Saturday, February 28, 2009

Space-based Solar Power

The winter 2008 issue of ad Astra arrived this week (a bit late for some reason). It has a special report on NEO's (near Earth objects), including an article by Rusty Schweickart, the former Apollo astronaut who has been working for years to raise awareness of the asteroid threat through the B612 Foundation. These articles are not online, but this page is a good overview with many links.

This issue also has a couple of articles on space-based solar power (SSP), and while checking online for possible links to these articles, I found a 19 minute video introduction to SSP that I hadn't seen before, "Powering the Planet." It offers a good introduction to the potential and the technology of SSP systems. This NSS page has a good overview of SSP and many links to other resources, including several links added in January and February 2009. Although their plate is pretty full right now, I hope the Obama administration will consider SSP in its long-term energy plans, as was discussed in late 2008 on

Friday, February 27, 2009

Carnival of Space #92

The X-Prize Foundation's Launch Pad blog is hosting the latest carnival of space. Wow, #92 - pretty soon we'll be in triple digits.


I think this is so funny, I had to order one of the t-shirts. It will help me wind down from wearing Obama campaign t-shirts. Profits from the merch benefit the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), which is also cool. I noticed there that they have a new edition of a book called Evolution vs. Creationism and that you can download a PDF of chapter 1 ("Science: Truth Without Certainty") for free. It's a nice exploration of important terms like theories, laws, hypotheses, and facts, and how these terms differ between common usage and scientific usage.

Thanks to Asymptotia for the tip.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Rockin' the Nucleus Accumbens

It's really quite simple, actually:
The rewarding and reinforcing aspects of listening to music seem, then, to be mediated by increasing dopamine levels in the nucleus accumbens, and by the cerebellum's contribution to regulating emotion through its connections to the frontal lobe and the limbic system. Current neuropsychological theories associate positive mood and affect with increased dopamine levels, one of the reasons that many of the newer antidepressents act on the dopaminergic system. Music is clearly a means for improving people's moods. Now we think we know why.
Now go make a hit record! OK, maybe it's not that simple, but this is one of the key lessons of This Is Your Brain On Music, though fortunately most of it is more about music than brain chemicals. Daniel Levitin was a musician and a professional music producer before he became a neuroscientist, so he knows both sides of the territory he covers here. I was jealous that he was able to discuss over dinner with Joni Mitchell the musical ambiguity that can be triggered by her "unschooled" use of alternate guitar tunings - but I was glad he could bring that knowledge into this book.

I finished the book a few weeks ago, and I really learned a lot of cool stuff from it. It has even slightly changed the way I approach listening to music. Now I pay a lot more explicit attention to timbre in music, the "texture" of the sounds that make up the music. Paul Simon says that this is the main thing he pays attention to in his own music - as if great melody, rhythm, and lyrics are the easy stuff (Paul Simon makes it sound easy, but I've read about his process, and he works very hard to make it sound that easy). Timbre is many things in music - the gravelly or smooth and sexy quality of a singer's voice, the "crispness" of a well recorded acoustic guitar, the "blended" quality of the Beach Boys' or CSNY's harmonies, even the alterations in sound quality that come from reverb or other audio effects. Plus all the different sounds of the natural and synthesized instruments that are available to the modern recording artist or performer.

Of course it's not all timbre. Levitin also talks a lot about prediction and expectations. When a certain part of your brain latches onto the "pulse" of a song, it begins predicting where the next strong and weak beats will occur, and part of the pleasure of music is in the artful violation of these expectations about the timing of the sound. This is sometimes called "groove" and the neural pathway that responds to this seems to be directly emotional, involving the "lower" brain that also is connected with movement (part of the music-dance connection). It goes via the ear-cerebellum-nucleus accumbens limbic circuit rather than via the ear-auditory cortex circuit. It's amazing that all this distributed activity is seamlessly integrated so we can just say, "hey, cool song" as we unconsciously respond to the rhythm.

Whether music was an evolutionary adaptation or "merely" an accidental re-purposing of the language and motion capabilities of our brain is not completely clear (Levitin discusses this controversy). However it happened, and however complicated it is down there in the synapses and neurochemical soups of our brains, I'm glad we ended up a musical species. Knowing something of how the trick works doesn't make it any less wondrous and enjoyable.

Space Inspiration

My daughter asked my advice on behalf of a 13 year old girl she knows who expressed an interest in space, specifically in becoming an astronaut. I decided that most of the email I wrote her would fit pretty well in my blog, so here it is.

