Brainy Quote of the Day

Friday, August 26, 2016

ET and Xenophobia...

Image Source: Simon Kneebone – cartoonist and illustrator
Topics: Astrophysics, Cosmology, SETI, Space Exploration, Star Trek

Xenophobia is something we experience among ourselves from others with five fingers, five toes; slight differences in frames and shades of Melanin. We've never encountered - as far as we know - an intelligence beyond our world similar to us due to the laws of physics, chemistry and biology but distinctly: alien.

Whatever we as a species ascribe to as deity for example, MUST by design favor our particular human tribe. We create echo chambers to reinforce our own confirmation-bias about ourselves, in the modern vernacular "creating our own realities." Any news outside this special nurturing bubble is usually opposed with breathtaking, sometimes violent cognitive dissonance to maintain this special nurturing cocoon.

What exactly WILL we do when some species a little older, surviving its own M.A.D. ideology answers our calls in the dark? Our history - both current and documented - doesn't bode well towards a rational or civilized response.

The short-lived Star Trek: Enterprise seemed to be hitting its stride with the episodes Demons and Terra Prime before its cancellation; our current clamor for nationalism and purity makes them both quite prescient. Enterprise showed a humanity at the cusp of establishing a United Federation of Planets. They initially instead showed old prejudices, and our disdain for being put out of our self-appointed special place in the universe, post surviving Trek's fictional human extinction-level events of World War III and war with the Xindi. Before the imagined utopias of Kirk or Picard and the current xenophobia displayed among our own species, we likely still have some growing to do.

We are at a stage in our evolution where we do not yet know if we will ever communicate with intelligent beings that have evolved on other planets, yet we are intelligent and curious enough to wonder about this. We find ourselves wondering about this at the very beginning of a long era in which stellar luminosity warms many planets, and by our best models, continues to provide equally good opportunities for intelligent life to evolve. By simple Bayesian reasoning, if, as we believe, intelligent life forms have the same propensity to evolve later on other planets as we had to evolve on ours, it follows that they will likely not pass through a similar wondering stage in their evolution. This suggests that the future holds some kind of interstellar communication that will serve to inform newly evolved intelligent life forms that they are not alone before they become curious.

Physics arXiv: Odds for an enlightened rather than barren future, David Haussler

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Horror Vacui...

James O'Brien for Quanta Magazine
Topics: Cosmology, History, Modern Physics, Richard Feynman

Horror vacui: "nature abhors a vacuum." (attributed to Aristotle)

Richard Feynman looked tired when he wandered into my office. It was the end of a long, exhausting day in Santa Barbara, sometime around 1982. Events had included a seminar that was also a performance, lunchtime grilling by eager postdocs, and lively discussions with senior researchers. The life of a celebrated physicist is always intense. But our visitor still wanted to talk physics. We had a couple of hours to fill before dinner.

I described to Feynman what I thought were exciting if speculative new ideas such as fractional spin and anyons. Feynman was unimpressed, saying: “Wilczek, you should work on something real.” (Anyons are real, but that’s a topic for another post.)

Looking to break the awkward silence that followed, I asked Feynman the most disturbing question in physics, then as now: “There’s something else I’ve been thinking a lot about: Why doesn’t empty space weigh anything?”

Feynman, normally as quick and lively as they come, went silent. It was the only time I’ve ever seen him look wistful. Finally he said dreamily, “I once thought I had that one figured out. It was beautiful.” And then, excited, he began an explanation that crescendoed in a near shout: “The reason space doesn’t weigh anything, I thought, is because there’s nothing there!”

Vacuum, in modern usage, is what you get when you remove everything that you can, whether practically or in principle. We say a region of space “realizes vacuum” if it is free of all the different kinds of particles and radiation we know about (including, for this purpose, dark matter — which we know about in a general way, though not in detail). Alternatively, vacuum is the state of minimum energy.

Intergalactic space is a good approximation to a vacuum.

