Friday, November 6, 2009

Thesis Procrastination - VASIMR Rockets

Since I am in my final year of an engineering physics program I am required to do a thesis based on an applied physics topic. It is a challenging project but so far I am learning a lot and find it quite interesting. In order to avoid actually doing the work I figured I would share some of the more interesting parts with the Internet.

Over the summer I was wasting my time one evening endlessly clicking the Stumble! button in my browser and I came across a NASA press release on a new type of rocket technology being developed which sparked my interest. It was called the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR). Instead of using the combustion of either a solid or liquid fuel this upcoming technology uses electricity to generate a plasma and send it out the rear of the engine at tremendous speeds.

Plasma is the fourth state of matter and the most common form of visible matter in the universe. Whenever a gas gets hot enough the electrons, that were happily orbiting the nucleus get enough energy that they are no longer bound to the atom. The gas then becomes ionized with free electrons (negative charge) coexisting with positive ions. This gives the substance some interesting properties. Since it consists of charged particles a magnetic field can act on it and contain it. This is important because the temperatures required to create a plasma are too hot to be contained by any known material.

So the basic design of the engine works like this. A gas is sent into a chamber. A helicon source then turns the gas into a plasma. Superconducting magnets then contain this plasma and bring it into the second stage. Another process called Ion Cyclotron Resonance Heating then takes over and turns this incoming "cold" plasma (ie. low energy) into a hotter plasma. Both the helicon source and the ICRH are powered by electricity and are forms of RF heating. In the final stage the hot plasma moving down the engine rotating in a shape similar to a helix. The magnetic field is then decreased in a "magnetic nozzle" and this spinning motion is converted to linear motion and fired out the rear of the engine at high speed. The advantage of this high exit velocity is that less propellant mass (the ionized gas) can be used to achieve greater changes in momentum and therefore velocity.

Chemical rockets in space are effectively using the same technology the Chinese developed in the 9th century. You combine a explosive material with an oxygen source and ignite it. It works but it is wasteful because the exhaust gases leaving have an upper limit on their velocity. The chemical energy stored in the fuel just can't push the exhaust infinitely fast. In automotive terms the fuel economy of chemical rockets is low. They throw out a lot of mass and fairly low speeds. Plasma rockets shoot out less material but at much higher speeds, increasing their fuel economy. (In technical terms a chemical rocket has a low specific impulse while the plasma rocket has one of the highest compared to other methods of space travel.)

Basic layout of the VASIMR - Photo: NASA

Imagine sitting on an office chair in the middle of the room. You are carrying a box of BB's, a box of shotgun shells and a shotgun. If you were to grab a handful of BB's and throw them you would start moving slightly in the other direction. Here the BB's are the exhaust gases of the rocket and your muscles that throw the BB's represents the stored chemical energy of the fuel. Now load the shotgun and fire it towards the wall. You will feel a big kick and your chair will start rolling backwards. The contents of the shell might only have the equivalent mass of 30 BB's, far less than handful you just threw yet the chair moved much faster. Clearly the shell had more momentum in the forward direction, therefore it changed your momentum in the backwards direction by a larger amount. In this analogy the chemical energy contained in the shotgun shell is represented by the VASIMR system.

In a chemical rocket the propellant and the energy source are combined into the rocket fuel, while in plasma rockets the energy source and propellant are two different entities. A gas such as hydrogen or argon acts as the propellant and the energy is supplied by either a nuclear reactor or solar panels.

So that is the basic physics behind the idea of a plasma rocket but as I said before this was an applied physics thesis. The applications of this promising technology include faster interplanetary missions (39 day trips to Mars have been estimated!) and efficient orbital boosting of the ISS. Both are very cool and I hope we will see these ideas come to fruition.

I had a somewhat different idea and was interested to see if the technology could be applied to deflect incoming asteroids and comets. They are a real threat and for the first time in the history of our planet there is a species that can actually do something about it. Very little actual work has been done on what to do if an impact is suspected. It is a low probability yet high consequence event. Current proposed methods include lasers, gravity tugs, kinetic impactors and a volley of nuclear weapons. The techniques then require you to change the orbit very slightly. Because distances are so vast in space a small change in speed (~1cm/s) should alter the orbit enough so that a collision is avoided. I hope that the VASIMR thruster will be able to change the velocity of the incoming asteroids in a shorter period than competing ideas. Just like every other method however it is crucial to discover these potentially dangerous rocks early, years in advance.

My basic goal of this thesis is to design a system that can land on an incoming asteroid, deploy a nuclear power station and a plasma thruster system and then fire the engine for months at a time slowly changing the asteroid's orbit. It has been interesting so far, and I am curious how feasible it turns out to be. Any questions or genius ideas to help? Let me know.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

H1N1 Vaccines

H1N1 has begun its anticipated resurgence, sweeping through communities and spreading rapidly. There has been an incredible amount of misinformation being spread about the vaccine. Most of it is well intentioned, but horrendously uninformed. Unfortunately viruses are apathetic to good intentions but bad science; they cause illness and death anyways. I am going to be focusing on misunderstandings of the science. If you believe that H1N1 is a ploy by the government to institute massive depopulation no amount of evidence will change your mind. It is well beyond the scope of a blog post, it would require a textbook on critical thinking and maybe a bucket of ice water. Ironically sometimes the same individuals who claim it is a plan for massive depopulation also claim that H1N1 is relatively mild and you don't need the vaccine...
So that being said I will try to reach out for people who are skeptical about the vaccine and guide them in the right direction to find the legitimate sources that assess both effectiveness and the safety of the H1N1 flu vaccine.

