, negative numbers, letters, weird symbols, and on and on, and at some point, the student who is just hanging on by their fingertips will fail. It’s not the student’s fault, they just get left behind. Not to say that everyone can master higher Mathematics or Quantum Physics, but I’ve been able to identify which abstract concepts have gone too far for a particular individual, re-presented the concept, and taken said individual past the breakdown to the next level.

Mathematics has its own language; unfortunately, we use the same words as everybody else, and they often mean something completely different. The good teachers are the ones who make the effort to understand why an individual student is lost and find a way to get them through it. I guarantee that that one individual is not alone, and the new route you find will open doors for more than just that one student.

That being said, I’ll take a slightly different approach. Because c is constant, we can chose any value we want and the equations don’t change. Let us suppose that c is 1,000 meters per second (sorry, I’m going to switch to meters; feet and miles just aren’t popular in Science). That’s still pretty fast, about 2,240 miles per hour. Now suppose that my friend Bob is riding on a train, and:

• the train is going 800 meters per second,
• the train is 200 meters long,
• Bob is in the center of the train (100 meters from the front and back),
• there are lights at the front and back of the train that blink simultaneously.

Yes, I see you in the back with the puzzled look on your face, how can I say that the lights blink at the same time? For those that haven’t caught on yet, note that it takes one tenth of a second for light to travel from the front (or back) to the midpoint of the train. If Bob moves far enough forward he will no longer see the lights blink simultaneously; there will be a distinct difference in the time that the light from either end takes to get to his eyes. This is the second lesson of relativity. We can only say that two events occur simultaneously when the light from the two events gets to our eyes at the same time. The bigger lesson here is that pretty much nobody on the train will agree with Bob that the lights blink simultaneously.

Consider this question: how close to Bob do other people on the train have to be so they all agree, within the bounds of human perception, that the lights at the end of the train blink simultaneously? If we consider how modern movies fool our brains into seeing fluid movement by flashing still pictures in front of our eyes one after another, we can answer that question. The current standard in movies is 24 frames per second. This means that each still picture is displayed for about 40 milliseconds (1/24 = 0.042 and a millisecond is 0.001 seconds).  In our imaginary world of slowed down light, the distance is 40 meters (1000 * 0.04 = 40), so people sitting in seats 40 meters in front of and behind Bob all agree (to some degree) that the lights are flashing simultaneously. In the world of Physics, we refer to this as a Rest Frame. Within this frame, everyone agrees on what is simultaneous.

In most presentations about the rest frame concept, the talk is usually about high precision clocks and rulers. This can get a bit abstract, so hopefully the addition of the limits of human perception makes things a bit clearer (or muddier). If we were to use the real value of the speed of light, that 40 millisecond range is more like 12 million meters (about 7,500 miles); even I have a hard time thinking about a train that long. The point behind all of this is: even though everything on the train is connected and moving at a constant speed, because the speed of light is finite, not everyone on the train sees the same thing. It should be obvious that I am, standing off to the side as the train speeds by, in a completely different rest frame. There can be no frame that contains Bob and myself; we have to consider what we see from in own frames and then match things up via the constant of the speed of light.

The primary thing that we will disagree on is the path that light takes as it travels from point to point. To get an idea of what I’m talking about, let’s slow the train way down, say 20 miles per hour. Now suppose that Bob has a ball that he is tossing straight up and then catching it. Bob sees the ball go straight up and down into his hand, but I see the ball (and Bob) moving with the train. I see the ball go up at an angle and then come back down at an angle into Bob’s hand. Since we can’t agree on the path that light will take, something else must slip.