I’m trying to think of ideas for the girl we discussed. It's cool that she's interested in space, and I'd like to encourage her. I have a few books that she might like that you can borrow, including To Space and Back which Sally Ride wrote about her career and space flights. Here’s Dr. Ride's basic bio.

This also looks like a good book but I don’t have it: I Want to Be an Astronaut by Stephanie Maze (OK, I checked it out and it was $8 so I just bought it and shipped it to you for Monday – you can either lend it to her or give it to her if you think that would be meaningful to her to have it, your call. If you think lending it to her would be better, I’ll just add it to my outreach collection.)

I also have an extra copy of a photo book about the Earth or the Solar System. I bought it for a prize for one of my outreach presentations but you can give it to her if you want. It has great photos. Very inspiring!

Another inspiring woman is Anousheh Ansari. She grew up in Iran dreaming of space flight. She eventually got to America and became an engineer, then started a technology company with her husband and got quite rich. She paid $20 million for her own flight to the space station in 2006. She now works to inspire other people to follow their dreams. Her 2006 space blog is also on her site.

I found this site which has short science videos by an 8 year old boy named Enzo who is a science enthusiast. He’s cute and the videos seem to be informative but it may be too young or corny for a 13 year old. He has some on rocketry and space as well as other science subjects.

You asked about "space camp" possibilities – the “real” space camp is in Huntsville, AL though there may be some regional space-themed camps in this area, I'm not sure.

I would also suggest the DVD “October Sky” which is based on the true story of Homer Hickam, the son of a coal miner in WV who got interested in rockets in 1957 when Sputnik was launched. He overcame a lot of “you can’t do that, you’ll just be a coal miner like your pa” stuff with the help of a supportive teacher and friends. He eventually became an engineer for NASA, and had a great career including helping to train astronauts, though he didn’t become an astronaut himself. The book is also very good, Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam.

The truth is that even for a well motivated, high achieving, physically perfect person, the odds of becoming an astronaut are about the same as becoming a rock star or movie star, pretty slim – so far. But in the next 20 years, there will more development of private space projects possibly including space tourism, space station “hotels”, even moon bases. None of this is certain but some of it will happen. So there will probably be more opportunities than now, even for “jobs in space.” You won’t have to be a military pilot as many astronauts have been up to now (many of them are NOT pilots, but if not, they are usually scientists, engineers, or doctors). If you get interested in space, you’ll probably find other things about science interesting too. Space will also be important in monitoring climate change and maybe solving energy problems in the future.

The not-so-secret little secret of all this stuff is that you have to do well in school, take hard subjects like math and science, and stay REALLY focused to have a chance to do any of these things (you should probably also be an athlete if you want to be an astronaut). I wanted to be an air force pilot and an astronaut when I was a kid more than anything in the world (it was the 60’s and space was really big, so to speak). I was heartbroken at 12 when I needed glasses and realized I couldn’t go to the Air Force Academy which was my plan since I was maybe 8 years old.

But the interests I built up in learning about aviation and space stuck with me, and I also got interested in computers and science and math and had a good academic career (with a short detour to try to be a rock star) and an interesting professional career based on computers, physics, and optics. So inspiration DOES work, but it’s not an exact science. She may only be interested in space for a week. But it's worth a shot - she could also be the first person on Mars.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Space Lifestyle Magazine

I discovered Space Lifestyle Magazine a year or so ago, and I really like it. It's a quarterly web-only magazine that is formatted like a print magazine with a variety of space related articles, many photographs and graphics, and excellent production values. It offers an easy to navigate screen interface but it can also be downloaded as a PDF file.

While the "space lifestyle" hasn't arrived yet for most of us, this magazine prepares us for that day with extensive coverage of private space developments in addition to background articles on space technology, government space activities, and current events (like the recent collision of two orbiting satellites). Space Lifestyle started in summer 2007 and the winter 2009 edition has just gone online. Check it out.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Viruses Just Let Us Live Here... far.

I've been sick the last couple of weeks, so what do I choose for reading material? A book about smallpox, anthrax, and bioterrorism, of course. Richard Preston has a way of turning a true story about scientists, viruses, and horrible diseases into a compelling page turner. I read his 1994 book The Hot Zone a couple of years back. Great read. That was about ebola, which is a horrifying disease but one that is not especially effective in keeping itself going in a human population, mainly because it kills its hosts too quickly.

