Fourmilog: None Dare Call It Reason

Reading List: Living Among Giants

Tuesday, March 31, 2015 00:53

Carroll, Michael. Living Among Giants. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International, 2015. ISBN 978-3-319-10673-1.
In school science classes, we were taught that the solar system, our home in the galaxy, is a collection of planets circling a star, along with assorted debris (asteroids, comets, and interplanetary dust). Rarely did we see a representation of either the planets or the solar system to scale, which would allow us to grasp just how different various parts of the solar system are from another. (For example, Jupiter is more massive than all the other planets and their moons combined: a proud Jovian would probably describe the solar system as the Sun, Jupiter, and other detritus.)

Looking more closely at the solar system, with the aid of what has been learned from spacecraft exploration in the last half century, results in a different picture. The solar system is composed of distinct neighbourhoods, each with its own characteristics. There are four inner “terrestrial” or rocky planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. These worlds huddle close to the Sun, bathing in its lambent rays. The main asteroid belt consists of worlds like Ceres, Vesta, and Pallas, all the way down to small rocks. Most orbit between Mars and Jupiter, and the feeble gravity of these bodies and their orbits makes it relatively easy to travel from one to another if you're patient.

Outside the asteroid belt is the domain of the giants, which are the subject of this book. There are two gas giants: Jupiter and Saturn, and two ice giants: Uranus and Neptune. Distances here are huge compared to the inner solar system, as are the worlds themselves. Sunlight is dim (at Saturn, just 1% of its intensity at Earth, at Neptune 1/900 that at Earth). The outer solar system is not just composed of the four giant planets: those planets have a retinue of 170 known moons (and doubtless many more yet to be discovered), which are a collection of worlds as diverse as anywhere else in the domain of the Sun: there are sulfur-spewing volcanos, subterranean oceans of salty water, geysers, lakes and rain of hydrocarbons, and some of the most spectacular terrain and geology known. Jupiter's moon Ganymede is larger than the planet Mercury, and appears to have a core of molten iron, like the Earth.

Beyond the giants is the Kuiper Belt, with Pluto its best known denizen. This belt is home to a multitude of icy worlds—statistical estimates are that there may be as many as 700 undiscovered worlds as large or larger than Pluto in the belt. Far more distant still, extending as far as two light-years from the Sun, is the Oort cloud, about which we know essentially nothing except what we glean from the occasional comet which, perturbed by a chance encounter or passing star, plunges into the inner solar system. With our present technology, objects in the Oort cloud are utterly impossible to detect, but based upon extrapolation from comets we've observed, it may contain trillions of objects larger than one kilometre.

When I was a child, the realm of the outer planets was shrouded in mystery. While Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus can be glimpsed by the unaided eye (Uranus, just barely, under ideal conditions, if you know where to look), and Neptune can be spotted with a modest telescope, the myriad moons of these planets were just specks of light through the greatest of Earth-based telescopes. It was not until the era of space missions to these worlds, beginning with the fly-by probes Pioneer and Voyager, then the orbiters Galileo and Cassini, that the wonders of these worlds were revealed.

This book, by science writer and space artist Michael Carroll, is a tourist's and emigrant's guide to the outer solar system. Everything here is on an extravagant scale, and not always one hospitable to frail humans. Jupiter's magnetic field is 20,000 times stronger than that of Earth. and traps radiation so intense that astronauts exploring its innermost large moon Io would succumb to a lethal dose of radiation in minutes. (One planetary scientist remarked, “You need to have a good supply of grad students when you go investigate Io.”) Several of the moons of the outer planets appear to have oceans of liquid water beneath their icy crust, kept liquid by tidal flexing as they orbit their planet and interact with other moons. Some of these oceans may contain more water than all of the Earth's oceans. Tidal flexing may create volcanic plumes which inject heat and minerals into these oceans. On Earth, volcanic vents on the ocean floor provide the energy and nutrients for a rich ecosystem of life which exists independent of the Sun's energy. On these moons—who knows? Perhaps some day we shall explore these oceans in our submarines and find out.

Saturn's moon Titan is an amazing world. It is larger than Mercury, and has an atmosphere 50% denser than the Earth's, made up mostly of nitrogen. It has rainfall, rivers, and lakes of methane and ethane, and at its mean temperature of 93.7°K, water ice is a rock as hard as granite. Unique among worlds in the solar system, you could venture outside your space ship on Titan without a space suit. You'd need to dress very warmly, to be sure, and wear an oxygen mask, but you could explore the shores, lakes, and dunes of Titan protected only against the cold. With the dense atmosphere and gravity just 85% of that of the Earth's Moon, you might be able to fly with suitable wings.

