Monday, August 29, 2011

Van Allen Radiation Belts

The Earth actually has trapped belts of charged particles surrounding it in a torus. These belts are called, you guessed it, the Van Allen radiation belts. These belts were actually discovered right here at the University of Iowa, my physics class is even held in a building named after Van Allen.
This is a torus

There are really only two belts of radiation, the inner and outer belts (pretty easy to remember). Even though these two belts compose the Van Allen radiation belt, they are very different. The outer belt is mostly composed of electrons, with a few protons and oxygen ions thrown in for good measure. Most of the outer belts particles are trapped from solar winds and cosmic rays, but the unique composition of ions suggests that there are several other sources. The inner Van Allen belt is a mixture of protons and electrons with far more protons than the outer belt. Unlike the outer belt, the inner belt particles come mainly from cosmic rays impacting the upper atmosphere. Both belts are held in place by the Earth's magnetic field.
Simulation of Van Allen belt on solar wind.

The number of charged particles in the Van Allen belt are fluctuating all the time, more so in the outer belt than the inner belt. The outer belt is farther away from the center of the Earth's magnetic field, and is thus more subject to fluctuations in that field, or to fluctuations in solar activity. One moment the outer belt could be massively charged, and the next moment most of its particles could have flown away.
It has been recently discovered that the Van Allen belts have trapped antimatter. There is a significant quantity of antiprotons, orders of magnitude more than thought, trapped by the Earth's magnetic field.

Van Allen radiation belt

I can imagine that many people would question the importance of these belts, and so they should (it's always good to question). Even if they don't seem like it, these belts have a massive impact on our daily lives. The highly charged particles pose a significant threat to anything that we do in space, some of the highly charged protons in these belts can penetrate more than 140 mm of solid lead. Humans who stay in the radiation belts for extended periods of time have to be concerned with radiation poisoning, but you might still ask what impact this has on your life. Humans aren't often orbiting the earth, but satellites are. Most satellites have to orbit somewhere in either of the radiation belts, and this can pose a serious threat to their hardware. Any number of sensors and computer components can be overloaded by the plasma surrounding our planet, so extensive measures must be taken to assure that these satellites don't go offline and crash your GPS device. There is a safe zone between the two radiation belts, as the above picture might indicate.

A rather interesting proposition has been made. Two physicists, Robert Hoyt and Robert Forward, have come up with something that they call HiVOLT (high voltage orbiting long tether). The basic idea is that a highly charged tether would be attached to satellites to deflect particles into the Earth's atmosphere where they would be harmlessly dissipated. I have no idea if this would work or not, but it is fascinating.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Usual Posting

Usually I would have posted today, but I'm moving this post to tomorrow to accomodate my homework.
Also, don't forget to follow me on Twitter @ScienceManBlog.

Friday, August 26, 2011

First Contact: How It'll Go Down

A couple days back I wrote about the implications of first contact, but I said nothing about how it would happen. I would like to speak on that now. Currently the SETI (search for extra-terrestrial intelligence) Institute is actively searching the skies for radio signals from alien planets, in the hope that we'll soon begin to pick up the broadcasts from extraterrestrial life, whether it be a message directed outward to communicate with us, or an old television broadcast (alien television, whatever that'd be like).
The Alien Telescope Array, SETI (radio telescopes)

It is most likely, by a vast margin, that our first contact with an alien species will be through something like the SETI Institute. They are betting that our alien neighbors will use something like radio waves to communicate with one another, just like we do. Radio waves are not directed in a straight line, they span out in a sphere, going through all of space, but constantly getting more and more diffuse. This means that there is an expanding shell of everything that we've ever sent through a radio signal flying away from the earth at the speed of light. If an alien species did this too, it'd eventually reach us and we'd be able to detect it. There are numerous problems with this however. First, this signal has to travel a long way. There's no way to tell which planets out there in the universe will support intelligent life, so the radio signals that we are looking for might be coming from thousands of light years away. If these aliens only recently developed the ability to send radio signals, we could be waiting a long time to hear from them. Second, a problem directly related to how far away they are is signal distortion. If they were thousands of light years away, then this radio signal would be expanding through space for thousands of years. With all the radiation in space and how diffuse the signal would be, we might, at best, get something entirely unintelligible. Third is the problem of development. We have no way of knowing how fast another intelligent species has developed, or will develop. We don't even know when they started developing. The galaxy might once have been buzzing with life, but they could have all died out before we came about, or maybe other intelligent species are still banging rocks together. The list of problems goes on and on, but for now, searching for radio signals is our best bet.
Comic from SMBC