Bringing back the original picture, suppose there is another blinking light above Bob’s head. The paths that Bob and I see the light take are similar to the ball. As Bob sees it, the distance that chunk of light from the flash travels is A in the following:

This is what I see as the train passes by. The beam of light travels with the train, the train moves a distance B and the light travels along C:

We can splice these two pictures together to get this:

I’m quite certain that you recognize this and remember our old (really, really old) friend Pythagoras:

$latex C^2 = A^2 + B^2.$

Now we have to figure out what A, B, and C are. Remember that Bob and I both have to agree on how fast the light is moving. In the first picture, Bob uses his clock to measure how long it takes for the light to travel from the roof to the floor; I’ll call that time t, so the distance that it travels is ct. I have my own clock and I see the train passing by with a speed of v. I also see the beam of light travel from the ceiling to the floor, but from my point of view, it takes the angled path. By my clock this takes a time T. During this time segment, I see the train move a distance given by vT and the light beam travels cT. So now we have:

So:

$latex (cT)^2 = (ct)^2 + (vT)^2$

$latex c^2 T^2 = c^2 t^2 + v^2 T^2$

Divide by $latex c^2$ and rearrange a bit:

$latex t^2 = T^2 (1 – \frac{v^2}{c^2})$

Take the square root (it’s okay, everything is positive):

$latex t = T \sqrt{1 – \left(\frac{v}{c}\right)^2}$

This is a relationship between the times that Bob and I measure for the light to travel from the ceiling to the floor of the train. Let’s take a look at this term:

$latex \sqrt{1 – \left(\frac{v}{c}\right)^2}$

Since nothing can go faster than the speed of light, v is always less than c, so v/c is always less than one, as is the square. One minus a number between zero, and one is another number between zero and one and taking square root still is, you guessed it, a number between zero and one. No matter what v is, this term is somewhere between zero and one. It is close to one when v is close to zero, and close to zero when v is close to c. If we use our slow value for the speed of light, then:

$latex t = T\sqrt{1 – \left(\frac{800}{1000}\right)^2}$

$latex t = T\sqrt{1 – 0.64}$

$latex t = 0.6T$

From my point of view, Bob’s clock runs sixty percent as fast as my clock, he measures the speed of light the same as I do, but the light that he sees moves across a shorter distance.

Now this one will make your head explode: if there’s a blinking light on a pole above my head, then Bob will see the exact same picture that I did (just in reverse), and he will say that my clock is running slow. From our own points of view, we both are correct as long as we stay in our own rest frames. This situation is symmetric, we both see the other moving by us at 1,000 meters per second, we both see the other’s clock ticking at a slower rate. To settle the argument about whose clock is slower, one of us has to break that symmetry, either by me jumping in my car and accelerating to catch the train or the train decelerating to a stop. The one that breaks the symmetry loses the argument. Well, not so much lose, but it’s their clock that will be behind, because their frame of reference will be accelerated relative to the other. I’ll get back to that in a future article, and let the abstraction sink in for a bit.

What have we learned?

• People on trains rarely agree on anything.
• Clocks on trains run slow, that’s why the train is always late.
• Everybody is right up until the point that you have to talk to somebody else.

# Mathematics Have Never Been So Tasty: Pi Day

Pie. Who doesn’t love pie? Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single person I know who doesn’t relish this tasty treat. It has become popular in my home, almost to the point where my kids have asked for it in place of their birthday cakes. One of these bold children even had the audacity to ask, “May I have my cake  …  and a pie, too?” Well, what do you do? It’s his birthday, right? Let them eat cake … and pie, too!

There are all sorts too … from pot to pizza pie, one of my favorites. I often ask my friends about their favorites, and I get the usual responses often with a mix of suggestions. My husband’s favorite is cherry, my best friend usually goes back and forth between chocolate and strawberry pie, and my children’s favorite is my favorite. I like to keep it simple with good old-fashioned American apple pie, which turns out isn’t American at all, it came from England. Ah, who cares, I’m eating it.

Now, I wish I could say we eat it often, but in actuality, we don’t. My mother’s crust recipe that I have almost perfected has just about shut down our pie intake. My husband and children won’t eat pie that I or my mother don’t make; they are simply not as good and not worth their time, they say. Spoiled much? Maybe.

