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Sun May 03, 2015 at 04:30 PM PDT

Do we all live in a giant hologram?

by DarkSyde

The large scale universe projected onto a two-dimensional boundary
There is an active field of research in cosmology and physics seeking to explain the cosmos in terms of a radical idea: we live in a universe with some of the properties of a hologram:
At first glance, there is not the slightest doubt: to us, the universe looks three dimensional. But one of the most fruitful theories of theoretical physics in the last two decades is challenging this assumption. The "holographic principle" asserts that a mathematical description of the universe actually requires one fewer dimension than it seems. What we perceive as three dimensional may just be the image of two dimensional processes on a huge cosmic horizon.
That's a mind-being principle and the math behind it is a fearsome thing, pulling together rigorous work on everything from event horizons to string theory to the quantum information paradox. It's not easy to describe some of the ramifications that emerge in general terms.

But if you drift below the fold, thanks to no small amount of help from Jennifer Ouellette, one of the best hard-science writers in the world today, we'll at least try. And we'll do that without bringing up hyper-advanced mathematics!

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Hard to believe there were times when either political party regularly distinguished itself and alternately embarrassed the entire nation when it came to science. Or that for a few brief shining years in the early days of the Cold War, the US actually stressed science and technology.

But it would be short-lived. America won the space race, Nixon swept into power, and conservatives turned to exploiting the cold civil war that had been simmering for a century on the heels of Reconstruction. With that came a fierce brand of willful ignorance worn proudly like a badge of honor by bigots and idiots alike. And not just way down south, in Dixie.

This week those forces of ignorance struck again, savagely slashing funding from NASA earmarked for Earth Science on behalf of their billionaire paymasters:

As I wrote this morning, Republicans on the House Committee for Science, Space, and Technology passed a nakedly partisan budget authorization bill for NASA that drastically and brutally slashes hundreds of millions of dollars from NASA's Earth Science Division, which studies how climate change is affecting our planet.
Don't let anyone waste your time trying to convince you both sides are "the same" when it comes to science, that it's only the issues that change. Poll after poll shows progressives and independents are better informed and more in tune with the consensus of science on virtually every major issue than conservatives. And by and large, the more conservative the person is, the more Fox News and right-wing talk radio he or she consumes, the worse the person compares, on everything.

That's not a coincidence. Conservatives have invested heavily in misinformation infrastructure for decades and science was one of their primary targets from the beginning. Since the cold war began to wind down more than 20 years ago, a handful of mostly former DoD scientists put themselves on the market, willing and eager to stamp their degrees on any zany nonsense that would pay. Over the years they've been joined by many more, and that nonsense is channeled through an impressive network of churches, radio, TV, and print media straight into the ears and eyes of conservatives who want to believe it.

We simply have nothing that compares to the carefully managed feedback loop of willful ignorance that has developed, we couldn't match it if we wanted to, and we don't want to. Knock pseudo-science when you see it, on the left or on the right, but there's no need to help out the usual suspects by exaggerating the influence of a few misinformed, stubborn people on our side of the aisle. Traditional media, wary of some vague idea of balance, already does that anyway.


Sat May 02, 2015 at 06:00 AM PDT

This week in science: stardrive?

by DarkSyde

There is great excitement in some corners of the space exploration community this week, as several NASA people opened up a discussion with engineers and others outside the agency over a mysterious, possibly radically new type of engine:  

After consistent reports of thrust measurements from EM Drive experiments in the US, UK, and China – at thrust levels several thousand times in excess of a photon rocket, and now under hard vacuum conditions – the question of where the thrust is coming from deserves serious inquiry.

Applications: The applications of such a propulsion drive are multi-fold, ranging from low Earth orbit (LEO) operations, to transit missions to the Moon, Mars, and the outer solar system, to multi-generation spaceships for interstellar travel.

Under these application considerations, the closest-to-home potential use of EM Drive technology would be for LEO space stations – such as the International Space Station.

Be hopeful, but cautious, and remember cold fusion. It's not at all clear if this thing really works, yet. Even if it pans out in the most ideal way, a lot of hurdles would have to be cleared before a souped up version could be designed.