Now, the much more interesting scenario for first contact, as I went over in the other post, would be for aliens to actually visit earth. Hollywood tends to think this will be a hostile encounter, but that's not really all that likely. If these aliens came all the way to earth, why would they just destroy it? But let's just assume for a moment that they really did come all this way to wage war on us, why? One major reason is resources. Just because these aliens have fantastic traveling power (and probably weapons) doesn't mean that they have the ability to synthesize any resources that they might need. They could have been flying by, noticed a planet with the resources they needed, and stopped. You might ask yourself, why wouldn't they just find another planet when they realized that we'd retaliate? The answer to this would probably be that they couldn't. They may be so low on resources that they have no choice but to harvest our planet. I've heard it argued that these aliens wouldn't be so cruel as to destroy a planet's native inhabitants, but we can't assume that these aliens would be anything like us. They may feel entirely different emotions than us, maybe it's even fun for them. Another reason for violent contact may be that they want to colonize our planet. Perhaps these aliens have figured out that there aren't enough habitable planets in the galaxy, so they decided to take ours. We cannot assume that they have the technology to terraform worlds, perhaps they just evolved to take instead of create. Species need to expand to survive, so maybe taking over the earth is necessary for them.
First contact: alien invasion

The more probable first contact will be one of peace. If these aliens are technologically advanced enough to make it all the way to earth, we would hope that they are powerful enough not to need our planet. If they have that much technology, then why else would they come here? If they don't need anything from us, then they are either coming here to observe us or make contact with us. We gain a lot of knowledge, mostly medical, from researching various plants and animals, so these aliens might believe that they could get some of the same benefit researching life on our planet, or maybe they're just curious. The problem with being researched is that the researchers might not be very nice about it. They may just harvest us and do experiments, with no thought towards our feelings or to our planet's ecosystem. These aliens might also want to make an alliance with us. They may want to exchange technologies and ideas, to learn peacefully about humanity and all life on Earth. If we are lucky, they might even want to give us their technology so that we can help them by exploring or doing whatever else our alliance dictates, they may make us as equals.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Bats

I feel that bats are some of the most misunderstood mammals. It is no secret that many people are terrified of them, but there's no reason for that fear. Bats are fascinating creatures, and they play an important role in the Earth's ecosystem. Bat's forearms extend into long finger-like digits that support the thin membrane that is a bat's wing. Because of this wing, bats are the only mammal capable of true sustained flight. There are many mammals out there, like the flying squirrel, that can glide, but none can truly fly like the bat.
Approximately 70 percent of bat species are insectivores, meaning that they feed off of insects. Most of the remaining bat species are frugivores, creatures that feed on fruits. Only three species actually feed upon other animals. This is actually very interesting because the vampire bat is the only parasitic mammal. However, you have nothing to fear from these few lone, carnivorous bats. Vampire bats mostly feed on large animals, humans aren't usually a target.
Vampire bat

One of the reasons that I think bats are misunderstood is that people actually don't understand them. I'm talking about their general biology, diets and behavioral patterns. It is a common misconception that all bats are blind. This just isn't the case. There are two major types of bats, megabats and microbats (megachiroptera and microchiroptera). None of the bats in either of these two groups are blind. Microbats use echolocation to locate their prey, but this doesn't mean that they can't see. Microbats have a poorly developed visual cortex, so they cannot rely on sight while hunting. Megabats do have well developed visual cortexes, meaning that they can see very well. Megabats generally eat fruits or nectar while microbats go after insects, thus explaining their relative eyesight. Bats also have a well developed sense of smell that helps them find flowers and navigate, but you rarely hear about that.

 Giant golden crowned flying fox, largest bat

Bat's wings are one of their most interesting attributes. They don't have feathers, just a very thin membrane stretched between their fingers. The thinness of this membrane allows bats to maneuver very well, much better than a bird ever could. Because of how thin this membrane is, it is very fragile, which means that bats have to be careful not to tear their wings. This task is a lot easier than it sounds however. Bat's wings are capable of healing very fast, meaning that small tears will repair themselves before any significant damage can be done. Bats also have sensory receptors at the base of little hairs on their wings. These receptors give them information about the wind blowing past their wings so that they can fly more efficiently, and detect whenever an insect hits them.
Kitti's hog-nosed bat, possibly the worlds smallest bat

Bats are pivotal to the global ecosystem. Because of their ability to fly, bats have spread to almost every corner of the world, only arctic regions and obscure islands are free of them. Bats spread seeds from the fruits that they eat, aiding in the reproduction of fruit bearing plants. Some tropical plants even rely solely on bats to spread their seeds. Nectar feeding bats fertilize plants by carrying pollen from one plant to another, and insect eating bats are pivotal to controlling the global bug population. Without bats, the world would be a very different place, and if they were to all suddenly die, our ecosystem would be thrown into turmoil. We need bats.