I am also going to be greatly simplifying just about everything because I am not an expert and it would take a textbook to explain everything in great detail. I encourage you to use this as a starting point I may make errors (if I do please email me I will correct them).

There is only one reason I am writing this, it isn't to prove myself to anyone nor do I don't get a cheque from big pharma (although if you are from big pharma reading this call me I have lots and lots of student loans to repay). I am writing this because a preventable disease that can cause severe illness or death in healthy young individuals is spreading rapidly. Many people are uninformed about the facts due to an overload of misinformation, found primarily on the Internet. In short I want my friends, family and ultimately all of humanity to be as healthy as possible.

I am not a doctor, I am not here to give you health advice other than the recommendation to listen to medical science. First lets quickly go over how vaccines works, again this isn't my area of expertise and I am heavily quoting physicians and scientists. I will give my references at the end.

Vaccines are one of the miracles of modern science. Smallpox is estimated to have killed hundreds of millions of people in the 20th century alone. The population of the US and Canada in the approximately 75 years. More than the holocaust, both world wars, the Rwandan genocide, Pol Pot, Stalin, and Mao COMBINED. Guess how it was eradicated, not by eating healthy (which is a good thing too), not by homeopathy or herbal treatments but by vaccines. In two decades it was effectively eradicated, the last case occurred in 1978.

Vaccines work by injecting a small amount of something that resembles a microorganism into the bloodstream. It allows the immune system to recognize it as foreign and destroy it. The immune system has also evolved to keep a memory of previous microorganisms it has destroyed so that if they appear again they can be destroyed much more quickly and not cause infection. The flu vaccine contains dead flu viruses, which your body recognizes as foreign, eliminates them and remembers what the virus looks like. Because these viruses are dead they cannot cause the flu... ever. Very rarely people react poorly to vaccines and the flu vaccine is by no means 100 percent effective due to the variety of strains but the risks are dwarfed by the benefits. Getting the flu directly from the vaccine is analogous to someone dumping a corpse in your living room, your house getting robbed the next day and blaming it on the corpse. The problem is that all influenza strains are not the same and creating the vaccine in large quantities takes a long time ~6 months. So researchers have to make an educated guess on what flu strain will be prevalent in the flu season next year which brings us to H1N1 (Swine flu).

Influenza has the ability to exchange parts of its genetic code (RNA in this case) with other strains of influenza. That is precisely what happened. Sections of swine flu, avian flu and human flu combined creating something that most peoples immune system haven't seen before. That is the major concern and why so much attention has been focused on this pandemic. Most people have at least limited immunity to seasonal flu because their body has seen parts of the virus before. Influenza is constantly mutating, like any reproducing organism and a more deadly form of H1N1 could appear tomorrow.

Luckily our immune system is quite incredible and most people who get H1N1 suffer from basically a normal flu. The mortality rate looks so far to be approximately what you would expect from the yearly seasonal flu. So why worry about it? Because it causes serious illness young healthy people in far greater numbers than you would expect from the normal seasonal flu. Here is another important point: H1N1 appears to have almost a "split personality", either you are sick for a few days and get better or you have a very serious illness that requires hospitalization often in the ICU. This is where a lot of misinformation lies. I've heard it repeated ad nauseum that "its just like a normal flu why the big deal" and that is true in around 99 percent of the cases. In the remaining 1 percent, indiscriminate of age or prior health they develop a deadly illness. In the event of a pandemic where millions of people are getting sick 1 percent is a huge number.

So in order to combat this spread governments and pharmaceutical companies quickly threw together some sort of a vaccine that may protect you in an experimental new treatment that is untested and potentially worse than the virus right? Well no. It takes around nine months to make the flu vaccine, 3 months to figure out what strains to put in and 6 months to produce and deliver it. They are using the exact same tried and true methods of flu vaccinations except they were able to skip the first 3 months because they knew exactly what strain of influenza to use. They then started to produce the vaccine just like any other seasonal vaccine. So yes it was "rushed" it needed to be but it wasn't rushed on things like safety. If you are interested checkout this podcast from an infectious disease doctor. He covers it much better than I ever could.

Vaccines like any medical intervention have risks. Luckily the risk of getting serious complications from the vaccine is around 1 in a million, lottery odds. Your risk of getting serious complications from the flu is much higher. It is all about relative risk. It is also important to look at the common logical fallacy "post hoc, ergo proper hoc" (After therefore because of). If millions of people are getting vaccinated then it makes sense that some people, shortly after their vaccine will have a myriad of health problems purely by chance. Some will have heart attacks, some will have a stroke, some will develop "flu like symptoms" etc. completely unrelated to the vaccine, they would have developed it anyways. This is why careful studies are required to determine if a medical intervention is actually causing serious harm (which it can, thats why drugs get pulled off the market sometimes) or if it is just coincidental over a large population.

Bottom line. The vaccine is safe. H1N1 either produces a mild illness or a deadly one. If you have H1N1 right now you are probably going to be OK the chances of death are quite low. Statistically speaking however it can do a great deal of preventable damage. It appears to target young healthy people with serious illness much more often than the seasonal flu. By not getting the vaccine you are giving the virus the opportunity to spread and infect others.

Get the vaccine.

References: (Not exactly scholarly research but a good starting point and the references are good at the bottom)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Chemotherapy has Pro's and Con's aka Shut the Fuck Up Mike Adams

I was checking one of my favorite sites I love to hate on, It is a haven for all sorts of medical quackery. Under the guise of offering natural alternatives to health care (without evidence of them actually working) he rambles about government conspiracy, big pharma and the evils of western medicine. His website reads like a typical shitty newspaper. Flashy headlines, an emphasis on pop culture, short grossly oversimplified conclusions and a lack of scholarship to back up his claims. I am going to use a term that I heard from Dr. Mark Crislip, who does the podcast Quackcast and delve into some evidence based ridicule.

