Brainy Quote of the Day

Friday, October 28, 2016


Alien robot Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still
Topics: Astrobiology, Astronomy, Existentialism, Exoplanets, Politics, SETI

"Gort" is the robot above from the 1951 movie "The Day the Earth Stood Still." We've been fascinated as a species by the visitation of gods, goblins, demons, fairies and off-world entities since I can remember. "Chariots of the Gods" was a bestseller until the science by its author was proven speculative farce. Erich von Däniken has managed to live on on the History 2 channel: "Ancient Aliens," which is always the only conclusion so much so it like the historian with the frizzy hairdo is cliche.

Even our popular comic fiction speculates on the weirdness such an encounter would be; mind and societal-altering. In the fictional Marvel world of The Avengers, their advent is known to the non-powered humans as "the incident" in disturbing, ominous tones. The thought of being surrounded by super powered beings wouldn't likely be reassuring as they were in the 50's and 60's. What if instead of being benevolent do-gooders, they imposed a fascist order with martial law? What indeed would stop them? Thankfully, it's all wildly speculative fiction from the fertile minds of us mere mortals.

For those of us who believe in Close Encounters of the Third and Fourth Kind (contact, abduction): 1. What makes our planet in parsecs of other candidates so special? 2. If they are that advanced, we're kind of like worms or piglets in a biology class - if it's happening, that's more than a bit disturbing.

Even if we got a chance radio transmission following up the "WOW" signal, we probably couldn't stop talking about it. And if the aliens were to actually pay us a visit, our self-concept would be jolted; holy writ would be reexamined to see how the existence of intelligence obviously beyond us on our "0.7 Kardashev Scale" would make us feel puny and...threatened.

Still, 13.6 billion years is a long time and a lot of still, silent space to be alone in. I think I prefer to think (and hope) someone else is out there. That's a lot of real estate to go extinct in by our own hubris - climate or nuclear, and if we did the point of existence - our discoveries, literature, art, music theater, dance, and languages - would have been sadly moot.

In Preparing for Contact George Michael has given us a tour de force exploration of the thinking, issues, and dilemmas surrounding the search for extraterrestrial life in the universe.

Those familiar with Professor Michael’s other books and articles—on a wide variety of critical topics including politics, nuclear proliferation, science, and terrorism—know that he conducts rigorous research and major scholarly inventories before completing a manuscript. Preparing for Contact clearly represents years of thinking and research on the subject. Michael’s approach is meticulous, objective, and fearless in examining every relevant aspect—historical, current, and futuristic—of the alien civilization question. The book dives into fundamental questions. First, what have been the scientific (or otherwise) endeavors to consider if intelligent life might exist elsewhere in the universe? Second, if we do make contact with an alien civilization, how should we respond, and what might be the larger implications for our civilization

Preparing for Contact has a logical chapter progression. From early speculation about extraterrestrial life, including Egyptian, Roman, Hindu, and Central American civilizations’ speculations to the recent findings of astrobiology and astronomy, to the UFO phenomenon, and the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) project, Michael proceeds in systematic fashion. Regarding possible life on Mars, for example, the Swiss author Erich von Däniken’s wildly popular book, Chariots of the Gods, became a US television film. However, its assumptions of alien life on Mars were disproven after successive probes of Mars found only natural structures, not artificial ones. Additional space probes make us confident that we are the only intelligent life in this solar system. But what about farther out in the Milky Way galaxy, among the thousands of exoplanets which are being discovered at a rate of about two a week?

Skeptic: Meeting ET, Lawrence E. Grinter

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Magnetic Monopoles...

Citation: Phys. Today 69, 10, 40 (2016);
Topics: Electromagnetism, James Clerk Maxwell, Materials Science

The discovery of the mysterious hypothetical particles would provide a tantalizing glimpse of new laws of nature beyond the standard model.