Void, on the other hand, is a theoretical idealization. It means nothingness: space without independent properties, whose only role, we might say, is to keep everything from happening in the same place. Void gives particles addresses, nothing more.

Aristotle famously claimed that “Nature abhors a vacuum,” but I’m pretty sure a more correct translation would be “Nature abhors a void.” Isaac Newton appeared to agree when he wrote:

...that one Body may act upon another at a Distance thro’ a Vacuum, without the Mediation of any thing else, by and through which their Action and Force may be conveyed from one to another, is to me so great an Absurdity, that I believe no Man who has in philosophical Matters a competent Faculty of thinking, can ever fall into it.

But in Newton’s masterpiece, the Principia, the players are bodies that exert forces on one another. Space, the stage, is an empty receptacle. It has no life of its own. In Newtonian physics, vacuum is a void.

Quanta Magazine: How Feynman Diagrams Almost Saved Space, Frank Wilczek

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Zika and Louisiana...

Zika Mosquito - Internet Search
Topics: Biology, Climate Change, Global Warming, Research

I recorded something on my DVR titled "Global Weirding," which I think is far more descriptive of the phenomena. "Warming" tends to imply extreme heat like the Sahara Desert ALL the time. It's more like what you've grown comfortable expecting...don't. Sensational blockbusters like "The Day After Tomorrow" don't help in our impatient point-and-click attention-deficit patience either. Instead of a sudden dystopian disaster, it should be thought of as a slow but steady train wreck.

Aerosol threats have been expected from our changing climate. This new threat is currently growing and concerning for many, like me that have relatives in harms way on the Gulf Coast and Florida. Thankfully, our stalwart, "science-friendly" representatives are on the case, tying battling related birth defects to eliminating abortion. Infants will be safely born on the Gulf Coast (as Latin America grapples with their own previous conservative views and legal prohibitions) sadly, with smaller heads and shortened lifespans. It is an oxymoron; a contradiction in terms and "values."

One of the top U.S. public health officials on Sunday warned that the mosquito-borne Zika virus could extend its reach across the U.S. Gulf Coast after officials last week confirmed it as active in the popular tourist destination of Miami Beach.

The possibility of transmission in Gulf States such as Louisiana and Texas will likely fuel concerns that the virus, which has been shown to cause the severe birth defect known as microcephaly, could spread across the continental United States, even though officials have played down such an outcome.

Concern has mounted since confirmation that Zika has expanded into a second region of the tourist hub of Miami-Dade County in Florida. Miami's Wynwood arts neighborhood last month became the site of the first locally transmitted cases of Zika in the continental United States.

"It would not be surprising we would see additional cases perhaps in other Gulf Coast states," Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the allergy and infectious diseases unit of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), said in an interview on Sunday morning with ABC News.

Scientific American:
Zika Poised for Possible Spread across U.S. Gulf, Chris Prentice

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Super-Sized Molecules...

APS/Alan Stonebraker
Distant partners. In this sketch, two cesium atoms in high Rydberg states form a weakly bound molecule about 1 micrometer across, comparable to the size of typical bacteria.
Topics: Atomic Physics, Particle Physics, Quantum Computer, Rydberg Atom

Strongly bound diatomic molecules such as H2 or O2 are less than a nanometer across. Surprisingly, scientists have been able to create two-atom molecules more than a thousand times larger by using exotic atoms that attract one another only very weakly. Now, a pair of physicists have calculated what makes these “macrodimers” stable, and they have verified their predictions by creating micrometer-sized molecules containing two cesium atoms. The macrodimers could have applications in quantum computing.

Interest in these macromolecules stems from the challenges they pose to conventional understanding of molecules and bonds. More than a decade ago, physicists predicted that molecules with interatomic distances as large as 1 micrometer might be created by using a pair of atoms in so-called Rydberg states. These are atoms in which a single outer-shell electron has been excited to a high quantum state so that it orbits far away from the nucleus. Although Rydberg atoms are unstable, they can live as long as tens of microseconds, and experimenters have succeeded in creating macrodimers from them, confirming their existence indirectly by destroying them and detecting specific spectroscopic signatures [1].

