I believe I’ve found my theme song

•May 5, 2009 • 2 Comments

And it is…


Let there be gamma rays

•April 29, 2009 • 6 Comments

It was one of the first coughing turnovers of the cosmochemistry engine.

The NASA Swift satellite has detected the oldest known star detonation in the universe… 13 billion years old. The previous record was only about 200 million years younger, but at such an early epoch of our universe – which is itself only 13.7 billion years old – 200 million years becomes a significant amount of time. The gamma ray burst heralding this ancient star’s end occurred about 700 million years after the universe instantiated, which is just about as old as a star can be.

According to a very bad article about this discovery on CNN.com, this new oldest gamma burst erupted from a star of about 30 to 100 solar masses…. meaning it probably used to be a supergiant or hypergiant star. The CNN.com piece is a bad article because it says:

“Telescopes around the world swiveled to focus on the explosion, soon picking up infrared radiation, which travels more slowly than gamma rays. Berger waited for the visible light which he expected to come next.

I can’t believe this made it past the science editor. Oh, that’s right… there probably isn’t one. In brief, all electromagnetic radiation (which includes light) always travels at the local velocity of light at all times and everywhere. What that article tried to say was that the first bright flash that happens during a massive supernova is brightest in the gamma ray region of the electromagnetic spectrum. The gamma blast reaches a catastrophic peak of searing intensity, then proceeds to cool through the gamma and X-ray bands, then passes through a temperature range where visible light shines, then finally dims to emit infrared light for a long, long time.

Anyway, back to the oldest gamma burst. At such an early stage of the universe’s evolution, that star would have been made almost entirely of virginal hydrogen and helium, and essentially nothing else. The first stars had no stars to preceed them, and so incorporated no fusion ash of heavier elements such as carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and iron. Only after several generations of primal supergiants congealed, burned out, and detonated would the interstellar medium begin to accumulate enough heavy atoms to form particles of ice and rock.

Fortunately for planets and life, there were probably many super- and hypersuns around back then to get the job started. Such massive stars only live for a few million years – mere moments, cosmologically – then explode, forming a black hole and spewing metals into the surrounding void-ocean of primordial hydrogen, from which stars emerge and into which dead stars deposit their cooling remains. After only a few hundred million years of this, galaxies probably started to accumulate enough metals to make icy, rocky worlds… the first planets ever to exist. Ours is not one of those planets… Earth came along about 8.4 billion years later. Those first, most-primal planets are probably now long dead, circling star corpses or drifting through empty space….

… or ARE they?

Peer reviewed: The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

•April 28, 2009 • 3 Comments

Based on what I’d picked up by media osmosis about the film, I didn’t expect much from The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008). Also, a friend described it as “stupid”. It’s perhaps for that reason – expectations calibrated to the ground state – that I was so pleasantly surprised by the movie. There is actually a lot of good science in DESS, despite the inherited conceit of Gort the Giant Robot. I liked this movie a lot, because for the most part its science was plausible… and only later did I find out SETI’s Seth Shostak was a science adviser on the film. The scriptwriters also found the key that unlocks the heart of many geeks… beautiful movie stars playing scientists who do not make a hash of either the content or the pronunciation of their sciencey lines.

Spoilers follow, so be warned.

She had me at “Thiobacillus“.

Thiobacillus is a genus of acid-loving extremophile bacteria that require conditions approximating battery acid in order to multiply, and was the first word spoken in DESS. Connelly’s character described these geologic extremophiles pretty accurately. Those throwaway lines – which in a lesser writer’s hands would have been meaningless sci-garble – were then exceeded in wonderfulium by a followup line from one of Connelly’s students, which accurately summarized what Deinococcus radiodurans is (it’s the most radiation-tolerant bacterium known to science) and how it was discovered. I was incredulous that a movie astrobiologist could be written to sound so cogent without having crazy hair or some weird character tick. My delight in having said character played by Connelly, who is, herself, on a consistently high-velocity asymptotic approach to perfection, is understandably acute.