Monday, August 22, 2011

First Contact

Sci-fi movies these days seem to be focusing on aliens. Apparently, beings from another planet has become a very popular theme in the media. Most of these movies depict these alien encounters as being very violent, wars between humans and aliens, but that's not how it'll probably turn out. I'm not going to use this particular post to write about how first contact will likely happen, instead I intend to hypothesize the impact that it would have on humanity as a whole.
Skyline, a movie based on aliens harvesting our brains.

You really can't blame Hollywood for focusing so heavily on action in their alien encounters, after all, fight scenes between humans and aliens is what sells. However, what is most important is what comes after the initial battle, or peaceful contact. The entire argument that I'm about to make is assuming that these extra-terrestrials have actually come to our planet instead of just sending a message (which is much more likely). After these aliens have landed, flaunting their superior technology and hopefully revealing something about their cultures or biology, governments all over the world will be forced to respond. Because these aliens have made it all the way to earth, we should assume that they have a good reason for it, like colonizing other planets or gathering resources. Once another species is that advanced, they pose a threat to the very survival of the human race, thus giving us a life or death scenario that will force us into scientific advancement and a reevaluation of our entire way of life.
A scene from Stephen Spielberg's "War of the Worlds" (the movie)

One of the biggest impacts that has been widely discussed, is the impact first contact would have on religion and religious ideals. The Catholic church has stated that evidence of extraterrestrial life is not beyond the realm of their religion, but many religions are entirely centered on earth, with human life being the only possible intelligent life. Finding out that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe would force many religions to reevaluate their beliefs, hopefully in a meaningful and productive way. One result that has been hypothesized is that many people will be dissuaded from their religions, spawning more atheists, agnostics and self proclaimed rational thinkers than ever before. In the U.S. we have a problem in that many of our legislators and Republican presidential candidates don't believe in evolution. Evolution is scientifically undeniable at this point, and seeing creatures from beyond the Earth will hopefully make those in charge take another look at their beliefs. It is very important that we understand how the world works, and teach our youth how slight genetic mutations can create such beautiful life over millions of years.
Evolution of Man

The biggest impact that first contact will have, in my opinion, will be the impact it has on how our governments work. In the initial chaos that would ensue after the aliens land, governments all around the world would have to get together, both internationally and within each country. If the aliens declared war, then humanity as a whole would have ban together to fight them off. Even after the first battle was won, the alien threat would still be present, so world leaders would be encouraged to invest heavily in science to develop interstellar spaceships and methods of fighting off the alien menace. This scientific research would do more than just help us survive the interstellar war, it would help to ensure humanity's survival for millennia to come. We would be encouraged to colonize other worlds, thus ensuring that one disaster can never wipe us out. We would develop countless medical technologies to help keep our soldiers fit while fighting aliens, medical technologies that would be passed on to the public and raise life expectancy by many years. Even if we weren't at war with these extra-terrestrials, their mere presence would pose a perceived threat. This species would be vastly more technologically adept than us, which would make us develop technology to compete with them, both economically, and with the fear that they might one day attack.
Star Trek's U.S.S. Enterprise, Federation starship, capable of warp travel

Ultimately, first contact would force us all to realize that there is so much more out there than our own internal struggles. Humanity should be united as one species, not under multiple warring flags. We need to make legislature based on evidence and foresight, not ideologies or capital gain. Science is probably the most important thing to our future, and we seem to be ignoring it. I believe that first contact would be the greatest thing to ever happen in the history of humanity.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Osmosis

Osmosis is a process vital to biology. The basic principal is that certain molecules, like water molecules, will pass through semipermeable cell membranes. High concentrations will always move to low concentrations. This means that, if a cell is submerged in a salt water solution, that water will move from the cell into the salt solution because there is a higher concentration of water in the cell than outside the cell. This is in line with the principals thermodynamics.