APS Focus: Giant Molecule Made from Two Atoms, Mark Buchanan

Monday, August 22, 2016

Neutrinos, Matter and Antimatter...

Olena Shmahalo/Quanta Magazine
As neutrinos and antineutrinos change flavors they may illuminate the differences between matter and antimatter.
Topics: Atomic Physics, Neutrinos, Particle Physics, Quantum Mechanics

(July 28, 2016) - In the same underground observatory in Japan where, 18 years ago, neutrinos were first seen oscillating from one “flavor” to another — a landmark discovery that earned two physicists the 2015 Nobel Prize — a tiny anomaly has begun to surface in the neutrinos’ oscillations that could herald an answer to one of the biggest mysteries in physics: why matter dominates over antimatter in the universe.

The anomaly, detected by the T2K experiment, is not yet pronounced enough to be sure of, but it and the findings of two related experiments “are all pointing in the same direction,” said Hirohisa Tanaka of the University of Toronto, a member of the T2K team who presented the result to a packed audience in London earlier this month.

“A full proof will take more time,” said Werner Rodejohann, a neutrino specialist at the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg who was not involved in the experiments, “but my and many others’ feeling is that there is something real here.”

The long-standing puzzle to be solved is why we and everything we see is matter-made. More to the point, why does anything — matter or antimatter — exist at all? The reigning laws of particle physics, known as the Standard Model, treat matter and antimatter nearly equivalently, respecting (with one known exception) so-called charge-parity, or “CP,” symmetry: For every particle decay that produces, say, a negatively charged electron, the mirror-image decay yielding a positively charged antielectron occurs at the same rate. But this cannot be the whole story. If equal amounts of matter and antimatter were produced during the Big Bang, equal amounts should have existed shortly thereafter. And since matter and antimatter annihilate upon contact, such a situation would have led to the wholesale destruction of both, resulting in an empty cosmos.

Quanta Magazine: Neutrinos Hint of Matter-Antimatter Rift, Natalie Wolchover

Friday, August 19, 2016

These Truths...

Credit: Chris Gash
Topics: Economy, Education, Politics, STEM

"We hold these truths to be self-evident": the rest is a contentious matter, for at the time the revered words were written, the rest of the sentence "all men were [not] created equal," Native Americans, women and my ancestors chief among them.

"Self-evident": this is attributed to Benjamin Franklin, Founding Father and scientist. It was an edit from Thomas Jefferson's original "sacred and undeniable," a reflection of the scientific revolution at the time, homage to Sir Isaac Newton and "the analytic empiricism of Franklin's close friend David Hume." The American experiment, though far then and now from perfect, would be based not on divine right or dynastic succession, but reason, facts and currently bereft in the public sphere: logic.

It is incredible that Scientific American would take such a stance, but it has to be taken. There are elements of our society that promote "creating their own reality"; the backlash to the Cosmos reboot; Creationism versus Evolutionary Biology; the Flat Earth Society; Young Earth Creationism with more dangerous, unscientific thought on the horizon for exploitation by cynical politicians or the latest flimflam artist.

This year's election is unique as one political party has nominated such a flimflam artist as its candidate, that has made no bones about his hostility to science: "climate change is a plot by the Chinese against American manufacturing." As the New York Daily News opined on his loose 2nd amendment comments: "this isn't funny anymore."

This is an assault on fact versus fantasy, science versus psychobabble; sanity versus insanity. Flimflam's persona non grata interviewed on Alex Jones - the KING of conspiracy provocateurs - as a casual search of YouTube on his rant compilations attests, many right wing pundits have, as he's complained - mainstreamed his views in the public sphere without crediting him, only nourishing a faux ecosystem around Mr. Flimflam. FF sometimes quotes him verbatim, which Jones says admirably is "surreal."