Electricity and magnetism appear everywhere in the modern world and form the basis of most of our technology. Therefore, it would be natural to assume that they are already fully understood and no longer pose unanswered fundamental physics questions. Indeed, for most practical purposes they are perfectly well described by classical electrodynamics, as formulated by James Clerk Maxwell in 1864. At a deeper level, a consistent quantum mechanical account is given by quantum electrodynamics, part of the standard model of particle physics. The theory works so well that it predicts the magnetic dipole moment of the electron accurately to 10 significant figures. Nevertheless, there is still an elementary aspect of electromagnetism that we do not understand: the question of magnetic monopoles.1

That magnets always have two poles—north and south—seems like an obvious empirical fact. Yet we do not know any theoretical reason why magnetic monopoles, magnets with a single north or south pole, could not exist. Are we still missing some crucial fundamental aspect of the theory? Or do magnetic monopoles exist and we simply have not managed to find them yet?

Nothing in classical electrodynamics prohibits magnetic monopoles; in fact, they would make the theory more symmetric. As Maxwell noted, the laws governing electricity and magnetism are identical. That can be seen in the Maxwell equations of electrodynamics, which in vacuum have a duality symmetry—the electric terms can be replaced with magnetic terms, and vice versa, in such a way that the equations are left unchanged. That symmetry is broken only in the presence of electric charges and currents, which have no magnetic counterparts. If magnetic monopoles existed, they would carry the magnetic equivalent of an electric charge, and they would restore the duality symmetry (see figure 1). On aesthetic grounds, one would therefore expect their existence.

Physics Today: The search for magnetic monopoles, Arttu Rajantie

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Neutron Holography...

Interference pattern created by neutron holography.
Credit: NIST
Topics: Holograms, Neutrons, NIST, Research

For the first time, a team including scientists from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have used neutron beams to create holograms of large solid objects, revealing details about their interiors in ways that ordinary laser light-based visual holograms cannot.

Holograms—flat images that change depending on the viewer’s perspective, giving the sense that they are three-dimensional objects—owe their striking capability to what’s called an interference pattern. All matter, such as neutrons and photons of light, has the ability to act like rippling waves with peaks and valleys. Like a water wave hitting a gap between the two rocks, a wave can split up and then re-combine to create information-rich interference patterns.

An optical hologram is made by shining a laser at an object. Instead of merely photographing the light reflected from the object, a hologram is formed by recording how the reflected laser light waves interfere with each other. The resulting patterns, based on the waves’ phase differences (link is external), or relative positions of their peaks and valleys, contain far more information about an object’s appearance than a simple photo does, though they don’t generally tell us much about its hidden interior.

Hidden interiors, however, are just what neutron scientists explore. Neutrons are great at penetrating metals and many other solid things, making neutron beams useful for scientists who create a new substance and want to investigate its properties. But neutrons have limitations, too. They aren’t very good for creating visual images; neutron experiment data is usually expressed as graphs that would look at home in a high school algebra textbook. And this data typically tells them about how a substance is made on average—fine if they want to know broadly about an object built from a bunch of repeating structures like a crystal (link is external), but not so good if they want to know the details about one specific bit of it.

But what if we could have the best of both worlds? The research team has found a way.

Move Over, Lasers: Scientists Can Now Create Holograms from Neutrons, Too
Chad T. Boutin

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Graphene and Green Cars...

Simulations by Rice University scientists show that pillared graphene boron nitride may be a suitable storage medium for hydrogen-powered vehicles. Above, the pink (boron) and blue (nitrogen) pillars serve as spacers for carbon graphene sheets (gray). The researchers showed the material worked best when doped with oxygen atoms (red), which enhanced its ability to adsorb and desorb hydrogen (white). Credit: Lei Tao/Rice University
Topics: Climate Change, Graphene, Green Tech, Nanotechnology

Layers of graphene separated by nanotube pillars of boron nitride may be a suitable material to store hydrogen fuel in cars, according to Rice University scientists.

The Department of Energy has set benchmarks for storage materials that would make hydrogen a practical fuel for light-duty vehicles. The Rice lab of materials scientist Rouzbeh Shahsavari determined in a new computational study that pillared boron nitride and graphene could be a candidate.

The study by Shahsavari and Farzaneh Shayeganfar appears in the American Chemical Society journal Langmuir.

Shahsavari's lab had already determined through computer models how tough and resilient pillared graphene structures would be, and later worked boron nitride nanotubes into the mix to model a unique three-dimensional architecture. (Samples of boron nitride nanotubes seamlessly bonded to graphene have been made.)