Since this isn’t the 1950s (they were always making pies, right?) and I do other things, pies are reserved for special occasions. One of those days is March 14, Pi Day. March is the 3rd month of the year and 14 is the 14 because π = 3.14 and you get the picture.

One of the earliest known celebrations of Pi Day was organized by a physicist named Lewis Shaw. Shaw worked at the San Francisco Exploratorium, and in 1988 he and several of his buddies marched in a circle and then ate pie. Yup, you gotta love those physicists, they can really party. I’ve never liked physics; I know we need it, but I don’t like it. It dawned on me recently why I don’t like it. Physics relates to distance and time. I’ve never traveled any distance and been on time, but I can calculate how late I’m going to be! I’m a mathematician and who am I really kidding: if I would have been at the San Francisco Exploratorium in 1988, I would have been marching in a circle and eating pie, too. I just would have probably been late.

Pi itself goes way back. Chinese mathematicians used it as early as the first millennium accurate to seven decimal places. Approximations were used by Egyptians and Babylonians 1900 – 1600 BC, using 3.12 or 3.16 … they were close. There is even reference to pi in the Bible! (1 King 7:23). It was mathematician Archimedes who determined that pi was approximately 22/7. A guy named William Jones started using the Greek symbol π in 1706, but nobody cared until Swiss mathematician Leonard Euher started to use it in 1737, then everyone started using the symbol. I guess he just wrote it cooler. In this day and age, pi can be calculated to over one trillion digits past the decimal, but who’s got the time when 39 digits past the decimal will keep you pretty accurate in calculating the volume of Earth … if you need to know the volume of Earth, that is.

Even though a physicist started Pi Day, the mathematicians jumped on board and we love this day. On March 14, 2009, National Pi Day was born and it is often celebrated by all things circular — which includes pie! Apparently not just eating them either: there are pie throwing contests, too! I wouldn’t be caught dead throwing a pie I baked. Do you know how much work it is to get that crust just right? The horror. Maybe they are store bought? Yeah, throw those. Prospective MIT students find out if they will actually get to attend MIT on Pi Day, too: very fitting. School teachers across the nation celebrate in various ways with activities related to π and its meaning.

And what is its meaning? Well, I thought you’d never ask! Let me get my teacher mode on. Pi (π) is the ratio of the circle’s circumference to its diameter! Well, what does that mean, you ask? It means if you cut out a perfect circle and measure the distance around the circle, then you measured the distance going across that same circle right down the middle, then divided the first number by the second number you’d get 3.14! Give it a try! Didn’t get 3.14? Didn’t get anywhere close? You cut wrong, measured wrong, or divided wrong, do it again. And while you’re doing that, I shall eat pie.

To learn more about Pi Day and everything Pi, visit www.piday.org!

[Header image courtesy Bill Ward’s Flickr, shared under a Creative Commons Attribution license]

# Film Review: Documentary Offers Up Space Race Goodness

THE LAST MAN ON THE MOON
Distribution Company: Mark Stewart Productions (theatrical); Gravitas Ventures (VOD)
Theatrical and VOD Release Date: February 26, 2016
Directed by:
Featuring interviews with: Apollo astronauts Gene Cernan, Alan Bean, Dick Gordon, and Jim Lovell

The Last Man on the Moon follows the astronaut career of Gene Cernan. Unless you are a huge fan of the early NASA years, that’s quite likely a name that you have not heard before or not heard it enough to remember who he is or what he accomplished. Gene was one of the core team of the early astronauts. He was recruited into the program in October of 1963 and was on three space flights. History chooses to pass Gene by a bit because the missions that he flew were perhaps not the most glamorous, but opened the doors for future missions.

