Archive for the Science Category

Infinitely Renewable

Posted in Science on July 13, 2011 by Sardonic Pariah

Well, not quite infinite, but effectively so.  Unless you intend to live for five billion years and see the Sun explode and wreck it all.  Good luck with that, by the way.

What I’m talking about here is the types of resources available to the spaceship Earth that will last effectively forever.  Most of these resources have the added side effect of virtually removing the pollution generally associated with coal, oil, and nuclear power sources.

Why didn’t we start harnessing these resources earlier?  Because we’re stupid, and lazy, that’s why.  Oil and coal were easy, and people like things that are easy.  Doing the easy thing is easier than doing the hard thing.  Inconvenient, but true.  Thing is, the hard things are generally more worthwhile.

Let’s look at some power sources “of the future,” that are sustainable and clean.

Geothermal:  This is a relatively new form of energy, as it’s extremely difficult for low-technology cultures to manage.  This is literally drilling into the ground, down to the regions where the internal heat of the planet is capable of boiling water.  The water, once boiled, spins turbines, creating electricity which is then shunted back up to a surface relaying station that transmits it to nearby communities.  Expensive to start, but relatively cheap in the long run.

Hydroelectric, Standard:  This one’s been around for a long, long time, but it’s limited to the regions where one has a relatively large body of flowing water, at least on a commercial scale.  Watermills have been used for ages to turn gears and grind grains; with the advent of electricity, the same basic concept was applied to create energy.  The flow of water is routed through a series of turbines, then released back into the river from which it came.  The only pollution created by this type of energy is the water’s effect of scouring gunk from the turbines themselves, which can be limited with proper maintenance.

Hydroelectric, Tidal:  Similar in some ways to standard hydroelectric, tidal power is achieved by allowing the rising tide to wash water into a secured basin, then forcing the water through a series of turbines to escape back into the ocean or lake from which it came as the tide falls.  Building a tidal hydroelectric station is expensive and requires advanced engineering, but the pollution produced by the system is similar to that of standard hydroelectric.  That is to say, quite limited.  Problematically, this type of power station is harder to shut down for maintenance than a standard hydroelectric plant.

Solar:  This is one of my favourites.  The Sun is beaming out energy by the bucketload, whether we choose to use it or not.  The down side is that, due to it’s small size, the Earth only collects the barest fraction of the total energy available, and even that can be significantly reduced by things like haziness in the air, or the fact that it’s often night time on the planet.  As technology develops, it may be possible to build orbiting stations that collect vastly more energy than ground-based solar stations could manage; the problem would be transmitting that stored energy down to the planet.  Solar energy is based on voltaic cells gathering energy from the Sun and converting it into usable electricity.

Wind:  Wind power is as old as, or maybe even older, than hydro.  Don Quixote was quite familiar with it, though he, for some reason, thought the windmills were giants.  Or something.  All wind power entails is allowing the flow of air across some type of rotating surface to power a turbine, and the turbine’s motion, in turn, creating electricity.

So, there’s several different methods of creating energy that don’t rely on burning dead things in order to create power.  And they smell better, too!

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I Like Big Moons and I Cannot Lie

Posted in Science on June 6, 2011 by Sardonic Pariah

Nothing like starting a post by referencing an ancient hip hop song.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-13609153

So what exactly does this mean?  Anything at all?  I tend to think it does, but I’m just parroting what people much smarter than me have said.  All three of them.

It’s often claimed that a large moon is somehow vital to life.  Why would that be?  Because it introduces change.  A paradoxically regular change.  A moon with such mass in comparison to its parent body is going to cause some interesting effects.  For one, the tide.  And periods, but that’s neither here nor there.

So what do tides do?  Wonderful things, that’s what.  Don’t think of tides as affecting only massive bodies of water.  They touch every body of liquid, water or otherwise, on the surface of the planet.  Every day, as the planet rotates, different parts of the globe are exposed to the gravity of our moon.  The liquid rises, spreads out to fill it’s “container,” be that the shoreline of the Pacific or the little mud flat on your local creek, inundating that space with various bits of sediment its picked up from elsewhere.  Usually that elsewhere is pretty close, in which case it simply fortifies the local soil with additional minerals, but occasionally the sediment comes from much farther away and thus propagates the spread of life.  Good on you, water.

There are other things the moon does for us.  It reflects massive amounts of solar light down onto the surface, meaning that even the night is generally not entirely dark.  Nocturnal animals love it.  It stabilizes our pole so we have regularly maintained seasons, adjusted over long periods by climactic shifts, allowing indigenous life forms time to adjust to the changes.  It gives any intelligent life a nice target for beginning a space age.

After all, it’s pretty as hell, isn’t it?

Goldilocks

Posted in Science on May 20, 2011 by Sardonic Pariah

Not too hot, not too cold.  In fact, it’s just right.  This is an image showing what’s become popularly known as the “Goldilocks zone.”  In a given star system, based on the size and temperature of the primary, there will be a zone that is prime for allowing liquid water.  We think of this stuff as the elixir of life.

The number of exoplanets being found is incredible, and increasing every year.  Since 1995 five-hundred or so of these worlds have been found, though they almost never fall into the Goldilocks region of the stars they orbit.  With the technology currently available the best we can generally hope to find are extremely large planets orbiting very close to their stars.  To date we have found only a handful of planets that may be within the habitable zone of their primaries.