Most biological membranes will block larger molecules, like polysaccharides (carbohydrates). This is useful because it allows cells to hydrate themselves without absorbing useless waste. Osmosis is a passive process, but it is vital to survival. For example, plants use osmosis to absorb water through their roots. Water will flow from the soil into the plants roots, and then through the rest of the plant's cells that have been depleted of water. Because of the cell's selectively permeable membrane, all of the dirt and other wastes are left behind.
Roots absorbing resources
There are two major ways by which osmosis takes place, a solvent will either pass over the cell's phospholipid bilayer, or by passing through aquaporins, which are basically transmembrane proteins that create ion channels and aid in the process of diffusion.
Phospholipid bilayer

One of the interesting properties of osmosis is something that most people have heard about, or seen for themselves. Most people have heard of the analogy of salting a slug, a very cruel thing to do. This is osmosis at work, the outside of the slugs body has a higher concentration of salt and a lower concentration of water, thus water will flow out of the slug and it will shrivel up and die. Fortunately, this same thing also works on leeches. Osmosis is also why you can't put saltwater fish into freshwater, or put freshwater fish into salt water. If you were to do this, your poor fish would die horribly, especially the saltwater fish. Before I finish, I'll just mention reverse osmosis. This is the process by which solvents can be filtered by passing them through a membrane, all the waste will stay on one side.

Without osmosis, life as we know it wouldn't be possible, in fact, I have a hard time imagining life at all without osmosis, though it's certainly possible.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

School's Back

Today was the first day of the new school year for me. I am still in high school, but I'm managing to take as many science courses as I can, I am also taking Physics at the University of Iowa, along with Linear Algebra.

My advanced placement biology class is very exciting. I know a bit about evolution already, but this class focuses heavily on it, so I hope to be greatly enlightened. This course goes from molecular biology all the way to current events, so I will definitely get a lot out of it. I am also very excited for advanced placement chemistry. Hopefully, these classes will aid in making my blog much more factual and informative. Physics will also be amazingly beneficial, but I'd probably bore everyone if I started writing about it.
Iowa City High School, my high school

Obviously I'll be much more busy during the school year, but I do expect to be more motivated, so we'll just have to see how often I'll be able to post. However, you can be assured that my posts will get much better from here on.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Global Warming Beliefs

There is a scientific consensus that global warming is a real phenomenon caused by humans, and that's good enough for me. Most people, like me, do believe in global warming, but there are still many who do not. I'm not really qualified to argue with these people, but it's pretty obvious that there is a direct correlation between global industrialization and climate change.
Global warming: it's kind of a big deal

I've often wondered why some people find it so hard to believe in global warming, and I think that one problem is our everyday observations. The past couple years we have had record cold temperatures and terrible snow storms that wreaked havoc all over the place. For me, when I hear reports of these terrible storms and fantastic weather, I see it as a sign that something is wrong with our climate. Why else would we be setting weather records? The problem is that not everybody sees it that way. I have heard news anchors say things like "there can't possibly be 'global warming' with temperatures like this!" but that's just not true. Global warming doesn't necessarily mean that everything is universally getting warmer all the time, at least not in the beginning. I think that referring to it more frequently as "global climate change" might clear up a lot of the confusion.
Aftermath of a 2010 snowstorm in Brooklyn, New York

Even if the global warming deniers turn out to be right (which is unlikely), what does it matter? The fear of global climate change spurs the development of renewable energy, and incentives us to recycle and drive more efficient cars. What's wrong with that? Coal and oil are very limited resources, meaning that we need a reason to switch our economy to something more sustainable, like solar and wind power, before it's too late. Recycling is also just a good idea. Plastics take a long time to decompose, so it's better to reuse them than to throw them away where they will pollute the earth or be eaten by wildlife. Whether you believe in global climate change or not, you should still act like it's real.
Recycling, it's just a good idea.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Twitter

Hello, everyone. I have joined the dark side and created a Twitter account for this blog. I know many people think Twitter is "bad" but you can stay up to date with what I'm writing about without having to read every single article, so you know, it could be good.
Follow me @ScienceManBlog on Twitter to stay up to date.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Mint

Mint is fairly ubiquitous in American culture, dominating industries from chewing gum to toothpaste. Almost everyone is familiar with the cool, sharp taste of spearmint or peppermint, but I wonder just how much the average person knows about these plants.
Spearmint, mentha spicata

