Wednesday, October 19, 2016

European Space Agency busy anticipating Mars colonists' popcorn needs

Schoparelli lander final descent to the surface of Mars (ESA/ATG medialab)
SpaceX leader and all-around science action hero, Elon Musk, has recently announced plans to put humans - lots of them - on the surface of Mars within the next dozen years or so. In addition to all the space-age technological challenges this implies, one big question remains: what are they going to eat when they get there?

This is where the European Space Agency (ESA) is coming to the rescue. As part of their ExoMars mission now underway, they will be deploying the Schoparelli lander, shown here in an artist's conception making its final descent to the surface of the Red Planet.

Original Jiffy Pop in action
Modeled after the iconic Jiffy Pop popcorn maker developed for NASA in the late 1950s, at over 1.65 m (a little less than 5 and a half feet) in diameter and with a carrying capacity of 577 kg (almost 1,300 pounds), "Schop," as it's known, will be able to supply 100 Mars colonists with all their popcorn needs for well over a year.

So, although these brave pioneers will be undoubtedly be spending most of their time sciencing the shit out of stuff, every now and then, when they kick back and settle in for a quiet evening watching a movie - my guess is that Matt Damon's "The Martian" will be a favorite - they'll never have to worry about running out of traditional snacks. Also, Schop is equipped with ample salt and butter-flavored topping dispensers, seen on the top of the spacecraft in the above image.

And there's no need to worry about all those golden kernels going bad waiting for customers. Given Mars's frigid surface temperature averaging around −55 °C (−67 °F) and almost non-existent atmosphere, Schop's popcorn payload will stay fresh for decades. And, thanks to a constant stream of Solar wind radiation bombarding the lander, any microbes that decided to hitch a ride with the corn, will be toast, so to speak, long before Schop starts to popping.

Monday, March 21, 2016

The peace monument in Atlanta's Piedmont Park: four dates and a funeral for racial justice

"Cease Firing - Peace Proclaimed"
monument at the 14th Street entrance
of Atlanta's Piedmont Park
Until recently, I had never paid much attention to this monument at the 14th Street entrance to Atlanta’s Piedmont Park. It is a larger-than-life sculpture that portrays an Angel of Peace stilling the hand of a Confederate soldier about to fire his rifle. It bears the title “Cease Firing - Peace Proclaimed.”

I had always assumed that it was not much more than a conventional memorial to the end of the Civil War, that was until I took closer at the plaque on its side. Depending upon your point of view, either God or the Devil lives in the details. In the case of this monument, I think that a convincing argument can be made for the latter.

Four dates are involved in telling the tale of this peace monument.

The earliest date is April 30, 1861, which marks the incorporation of Atlanta’s Gate City Guard into the Confederate Army, little more than two weeks after the firing on Fort Sumter lead to the outbreak of the Civil War. According to the plaque, they did this “in the conscientious conviction of their duty to uphold the Cause of the Southern Confederacy.” This so-called “Lost Cause” rationale was the Confederate retelling of history that transformed their shameful fight to uphold the institution of slavery to a noble struggle in defense of states rights.

A second date is that of a ceasefire somewhat disingenuously alluded to in the monument’s title. As far as I can tell, there was no formal declaration of “cease firing” that marked the end of hostilities of the Civil War. While it is true that Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, not everyone got the memo. And many of those that did get the memo, ignored it. There was no shortage of Confederate dead-enders, as Donald Rumsfeld would have called them. Fighting continued sporadically for months. And a formal end of the war was only declared by President Andrew Johnson on August 20, 1866.

October 6, 1879 is the third date commemorated on the memorial. That was the date that the very same Gate City Guard “went forth to greet their former adversaries in the Northeastern and Eastern States, inviting them to unite with the people of the South to heal the Nation's wounds in a peaceful and prosperous reunion of the States.” Sick and tired of the bloody opposition to Reconstruction in the South, by 1876 the nation had decided to abandon its commitment to transform the political landscape of the former Confederate States. Although the Gate City Guard’s mission was, on its surface, a mission of reconciliation, it was, in many respects, a celebration of the Confederate triumph when it came to matters of race.

The fourth and final date associated with the memorial is October 10th 1911, the date of its dedication. Almost thirty-five years after the end of Reconstruction, a prosperous and resurgent South had been brought back into the Union. Georgia Governor Hoke Smith attended the dedication. Although Smith was a member of the national Progressive Party formed by Theodore Roosevelt, fulfilling a campaign promise, he led the adoption of a constitutional amendment that effectively disenfranchised black Georgians. This revision marked the final nail in the coffin of any hope for racial justice that had propelled the Union during the Civil War and postwar Reconstruction. All gains that had been made in that regard had been turned back. Jim Crow reigned supreme.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Why an Obama "excellent adventure" as a Supreme Court Justice is a bad idea

There's a lot of buzz going around about the possibility of a future Democratic president nominating current Democratic president Barack Obama to the Supreme Court. I think that this would be a bad idea, and I'd like to tell you why.