The Demon in the Freezer is mostly about smallpox. Smallpox (the virus itself is called variola) is a much "smarter" virus. It is one of many "poxviruses" that occur in nature (cowpox, monkeypox, mousepox, even various insect poxviruses). Smallpox only infects humans. It is very lethal, but it also has evolved excellent "strategies" for spreading itself through human populations once those populations reach a certain critical size and density (it could be called the first urban virus). Smallpox has killed untold millions of people and is considered by many to be the worst disease in human history.

But then in 1979, it was gone. "The Eradication" was one of the greatest feats of modern science, medicine, and public health, and Preston tells the story well. There were a lot of dedicated people, and in spite of many setbacks, through a sophisticated containment strategy involving many, many vaccinations, variola was eliminated from the human population in just a few years, with only two authorized supplies of the virus retained for possible research, one in the US and one in (now) Russia.

Or so we were told. In fact it is now known that the Soviets kept many strains of variola in many places and even did research to "weaponize" the virus so it could be launched on missiles with multiple warheads that could parachute down and spread an aerosol of the virus over a wide area. They produced at least 20 tons of weaponized smallpox in the 1980's (enough to kill trillions of people). No one knows what happened to all that stuff or what countries or groups may have some of it now. Scary? Yes, but not the scariest.

The scariest thing is that poxviruses are among the easiest to genetically engineer. Preston tells of an Australian research team that engineered a mousepox virus by introducing a gene from the mouse's immune system into the virus's genome. This was part of a rodent control research project, and in their tests, the proteins produced by the introduced mouse gene seemed to confuse the immune system of the test mice. While natural mousepox is not very lethal in resistant mice, the engineered virus killed 100% of the non-vaccinated test mice, and 60% of the vaccinated test mice! Could human smallpox be similarly engineered with a human immune system gene? Pretty easily. It probably already has been done somewhere. Would it have the same effect on smallpox lethality even for immunized subjects? No one really knows.

Preston also talks a lot about the anthrax attacks of fall 2001, mainly to show the practical difficulties of dealing with deliberate attacks with bioweapons (there are difficulties for both the attackers and the defenders). Smallpox is a much "better" weapon than anthrax, even if it is not genetically engineered. And the fact is that while smallpox has been eliminated "from the wild," it has not been eliminated from the world. We don't really know who has it.

So for now, variola and its various virus friends are letting us live here on Earth. But as Preston says at the end of The Demon in the Freezer, variola is one clever little virus and it is not out of the game yet:
The virus's last strategy for survival was to bewitch its host and become a source of power. We could eradicate smallpox from nature, but we could not uproot the virus from the human heart.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Carnival of Space #91

The Carnival of Space is hosted this week by NEXT BIG FUTURE, with 28 blog posts that will take you from Galileo to Galaxy Zoo 2 and almost everywhere (and everywhen?) in between. Next Big Future itself offers an intriguing post on cement jet printing of buildings on the Moon. I bet those cartridges are expensive to replace, especially the color ones.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Amazing Performances

From this month's TED Conference:
The Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra contains the best high school musicians from Venezuela's life-changing music program, El Sistema. Led here by Gustavo Dudamel, they play Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10, 2nd movement, and Arturo Márquez' Danzón No. 2.
The orchestra is HUGE and the performances of these two pieces are amazing and moving. El Sistema is a program that has provided musical instruments and instruction to thousands of disadvantaged youths in Venezuela. It has transformed the lives of many of these kids and their families. Read more about it here.

The new TED Prizes were also announced recently. One of the three winners was José Abreu who founded El Sistema. His TED Prize wish:
I wish you would help create and document a special training program for at least 50 gifted young musicians, passionate for their art and for social justice, and dedicated to developing El Sistema in the US and in other countries.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Europa Visitor

I've been getting over an illness and haven't had much energy the last week or so, but over the last few nights, I did manage finish my 365 Days of Astronomy podcast for April 14, "Exploring Space with Your Computer" (it's due by March 14, but because of upcoming travel and other issues, I needed to get it done early). I really like how it came out. I wrote six short pieces of instrumental background music to set the mood for the different "scenes" in the podcast, and I used SONAR to record and mix the narration, special effects, and music into a small "radio play." It's almost 8 minutes long.

