Category Archives: Science

From My Bookshelves

A fortnight ago I attended a lecture by Robert Piccioni. Rarely have I heard Einstein’s work and the fundamentals of modern cosmology explained in such a simple, entertaining and yet informative way. Much of the lecture’s content is echoed in Piccioni’s latest book, which I highly recommend for everyone.

Learn the basics about how the universe works and understand the difference between Newton’s and Einstein’s view of gravity. Take a brief look at phenomena such as black holes, dark energy, gravitational lensing, redshift and the expanding universe! Piccioni’s work is a perfect blend of hard science and amusing anecdotes, making it very easy to follow. No advanced background in science is needed.

Everyone’s guide to Atoms, Einstein and the Universe, by Robert L. Piccioni (2nd Edition). ISBN 13: 978-0-9822780-7-9.

Talking about books: The Grand Designthe most recent book by Stephen Hawking (this time co-authored Leonard Mlodinow) just came out. (ISBN-13: 978-0553805376)

The wheelchair bound physicist from Britain is arguably the most famous scientist since Einstein. At his last lectures here at Caltech, people were lining up all night for a spot in the lecture hall. (It is amusing to see that even in this day and age, scientists can achieve rock-star fame).

Immediately after the The Grand Design appeared earlier this month, some began to misquote it, saying Hawkins claimed that there was no God. But that’s not what Hawkins & Mlodinow are saying.

If we accept that nature is governed by laws, logical questions arise: What is the nature of these laws? Are there exceptions to them (the so-called “miracles”)? Is there really only one set of laws?

Ever since the beginning of mankind’s inquiry, there were those who accused “scientists (as the believers in “natural philosophy” began to be called in the 19th century) of plunging the world into moral and ethical darkness, as theirs was allegedly an attempt to demystify or even deny God’s involvement in nature.

Even this is a misunderstanding. Descartes, Galilei, Copernicus, Newton, Darwin and the like maintained their belief in a supreme being, while at the same time carrying on their investigations into the principles and laws governing everything in the universe.

Hawkins & Mlodinow contend that modern science has reached the point where the “mysterious hand of God” is perceivably no longer necessary to “explain” how the universe functions. Rather, our level of understanding of natural laws may have progressed to the point where we can (or will soon be) able to explain all the fundamental milestones of cosmology with pure reason.

The intellectual methods used in today’s science are in effect no different to those used by Aristarchus of Samos (310 BC – 230 BC, approx.) who, during the Ionian period, correctly calculated that the Earth orbits the Sun. Furthermore, that the Sun must be bigger than the Earth, which was not the center of the universe. (Of course, it took more than 1800 years until the heliocentric world view would become universally accepted). Here too, an “explanation” such as “God made it” is not sufficient, and neither is:

The sun is a luminary whose egress is an opening of heaven, which is (located) in the direction of the east, and whose ingress is (another) opening of heaven, (located) in the west. I saw six openings through which the sun rises and six openings through which it sets. The moon also rises and sets through the same openings, and they are guided by the stars; together with those whom they lead, they are six in the east and six in the west heaven. All of them (are arranged) one after another in a constant order. There are many windows (both) to the right and the left of these openings. First there goes out the great light whose name is the sun; its roundness is like the roundness of the sky; and it is totally filled with light and heat. The chariot in which it ascends is (driven by) the blowing wind. The sun sets in the sky (in the west) and returns by the northeast in order to go to the east; it is guided so that it shall reach the eastern gate and shine in the face of the sky. (1 Enoch 72:2–5)

And yet, science has never ruled out the possible existence of a supreme being, which may well lie beyond the abilities of our intellect, in the same manner as quantum physics is beyond what a chimp can rationally comprehend.

In human terms, as Piccioni rightfully pointed out in his talk, we live in the “golden age” of Astronomy. There have been more groundbreaking discoveries about our universe within the last 100 years, than in all the history of mankind before.

Related Articles:

TweetReinhard

Lacking Vaccines, 78 Humans And 800,000 Dogs Killed in Bali

Here’s a wake-up call to members of the anti-science, flat-earth society who believe that vaccines are more harmful than infectious diseases: due to a shortage of vaccines, rabies is now out of control in Bali.

The toll of infection so far: 600,000 dogs and at least 78 humans — most of whom were children. Many deaths have gone unreported. In desperation, the government has ordered the killing of an additional 200,000 dogs. And this in a nation known for revering dogs!

Around the world, rabies kills some 55,000 people annually, according to the WHO. Most deaths happen after bites from unvaccinated dogs. Most human fatalities occur when the human vaccine is not given immediately after a dog bite.

In Bali, about 30,000 dog bites have been reported in the last half year. And in most cases, a lack of vaccine means that doctors can do little but dress up the wound and send the patient home while hoping for the best.

Rabies is a serious, very infectious virus, but we have countermeasures, and nobody should have to die from it.

The Associated Press has more on this story.

From the Centers for Disease Control, more on rabies.

Related Articles:

TweetReinhard

Nature by Numbers

Related Articles:

TweetReinhard

12 Events That Would Change Everything

Someone at Scientific American had a magnificent idea: come up with a list of 12 plausible events with the biggest potential to shake up our world.

It is not difficult to identify such monumental events in the past, but harder than it seems when we try to gauge the relative importance (and likelihood) of things to come.

