Posts Tagged ‘Science’

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On why I pay attention to what so-called “nuts” have to say

January 5, 2014

CopernicSystem[1]Just because we believe something true, does not  make it so.  Even a deeply held belief can  be found to be false.  Copernicus, Keller and Galileo (among others) dared to question the truth of the earth being the center of the universe.  They did not change what was true, they simply uncovered it.   Keep this in mind when you so quickly dismiss questions from some nut about what you “know” to be true.

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7th Grader mimics Nature

April 30, 2012

Came across this today, it is simply amazing and just goes to show the importance of making sure science  programs keep a predominant place in schools.  The more we interest students in science, the better off we all will be.

7th Grader mimics Nature.

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Looking to the Heavens

April 13, 2012

Throughout human history, looking to the heavens has always intrigued and awed us.  For much of that history, the nature of the universe we live is was unknown, much of its nature still is.  To cope, humans placed supernatural qualities upon the night sky.  Still, as we look back to our ancestors, it seems they understood they were connected to it somehow, just as we are today.  As knowledge progressed, so did our understanding of that connection.  Whether we use the sky to navigate, tell a horoscope, look for evidence of God, or study it its vastness to

First Picture from Space

understand how everything came to be, it is certainly one bad-ass place.

Just over sixty-five years ago, the first pictures from space were recorded[i].  They were taken from a German V-2 rocket captured after World War II.  (Click here to watch the newsreel clip)  Not until then, did we really know if space beyond our atmosphere looked like what we thought.  From the beginning of recorded time, to just over sixty-five years ago, we could only guess.  Since then, we have been on sort of a photographic orgy when it comes our consumption of pictures from space.

Still, it was not until the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) in April of 1990 (Happy Anniversary Hubble!) that the “awe-factor” went through the roof.  Its ability to take images without the distortion caused by our atmosphere put its images in a class of their own.   They are simply stunning.  HST is in the last phase of its life-cycle.  Currently, Hubble is joined by the Spitzer Space Telescope (SST), launched in 2003 and when HST is no longer operational, SST will still be feeding our need for pictures from the farthest reaches of the universe.  My only hope

Crab Nebula

is we do not allow HST to fall to earth and burn up in the atmosphere.  It needs to be in the Air & Space Museum.

Sometimes when I look at these images, I feel really small.  At the same time, I am comforted knowing I am part of such a vast and wonderful universe.  After all, even a cell in your fingernail gets to be part of you as a whole.  Without it, you would be diminished.  Without us, the universe would be diminished too.

As it is, we get to enjoy the pictures from our orbiting telescopes, even if we do not understand just how things like a planetary nebular really form.  We guess and theorize but, just like before that picture from the V-2, we do not know.  Maybe that is the real draw; space holds the same sort of magic for us today as it did for our ancestors thousands of years ago.  While thy wondered about these dots of lights racing through the sky, we wonder at a nebula sixty-five thousand light-years away.  While we think of their astral mythology as antiquated, perhaps our descendants thousands of years from now will view E=mc2 and the Big Bang Theory the same way.

Star-Forming Region of NGC 3324


[i] Reichhardt, Tony. “AirSpaceMag.com.” Air and Space Magazine. Smithsonian Institution, National Air & Space Museum, Nov. 2006. Web. 13 Apr. 2012.
<http://www.airspacemag.com/space-exploration/FEATURE-FirstPhoto.html>.

 

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Right Brain – Left Brain?

March 23, 2012

Left Brain/Right Brain Test

I have been told I am a smart man.  I remember in grade-school being given some test and it being “suggested” to my parents that they put me in a school that could challenge me.  I am very grateful they did not follow this advice.  School was very boring to me and I never studied, in hindsight that may not be such a bad thing.  I received good grades even without applying myself, as was pointed out to me time and time again.  I received some bad grades too, but that was due to my lack of caring to even try.

Now that is not to say I did not study, I studied and read all the time.  It was just on things that held my interest and not what someone else thought I should be working on, of course this led to problems.  I never could take the easy path.  I use to love reading the encyclopedia.  I do miss having a large gilded-edged set at my disposal.  Something is lost not having them around.

I have been asked often if I was a right brain or left brain person.  Right-brain people tend to be dreamers and artistically creative.  Left-brainers are technically astute and able to take on monumental tasks and get them done.  Given my nature, I sought to left-brain the matter and study the issue.  To that end, I have taken many tests to answer the question.

Both!  I use both ides of my brain equally well. Of course I know a few people that would say I don’t use my brain at all but that is another essay.  I am told that people are mostly one or the other but a rare few of us have a holistic method of thought.  The question is why, why is that so?  I have my mother to thank for it.  All those years ago had I been carted off to some school, I am sure I would be a left-brained, burned-out genius that was of little use to anyone. As it is, Mom took the time make sure I was exposed to all kinds of mental stimulation.  I can see both poetry and mathematics with equal value.  If fact, I see a sort of poetry in mathematics and sure see mathematics in poetry.

