Archive for January, 2009

Survivor: Universe

This is very cool, the Space Telescope Science Institute, the people who decide what research is done with the Hubble Space Telescope, are holding a public vote on which object to image.

Now that I think about it, they should have called it “Survivor: Universe” and let people vote against objects, ’cause being mean-spirited is way more fun. I mean, look at NGC 4289. It totally snubbed ARP 274. Don’t you see the way that it’s standing!??! It’s all “talk to the spiral arm, ’cause the central bar ain’t listening.” And for what? It thinks ARP 274 got more dark matter? Not good enough, vote that bastard off already.

Ahem. Meanwhile, Seth at the US LHC blogs wonders if the LHC experiments can do something similar. I kinda hope they don’t. Do we really need national TV exposure of all the ways the different quarks hate each other? That shit is ugly.

Anyway, go vote: there are prizes!

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Via The Bad Astronomer, my picture was on gawker.com! Well, kinda. It’s of the crowd at a recent reading by Neil deGrasse Tyson; I’m just to the left of the central pillar, in case it isn’t blindingly obvious to everyone…

The actual article is either typical pro-stupid drivel or brilliant satire. Given the source I have a theory about which is correct. I’ll also have more to say about the reading, which was incredibly entertaining, in a day or so.

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An off-hand comment of Neil Gaiman’s has shattered of my notions about the difference between science and literature. But first, a short pontification:

Science is, as any active researcher will tell you at great length, a very creative endeavor. There is a constant stream of problems — ranging from “Why do particles have mass?” to “How do I wire these three instruments together without blowing up the lab?” to “Can I word this paper to maximally piss of my rivals without having the referee make me change it?”. The solutions generally require agile and unconventional thinking. Far from the image of mindless button-pushing and number-crunching, a sizable part of even the day-to-day life is about constructing thoughts that no one has had before.

However, this creativity is also highly constrained. The question, “What is the universe made of?” has a huge range of possible answers. On the other hand, almost all of those are wrong. I could advance the theory that at the fundamental level everything is made of unicorn tears. While that may be an interesting (or possibly horrific) world, it’s not the one we live in. Scientific creativity is much more akin to that of a haiku writer than, say, a novelist.


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Simple ideas

One of the more exciting ideas for how to get stuff up into space is a Space Elevator. Basically, you stretch a rope from the ground to a satellite in geosynchronous orbit, and then ferry stuff up and down the rope.

A few weeks ago the BBC published a story about a new technique to lift things up the elevator. In a nutshell, you have someone standing at the bottom of the rope vibrating it up and down sending waves all the way up to the satellite; the elevator has a clamp which closes when the upward-moving part of the wave is passing, and releases when it’s moving down. Presto! The elevator goes up.

What’s cool about this technique is not particularly its application to space elevation — which currently suffers from the problem that no known material has the strength to serve as the “rope”. Nor is it the fact that it could be used in ordinary elevators in some of the newer skyscrapers. No, the really fascinating bit is that it seems so simple, yet only just appeared. It’s borderline platitudinal to say something like “In this era of increasingly complicated technology there are still very simple ideas that can make an impact”, but it’s still impressive to see it in action.

The other neat thing is that this is basically the same principle that’s used in particle accelerators. There the waves are electromagnetic, and the “elevator” is a million or so electrons or protons, but it still works on the idea of catching the right part of the wave.

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And we’re back!

Sorry for the long and unexpected hiatus. This blog is now being reassembled, reanimated, and restored to normal operation at the several posts-per-week level.

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