Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Curiosity, 2

August 15, 2012 Leave a comment

Ten days ago, with NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity two hours away from landing (or crashing), I embedded a NASA video illustrating the extraordinary sequence of steps involved in a successful arrival. I have since been following Curiosity’s twitter feed, a convenient way to keep abreast of the latest news and photos. A few hours ago, Curiosity told its followers about the video I’ve embedded above.

Earlier today, Curiosity tweeted with news of the video below, which features the unlikely NASA celebrity and flight director Bobak Ferdowsi, better known as Mohawk Guy.

But nothing beats Curiosity’s photos themselves, like the one below, taken a week ago by Curiosity’s Mastcam.

Part of Gale Crater’s north wall

Categories: Science, Technology

Curiosity: Two Hours to Touchdown

August 5, 2012 Leave a comment

Curiosity — NASA’s new Mars Science Laboratory — is due to land in Mars’ Gale Crater in two hours. The new scientific knowledge the rover will provide is sufficient cause for excitement, but the design of the landing process is pretty cool in its own right. (And, of course, if there’s not a successful landing, there will be no science at all.) Be sure to watch the video above, courtesy of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, to see what I’m talking about.

Also, from the website:

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft is healthy and right on course for a landing in several hours that will be one of the most difficult feats of robotic exploration ever attempted.

Emotions are strong in the control room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., as the hours and miles race toward touchdown of the car-size Curiosity at about 10:31 p.m. PDT tonight (about 1:31 a.m. Aug. 6, EDT).

“Excitement is building while the team is diligently monitoring the spacecraft,” said Mission Manager Brian Portock of JPL. “It’s natural to get anxious before a big event, but we believe we are very well prepared.”

Descent from the top of Mars’ atmosphere to the surface will employ bold techniques enabling use of a smaller target area and heavier landed payload than were possible for any previous Mars mission. These innovations, if successful, will place a well-equipped mobile laboratory into a locale especially well-suited for this mission of discovery. The same innovations advance NASA toward capabilities needed for human missions to Mars.


At the critical moment of Curiosity’s touchdown, controllers and the rest of the world will be relying on NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter to provide immediate confirmation of a successful landing. Odyssey will turn to point in the right direction beforehand to listen to Curiosity during the landing. If for any reason that turn maneuver does not work, a successful landing cannot be confirmed until more than two hours later.

The landing will end a 36-week flight from Earth and begin at two-year prime mission on Mars. Researchers will use Curiosity’s 10 science instruments to investigate whether Martian environmental conditions have ever been favorable for microbial life.

Good luck, Curiosity.

Categories: Science, Technology

A Shortage of Higgs Bosons

March 12, 2012 Leave a comment

I wrote two weeks ago about starting Jim Baggott’s The Quantum Story: A History in 40 Moments, and again a week ago with a minor complaint and further thoughts about the book. As I continued reading (finishing Thursday evening), I found a great deal of interest and regretted some of my less than enthusiastic comments. The philosophical issues raised by quantum mechanics, treated early in the book in detailed discussions of Bohr’s complementarity principle and the Bohr-Einstein debates, return through Baggott’s treatment of the experimental work performed a few decades later on entanglement and related matters. Another strength is his description of the standard model of physics (explaining all the elementary particles and uniting the electroweak and strong forces), which emerges lucidly over the course of several chapters. The closing chapters treat approaches to quantum gravity: superstring theory and loops. Plus, there’s a diagram, adapted from a book by Roger Penrose, that I found especially enlightening, illustrating the three extensions one can attempt to perform to a theory of physics by gravitizing, relativizing, or quantizing it. Newton, for example, gravitated naive Galilean physics and Einstein relativized it. Gravitizing and relativizing yields general relativity. And so on.

Baggott’s story ends with the still-ongoing search for the Higgs boson, the standard model’s lone missing particle, which is introduced about halfway through the book as a possible explanation for particles’ having mass. Just last week, word came from Fermilab that it may have been observed, as it also may have been at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva.

However, what prompted this post is not my finishing of Baggott’s book or the news that the Higgs boson may have been seen at long last. Rather, it’s the use the brilliant Ted Rall made of the Higgs boson in his cartoon today, which you can see above. Rall explains:

Scientists claim to have finally isolated the long-hypothesized Higgs Boson, a particular responsible for endowing other elementary particles with mass. Which gives us an opportunity to, as many editorial cartoonists do, blend two completely unrelated news stories into an awkward cartoon about contemporary politics.

