Posts Tagged ‘science’

Defunding H2 from H20

April 8, 2011

I learn a lot about what’s on the cutting edge of scientific research by listening to Ira Flatow on ScienceFriday, NPR. The segment I heard today (8 April 2011) was downright inspiring as the program presented some good possibilities for  generating energy from sunlight by  experimental technology that could separate of hydrogen and oxygen from water.They call it artificial leaf; its something like synthesized photosynthesis. This ScienceFriday edition is worth a listen.

Dr. Daniel Nocera of MIT talks with Ira about this very promising technology of using silicon to  function in energy-gathering ways simulating what photosynthesis does in natural leaves, only better. Nocera’s rap goes like this:
What does a leaf do? It turns photons into electrical current, stores the solar energy while splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen. In this new tech, silicon replaces the leaf. Stored hydrogen produced thereby runs a fuel cell. This silicon system catches the sun as much as a hundred times more efficiently than a leaf.
The real breakthrough is that these researchers are using earth-abundant materials: silicon, cobalt, phosphate and cheap metal.  Hence, some practical applications for energy generation are realized; they’re building prototypes at MIT, with the experimental apparatus going for days  with no drop in productivity. This water-breaking work has propelled progress well beyond the science; now its in the engineering phase.

Ira asks: whats next for commercial viability? Dr. Nocera says they’re working toward the apparatus being the workable size of two doors and thus operating effectively. Passing water over silicon and producing energy, but without wires–that’s the breakthrough– making the necessary gases  over surface of silicon. Next  challenge is engineering a gas collection system, and now they’re using regular water instead of something rarer, so that’s the real  promise of significant improvement.

Dr. Nocera also mentions in the closing comments that people in developing world are less dependent on old technologies  than we are; that is something to be aware of. Folks in the developing world are more open to new techs, being less dependent on the old (fossil-fuel) ones.

This is cutting edge; you won’t hear about it on fox or hln. That’s why I appreciate ScienceFriday, and that’s why I appreciate NPR.
Although I do not subscribe to the exclusively materialistic hypotheses through which Ira interprets our cosmological origins, I do appreciate the excellent coverage that he and his staff regularly provide on scientic frontiers.

And my appreciation extends beyond the ScienceFriday crew, to NPR generally, which is an informative aural venue through which we Americans can garner fuller understanding of our life on this finite planet as it exists today. National Public Radio is a place in broadcast space where we can hear, and participate in, real disscussions about relevant, timely issues. A little “liberal” perhaps, but its more productive, I think, than listening to some self-made mouthpiece who pontificates through a microphone and insults callers who disagree.

As a supporter of public radio, I hope to see ScienceFriday and all the other NPR programs continue. If the Repubs, of which I am one, succeed in cutting the funds for public broadcasting, I do not see that as an insurmountable obstacle for its continuance. I plan to continue my financial support. I truly believe that the excellence in journalism and educative programming supplied therein will find adequate means to prosper in the competitive world of commercial media–and without compromising their high journalistic and first-amendment standards.

If our Congress is inclined to consider cutting NPR out of the federal funding trough, I suggest that they defund Planned Parenthood instead, and then appropriate that money that would have otherwise aborted feti to promote growth–growth in public comprehension of the issues that define our existence in 21st-century America.

There’s no sense in aborting feti when we will have dire need, in the future, for young working citizens to support our expanding Medicare demands and our waning energies.

Glass Chimera

Thanks for Frank’s perspective

March 20, 2011

I’ve been racking my brain all weekend trying to get some more story-line for the new novel, Smoke, after writing only the beginnining of chapter 1 last week.

Then I got this attachment from my friend Frank:

Frank sent this link to me because he is an astronomer. He’s also an engineer who has, somewhere along his 95-year orbital path, built a telescope or two after grinding the  6-inch lenses. In addition to being a smart tinkerer, he has spent years of his long life being a great singer from New Jersey, a model-airplane constructor, a sailor, husband (for a while) and father, and inventor. Frank lives at the apartment complex where I work as the maintenance guy.