His first mission was on Gemini IX, where command pilot Thomas P. Stafford, and Gene as pilot, were originally the backup crew. They were promoted to primary crew after the tragic deaths of Elliot M. See, Jr. and Charles M. Bassett, II who were lost in a plane crash going to inspect the Gemini IX space craft. The intent of this mission was to dock with a another space vehicle and Gene was supposed to accomplish this by exiting the spacecraft, go to the rear of the craft, and don a rocket pack to fly over to the other vehicle.

He was not able to fulfill the mission, and you can listen to the disappointment in his voice when he talks about it. The reality is that his failure was due to a lack of understanding of the difficulties encountered in a zero-g environment. His failure was a learning experience for the whole program. To make up for the failure, the re-entry and landing was about as perfect as can be, a mere mile and a half from the USS Wasp recovery ship and within half a mile of the targeted landing spot.

Gene’s second space mission was Apollo 10. This is another one that doesn’t hit the mainstream of history but was very important to learning how to actually land on the moon. In case you don’t remember, the Apollo 10 mission was actually a manned flight to the moon: they just didn’t land on the moon. One of the primary intents of this mission was to prove the maneuverability of the lunar module (LM), which Gene piloted.

You’ll just have to watch the movie to see, in his own words, how that went. Good, bad, or whatever, what was learned on the mission paved the way for Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong’s immortal words. Gene knew that, and when you see the eulogy he delivered at Neil’s funeral it will bring tears to your eyes. Even though I was only six years old, I have lasting memories of this mission, mostly because the lunar module was named Snoopy and the service module was Charlie Brown. (If you don’t remember Tang and Space Food Sticks, then you’re far too young to understand).

The third mission, his crowning achievement, was Apollo 17, the last Apollo mission. This made him the last man on the moon. In some ways, this was the forgotten moon landing because the public interest had faded even though the scientific results were astounding. Budget cuts ended the program prematurely. Granted, the money spent on this program was, to abuse a phrase, astronomical and, if you don’t understand the physics, perhaps a bit wasteful.

For example, the lunar module used in the Apollo 10 mission, I’m not sure what it cost, has two pieces — the ascent stage which is the upper part where the astronauts stayed, and the descent stage which is the bottom part. The ascent stage is orbiting the sun somewhere near the moon’s orbit and the descent stage is orbiting the moon.

Though it seems to be an expensive waste, what is generally not obvious is that it is prohibitively expensive to even consider bringing any of it back. It’s also hard to convince the general public that these expensive trial flights are absolutely necessary: you can model things on paper or, these days, on computers, but you still have to go out there and try it to find out what you missed.

This mission also holds a place in my memory. In 1972, my family lived on the side of a mountain in Montana and our television reception, on a good day, consisted of two channels. I was still able to tune in to watch the lunar liftoff. Gene had parked the lunar rover so its cameras could cover the event. Seeing it again in this movie brought back my amazement at the colors you could see in that blast-off, better than any Fourth of July.

By now, you have most likely come to the conclusion that I really enjoyed this movie (as I’m finishing up writing this I am watching it for the fourth time). It covers the career of one of the unsung heroes of the Apollo program, though you get the impression that Gene isn’t all that concerned about the notoriety. He is passionate about teaching the world about what has been forgotten about why the the Apollo program (and previous space programs) were created and the goals that they achieved. Granted, these men who went on these missions were generally self centered and arrogant, but they were asked to do things that sane people would never consider doing. They asked for it, competed with each other to be the first one to do the next big thing, but applauded each other on their achievements, and mourned the loss of each and every brother.

But this is not Hollywood, this is reality: eventually one has to learn that they are not invincible even if they have cheated death again and again. This is, to me, is one of the most compelling features of this film. Through the interviews and personal statements, it digs deeply into the emotions of the astronaut as he is experiencing these monumental events. On top of that is the collection of original footage and some CGI work that helps portray the stress and frustration of particular events that were not originally captured on film.

Well there you have it: if you want to learn something about the Apollo program and one of the men who was instrumental in its success, go see this film! If you want to see some awesome historical footage of the Apollo missions and learn a little bit about the men who went there and maybe a little of the science, go see this film!

