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  • Paleoastronomy: Why Fish Left the Sea

    At STARMUS 2016, Steve Balbus, Ph.D. (Theoretical Astrophysics) stepped outside of his main field of study—magneto rotational instability—to explain his theory of why fish grew legs and left the sea. He pointed to two main factors—geography and tides. 

    In the Devonian period (roughly 417 to 350 million years ago) the continents as we know them today did not exist. Back then there were only two continents, and they were moving towards each other. As they got closer, there was a narrow channel of water between them. That’s where the tide comes in. (Image: Map of the continents as they looked 370 million years ago. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International. Author: Colorado Plateau Geosystems, Inc.)

     

    Tides are caused by forces exerted on the Earth by the moon and the sun. High tides occur twice a day (as do low tides), but there are times when the high tide is highest. Tides are highest when the sun and moon align in a straight line. The scientific word for this is syzygy. This happens during a new moon and again during a full moon. The force of the sun reinforces the tidal force of the moon. (You can view a simulation of tides on the Science Rocks website provided by Everett Meredith Middle School.)

    In narrow channels, the effect of a tide is more dramatic. The highest high tide is even higher, flowing inland even farther. If you are a fish traveling with one of these high tides in a narrow channel, you have a chance of getting stranded in a tidal pool that’s far inland. Until there is another very high tide like the one that stranded you, you will be trapped. If this happens enough times, there is evolutionary pressure to do something about it. Upgrade your fins to legs!

    Sounds easy, but with anything evolutionary it takes a  l o n g  time. 

    Professor Balbus points out that the moon and sun have the same angullar radii. That means when you look into the sky, the sun and the moon look about equal in size. Of course we know they are not, but the fact their angualr radii are equal means their tidal forces are equal. When these two celestial bodies line up, the tidal force doubles. Trapping fish in tidal pools might not have happened if our moon had a smaller angular radius with respect to the sun. There were other other factors at play to encourage the evolution of tetrapods, but he makes a convincing argument for tides having a major role.

    For details, see:

    Dynamical, biological, and anthropic consequences of equal lunar and solar angular radii, 2014, Steven A.Balbus, Proceedings of the Royal Society. 

  • From Pagan Angel to Anathema: STARMUS 2016 Featured Performers

    Reading the history of the band Anathema is a course in music history in and of itself. Started in 1990 under the name Pagan Angel, it was a death-doom band whose core was the Cavanagh siblings—Vincent, Daniel, and Jamie. The continual evolution morphed the name from Pagan Angel to Anathema, and the sound from death-doom to alternative. 

    I first listened to the band when they showed up on the program for STARMUS 2016. Two of the Cavanaghs—Vincent and Daniel—are still with the band. They are joined by John and Lee Douglas and Daniel Cardosa. Anathema band at a concert in Mega Club in Katowice, Poland 2004. From left: Les Smith; Daniel, Vincent & Jamie Cavanagh. (Image under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. Courtesy of Krzysztof Raś.)

    Ariel, from the album Distant Satellites, and Thin Air, from A Sort of Homecoming, convinced me that the music at STARMUS will be stellar!  Check them out on iTunes.

    Ariel

    I found you in the dark
    Don't leave me here
    Don't leave me staring at the sun
    Love is so strong, that it hurts
    I dreamed of you in the dark
    You spoke to me from afar
    What you mean to me is clear
    And I'll always be near
    I found you in the dark
    Don't leave me here
    Don't leave me staring at the sun
    Love is so strong, that it hurts
    Look into your eyes
    See my life's defined
    Look into your eyes
    See a heart of mine

     

  • Adventures at the Ends of Chromosomes: Elizabeth Blackburn to Speak at STARMUS 2016

    At first glance, I thought Dr. Blackburn’s research was a bit esoteric. Telomerase? Telomere? What are these things and why should I care? Then I began digging into these terms and her work. I now care, perhaps you should too!

    Telomerase is an enzyme that elongates telomeres. Telomeres are repetitive sequences at the end of a chromosome that keep the ends from deteriorating. It’s not good for your chromosomes to unravel at the ends. If the ends are damaged, the chromosome can’t replicate properly. Your cells are going to die, and so will you. 

    Dr. Blackburn and Carol Greider discovered telomerase in 1984. How do you find something like that? They used  substances labeled with radioactivity to permeate the cells they were studying. The radioactive substances distributed themselves such that they were able to see patterns of telomerase activity—the telomerase enzyme reaction. Not to worry about the radioactive substances, you need to be careful with them, but they aren’t going to kill you unless you ingest them. The radioactivity creates an image on an emulsion that is similar to a photograph, but it is called an autoradiograph. It’s a technique used a lot in biological research. (Image under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license, by Bengt Oberger.)

