Nearing the end of April and there’s no let up in Notch’s dedication to bringing you ten interesting questions from science, tech and beyond. Before we hound your grey matter with our idle ponderings let’s take a minute to celebrate the 20th birthday of one of tech’s weirdest character and products. The fact that the strange pink puffball,Kirby, can survive two decades is undeniably a cause for joy and celebration.
In 1998 would you have seen this outliving Enron?
Kirby may seem an abstract gaming hero, but that oddity pales in significance to the healing effects of the humble Tetris block. The simple falling forms may well prove instrumental in the treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and lessening the frequency of harrowing flashbacks. How far can we go with this research and just how close are computer games to being a PTSD sufferer’s salvation?
Elsewhere in tech comes the startling announcement that a quantum crystal may deliver computing power greater than a computer the size of the known universe could. And we haven’t had a computer the size of the known universe since the 1990s. Already the list of questions for it to answer is long (and a bit reminiscent of The Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy) but what we at Notch want to know is, what would you use it to investigate first?
If you were going to ask it how best to trick “man’s best friend” then you’re in luck as that answer won’t take the 10-20 years predicted for the quantum computer to work. In fact it’s available right here and now. What I wonder is would you feel bad luring your dog into taking smaller portions with sneaky behavioral cues?
Now we move from the unquestioning loyalty of a dog to the moody predisposition of a toddler and a lesson in gambling destiny. It emerges that if the toddler in question is too moody it may indicate a much stronger probability that they will have a gambling problem in later life. In a study that makes anything but complimentary reading for a compulsive gambler it is also suggested a low IQ and low socio-economic status contribute but the restlessness and low emotional control of a toddler do provide quite strong indications towards a gambling tendency in later life. Is there more to be discovered in the actions of toddlers, just how much do we grow into something we were destined to become from a very young age?
If it’s news about the environment then it’s more than likely bad news and Harvard’s latest study is not going to be bucking that trend. Picking a choice quote from the article “No one is suggesting that we should stop improving air quality, but it’s important to understand the consequences. Clearing the air could lead to regional warming,” while not a textbook Catch 22 it probably won’t be kindling fires of joy in the hearts of environment scientists. Really the only question we can ask is how can we juggle the many factors influencing global warming and climate change with the industrial ambitions of developing nations?
A heat map of the cooling effect over Eastern USA.
China was named as a hypothetical area of concern in Harvard’s study but, when it comes to the availability of water in Asia, China is becoming a very real and pressing concern. The world’s most populated country’s latest hobby is building hydroelectric dams and having had the practice of building the world’s largest dam (The Three Gorges Dam) their sights are set even bigger. The question is who has the rights to the water and whether national actions with international effects will stand up to global dispute? Already India is planning a huge canal to try and better distribute the water from its rivers as China plans to blow Three Gorges out of the water (only metaphorically of course) by building a dam twice as big to deliver twice the power. Then building a copy of that dam right next to it.
Looking to Africa it’s not the water that’s in dispute but the land. As it turns out Africa has a surprising amount of water that is currently unreachable. The land however is very reachable and no sooner than you can stand somewhere then someone can sell the spot you’re standing on. The world’s largest land deal register shows that Africa has seen an area of Kenya sold, usually to foreign investors, since the year 2000, staggeringly that’s 5% of Africa’s agricultural land. With so much of the land being bought for speculative reasons and the raging disputes between the deed owners and the actual inhabitants what will come of the great African land-grab?
Even something as exotic and exciting as studying the stars has seen its share of negativity and uncertainty lately. First of all we haven’t found all the dark matter we hoped was there, and secondly this article suggests we haven’t the reason to be quite so ambitious about finding extra-terrestrial life.
We can’t even be sure we’ve counted the number of stars correctly as the previously universal calculation of the Initial Mass Function is proving to be not so universal. As ominous closing lines go “The researchers don’t know, but suggest a serious rethinking of the IMF will have to be done to see if it actually holds any real value” seems to tick all the boxes. Where to now for astrophysics, are we having to take several steps backwards?
Not that we’ll stop looking skyward and with the development of cheap (by space-faring terms) and reusable unpiloted spaceplane Skylon our exploration into space may be about to receive a considerable boost, in the wake of the closure of the space shuttle programme. Are single-stage spaceplanes the answer, and how can they accelerate our exploration of the cosmos?
An artist’s impression of Skylon in action
As a final question I’m going to ask have you ever seen an interactive piece on the internet more awe-inspiring than this? A clickable, exponentially scaled flash scroll from the most infinitesimally small specs of existence to the grand scale of the estimated universe.
Now, with all said and done (for this week anyway) I bid you adieu and ask a question for the last time; will Kirby still be around in 20 years time?