(By the way, please visit Rall’s site. I feel guilty about embedding his cartoon in this post, as he should get credit via page views. You should head over there, check out his other cartoons, maybe click on his donation link — which I tried to do this morning, but something went wrong in my effort to donate. I’ll try again.)

Categories: Cartoons, Politics, Science

Shaw & Sucia Islands

August 21, 2011 Leave a comment

Sunset from Shaw Island

Back in April, at the annual fundraising auction of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, we were high bidder for an overnight outing to two of the San Juan Islands. The premise of most of the auction items is that you get to spend time with one of the museum’s curators, either in the museum itself or out in the field. In this case, we were bidding for two curators and a generous host couple.

The San Juans, as you may know, lie to the north of Puget Sound and east of the Juan de Fuca Straits, in the waters between Vancouver Island (to the west) and the northern part of Washington State. The US-Canada border snakes through in a complicated pattern, separating the San Juans from Canada’s Gulf Islands to the north. (See the Pig War of 1859 and the ultimate determination of the border in 1872.) Four of the islands are served by Washington State Ferries: Lopez, Shaw, Orcas, and San Juan. But there are many others, such as Sucia, some privately owned and some public.

In outline, we were to arrive at Shaw Island in time for dinner at the host couple’s home along with the hosts and the curators, spend the evening there, then head out as a group on the hosts’ boat to Sucia Island, which lies on the other side of Orcas Island, about an hour away (depending on tides). There, we would explore the archaeology, geology, and paleontology of the island, with a break for lunch, and in mid afternoon we would return to Shaw to catch the ferry back.

Finding a mutually satisfactory time was not entirely straightforward, but we eventually settled on two weeks ago today and tomorrow. Gail and I headed off around 1:30 PM for Anacortes, on Fidalgo Island some 80 miles north of here, and its ferry terminal a few miles west of town. There we met up with Julie and Liz, our guides. Julie was once the museum’s archaeology curator, but has served for six years now as its executive director. Liz is the invertebrate paleontology curator. And both are friends, which was part of the appeal of the trip when we bid on it. (Julie is more than a friend. She’s my long lost twin, having been born on the very same day as me, just hours later. We have shared the fate of having only a limited number of birthdays. Next year is a big one.) The ferries were running late, so we had some time to kill at the ferry landing. The day was warm and lovely, and we were quite content to sit outside waiting and chatting. Once aboard the ferry, we did the same, as we snaked through the islands to Shaw.

I had never been on Shaw before, only looking at it from the ferry. It’s primarily residential. No town. No commercial area, except for the general store and post office just a hundred yards up from the ferry landing. For years, these were managed by nuns, but they left seven years ago, leaving the store in the hands of a Shaw couple. Our host met us, loaded our bags, and whisked us off to his home, where his wife welcomed us. We were shown to our guest quarters, took a few moments to unpack, then headed over to the main house to join everyone.

Soon, as we relaxed over drinks and hors d’ouevres in the most gorgeous of settings, the tour began. A large map of the islands was unfolded and Julie and Liz explained the islands’ geological history, along with that of western Washington as a whole. Birds flitted in and out among the nearby feeders and we looked out at the view across the water to other islands. Our host got the salmon going on the grill, and before long it was time to move inside for dinner.

What a feast! With two weeks gone now, I can hardly remember all the details. Many of the vegetables had been bought the day before at the market in Friday Harbor, the main town of San Juan Island and a short trip by boat. Fresh corn salad, green salad, assorted other vegetables, perfectly cooked salmon. And the conversation was every bit as wonderful as the food.

After dinner, our host took us on a walk up a slight slope on the property to its high point, a wooded area with mysterious boulders that Julie said were not naturally occurring. They would have been placed there by natives, perhaps as a burial area. From there we walked down to an overlook above the water and back to the house. The sun was near to setting, so I headed out with my camera and took shot upon shot, one of which you can see at the top.

Soon dessert awaited us, the most gorgeous of almond tarts. I had been trying to limit my carb intake, but I couldn’t pass up the tart entirely, and our hostess was kind enough to cut off a piece of just the right size for me. It was so good that if allowed, I would surely have had three regular pieces rather than one tiny piece. We talked into the evening, partly about issues of higher education, then headed off to get some sleep before our big adventure.

The next morning, we arrived at the main house from our guest quarters to find yet another feast, a breakfast of eggs and bacon and fruits and berries and bread and more. After eating and loading up, we headed to our hosts’ boat, moored not far away, and within minutes we were off.