Just as pillars in a building make space between floors for people, pillars in boron nitride graphene make space for hydrogen atoms. The challenge is to make them enter and stay in sufficient numbers and exit upon demand.
Scientists say boron nitride-graphene hybrid may be right for next-gen green cars

Monday, October 24, 2016

2D Materials...

Strange electron orbits form on the surface of a crystal in this image created using a theoretical data model. These orbits correspond to the electrons being in different 'valleys' of states, yielding new insights into an area of research called 'vallytronics,' which seeks alternative ways to manipulate electrons for future electronic applications. Credit: Ali Yazdani, Department of Physics, Princeton University
Topics: Materials Science, Moore's Law, Nanotechnology, Quantum Mechanics, Semiconductor Technology

For the first time, an experiment has directly imaged electron orbits in a high-magnetic field, illuminating an unusual collective behavior in electrons and suggesting new ways of manipulating the charged particles.

The study, conducted by researchers at Princeton University and the University of Texas-Austin was published Oct. 21, in the journal Science. The study demonstrates that the electrons, when kept at very low temperatures where their quantum behaviors emerge, can spontaneously begin to travel in identical elliptical paths on the surface of a crystal of bismuth, forming a quantum fluid state. This behavior was anticipated theoretically during the past two decades by researchers from Princeton and other universities.

"This is the first visualization of a quantum fluid of electrons in which interactions between the electrons make them collectively choose orbits with these unusual shapes," said Ali Yazdani, the Class of 1909 Professor of Physics at Princeton, who led the research.

"The other big finding is that this is the first time the orbits of electrons moving in a magnetic field have been directly visualized," Yazdani said. "In fact, it is our ability to image these orbits that allowed us to detect the formation of this strange quantum liquid."

Fundamental explorations of materials may provide the basis for faster and more efficient electronic technologies. Today's electronic devices, from computers to cellphones, use processors made from silicon. With silicon reaching its maximum capacity for information processing, researchers are looking to other materials and mechanisms.

One area of progress has been in two-dimensional materials, which allow control of electron motion by breaking the particles away from the constraints of the underlying crystal lattice. This involves moving electrons among "pockets" or "valleys" of possible states created by the crystal. Some researchers are working on ways to apply this process in an emerging field of research known as "valleytronics." Unusual quantum liquid on crystal surface could inspire future electronics

Friday, October 21, 2016

Little Girl Lost...

Image Source: Pinterest - The Twilight Zone
Topics: Commentary, Politics, Science Fiction

I miss television shows like this. Television - before the special effects and hyped violence - was an introspective experience, plots took time to develop because people actually read more for enjoyment and expected a similar pacing. Things like horror and thrills weren't created for voyeuristic consumption: most of the greatest thrills were completely fabricated in your mind. I missed this quite literally and existentially by five months (and perhaps a few years to develop language and comprehension), gestating in my mother's womb. I would see it much later in syndication.

"Little Girl Lost": the video has a weird blue background on YouTube, so I just give the link. A fourth dimension seemed exotic then, well after Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity established spacetime as four dimensions, the fourth being time. The notion of other dimensions beyond even these was at least thought of philosophically well before anyone thought of String Theory and multiple dimensions as is now theorized. It was an age where the United States was in a pitched battle called the Space Race, an extension of the Cold War with the USSR. It was an age of dichotomy - fear and suspicion; wonder and adventure: The Invaders, Lost in Space, Star Trek, The Time Tunnel were actual prime time popular science fiction shows along with The Twilight Zone.

Here we are: in the 21st Century, the notion of reasoned, scientific inquiry is suspect to manipulation, politicization, "conspiracy" allegations and charges of fraud. Whole screeds are posted to the Internet on the "folly" of climate science in particular or science in general without the slightest notion of the powerful irony of their actions.

In the American Physical Society article by James Kakalios (that inspired this post):

The March 1962 episode “Little Girl Lost” of the television anthology program The Twilight Zone added some speculative inter-dimensional physics to a suspenseful science fiction tale.[1] In this story a small child rolls out of her bed in the middle of the night and disappears. Her parents become frantic when they can hear her calls for help, but cannot see or touch her. Fortunately they know what to do in just such an emergency — they call for their neighbor Bill, who is a physicist. He determines that the girl has accidentally fallen through a portal into another dimension. With his aid, and the help of the family dog, they manage to retrieve their daughter. Whether this portal was to one of the extra dimensions predicted by String Theory is open to interpretation, but the show clearly demonstrated the utility of a friendly neighborhood physicist.