Get in touch: @mattatnotch @notchcom
Images: gamespot.com, scienceblog.com, automotto.com
(January 10, 2011)
Alien planets come in all shapes and sizes. Generally speaking, these planets — known to astronomers as exoplanets or extrasolar planets — orbit stars outside our solar system, but there are a few surprises out there. Here’s a look at the types of exotic worlds that scientists have discovered so far.Pulsar planets
The first true discovery of extrasolar planets came in 1994, when radio astronomers discovered worlds around the pulsar PSR B1257+12, about 980 light-years away in the constellation Virgo. A pulsar is not a normal star, but a dense, rapidly spinning remnant of a supernova explosion. The oldest exoplanet known yet, PSR B1620-26 b, nicknamed Methuselah, is also a pulsar planet, located 5,600 light years from Earth in the constellation ScorpiusHot Jupiters
A “Hot Jupiter” is a gas giant that is as close or closer to its star than Mercury is to our sun. The first discovery of an extrasolar planet around a sun-like star was 51 Pegasi B, an exoplanet roughly 50 light-years away. Of the 429 exoplanets discovered to date, 89 have been hot Jupiters, most likely because their large size and proximity to their stars makes them easier to spot using current techniques.Exo-Earths
Although the vast majority of the exoplanets found have been gas or ice giants, terrestrial exoplanets most likely outnumber these behemoths, and upcoming missions may soon finally discover rocky worlds the size of Earth with atmospheric conditions that mimic our own. To harbor life, these “Goldilocks planets” would have to orbit their star at just the right distance from to not roast or freeze — as well as be large enough to retain an atmosphere , but not so large as to become a gas giant.Super-Earths
A super-Earth is a planet with a mass roughly 10 times greater than Earth’s. The first super-Earths ever found were two of the planets around PSR B1257+12. Super-Earths might be more geologically active than our planet, as astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics suggest they experience more vigorous plate tectonics because they possess thinner plates that are under more stress.Eccentric planets
The planets in our solar system have, for the most part, fairly circular orbits. The exoplanets found so far, however, can have far more eccentric orbits, moving in close and then far from their stars. Where a perfect circle has an eccentricity value of zero, roughly half of exoplanets seen thus far have an eccentricity of 0.25 or greater. These eccentric orbits can cause exoplanets to experience extreme heat waves.Super Neptunes
Only one “super Neptune” has been discovered so far: In 2009, astronomers discovered a planet somewhat larger and more massive than Neptune orbiting a star 120 light-years from Earth. The solid planet earned the name “super Neptune” because it shares many of the physical characteristics of our Neptune. Neptune has a diameter 3.8 times that of Earth and a mass 17 times Earth’s, the Super Neptune (named HAT-P-11b) is 4.7 times the size of Earth and has 25 Earth masses.Water worlds
There are two kinds of worlds that might be entirely covered with water . “One is a terrestrial Earth-like planet that’s just covered with a lot more water than our world, like the Kevin Costner movie, but is otherwise still familiar,” said astronomer Charles Beichman, executive director of NASA’s Exoplanet Science Institute. “Or you can imagine a hot Neptune which is almost totally composed of water that is close enough to its star to not be frozen, but instead have an ocean thousands of kilometers deep and perhaps an atmosphere like a gas giant’s, with lots of hydrogen and water vapor.”Chthonian planets
Sometimes hot Jupiters or hot Neptunes orbit too close to their stars, and the star’s heat and extreme gravity can rip away the planet’s water or atmosphere, leaving behind the rocky core. Scientists have dubbed these evaporated remnant cores “chthonian planets.” Their proximity to their stars could mean they are covered in lava.Free-floating planets
There are hints that a number of bodies with the mass of gas giants might be free-floating, rather than orbiting a star. These bodies might either have escaped from their suns or never had a star to begin with, born in star-forming regions without the mass needed to ignite.Rogue planets
A rogue planet is a planet-sized object that has been ejected from its system and is no longer gravitationally bound to any star, so it orbits the galaxy directly. To become a rogue planet, a planetary-mass object would have to be ejected from its solar system, making it starless. This could be achieved by the competing gravitational forces of the sun and larger planets. Also known as interstellar planet, or orphan planet, a rogue planet would require geothermal activity in to sustain life without energy from a star.
Soviet Science Propaganda Posters
Science and communism are inseparable! That is the basic message of this amazing collection of Soviet space propaganda posters that will be auctioned off on Apr. 22.
Featuring Yuri Gagarin and Gherman Titov, the first and second humans to reach space, along with Krushchev, and of course Lenin, these posters glorify the the Soviet Union’s technological prowess and importance in the world, and in the universe. Many of the posters focus on the role the workers played in the space race, and the ordinary citizen’s duty to feel immensely proud of Mother Russia’s accomplishments.
The posters have messages such as “Comrades! Soviet Land Has From Now On Become the Shore of the Universe!” or “The Tenth Planet Symbolizes the Victory of Communism!” and “Be Proud, Soviet, You Opened a Path from the Earth to the Stars!” One of my favorites is “Lenin Is With Us, Immortal and Majestic, the Thoughts, Words and Deeds of Ilyich Are Propagating Through the Universe.”
We’re halfway through April and Notch’s weekly collection of science, space, tech and the environment’s talking points is celebrating its one-month anniversary. So, after the champagne and sparklers, lets delve into the pressing questions and talking points.