About half of the podcast involves Orbiter, and the opening scene (orbiting Europa) has gotten me interested in reviewing my space navigation skills, which are quite rusty. Not that anyone would know this from the podcast, but it bugs me when I can't manage a simple task like transferring from an orbit around Europa to Callisto using IMFD. The Jupiter system is great for navigation practice, by the way - it's like a mini-solar system, but instead of 6+ months to transfer from Earth orbit to Mars orbit, you can take maybe 4 days to transfer from a Europa orbit to a Callisto orbit. Of course time acceleration is used in both cases, but for Europa-to-Callisto, you can get there in a reasonable amount of real time without using extreme time acceleration that can sometimes cause problems.

Why Europa to Callisto? One reason is that there are several tutorials available for the IMFD (Interplanetary Multi-Function Display) "navigation computer" add-on. These include a couple of written tutorials for the older (but still very capable) IMFD 4 series as well as a cool video tutorial by Robert Denny for the more recent and advanced IMFD 5. That's what I'm reviewing first.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Carnival of Space #90

Nothing says "Happy Valentine's Day" like a space blog carnival, right? This week's carnival is hosted by 21st Century Waves. Check it out.

Note: The Heart Nebula image by Daniel Marquardt was the APOD for February 14.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Speed & Angels: Great!

I learned about this documentary in a conversation with the van driver who brought me home from the airport last night, and I was surprised and pleased when I found I could watch the whole thing online with good quality and only a few commercials on Speed & Angels is a 2008 documentary that follows two young Navy officers as they take the final steps in becoming F-14 Tomcat pilots.

Meagan and Jay each faced some major challenges in even getting the chance to be Navy fighter pilots, something each of them had dreamed about since childhood. Jay was planning to attend the Naval Academy, but in his senior year in high school, he was accidentally shot in the face by a Marine at a party. The bullet did a lot of damage to his teeth, jaw, and tongue before lodging in his spine. It was amazing that he was not killed or paralyzed, but he was obviously a fighter, and after a number of surgeries and multiple applications for medical waivers, he was pronounced medically fit for Annapolis and later for pilot training. Of course he ended up with the call sign "Faceshot."

Meagan had wanted to be an F-14 pilot since she saw Top Gun when she was 12. She didn't face Jay's medical hurdles, but even though it's been possible since 1993, it's still tough for a woman to make it in military aviation, which is still fundamentally a man's world. But Meagan was determined. She excelled in school and in athletics, majored in aerospace engineering at the Naval Academy, and qualified for jets in pilot training, with the call sign "Slick." She and Jay were in the last class of F-14 pilots to be trained (the Tomcat was retired in 2006, and Jay and Meagan have both since transitioned into the F/A-18 Super Hornet).

I really loved the personal feel of this movie. It seemed that Jay and Meagan were totally open about their hopes and fears, and the comments from their families and friends also gave great insight into the kind of people who make this sort of extreme commitment. I've read a lot of books about fighter pilots, I've seen a lot of interviews, and I've even met a few personally. The nature of the work requires extreme self-confidence, but fighter pilots are also people, and this really comes through in Speed & Angels.

The flying scenes are also great, especially the in-cockpit perspectives in dogfight training and carrier landings. The amount of information that these pilots need to process and the extreme precision required in everything they do in the jet are just incredible. It's amazing that people can learn to do this stuff. It's got to be one of the most demanding jobs that humans can do.

Finally there's a love of flying that permeates this movie. That's what really motivates these pilots to put up with the pressures and the hardships that come with a life devoted to military aviation. I've never flown fast jets (though that's what I wanted to do when I was a kid, and I'd still love to give it a try), but I have flown small planes, including Piper Cubs and a couple of flights in a Stearman biplane like the one that Jay buys and flies "just for fun" in the closing minutes of the film. That joy of flying comes through strongly in this excellent documentary.

P.S. "Speed & Angels" is an expression used in dogfight training. The two jets that will engage in a practice fight start out side-by-side, and each pilot announces "speed & angels" to confirm that they are at the agreed upon airspeed and altitude (angels) and ready for the start of the fight.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Talented Mr. Darwin

My business trip this week had been going really well until I started to get sick last night. This is rare for me and I really resent it, but I feel awful and I just need to bite the bullet and get to bed early. But not before writing a quick 200th birthday greeting to a guy I really admire, Charles Darwin (tip of the stovepipe hat to Abe Lincoln, another great guy born on February 12, 1809). If you want to celebrate Darwin Day, you can get some ideas here.