Leaving Shaw Island for Sucia Island

The tides were against us as we headed north around the west side of Orcas and then east, along the north side of Orcas to Sucia. We arrived in Fossil Bay, an inlet on the island’s southeast corner, found some dock space to tie up along, and disembarked. The morning was for archaeology.

Julie isn’t just any archaeologist. She’s Ms. San Juan Islands Archaeologist, the famed islands expert, having led digs, studied, and published about them for decades. And Sucia isn’t just any island. It’s the island on which the young archaeologist Robert Kidd did some groundbreaking (I know, this is must be a tiresome pun among archies) research starting in 1960. We walked over to the site of Kidd’s work, where Julie gave us a lesson on the history of archaeological research in the islands. She had brought along photos of the old dig, much of which is now covered over by wild roses and other growth, as well as the thistle pictured below.

Sucia Island thistle

We then walked along the beach in search of evidence of shell middens (the garbage dumps where native residents would have thrown their shells and other waste, and where tools are typically found as well). We didn’t have to look far. We reached one of the raised composting toilets, and there just below was a midden, disturbed of course by the construction years ago of the original toilet. Two parks employees came by and Julie gave us all a lesson on middens.

Time for lunch. We retraced our steps back to the boat, our hosts set pulled out all the food, unfolded a tablecloth on one of the picnic tables that sit on the dock, and laid out feast number three. There were some leftovers, new salads, smoked salmon, homemade chocolate chip cookies, fruit, drinks. Gosh we ate well.

Time for paleontology. We walked back past the shell middens to another stretch of beach, which you can see below. We walked down the beach not in the direction shown, but in the direction behind me.

Sucia Island beach, with Waldron (US) and Saturna (Canada) Islands beyond

This brought us to some cliffs filled with fossils. Let me assure you, in case you have any interest in heading over to Sucia, that fossil collecting is absolutely forbidden. So don’t do it. Unless you have a permit, which you don’t, but which Liz does. Out came two hammers, though Julie showed me that I could pick up any quartz rock along the beach and use it as well.

Sucia Island fossil

We all hammered away at the cliff, or at pieces of fallen rock at the cliff’s foot, turning up fossil after fossil, which Liz duly recorded and bagged. It was great fun. I forgot to mention that Liz had brought some fossils up from the museum collection, showing us back at the house after breakfast what they were and previewing what we might see. As we found new fossils, she was able to tell us what they were.

Well, one can only have so much fun, and there was a ferry to catch, so around 3:00 we started walking back to the boat. Those darn tides. They had gone and reversed themselves on us, setting us up for yet another tide-fighting ride. But a beautiful one, with great company, so we were happy as we bumped along, around Orcas again and on to Shaw.

After docking, we unloaded, carried and wheelbarrowed everything back to the vehicles, and it was time for goodbyes to Julie, Liz, and the hostess, who would be returning to the house. The host drove us on to the ferry landing with time to spare, so we were able to wander through the general store with him and check out the post office. Then one more farewell, leaving Gail and me to sit and look out across the water to Orcas as we waited for the ferry.

The return trip was longer, since the ferry makes a triangle, going on from Shaw to Orcas before returning to Anacortes. We were back at our car around 7:00, in need of dinner. I had seen two possibilities the day before on our way through downtown Anacortes to the ferry, a Chinese place and a Mexican taqueria across the street from it. We drove into town, checked both out, and chose Chinese. A bit of a comedown from the three amazing meals of the previous 24 hours, but perfectly fine. Just what we needed. We got back in the car and an hour and a half later we were home.

We can’t wait for next year’s auction, and perhaps another curator trip, though nothing can top this one.

Categories: Food, Science, Travel

Arsenic-Based Life

December 2, 2010 Leave a comment

I can’t remember the last time I had a science post, but there was a pretty cool announcement today in the realm of astrobiology, and I can’t resist mentioning it.

One might describe astrobiology as the inter-disciplinary study of how life begins, or could begin, on Earth or elsewhere in the universe. One challenge to studying this is that we haven’t found life anywhere else in the universe. That makes it a little difficult to study life elsewhere. But what we can do instead is study life in harsh conditions on Earth, such as at deep sea hydrothermal vents. Faculty at my university study such things. I even know some of these faculty. And a few years back, my administrative duties included overseeing our Astrobiology Program, not that that made me especially knowledgeable about the field. But I did come to develop some appreciation for it. I always remember the remark of a visiting astrobiologist that this field is really going to explode when life is found elsewhere in the universe.