The plot whisks Connelly off to join a team of scientists conscripted by the US military to address an imminent extraterrestrial threat. Said threat is an object moving through our solar system at 0.1 c, or 3×10^7 meters per second. The film was specific about the velocity, even including units…. and thankfully no one on screen piped up at that point to shriek “that’s a tenth the speed of light!”. Which it is. Anyway, this thing whips into the solar system on a hyperbolic collision course that has it colliding with Earth… specifically Manhattan, NYC…. in less than two hours. This is one of the few weak points in the movie’s science: how was the thing noticed so quickly? In real life, an interstellar object on such a high-velocity approach would never be seen until the moment of impact… and then only briefly.

The alien object is described as shooting in from interstellar space on a trajectory entering our solar system’s ecliptic plane somewhere beyond Jupiter’s distance from the Sun… >5 Astronomical Units (AU) of distance. A light-hour is 7.2 AU, and this thing is moving at 10% light speed… so it would take at least 10 hours to reach us from just outside Jupiter’s orbit, if it traveled in a straight line. On a hyperbolic course it would take longer, but its ETA would still be in the tens-of-hours range. According to the film, the whole US military is mobilized to converge on the projected impact point… with <48 hours notice that might be a bit unrealistic, but military logistics isn’t my bag, so I can’t say.

Anyway, the conscripted science team quickly point out that a missile the size of an asteroid moving at 10% lightspeed would effectively snuff out all life on Earth, and possible shatter the body of the planet itself. It could hit in NYC, the Vatican (one can dream, can’t one?) or the Falklands… in any case life on Earth is totally erased. This fact makes concrete barriers around the White House somewhat pointless. Anyway, just before impact the object suddenly decellerates to hover over Central Park. In response, the US military surrounds the glowing, swirling sphere of alien technology with soldiers and artillery. Given that the alien ship managed to slow from 10% lightspeed to zero in approximately 1 second without incinerating the Earth with its decelleration exhaust, it’s unlikely howitzers would be any help. Perhaps the ship’s approach was intended by the aliens as a test of how smart we are…. a test we fail, in spades. As soon as the alien emissary Klaatu steps off the ship in a haze of light and approaches Connelly on foot, some Abu Ghraib graduate shoots him.

Much rushing about ensues, leading eventually to a revelation that the alien biped is really some kind of encounter suit/techno-placenta combo designed to gestate a human-looking herald… Klaatu as played by Reeves. Klaatu manages to escape with Connelly’s help from military torturers, but again with good science. Klaatu doesn’t beam out, or project a force field, or do anything particularly impossible. He appears to use a minimum of necessary force at all times, as if disdaining to exert too much effort to escape from the primitives.

The best parts of the movie for me were scenes making it clear how vastly superior such an alien visitation would be to our technology, and how utterly defenseless we’d be against it. At one point a Madeline Albright-type character (played by Kathy Bates) notes that in history when a superior technological culture met an inferior one, the inferior one would typically collapse… think Aztecs against Spaniards. The movie makes this point clear: to a culture adapted to cross interstellar space with ease, our most impressive military hardware would be quaint antiquities at best. Throughout the film, the aliens are attacked again and again by the puny humans, and each time they almost casually dismiss our efforts, using a minimum of force. Klaatu knocks down a couple of military gunships not with a phaser, but by reflecting targeting lasers to their sources and remodulating them to cause disabling electromagnetic interference. He doesn’t make a big deal of it, he just does it. Gort deals with missiles similarly – not by batting them aside with its giant hands but by taking over their targeting controls and sending them into nearby tanks…. with pinpoint alien accuracy. Predictably, the humans don’t get the message.