Just to fend off some of the disapproval that I know I've already provoked, I want to say that I think Obama has the intellect, legal expertise, and the judicial temperament to make for a great Supreme Court Justice.

Indeed, the matter of temperament is of paramount importance. No one has shown more of a commitment to the dispassionate consideration of the most divisive issues facing this country than Barack Obama has over the last eight years, this in spite of relentless attacks on his efforts to reach sensible political compromise.

So what's not to like?

To put it simply, the presence of an Associate Justice Obama would turn the Supreme Court Building into a third ring of the the Washington political circus that now includes the White House and the U.S. Capitol. And a Justice Obama would suck the air of the room of any oral argument before the court.

The obvious objection to the above claim is that we've been there and done that. William Howard Taft, the 27th President of the United States (1909–13), served as the country's tenth Chief Justice (1921–30). The Supreme Court didn't crumble as a result of his tenure there, so there's no reason to believe that a repeat performance by the 44th President of the United States in the capacity of an Associate Justice should raise any cause for alarm.

In response, first of all consider that Taft took on his Supreme Court gig a good eight years after leaving the office of President. I suspect that this cooling off period went a long way toward making Supreme Court deliberations less fraught with the political issues that Taft had to deal with during his time as president.

Second, and more importantly, the power and prestige of the office of the President of the United States have changed immeasurably since 1921. To understand this, it's instructive to look at a story that comes from the ex-presidency of Harry Truman, a little more than sixty years ago.

In June of 1953, not much more than sixth months after leaving office, Harry Truman and his wife Bess packed up their Chrysler New Yorker and headed across country on a road trip. Just the two of them.

It's hard to imagine that the man who had been commander-in-chief of U.S. armed forces at the end of World War II - and who had also survived two assassination attempts - was out touring the country in the family roadster without the company of either a press entourage or a Secret Service detail. This presidential escapade is nicely documented in Matthew Algeo's "Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip" (Amazon link).

If you imagine that Barack Obama's assuming a seat on the Supreme Court in 2017 would be not much more of a disruption than William Howard Taft becoming Chief Justice in 1921, then I invite you to consider how well an "excellent adventure" by the Obama family on a road trip alone into the American heartland would play out today.

Barack Obama is eminently qualified to a be a Supreme Court Justice in the same way that Cate Blanchett is eminently qualified to appear in a community theater production. But celebrity changes everything, and sometimes even the best qualified person isn't the right fit.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The stealthy third-rail of American politics

What do you think of this: spending over $1 trillion over the next twenty years for 2,400 stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets? That's over $400 million per plane. The helmets that the pilots will wear, alone, cost over $400,000 a pop.

Bernie thinks it's a good idea.
Hillary thinks it's a good idea.
Trump and Cruz and Rubio and Jeb all think it's a good idea.

So much for finally finding something that we can all agree on.

The amount of money being wasted here is mind-boggling. And wasted is the right word, since no compelling case has been made that this weapons system boondoggle will do anything to address our genuine national security concerns.

This number of better things that we could do with this vast sum is itself mind-boggling.

We could provide free college and vocational training for young people for decades. Teachers could be paid the kind of salaries that would allow us to recruit and retain the best and the brightest of them. Our crumbling infrastructure could be repaired or replaced if need be. World-class public transportation systems could be built that would become the preferred way for everyone to get around. Sources of clean energy could be developed and our environment restored in the process. And, for a relative pittance, no city, town, or village in the country would have to settle for providing its residents with anything but the highest quality drinking water.

The list goes on.

So why is everyone behind such a bad idea? The reason is that the United States has become a warrior culture; you can stake out any position you damn well please across the political spectrum, but you can't say anything that in any way could be construed as calling into question the premise of unrivaled and enduring American military power around the world.

Military spending has become the "third-rail" of American politics. No one dares touch it.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Thinking outside the petri dish - an ingenious application of microfluidics

Petri dish with bacterial colonies 
The easily recognized, circular, slim glass petri dish has been a mainstay of microbiology research since the late 1870s, when it was invented by Julius Richard Petri, an assistant to the pioneering German microbiologist Robert Koch.