Celebrities appear to be his favorite target. As many of you know Patrick Swayze recently passed away from pancreatic cancer. This disease is one of the nastiest forms of cancer with a low 5 year survival rate and an average life expectancy of around 6 months after diagnosis. After he passed away wrote an article titled "Patrick Swayze dead at 57 after chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer". What a piece of garbage. Not to mention an insult to a man who put up a heroic 20 month battle with a devastating illness.
Sorry the chemotherapy didn't kill him, it is one of the most stunning examples of confusing causation with correlation I have ever seen.

People who get diagnosed with terminal cancer have a few things in common. They normally get some form of treatment such as surgery, chemotherapy or radiation. Secondly most of them die eventually from the disease. If you want to pick one of the forms of treatment as an evil villain chemotherapy is going to be your target. By any accounts it is horrible. In short the mechanism for chemotherapy to work is that it kills rapidly dividing cells in your body, both good and bad. This is why hair loss is a common side effect. Because cancer cells are rapidly dividing the cocktail of drugs target these cells, hopefully destroying much of the cancer. Chemotherapy's effectiveness depends based on the disease it is treating, cancer isn't one disease, it is a grouping of hundreds. In some diseases such as Hodgkin's lymphoma the cure rate approaches 95 percent. In other diseases such as later stage pancreatic cancer it can only be used to moderately extend life.

In order for a drug to be used legally in medicine it needs to pass two major tests. First it has to be effective, double blind clinical trials need to show to works better than placebo treatment. Secondly it has to be safe or more correctly that the benefits need to outweigh the risks. If you get the common cold and someone hands you a pill saying this will cure your cold instantly but you have a 1 in 50 chance of dying any person in the right mind would refuse it. If you replace common cold with lethal cancer most people would take the pill. These are extreme, oversimplified examples but they illustrate my point. Chemotherapy has been shown to be effective in fighting cancer and curing it in some cases. It has also been shown to have brutal side effects and even the chance of serious immune disorders. However simply put the benefits outweigh the risks. Doctors can save more lives, extending the lifespan of cancer patients so they can spend more time with loved ones by using chemotherapy drugs.

There is extensive research on this topic but delusional cranks like Mike Adams aren't bothered to read and understand them. They instead recommend "natural ways" to fight cancer. Well OK lets skeptically look at these natural ways. I personally don't care if it is natural or made in a lab, I just care that it works and the risk/benefit outcome is favourable. I am going to quote him again.

Having put his faith in conventional chemotherapy, he largely dismissed ideas that nutrition, superfoods or "alternative medicine" might save him, instead betting his life on the chemotherapy approach which seeks to poison the body into a state of remission instead of nourishing it into a state of health.

Four words in and Mike fucks up. Faith implies believing in something without evidence. Such as believing in God, believing in reincarnation or the vast majority of alternative medicine. Mr. Swayze relied on doctors explaining to him the best avenue of life extending treatment. It was based on clinical trials and decades of research not faith. There is uncertainty as the science hasn't advanced far enough to have a full cure but people are tirelessly working at it.

He then begins to list things: nutrition (check, good nutrition is important to help prevent cancer and eating well while having cancer is probably a good thing too although it will not cure you), superfoods (meaningless), and "alternative medicine" (so broad and ill defined it is also meaningless). I won't go into these each in depth but let me summarize. I am not against "natural cures" I am however against bogus cures that don't work. If you want to claim something is a treatment for cancer do actual research. Don't make shit up. People DIE because they do not take the drugs that could have saved their lives. It is assholes like Mike Adams that spread ignorance and cause people to die needlessly.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

2012 Part 3 Rogue Planets, Gamma Ray Bursts

I thought I would finish my series I started on 2012 a while back. I'll look at solar objects catastrophically affecting the Earth's orbit/axis orientation and gamma ray bursts.

Our solar system is a rich mosaic of objects hurling around the sun in various orbits, all interacting with each other via gravity. The 2012 "theory" has postulated, among a great deal of other things that a rouge planet may enter the inner solar system and cause untold catastrophe. One name for this world is called Nibiru. Like most parts of this rough collections of ideas it lacks distinction and you will hear different descriptions of this heavenly body depending on who you talk to (or more likely, what website you read). I have heard it range from an undiscovered planet beyond Pluto to a "brown dwarf", a failed star.

There is evidence of mass extinctions happening every 25 million years or so, and some people have thrown out the idea that there may be a companion star that orbits around the Sun. This gravitational influence could perturb the orbits of comets and send them towards the inner solar system. There is nothing inherently implausible about this idea. Many star systems contain more than one star. The main problem is that we haven't seen it or observed evidence of it gravitationally. This rules out a bright star such as our sun but does leave the possibility of something called a brown dwarf. They are many times the mass of Jupiter but much smaller than the sun. They don't have the mass to increase the core temperature to support hydrogen fusion. They are very dim, mostly seen in the infrared (heat) part of the spectrum.

Such a large object would have a gravitational influence on other objects in the solar system. Researchers have constrained the orbit of planets to vast distances. We haven't observed them either directly or indirectly. I could go into a great deal more detail on this idea but suffice it to say there is no evidence of a large mass posing danger to the Earth.

Other more nonsensical ideas incorporate things like a planet swinging by and knocking the planet off axis. A flyby of a planet simply couldn't do it. It is wild speculation not bridled to things such as reality. It grossly misunderstands the mechanics of gravity. The only way a major shift in Earth's axis could happen would be if a large object of comparable size to the Earth collided with us. Needless to say a tilting axis would be the least of our problems.

