Brainy Quote of the Day

Monday, September 26, 2016

Dolphin Dreams...

Artist's rendering of what the surface of the new planet Proxima Centaur B might look like Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
Topics: Astrobiology, Astrophysics, Exoplanets, SETI, Star Trek

I recently purchased the documentary "For the Love of Spock" by Adam Nimoy, Leonard Nimoy's son (he had a son and daughter in his first marriage). It is a very good and touching biopic. One of the many scenes of the actor's career was Spock "mind-melding" with a humpback whale in "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home," in which Nimoy was very insistent on a story about them since then (and now) they're endangered with extinction. In the story line of Home, aliens were trying to communicate with Earth in a signal that Lieutenant Uhura unscrambled as the songs of whales, which existed only on Earth pre-23rd Century and pre-WWIII. The aliens - Spock reasoned - would have communicated with the only sentient species available at the time, since humans were kind of between Homo Erectus and building their first tools. This of course lead to the ubiquitous plot device of "sling-shot" time travel and a LOT of suspended belief if you are sitting in the theater quite familiar with "The Grandfather Paradox." It's "Trek": go with the bit...

Anyway, the title drew me in: "Do Dolphins Dream of Space Travel?" It was rather poetic, but it seemed to allude to a similar plot device that the author abandoned almost mid-essay, though it was very good writing. I wondered what a world - a water world - of dolphins would be like, or if beyond a brief foray about the surface of their oceans if they would regard the stars at all? It got me thinking of our fascination with the stars: we can see them as well as our other land sharing denizens too numerous to name; we're just the only ones that built telescopes to view them, writing and fiction to speculate about them and intact imaginations to fuel them.

It got me thinking about my Texas box turtle, "Speedy" (she's actually pretty fast, especially when she's hungry). Her terrarium is cleaned weekly; her water daily. She's fed at regular intervals a diet of crickets, land tortoise food with reptile vitamins and calcium coinciding with her UV lamp, timed on and off at 12-hour intervals.

What does she THINK of all this? What does she think of my (from her perspective) disembodied hand that reaches in and does all this "stuff" for her? When man was primitive with a limited understanding of the world, doxologies and myths were created before science was discovered. Now the two areas struggle to be the arbiters of explanation and meaning.

I guess for Speedy to have any thoughts about what all of my intervention means existentially, she would have to have an opposing thumb and develop her own language and writing to express them. On occasion, I take her out in the grass - weather permitting - to walk around as I stand guard for hawks that could swoop down and take her away. Maybe I should show her the stars as well to see how she reacts to them, the only evidence so far that I have of what she "thinks."

Scientific American: Do Dolphins Dream of Space Travel?
Dr. Lucianne Walkowicz is an astronomer at The Adler Planetarium in Chicago.

Friday, September 23, 2016

A People's Journey...

Image Source: Washingtonian
Topics: African Americans, Diaspora, Diversity, History, STEM

As a parent, I exposed my sons to our culture and history through books like "Selected Poems by Langston Hughes"; "Complete Poems by Langston Hughes"; "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison; "Native Son" by Richard Wright. I also exposed them to books about black inventors, since I made most of my income in a STEM field.

Today is my oldest son's 34th birthday. Tomorrow, the National Museum of African American History and Culture opens. I gave a generous donation on the one day giving last Wednesday September 14th, a day before what would have been my mother's 91st birthday were she still alive. It was also to honor her memory.

I grew up in a de jure segregated neighborhood in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I usually open a conversation with someone of strong political views and negative stereotypes: "Have you ever met someone from a ghetto?" They are usually surprised to hear they've been talking to someone born into one. The home my parents owned was due to the laws at the time, legislating where a segment of society lived, even where I was born: Kate Bitting Hospital, at the time was one of 12 hospitals exclusively for African Americans. My kindergarten - Bethlehem Community Center - was specifically named by the Methodist Ministries as a designation of location: Bethlehem Community Centers were on "our" side of town; Wesley Community Centers on the west, whiter side, both have integrated over time. I didn't have a computer (no one did), but my parents purchased The Encyclopedia Britannica, a chemistry set, a microscope, a telescope, an electronics kit, tools and comics. I was as thrilled by educational shows like "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau" as I was by Star Trek. I had excellent teachers that supplemented our out-of-date books with copies they xeroxed at their own cost. Both they and my parents were supporting all of us in a society designed to not give the proper resources for my friends and I to succeed. It had its moments, but it wasn't the dystopian nightmare some orange political figures have recently labeled it.