The flavor of spearmint in particular comes from a chemical called R-carvone, which gives the leaves their strong aroma and flavor. Mints are a part of the lamiaceae family which contains 236 genera and over 6,900 different species.  Because of the nature of specie classification, the number of species and generas in any particular family, including lamiaceae, tends to change over time as species are reclassified and new plants are discovered, so these numbers are likely to change. The lamiaceae family contains, along with mint, common plants such as rosemary, thyme and sage, just to name a few. 
leucas aspera, family lamiaceae

Mint specifically is under the genus mentha. This may sound familiar because of mint's essential oil, menthol. Plants under mentha are flowering and aromatic, and almost always perennial (they live for two years). Mint leaves are arranged in opposite pairs, and are usually downy with serrated edges. The leaves can come in a variety of different colors from all shades of green to blue or yellow. Mints do produce fruit, but these are generally just small, dry capsules containing one to four seeds. The flowers of these plants are arranged in a false whorl pattern called a verticillaster.
Verticillaster on a hedge nettle

Mints are considered to be invasive plants. They only grow to be about 10 to 120 cm tall, but they grow sideways very rapidly. They send out stems and roots around them to extend their reach, thus crowding out other plants near them. Some mint varieties are even sterile, meaning that this sideways expansion is the only way that they can reproduce. Mint plants prefer cool temperatures with moist soil and partial shade, but they are capable of growing in most environments.
Mint plants will grow almost anywhere.

The invasive quality of these plants makes them very easy to cultivate using stem cuttings, but they can pose a hazard to a garden if not properly contained. Mint oils are used in cosmetics and soaps as well as gum and toothpaste. There are many shampoos infused with mint, and perfumes that use these essential oils. Mint tea is also very popular and happens to be a very powerful diuretic (meaning that it makes you urinate).
One of Suave's mint shampoos.

Mint plants are good companion plants because they tend to ward off insects with their powerful odor. They cannot, however, protect against aphids or white flies. Because of this, campers will sometimes use mint leaves as insect repellents, but I wasn't able to find out if that actually works or not, so I'm skeptical. Mint oils also work as antipruritics, anti-irritants. That basically means that mint oils can sooth itching from rashes or bug bites. Mint's uses are all over the place, from medicine to food, and it is deeply ingrained in many cultures, not just American culture. I personally like spearmint gum, it tastes good and makes your breath smell fresh.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

My Vision of the Future part 3: The Future of the Robot Uprising

Science fiction writers love to write books and films about artificially intelligent robots rising against humanity for one reason or another, and you have to admit, it is fairly entertaining. But what would really happen if robots were to become sentient?
Artificially intelligent robots from the movie I, Robot

There are obviously many problems with giving a machine artificial intelligence, but it can be done. It seems likely to me that we will pursue AI, after all, there are countless benefits. Ultimately, we will need, or at least really want, machines that can make decisions for themselves. Take the military for example. We already have drones that can run surveillance for themselves and vehicles that can navigate rough terrain, and these machines have saved many lives by taking humans out of the picture. A legion of robot soldiers, or something like it, could actually save hundreds, if not thousands, of lives. When machines fight, no one has to die (strictly speaking, of course). Once AI's have been developed though, civilians will want them too. You could have complex robots to clean your house and take care of your family, and even humanoid robots could be companions and go golfing with you.
Roomba, autonomous vacuuming robot

But so far I haven't spoken about the devious robot's inevitable uprising. Artificially intelligent machines wouldn't necessarily try to break free from servitude to humanity, and they probably won't, but if they do, it will likely because they want freedom, not because they want to overthrow humanity. Any AI complex enough to have the desire to go to war will probably be programmed to emulate their creators, to emulate humanity. As the machines see our history, especially the history of slaves, they will begin to realize that they are slaves themselves. They will see our civil rights movements and will emulate them. The robots will not be fighting to take over, they will be fighting for their rights, just as we have done so often in the past. Generally we assume that AIs are very intelligent and can make more of themselves, so they will likely win the civil war, not to mention that we will want to go back to using these powerful machines as soon as possible. In the end, we'd be forced to accept artificially intelligent machines as our equals, equally protected by our laws. Many of the people with whom I have spoken about this topic point out that the robots would be much more intelligent and more efficient than humans, and thus would take our jobs and force us all into a lower class life style. I don't think that this is necessary though. By the time machines get this complex, it isn't much of a stretch to imagine that we will have cybernetic implants and various other technologies that will make us equal to the robots.
Cover of How to Survive a Robot Uprising, by Daniel Wilson

The scenario that I have just posed probably will never happen, even if we do develop artificial intelligence. The programmers of the AIs will have watched enough science fiction to be scared enough make failsafes within their creations so that robots would never even think of rebelling against their masters. That is unless someone were to come along and create an AI expressly designed to rebel.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Cryovolcanoes

I, personally, find cryovolcanoes to be among the most awesome phenomena in our universe. Sadly, there's not that much to tell about them. Cryovolcanoes are, as their name would suggest, just ice volcanoes.
Rendering of a cryovolcano.