    As cool as this research seems, I was struggling to find how this particular discovery might impact my life. Then I found a paper with Dr. Blackburn as fifth author: Can meditation slow rate of cellular aging? Cognitive stress, mindfulness, and telomeres. That got my attention! If mindfulness meditation can slow my cells from aging, sign me up!

    Perhaps this excerpt will entice you to read the entire article:

    We review data linking telomere length to cognitive stress and stress arousal and present new data linking cognitive appraisal to telomere length. Given the pattern of associations revealed so far, we propose that some forms of meditation may have salutary effects on telomere length by reducing cognitive stress and stress arousal and increasing positive states of mind and hormonal factors that may promote telomere maintenance.“

    Dr. Blackburn is a great champion of science. In 2002 she was a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics. However, because she opposed the Bush Administration, she was taken off the council n 2004. 

    "There is a growing sense that scientific research—which, after all, is defined by the quest for truth—is being manipulated for political ends” ~ Elizabeth Blackburn

  • Music for Spaceports: Brian Eno to Keynote STARMUS 2016

    By the time the 21st Century arrived, I had thought that Brian Eno would have written Music for Spaceports, and that I would be listening to it while waiting for a shuttle to Mars. While the Earth has muddled along—progressing in some sectors and not so much in others—Brian Eno has been evolving his art. I’m thrilled to see that he is a keynote presenter at STARMUS 2016

    When it was first released, Brian Eno’s Music for Airports was one of the most talked about albums in my music circles. Classical musicians didn’t want to recognize that album as music, while others thought it was brilliant. I enjoyed the debate about the music-worthiness of the album as much as the album itself. Good art stretches the boundaries of definition. (Image from Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.)

    Now that I am researching Mr. Eno’s music in preparation for my trip to STARMUS in the Canary Islands, I realize how much I’ve missed his and other experimental music. It’s a treat to be reunited once again and to listen to his more recent work, like The Ship. This, in turn, inspired me to see what’s up with people like Ellen Furman, Pauline Oliveros, and Alvin Lucier, all of whom I’ve heard perform in person, and who, along with Brian Eno, taught me to listen deeply and appreciate the nuance of tones and textures. 

    Why did I fall of out touch with experimental music? I moved to Silicon Valley in the late 1990’s where the culture is fast paced and high-tech with a bias towards pop. Ambient and slow change music could not exist here, where the space between words and the pause at the end of a sentence are opportunities for someone to interject more words. The start-up culture doesn’t have the word sustain in its vocabulary, much less patience for any tone that would last more than 250 milliseconds or a song longer than 4 minutes. Yet albums like The Ship are just what we in high tech need as an antidote to our hyperdrive living. 

    Explore These

    The Ship, Brian Eno

    The Difference Between Hearing and Listening, Pauline Oliveros

    Long Strings Performance, Ellen Furman

    I Am Sitting in a Room, Alvin Lucier

  • The Universe Waved and We Heard It

    More than 100 years ago Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves—ripples in spacetime, where space is stretched in one direction and compressed in the other. The prediction is a consequence of his theory of general relativity, fitting nicely with his mathematical model. It wasn’t until September 14, 2015 that anyone observed a gravitational wave. It’s not that the Earth hasn’t been hit by them. We haven’t had a way to detect them. Gravitational waves are very tiny. Really tiny. Like 1/1000 the diameter of a proton. To measure something like that, you need a very special instrument—an interferometer, and not just an off-the-shelf model. 

    The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) is designed specifically to detect these waves. The project is a collaboration of many scientists, technicians, colleges, and universities. LIGO uses two interferometers, one located in Hanford, Washington and the other in Livingston, Louisiana. Each is identical, even in its orientation.  They are very large instruments, as you can see in these images (courtesy of LIGO CalTech). This is the Hanford site. The next image is the Livingston site.

    When a gravitational wave encounters the Earth, it will reach one of the locations first. This gives scientists clues to the origin of the wave. When the wave arrived on September 14, it was seen at both locations, but with a 7 millisecond difference—the time it took for the wave to travel from one location to the other. 

    The wave is so tiny that you might wonder if LIGO really detected a gravitational wave. They weren’t sure either, which is why they did not announce their finding until February 11, 2016. This gave scientists a chance to complete various verification protocols that gave the confidence of almost 100% that they did indeed observe a gravitational wave. 

    It is an extraordinary observation considering that footsteps, storms, traffic, ambient temperature, and just about anything else you can think of that causes motion can be detected by LIGO. It is an incredibly sensitive instrument. So sensitive, it can detect the motion of ocean waves during a storm. The scientists use a variety of techniques to tease out the signal of a gravitational wave from the noise of everything else. For example, to subtract out the ground vibrations contributed at each location, they place an array of 100 seismic detectors at each interferometer site. Using the seismic signals and machine learning techniques (statistics) scientists can figure out which vibrational “squiggles” are from the site and which are not. They have to use a different technique for each type of unwanted noise source. 

