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Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

van Leeuwenhoek

Thursday, January 31st, 2019

In September 17, 1683, Dutch scientist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek wrote a seminal letter to the Royal Society, sharing his discovery of “animalcules,” or what we know as bacteria. He was untrained in science, and had had no higher education at all, but he was acutely curious about the world around him. Starting in about 1668, he had been experimenting with lens grinding and making his own simple microscopes. He hired an artist to draw the things he saw through his lens, and he started writing informal letters to the Royal Society in 1673, describing things he’d discovered. Ten years later, on this date, he wrote a letter describing his study of the plaque found between his teeth, and the teeth of other subjects. “I … saw, with great wonder, that in the said matter there were many very little living animalcules, very prettily a-moving. The biggest sort … had a very strong and swift motion, and shot through the water (or spittle) like a pike does through the water. The second sort … oft-times spun round like a top … and … were far more in number.” Leeuwenhoek was one of the first to observe animalcules. The Royal Society was skeptical of his discovery at first, and there was much discussion about his mental status, but today he is considered “the Father of Microbiology.”

Leeuwenhoek never wrote any books, but he wrote letters to the Royal Society for more than 50 years. During that time, he shared his discoveries: blood cells, sperm cells, nematodes, muscle fibers, and algae. He wrote his letters in Dutch, which was the only language he knew, and his letters were translated into English and Latin before publication. He wrote right up until his death at age 90, and his last letters were detailed observations of his own final illness.

 

The Writers Almanac

Is the Fermi Paradox Really Absolutely Terrifying?

Saturday, January 5th, 2019

You will be more frightened than by any previous sci-fi or horror story you might have read if you believe that the following is at all possible :

What about the Fermi Paradox is absolutely terrifying?

Shayne O’Neill

Updated Fri · Upvoted by Aritra Bal, Integrated MSc Physics, Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur (2022) and Nikolas Scholz, M.S. Physics & Computational Science and Scientific Computing, Goethe University Frankfurt (2017)

 

I’m going to ruin your day.

What scares me is the proposal made in The Killing Star novel (And in a slightly different way the Dark Forest novel). Basically it goes like this;-

Let’s say there are 2 or 3 civilizations around our local area in the galaxy. We don’t know anything about them, except they exist. What could we infer?

Let’s make a first assumption;- Above all else they want to survive. Nothing would be more catastrophic to them than to have their home planet destroyed or their species wiped out.

Let’s make a second assumption;- Any species that can travel at relativistic speeds, say 50% of the speed of light, already has the means to destroy your planet. All they have to do is get some heavy objects and accelerate them at a relativistic speed, and the kinetic forces generated by those speeds means that anvil you’re dropping on their head is now a planet killer. And worst of all, at a decent fraction of c, by the time you see that anvil coming at you , and notice its so insanely blue shifted that its clearly coming at a relativistic speed, its too late, its already upon you. You’re a dead species.

And lets make a third assumption. Everyone else, has made these assumptions too. Because they are logical. We know they want to survive, and they know we want to survive.

What we DONT know is how aggressive they are. And they don’t know how aggressive we are (Well unless they’ve seen our television we’ve been stupidly beaming out and pegged us as the psychotic primates we are)

And we also know that at those distances a diplomatic dialogue is almost impossible.

So what do we do? Do we risk them being aggressive and leave them in peace, or do we assume they are dangerous, and attack. Because if they are dangerous and we don’t attack. They might attack us. And in fact even if the probability of that is only 10%, do we REALLY feel safe rolling the dice knowing one side of that dice is extinction for us.

But we DO have some indications coming from logic. See they are ALSO evaluating us and wonder if we’re safe to leave alone, or should they take the safe precaution , and utterly anihilate us with some relativistic kill vehicles. Drop an anvil on our head.

And so we both know we are both asking the same questions. Its simple game theory. You SHOULD attack them the VERY MOMENT you detect them, because as soon as they work out you are there, they’ll attack you. Because if you genuinely wish to survive this, knowing that diplomacy is impossible you need to kill them first.

Of course, there’s a much safer method to be sure: Be very very very quiet. Stop transmitting RF frequencies. Don’t go doing anything crazy like launching antimatter rockets with all sorts of telltail radiological signs. Just hide, and be very quiet.

And that, boys and girls is a very possible reason why the universe is quiet. Because it is suicide not to, unless you are a very talented murderer.

And that scares the heebie jeebies out of me.

footnote: Above, I’ve mashed some of the rhetoric from Charles R. Pellegrinos’ novel The Killing star, and Liu Cixin’s novel The Dark Forest.

If you want to really scare the pants off yourself read this;-
Its an excerpt from the novel Killing Star;-

The great silence (i.e. absence of SETI signals from alien civilizations) is perhaps the strongest indicator of all that high relativistic velocities are attainable and that everybody out there knows it.