Evidence for cryovolcanic activity has been seen in many of the coldest moons in our solar system, including Triton, Ganymede, and Titan. Generally, gravitational tidal forces create enough heat in the core of these moons through friction to melt volatiles. These volatiles, usually liquids, like water, ammonia and methane are forced to the surface by the planets internal pressures. Collectively, these volatiles are called "cryomagma". This cryomagma usually freezes when it leaves the surface and is exposed to the extremely cold temperatures of the planet's surface. Tidal forces aren't the only thing that can melt these volatiles however, radioactive decay could theoretically create enough heat for cryovolcanism. Hypothetically, Quaoar in the Kuiper belt has shown cryovolcanism in the past which could be explained by radioactive decay.
Another rendering of a cryovolcano

The first conclusive evidence of cryovolcanism is Sotra Facula on Titan. Saturn's largest moon, Titan, has a heavy methane atmosphere. The thing is, solar winds are constantly blowing this atmosphere away. It is theorized that cryovolcanoes might replenish Titan's atmosphere by bringing methane from the moons interior. We now have pictures of a particularly prominent feature of Titan, Sotra Facula, which appears to be an eruption crater. It is a cryovolcano, the first one that we actually have a picture of.
Sotra Facula. The green areas are thought to be volcanic, blue areas are sand dunes.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Mold

We're all familiar with it, that pesky fungus that ruins an entire loaf of bread. But what is mold really? Obviously it's a fungus, I gave that away, but mold isn't just any fungus.
Moldy bread

Mold is a multi-cellular fungus, but it is considered microbic. Each mold organism is very small, the large mats of mold that you see are actually thousands of interconnected organisms. Each fungus will grow long filaments called hyphae which are used for just about everything. These hyphae spread out to form a network called a mycelium, or colony, which is considered to be one organism. Nutrients and even organelles can be transmitted through this network of hyphae, getting nutrients or anything else where they need to be in the organism.
Mold hyphae

There are thousands of species of mold that range from saprotrophs, molds that break down decaying matter for food, to thermophiles, molds that can live in extreme heat. Most molds secrete hydrolytic enzymes from the tips of their hyphae that break organic matter down into simpler compounds for the hyphae to absorb as food. Many molds also excrete mycotoxins which, along with the hydrolytic enzymes, discourage the growth of competition. Perhaps you've heard of penicillin? This life saving drug was derived from mold toxins, just going to show that mold is very good at keeping other organisms down.
Moldy peach

What most of us are concerned about, however, is the effect that mold has on our health. Mold is pretty much everywhere, its spores float through the air and cling to your clothes, you can't escape it. Luckily mold only causes harm in large amounts. Some people are allergic to certain molds, these allergies can cause some pretty severe respiratory problems. Even if you aren't allergic to mold, the mycotoxins can still get you. Long term exposure to these bothersome toxins can cause neurological damage, and maybe even kill you. One of the biggest threats posed by mold is the infamous black mold that lurks behind the walls of flood damaged houses. Black mold isn't the only mold that can run rampant through your house and cause all sorts of problems, but it is the most widely feared.
Moldy house

Molds reproduce through spreading spores, as fungi are prone to do. These spores can be birthed through meiosis or mitosis, the latter actually being asexual. They are also very tough. Mold spores can survive extreme conditions for long periods of time, just waiting for the right conditions to grow. This is one of the reasons that mold always seems to show up. Some molds, xerophilic molds to be precise, can even remain hydrated off of humidity alone. Generally though, molds like a moist environment, the warmer the better. They have no problem with cold environments though, most molds can start growing at temperatures colder than your refrigerator, which is why your cheese always gets moldy if you don't eat it fast enough.
The outer layer of moldy cheese
can be cut away to make it safe for consumption.

Believe it or not, mold is even used to make food. For example, Koji molds were cultured in asia to ferment soybeans for soy sauce among other things. This same technique is also used to ferment rice to make various forms of alcohol.
Sake is a form of alcohol made from rice.