No matter what, just go see this film!!

# Sci Fi/Fantasy/Horror News — WEEK IN REVIEW 20 Feb 2016

A little late, but still here with the headlines!

https://youtu.be/xnanV6yQv3w

_______________

This week:
~ Damon Knight Grand Master named
~ Star Wars comics & fan film contest
~ Stan Lee is done with Canada
~ New SpaceShip Two
~ Blade Runner 2
~ Battlestar Glactica
~ New Titan Comics projects
~ DC “Rebirth”
~ Ava DuVernay gets offers
~ Pennywise is back!
~ Neffy Awards

Star Wars Fan Film Contest video

Star Wars Fan Film Contest details

# The Stars are Waving at You

The buzz around the science world this week is the announcement from The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) that they have successfully detected gravitational waves. Actually, they hinted a few weeks ago that they had a big announcement coming up and, well that’s what they’ve been trying to do for years, so what else could it be?

So what does this mean and why do we care?

Albert Einstein theorized around one hundred years ago that black holes, which do not emit light, must lose energy as they orbit each other. He concluded that they would throw out energy by creating ripples in the very fabric of space-time.  When these objects are moving around rapidly then they kick up ripples that propagate away like the waves you would see from a motorboat going around in a circle.

The next question is: how do we detect them? Since these are waves in space-time they will squeeze or stretch things as they pass by. I don’t know about you but I don’t feel like I’m being stretched or squeezed to any extent so these waves must not be all that big. I may have mentioned it before but, of all the fundamental physical forces, gravity is actually the weakest. The electromagnetic force (that includes lights and magnets) is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times stronger than gravity. The effects of these waves are so infinitesimally small that they are very difficult to detect. When Dr. Einstein ran the math way back then he knew how minuscule these waves were and was very, very skeptical that they would ever be detected.

Because of this it has always been theorized that the first event that would have even a ghost of a chance of being detected would be two black holes in a decaying orbit around each other finally colliding and joining into one. It is of no surprise, then, that this is exactly the event that LIGO observed on September 14th, 2015. Well, at least that’s what they say it was because it’s the only theoretical event that would release gravitational waves with enough energy to be detected. It’s not like we can go look because black holes are, well… black and the nearest approximation of when this event occurred is around 1.3 billion years ago. They were able to get a rough idea of the direction to look since there are two LIGO sites, one near Hanford Washington and one near Livingston Louisiana and the Louisiana site detected the signal 7 milliseconds before the Washington site.

Well that’s the stuff you’ll read on the other blogs out there. I want to talk a bit a how this was done. I’m sure that you’ve heard the term Interferometer before but maybe that’s as far as it goes, just another big word that nerds use to look smart. The concept behind these devices is that pretty much everything in the subatomic world is a wave. When you split a wave into two pieces that travel two different paths and then bring them back together they will interfere with each other. If they both traveled the same distance then they will add back together and look the same as the initial wave. If one of them goes slightly further (or shorter) then the waves will not exactly line up when they come back together. The high points add and the low points subtract – an interference pattern is generated. When you use lasers you simplify the equations since the light from a laser is all the same wavelength so the interference pattern becomes very distinct light and dark bands (I covered these concepts in a previous article here).

What is LIGO then? LIGO is based on a device that I’ve talked about several times in my articles, the Michelson, Morley interferometer:

Actually Michelson and Morley didn’t have lasers available when they did their experiments; lasers merely refined the precision of the tests. In the original device the the two legs were 11 meters long, the legs in the LIGO devices are 4 Kilometers long and the mirrors and beam-splitters are aligned so that the beams bounce back and forth some 400 times before they recombine. This makes the LIGO devices something like 144,000 times bigger than the original device.

The precision of LIGO is to be able to detect the change in length of one of the legs thousands of times smaller that the size of a proton (protons are already not very big). This should give you some idea of how weak the interaction of gravitational waves is with physical objects.