I lament the crisis going on in Charlotte, North Carolina. The seeds of this bitter outrage were sown with Klan activities both repelled and lethal; threats and crosses burned when certain families left "their place"; redlining as I alluded to in my parents' case and the shooting of yet another Scott: Walter in South Carolina, Keith in North Carolina. As is now customary in such crises, the dead's previous sins are brought forward by the media, and used to justify their public execution. It is ironic that Walter had a weapon dropped next to his body; Keith was murdered (if it was a gun, and not a book) ironically, by a black policeman in an open carry state.

We have sojourned in this land since 1619. Benjamin Banneker laid the design and foundations of our nation's capital. Slaves built the Executive Mansion. Norbert Rillieux, Benjamin Montgomery, Elijah McCoy, Lewis Howard Latimer, Andrew Jackson Beard, Jan Earnest Matzeliger, Daniel Hale Williams, M.D., Granville T. Woods, George Washington Carve, Madame C. J. Walker, Garrett Augustus Morgan, Ernest Everett Just, PhD; Frederick McKinley Jones, David Nelson Crosthwait, Jr., Percy Lavon Julian, PhD, Charles Richard Drew, M.D., Claude Harvard, Jane Cook Wright, M.D., Meredith Gourdine, M.D., Michael Croslin, PhD, Earl D. Shaw, PhD, John P. Moon, George E. Carruthers, PhD, Shirley Ann Jackson, PhD: all in the book "Black Stars: African American Inventors" by Otha Richard Sullivan and Jim Haskins. I hope they are ALL in the museum, a dream and life's mission of Congressman John Lewis. There are too many negative stereotypes constantly reinforced by an entertainment complex dominated by the European culture with citizens that typically don't live near African Americans and to this day, de facto self-segregate economically through opportunities and resources allocated in political fiat. It is the very reason ALL elections are important.

Also I hope, along with inventors, the one man that broke a 232-year hegemony of white male rule. 100% efficiency is anathema in Thermodynamics, as it implies something that cannot exist: a perpetual motion machine. Barack Hussein Obama has been vilified because of his name, because of his complexion, because of his intellect, because of his preparation; because of his effectiveness. A meeting was held the night of his inauguration to oppose ANYTHING he proposed, even if they had previously been for it. He was forced to show his long form birth certificate by the current front runner who wasn't satisfied and doubted it publicly for four years until last Friday in a faux news conference/hotel infomercial. He is the only chief executive that was disrespected during a State of the Union (Joe Wilson - R-SC) "you LIE." He's had records set on the number of filibusters filed against his legislation. He has brokered the Paris Climate accords. He is arguably our most effective president, but for the not-too-subtle subtext of America that predates him, a sour milk of rage nursed from the end of the Civil War to the present. He is both the culmination of what's possible in America and a public indictment to its hypocrisy. Hopefully, that door of 2.3% "Other" will be expanded to 4.4% as another wall; another glass ceiling crumbles. Change is a part of life. That is the change that will make us an even better nation than callously stoked fears.

America could not be America without our input. Every movement: Women's Suffrage; Women's Rights; LGBT and Human Rights have patterned themselves after our straightened backs did not bend. Our backs are further braced by the demonstrators in Charlotte exercising their First Amendment Rights, and my fraternity brother Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the National Anthem to express his.

This is a journey we've made and continue to make for a better nation. We should be proud of it, and ourselves.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Electric Realpolitik...