Meantime, we have to settle for life here. That’s the context for the news announced today. The NYT’s Dennis Overbye explains in his story in tomorrow’s paper:

Scientists said Thursday that they had trained a bacterium to eat and grow on a diet of arsenic, in place of phosphorus — one of six elements considered essential for life — opening up the possibility that organisms could exist elsewhere in the universe or even here on Earth using biochemical powers we have not yet dared to dream about.*

The bacterium, scraped from the bottom of Mono Lake in California and grown for months in a lab mixture containing arsenic, gradually swapped out atoms of phosphorus in its little body for atoms of arsenic.

Scientists said the results, if confirmed, would expand the notion of what life could be and where it could be. “There is basic mystery, when you look at life,” said Dimitar Sasselov, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and director of an institute on the origins of life there, who was not involved in the work. “Nature only uses a restrictive set of molecules and chemical reactions out of many thousands available. This is our first glimmer that maybe there are other options.”

Felisa Wolfe-Simon, a NASA astrobiology fellow at the United States Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif., who led the experiment, said, “This is a microbe that has solved the problem of how to live in a different way.”

This story is not about Mono Lake or arsenic, she said, but about “cracking open the door and finding that what we think are fixed constants of life are not.”

Dr. Wolfe-Simon and her colleagues publish their findings Friday in Science.

I find this pretty exciting.

*Responding to the notion of powers we have not yet dared to dream about, the New Yorker’s Amy Davidson asked, “Is this where we have to choose between X-ray vision and flying?”

Categories: Life, Science

DeRose: Oenology+Seismology

November 29, 2009 2 comments

The Wall Street Journal’s front-page daily feature yesterday was about DeRose Vineyards, notable for both its wine and its location on the San Andreas fault. If you have access, I recommend the article as well as the accompanying slide show and video. As explained in the article,

DeRose Vineyards has become a must-see for geologists, seismologists and science buffs. They come for the San Andreas Fault, which cuts a clear path through the winery’s main building. One side of the structure sits on the Pacific plate, the other on the North American. The fault is moving slowly, and tearing apart the building at the rate of about half an inch a year.

A jagged crack splits the office floor and runs through the warehouse between the fermentation tanks and the aging barrels. An outer wall is warped. A doorway is barely usable. A long concrete ditch is distorted. …

But what scientists consider a geological marvel is an expensive nuisance to the winery’s owners.

“We just keep patching,” says Pat DeRose, who bought the winery in 1988 with another family. In the past 40 years, one side of the building has moved around a foot and a half northwest, while the other side has stayed put. That has required regular fixes to the roof and walls.

The video is narrated by Tamara Audi, the author of the article. She notes at the end that “if you work on the San Andreas, it helps to have a sense of humor and plenty of wine.” One of the staff then notes, “Eventually LA will be here. We’ll have beach front property.”

As for the vineyard itself, the history page at its website suggests that it may be the oldest winery in California. Forty of its 100 acres were planted before 1900 and are “dry-farmed in deep sandy-loam soils on terraced hillsides.”

I’d sure like to visit. Maybe we will, when we take our long-deferred first trip to Monterey. Meanwhile, I’m going to order a couple of their wines. Don’t tell Gail. It will be a surprise.

Categories: Newspapers, Science, Wine


October 5, 2009 Leave a comment


[Alan S. Weiner for The New York Times]

I just realized that I haven’t written a post yet this month. Sorry about that. I’ve spent most of my free computer time the last few days on trip planning. With me on sabbatical, and with Joel in Grenoble until just before Christmas, it’s obvious that we should get over there, and so we will. The pieces are now mostly in place — and just in time — for what will be our longest trip in a decade. We have flights and hotel reservations. Next up is train reservations. Three weeks from this moment we’ll be over the Atlantic, making our way to Paris to see my sister after a short stop in New York. Then on to Grenoble, Venice, Rome, Florence, Milan, back to Paris, back to New York, and finally Chicago overnight for a meeting before returning here.

I have a few items I had thought of writing about that I will instead just list here, with minimal comment. Then I’ll get on to other issues in separate posts.

1. In case you missed the coverage of the October 1 ceremony for the 2009 Ig Nobel Prize winners, be sure to review the list here. Some are pretty good. Not so the Math prize, alas, as the choice and accompanying citation only serve to reinforce the stereotype that mathematicians spend their time dealing with really big numbers. But maybe people in other fields feel similarly. Here, as one example, is the Physics prize citation:

PHYSICS PRIZE: Katherine K. Whitcome of the University of Cincinnati, USA, Daniel E. Lieberman of Harvard University, USA, and Liza J. Shapiro of the University of Texas, USA, for analytically determining why pregnant women don’t tip over.