We have had just a glimpse of the moons of Uranus and Neptune as Voyager 2 sped through their systems on its way to the outer darkness. Further investigation will have to wait for orbiters to visit these planets, which probably will not happen for nearly two decades. What Voyager 2 saw was tantalising. On Uranus's moon Miranda, there are cliffs 14 km high. With the tiny gravity, imagine the extreme sports you could do there! Neptune's moon Triton appears to be a Kuiper Belt object captured into orbit around Neptune and, despite its cryogenic temperature, appears to be geologically active.

There is no evidence for life on any of these worlds. (Still, one wonders about those fish in the dark oceans.) If barren, “all these worlds are ours”, and in the fullness of time we shall explore, settle, and exploit them to our own ends. The outer solar system is just so much bigger and more grandiose than the inner. It's as if we've inhabited a small island for all of our history and, after making a treacherous ocean voyage, discovered an enormous empty continent just waiting for us. Perhaps in a few centuries residents of these remote worlds will look back toward the Sun, trying to spot that pale blue dot so close to it where their ancestors lived, and remark to their children, “Once, that's all there was.”

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Partial Solar Eclipse: 2015-03-20

Friday, March 20, 2015 20:59

pse_2015-03-20.jpg

Click image to enlarge.

Here is the solar eclipse of March 20th, 2015, taken at maximum eclipse, around 09:35 UTC. Although this was a total eclipse, from my location (47°4' N 7°3' E) the Sun was only about 70% obscured. The sky was milky/murky, but the Sun was clearly visible through the solar filter.

(Photo taken with a Nikon D600 camera and NIKKOR 300 mm prime lens through a full aperture Orion metal on glass solar filter. Exposure was 1/125 second at f/8.)

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Reading List: Rocket Ship Galileo

Wednesday, March 18, 2015 22:30

Heinlein, Robert A. Rocket Ship Galileo. Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, [1947, 1974, 1988] 2014. ASIN B00H8XGKVU.
After the end of World War II, Robert A. Heinlein put his wartime engineering work behind him and returned to professional writing. His ambition was to break out of the pulp magazine ghetto in which science fiction had been largely confined before the war into the more prestigious (and better paying) markets of novels and anthologies published by top-tier New York firms and the “slick” general-interest magazines such as Collier's and The Saturday Evening Post, which published fiction in those days. For the novels, he decided to focus initially on a segment of the market he understood well from his pre-war career: “juveniles”—books aimed a young audience (in the case of science fiction, overwhelmingly male), and sold, in large part, in hardcover to public and school libraries (mass market paperbacks were just beginning to emerge in the late 1940s, and had not yet become important to mainstream publishers).

Rocket Ship Galileo was the first of Heinlein's juveniles, and it was a tour de force which established him in the market and led to a series which would extend to twelve volumes. (Heinlein scholars differ on which of his novels are classified as juveniles. Some include Starship Troopers as a juvenile, but despite its having been originally written as one and rejected by his publisher, Heinlein did not classify it thus.)

The plot could not be more engaging to a young person at the dawn of the atomic and space age. Three high school seniors, self-taught in the difficult art of rocketry (often, as was the case for their seniors in the era, by trial and [noisy and dangerous] error), are recruited by an uncle of one of them, veteran of the wartime atomic project, who wants to go to the Moon. He's invented a novel type of nuclear engine which allows a single-stage ship to make the round trip, and having despaired of getting sclerotic government or industry involved, decides to do it himself using cast-off parts and the talent and boundless energy of young people willing to learn by doing.

Working in their remote desert location, they become aware that forces unknown are taking an untoward interest in their work and seem to want to bring it to a halt, going as far as sabotage and lawfare. Finally, it's off to the Moon, where they discover the dark secret on the far side: space Nazis!

The remarkable thing about this novel is how well it holds up, almost seventy years after publication. While Heinlein was writing for a young audience, he never condescended to them. The science and engineering were as accurate as was known at the time, and Heinlein manages to instill in his audience a basic knowledge of rocket propulsion, orbital mechanics, and automated guidance systems as the yarn progresses. Other than three characters being young people, there is nothing about this story which makes it “juvenile” fiction: there is a hard edge of adult morality and the value of courage which forms the young characters as they live the adventure.

At the moment, only this Kindle edition and an unabridged audio book edition are available new. Used copies of earlier paperback editions are readily available.

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Reading List: A Force of Nature

Friday, February 20, 2015 21:01

Reeves, Richard. A Force of Nature. New York: W. W. Norton, 2008. ISBN 978-0-393-33369-5.
In 1851, the Crystal Palace Exhibition opened in London. It was a showcase of the wonders of industry and culture of the greatest empire the world had ever seen and attracted a multitude of visitors. Unlike present-day “World's Fair” boondoggles, it made money, and the profits were used to fund good works, including endowing scholarships for talented students from the far reaches of the Empire to study in Britain. In 1895, Ernest Rutherford, hailing from a remote area in New Zealand and recent graduate of Canterbury College in Christchurch, won a scholarship to study at Cambridge. Upon learning of the award in a field of his family's farm, he threw his shovel in the air and exclaimed, “That's the last potato I'll ever dig.” It was.