    What is actual signal like? It’s a short chirp. 

    This is relatively old news, so why am I writing about it? Barry Barish is speaking at STARMUS 2016 on “Einstein, Black Holes and a Cosmic Chirp.” I will be attending STARMUS and decided to find out what role Barry Barish had in the discovery.  

    The National Science Foundation first funded exploratory studies in 1980. By 1989 the project started in in full force, more or less.  An experiment of this magnitude requires a special person to run the project. It’s a big budget, with personnel and instruments spread over several locations. It’s cutting edge science. It had to be precisely executed. The people in charge, though extremely smart and well meaning, weren’t able to make sufficient progress. It wasn’t until Barry Barish was appointed laboratory director in 1994 that LIGO took off. One person can make a difference. I look forward to his talk.

  • Canaries, Wild and Free

    Although the Canary Islands are home to the wild canary, the islands were not named after the bird. It’s the other way around.  Canary Islands, or Islas Canarias, actually means Island of the Dogs. So the  bird is named after an island named after dogs. Why dogs? No one is quite sure whether there were actually large dogs on the island at one time, a cult of dog worshippers, mummified dogs, or sailors who mistook monk seals for dogs. (Image from Wikimedia, by Juan Emilio. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.)

    There are no more monk seals on the islands. I’ll find out about the dogs when I arrive at Tenerife for STARMUS 2016 at the end of June. I'm excited that I’ll finally get to see canaries, wild and free, as they should be. 

  • Good Vibrations: Brian Greene and String Theory

    At STARMUS 2016 Brian Greene will tell us about String Theory and the Nature of Reality. He will do this in just 20 minutes. So I’ll try to explain it to you in just a few paragraphs but from the perspective of a non-physicist.

    String theory rose from the quest to explain inconsistencies in existing theories in physics. Gravity seems to be the bad boy that doesn’t fall in line with quantum physics and general relativity. If scientists could reconcile that, they might even have the holy grail—one theory that explains everything in the physical universe. 

    The idea of unifying explanations of the universe is laudable, but the “stringicists” have given rise to even more theories—strings, superstrings, supersymmetry, branes, m-branes, and more. They  generated so many types of string theories—Type 1, Type IIA, Type IIB, Type HO, Type HE, and so on—that they themselves had to devise a unified theory of string theory call M-Theory (the mother of all string theories). 

    So what’s it all about? Strings are tiny, one-dimensional vibrating entities. The vibrational state of the string manifests itself as different physical particles. We don’t see a string, but we can observe ordinary particles and measure the particle’s mass and charge. But under the hood, that particle is just vibrations. The apple in the image is, ultimately, good vibrations! (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

    Scientific theories are supposed to have predictive power—you should be able to predict a consequence of the theory and then measure those consequences in the real world. So far nothing has panned out for string theory, which is why some people refer to it as a “theoretical framework.” There are some elegant mathematics behind strings, which is the primary reason why this area of study has survived from 1960’s until now. That and the fact it has cool jargon.

    For more information, see Brian Greene's TED Talk on string theory. 

  • Asymptotic Freedom: David Gross

    The STARMUS Festival in the Canary Islands claims to make “the most universal science and art accessible to the public.” The speakers are some of the best in their field and include physicists, astrophysicists, chemists, biochemists, biologists, neuroscientists, and economists. Many of them are nobel laureates. Although the festival claims to be aimed at the “public”, I suspect that many of those brainy nobel laureates don’t have a good idea of where the intellect of the pubic lays. That’s why I am looking at the conference program now to investigate some of the conference speakers’ areas of expertise. I hope that by knowing a bit more about some of the speakers’ interests, I’ll get more out of the conference.

    On the first day David Gross, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2004, will discuss the great challenges faced by physics. One of his challenges was explaining the behavior of quarks by introducing the property of asymptotic freedom, an explanation for which he (and two others) received the Nobel prize. 

    What exactly is asymptotic freedom, or AF as I’ll call it? It doesn’t sound too daunting. I know what freedom is—being free to do or think what you want without being constrained. I know what an asymptote is—a line that approaches a curve but does not meet is. How does that relate to physics? Why would someone get a nobel prize for that?

    To understand AF, you need to have a basic understanding of atoms, those tiny things that make up matter. Atoms in turn are made up of subatomic particles—protons, neutrons, and electrons. While most of us are worried about how to keep our lives togethers, people like David Gross are concerned with how an atom keeps itself together. Physicists know there is a strong nuclear force that holds protons and neutrons in place in an atom, but they wanted to know more about that force, as it is one of the four fundamental forces in the universe. (The other forces are electromagnetic, weak, and gravitational.) 

    How strong is the strong force? Over very tiny distances—atomic nucleus sized—the strong force is 100 times stronger than the electromagnetic force that repels positively charged protons. That’s why an atomic nucleus stays together under normal circumstances.