REFERENCE: “Fetal Load and the Evolution of Lumbar Lordosis in Bipedal Hominins,” Katherine K. Whitcome, Liza J. Shapiro & Daniel E. Lieberman, Nature, vol. 450, 1075-1078 (December 13, 2007). DOI:10.1038/nature06342.

WHO ATTENDED THE CEREMONY: Katherine Whitcome and Daniel Lieberman

2. The lead story in yesterday’s NYT travel section had some local interest. It was an amusing account by NYT Styles reporter Eric Wilson of his failed effort to hike the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier this past summer. He had the misfortune of starting his journey on the day we all remember well, when the temperature was 103 degrees here in Seattle and apparently no different down there. Here’s one brief excerpt from his experience that day:

When we came upon an eerily blue lake, bluer than the Mediterranean, clear-looking enough to be a mirage or a mirror, I could not resist a quick dip, and so I ran headlong into the water as Chris and Rosemary were still taking off their shoes. As I broke through the still surface of water, the sensation I felt was that I would not be coming back up. My legs and arms felt disconnected from my body, collectively numb, but I could sense every hair on my head stand up in unison, and then, in the same millisecond, a piercing stab through my chest. I jerked my head up and gasped. It had not occurred to me that a lake halfway up the highest summit in the Cascade Range (14,410 feet) and one of the highest points in the lower 48 states, and not a mile from the edge of a glacier (ironically named Fryingpan) might be, well, as cold as ice. My feet touched bottom, and I sloshed out of the water, frightened by the intensity of the pain, but surely invigorated.

3. A week ago I had anticipated writing a post about Afghanistan, but it never happened. As a substitute for my own uneducated thoughts on the subject, I’ll just point to two of the several articles I read a week ago: George Packer’s article on Richard Holbrooke in the September 28 issue of the New Yorker and Ahmed Rashid’s article in the October 8 issue of the New York Review of Books on the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I should add to this yesterday’s Washington Post op-ed piece by Peter Galbraith, written in the wake of his firing as deputy special representative of the United Nations in Afghanistan. (It turns out that I know Peter, sort of. He was a college classmate. We were in the same residential house. Just two Junes ago, during our 35th reunion, we sat together at lunch one day and chatted.) Galbraith writes about the recent Afghan election, for which he supervised the UN support:

Afghanistan’s presidential election, held Aug. 20, should have been a milestone in the country’s transition from 30 years of war to stability and democracy. Instead, it was just the opposite. As many as 30 percent of Karzai’s votes were fraudulent, and lesser fraud was committed on behalf of other candidates. In several provinces, including Kandahar, four to 10 times as many votes were recorded as voters actually cast. The fraud has handed the Taliban its greatest strategic victory in eight years of fighting the United States and its Afghan partners.

The election was a foreseeable train wreck. Unlike the United Nations-run elections in 2004, this balloting was managed by Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC). Despite its name, the commission is subservient to Karzai, who appointed its seven members. Even so, the international role was extensive. The United States and other Western nations paid the more than $300 million to hold the vote, and U.N. technical staff took the lead in organizing much of the process, including printing ballot papers, distributing election materials and designing safeguards against fraud.

President Obama needs a legitimate Afghan partner to make any new strategy for the country work. However, the extensive fraud that took place on Aug. 20 virtually guarantees that a government emerging from the tainted vote will not be credible with many Afghans.

I can’t imagine any US mission in Afghanistan having much chance of success. But again, what do I know? On the other hand, Rory Stewart knows a lot, and he doesn’t seem to see things much differently. (See a post of mine from two months ago.)

4. I try to keep my references to Glenn Greenwald’s blog within reasonable bounds, but here I go again. In a post yesterday, he has a passage that aptly describes the state of the nation:

Reviewing the Sunday news shows and newspapers creates the most intense cognitive dissonance: a nation crippled by staggering debt, exploding unemployment, an ever-expanding rich-poor gap, and dependence on foreign government financing can’t stop debating how much more resources we should devote to our various military occupations, which countries we should bomb next, which parts of the world we should bring into compliance with our dictates using threats of military force. It’s like listening to an individual about to declare personal bankruptcy talking about all the new houses and jewels he plans on buying next week and all the extravagant trips he’s planning, in between lamenting how important it is that he stop spending so much. That would sound insane. And that’s exactly how our political discourse sounds.

Where is the change we can believe in?