The interesting thing is I have met a few other people that are “both-brained,” and we do have one thing in common for sure – exposure to science and the arts at an early age.  Think of someone like Leonardo da Vinci, he mastered both.  It is my feeling that he would have not master either without both playing an important role in his early life.

We tend to think of life in terms of right and wrong, black and white with no gray.  Or right and left to put in terms more suited to the topic.  Absolutes in life are rare, hardly anything is 100% one way or the other.  We live in the gray. God gave us a brain, not half a brain, we need to use it all – right and left!  In the end, what would art be without science?  What would science be without art?  I do not know that answer but I do know it sure would be one boring world.

Have you a right-brain or a left-brain, it matters not.  What is important is to keep in mind a whole-bran requires both artistic and scientific input.  It requires and education in both.  It is something to think about for sure when the local school board seeks to cut funding for arts programs.

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One Big-Ass Universe

March 19, 2012

Part of the problem in understanding the universe is its immense size.  Numbers measured in divisions like parsecs, light years and astronomical units mean little to nothing to most of us.  To help understand, here are some truly nerdy facts about our universe broken down so the average human can understand them:

  • Light travels 186, 282 miles in one second. That means a ray of light could circle Earth 23.5 times in one second.
  • As Earth orbits the Sun, its distance is between 91 million and 94 million miles.  It takes light from the Sun about 8 minutes and 20 seconds to reach us.  That same ray of light would circle Earth about 11,689.5 times in the same period.
  • Earth’s average diameter is 7,913 miles.  The sun’s average diameter is 864,300 miles. That is 109 times larger than Earth.
  • One of the brightest stars in the night sky is Rigel, in the constellation Orion.  Its diameter is 65 million miles.  That is 75 times larger than the Sun.

Now remember, light makes 23.5 trips around Earth in one second.  It takes light 5 minutes and 48 seconds to travel around Rigel one time. In fact, Rigel takes up about 70% of the distance between the Earth and Sun. Just image the tan we’d get if we orbited Rigel!

  • Our solar system is pretty big, to us at any rate.  Counting Pluto as its edge ( I know Pluto is not the real edge but all that gets “nerdier” than I wish to go ) That same ray of light that circled Earth 23.4 times in a second takes about 5.5 hours to reach Pluto.  Look at it this way; it is almost 3 billion miles from the Sun to Pluto.  That means you would need to circle Earth over 379,122 times to cover the same distance.

We have only reached the edge of solar system, using Pluto of course, and the numbers based on a unit we know and understand, like a mile, is useless.  After all, when was the last time you took a 375 million mile trip?  This is why astrophysics comes up with measurements like parsecs.  It helps define the great distances of space in numbers easier to digest.  Here is what some of the common units really mean:

  • Astronomical Unit: au for short. To avoid the lengthy and uber-nerdy definition of au, think of it as the distance between the Earth and Sun.  Or about 92 million miles.  In early astronomy, it sort of made sense as a handy break point.
  • Light-year: ly for short. It is simply the distance light travels in 365.25 days. It is a big number, remembering light circles Earth 23.5 times a second and a year has 31,556,926 seconds; light makes 741,587,761 trips around the Earth in a year.  Another way to see it; a light-year is about 5.9 trillion miles or 1,966 times longer than from Pluto to the Sun.  Having said all that, and just to show how far above mere mortals astrophysicists are, light-years is a term they use for us laymen.  Astrophysicist like to use the next measurement unit – parsec.
  • Parsec: pc for short.  Unlike au and ly, a parsec is based on pure mathematical theory.  Au uses an average distance and is sort of arbitrary; ly uses a distance measurement based on time.  Parsec measures distance based on good ol’ geometry.  A parsec is the distance from the Sun to an object in space which has a parallax angle of one arcsecond.  The name comes from the parallax of one second.   I know, I know, you did not sign up for a math class.  For us it simply means it is about 3.2 ly or 19 trillion miles. Do I really need to figure out how many orbits around the Earth that would be? Ok, it’s just over 2.4 billion trips about Earth.

There are other even larger, units of measure for space.   Trying to convert them down to size is pointless as the reference number itself become a laughably large.  We are talking billions of stars spread over trillions of miles.  The universe is one really big place.

When we think about the universe, we must account for its size.  Just in our solar system alone there are immense size differences to deal with.  If we think of the size of Earth as a peppercorn, Jupiter would be a golf ball and the Sun a volleyball.  At the same scale, Earth would be about 25 paces from the sun and Jupiter about another 110 paces.  I guess Walt Disney was right; it is a small world after all.  Maybe it’s just one big-ass universe.