Filled with agar, a jelly-like substance, obtained from algae, which has been infused with selected nutrients, the petri dish becomes a go-to habitat for cultivating a variety of microbes, everything from bacteria to small mosses.

But for all its successes as an instrument of biological and biomedical studies - and they are legion - petri dishes fall short in some regards. In particular, once the liquid agar and its mix of nutrients and any other selected chemicals set, you're pretty much stuck with the environment for your microorganisms that you decided on in advance.

But what if you wanted to do an experiment that required you to change the nutrient environment over time? Are there options to using the tried-and-true, but inflexible, approach that the petri dish has to offer?

Microfluidics devices used to direct the evolution of
C. elegans at the McGrath lab (Marc Merlin)
An answer can be found in the so-called lab-on-a-chip, like the set of five pictured here on a wafer fabricated by Georgia Tech School of Biology graduate student Lijian Long and used by the McGrath lab there to direct the evolution of a tiny roundworm with the official name C. elegans.

These are microfluidics devices. They resemble computer chips for a good reason: they are constructed using the same micro-scale techniques used to make those components so central to our digital technology. The key difference is that, unlike computer chips which are designed to control the flow of electrons, microfluidics devices are designed to allow for the exquisite control of the flow of fluids.

In this case of the McGrath research group, the fluid being controlled contains, in part, bacteria found in decaying organic matter, a preferred meal for C. elegans. (Nom, nom, nom, as they say.) The roundworms, only around three-quarters of a millimeter in length, take up residence in the winding, narrow channel inscribed on the microfluidics device and feed on the bacteria that come their way.

By modulating the concentration of these bacteria, among other things, the McGrath lab is able to interfere with the usual development of C. elegans with the intention of driving the evolution of specific traits, for example those having to do with lifespan.

These kind of innovative labs-on-a-chip were developed early on by Georgia Tech School of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering Professor, Hang Lu. They are wonderful examples of how science proceeds not only through the production of remarkable primary discoveries but also through the development of ingenious auxiliary experimental techniques which require thinking outside the box. In this case, one could say, thinking outside the petri dish.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

So long, Copenhagen - I'm a Many Worlds believer now

This is adapted from a status update I posted on Facebook

I am pleased to announce that, in large part due to the wonderful explanations by physicist Sean Carroll, I now subscribe to the Many-Worlds Interpretation (MWI) of quantum mechanics.

MWI is not at all new to me. It's been kicking around since 1957 when it was first proposed by Hugh Everett while he was a graduate student at Princeton. I was certainly aware of it when I started my physics studies back in the early 1970s.

I had never taken the interpretation seriously, mostly because I was put off by the notion that the act of measuring a physical system generated new worlds somehow, one world for each of the possible values of the result of that measurement. This elevator-pitch description of MWI struck me as both magical and untestable and, so, not really worth my time.

Recently, though, I have decided to revisit the topic.

The so-called Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics on which I and most physics graduate students of my generation were weaned has not really weathered well. In some respects, it was considered provisional even back then, a placeholder waiting for something better to come along. I had counted on the fact that its own magical elements - the putative role of consciousness in measurement and the non-local collapse of the wave function - would have been put on a stronger intellectual footing in the last forty years. But that hasn't really happened.

Thanks to Sean, whose thoughts on some of the central philosophical questions of modern physics have become a go-to resource for me, I decided to take another look at MWI and now frankly could kick myself for not investigating it sooner.

Now, I understand that MWI is a straightforward outcome if you take the equations of quantum mechanics at face value and don't add the unnecessary - and problematic - assumption that observers somehow exist outside the physical systems that they observe. Indeed, Hugh Everett's dissertation had the title, The Theory of the Universal Wave Function (PDF) which proposes an approach which breaches the classical wall that separates observer and observed. His key insight is, “[h]owever, from the standpoint of our theory, it is not so much the system which is affected by an observation as the observer, who becomes correlated to the system.”

[In his dissertation Everett also addresses a colorful criticism leveled at conventional interpretations of quantum mechanics by Einstein that “he could not believe that a mouse could bring about drastic changes in the universe simply by looking at it.” Everett turns this on its head: “The mouse does not affect the universe - only the mouse is affected.” So much for spooky action at a distance.]

I do think that there are problems hewing to the popular interpretation that of many worlds branching off as observations occur. This is one reason why Sean and others prefer to call MWI “Everettian Quantum Mechanics.” And I would have to admit that I’m not quite sure what meaning to attribute to the ever increasing number of quantum states with which we find ourselves involved as required by the theory. Perhaps they are worlds in some sense, but certainly not the dynamically created universes of the multiverse theories that have captured the attention of string theorists over the last several decades.