Ultimately, we learn that Klaatu is here to wipe out the human race to save Earth’s biodiversity. This isn’t the fuzzy envirobabble motivation it might sound like. Klaatu notes at one point that Earth is one of a very few worlds in the Galaxy that supports complex life – the “Rare Earth” hypothesis proposed by Peter Ward and Don Brownlee. In a universe where Rare Earth is true, complex biospheres become the most valuable commodity that exists. Life explores the possibility-space of self replication, with each species a unique assembly of characteristics and features that may not occur more than once per billion galaxies. Water is common in the universe, and so is rock, and so are stars. But each biosphere is unique, and literally irreplaceable. To a galaxy-spanning civilization the occurrence of complex life would represent an exceedingly rare resource of chemical diversity, naturally-occurring and time-tested biotechnology, and potential new forms of sentience. David Brin’s Uplift novels illustrate this concept nicely: in those books living worlds are jealously guarded, even to the point of being left “fallow” for eons, to give sufficient time to evolve new sentient species that can join Galactic civilization as client races. This may be science-fiction, but it’s also likely to end up being true, in one form or another.

How does Klaatu intend to destroy humanity? Not with bombs, which would sort of defeat the whole point of biodiversity protection, but with nanotechnology. Cliche? Not so fast. DESS makes the subtle point that an arbitrarily advanced civilization would probably not make an artificial distinction between technology and biology. Cells are, after all, naturally-evolved microbots. Ultimately, we may find that the most efficient way to organize machinery may be to build it out of constructed cells of some kind, with macroscopic form and function being malleable factors that can be recorded in cellular machine code and expressed as needed. In DESS, Gort deconstructs into a swarm of nanites that sweeps across the landscape and scours it of all human artifacts. Road signs erode in seconds, cannibalized by a teeming storm of tiny living machines.

The science of DESS’s nanite apocalypse is pretty strong, actually. The nanites need to fly, so they have wings. They look like insects, because insects have a time-tested and highly efficient body plan for swarming when they need to. Dolphins and fish resemble each other superficially due to the constraints of streamlining and hydraulics… the result is called convergent evolution… so why couldn’t alien microbots look like locusts? If they need to fly, eat quickly and breed, a locust model works pretty well. When the locust-bots are shown walking around on a microscopic scale, they leave a trail of gnawed metal beneath them…. which is exactly what they’d have to do, to gather mass for duplication. When the microbots attack macroscopic objects the first signs of destruction are etching traces, which spread and widen until the object is eroded to nothing. This is exactly how minerals weather in nature – by first becoming etched by fungal acids or microbial siderophores, then pitted, then fractured, then dissolved. In DESS the microbots move quickly and eat quickly, but human artifacts would actually make that possible. Iron and steel are out of chemical equilibrium with our oxygen atmosphere, and could be rapidly oxidized by techno-enzymes to yield energy as well as mass. The alien bugs could, in other words, use metal not only as body mass but as an energy supply (along with sunlight, presumably).

Overall I give DESS an A for its science, and also for making some interesting and subtle points about what a real alien visitation would likely entail… specifically, us watching what the aliens do and not being in a position to do a damn thing about it. It’s rare to get good science in a sci-fi movie. The Day the Earth Stood Still is an exception to that rule. Somebody needs to give Shostak an Oscar.

Earth Day 2009

•April 22, 2009 • Leave a Comment

What would Earth Day be without a disturbing graph, in which bad things are increasing versus time? It would be no fun at all, that’s for sure. Today’s enviro-plot comes to us courtesy of NOAA, and shows that despite a global economic downturn in the last few months, greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow unabated. The recession is only a few months old, so that’s not surprising… it takes time for data to accumulate. Either way, a global economic shutdown is no way to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Fortunately that’s not our only option.