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The Prejudice of Theory

July 30, 2010

In life, we all must battle personal prejudice.  While obvious targets of prejudice, such as race and gender, dominate the debate, other more subtle ones influence everyone daily.  Moreover, as they affect deeply held beliefs, accepted as unquestionably true, most do not recognize them as prejudice at all.

Debates on subjects like evolution vs. intelligent design (or creationism) highlight the problems with subtle prejudices.  The belief closes the mind to ideas, facts, and theories that contradict the belief’s conclusion. People on the evolutionary side see the fossil record as definitive proof supporting Darwin’s conclusions in Origins of Species[i].  Others on the creationism side dismiss every bit of science that does not support their preconceived notion.  Produce a discovery that challenges Darwin and a supporter will automatically bombard you with numerous other discoveries to support him.  Dare to lay out the case for natural selection and a creationist will declare, “You might have evolved from monkeys, but I did not!”

While one side enjoys the support of a majority of scientists, the other side has the evangelical tradition firmly behind it.  This is a very public debate and passions are high among people from both camps.  What both sides fail to realize is they are prejudice against information and discoveries that go against their theory’s conclusions.  In other words, they only accept, as true, new information that supports their particular belief.

Galileo’s observations that Earth is not the center of the universe illustrates the danger of only accepting supporting information and excluding contradicting information.  Building on the works of Copernicus and Kepler, Galileo’s telescopic observations caused the Catholic Church to try him for heresy[ii].  The Church closed its mind to any information that contradicted its long-held belief that Earth was the center of the universe.

Even within the scientific community, prejudice exists.  A popular theory among archeologists in North America is the “Clovis First” theory.  The predominant hypothesis states that the people associated with the Clovis culture[iii] (around 11,000 B.C.E.) were the first inhabitants of the Americas.  The discovery of sites that predate the Clovis period were dismissed outright or thought to be misdated.  Sites that predate the Clovis period include Topper in South Carolina, the Paisley Caves complex in Oregon, the Monte Verde site in Chile, South America, and Channel Islands of California.  A discussion among archaeologists could soon come to blows over the topic.

Now, it seems one of the most popular theories of the 20th Century stands challenged, the Big Bang Theory. Georges Lemaître, a Belgian Roman Catholic priest, professor of physics and astronomy at the Catholic University of Louvain, first put the theory forward.  As observations supporting the theory have multiplied, the scientific community has generally accepted it.  Still, problems with the theory do exist.  Recently, an associate professor at National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan, Wun-Yi Shu put forward a new model that has no bang at all[iv].  Time will surely tell if Professor Shu is right but at the very least, his work does deserve to be explored without the prejudice received by the scientists that disputed Clovis.

Regardless of its source, an irrational belief that suppresses observations, discoveries, or rational thinking is dangerous to the progress of humanity.  It is arrogant to place limits on subjects not understood.  We do it anyway.  In religion, we place restrictions on God based on our feeble ability to understand God.  In science, we restrict possibilities to well-defined parameters and dismiss data that does not fall within.  It is only when a genius, like Galileo, dares to contradict, our preconceived notions change.  Even then, that change can take years, even centuries.

It is best to accept that the knowledge we have not discovered is infinite and our understanding is limited to the small bits we think we know.  We are better off understanding that new information does not diminish the truth; it only changes our perception of it.  It is not an insult to God to place our planet within a solar system and not at the center of the universe, nor is it an insult to understand the method by which our existence took place.  In the end, everything we know, understand, or believe is simply a theory based on the best information available.  Always keep an open-mind and put aside prejudice in all forms.  This way you will improve your personal theories.


[i] Darwin, Charles, and Gillian Beer. On the Origin of Species. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.

[ii] “Galileo Affair.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 30 July 2010. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galileo_affair&gt;.

[iii] Hirst, K. Kris. “Clovis – The History of Clovis.” About Archaeology – The Study of Human History. Web. 30 July 2010. <http://archaeology.about.com/od/clovispreclovis/qt/clovis_people.htm&gt;.

[iv] Shu, Wun-Yi. “Cosmological Models with No Big Bang.” National Tsing Hua University. Web. 30 July 2010. .

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The Super Light – Can an LED Save A City?

March 19, 2010

With the economic flat tire we’re running on, we like to think our various government agencies use all the tax money they collect in responsible ways.  The daily federal arguments on spending fill the nightly news with examples that prove this wish wrong and always seem stupidly complex.  Local governments face similar problems but scaled down.  Perhaps local governments are the place to start implementing solutions, as there is even more to paying for common services, like traffic lights, than meets the eye.