The two black holes that collided were calculated to each be around 30 times more massive as the Sun and collided at nearly half the speed of light. At the point of impact, the gravitational energy released was about 50 times greater than all of the stars in the visible universe but still completely dark. Even at that level of energy released (it’s way beyond human comprehension, I won’t bother to throw out any numbers) the amount of squeezing from the gravity wave was still on the order of thousandths of the diameter of a proton. It’s a mere blip; the LIGO team converted it into sound and you can listen to it hereSo there you have it, one of the most powerful events in the universe translates to a little more that the squeak of a mouse.

Not to downgrade the triumph of this event. This is just great example of how huge the universe is and how events that release energy on astronomical scales are just blips in the matrix. Maybe we do need some numbers to make it real. The energy released as gravity waves when the two collided was estimated to be equivalent to converting the mass of three of our Suns directly into energy. Remember this

$latex E = mc^{2}$?

The mass of the sun is approximately

$latex 2 \times 10 ^ {30} \,kg.$

Three times that is

$latex 6 \times 10 ^ {30}\, kg.$

So

$latex E = \left(6 \times 10 ^ {30}\right)\left (3 \times 10^{8}\right)^2$

$latex E = \left(6 \times 10 ^{30}\right) \left(9 \times 10 ^{16}\right)$

$latex E = 54 \times 10 ^{46} \, Joules.$

The number above is scarily huge but there are still words in our language that account for it. The world doesn’t always agree on these names but for the general audience here this number is five hundred forty Quattuordecillion Joules (a Joule is roughly the energy of an average sized apple dropped one meter). Just trying to pronounce that makes your head hurt.

You get the idea, it’s incredibly huge, way beyond billions and billions. When it finally gets to us it takes devices with phenomenal sensitivity to have the even the remotest hope of detecting it. This blast of energy was released over a few milliseconds and, at its peak, was around 50 times the intensity of light from the visible universe. If it were light we would have seen it with our eyes. Because it was gravity it was just a blip in one of the most sensitive detectors devised by man.

Okay, enough with the big numbers. I’ve bounced around a bit but hopefully the basic points have made it through. I may seem a bit nonchalant about this announcement but there’s a reason for that. Around twenty years ago I attended a lecture by the esteemed Dr. Kip Thorne, who was working on the initial LIGO project. He described what he suspected was going to happen and it was almost exactly what did happen. That’s also what makes this so interesting to scientists. It’s one of those special events where observation and theory match to a high level of precision. Not to mention that is yet another validation of Dr. Einstein’s theory of General Relativity (hey, you can read more about that in the series of articles that I just started here).

The detection of these waves also proves that we can build devices able to detect the whimper of black holes smashing together and opens the door for even higher sensitivity. Perhaps we’ll be listening to the song of the Solar system as the planets wend their way around the sun in the future. Of course, that will take an increase in precision in the Quattuordecillion range.

This also opens a new era of astronomy. We’ve always had the visual range that has been enhanced to finer and finer degrees with telescopes. Next came Radio astronomy that allows us to listen to the universe and then there’s the gamma ray observatories, x-ray telescopes, infra-red detectors and on and on. Though each of these reveal different aspects of stellar phenomena they are just different ranges of the Electromagnetic spectrum. Gravity wave astronomy brings in a new way to look at how really, really massive things interact.

So what have we learned?

• Gravity is really weak, man…
• Quattuordecillion is a real word.
• The stars wave but nobody can see it.

# What’s so Special About General Relativity? Part I

Roughly one hundred years ago, on a day classified as November 25th, Albert Einstein presented his papers on General Relativity. As much of a shock as it was back then, these concepts still baffle and amaze people. But what is relativity? I’m sure that you have either tried to wade through various articles or documentaries that tried to explain it or just flat out ignored it. I too have read those articles and watched the videos, and I’m usually sitting there thinking, “What about this…” or “Why didn’t you describe it this way?” So now, I’ve taken it upon myself to cover these things the way that I want to talk about them. Maybe, just maybe, it will help it sink in a bit better.