Take a look at the GDP and fossil fuel curves. There’s an interesting zig-zag feature that happens around 1979-1980, when fossil fuel use drops precipitously and then slowly climbs back up, at the same time GDP sails on upwards with hardly a blip. That’s the Iranian hostage crisis, when oil exports from Iran were held back at the source. In the space of a couple of years, our oil imports dropped through the floor but somehow our GDP managed to keep growing. Jimmy Carter was President, and renewable energy projects were starting to take off. Carter was a former nuclear engineer who understood the value of a diversified energy portfolio and high technology. He put solar panels on the White House roof, in a measure that was largely symbolic but which also demonstrated commitment to American industrial innovation and technological supremacy in an age of changing energy needs. Iran under the Ayatollahs made it clear: as long as we need their crude, they will rule us.

When Reagan the Stupid took charge of the White House, he ripped the solar panels off the White House roof and ushered in a new dark age. We’d started to turn the corner toward a brighter technological future, but all it took was one supremely idiotic president to stop us in our tracks. The world is a big place, and the US economy is a big machine, but one man can still make a difference… in Reagan’s case, a hideous difference. We had a chance to seriously examine our dependence on foreign oil, and to seriously attempt a technological revolution toward greater efficiency and lasting economic dominance. Instead, rich people got a tax cut and went on a 30-year vacation from responsibility.

Today our situation is different. We’re past peak oil, and no amount of sabre-rattling or political posturing will put new oil back into played-out wells. Our technology, despite Reagan’s Luddism and that of his party, has now advanced to the point where wind energy is price-competitive with coal, and cheaper than natural gas. Nanotechnology is bringing new advancements in materials engineering and solar photovoltaics technology with every passing month. Municipalities are harnessing their own landfills to fuel buses that run on natural gas, and Brazil grows most of its liquid fuel. We’ve started to grow beyond technological childhood, when fossil-fuel training wheels were required for progress. Now we can start to think about taking off those training wheels, and map out a future beyond month-to-month scrambles for another oil well here, another tar seep there.

GDP and fossil fuel use are not the same thing… in fact they’re not even related. GDP measures what we do, and we can do what we do without dead algae. All we need is to be more clever than Reagan… and that’s easy.

The roads go without saying

•April 18, 2009 • 3 Comments

Right now we’re Rome with crappy roads. We’re a mighty world power, but when it comes to getting people and cargo easily from point A to point B, and those points are separated by hundreds of miles, the US is not so impressive. This wasn’t always the case. Freshly constructed in the 1950s, the Eisenhower Interstate Highway system was the best network of roads the world had ever seen, and became the model upon which the rest of the industrialized world patterned its highway infrastructure. But since that time the rest of the world has move ahead with its transport technology while we’ve stood still. It’s a cliche to say our national infrastructure is crumbling, but that doesn’t make the statement false. The US needs to stop coasting on accomplishments from 50 years ago… we need to build some new stuff and repair the old.

All of which is why I’m very happy to see Obama talking about high speed rail. In Europe and Japan, HSR works like a dream, with impressive efficiency both in terms of energy use per kilometer-tonne and with respect to shrinking how long it takes to get things and people from one place to another. There is absolutely no sound, objective reason why we shouldn’t build a HSR system in the US. I do not count the entrenched recalcitrance of the trucking lobby as a sound, objective reason.

I hope Obama follows through on pushing for HSR, and I hope the Dems in the House and Senate listen to reason on this issue and not keep dithering about like chickenless heads. The GOP is irrelevant to this… I’m assuming they’ll all just say no to whatever they’re asked, then scream for an ice cream cone. But if Congress can get their act together long enough, HSR would be a great boon to our nation. Building the system would take years, and would support millions of jobs. The work could be contracted out through the US DOT by competitive bid, meaning that those jobs wouldn’t have to be “government” jobs (which according to the GOP don’t exist, in any case). Would building an HSR system cost taxpayer money? You betcha it would, but the boost to national productivity from having a 21st century transport system would likely more than pay off that debt, in record time. Think about the boost we got out of the Interstate system.

Besides, are we really going to say no to trains that run by magnetic levitation?