Unfortunately, something as simple as traffic lights takes on complexity when viewed at a city or county-wide level.  Everything from availability of replacement bulbs to scheduling maintenance with boom-trucks comes into play.  Of course, when we add cost to the mix, the complexity grows by leaps and bounds.  In the end, cost is the part we, the citizens, are really interested in, being that money out of our pockets pays for it.

The prototypical traffic light uses three halogen light bulbs around 150 watts each, with one of the lights on at all times.  At a standard intersection, there are at least four traffic lights, one for each direction, with many intersections having a good number more.  As cost is our primary concern, let’s put some numbers to it.  In South Carolina; our average cost per kilowatt in 2009 was $0.0553 (Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration (Dec 2009)) .  That means a single 150 watt bulb running continually costs about 20 cents a day.  With each intersection having at least four, that’s 80 cents per day per intersection.  Here is a quick table showing various costs:

Lights per
intersection
Daily Monthly Yearly
4 $     0.80 $   23.89 $   290.66
8 $     1.59 $   47.78 $   581.31
12 $     2.39 $   71.67 $   871.97
16 $     3.19 $   95.56 $1,162.63

Extending the figure out for various numbers of intersections:

Number of
Intersections
Daily Monthly Yearly
100 $      79.63 $    2,388.96 $     29,065.68
500 $     597.24 $  17,917.20 $   217,992.60
1000 $  1,592.64 $  47,779.20 $   581,313.60
5000 $11,944.80 $358,344.00 $4,359,852.00

This is only the cost of electricity.  The average life of a halogen bulb is just over 2,000 hours or less than 90 days meaning each light is replace three or four times a year.  Simply to provide traffic lights, city and county governments face substantial costs.  This is where the LED comes in.

LED stands for Light Emitting Diode.  We have all seen the little red lights on various types of electronic equipment.  Most are LEDs.  While the theory of their use has been around for over 100 years, true practical applications were not developed until the 1970s.  Even then, LEDs lack the intensity for use beyond indication lighting (i.e. showing a status as on or off).  Over the last thirty years, changes in LEDs allow for bright lights in every color of the spectrum.

The LED has many advantages over the incandescent, halogen, and Compact Florescent Light (CFL) style systems.  They use only a fraction of the electricity and last for years, if not decades and they do not have the mercury found in CFLs.  Cities across America are in the process of changing their traffic lights to LED based units.  To produce the same amount of light, as a 150 watt halogen traffic light, requires only 15 watts of LED powered lighting.  Using the same data above:

Lights per
intersection

Daily Monthly Yearly
4 $  0.08 $ 2.39 $ 29.07
8 $ 0.16 $ 4.78 $ 58.13
12 $ 0.24 $ 7.17 $ 87.20
16 $ 0.32 $ 9.56 $ 116.26

Again, extending the figures for number of intersections:

Number of Intersections

Daily Monthly Yearly
100 $ 7.96 $ 238.90 $ 2,906.57
500 $ 59.72 $ 1,791.72 $ 21,799.26
1000 $ 159.26 $ 4,777.92 $ 58,131.36
5000 $1,194.48 $ 35,834.40 $ 435,985.20

Producing a savings over halogen bases lighting of:

Number of Intersections

Daily Monthly Yearly
100 $      71.67 $    2,150.06 $     26,159.11
500 $     537.52 $  16,125.48 $   196,193.34
1000 $  1,433.38 $  43,001.28 $   523,182.24
5000 $10,750.32 $322,509.60 $3,923,866.80

These costs only reflect a saving in the electricity.  A halogen light costs around $5.00, for 100 intersections with six lights that works out to $12,000 a year just in bulbs.  Of course, the cost of labor to replace bulbs is saved too.

Thankfully, most cities have all ready replaced or are currently replacing their traffic lights.  The question is what other areas are there to save money.  It must be remembered, when we are talking about a city or county, it is never one light bulb, it’s thousands.  It’s not the 1 cent for a sheet of paper but the $10,000 for a million sheets that becomes an issue.

It is obvious that replacing traffic lights produces savings.  It is one of many examples where savings are found.  Others are less obvious; perhaps reducing the requirements of a procedure or even rethinking the way student report cards are sent to parents will produce savings.  Maybe they won’t, the point is we will not know until we look.  We need to examine everything to ensure the service is in tune with the times and is provided in the most cost-effective manner.

In the end, the LED will not save a city but is simply an example of the type of thinking that will save it.  Every expenditure, to serve the public good, must be questioned.  No one questions the need for traffic lights, but can and do question the cost.  By seeking a less expensive option, local governments are saving real dollars, real tax dollars we do not have to pay.

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