What is surreal is that as a nation, we've crossed the Rubicon. What started as a political tactic to - as Barry Goldwater said "hunt where the ducks are," getting votes from a disgruntled south that couldn't take the changes the Civil Rights Act (1964), the Voting Rights Act (1965) and the Fair Housing Act (1968) ushered in, the Dixiecrat ducks came: John Birch Society cum Southern Strategy cum Reagan Welfare Queens cum Faux News cum Birther Movement cum Alt-Right Movement mainstreamed in an echo chamber. Like a cult, they created their own realities. When Bob Jones University's policy against miscegenation (interracial dating) no longer worked selling themselves as a Christian institution, they found a suitable substitute in abortion opposition. The GOP's platform opposing gay rights - despite the American Psychiatric Association's removing it from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders - is evidenced by its insistence on the quackery of "reparative therapy."

What is surreal is our measure and substantiation of information as citizenry, and how we make decisions as a republic respecting reality, facts, data, evidence, REAL THINGS: what truths are self-evident, or quackery we'll follow over a cliff.

"There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone." Rod Serling, Season One Intro.

“If it disagrees with experiment it is wrong.”

—Richard Feynman

Four years ago in these pages, writer Shawn Otto warned our readers of the danger of a growing antiscience current in American politics. “By turning public opinion away from the antiauthoritarian principles of the nation's founders,” Otto wrote, “the new science denialism is creating an existential crisis like few the country has faced before.”

Otto wrote those words in the heat of a presidential election race that now seems quaint by comparison to the one the nation now finds itself in. As if to prove his point, one of the two major party candidates for the highest office in the land has repeatedly and resoundingly demonstrated a disregard, if not outright contempt, for science. Donald Trump also has shown an authoritarian tendency to base policy arguments on questionable assertions of fact and a cult of personality.

Americans have long prided themselves on their ability to see the world for what it is, as opposed to what someone says it is or what most people happen to believe. In one of the most powerful lines in American literature, Huck Finn says: “It warn't so. I tried it.” A respect for evidence is not just a part of the national character. It goes to the heart of the country's particular brand of democratic government. When the founding fathers, including Benjamin Franklin, scientist and inventor, wrote arguably the most important line in the Declaration of Independence—“We hold these truths to be self-evident”—they were asserting the fledgling nation's grounding in the primacy of reason based on evidence.

Scientific American:
Donald Trump’s Lack of Respect for Science Is Alarming, The Editors
#P4TC: Missing In Action...

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Eclipse 2017...

Image Source: Astronomy Magazine
Topics: Astronomy, Eclipse, Heliophysics

In addition to my youngest son's 24th birthday this Sunday, Astronomy gives a guide to a total eclipse that will be seen clearly in Kentucky next year when he turns 25 (and his insurance rates drop like a STONE). Tomorrow, it's an "almost Eclipse" according to Time and Date. Next year it will be the first total eclipse in 38 years. Since we're in different states, it's quite a coincidence to coincide with his birthday. I hope we both get to see it.

From "25 facts you should know about the August 21, 2017, total solar eclipse" (you can get to it at the link below):

1. This will be the first total solar eclipse in the continental U.S. in 38 years. The last one occurred February 26, 1979. Unfortunately, not many people saw it because it clipped just five states in the Northwest and the weather for the most part was bleak. Before that one, you have to go back to March 7, 1970.

2. A solar eclipse is a lineup of the Sun, the Moon, and Earth. The Moon, directly between the Sun and Earth, casts a shadow on our planet. If you’re in the dark part of that shadow (the umbra), you’ll see a total eclipse. If you’re in the light part (the penumbra), you’ll see a partial eclipse.

3. A solar eclipse happens at New Moon. The Moon has to be between the Sun and Earth for a solar eclipse to occur. The only lunar phase when that happens is New Moon.

Astronomy: Prepare for Totality - August 21, 2017