Texas, please secede

•April 17, 2009 • Leave a Comment

I honestly cannot fathom the depths of delusional megalomania that appear second nature to Texas governor Rick Perry. Did he consult with the citizens who elected him, or the legislature who are virtually equal to Perry in power (Texas is a “weak governor” state, administratively), before declaring to the world that he wouldn’t automatically rule out a personal bid for kingship of his own new fiefdom, if he agrees with an insufficient number of federal initiatives? Has Perry yet announced whether he intends a bloody military coup, or a Texas independence referendum on the state ballot? Would he be willing to commandeer federal military forces in the state, during a secession attempt… including nuclear weapons? What would his foreign policy be toward the United States of America?

The thing is, it actually does make me kind of sick to share a country with powerful yet criminally incompetent people like Perry. Obviously, based on current events, it appears there is actually no possible way to make people like Perry happy, short of raising the swastika and “deporting” all non-Evangelicals overnight. And even then I’m not sure if they’d have quibbles over how cruel to make the death camps, or whether to allow public stoning every day, or just on the sabbath. Exactly what is their gigantic beef with Obama? He’s a popularly-elected President, scarcely one season into office, who is trying desperately to refill the bomb craters bequeathed to our nation from eight years of W’s highly earnest attempts to establish a military dictatorship in the USA… so what’s Obama done already that pissed these people off so much?

The uncomfortable answer they’ll go red in the face and scream at you for even suggesting, is that they’d made up their minds before he took office. One look at his picture would have been all those people needed to make their decision. They liked having W in office, because W would pander to their pathological stupidity with relish. For eight years, they saw the nation falling dreamily down towards a nightmarish furnace of permanent dictatorship and 2 am arrests for sedition… and they couldn’t wait for it to happen. Finally they had their chance to teach heretics a lesson, to put all the deviants, the godless, the suspiciously swarthy, and all other maliciously non-churchgoing folk back in their place. They chomped at the bit to build a country where their monstrous demon-god could rule absolutely, and where women, blacks, heretics and other lesser forms of life would keep their eyes cast down at all times. They failed.

Now they see their last chance at autocracy in the USA is lost, probably forever. W and his cronies made clear what kind of country they wanted, and the rest of us normal people said no and voted them out. Not only that, we voted in by a landslide an expert on Constitutional law and public policy who has personally experienced poverty, and who appears to care whether he does things for good reasons or not. I’m fine with that, and I’m not sure where to look for a reason why someone wouldn’t be fine with that, except grotesque stupidity or seething, fanatical hatred. I’m not fine with either of those things.

So perhaps we should let Texas go. Perhaps it is her time to leave us, and begin to forge a new future for herself as the world’s newest Third World nation: a homegrown military junta dictatorship armed with modern weapons, strategically placed to middle-manage a lucrative underground drug trade, and ruled by the Christian Taliban. At first we’d need to have a big wall built, to keep roving Texan death squads from randomly invading or surreptitiously dumping bodies, but eventually we might be able to establish peaceful trade relations with the starving hermetic state… or at least we’d be in a good position to offer them humanitarian aid down the road.

One of the nice things about having an independent Texas would be its practicality as a relatively safe place to store many other kook populations in the current USA, such as large demographic swaths of the Deep South and mountainous West. Washington might seriously want to look into funding an offer of resettlement packages, so that the impoverished peoples of Alabama and Mississippi, say, could be paid to voluntarily resettle to Texas, and finally be among people of their own ethnicity. And only them.

Losing Texas would probably save the US economy. Without the drain of all that cultural deadwood, and with the ensuing labor crunch, employment would soar and productivity would sail through the roof. Per capita education levels would rise overnight, and with lower divorce rates, lower teen pregnancy rates, lower STD rates, and lower domestic violence rates, the remaining US population would likely see the dawn of a new golden age of peace and domestic prosperity. It wouldn’t be all good news, because of course we’d have to remain vigilant towards our southern border for the foreseeable future. We would need to spend a lot to maintain the Texas Wall, simply as a matter of national security… but as far as I’m concerned, that’s a small price to pay for freedom.