Now lets step a few quadrillion kilometers away. It turns out that supernovae have an angrier cousin called gamma ray bursts. These are truly remarkable and devastating astronomical events, the largest explosions in the universe since the big bang. Most of them last only a few seconds but in this time they release more energy than our sun does during its entire 10 billion year life. Pause for a second to comprehend that.

So this sounds pretty scary, clearly an object with this amount of power could do tremendous damage to the Earth. In fact it may already have. Around 440 million years ago a gamma ray burst may have caused the Ordovician extinction where 70 percent of species were wiped out. Luckily for us we appear to be safe for at least thousands and probably millions of years.

In order for a gamma ray burst to threaten Earth a few things need to come into place. Either you need a massive star, around 100 solar masses rapidly rotating or binary neutron stars spiralling in towards each other. In the first case when the supernova occurs material begins to get pulled into the newly formed black hole. This forms a rapidly spinning accretion disk around it and jets of extremely energetic particles and radiation coming from the poles. This radiation is a gamma-ray burst. In the neutron star case a black hole forms from the two spinning neutron stars collide and the rest of the matter is pulled in not unlike the supermassive star collapse. This jet of radiation is emitted in a line similar to a laser (rough analogy). In order to be in danger you need to be directly in line with the jet. It is estimated that these events are dangerous up to a few thousand light years. Which is pretty far even in galactic terms.

Luckily for us our neighbourhood appears to be fairly safe for the time being. The closest star that may explode in this fashion is Eta Carinae at 7500 light years away. At around 100 solar masses it is certainly a candidate. Its rotational axis however is not pointed at the solar system and we appear to be safe from any ill effects. There is certainly no evidence that it will explode in three years. The current best estimates range from thousands to a few million years. We do not have the capability to predict supernovae with any reasonable accuracy.

In no way have I hit on everything that has been proposed on the 2012 theory. I just tried to go over a few of the ideas that were at least possible based on the laws of physics and show that we are not in any danger when 2012 rolls around. I would encourage anyone still curious to check out Universe Today, I have a link in my links section. They do a wonderful job of covering the ideas in more detail.

I will try to start blogging more regularly now after taking a few weeks off.


Friday, August 14, 2009

Meteors, Guitars, Trampolines, Wine and Whisky

After a summer full of utterly shitty weather we finally had a clear night. It was perfect timing. A bunch of my friends and I headed over to Ben's house and got ready to watch a cosmic marvel, the Perseids meteor shower. We headed outside at around 10:30PM and lay down on the trampoline. After covering ourselves with bug spray we looked up and saw some stunning shooting stars. Some of the most prominent ones occurred right as we got out there but they increased in frequency as the night progressed.

We sipped wine (and played finish the whiskey bottle) and stared at the stars jamming on the guitar for hours. I learned two things that night meteor showers are really cool, and the tune of "La Bamba" goes well with just about any lyrics you can throw out there.

Meteor showers happen when the Earth's orbit takes us through the debris left from a comet. In this case the comet was Swift-Tuttle. Comets are effectively dirty snowballs that orbit happily beyond the orbit of Neptune in either the Kuiper Belt or the Oort Cloud until some sort of gravitational disturbance knocks it towards the inner solar system. It will either orbit the Sun in a highly elliptical path or get tossed out of the solar system. The Sun heats up the object and the solar wind, the particles that get ejected from the sun, cause the distinctive tail to form. This tail spews out small particles which are left in the wake. When the particles enter the Earth's atmosphere friction causes them to burn up, producing shooting stars.

Thats all for today off to go camping for the weekend.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Large Hadron Collider Hopefully Starting at Christmas, Physicists preparing for Hardons

As many people have heard, at least in passing, the Large Hadron Collider was supposed to come online last September. Numerous technical problems have caused delays which I will go into shortly but first I thought I would address the actual purpose of this utterly huge machine and some of its popular misconceptions.

Particle accelerators are the microscopes of particle physics. Using something extremely big they can peer into the very small. We have been building larger and larger accelerators for decades each with higher energies, meaning they smash stuff together faster, than the previous ones. The simplified idea of particle accelerators relies on Einstein's very famous equation E=mc^2. It basically states that energy and mass are equivalent with a constant, c^2. What these accelerators do is increase the kinetic energy via magnetic fields and smash them together inside of a detector. These particles are going only tiny fractions of a percent slower than the speed of light and this translates into tremendous energy. This energy can then "freeze out" into new particles when it collides and the speed reaches zero. The energy has to go somewhere and nature converts it into mass in the form of exotic particles. A rough analogy (it doesn't really happen in the macroscopic world) would be two cars speeding towards each other on the highway. When they collide new "particles" are created in the form of tangled metal and other pieces of debris.

Scientists then look at these particles and their decay products in the detectors. They are able to measure their charge, mass and other properties. With this information they retrace the steps of these particles and hopefully discover new ones. This is how quarks and hundreds of other particles were discovered. Going back to our analogy it is like a mechanic trying to discover how to construct a Bentley by smashing them into walls at 200km/hr and looking at the debris.

We need to build more powerful, and therefore bigger machines because the particles we are looking for have successively greater masses. The holy grail of the LHC is to find a particle called the Higgs Boson. The math of particle physicists predict that this will be the particle that gives every other particle mass. It is a rather alien concept like most of quantum physics but here is another rough analogy. The Higgs Bosons are theorized to form something called a Higgs Field. When all the particles that have mass; electrons, protons, neutrons etc. pass through this field they are affected by it. The field permeates all of space-time, ie. everywhere you can dream of. The Higgs Field is similar to molasses, when you put a spoon into it and try to stir it you encounter resistance. This resistance can be roughly thought of as mass. Scientists' theories predict that the Higgs will be found at energy levels achievable by the LHC. If we look hard enough at the data they believe we should be able to see evidence of this elusive particle.