Sometimes I think if we had more enterprising folks like Frank we wouldn’t be in such a dearth of employment opportunities. I wish the problem-solvers of this world could become as busy as Frank has been trying to make things work over  his 95 years on our planet.

So don’t let the long link address above intimidate you. If you haven’t yet had a good view of what the Hubble telescope is scoping up there in earth orbit, check it out. It’s definitely a perspective-adjustment.

It certainly diverted my mind from:

…which is the starting point of my novel-in-progress. So far, I’ve got two characters, neither one of them are in the coronation pic above (Times of London, May 20,1937).  But my two characters, Philip Marlowe and Nathan Wachov, are just a  mile or two away, and trying to get to Trafalgar Square for a view of the new King’s return procession to Buckingham Palace.

Anyway, those Hubble shots from my friend Frank,  linked above, changed my perspective on what appears to be the “Smoke” in our universe.

Smoke, the new novel-in-progress

We do have choices to make.

January 9, 2011

As inhabitants of earth, we have learned over time that there is a polarity that governs our home planet. The north pole is at one end and the south pole at the other, with every earthly thing revolving between them. Turn, turn, turn. We are not typically aware of the planet’s polarity and its spinning, but we do notice certain effects: the pointing of a compass, the weather, the seasons.  We discern, and learn about, the somewhat predictable turning of earthly events. Days turn into nights, nights into days. Clouds turn into sunshine, sunshine into rain. Summer turns into winter, winter into summer. Turn, turn, turn. Light and dark, hot and cold, dry and wet. Turn, turn, turn.

Just as we notice with regularity the visible world’s polarity and its resultant events, we discern also a polarity within the unseen world of our thoughts, our minds, our souls. Good and bad, right and wrong, well-intentioned or ill-advised–but this polarity is not as easily identified as the physical one. And we humans have much more trouble in agreeing upon how to evaluate such as that.

Every now and then, however, something happens that attests to the undeniable presence of evil in our good world. Take, for instance a look at the shooting that happened yesterday in Tuscon. No doubt about it: what the guy did was wrong.

He made a bad choice, and the consequences of it are bad. Several innocent people are dead. What do you call that? I call it evil. The shooter was not listening to his better angels. No, he was following the counsel of his badder angels.

You don’t think there are angels? Think again. There is an unseen world out there, within us and without us, because we cannot, you know, even in our great wisdom, see everything. When the invisible universe intersects with the physical world, stuff happens. Shit happens. But it doesn’t just happen, people make it happen.

So there is this big right and wrong thing going on in the universe, and on our planet. And its true that we see every shade of combination between those two in this world–shades of gray and all that ambiguity problem. But even though the choices that we make are not simple because of the ambivalence, we are all of us moving in one direction or the other. Each of us is moving steadily, whether we understand it or not, toward the good pole or the bad pole.

And when it dawns on each of us that we are in an unseen moral weather pattern that blows us one way or the other–toward the good or toward the evil, we can begin to make daily choices that will change our direction.

If that young fella in Arizona had made better choices along his life-path, he would not have done the destructive deed that he did yesterday.

What about you? Which way are you headed?

This polarity in our world is a defining characteristic of our universe: positive and negative, 0 and 1, etc…that makes everything happen. The One who coded it into existence made a choice to create a physical universe that utilizes polarity as it working principle.

But here’s the deal. Included within that divine choice is a certain amount of choice that is delegated–yes, given– to the objects of that godly attention (us)… Or, we could say, the objects of God’s affection (you and me.)

Because God loves us, God has given us the power of choice. We are not computers, but children of God, if we want to be.  So we can choose to move toward the Creator, or away.  Which way are you headed?

Here’s a warning though: one result of the bad choices that so many make is that some who choose the good get mistreated and abused, maybe even crucified.  One  in particular did get crucified, but he raised from being dead just to prove the point that here is a way of light through this present darkness.