The sobering truth is that relativistic civilizations are a potential nightmare to anyone living within range of them. The problem is that objects traveling at an appreciable fraction of light speed are never where you see them when you see them (i.e., light-speed lag). Relativistic rockets, if their owners turn out to be less than benevolent, are both totally unstoppable and totally destructive. A starship weighing in at 1,500 tons (approximately the weight of a fully fueled space shuttle sitting on the launchpad) impacting an earthlike planet at “only” 30 percent of lightspeed will release 1.5 million megatons of energy — an explosive force equivalent to 150 times today’s global nuclear arsenal…

The game plan is, in its simplest terms, the relativistic inverse to the golden rule: “Do unto the other fellow as he would do unto you and do it first.”

Presumably there is some sort of inhibition against killing another member of our own species, because we have to work to overcome it.

But the rules do not apply to other species. Both humans and wolves lack inhibitions against killing chickens.

It’s an entirely new situation, emerging from the physical possibilities that will face any species that can overcome the natural interstellar quarantine of its solar system. The choices seem unforgiving, and the mind struggles to imagine circumstances under which an interstellar species might make contact without triggering the realization that it can’t afford to be proven wrong in its fears.

They won’t come to get our resources or our knowledge or our women or even because they’re just mean and want power over us. They’ll come to destroy us to insure their survival, even if we’re no apparent threat, because species death is just too much to risk, however remote the risk…

The most humbling feature of the relativistic bomb is that even if you happen to see it coming, its exact motion and position can never be determined; and given a technology even a hundred orders of magnitude above our own, you cannot hope to intercept one of these weapons. It often happens, in these discussions, that an expression from the old west arises: “God made some men bigger and stronger than others, but Mr. Colt made all men equal.” Variations on Mr. Colt’s weapon are still popular today, even in a society that possesses hydrogen bombs. Similarly, no matter how advanced civilizations grow, the relativistic bomb is not likely to go away…

We ask that you try just one more thought experiment. Imagine yourself taking a stroll through Manhattan, somewhere north of 68th street, deep inside Central Park, late at night. It would be nice to meet someone friendly, but you know that the park is dangerous at night. That’s when the monsters come out. There’s always a strong undercurrent of drug dealings, muggings, and occasional homicides.

It is not easy to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys. They dress alike, and the weapons are concealed. The only difference is intent, and you can’t read minds.

Stay in the dark long enough and you may hear an occasional distance shriek or blunder across a body.

How do you survive the night? The last thing you want to do is shout, “I’m here!” The next to last thing you want to do is reply to someone who shouts, “I’m a friend!”

What you would like to do is find a policeman, or get out of the park. But you don’t want to make noise or move towards a light where you might be spotted, and it is difficult to find either a policeman or your way out without making yourself known. Your safest option is to hunker down and wait for daylight, then safely walk out.

There are, of course, a few obvious differences between Central Park and the universe.

There is no policeman.

There is no way out.

And the night never ends.

 

Margaret Atwood/A Leading Writer of 20th & 21st Centuries

Saturday, January 5th, 2019

November 18, 1939 is the birthday of Canadian poet and novelist Margaret Atwood, best known for her searing explorations of feminism, sexuality, and politics in books like The Handmaid’s Tale (1986), a dystopian novel that takes place in a United States, which has become a fundamentalist theocracy where women are forced to have children. She started writing the book on a battered, rented typewriter while on a fellowship in West Berlin. The book became an international best-seller. Atwood’s daughter was nine when it was published; by the time she was in high school, The Handmaid’s Tale was required reading. Atwood once said, “Men often ask me, ‘Why are your female characters so paranoid?’ It’s not paranoia. It’s recognition of their situation.”

Atwood was born in Ottawa, Ontario. Her father was an entomologist and the family lived for a long time in insect-research stations in the wilderness. She was 11 before she attended a full year of school. About growing up in near isolation, Atwood said: “There were no films or theatres in the North, and the radio didn’t work very well. But there were always books. I learned to read early, was an avid reader and read everything I could get my hands on — no one ever told me I couldn’t read a book. My mother liked quietness in children, and a child who is reading is very quiet.”

One day she was walking across a football field on her way home and began writing a poem in her head and decided to write it down. She says: “After that, writing was the only thing I wanted to do. I didn’t know that this poem of mine wasn’t at all good, and if I had known, I probably wouldn’t have cared.”

Her first novel was The Edible Woman (1969), about a woman who cannot eat and feels that she is being eaten. Atwood likes to write in longhand, preferably with a Rollerball pen, and is even the co-inventor of the LongPen, a remote signing device that allows a person to write in ink anywhere in the world using a tablet and the internet. Her books include Alias Grace (1996), Handmaid’s Tale(1985), The Blind Assassin( 2000), Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the flood(2009), MaddAddam(2013), and The Heart Goes Last (2015).