The astrophysicists aren’t the only ones having fun.  Us science fiction writers (or, in my case, wannabe science fiction writers) are loving it, too.  We can now create worlds that actually fit within the understood parameters of the universe, rather than making up fantastical places.  Not that making things up isn’t fun.  After all, it is fiction.

The genius of this is that, while previous stories were limited by the imagination of the writer, we now have all kinds of screwed up planets to pick from, along with the strange parameters they may fall within.

Historically, humans have thought like humans.  Strange but true.  The planets they’ve imagined are remarkably Earth-like.  Space opera is notable as an example; given that the genre is a story-driven one as opposed to a scientifically accurate one, I suppose it can be forgiven.

But what do we have now?  Well, we have genuine information.  The astronmers are filling up their databases with weird and wonderful worlds, and given the sheer volume of exoplanets thus far discovered, and the rate at which new ones are found, gleeful writers like me can cherry-pick the planets we want and simply write a story that matches the work that the real scientists have done.  Brilliant.  Expect to see planets with twenty-day years, or that never have a true sunset, or that do any number of other quirky things.  And expect it to all be viable within known science.

Astronomers, I love you.

Stupid Design

Posted in Science on May 16, 2011 by Sardonic Pariah

Another video.  I have a thing for these.  If you don’t know him, Neil deGrasse Tyson is a leading astrophysicist, and one of those with the knack for bringing various sciences together to illustrate a point.  I’m certainly a fan.

In this video he takes a solid shot at the concept of intelligent design.  Intelligent design itself is the conviction that a higher power created and organized the universe; many view this as an indication that said universe was created for us.  Hope you enjoyed listening to deGrasse Tyson demolishing that idea.  Turns out that existence is a lot harsher than most people suspect.

An Introduction to Hyperbolic Geometry

Posted in Science on May 16, 2011 by Sardonic Pariah

Another Amber Case video clip.  This woman has a talent for talking about science, and making it exciting to listen to.  Maybe it’s because of her excitement in speaking about it.  Geometry with personality.  Well… geometry with more personality.

We Are All Cyborgs

Posted in Science on May 16, 2011 by Sardonic Pariah

I was shown this video in my business communications class just today, and it really caught my attention.  People don’t necessarily realize the level at which technology has impacted their lives until an insightful person like Amber Case step up and point out the obvious to us.

Brilliant!

Family Ties

Posted in Science on May 12, 2011 by Sardonic Pariah

I love pictures like these.  All the academic conversation in the world struggles to paint such a concise portrait of our closest relatives.  That being said, it would be impossible to create such an image without those very same conversations.

A picture like this, though obviously based on some artistic licence, can help to demonstrate that there could be some extremely noticeable differences amongst even closely-related species.  Look at a chimpanzee, as an example.  His DNA is a 95% match for yours, but no one would argue that you’re a chimp.  Well, I suppose it depends on the individual.  Nonetheless, a chimp is very similar to a human.  Both are almost identical in physical size, both are omnivorous, both have two hands and two feet with five digits on each.  Both reproduce sexually, both have expressive faces, both are capable of problem-solving.  But Pan troglodytes is no Homo sapiens.

Then again, neither are any of the guys in the lineup here.  Except for the guy labeled “Homo sapiens.”

Anthropologists study the evolution of the human species, going all the way back to the Australopithicine species.  Genealogy is nice.  Perhaps the reason that we’re the current kingpins of the homonid line of species is that we can conceive of such things as “anthropology.”  There has always been debate as to the mental capabilities and characteristics of our ancestors.  Some were much bigger than us; all were definitely stronger, pound-for-pound.  What could have separated us from the pack and caused us to excel?

For starters, ask yourself: are we really excelling?  There are two basic fundamental criteria to mark the success of a species, one being distribution, and the other being longevity.  You can say that Homo sapiens kicks some ass, because we have cellphones and internet porn and spacecraft, but you’re totally missing the point.  By the appropriate measures, sharks are a far more successful group of species than homonids.  Half a billion years of kickin’ it old school in the oceans, all of the oceans, would tend to indicate that they’re no slouches, their lack of texting capability notwithstanding.

So, despite our smartphones and anthropology, we still haven’t made the cut as truly successful, even when compared to just our own little family, who we’ve pretty well supplanted at this point.  Conceptual thought allowed us to tame the world before we had even discovered electricity, perhaps moreso than any of our antecedents.  Our success at dominating any environment in which we find ourselves is frankly incredible, and does, in fact, mark us with the potential to be regarded as a highly successful animal.  Longevity is the key, and it’s one of our biggest weaknesses.

Look at how fast we optimize to take resources, and how fast those resources get depleted once we’re ready to take them.  Look at how fast we can fill up space, how efficiently we kill other animals.  We’re absolutely astounding in our ability to dominate; in fact, we’re too good at it.  Fact: life changes the environment in which it is placed to an environment best suited to support itself.  Stromatolites were responsible for bringing oxygen into the atmosphere, after they’d filled the oceans with it.  And presto, animal life has an abundant and active element to power itself.  It seems that one branch of life, the carbon dioxide breathers, make the planet bearable for the other half, the oxygen breathers, who then return the favour.  But we’re too good at it.  We can create more carbon dioxide than is safe for animal life.  The plant life will regulate it, eventually, but will that be soon enough?  Who knows.  What I’m getting at is that if we want to live a longer and healthier life than our grandpa Homo erectus we’re going to have to quit smoking.

Else we’ll end up like the rest of that lineup: just a dusty old photo on the next homonid’s mantelpiece.