In any event, there’s a lot for me to learn here, but I feel like I've finally gotten my arms around a very profound physics question that's been bothering me for a long time.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Finn of “The Force Awakens,” a hero for our times

This note contains mild spoilers about "The Force Awakens."]

For me, the best part of the new addition to the Star Wars series, "The Force Awakens," is its three new heroes. And, contrary to what Tina Turner might have to say on the matter, we need another hero. We almost always do.

The movie wastes no time introducing us to two of these new heroes: Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), a dashing, x-wing fighter pilot, who is the top-gun of the beleaguered Resistance, and the unlikely FN 2187, a storm trooper serving in the infantry of the evil First Order. We come to know him as Finn (John Boyega). A short while later we meet our third young hero, the beautiful and resourceful, Rey (Daisy Ridley). Rey is stuck in a dead-end job as a parts scavenger on Jakku, a planet that is little more than a junkyard for crashed and abandoned spaceships.

We don't learn that much about Poe in this installment of the series. Whatever his backstory is, it remains to be told in future episodes. Rey is easily the most prominent of the new heroes. As the movie unfolds, it is Rey who will be positioned to take up the mantle of Luke Skywalker and begin the proverbial hero's journey, one which will lead her from a solitary life as a scavenger on a desolate planet to become a citizen of the Galaxy and a leader of the Resistance in the struggle against the First Order. But it is everyman Finn who wins my vote for the kind of hero we need most right now.

I'll be the first to admit that there's no shortage of heroes on movie screens these days. Superheroes, especially, bound and abound. Endowed with special powers, either at birth or by fateful accident, they fight, often after much kvetching, to save the world, all the while battling inner demons and bickering with their super friends. You could get a movie green-lighted on less of a pitch.

Now, it is the case that both Finn and Rey possess special powers. There are hints early on that the Force is strong with both of them. And much of the suspense of the story has to do with whether and when their powers will be revealed. But having superpowers is not what defines the two of them. Instead, their heroism is rooted in character and talent. And, in Finn's case, it is firmly anchored in his sense of common decency.

When we first meet Finn in his guise as FN 2187, his face is hidden behind the mask of a storm trooper's helmet and he is kneeling to come to the aid of a fallen comrade whose bloody hand print marks him for us to follow for the rest of the scene. What follows in that scene is a massacre of disarmed villagers by Finn's stormtrooper platoon. Finn's defining act of heroism is saying "no" to participating in this atrocity.

Finn does this despite the fact that he understands that his disobedience will lead to his being cast out from the only family he has ever known. He also is aware that his refusal will mark him as a despised traitor who will be hunted down relentlessly by his former First Order comrades-in-arms. But Finn says "no" to killing the prisoners, not because he imagines himself a hero, but simply because saying "no" is the right thing to do.

Finn's act of unselfconscious heroism is reminiscent of the stories of the Europeans, many of them Dutch, who saved the lives of Jews seeking refuge during the Holocaust. It is fascinating to watch interviews with these people made long after the war. They appear sometimes genuinely puzzled by the notoriety that has come their way and seldom regard themselves heroes. Quite the contrary, they often protest the designation, saying that they were only doing what conscience demanded, insisting that their deeds were what any right-thinking person would have done under similar circumstances. If only that were the case.

This same "ordinariness" is what makes Finn's kind of heroism such a refreshing change. It doesn't originate with his being rocketed away as an infant from some faraway, doomed planet or from a bite from an errant radioactive spider. And his kind of heroism doesn't set him apart from the rest of society like, say, a misfit with a bizarre genetic mutation or an ancient Norse god unwillingly exiled to Earth.

Indeed, what makes Finn a hero is not how he transcends his humanity but how, in spite of years of inculcation by his First Order captors, he recovers it.

And it is the masterful performance by Boyega that brings Finn's everyman hero convincingly to life. His Finn is unassuming and vulnerable - a veritable ingénue, who casts the shell of storm trooper uniform aside to find himself freshly hatched into a brave, new, uncertain world - but also a person capable unalloyed courage when circumstances demand it.

So, to my delight, what we discover with Finn in "The Force Awakens" is, perhaps, the first fully human character of the Star Wars saga. (R2-D2, a droid more human in most respects than his human masters, is the long-standing contender for this title, at least in my opinion.) It is Finn’s humanity that reminds us that real heroism emerges not from super powers or royal birth, but from a compassionate regard for our fellow beings and a willingness to say "no" when the world around us would have us forsake our obligation to their welfare in favor of a life of security and predictability. He is indeed a hero for our time.