About the writing life, Margaret Atwood says: “You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.”

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Carl Sagan/Astronomer and Dreamer

Thursday, November 15th, 2018

Carl Sagan/Astronomer and Dreamer

November 9th was the birthday of the man that Smithsonian Magazine called “truly irreplaceable”: that’s astronomer Carl Sagan , born in Brooklyn (1934). Sagan was a popular guest on TV shows, especially The Tonight Show, but he was also a serious scientist who worked as a consultant on several unmanned NASA missions. Sagan was involved in the “Golden Record” project associated with the Voyager missions. The record was imprinted with images and recordings from Earth, in case it should be discovered by a form of intelligent life. It was on this project that Sagan met Ann Druyan. She was the creative director of the project, and eventually Sagan’s wife. Druyan later said: “Carl and I knew we were the beneficiaries of chance, that pure chance could be so kind that we could find one another in the vastness of space and the immensity of time. We knew that every moment should be cherished as the precious and unlikely coincidence that it was.”

Most people know him best as the co-creator and host of the hugely popular PBS show Cosmos, which aired in 1980. Sagan originally planned to call the show Man and the Cosmos, but he considered himself a feminist, so he decided to leave off the “man.” Seth MacFarlane, the creator of the animated TV series Family Guy and a lifelong astronomy enthusiast, collaborated with Ann Druyan, Sagan’s widow, to bring Cosmos back to television in 2014. MacFarlane also donated money to the Library of Congress, so that the library could purchase Sagan’s papers from Druyan. And there were a lot of papers: almost 800 boxes.

Sagan received a lot of fan mail over his career, many letters from people who shared their dreams and experiences, or their theories of extraterrestrial life, or simply thanked him for teaching them about astronomy. The more “out there” of the letters were filed in a box labeled “F/C,” which stood for “fissured ceramics” — Sagan’s code name for “crackpots.” People wrote to him about aliens that they had imprisoned in their basement, or the planets they had discovered. He was also approached by Timothy Leary, the former Harvard professor, and leader in the counterculture movement of the 1960s. Leary wanted to build a kind of “space ark” and transport hundreds of people to a different star, and he consulted Sagan to find out which star he should aim for. Sagan had to tell him that the technology to pull off such a feat did not currently exist. Leary wrote back: “I am not impressed with your conclusions in these areas,” and suggested that all that was needed was “exo-psychological and neuropolitical inspiration.”

Sagan died in 1996, of complications from a rare bone marrow disease. He was 62. He didn’t believe in life after death, and once told his daughter, Sasha, that it was dangerous to believe in something just because you want very badly for it to be true. But he also told her, “We are star stuff,” and made her feel the wonder of being alive.

From Sagan’s book Pale Blue Dot (1994), the title of which refers to a photo of Earth taken from billions of miles away: “That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you have ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives […] [E]very king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every revered teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

 

Marie Curie/Ground Breaking Chemist and Physicist

Wednesday, November 14th, 2018

November 7th was the birthday of Polish physicist and chemist Marie Curie (1867). Curie discovered radium, without which we wouldn’t have X-rays or certain cancer therapies. Curie was born in Warsaw, which is now Poland, but used to be part of the Russian Empire. She went on to win two Nobel Prizes, but she always donated her prize money and remained humble about her achievements. She once summed up her potential biography as, “I was born in Poland. I married Pierre Curie, and I have two daughters. I have done my work in France.”

Curie came from a family of teachers who believed so strongly in education that her father brought home discarded test tubes from the laboratory at his school and encouraged Marie to perform experiments. Because she was a girl, she couldn’t go to University. So she began studying clandestinely at what was called a “Floating University,” a secret set of informal, underground classes held in Warsaw.

She met her husband, Pierre, after moving to France to further her studies. They set up a lab in a decrepit warehouse outside their atelier. The warehouse had an asphalt floor, a glass roof broken in several places, and was heated by a cast-iron stove in the winter. They worked on worn-out tables, often eating simple meals of bread washed down with water.

Curie often stirred the heavy and hot molten mass of radioactive products in a caldron herself, sometimes slipping samples in her pockets and forgetting about them. No one knew then about the harmful effects of radiation. When she died in 1934, it was attributed to four decades of exposure to radioactivity.

Curie and Pierre discovered radium and polonium in 1898. A watchcase containing a speck of the radium was exhibited at the Paris Exposition in 1900. The label read, “Radium, discovered by Mme. Curie.”

During World War I, Curie and her daughter suggested that the armies equip automobiles with radiographic apparatus to treat the wounded, inadvertently inventing the X-ray and the ambulance at the same time. The X-ray could locate bullets and fragments in wounded soldiers, which meant quick, life-saving removal.

All of Marie Curie’s research materials and notes are too dangerous to examine because of their high level of radioactivity. They are kept in lead-lined boxes.

 


William S. Frankl, MD, All Rights Reserved