I've read a lot of books and magazine articles over the years on Darwin and evolution, including On the Origin of Species (abridged illustrated version - I've got the full version on my iPod but haven't gotten around to reading it yet). It still amazes me how much he got right about the development of life on this planet, and how robust and useful his ideas have been and continue to be. Now scientists can literally read "the book of life" at the DNA level, providing ever more convincing and detailed evidence that life works pretty much the way Darwin figured it did, and connecting more and more of the branches in the tree of life. I wrote about this last year in a review of The Making of the Fittest by Sean B. Carroll.

So happy birthday, Charles Darwin - you truly done good, even if most Americans don't yet believe that evolution really happens. Except maybe for drug-resistant bacteria.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Wheels on the Bus...

stayed on the road!

I can't really recommend taking a bus ride down the southbound side of the Pacific Coast Highway from Monterey, CA to San Luis Obispo, but that's what we did yesterday, and it worked out OK. As the picture above shows, the weather was good, much better than we expected (70% chance of rain), and the gorgeous coastal scenery along with the frequent tight turns on the narrow cliff road made for a memorable experience.

Fortunately the traffic was light and the driver was skilled (though he told me he believes this road is too dangerous for buses - I didn't share this information with my fellow riders until we reached our restaurant in Santa Barbara).

The Monterey Bay Aquarium was wonderful, and we also got to see large numbers of wild Elephant Seals at one of our stops, a beach near San Simeon. Final destination was Pasadena (city hall pictured here with the Los Angeles skyline in the background, my hotel window view).

Real blogging (whatever that is) should resume next week - this is all that time and energy will permit right now.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

More Utah as Mars

I flew from Boston to San Francisco early this morning. I didn't spend much time looking out the window, and it was mostly cloudy anyway, but I did happen to look out over what I'm pretty sure is Utah (could be Nevada). I'm always amazed at how much this part of the American West can look like Mars (I guess it's really the other way around). The lower picture has been color shifted to make the clouds look something like a Mars dust storm. The top picture is natural color (notice the famous "Dinosaur on Mars" in the lower right).

The ultimate destination was Monterey, California, just a short commuter flight from SFO. I 've been here a few times before, and it's a beautiful area. I'm here this time on company business, helping to host a group of international distributor representatives, something I organize every year at this time (part of the reason for reduced blogging the last few weeks - organizing this event takes a lot of time). We always start out with a couple of days somewhere "interesting" before moving everyone to Pasadena for the main meeting. Last year it was Las Vegas, this year it's Monterey, including the fantastic Monterey Bay Aquarium and a chartered bus tour down the scenic Pacific Coast Highway. I hope the weather cooperates this week.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Carnival of Space #89 (Lunar Edition)

3D Moon Earth Shuttle-A
This week's Carnival of Space is hosted by Darnell Clayton at the Moon Society Blog. It's dubbed "the lunar edition" though only a couple of this week's post are about "Our Fair Lady Luna," while the others range far and wide, from Earth to Mars to Pluto to stars, exoplanets, nebulae, galaxies, and black holes.

The graphic here is "lunar" but unrelated to any of this week's carnival posts. It's a screen shot from Orbiter showing a futuristic (and lumpy) cargo transport spacecraft orbiting low above the moon.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Giving Pluto Another Chance

I have to say that I have not been one of those who has been especially worked up about Pluto's 2006 "demotion" from full-fledged planethood under the IAU's revised definition of a "planet:"

A celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.

I understand there are issues behind this definition, including the likelihood that Pluto is only one of many Kuiper Belt objects of similar size, and that it's small compared to any of the other "traditional" planets. I don't really care whether it's called a planet or a dwarf planet - definitions are only supposed to help us understand things, they don't really change the nature of the things themselves. The map is not the territory. Et cetera.

But astronomer and author David Grinspoon wrote a short essay in the March issue of Sky & Telescope called "This Is Not a Planet?" (not online yet, but he expands upon the essay in this S&T podcast). He points out that the IAU definition was a rather ad hoc and rushed compromise, and that it's rather weird that something called a "dwarf planet" is not also a "planet." Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars are Terrestrial Planets, but also planets. Logically, it would seem that "dwarf planet" is more of a sub-category than a main category.

So in the spirit of inclusiveness toward planet-like objects throughout our solar system (not to mention "exoplanets" in other solar systems), I'm casting my vote for "a dwarf planet is a type of planet, Pluto is a dwarf planet, therefore, Pluto is a planet." As long as they orbit a star and have a roughly spherical shape, I say let 'em in! Of course I don't actually get a vote, but that's how I would vote if I did get a vote.

And oh yeah, welcome to the family, Ceres!