Figure 1. A discharging battery converts chemical potential into electric potential. At the anode, an oxidation reaction frees electrons (e−) from their parent atoms. The electrons pass through an external circuit, where they do work on a load, while the ions they leave behind diffuse through an electrolyte and separator to the cathode. There, the electrons and ions recombine via a reduction reaction. During recharging, the process is reversed, and the anode is restored. In lithium-ion batteries, the electrode materials are typically layered structures, with lithium stored in the gaps between layers.
Topics: Alternative Energy, Electrical Vehicles, Green Tech, Global Warming, Solid State Physics

This post reminded me of the documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?" and the synopsis that powerful forces - the same that fuel climate change denial as it did obfuscation on the dangers of cigarette smoking - are holding back progress because they want no other competition is the "free market" of commerce. Sounds less libertarian and more like targeted socialism for the already well-heeled 1%.

The electric vehicle’s history offers a lesson to the wise: Harvesting the fruits of basic science requires industrial foresight, investment, and a healthy dose of realpolitik.

By 2004 the all-electric vehicle seemed destined for the dustbin of history. General Motors (GM) was recalling and destroying all copies of the EV1, its first-generation electric car, after company officials convinced themselves and regulators that fuel cells, not batteries, were the ultimate power source of the future electric car. Meanwhile, hybrid electrics had begun to proliferate as a more economically viable alternative in the short run. Most batteries were then considered simply too expensive, too heavy, and too weak to power cars on their own. Then came the lithium-ion battery. (See the article by Héctor Abruña, Yasuyuki Kiya, and Jay Henderson, Physics Today, December 2008, page 43.) With higher energy density than older rechargeables—and with the ability to release that energy quickly on demand—the battery is widely viewed as having led a revival of the electric vehicle. Tesla Motors pioneered its use in automobiles with the Roadster, and today most all-electric vehicles have batteries that use some sort of lithium chemistry. Although concerns about safety, cost, and durability linger, few would dispute that the lithium-ion battery has been the chief technological enabler of the renaissance of the all-electric vehicle.

The emergence of the lithium-ion battery did not happen overnight. It was shaped for decades by the influence of materials scientists. It was the product not of a singular eureka moment but of many strands of research tracing back to the rise of the US national security state at the dawn of the Cold War. That’s when John Goodenough, a physicist by training, found himself helping to build a sophisticated air-defense computer for the US military. Although he couldn’t have imagined it at the time, he was about to embark on research that would help found solid-state ionics—the science of inserting and storing ions inside solids without changing their fundamental structures—and contribute to revolutionizing automobile transport.

The many twists and turns that ensued illustrate the unpredictability and contingency of innovation. The story of the long road to lithium-ion power shows how changing social, economic, and environmental conditions after World War II altered the R&D priorities of government and industry. It affords insight into how trends in the energy economy shaped science and engineering over time. And it reveals a hidden history of the shifting fortunes of physics, a discipline that has traditionally relied on state patronage.

Physics Today:
Cold War computers, California supercars, and the pursuit of lithium-ion power
Matthew N. Eisler

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Laser Plasma...

Simulation of a laser pulse that's created a plasma aperture in a thin foil. (Courtesy: Bruno Gonzalez-Izquierdo et al/Nature Communications)

Topics: Laser, Optical Physics, Plasma Physics, Research

The quality of laser-accelerated proton beams can be improved by controlling the polarization of the incident laser light, researchers in the UK have discovered. The finding could help physicists to create compact sources of proton beams for use in medicine, lithography or even astrophysics.

Beams of protons and other positive ions have a wide range of applications, including particle physics, materials processing and medicine. Proton-beam therapy, for example, is used to destroy some cancerous tumours with a minimum of collateral damage to surrounding healthy tissue. However, the practical use of proton and ion beams is held back by the need for large and expensive particle accelerators to generate high-quality beams.

One way forward is laser-plasma acceleration, in which a high-power laser pulse is fired into a target. This creates a plasma in which the electrons separate from the ions. This creates huge electric fields that are capable of accelerating protons, ions and electrons to very high energies.