    Both protons and neutrons are themselves made up of quarks—precisely three quarks. These days, quarks are assigned “colors”, either red, green or blue. This might see like an homage to the pixel, but using color as a metaphor in physics helps to explain a lot of subatomic particle interactions that I’m not going to explain in this discussion. (I’ll also ignore quark “flavors.”) Suffice it to say that subatomic particle interactions have to result in white. Red, green, and blue combine to white.  (Image from Wiki Commons.)

    So far you know that the quarks are held in place by a strong force. The theory behind this strong force is named quantum chromodynamics (QCD) because of the arbitrary use of color. That finally brings us to AF.

    AF is important because it explains some baffling behavior of quarks. You can’t see quarks, which indicates they are trapped in matter by the strong force. If they weren’t confined, you’d be able to see them, right?  Yet a big smash up at the linear accelerator down the road from me—Stanford Linear Accelerator (SLAC)—showed that in a high-energy reaction  the force between the quarks weakens and the distance between them decreases asymptotically. That is, they get closer and closer, but don’t run into each other.

    What  it boils down to is that quarks have two phases—confinement and AF. Much like water and steam, the phases depend on temperature. In the case of quarks, temperature (which is really energy) is measured in Mega electron Volts, or MeV. The phase change occurs at 160 MeV. Quarks are mostly confined below that energy level, and mostly have asymptotic freedom above that level.

    So what’s the lesson for the lay person? Although your personal life may seem to be falling apart, take comfort in the fact that the atoms around you are quite stable. You might need to expend a lot of energy to keep things together, but atoms are just the opposite.  

    AF isn’t all that Dr. Gross is known for. He is one of the signers of the Humanist Manifesto.

  • STARMUS 2016: Taking a Chance on a Warm Weather Vacation

    If you look at some of the places I’ve traveled—Jukkasjärvi, Barrow, Fairbanks, Puntas Arenas, Patagonia, Andes, Himalaya, and Antarctica—you might conclude that I am a cold weather person. I’m not. But when it comes to a vacation, the idea of sitting around on a beach might sound idyllic, bur for a week I think it would be quite boring. That’s what attracts me to STARMUS.

    STARMUS is a biennial festival celebrating astronomy, art, and music. Held in the Canary Islands, the festival is aimed at the public, but the speakers are luminaries like Stephen Hawking, Brian May (astrophysicist and guitarist in Queen), Jill Tarter (astrophysicist), and Roger Penrose (mathematical physicist). The conference sessions get underway at 3:00 PM each day and end at 8:00 PM. The parties start at 9:30 PM and last until 1:00 AM. There is just enough time in the late morning to sit by the sea, but not so much time that I’ll get bored. Most of my time in this warm weather destination will be spent doing interesting things. Or at least I hope so.

    The conference takes place June 27 to July 2. Between now and then I plan to do a little background reading so I can get the most out of the conference. Although I know who many of the speakers are, there are many whose names are unknown to me. It’s time to find out who they are! 

    This video from STARMUS 2014 gives an idea of what goes on at this festival.

  • Wild Cars and Climate Change in Texas

    I really had no idea what I was getting into when I made my way to the Art Car Museum  in Houston. I expected to see painted and decorated cars, but I found much more. 

    Located in a nondescript area of Houston, from the outside the museum looks more like a garage than a museum. When I arrived, there was a very hairy, friendly guy who turned out to be the art car mechanic. Most of the cars require special care and maintenance, especially when getting ready for a parade.

    When I entered the museum I learned that any donations would be given to the victims of the recent Texas floods. I also found out that although the museum has cars in it, there weren’t as many as I thought. About half the space is given over to rotating contemporary art exhibits. The cars themselves are a rotating exhibit. Only some of the several dozen available to show are actually in the museum at any one time.

    This day the museum had about 7 cars, including a Prius painted with flora and fauna found on the owner’s property, a two-seater clad in metal and with menacing faces, a sea-shell encrusted car, a bat mobile, and one that looked like my worst nightmare. The mechanic, who kindly gave me a tour, said some of the hoods is quite heavy and require several people to pop them open. 

    The non-car exhibits were just as intriguing. Mark Chen showed a series of lenticular art pieces—To Inhabit—which have a climate change theme. As I walked from side-to-side images changed from what we see today to what we will see when sea levels rise. Central Park to a Central Lake. Times Square with taxi cars to Times Square with taxi boats.

    Ken Watkins’ collection of photos of random people from Main Street in Houston presented an interesting slice of life in a Texas city. The art car photos of Irvin Tepper made the perfect backdrop to the art car space.

    The museum employees guaranteed that next time I’m in Houston, everything in the museum is sure to be different. I might just go there again, or better yet, make it to Texas for the Houston Art Car Parade where I’ll be able to see the cars in action.