Discovery in its prime
Dusk is setting on the space-shuttle era and we at Notch bid a heavy-hearted goodbye to the last of its kind, Discovery. A true icon of space exploration Discovery deployed the Hubble telescope, was the first shuttle to travel to Mir and the first to dock with the International Space Station. Where can we go from here, what is the practical future for space-faring technology? One answer, one that seems to be a vocal answer to almost every question involving the future, is “use robots”.
A less publicized but still notable loss in space technology is the ESA’s Envisat. The most complex earth-surveying satellite, about the size of a school bus, has stopped making contact with its Earth-based operators. What is the future of Envisat, can it be fixed, will it be superceded?
Other, more responsive, satellites have been keeping watchful eyes on Mars and beyond and have led to the startling discovery of huge glass regions on the red planetand a lake on Saturn’s moon Titan that is strikingly similar to the mud flats of Namibia. This lets me ask, quite excitedly, as our universe gets more alive and intriguing every time we look, what could we be seeing next?
As a news topic North Korea’s rocket didn’t make it into our “Space” section because the rocket itself didn’t make it into actual space. Not even close. It may be for the best as one expert observer noted the rocket was not a weapon but “98% a weapon” and that the satellite it was carrying almost certainly couldn’t do what Pyongyang was claiming. So what exactly was it meant to do, or was it all just a huge propaganda trick? As one youtube user amusingly stated “Operation Bomb the Ocean was a success!”.
Click here for Reuter’s news report on the whole debacle. Japan was ready to shoot the rocket out of the sky, if it looked like it might stray, but the rocket obligingly disintegrated after only a minute without Japan, South Korea or any other of the countries globally condemning North Korean missile testing, having to lift a finger. One upside for North Korea is it makes the $15 website they’ve created to represent the nation, to mild guffaws from all corners of the internet, look like a roaring success in comparison.
Now North Korea have ruled themselves out for a few more years we can ask which developing nation is most likely to be a successful player in space exploration, or is it increasingly becoming a sector for private, not state, investment?
A solar flare that headed towards Earth. There’s likely bigger soon to be on their way.
Another reason to be looking out to space with a mixture of fear and curiosity is the revelation that the Earth is not equipped to react to a large solar storm. Mayans everywhere will rejoice in recognition but for everyone else this article is going to make bleak and pretty scary reading. Perhaps we’ll find relief in that it may not happen in our lifetimes but that’s exactly the attitude researcher Hapgood is arguing against; but what can we do to protect ourselves from solar storm, are we totally at the mercy of the cosmos?
Fracking has been prominent in the news lately and its opposition is getting increasingly vocal. Angry, but not quite enraged enough to ignore a pun, opposition group “Frack Off” have been scaling drilling rigs in Lancashire and even Matt Damon is going to star in an anti-fracking film. In response the government has adopted an “It’s OK so long as you don’t cause earthquakes” policy (because it has caused earthquakes). How much is our relatively short-term need for gas going to outweigh worries about dangers in the process of fracking?
Nature though has offered up a couple of feel-good stories. The often presumed extinct black honeybee seems to be making a comeback in the wake of Colony Collapse Disorder, as it seems to fare better than its South European counterparts. Another animal happily departing the endangered list is the sea lion, surely challenging kittens’ dominance as the cutest animal on the internet. What’s next to come off the endangered list, are there any more chances of us rediscovering species we’ve written off as extinct?
Throughout all the devastation his species has faced this sea lion has remained upbeat, resolute and defiant.
Cute or not, all animals may have a surprising event to thank for their evolutionary development. When the alkali level of the sea greatly increased 800 million years ago the simple celled organisms may have been forced to pump calcium out of their bodies. Those became shells. They became bones. It’s a fascinating concept and one that conveniently explains the lack of any rocks from a 300 million year window. In evolutionary terms what could result from the acidification of the oceans we see today?
They say “save the best for the last” and if you’re willing to accept the shattering of your concept of dimensions as “the best” my last question is fulfilling that mantra.Put simply, is time the 4th dimension of space? These researchers say it exists independently, that in fact time is best represented as the quantity used to measure change in 3D space.
For this weeks video we are treated to an explanation of the process of turning the Hubble telescopes black and white images into the beauitful, colourful ones we see today. Being from the Hubble telescope that leaves us with an opportunity to say again - thanks, Discovery.
This is what you end up with. Stunning.
And that, as they say, is that. I’m off to spend all weekend pondering if my watch is not measuring time but instead measuring the quantity that indicates the change in 3D space. Pity anyone who asks me what the time is.
Get in touch with me @mattatnotch, or @notchcom.
Until next time.
images – kenwelch.com. mysticaquarium.org, csmonitor, hubblesite.org
A gallery of Telescopes
From left to right:
- James Webb Space Telescope (2018 launch)
- Hubble Space Telescope
- Kepler Space Telescope
- XMM Newton
- NASA Spitzer Space Telescope