Physics World: Laser polarization boosts quality of proton beams, Tim Wogan

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

7 Kilometers...

Calgary has seen quantum communication
brettA/Getty
Topics: Computer Science, Entanglement, Quantum Computer, Quantum Teleportation

A little math for perspective: 7 kilometers x 1,000 meters/1 kilometer x 39.37 inches/1 meter x 1 foot/12 inches x 1 mile/5,280 feet = 4.35 miles. Fiber optic cables typically have a range, and stations to repeat/boost the signals. This could be improved of course, and part of an infrastructure buildup that could spur the education industry K-12 and post secondary to prepare future workers for building a new communications architecture. A lot of automated and outsourced jobs are not coming back, and these likely wouldn't be frustrated by old money, like the fossil fuel industry does alternative energy.

A new world record for quantum teleportation has been set, bringing quantum communication networks that can stretch between cities a step closer. Two independent teams have transferred quantum information over several kilometres of fibre optic networks.

Being able to establish teleportation over long distances is a crucial step towards exchanging quantum cryptographic keys needed for encoding data sent over the fibres.

Quantum teleportation is a phenomenon in which the quantum states of one particle can be transferred to another, distant particle without anything physical traveling between them. It relies on a property called entanglement, in which measuring the state of one particle immediately affects the state of its entangled partner, regardless of the distance between them.

Conceptually, one way of doing teleportation involves three participants: say, Alice, Bob and Charlie. In order for Alice and Bob to exchange cryptographic keys, they have to first establish the capacity for teleportation, with Charlie’s help.

First Alice sends a particle (A) to Charlie. Bob, meanwhile, creates a pair of entangled particles (B & C), sends B to Charlie and holds on to C. Charlie receives both A and B, and measures the particles in such a way that it’s impossible to tell which particle was sent by Alice and which by Bob. This so-called Bell state measurement results in the quantum state of particle A being transferred to particle C, which is with Bob.

New Scientist:
Quantum teleportation over 7 kilometres of cables smashes record, Anil Ananthaswamy

Monday, September 19, 2016

Apathy's Aftermath...

At the City Market in Charleston, S.C., one of the most popular spots in town, shoppers dodged seawater that bubbled up from storm drains during high tide in June.
Credit Hunter McRae for The New York Times
Topics: Economy, Education, Climate Change, Global Warming, Politics

This Is What It Looks Like: That's the post I wrote for the impact of Hurricane Sandy, recalling my experience with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Yet Congressman Lamar Smith is not impressed [2]. We're at the point where only the blithely self-ignorant would overlook the signs. How many polar bears on receding ice, how many that turn to cannibalism to momentarily survive shall we ignore...until we cannot?

The problem is we all think in short-term: business quarters and targets; election cycles and not generational; not to posterity. As long as our hedge fund earns this quarter, or we win an election cycle, we're stupidly callous of the unintended consequences our actions have down-the-road. The only thing of concern in a self-centered culture is the immediacy of NOW. The fact that we have the equivalent of Cray Supercomputers in our hip pockets and a search engine that's eviscerated the need to memorize, take notes on or recall ANYTHING and the disdain of expertise in every sphere of endeavor: we have devolved, and it has obviously affected our politics.

A bigoted birther, bloviating, conspiracy provocateur and reality-TV star is a major party nominee and Keeping Up With the Kardashians is a top-rated show. Before the tragic death of Anna Nicole Smith, Bill Mahr reflected on his show "but, what does she do?" We are living in an epoch where fame is more important than skills one studies for, earns and has experience in. Young people used to dream of being astronauts, doctors or politicians: now they aspire to be reality TV stars. We are literally at a juncture in history where people are "famous for being famous" and nothing else.

The New York Times: For decades, as the global warming created by human emissions caused land ice to melt and ocean water to expand, scientists warned that the accelerating rise of the sea would eventually imperil the United States’ coastline.