Glass half-Full

Salt of the earth and hoi polloi gas

January 8, 2011

In the world of basic Earth elements, 8 is a kind of ideal number. Atoms (we could generally say) strive to achieve 8 electrons in their outer (reactive) shells, and when they do attain that status, they become relatively stable.

Those elements that manifest this condition of stability, aka inertness,  are a certain class of gases that have been named the “noble” gases, because they exist in their self-sufficiency; they disdain associations with the readily-reactive “salt of the earth” types.
Similarly, in the world of societies, as in the world of elements, we see that the nobility and  the salt of the earth tend to seek their own, instead of mingling with each other. In both systems  the natural world exhibits a diverse range of interactive predispositions, between these two polar ends.

Any particular atom of any element has a degree of reactivity which is determined by the number of electrons in its outer (valence) shell. Scientists have arranged a data table which indicates any particular element’s affinity for reacting with other atoms. On that data table, which is called the Periodic Table, earth’s elements are arranged from left to right according to the number of electrons in their outer shells , 1 through 8.
Having only one electron in its outer shell,  sodium (represented as Na on the Periodic Table of Elements) takes its assigned place  on the left side of the Table. Accordingly,  a sodium atom is found to be unstable, and therefore prone to react with some other element in order  to establish the ideal 8-electron  stability.

Well, along comes a Chlorine (Cl) atom, which, being from the other end of the lineup, has seven electrons in its outer shell–not the sought-after 8 status, mind you, but closer to it. They’re both a little wobbly so they share resources, which in this case is outer electrons; groping for stability, they get hitched together. Lo and behold, they become in the process something totally different from what they were as separate entities–salt, chemically named NaCl. In  sacrificing individual identities (a la Confucius or Plato) the two elements become a new compound,  and thus yield a common mineral which is a universally useful resource: the salt of the earth.

Salt, which helps your food taste better.
Men and women have used the stuff since the dawn of civilization to flavor food, and also for another valuable use–preserving food so you can store it for a longer time before eating it.

Meanwhile, back on the other end of nature’s arrangement of elements, floats the “noble” (gas) class–the hoi poloi whom some enviously call the richest 1% or whatever; they exist independently in a rarified condition of invested self-assurance and ease, while the salt of the earth legions mingle amicably among themselves and s0 dutifully among the other strata along the highways and byways.

We see that the elemental world is somewhat like the social world.
The world of Adam reflects somewhat the world of atoms. But take heart, we are on the Eve of some wonderfully interactive phenomena.

Glass Chimera

Searching for the God particle

January 2, 2011

After listening to Ira Flatow’s discussion with Amir Aczel about the Large Hadron Collider project in France, I was contemplating the theoretical existence of the “God particle,”also known as the Higgs Boson particle, which “gives everything its mass.”

The Higgs field is a mystery.  When shaken like a blanket, matter happens!  Our conceptualization of this transformation has major implications for us figuring out what happened during those first micro-seconds after the Big Bang.

I googled into a fairly accessible explanation of this physics problem:

After grokking the immensity of this universe, and then fathoming the intense immensity of its incredible smallness, I was, as we simplistic Christians are prone to do, seeking even further simplification, and I found it in Genesis 1:4:
“And God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness.”
Furthermore, acting as Christ, we understand that God is “before all things, and in Him all things hold together.”

That’s oversimplified for sure, but it works for me. I do enjoy, however, being enlightened with the occasional CERN update from  Ira, Amir, Higgs, and the other physics guys in their atom-smashing trailblazing quests.
Thanks, guys. Keep up the good work, but let us know if that dark matter ever gets a little too unruly and hence upsets our super symmetry.

Glass half-Full

Oil-bustin’ mycoplasm laboratorium, someday?

May 24, 2010

The nano-revolution is presently poised to catapult genetics biology into an exponential expansion.
Thanks to Professors Craig Venter, Hamilton Smith, and their colleagues, we now know we can “boot up” software in a living cell.
According to this week’s Economist article about their gene-bustin’ research, we’ve now crossed “a milestone on the road from the craft of biotechnology, which manipulates genes one at a time, to the industry of synthetic biology, which aims to make wholesale changes to living things.”
Pretty big progress, coming from a little mycoplasma.
These persistent researchers have now demonstrated that synthetic chromosomes can be gathered and harnessed, like oxen or a mules bred for specific purposes, to perform genetic tasks in the laboratory.
The scientists started with a computer program, and four chemicals–adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine. They whipped up a laboratory concoction, inserted it into a host organism, and came up with a designer life-form.