It is extremely important to note that this is just a hypothesis based on a sound and robust theory. There is zero physical evidence that it actually exists as of yet. All the other particles that the same theory (The Standard Model) predicted have turned out to be real and observable so it has some rather strong proponents but until evidence is delivered it will remain up in the air. Some of the most awesome discoveries could come if the Higgs was shown to be non-existant, opening the possibility of a myriad of other exotic theories such as String Theory or multi-dimensional space.

It is beyond the scope of this post to go into depth of other possibilities but if your curious I recommend checking out wikipedia and other resources.

This massive machine located on the border of France and Switzerland starting test firing particles in September, but not colliding them. The experiment is absolutely massive, located 100m underground with a circumference of 27km. A truly international project that had former and current enemies such as Iran and Israel cooperating on the project. It is an engineering marvel that is a testament to what our civilization can do if we decide to stop blowing the shit out of each other for a few years.

1. LHC superimposed onto the Switzerland/France Border

With any major newsworthy event the crackpots start filtering out of the woodwork. Individuals such as Walter Wagner seem to have a propensity for making end of the world claims whenever a particle accelerator is about to come online. The main ideas they put forth include microscopic black holes consuming the earth as well as more exotic theories such as a strange matter cascade in which the earth gets consumed into a tiny ball of strange matter. All of these claims are baseless on both theory as well as experiment. High energy cosmic rays with energies orders of magnitude higher from supernovae and other stellar events have been bombarding the earth for billions of years with no ill effects. It is also ludicrous from a theoretical point of view. Microscopic black holes may be created however the exact same theory that predicts then also says that they will evaporate in a tiny fraction of a second. Existing for times many orders of magnitude too short to cause any harm. Instead of standing on the shoulders of giants people are leapfrogging, getting scientific sounding theories when they are in fact based on nothing but misunderstanding and scaremongering.

If anyone out there actually has new data or a new theory these physicists would love to hear from you. They don't want to destroy the world either. They have families, loved ones and a passion for finding things out. But if you keep making nonsensible claims to some of the smartest people on earth they will continue to ignore you and proceed with real, worthwhile experiments and worthwhile concerns about safety.

Now on to the problem and the hopeful solution. Particle accelerators use magnetic fields to control the path of the particles which they eventually smash together. In order to cause a magnetic field a current must be passed through a conductor. Conductors have this annoying property caused resistance which generates heat as a current flows through the wire. They only allow a certain amount of current to pass before they start to heat up and eventually melt. This is what causes electrical fires in homes and cars. This left physicists with a problem, the magnetic field strength they needed could not be achieved with ordinary materials, they would instantly melt. In order to build these extremely large machines they needed to use something without the constraints of resistance, which led us to superconductors. A superconducting material's resistance drops to zero when it is cooled below a critical temperature allowing massive currents and generating large magnetic fields. Liquid helium is only four degrees above absolute zero, cold enough for metal to become superconducting, making the LHC possible.

Unfortunately the sharp drop in resistance also occurs in the other direction, causing the material to no longer be superconducting when it is heated. An electrical fault caused the helium to leak, the metal heated up, the coil "quenched", losing its superconductivity and generated large amounts of heat damaging the equipment. CERN then had to warm up the surrounding sections very slowly to save the expensive helium and reduce damage due to thermal stresses. Magnets were replaced and additional testing equipment has been installed to better monitor and prevent such an event from happening again. Slowly but surely the engineers and scientists are working out the problems. They are dealing with the most complicated machine ever constructed by humanity some setbacks are bound to happen. The latest press release from CERN hopes to have the experiment operating by Christmas of this year. More delays may be incoming but I for one am excited to see what this feat of human ingenuity can do and where it will lead us.


Tuesday, August 4, 2009

What Would Richard Feynman Do

Much better than Jesus.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Obama Birther

If you are looking for your daily dose of stupid look no farther. Michelle Bachmann is a Republican congresswomen from Minnesota. She recently moved to delay a resolution honouring Hawaii's 50th anniversary as a state that mentioned it as Obama's birthplace. She used a technicality that a quorum was not present, the minimum number of people required to pass the vote.

Here is the video.

No one ever objects to it on this grounds. They are always small meaningless resolutions. It sounds to me like she is giving credit to the Obama "birthers" who claim that Obama was born outside of the USA. This is a demonstrably false proposition. His records were analysed, his birth certificate was reviewed etc etc. I also fail to see how this has any benefit whatsoever to the Republican cause. If she actually believes that John McCain's campaign full of leading Republicans was so incompetent to not realize this and WIN THE ELECTION FOR HIM she is seriously destroying the credibility of her party. She is probably just pandering to ignorant constituents but this is not the first time she poured on the stupid in the House of Representatives.

She gave a speech opposing the Cap and Trade system of CO2. Fine, you don't have to believe that is the best way to solve our climate crisis. Her arguments supporting her position were so incredibly ignorant it appeared to be satire. I'd recommend watching the video:

She begins and ends a global warming denial spree with a complete non-sequitor. Her main point was that it was a natural product of nature. Which is true. It is required for life. Her inane ramblings then slide into talking about flying birds and lies. She claims, "There is not one study that claims CO2 is a harmful gas". Actually there are hundreds that claim, in too high of quantities, CO2 can be devastating to the ecosystem of a planet. Take a look at Venus, it is hotter than Mercury because of greenhouse gases.