Now, those warnings are no longer theoretical: The inundation of the coast has begun. The sea has crept up to the point that a high tide and a brisk wind are all it takes to send water pouring into streets and homes. [1]

The New Yorker: From climate change and evolution to sex education and vaccination, there has always been tension between scientists and Congress. But Smith, who has been in Congress since 1987 and assumed the chairmanship of the Science Committee in 2013, has escalated that tension into outright war. [Congressman Lamar] Smith has a background in American studies and law, not science. He has, however, received more than six hundred thousand dollars in campaign contributions from the oil-and-gas industry during his time in Congress—more than from any other single industry. With a focus that is unprecedented, he’s now using his position to attack scientists and activists who work on climate change. Under his leadership, the committee has issued more subpoenas than it had during its previous fifty-four-year history. [2]

The Insider starring Russell Crowe was simply about the analogy to climate change denial in the tobacco industry. They both tend to use the same lawyers and disinformation tactics.

After seeking the expertise of former "Big Tobacco" executive Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), seasoned TV producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) suspects a story lies behind Wigand's reluctance to speak. As Bergman persuades Wigand to share his knowledge of industry secrets, the two must contend with the courts and the corporations that stand between them and exposing the truth. All the while, Wigand must struggle to maintain his family life amidst lawsuits and death threats.

I would hate to watch the televised Mea Culpa of Lamar Smith or other like-minded political figures that have pushed this mythology of climate conspiracy; about how they were wrong as "Super Storm _____" becomes the norm. I would hate to see the blank faces as military naval bases are damaged; as more conflagrations spurred by weather-generated lack of supply; the silence that speaks more volumes than the actual answer they cannot say...

"I don't know."

That will not be existentially, "good enough" or expedient.

1. Flooding of Coasts, Caused By Global Warming, Has Already Begun, Justin Gillis
2. The House Science Committee's Anti-Science Rampage, Lawrence M. Krausss

Friday, September 16, 2016

Free Money...

Image Source: Technology Review (see Basic Income below)
Topics: Economy, Existentialism, Philosophy

I have the unpleasant distinction of having been on unemployment, even self-published a book about it. I don't recall it as halcyon days.

My unemployment compensation amounted to $1,320 per month that the State of Texas initially sent me a live check, then populated a debit card. I had the obligation of a minimum of three job searches per week I had to keep logs of, and if asked - unannounced - to produce them.

Let's say I made $200 for one week, as I did in seasonal work for a shipping company lifting boxes and a sales job with a security company. I had to report that (example) minuscule increase. Then legally, the state unemployment adjusted what I received to $1,120/month. In essence, your ceiling was established. Lying was illegal state and federally, and I did not desire to see life behind bars. You of course, desired to earn whatever living you became accustomed to prior to unemployment. It was the financial equivalent of treading water...

I read the print version of Technology Review's business issue because the cover - titled "Free Money" with a cartoon techie next to a sketched Segway giving what looked like a check or money to an presumably out-of-work caricatured individual. The Silicon Valley idea was to give the unemployed $10,000 per year to give them space to "invent" or invest in their own education to retrain for another career.

Caveat 1: Duchess Community College Tuition and Fees (since this is where I live now)

Tuition for Full-Time Students (over 11 credits)+
New York State Resident† $1,764.00 per semester
Nonresident $3,528.00 per semester
Student Activity Fee $5.00 per credit hour
Technology Fee $13.00 per credit hour

Caveat 2 - Rent: A decent apartment runs about $1,500 - 2,100/month. Add to that FOOD,  gas or transportation; clothing and entertainment - retraining workers aren't monks. I'll leave it to you to do the math.

If the unemployment compensation were without conditions, a 12-month compensation would be $15,840.00, though Texas and many states only do with (with seeking employment conditions) for six months.

So...I'm not a fan of this approach. I agree SOMETHING has to be done, but $10 - 15,000 probably doesn't cut it. Something like new entry-level jobs in alternate energy, for example that does not require much training after high school, up to design engineers and researchers. There should be a program of continuous training and lifelong education for career advancement and frankly, for the fact humans get easily bored. Proverbs about "idle minds" and the work shed of Beelzebub applies.

Image Source: Ibid

However, the current level of income inequality has to be solved (reference graphs), unless we want something in a modern society - first, second or third world - decidedly undesirable, tribal, horribly stratified, weaponized and...dystopian.

MIT Technology Review:
Basic Income: A Sellout of the American Dream, David H. Freedman
What the Great Economists Would Have Thought of a Universal Basic Income
Letter to the Editor