Here is what Scientific American came up with for an interactive web-only special:

1. Polar meltdown
2. The proof for additional dimensions
3. Proof for extraterrestrial life
4. An exchange of nuclear strikes
5. The creation of fully synthetic life
6. Superconducitvity at room temperature
7.  Machines demonstrating self-awareness
8. Cloning of a human
9. A really large earthquake along the Pacific Rim
10. Usable fusion reactors
11. A collision with a large asteroid
12. A deadly pandemic

A great list! Except, I don’t think human cloning is a big deal. We already have nature’s way of producing genetically identical humans (identical twins). So perhaps I would replace No. 8 with any of the following:

• Ability to switch off the biological aging mechanism
• Construction of a bionic uterus; extra-corporal gestation
• A working theory uniting Relativity & Quantum Mechanics
• Drugs which significantly decrease the need for sleep
• Fully reversible vasectomies and tubal ligations
• Ability to grow organs and tissues from stem cells
• Solid evidence for / against the life of Jesus Christ
• Technical applications for Quantum Entanglement

Now that I think about it, I’d like to expand the entire list! Food for thought? What would you add or remove?

For more in-depth information on the items on Scientific American’s list, please follow the link below. I seriously doubt that it will run equally well on all systems and browsers, but it is well worth the try.

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=interactive-12-events

Related Articles:

TweetReinhard

Los Angeles Griffith Observatory: 75 Years

Griffith Observatory Home Page

More about Griffith Observatory

Related Articles:

TweetReinhard

Volcanic Ash on Mars (Air Traffic Unaffected)

Airborne volcanic ash has once again been obstructing air traffic over Europe this past week. This would be an even bigger problem on Mars, where ash particles travel much farther due to weak gravity and a thin atmosphere. (Luckily, Mars does not have much air travel at this time).

Does Mars have volcanoes? You bet! The Red Planet is home to the biggest volcano known to man. Olympus Mons rises 27 km above the median Martian surface level. This makes it three times taller than Earth’s Mount Everest! And it is 2.6 times taller than Mauna Kea measured from the base on the ocean floor to the top!

I wonder how long it will be until human mountaineers summit Olympus Mons for the first time. It would be a long and strenuous climb, but all equipment would weigh only 38% of its heft on Earth. It seems far fetched, but I would be willing to bet that some day in the distant future, explorers will seek out the challenge of climbing the tallest mountain in the Solar System on foot.

But back to volcanic ash. Today, ESA released some amazing images of volcanic ash deposits in the Meridiani Planum, as seen by the Mars Express High Resolution Stereo Camera.

Meridiani Planum, a plain at the northern edge of the southern highlands of Mars, is half way between the volcanic Tharsis Region to the west and the low-lying Hellas Planitia impact basin to the south-east. Through a telescope, Meridiani Planum is a striking, dark feature, close to the martian equator.

It extends 127 km by 63 km and covers an area of roughly 8000 km², which is about the size of Cyprus. It was chosen as a central reference point for Mars’ geographical coordinate system. So the martian prime meridian, the equivalent of the Greenwich, UK, prime meridian on Earth, has been set to run through this region.

Click image for hi-res version. Credits: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum).

In the center of this image is a 50 km wide impact crater. The black material appears to be volcanic ash composed of pyroxene and olivine. Martian winds must have whipped some of the stuff out of the crater and plunked it down in the region on the upper left. More ash was tossed into a smaller impact crater in the 10 o’clock position.

Volcanoes are not unique to Earth. Unmanned spacecraft have even found signs of active volcanic activities on moons such as Io, Enceladus, Triton and Europa.

Related Articles:

TweetReinhard

Amazing Footage of Eyjafjallajokull

In this amazing video, ITN reporter John Irvine and a helicopter pilot closely approach Eyjafjallajokull. The footage shows volcanic lightning bolts and pockmarks in the glacial ice caused by fallen lava.

I didn’t know that volcanic eruptions can cause electrical lightning. The phenomenon is caused by the interaction of  water droplets, ice, hail and ash, which builds up an electric charge.

Eyjafjallajokull can apparently get quite tempestuous. Its last eruption began in 1821 and lasted for two years. Not good! Historically, an eruption of Eyjafjallajokull has woken up nearby Katla. So far, there are no signs of this. But it could get nasty. Eyjafjallajokull managed to turn Europe into a no-fly zone for a week. Airlines were losing about $250 million every day. But Katla eruptions can be 10 times as strong!

By the way: I just returned from managed chaos at Los Angeles International Airport. What a strange sight! Many international terminals were empty because of cancellations. At other terminals, hundreds of stranded passengers were lined up, hoping to get a seat now that many routes are operational again. It will be chaos for a while.

Related Articles:

TweetReinhard

Male And Female Brains Work Differently

In today’s edition, the L.A. Times leads with this story: For the first time, a large scale comparative study has shown that male and female brains work differently. Of course, no two brains are ever identical, nor are two minds ever the same. But there are subtle but profound biological differences which have now been shown to be remarkably consistent within either sex. Leading the research is Sandra Witelson at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. Her work was recently published in Science, the New England Journal of Medicine and Lancet.

Surprisingly, this turns out to be politically charged stuff – and therefore makes good headlines.

But why should this be controversial? Society accepts the fact that male and female bodies are anatomically different and each has distinct features and properties. This is why men and women generally do not compete against each other in sports. But Western society has come to have real issues with the idea that male and female brains are not the same, and that therefore, male and female minds think in different ways.

It will be interesting to see if we, as a society, will implement this knowledge, or if we will continue to promote politically correct ideology in ignorance of scientific fact.

Related Articles:

TweetReinhard