She then seriously messes up her facts claiming that CO2 constitutes 3% of our atmosphere. It is actually much less than that around 0.04%. However her unstated false premise is that "3%" is not going to radically change the climate. She doesn't show any evidence that this is the case. If our atmosphere was 3% CO2 our oceans would have boiled away and we would be a world utterly devoid of life.

Her other major error is the naturalistic fallacy, "If its natural it must not be harmful". Well congresswomen I have a proposition for you. Next time you have a salad replace 3% of your lettuce with natural nightshade leaves and berries. Then replace 0.04% of your salad dressing with arsenic, which is as natural as it gets. Let me know how that turns out for you.

Her arguments were so devoid of scientific literacy it was scary. The entire speech was so terrible I was cringing. I'm sure you can point out more errors in her logic I just couldn't handle it anymore. I don't expect politicians to be experts in science. I do expect politicians to educate themselves with experts and make opinions based on the scientific consensus. Canada doesn't have much to brag about either. Our Prime Minister has shown a lack of dedication towards combating global warming and was fairly recently a denier. I hope he has actually had a change of heart, which is fine, I was somewhat skeptical until I read more about it and became educated on the consensus. He also appointed a creationist as a Science Minister but that is a different topic.

I sincerely hope we begin to see a shift in scientific literacy in politics but I'm not counting on it.

EDIT: For clarity and misused words.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Funny Youtube Video

I came across this from Bad Astronomy and thought I would share it. Ridicule can be the best medicine.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

2012 Pt. 2 - Death from Supernova

Here is the second part of what will probably be a several post expose on the 2012 "theory". I will focus on one or two events and go into some depth in each of them. Hopefully some interesting knowledge will be picked up instead of just debunking silly claims. Try googling 2012. You will find information about the movie that is coming out shortly as well as some remarkably irrational and intellectually lazy websites such as Survive 2012 among the thousands of hits that get returned. Herein lies a problem. If you accept ideas you read from a search engine query without skepticism it is easy to get drawn into a clusterfuck of poorly researched websites that belong in the fiction section of the internet.

On the front page of the aforementioned website it states "There is zero scientific evidence that anything will happen in 2012...", OK good start. Then the devolve into hypothesizing about random armageddon events that lack any causal relationship whatsoever with the Mayan calendar date of I will go over the space based events in this post and show that there is no evidence that any of them pose a threat on December 21st, 2012.

I will try to make this informative not just relating to 2012 but also in ways that the universe just may kill us in the future. The Cosmos can be a rather nasty place. Stellar events, radiation, explosions that make Hiroshima look like a firecracker, comets and asteroids hurdling by at many kilometers per second among many others have the potential to wipe out life as we know it on the planet earth. This will be very brief and I would recommend checking out Phil Plait's book Death from the Skies if you want more information on the topic. I haven't read it yet but I hear it is excellent.

The one I hear often is "Galactic Alignment". They postulate that the Earth, the Sun, and the Centre of the Milky Way will all be aligned on this winter solstice. The theories are rather convoluted and i encourage you to read more about it if you are curious but the end result is that nothing will happen. The Milky Way is around 7000 light years thick. The orbit of our solar system does slowly shift "up and down" as we happily orbit the center. This process takes millions of years. It is all a continuous process there is no dates where we can say that we are exactly in the middle because it is all rather fuzzy. Most of the other arguments that are made are taken from astrology. As soon as you see that you may as well stop reading. The most compelling, cogent argument needs to be tossed out if the premise in which it was based on is blatantly false such as astrology. If you want to read your horoscope for entertainment fine, not my business, but predicting the "End of Days" on it is just ridiculous.

The next one I will look at is the supernova. These are real and have the potential to kill us if we were within a specific radius. Luckily for us we know how supernovae happen and we are far enough away from potential candidate stars to be safe. These events happen at the end of a star's life. There are two main types of supernovae, they are designated type 1A and type 2. Type 2 supernovae occur when a massive star, several times the mass of our sun to around a hundred times the mass, to run out of fuel and explode.

Stars are a delicate balance of gravity and radiation pressure which I will get to in a moment. If you have ever dove into a pool or river deeper than 8 feet you will notice that as you descend you begin to notice the pressure on your ear drums. Now imagine a star it is REALLY big. It has tremendous gravity and therefore a great deal of pressure and 'pull' towards the centre. This pressure causes the star to heat up, increasing the speed that the atoms are banging into one and other until eventually they hit each other hard enough that they stick together. It is called nuclear fusion, which generates more energy than it consumes. You can picture it as climbing a roller-coaster where the drop at the end is longer than the hill approaching it. You need energy to climb the hill but once you get to the top you will exit with more speed than you started with. This energy is given off in the form of light. This light actually exerts a force, just like pushing against a wall in your home. Gravity however hasn't disappeared. Gravity wants the star to collapse into a single point since it is always attractive. Therefore this radiation pressure and gravity are locked in a delicate balance for the duration of the star's life.

The fun begins when it runs out of fuel, like a gambler sitting at a blackjack table who eventually runs out of chips (or my friends who bet stupidly large amounts of money on single hands of war). Gravity begins to win out. The radiation pressure simply isn't enough and it begins to collapse. During this collapse the gravitational potential energy heats of the material in the star and causes it to explode in a spectacular fashion. This explosions created all of the elements heavier than iron that we see today on the planet Earth. If a planet is within approximately 100 light years the energy released can be enough to do serious harm to a planet such as earth. Fortunately there are no nearby stars that are in danger of going supernova in the near future. The most likely candidate is Eta Carinae. It is a massive star approximately 9000 light years away. It could explode tomorrow or in 100,000 years. Astronomers do not know. Luckily we will just be treated to a spectacular light show in the sky, not armageddon.