Intelligent design, don’t you know.
Surely this is a Nobel Prize breakthrough. These guys put together a self-replicating cell whose parent is a computer.

Perhaps one day, they, or those researchers who come after them, will engineer, let’s say, a new algae organism that can produce biofuels on a commercially viable scale.  The naturally-occurring algae are, you see, not inclined to do such a thing. But with a little nudging from us human taskmasters, they could be persuaded to maybe plow up our hydrocarbonal fallow ground for us.
These constructed genes can, as David Baltimore said on the Diane Rehm Show, “drive a cell.”
I think we’ll be, in days to come, like the pioneers of old, who would drive a mule to get the back forty plowed, except that our new customized chromosomal critters will be breaking new ground for medical and environmental progress. Agricultural too, no doubt.

Steve Roberts, sitting in for Diane Rehm this (Monday) morning, facilitated an incredibly instructive discussion about this most recent accomplishment. David Rejeski referred to the breakthrough as “gaining control of matter at a nano level.” Steve Roberts mentioned that we are moving forward toward “controlling the building blocks” of the next industrial revolution.

David Baltimore recounted that we have been on a path of microbiological progress that turned a big corner in 1953. That’s when Watson and Crick described the molecular structure of DNA.  Since that time we’ve learned to read that genetic code, and to even recreate it. Now, according to Baltimore, we can “see the trajectory of it (our accumulating knowledge.)”

Scientists work collaboratively toward synthesizing more and more genes. It will be a lot of work, for a long time. In the human genome–the main one we’re trying to sustain and protect– are contained 3 billion base-pairs of nucleotides.

This blob-buster microcoding has been a long time in the making–three and a half billion years, accoding to Craig Ventor, the originator of the mycoplasma laboratoriam project.

What an amazing age we live in.

However, not to oil on our parade or anything, but meanwhile down in the gulf…
Other, less controlled human experiments spew hydrocarbon muck irretrievably  into the murky waters just south of Louisiana.
Maybe one day we’ll concoct a nano chromosome to corral a brand-new organism into eating up oil spills.
It will be a petri-dish organism, a Glass Chimera.

Relativity’s dire discovery

March 19, 2010

The extreme fringes of the physical universe ultimately produce black holes where matter destroys itself. Based on Einstein’s calculations in the theory of relativity, Oppenheimer and Snyder presented theoretical proof of the existence of these imploded galaxies in 1939. In 1970, the first location of a black hole, Cygnus X-1, was determined to be 7000 light-years from earth.
Even before that, the intense scientific ciphering following Einstein’s 1915 general relativity theory had wrought a cosmological epiphany in 1919. That’s when scientists monitoring a solar eclipse were able to determine by observation and calculation that Einstein’s theory of relativity is correct. The “red shift” of light waves emanating from objects in distant space indicated that the light waves had “‘bent” around the sun as they had passed it in their traveling toward earth. This red shift was the evidence by which physicists could conclude that, indeed, gravitational force from large objects has the power to bend light waves.

One of the many surprising facts that mathematicians learn from relativity calculations is that space is curved, and guess what, so is time! This whole development initiated a revolution in the way scientists conceptualize the universe and the physics within it. But hey, it’s all theoretical. It’s not that relativity isn’t actually having enormous effects out there in the cosmos in real space and time. What Einstein described with his theory of relativity is actually happening,

But it really doesn’t have much to do with the way things happen on earth, or the way we do things here. (Don’t confuse this relativity thing with Einstein’s other famous theory, E=mc2, which definitely has intense consequences for real life on earth, such as what happened at Hiroshima,  or what’s now taking place at your local nuclear power plant, or within Iranian clandestinery and North Korean obstinance.)