Note that there are two, I suppose the easiest way to break it down is levels, of this theory. The first is what is known as Special Relativity. It is classified as special because it applies to the case of uniform motion; objects moving at a constant velocity. General Relativity expands that notion to include objects under acceleration; their velocity is not constant. In either one, the primary word is Relativity, but before I get into what that means, we first need to understand the Principle of Equivalence.

The Principle of Equivalence may sound daunting, and maybe it is. My first attempt to describe it generated some blank stares, so let me slow it down a bit. What we are talking about here is the physics of objects under uniform motion or uniform acceleration. By uniform, we mean that the object is traveling at a constant speed in a straight line or that the object is under constant acceleration in a straight line. If you are in a box with no windows, the Principle of Equivalence states that there is no way that you can determine if the box you are in is stopped or if it is moving uniformly.  There is no experiment that you can perform within that box that will tell you one way or the other – the two situations are physically equivalent.

So what about uniform acceleration? Again, you are in the windowless box. The motion is no longer uniform, but the acceleration is constant, in a straight line. The new question – is the box moving, being pushed by something like a rocket engine or is it sitting still being pulled on by gravity? The principle of equivalence, once again, says that you cannot know. These are also physically equivalent situations. The force due to gravity feels, looks, tastes the same as a force due to some other agent. The good news, I suppose, is that we can tell the difference between uniform motion and uniform acceleration. The bad news is that, either way, we have no idea if we’re actually going anywhere.

With the equivalence principle understood, I’ll put you in the box again, but this time I’ll be nice and give you a window. Well, maybe not that nice as there is nothing to see, just the black emptiness of space. I ask you again, are you moving or stopped? If you are moving, how fast are you going? How can you tell? Without something else to see, you don’t know; without something else to measure against, you can only assume that you are not moving. This is part one of Relativity, you can only measure your movement relative to some other object; without a point of reference, the question has no answer.

Think about that next you are watching Star Trek (any generation), and the helmsman says something like “Instruments read all stop, Captain.” Stopped relative to what? If you’re a few hundred light years from anything, you’re pretty much stopped relative to nothing no matter how fast you thought you were going.

Okay, you say, there must be some feature of the fabric of space that I can always measure my movement against, some constant structure that stays in place that everything moves around. Good try, that idea died many years ago. I briefly mentioned this experiment in a previous article (here), but I’ll cover it again.

Back in 1887, Albert A. Michelson and Edward W. Morley devised an experiment that they hoped would prove the existence of this static fabric of the Universe, classically known as the Aether. The basic idea behind this experiment was that if the aether existed, the Earth would be moving in orbit relative to it as would the light transmitted by the device. The speed of light along the same path as the Earth should be faster because it includes the speed that the Earth is moving. The difference in the speed of light propagating across the aether would be different along perpendicular paths of the same length.

What it showed is that there is no aether. This experiment has been repeated to finer and finer degrees since then (I even did it myself as an undergraduate), and it always has the same result: there is no fixed fabric of the universe.

Mister Einstein’s leap of brilliance upon hearing about this result was that it implied light always travels at the same speed no matter who (or what) measures it. Wow, so fifty of us in fifty different rocket ships going fifty different directions looking at the same chunk of light will all measure that it is moving at the same speed. Thus, there is a constant in the Universe related to motion, but it is not zero. It’s the speed of light, and we call it c. c is around 186,262 miles per second or 299,792,458 meters per second; either one is fast.

The special part of Mr. Einstein’s Relativity is all of the consequences of this revelation. I’ll cover those consequences in the my next article on Relativity, but for now, I’ll let the initial pieces soak in.

So, what have we learned today?

• Physicists like to put people in boxes.
• If you can’t see where you’re going, you can’t know where you’ve been.
• No matter which uniform you are wearing, you still can’t tell if you’re moving.