Drill baby drill! …doesn’t appear to be working

•April 16, 2009 • 9 Comments

Expectedly, the Alaskan Department of Revenue predicts further ongoing declines in proceeds from Alaskan oil. According to ADR figures,

“Alaska North Slope oil output is expected to drop 5 percent in the coming fiscal year as its oilfields age, and average prices of its crude oil are expected to fall, causing a dip in income for the state…”

This news isn’t surprising to those of us who study geology, because Alaskan oil production has been sliding steadily downward for more than a decade already. The reason has nothing to do with hippies. Alaskan oil, just like every other petroleum deposit on our planet, is finite in volume and can only be brought to the surface at a finite rate. The typical sequence of events at any oil field follows from discovery to exploratory drilling, then to extraction on an increasingly efficient and massive scale, then to maximization of delivery rate, then to decline as the subsurface stocks dwindle. Politics are irrelevant to this process; pull up oil for long enough in one place and eventually you start to hear a giant sucking sound. Pull up oil for long enough on one planet and a similar result ensues.

US petroleum production peaked long before we discovered oil under the Alaskan North Slope, and not even those gigantic deposits of crude could put our production back on top. Today the total US annual production of oil is down to around what it was just after we won WWII, except now the curve is not going optimistically upwards, it’s going permanently downwards. Ken Deffeyes talks about this process in great detail in his book Hubbert’s Peak, and I won’t repeat all the technicals here, but suffice to say that where American led, the world now follows. Global petroleum production is now at its high oil mark, never to rise again. Politics are irrelevant. Geology is now the decider.


The numbers I show in that graph came from the US Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration, a treasure trove of data for anyone interested in energy. Looking at the diagram, it should become painfully clear to anyone considering a run on Arctic National Wildlife Refuge oil that such a course wouldn’t help us very much. ANWR oil wouldn’t go to the US alone, it would go into the general global market, it would amount on that diagram to a blip roughly the height of a single data point, and if we started drilling for ANWR oil today it wouldn’t hit our gas tanks until 2019 at the earliest. Based on industrial history it takes about a decade to bring oil from a newly opened field to market, and there’s not really any way to shorten that timeframe. So, ANWR isn’t the answer, and neither is anywhere else delusionals want us to “Drill baby drill!” The oil just isn’t there anymore, and we need to think about putting aside our training wheels and learning to ride on something a bit more grownup.

That’s how I tend to think of fossil fuels: as training wheels. Yes, fossil fuels are childish, filthy and polluting, but to our agrarian grandparents they were a fabulous one-time boost up from squalor to high technology. In an age when lamps were lit with whale blubber, fuel from rocks was quite an advancement… and quite a bridge, to a bigger and more technologically adult future. We’ve learned to ride far and fast on the kid’s bike, but now it’s time for a more impressive set of wheels… ones that don’t run on rock-grease. Fortunately there are plenty of options, including natural gas, bio-methane, biodiesel, increasing efficiency, shifting from 18-wheelers to trains, electric transport in urban sectors, and ultimately hydrogen fuel spawned from solar and aeolian electricity.

All of which is well and good, but what about Alaska? Royalties from oil and gas production fill state coffers there up to about the 80% mark. Without that income the state’s future as a rip-roaring, sharp-shooting haven for self-made, rugged individualists on the oil dole starts to become cloudy. Thankfully, governor Sarah Palin appears happy to accept (after initially rejecting) taking federal stimulus money to temporarily make up the shortfall.

“Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, speaking at a news conference in Juneau on Friday, said she planned to cope with the revenue declines by substituting federal stimulus money for about $250 million in state operations spending.”

Because nothing says “freedom from big government spending” like frontier welfare.