The second type of supernova is called type 1A. This can occur in binary systems with stars similar to the mass of our sun. Smaller stars don't have this violent end. They slow enlarge as they age. Our sun will have a radius extending out past the orbit of Venus and possibly past Earth. Regardless we will be nicely toasted. It then sheds off its outer atmosphere and becomes a planetary nebula leaving behind a corpse, a white dwarf star. It no longer produces energy and will be approximately the size of the Earth slowly radiating away its heat and eventually cooling into a dead cinder. The density of this star will be mind boggling, approximately 1 metric tonne per cubic centimeter. That is similar to a freight train cargo container in a teaspoon. It is made out of electron-degenerate matter, I will leave it up to you to read up on that if you are interested.

If the white dwarf has a partner, which many do, matter can begin falling onto the corpse of the star. It happily builds up in an accretion disk around the star from matter being sucked in from its companion. It will continue to do this until it reaches a limit where gravity again becomes the enemy. At 1.38 stellar masses the pull of gravity is able to overcome the degeneracy pressure and cause a supernova. The star collapses and rebounds expelling tremendous amounts of energy and disappears in a cloud of energy and heavy elements.

So there you have it, galactic alignment is a hoax, and supernovae while real and amazingly cool are not close enough to hurt us. We can see the stars in our immediate neighbourhood and we don't have white dwarf binary systems accumulating matter or supergiants ready to collapse. Next time I'll look at 'rouge' planets, asteroids and gamma ray bursts.


Monday, July 20, 2009

Just a little bit small

I found this link a few weeks ago via StumbleUpon and thought I would share it. It amazes me every time. Just a mote of dust suspended in the cosmos.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Quick the World is Ending! Give Me All your Money

If you haven't been living in a cave for the past few years you have probably heard rumblings about the supposed 2012 doomsday predictions. I have been asked this question quite a few times, so I figured it would be a good idea to write it out rather than try to explain how ridiculous the idea is after a few too many drinks at a campfire.

The first thing about the 2012 predictions that I found questionable, to the point of being ludicrous, was the complete lack of a succinct argument. They quote Mayan prophecy, talk about their calendar then jump to the conclusion that the world is going to end. What comes next is a frantic uninformed brainstorm of ideas. Maybe it will be a supernovae, maybe a planet will come barreling through the solar system and knock the Earth off axis, maybe our magnetic field will switch and cosmic rays will fry all life on earth. There is no clear theory whatsoever, it depends on what particular delusional website you feel like reading. I will get to the specifics of the scenarios in separate posts, I just wanted to highlight the background behind it and deal specifically with the Mayan aspect in this one.

The Mayan's were an incredible society. Their knowledge of mathematics, astronomy, art and agriculture was unprecedented in the Americas at this time. They were the first American culture to have a full written language, which is why we know so much about their lifestyle and also why ideas such as Mayan doomsday "theories" exist.

The Mayan's also had an advanced calendar system. They used a combination of a 260 day calendar coupled to a 365 day calendar. This created a cycle that would last for approximately 52 years, which was fine for most people considering they rarely lived that long. This was used for everyday activities such as planning the harvest and religious observances. They also devised a method to measure longer periods of time it was called the Long Count calendar. The same way as we have a 365 day calendar and then measure our years such as July 19, 2009. The 2009 is our equivalent of a Long Count.

It was written in a base 20 format instead of our commonly used system which is base 10. You can think of it like looking at your odometer in your car. Just as you drive your tenth kilometer it rolls over and instead of being 0009 it becomes 0010. The Mayans went up to 20 so 19 would be represented as, 20 as and 400 as (they weren't perfectly base 20, apparently this number actually means 360 but it will be fine for our purposes).

It has been argued although still not understood completely that will mark the end of the Mayan Long Count calendar which corresponds to, you guessed it, December 21st, 2012. Some experts believe that it may go all the way to but there is no conclusive evidence either way. However anyone who studies the Mayan have the same conclusion that regardless of whether it restarts on 13 or 20 it does in fact restart. It goes all the way back to and this ancient calendar will happily start counting again. That my friends is it. No predicted catastrophe, no "spiritual awakening", nothing. There is no evidence that anything out of the ordinary will occur. Lets apply Occam's razor here, is it more likely they hid the knowledge from us and the world is in fact going to go 'poof' or is it more likely that they wouldn't think a bunch of humans with 21st century science and technology would actually give a shit about some archaic (yet historically interesting) calendar.

That is a brief summary of the basis for the entire 2012 argument. A calendar restarting. When December 31st rolls around every year do you enter a state of extreme panic that the world is going to end or do you pop off some champagne and celebrate. That is the exact same thing we are dealing with here.

Doomsday events have been predicted constantly throughout history. Literally thousands upon thousands of times. James Randi on Penn & Teller's Bullshit! has a segment where he lists dozens of doomsday predictions that have not come true. You need to start with the null hypothesis, nothing out of the ordinary will happen on December 21st, 2012 and then build evidence against that idea if you want to be considered credible. You can't make up your mind and scour the internet for dubious sources to support your position. It is intellectually dishonest and shows your true colours of pushing an agenda instead of searching for the facts.

Now that we have established the underling premise behind this idea I will look in my next posts at the potential outcomes that are "predicted".

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Falcon 1 Launches

This is cool, and I would bet money we are going to see a lot more of this in the future. A Malaysian satellite was launched by Space X, a private company. It was the fifth attempt to launch a payload into low earth orbit (LEO) by this company. The first three ended in failure with the launch vehicle breaking up at some point during liftoff, the fourth one was a success launching a dummy payload into LEO.