When he arrived at Cambridge, he could hardly have been more out of place. He and another scholarship winner were the first and only graduate students admitted who were not Cambridge graduates. Cambridge, at the end of the Victorian era, was a clubby, upper-class place, where even those pursuing mathematics were steeped in the classics, hailed from tony public schools, and spoke with refined accents. Rutherford, by contrast, was a rough-edged colonial, bursting with energy and ambition. He spoke with a bizarre accent (which he retained all his life) which blended the Scottish brogue of his ancestors with the curious intonations of the antipodes. He was anything but the ascetic intellectual so common at Cambridge—he had been a fierce competitor at rugby, spoke about three times as loud as was necessary (many years later, when the eminent Rutherford was tapped to make a radio broadcast from Cambridge, England to Cambridge, Massachusetts, one of his associates asked, “Why use radio?”), and spoke vehemently on any and all topics (again, long afterward, when a ceremonial portrait was unveiled, his wife said she was surprised the artist had caught him with his mouth shut).

But it quickly became apparent that this burly, loud, New Zealander was extraordinarily talented, and under the leadership of J.J. Thomson, he began original research in radio, but soon abandoned the field to pursue atomic research, which Thomson had pioneered with his discovery of the electron. In 1898, with Thomson's recommendation, Rutherford accepted a professorship at McGill University in Montreal. While North America was considered a scientific backwater in the era, the generous salary would allow him to marry his fiancée, who he had left behind in New Zealand until he could find a position which would support them.

At McGill, he and his collaborator Frederick Soddy, studying the radioactive decay of thorium, discovered that radioactive decay was characterised by a unique half-life, and was composed of two distinct components which he named alpha and beta radiation. He later named the most penetrating product of nuclear reactions gamma rays. Rutherford was the first to suggest, in 1902, that radioactivity resulted from the transformation of one chemical element into another—something previously thought impossible.

In 1907, Rutherford was offered, and accepted a chair of physics at the University of Manchester, where, with greater laboratory resources than he had had in Canada, pursued the nature of the products of radioactive decay. By 1907, by a clever experiment, he had identified alpha radiation (or particles, as we now call them) with the nuclei of helium atoms—nuclear decay was heavy atoms being spontaneously transformed into a lighter element and a helium nucleus.

Based upon this work, Rutherford won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1908. As a person who considered himself first and foremost an experimental physicist and who was famous for remarking, “All science is either physics or stamp collecting”, winning the Chemistry Nobel had to feel rather odd. He quipped that while he had observed the transmutation of elements in his laboratory, no transmutation was as startling as discovering he had become a chemist. Still, physicist or chemist, his greatest work was yet to come.

In 1909, along with Hans Geiger (later to invent the Geiger counter) and Ernest Marsden, he conducted an experiment where high-energy alpha particles were directed against a very thin sheet of gold foil. The expectation was that few would be deflected and those only slightly. To the astonishment of the experimenters, some alpha particles were found to be deflected through large angles, some bouncing directly back toward the source. Geiger exclaimed, “It was almost as incredible as if you fired a 15-inch [battleship] shell at a piece of tissue paper and it came back and hit you.” It took two years before Rutherford fully understood and published what was going on, and it forever changed the concept of the atom. The only way to explain the scattering results was to replace the early model of the atom with one in which a diffuse cloud of negatively charged electrons surrounded a tiny, extraordinarily dense, positively charged nucleus (that word was not used until 1913). This experimental result fed directly into the development of quantum theory and the elucidation of the force which bound the particles in the nucleus together, which was not fully understood until more than six decades later.

In 1919 Rutherford returned to Cambridge to become the head of the Cavendish Laboratory, the most prestigious position in experimental physics in the world. Continuing his research with alpha emitters, he discovered that bombarding nitrogen gas with alpha particles would transmute nitrogen into oxygen, liberating a proton (the nucleus of hydrogen). Rutherford simultaneously was the first to deliberately transmute one element into another, and also to discover the proton. In 1921, he predicted the existence of the neutron, completing the composition of the nucleus. The neutron was eventually discovered by his associate, James Chadwick, in 1932.