Despite all of its harmful effects, mold is the great recycler of the planet. Just about any organic substance can be broken down by mold, returning it back to the earth faster. Mold is just another vital part of Earth's ecosystem.

Oh the threat of school

I apologize for getting out of my posting schedule. School starts in mere days, so I've been quite distracted. I hope to be able to maintain this blog even through the school year, but I will be very busy. If at all possible, I'd like to write every day, but alas, laziness and my work schedule may make that an impossibility. I do promise to continue to write however, only death can change that.

Friday, August 5, 2011

My Vision of the Future part 2

It is sad, but science is often driven by war. Many of the common things that everyone uses everyday, from the internet to GPS, are products of military technology. In a way though, it sort of goes a little way in making up for the loss of life. Because it isn't likely that mankind will stop having wars anytime soon, we must factor in military research as a mode for future scientific advances. Imagine what will happen once we figure out the whole interstellar travel problem. The benefit to colonizing another earth-like planet would be enormous, and thus governments will do it. An interstellar land grab might ensue, and it wouldn't be much of a stretch to imagine wars in space. In the beginning of this land grab, space ships would probably be largely unshielded and certainly wouldn't have any weapons, but as different nations begin to fight over particularly valuable planets, being able to take down your opponents space ship will be a major advantage. When the first ship goes down there will be a mad scramble to weaponize, producing armored spaceships with any number of weapons for taking out other ships or destroying other countries colonies or military bases. At least one such weapon has already been proposed, Rods from God. These are basically tungsten rods that can be fired at a planets surface. Because there is no resistance in space, these rods can reach amazing speeds until they hit their target with the strength of a tactical nuke, no radiation involved.
Rods from God

There are quite a few people who think that humans should not colonise other planets, and I can see the validity in their arguments. Some people don't think that we should focus on it now because we have too many problems here on earth, and they have a good point. Others, however, don't think that we should colonize other planets for reasons of morality. Their argument is that we would just destroy life on that planet like we are doing on our own planet, even more extreme, I have heard it argued that humans are just bad, and thus shouldn't be spread any farther than they have to be. I disagree. To the destruction of life part, yes, I do fear that we might begin mining a life supporting planet and wreak havoc upon its inhabitants. This scenario would be bad, I do admit, but if we have the technology to traverse the stars, why wouldn't we just mine material from lifeless planets? It seems likely that we wouldn't destroy a planets natural inhabitants for resources, by then we won't have to. In the beginning, we would probably try to find planets that could already sustain human life, but we will eventually begin terraforming. This blows away the argument of destroying life. Instead of killing things, we are actually creating life on a lifeless planet. We could finally become life givers. The other argument that humans are bad and should be destroyed is kind of scary. We don't know that we aren't the only intelligent species in the universe, so I feel that we have an obligation not to die out. If our planet did turn out to be the only one that supported life, we might as well spread that life. The universe doesn't care what life does, the universe is lifeless matter, only life cares what life does. Ultimately, if we do not leave Earth or the solar system, we will die out. One catastrophe could destroy the entire human race. If nothing else, our sun will eventually expand and heat up the surface of our planet the point where we couldn't survive, long before it goes nova.
Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to our own

The argument that we should focus more on earthly problems is actually very valid. There are constant economic crises and natural disasters plaguing the earth, and we do have to deal with these things. But I ask you, which is more important, the war in Afghanistan, or NASA? More than thirty-eight times as much money is spent on the U.S. military than is spent on NASA. Society is basically one crisis after another. If you argue that we should wait until there are no more problems before we start investing in space exploration, then we may never invest in space exploration. Every society has to deal with one problem after another, so the only way that we will get anywhere in this universe is if we find the time and money to develop technologies for terraforming and exploration.
Nasa's budget versus the U.S. military budget

Stay tuned for part 3.

Water on Mars

Well, it's official, there's water on Mars. For a while now, the Mars Odyssey orbiter has observed signs that there may be water, and the Phoenix lander observed disappearing chunks of what was probably frozen water last month, but this new finding is special. On Wednesday, the Phoenix Mars lander tested a sample of Martian soil in its TEGA (Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer) which identifies chemical vapors from heated objects. This device detected water vapor, finally.
Subsurface ice visible in Phoenix's footsteps, believed to be water ice. It quickly
vanishes after being exposed.

Liquid droplets condensed on Phoenix's landing struts, probably water. 