The satellite called RazakSAT weighs 400lb and can take pictures at resolutions of 8.2 feet in black and white and 16.4 feet in colour. RazakSAT imagery will be used by researchers, commercial customers and government agencies.

Space X is working on two other booster systems, the Falcon 9 which has a much larger payload and the Falcon 1e which has double the payload of the Falcon 1.

I find this interesting not because of the performance of these rockets, which is impressive but due to the doorways it can open up. If commercial spaceflight becomes viable, and investors are able to create a market for initially low earth orbit and eventually beyond the concept of space flight will change forever. No longer will we be bound to government bureaucracy, budget cuts and limited vision. I am just quoting this off wikipedia so don't take this at face value but they are quoting a launch cost for the Falcon 1 at around $7 million dollars. The larger Falcon 9 with the extended lift option is looking at a cost of around $78 million with the ability to launch a geostationary(stays over the same place on the earth at all times, it what your satellite TV uses) satellite. Wow that is really cheap. It might sound like a lot it but consider space tourists. They pay up to $20 million to go up on Soyuz capsules. Imagine them being able to subsidize initial space flights to the ISS by private companies.

I am not saying this is the answer to accessible space flight but it is certainly a step in the right direction. I'm sure there are many obstacles I am missing but compared to the billion dollar shuttle launches I think these private companies have something going for them.

Thanks to Spaceflight Now where I got most of my info considering it only happened a few hours ago and they seemed to have an exclusive info deal with the company.


Monday, July 13, 2009

Hubble Stuff

The first link that came up after I wrote my last post was a youtube video from Hubble Cast. I thought I would share it. Pretty cool pictures.

Endeavour Launch Tonight

I was wondering what I should write about as I was sitting on my porch yesterday night at around 11:40PM. I looked up and fairly low in the horizon I saw a bright star like object that was moving quickly across the sky. I sort of laughed and said, “If God actually existed this sure as shit must be a sign from him”. Sure enough I checked out NASA’s website and at 11:39PM for 2 minutes the International Space Station was visible from Ottawa.

It is hard to believe that 1 700 000 kg of high explosives being detonated over the course of eight minutes to lift seven people into space has become routine. I thought I would briefly delve into the current shuttle mission that is attempting to launch and take a look into what it is trying to accomplish. The previous launch was the final servicing mission to the fabled Hubble Space Telescope. Arguable the most successful satellite ever launched it has revolutionized our view of the universe and brought astonishing pictures back that truly belong to every human being on the planet.I would highly recommend sometime when you are bored to check out some pictures that Hubble has sent back, they are truly breathtaking.

Endeavour will be attempting its launch for the fifth time this evening after a fuel leak and bad weather have caused the previous four attempts to be scrubbed. Currently there is only a 40% chance of launch tonight due to the weather but lets see what happens.

This launch will be part of the ongoing construction efforts of the International Space Station. It will be delivering the final piece of the Japanese experiment “Kibo”. It is being called the “Space Porch” because the experiments will be fully exposed to the vacuum of space. It is also bringing spare parts, food and other necessities for the station with the shuttle is due to retire in 2010. It will take five space walks or EVA’s to install the new module as well as replace some batteries on the older solar panels.

Thirteen people will be onboard the space station during the shuttle docking, the highest number of people ever in a single spacecraft. These people will be living in a volume roughly equivalent to a 1500ft2 house. Compared to the original Mercury or even Apollo modules it is rather roomy. I have stayed on a living room floor with that many people.

I hope everything goes well tonight and look forward to seeing Endeavour safely make it to orbit.


Friday, July 10, 2009


Hello and Welcome,

As I enter the rapidly expanding field of blogging I wanted to outline my goals and ambitions for starting one myself.

First of all I have always enjoyed writing about something I was passionate about. Science, particularly space and physics, has been an interest of mine for years. I feel this is an opportunity to share some of the really interesting stuff that I have learned from external sources as well as academically with whoever wants to listen.

Furthermore we are at a rather interesting place in the field of journalism. Mainstream media, namely print is being replaced by the internet as the medium of choice. Getting up to the minute news for free seems more appealing than paying for day old news for obvious reasons.

As I got more savvy on technical subjects I began to notice a surprising lack of quality mainstream science journalism. While it is understandable that they are looking for catchy headlines with exaggerated or misconstrued meanings I personally do not find this agreeable or acceptable. When I read news I want to hear evidence and the best conclusion as of yet by experts, if I wanted fiction I would be content with picking up a good book.
Over the past year as I began to read more science blogs and was astounded by the quality and detail they were able to produce while being entertaining and readable to the lay audience. Authors such as Phil Plait, P.Z. Meyers and Steven Novella have a style that I have been trying to learn from so I can contribute to the blogging scene.

The final reason is the lack of understanding of science and basic skepticism that permeates our society. All too often people will hear some sort of conspiracy theory, alternative medicine, or other pseudoscience and begin to research it on the internet. Unfortunately information supporting your belief is there just about all the time. It doesn't mean that the evidence is of good quality or from a credible source. There are websites supporting the flat earth theory or the geocentric model. Granted those are extreme cases but it illustrates my point. Information to support your theory regardless of its validity is available online. The key to making your conclusion is parsing through the information and determining if its quality evidence or complete BS.

That just about sums up my goals, I hope you enjoy this new endeavor of mine. Please feel free to leave comments or email me with questions/hate mail. If you see an error please let me know and I will correct it as soon as possible.


Scott Shannon