When you get right down to it, the whole relativity revelation is irrelevant in the sense that it is meaningful only to scientists and mathematicians; they are the only people whose work is noticably affected by it. They are the only ones who truly understand it and converse about it. Relativity in the cosmos won’t amount to a hill of beans in everyday life for most of us for a very long, long, long time. Newtonian physics still reigns supreme in all our familiar venues of terra firma.

So, this expansive thinking about the universe as a macro-entity is one thing. Here’s another, and it is definitely something that we need to think about. It’s at the other extreme of considering the cosmos: the micro-universe–the secret life of cells, molecules, atoms, electrons. protons, neutrons, even quarks and neutrinos.  I’m not going to write much about that mysterious nano-world now, except to say that the ramifications of scientific exploration within it are HUGE; experiments are now being conducted, and will be conducted from now into perpetuity, under electron microscopes and other high-tech equipment. These micro-explorations and ventures will have a big impact on the way we live in the future.

Will you be able to follow all these changes in microbiology and nanotechnology in the days ahead?  Probably not; you’re too busy doing other things, just livin’ life.  Me too. Ditto for the getting the big picture on the universe and relativity.

So here is what I want to communicate to you:
The practice of science is becoming, and will become even more, inaccessible and incomprehensible to general humanity. Newtonian physics– where moving object A strikes stationary object B and has a certain predictable effect–is not what science is about any more; we’ve already figured out all the basics, and we’re teaching them in schools.

More and more, science is about stuff that you will never see, and perhaps never understand.  I hate to say it, but as a consequence of this general incomprehensibility we could be entering, God forbid, another dark ages, in spite of all the light waving around in our universe.

Example: John Doe is accused of murdering his neighbor. But the verdict revolves not around fingerprints and eyewitnesses. It’s not about John doing this that or the other to his neighbor and we know that to be true because the other neighbor saw it happen.
It’s about John’s DNA, and whether it matches a hair sample found at the scene of the crime.  It’s about what a lab technician sees, and  how he/she interprets it when he/she analyzes microscopically-obtained genetic information.  John Doe’s fate hangs on the testimony of an expert witness.

There’s nothing wrong with this refinement of criminal justice. It’s just an example of the way our life is changing because of science. So many future determinations will be made, not according to what we see, hear, taste, or smell, but according to what the experts find in their investigations. To the uneducated it may even seem like hocus-pocus.

Remember the swine flu of 2009, that never really got a hold of us in large numbers?  Was it because our spotty vaccinations worked preventively as they were intended to? Or because there was no significant risk to begin with? Who knows? We just have to trust the CDC and NIH on our decisions about such precautions.

The former Treasurer of the United States, Hank Paulson–did he and Bernanke and the bankers and Congress save us with their bank bailout from having another “great depression?” We’ll never know for sure. Only the statisticians and economists can sort all those numbers out, and by the time they do, we’ve all gone on to the next crisis, or the next car payment or whatever.

Scientific truth and technical data is becoming less and less accessible to regular people all the time.
So…what does this have to do with relativity?

Looking back for a moment into the arcane, expanding realm of Einstein’s relative universe, our following of his theory leads ultimately to, among many other phenomena, those black holes. Knowledge is as virtually infinite as the universe itself, and our pursuit of its extremes brings us to the discovery of these strange, vacuous phenomena–imploded galaxies–that draw everything in their vicinity into themselves with a kind of super-gravity. . These black holes are extremely dangerous. God help the first adventurers who volunteer to explore them. As it turns out, the universe sucks.

Moses had a flash of truth regarding this situation long ago, and wrote about it in his best seller, Genesis. He depicts therein the account of Eve, who ambled right by the Tree of Life one day, and lingered at the tree of knowledge, until someone handed her a sample from it. She bit into a black hole. Sometimes we know more than we want or need to.

The further we get along that deathly curved vector of space and time, the better appears to be the Tree of Life when compared to the Tree of Knowledge.

