Field of Science


Image by Lou Brooks

I just attended a colloquium by Frank Drake. Frank Drake is best known for his Drake equation which determines the number of intelligent civilizations in our galaxy that we might expect to encounter or rather have the possibility of communicating with. Drake told us that at the time the equation was something he thought up just before a conference in front of an eclectic collection of scientists and it was overshadowed by talking dolphins and Melvin Calvin (that is of the Calvin Cycle) winning the Nobel prize. The Drake equation went on to have quite a legacy, and despite the non-detection of intelligent extraterrestrial life people believe in the Drake equation's predictions today even more than they did then. I am not going to show or even discuss the Drake equation in depth here because if you know it you know it and it is not actually particularly enlightening, further to me the Drake equation is just a version of a Fermi problem that suffers from the Fermi paradox.

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, SETI, is an ongoing and very serious endeavor, for example the Allen Telescope Array is currently being constructed and looks very promising. As I always encourage people to get involved with programs like SETI@home; you could help discover aliens and what not simply by running a nifty screen saver (which I should mention is extremely scientifinic in fact, I quote "The colors you see in the graph signify absolutely nothing.", so you know it is real science). I leave you with words from an articulate speaker, Jill Tarter (a TED 2009 prize winner), to summarize.

Proxima Centauri

What is the closest star to earth? If you said Alpha Centauri you think your really smart, but I want the correct answer. If you said the sun you think your really clever, but I want the nontrivial answer. The closest (known) star then is Proxima Centauri, not Alpha Centauri! I have heard physics professors and even colloquium speakers blatantly state the wrong answer to this simple question. I must set the record straight.

Cassini resolves Centauri A & B with Saturn's rings in the foreground.
The sun's closest companion is part of the Alpha Centauri star system. This is a system of three stars meandering about each other. The brightest star of the bunch is Alpha Centauri A (at a distance of 1.35 parsecs, or 4.4 lighyears) which is orbiting a slightly dimmer companion Alpha Centauri B every 80 years or so. They are separated by about 20 AU (that's 20 times the average distance from earth to the sun), but to the unaided eye they look like a single bright star in the sky. This is indeed the closest "star" that can be seen at night without a telescope. The last star in the system is Alpha Centauri C or Proxima Centauri (at a distance of 1.29 parsecs, or 4.22 light years) and it is the closest star. It is a dim, red, cold, small star. It is relatively distant from Centauri A/B, but it is thought to be gravitationally bound and in a slow orbit around these two stars (Is Proxima really in orbit about Alpha Centauri A/B?) with a period of about one million years. If Proxima Centauri is in orbit about Centauri A/B then it may not be the closest star during certain periods of orbit; the closest star to earth would alternate. Of course, the entire system has an extremely large proper motion such that in a million years it wont even be the closest star system any longer.

Neoliberal Galt

Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged has had some kind of revival lately. I discussed the book a while ago in a previous post. Here is a follow up on what is being said about the book in the media. People are asking is it crazy to go Galt? Roughly speaking to go Galt means to emulate a character from the book, John Galt, and his philosophy that in a corrupt and inept system those with virtue and ability should refuse to perpetuate that system. In reality I think it means rich people are refusing to pay their taxes. There is a dichotomy in Rand's followers between liberals and conservatives, so is it neoliberal or is it conservative to go Galt? And Colbert weighs in also.

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The Galaxy Zoo

Explore the Galaxy Zoo! The Galaxy Zoo is a project that is using crowd sourcing to classify galaxies. Astronomers have a scheme for classifying galaxies based on their morphology that is old and not the most rigorous process, but by getting multiple classifications statistically significant facts can be drawn about each galaxy and the entire data set.

So all you have to do is go look at galaxies like the ones below and click on whether each is a spiral or elliptical galaxy. Go. Do it. Now.

Sailing Upwind

Modern sail boats have more in common with airplanes than ancient ships. How do you design a sideways flying airplane? I have always found this a fascinating topic so I was very happy to see an article about the physics of sailing by Bryon Anderson a couple of months ago in Physics Today.

This image from Anderson's article demonstrates something profoundly unintuitive about sailing. Sailing downwind is not the fastest direction.

Not everything sails on water though. A land yacht called the Greenbird has just broken the wind-powered vehicle world record. The Rochelt Musculair sails through the air, flys, solely on human power.

These examples lead us to a paragon of design that has yet to prove its mettle, the BMW Oracle 90, a truly devastating machine. It is at the center of the America's Cup controversy. The controversy not withstanding this yacht is something to be in awe of: the BMW Oracle 90 is the size of a baseball infield, it has a mast taller than the statue of liberty (that is 48 meters, the Statue of Liberty is 46 meters not including the pedestal), and is one of the fastest sailboats created by man (what is the fastest?) . Please watch this video and behold.

Black Rain

A film, Black Rain, by Semiconductor Films. They say:

Black Rain is sourced from images collected by the twin satellite, solar mission, STEREO. Here we see the HI (Heliospheric Imager) visual data as it tracks interplanetary space for solar wind and CME's (coronal mass ejections) heading towards Earth. Data courtesy of courtesy of the Heliospheric Imager on the NASA STEREO mission.

Working with STEREO scientists, Semiconductor collected all the HI image data to date, revealing the journey of the satellites from their initial orientation, to their current tracing of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun. Solar wind, CME's, passing planets and comets orbiting the sun can be seen as background stars and the milky way pass by.

As in Semiconductors previous work 'Brilliant Noise' which looked into the sun, they work with raw scientific satellite data which has not yet been cleaned and processed for public consumption. By embracing the artefacts, calibration and phenomena of the capturing process we are reminded of the presence of the human observer who endeavors to extend our perceptions and knowledge through technological innovation.