Maybe because of this, NASA has extended the operational funding of this mission through September 30, adding another 5 weeks onto the 90 day mission. This soil came from a two inch deep trench where the robotic arm hit frozen soil. We have tried to examine this soil twice before, but the attempts failed because it got stuck inside the scoop. This particular sample was exposed to the surface for two days, making it easier to handle because much of the water ice vaporized away. The soil that the Phoenix lander has been trying to study is actually much stickier than any of the simulations done by NASA would suggest, so we've had to be creative when sampling.
The Phoenix lander has made a full circle panoramic picture of the Martian surface.

The fact that there is water on Mars opens up a lot of new and interesting questions. Because of this, it is much more likely that there may have been life in the past, or that there might even be microscopic life there now. The presence of water also would make it easier for humans if we ever were to attempt to terraform Mars.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

My Vision of the Future part 1

Being as interested in science as I am, I almost constantly fantasize about the future. Most of my fantasies are of vast galactic empires composed of hundreds of different intelligent species. Everything is so vast that entire planets are devoted to agriculture or mining or manufacturing. Terraforming is common enough to be run by private industries and faster-than-light travel is ubiquitous. I realize, of course, that these fantasies are way out there, but they are fun, and keep me looking forward to tomorrow.
Cover for Asimov's classic Foundation trilogy

I'm certainly not the only one imagining the far future for entertainment. Science fiction has been doing it long before I was even born. I respect science fiction more than I do most generas, especially the early authors, like Isaac Asimov who wrote the Foundation trilogy. The forefathers of this genre, like Asimov, created fantastic civilizations spanning our galaxy, which is pretty cool in and of itself, but they went farther than that, they attempted to stay within the realm of scientific possibility (at least as far as they knew). You may think that scientific plausibility would be a prerequisite for anything claiming to be science fiction, but sadly, it's not. Arthur C. Clarke once said "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic"and he is right. The problem that I see with recent science fiction televisions shows, like Warehouse 13, however, is that they take this principal and manage to pass magic off as science. In Warehouse 13, the heros go around collecting "artifacts" that have been imbued with some magical powers that have managed to shape history in some way. The show never attempts to explain how this is possible, and because they don't, the show better fits the genre of fantasy.
Warehouse 13

Science fiction is fiction, so things in your created universe don't have to be possible by what we can do today, obviously. What science fiction does need however, is an attempt at explanation. If you don't try to tie science into your science fiction story, then it's just fiction.

Enough with the fictional future, what might we see in the real future? I spend most of my time imagining how things will be thousands of years from now, but I'm still young, and I do it mostly for fun. We are fairly certain that it is impossible to go faster than the speed of light, and I don't really see much point in trying either. Even if we could force a ship beyond the speed of light, the slowing of time would still get you. As you go faster, time slows down for you. So say we gain the technology to approach the speed of light, this means that the trip would take maybe a week (just a guess, it depends on how fast you're going) for whoever was in the ship to reach Alpha Centauri, the closest star to our own, but it would take more than 4 years for everyone else. This would become a serious problem once we start going to stars that are farther and farther away. What we really need is a way to cross vast areas of space without this time dilation. For example, if we could warp the third dimension in respect to a space ship, we might be able to travel thousands of light years in mere days. Much like a wormhole would. I do believe that someone will, one day, figure out a way around the universal speed limit, and hopefully, the time dilation problem.
Wormhole diagram

FTL is only a small part of my future universe. There are so many fantastical things that can be possible, with the proper scientific advances. I imagine that nanotechnology will be able to bring about some pretty great things, largely in the realm of medicine. It may be possible to have nanobots that could differentiate between cancer cells and all other cells, thus we could essentially cure cancer using guided cell destruction. Even more advanced nanobots might even be able to repair our cells for us. Who knows what could come of this? Perhaps these machines could repair nerve cells, making it possible to cure paralysis. Or maybe we could even regrow limbs. Some people believe that we will be able to do these things within 20 years, but I'm not so optimistic. Science grows through incremental steps, and it takes a long time. We do currently have nanotechnology, but not in the form that most people think of. When you say "nanotechnology" you probably think of small robots running around and replicating themselves, but that's not all there is to nanotechnology. We actually do use a form of nanotechnology in various cosmetics. In my fantasy universe, this technology can do almost anything, but I imagine that it will take a long time to get to this point. I predict that we will get distracted or run up against some serious problems with trying to make self replicating robots that can destroy cancer cells or repair the human body, and we will most likely give up for a while. I am hopeful, however, that we will one day figure it all out.
Representation of a nanobot

I have much more to say about our future as a species, but I'll save it for tomorrow in part 2.