Rockin’ the relativity spaceship

March 19, 2010

Copernican heliocentrism, corrective as it was, did not diminish the central role of Logos in creation of the universe. The cosmological effects of Copernicus’ earthshattering research in solar system dynamics did not happen overnight; they took a long time to play out. It wasn’t really until the next century that the Catholic establishment felt threatened by the Polish researcher’s revolutionary discovery. Unfortunately, Galileo later suffered the brunt of the Church’s political rage against inevitable Copernican correction.

The Catholic churc’h’s attempts to defend God by attacking Copernican reorientation was useless–mere sound and fury signifying nothing. As it turns out, God needs no defending. Jesus established that principle when he demanded that Peter put away the sword.

And we see in subsequent history that Logos survived Copernicus’ theoretical rearrangement of the cosmos, as well as the religious hierarchy’s slow but sure reactionary persecution of it. Yes, God continues in spite of all human disputations to survive in the universe as well as in the souls of men and women.

Similarly, Darwin’s biologically-enabled debunking of anthropocentrism 300 years later did not diminish the central role of Logos in creation of the universe. All the ensuing, well-documented paleological, geographical, and biological evidence does not dissuade humans of their belief in God. Why is that?

Science is not the language of mankind. Most folks don’t really understand it, though many dutifully pay lip service to it. I, for instance, certainly don’t understand it all, although I try to keep up with the changes. But no one can keep up with the accelerating speed of scientific revelation, not even the scientists. They’ve got their hands and minds full in just staying informed in their respective fields of research.

People do generally understand, however, the language of faith; it resonates in their soul, like Vivaldi string vibrations amplifying and emanating from the hollow body of a violin. Faith sustains spiritual life and health in ways that scientific truth cannot. And this resilience of faith in the human breast stands the test of time. If the accuracy, precision, and inaccessible complexity of science is used politically to oppress people–to extinguish what they believe to be true about the universe and its creator–they will resist it every time.

Scientific truth can trump old data and antiquated theories, but it has no power to overcome faith. The political, social and educational battles that roil around evolution, climate change and other processes of nature are tempests in a planetary teapot. Something much more potent than scientific fact brews in places unseen.

Between a rock and a hard (to understand) relativity

March 15, 2010

The men and women who conduct research in science  have a system of procedures for establishing what is a fact and what is not; it’s what we call the scientific method, and this is how it happens:
1.) The scientist observes phenomena in the physical world and poses a question. Example: Galileo sees an apple fall from an open window and hit the ground. He wonders: If that apple were a heavier object–say, a pumpkin– would it fall faster and thus hit the ground sooner?
2.) The scientist forms a hypothesis. Example: Galileo hypothesizes that two objects of different weighty will fall at different speeds when dropped from the same height, and strike the ground at different times.
3.) The scientist tests the hypothesis by constructing a controlled experiment. Example: Galileo drops two balls of different weights, at the same time, from atop the leaning Tower of Pisa.
4.) The scientist observes and notes the effects (data) of his/her experiment. Example: Galileo notices that both balls hit the ground at the same time instead of at different times.
5.) The scientist forms a conclusion. Example: Galileo reasons that the speed of a falling object is not determined by the weight of the object.
6.) The scientist publishes an account of the experiment and its conclusion.
7.) Other scientists subsequently reconstruct or refine the experiment to prove or disprove the first scientist’s conclusion.
8.) Other scientists develop new observations and new hypotheses for further inquiry. Example: Isaac Newton sees an apple fall from its tree and wonders: Why does the apple fall?

This method has evolved in the scientific community over the last 700 years or so. And before science was  recognized as a productive discipline, artisans used trial and error along with observation to ascertain useful practice in all human endeavors.

But what about the accumulation of human knowledge prior to the scientific method? Is all human tradition and wisdom from antiquity nullified or brought into question by an absence of scientific method that would have verified it?

No. There is, by cultural consensus, common experience and common sense, established truth in human experience and history that preceded science. I will be offering more on this topic later, especially as it relates to morality and ethics.
Have a nice day, and thanks for stopping by.