Indeed, in the early 1960’s, the U.S. Government had similarly concluded that it was worthwhile to have physicists and other scientists on call. Following the Manhattan Project; the development of radar; and the proximity fuse in World War II the value of scientists and engineers to national security was accepted by the general public. In 1942 West Virginia Senator Harley Kilgore had proposed legislation calling for federal support of scientific research and in 1945 Vannevar Bush’s report Science, The Endless Frontier, [2] forcefully argued that it was in the nation’s best interest to develop and maintain strength in what we now would refer to as STEM fields. In 1950 Congress responded with the establishment of the National Science Foundation.

The situation today is very different. There is no longer broad agreement among the public of the value of scientific research.[3] Which is ironic, for this same public has enthusiastically embraced personal electronics and technology that is enabled, in part, through federally funded research. As expressed a few years ago by a Dean at M.I.T., never before in human history have so many become so wealthy solely through education. [4].

Metaphorically, we are nationally that little lost girl, or more gender-neutral: children. The world is as it has always been. There weren't transistor tubes before semiconductors; there weren't transistor radios before boom boxes, walk-men, CD players or cell phones with apps. The Internet wasn't a concept by ARPA/DARPA in 1964 before it became DARPANET soon after 1984 when I was a commissioned Communications Officer in the Air Force. There was no file transfer protocol (FTP); or hypertext markup language (HTML): we've always had Dreamweaver. We will always have fossil fuels as long as we have drills, liquid and fracking to force them from their depths. We will never as a planetary system - Earth - be subject to the Second Law of Thermodynamics as over time other systems (like our bodies) go from order to chaos.

The sanest reason for outreach: to find and reach humanity's children guiding them en masse socially to at least technological adolescence. So we, collectively will no longer "be lost." Dr. Martin Luther King was famous for a lot of things, but this quote was the most poignant and jarring, as the latter part of it is an obvious; glaring choice:

"Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity."

APS Physics: Why Do Outreach? James Kakalios

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Clean Rooms...

Building project managers and scientific leads confer at the site of a new clean room under construction at Argonne National Laboratory. When completed, the lab will enable scientists and engineers to build extremely sensitive detectors — such as those capable of detecting light from the early days of the universe. (Image by Mark Lopez/Argonne National Laboratory.)
Topics: Applied Physics, Big Bang, Carl Sagan, Research

The clean room has an interesting history. In this recap on by Miriam Kramer (April 21, 2014, excerpt below):

The scientist who discovered the age of the Earth also helped end the use of lead in gasoline and other products in the United States.

Sunday night's episode (April 20) of "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey" explored the life of Clair Patterson, a geochemist who pinpointed Earth's age for the first time and also uncovered a secret: Lead contamination is a major and potentially deadly problem. The newest episode of "Cosmos," called "The Clean Room," takes viewers on a tour of Patterson's work and the industry that fought him as he tried to learn more about lead and its harmful effects.

You can see more at the link. I have an "affection" for clean rooms (obviously) due to spending a considerable amount of time in them for things like your I-Phone, your I-Pad; your game platform, your GPS...etc.

I guess I shouldn't be amazed that a facility first built to estimate the age of the Earth, then suddenly find out about lead poisoning in gasoline could also be used in clearly more imaginative ways. Clean rooms are used by NASA and ESA to assemble spacecraft prior to launch. It's almost poetic that they would have a usage on Earth to peer at the very epoch of the universe itself.

It takes a very, very clean room to build a detector sensitive enough to see the light from the beginning of the universe.

Work is underway at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE's) Argonne National Laboratory on a new "clean room." The new lab will be specially suited for building parts for ultra-sensitive detectors — such as those to carry out improved X-ray research, or for the South Pole Telescope to search for light from the early days of the universe.

"This will be a unique facility, and a wonderful investment for the future of the laboratory," said Supratik Guha, who heads the Center for Nanoscale Materials, a DOE Office of Science User Facility adjacent to where the new space will be located.

“We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”
― Carl Sagan, Cosmos

Argonne National Laboratories:
Building a room clean enough to make sensors to find light from the birth of the universe
Louise Lerner