Rutherford's discoveries, all made with benchtop apparatus and a small group of researchers, were the foundation of nuclear physics. He not only discovered the nucleus, he also found or predicted its constituents. He was the first to identify natural nuclear transmutation and the first to produce it on demand in the laboratory. As a teacher and laboratory director his legacy was enormous: eleven of his students and research associates went on to win Nobel prizes. His students John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton built the first particle accelerator and ushered in the era of “big science”. Rutherford not only created the science of nuclear physics, he was the last person to make major discoveries in the field by himself, alone or with a few collaborators, and with simple apparatus made in his own laboratory.

In the heady years between the wars, there were, in the public mind, two great men of physics: Einstein the theoretician and Rutherford the experimenter. (This perception may have understated the contributions of the creators of quantum mechanics, but they were many and less known.) Today, we still revere Einstein, but Rutherford is less remembered (except in New Zealand, where everybody knows his name and achievements). And yet there are few experimentalists who have discovered so much in their lifetimes, with so little funding and the simplest apparatus. Rutherford, that boisterous, loud, and restless colonial, figured out much of what we now know about the atom, largely by himself, through a multitude of tedious experiments which often failed, and he should rightly be regarded as a pillar of 20th century physics.

This is the thousandth book to appear since I began to keep the reading list in January 2001.

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Reading List: Tools for Survival

Wednesday, February 18, 2015 22:14

Rawles, James Wesley. Tools for Survival. New York: Plume, 2014. ISBN 978-0-452-29812-5.
Suppose one day the music stops. We all live, more or less, as part of an intricately-connected web of human society. The water that comes out of the faucet when we open the tap depends (for the vast majority of people) on pumps powered by an electrical grid that spans a continent. So does the removal of sewage when you flush the toilet. The typical city in developed nations has only about three days' supply of food on hand in stores and local warehouses and depends upon a transportation infrastructure as well as computerised inventory and payment systems to function. This system has been optimised over decades to be extremely efficient, but at the same time it has become dangerously fragile against any perturbation. A financial crisis which disrupts just-in-time payments, a large-scale and protracted power outage due to a solar flare or EMP attack, disruption of data networks by malicious attacks, or social unrest can rapidly halt the flow of goods and services upon which hundreds of millions of people depend and rely upon without rarely giving a thought to what life might be like if one day they weren't there.

The author, founder of the essential SurvivalBlog site, has addressed such scenarios in his fiction, which is highly recommended. Here the focus is less speculative, and entirely factual and practical. What are the essential skills and tools one needs to survive in what amounts to a 19th century homestead? If the grid (in all senses) goes down, those who wish to survive the massive disruptions and chaos which will result may find themselves in the position of those on the American frontier in the 1870s: forced into self-reliance for all of the necessities of life, and compelled to use the simple, often manual, tools which their ancestors used—tools which can in many cases be fabricated and repaired on the homestead.

The author does not assume a total collapse to the nineteenth century. He envisions that those who have prepared to ride out a discontinuity in civilisation will have equipped themselves with rudimentary solar electric power and electronic communication systems. But at the same time, people will be largely on their own when it comes to gardening, farming, food preservation, harvesting trees for firewood and lumber, first aid and dental care, self-defence, metalworking, and a multitude of other tasks. As always, the author stresses, it isn't the tools you have but rather the skills between your ears that determine whether you'll survive. You may have the most comprehensive medical kit imaginable, but if nobody knows how to stop the bleeding from a minor injury, disinfect the wound, and suture it, what today is a short trip to the emergency room might be life-threatening.

Here is what I took away from this book. Certainly, you want to have on hand what you need to deal with immediate threats (for example, firefighting when the fire department does not respond, self-defence when there is no sheriff, a supply of water and food so you don't become a refugee if supplies are interrupted, and a knowledge of sanitation so you don't succumb to disease when the toilet doesn't flush). If you have skills in a particular area, for example, if you're a doctor, nurse, or emergency medical technician, by all means lay in a supply of what you need not just to help yourself and your family, but your neighbours. The same goes if you're a welder, carpenter, plumber, shoemaker, or smith. It just isn't reasonable, however, to expect any given family to acquire all the skills and tools (even if they could afford them, where would they put them?) to survive on their own. Far more important is to make the acquaintance of like-minded people in the vicinity who have the diverse set of skills required to survive together. The ability to build and maintain such a community may be the most important survival skill of all.

This book contains a wealth of resources available on the Web (most presented as shortened URLs, not directly linked in the Kindle edition) and a great deal of wisdom about which I find little or nothing to disagree. For the most part the author uses quaint units like inches, pounds, and gallons, but he is writing for a mostly American audience. Please take to heart the safety warnings: it is very easy to kill or gravely injure yourself when woodworking, metal fabricating, welding, doing electrical work, or felling trees and processing lumber. If your goal is to survive and prosper whatever the future may bring, it can ruin your whole plan if you kill yourself acquiring the skills you need to do so.

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