But in theory, a drive that can accelerate and decelerate up to say, a middling 50-100 miles per second, within a few weeks, and that doesn't have to carry the fuel on board to do so, would open up our solar system in much the same way advances in wind power and navigation enabled the systematic exploration of the Earth's surface during the Age of Discovery starting about 500 years ago.  

  • Science writer Jennifer Ouellette has a flair for fearlessly tackling some of the most complex topics in physics and cosmology with superb writing and top-notch research. Here she dives into a classic form of analysis on a classic paradox in physics and a related, mind-bending idea, written for the benefit of the layperson, and one that we'll flesh out more tomorrow on Sunday Kos, called the holographic principle.
  • Health care is part science, part policy, a bunch of inside baseball from the insurance industry, and a ton of politics these days. Which is why I never miss a post by Richard Mayhew over at Balloon Juice on those topics. I almost always learn something from him.
  • NASA's Messenger Mercury spacecraft intentionally ended its life this week when it finally ran out of fuel for station keeping and plunged into that dense little planet. Craters on Mercury are named after artists and writers, even Tolkien has one! Messenger left a small, respectable crater behind, who do you think should get the honor?
  • Blue Origins rockets into the private space-race:
    Three weeks after revealing that its liquid hydrogen- and liquid oxygen-fueled rocket engine was ready to fly, Blue Origin, a startup space company owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, launched its New Shepard spaceship on its first flight into suborbital space, the company said Thursday.

    Powered by the recently completed BE-3 engine, the rocket blasted off from Blue’s privately owned test site in West Texas on Wednesday (the time was not disclosed) and soared almost to the edge of space 62 miles (100 kilometers) above the planet.

Rapidly thawing Arctic permafrost and coastal erosion on the Beaufort Sea, Arctic Ocean, near Point Lonely, AK. Photo Taken in August, 2013
Power plants and automobiles burning fossil fuels and spewing carbon-dioxide play the starring role in the unfolding saga of human-induced climate change. But a new study raises the possibility that tiny microbes gone wild in a melting Arctic emit a far more potent greenhouse gas that could tip the scales even farther:
Now, a new study, published Tuesday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, tackles the question of how rising temperatures can change the activity of microorganisms in the Arctic. The study focuses on methane production, rather than carbon dioxide — an important issue to understand because of methane’s potency.
Ice and snow reflect more sunlight that darker land and sea water. As the brighter ground cover melts revealing the darker surface, more sunlight is absorbed raising the local temperature and causing more melt. This process is called Polar Amplification and researchers worry it has already begun a runaway positive feedback loop in the Arctic. Now consider dormant, methane-producing microbes in the frozen permafrost suddenly liberated from their icy prison, or nearby opportunistic ones ready and able to chow down on the remains of plants and animals that were locked up in the icy matrix.

That's potentially a big deal. Permafrost makes up a surprisingly large amount of Earth's land area. Methane is many, many times better at trapping heat than other GHGs like CO2. And, while its half life is relatively short in the atmosphere, it can break down into more greenhouse gasses. If these microbes survive and bloom in large quantities in the now thawed permafrost, they would accelerate the warming process, both locally and globally.


Sun Apr 26, 2015 at 07:30 AM PDT

A drone too far?

by DarkSyde

As a youngster, I built and flew model aircraft, similar in principle to the one above, but we didn't call them drones. We called them radio-controlled airplanes and if you have a son or daughter with a flair for building things and an interest in flight, I cannot recommend this hobby enough. RC aircraft aren't just a blast to build and fly, they're a superb, safe way for anyone of any age to soak up the engineering principles behind the art of flight without the significant expense of owning a real aircraft.

Thanks to advances in electronics and engines, RC modeling has never been cheaper or more diverse. Today, hobbyists can choose between sleek, scale model SR-71 reconnaissance jets with ducted fan engines or RC gliders that can ride thermals for hours just like the real thing. With a little research you can find them ready to fly, right out of the box, for less than a hundred bucks.

Unmanned aircraft have become ubiquitous; they now hover with cameras over sporting events, collect data for businesses, and even guard people and property. It seems like everyone, from Google to Amazon, is exploring further commercial applications. Needless to say there are more sinister uses ... Jump below the fold for a review of those lethal versions and look at a few of the disturbing questions they raise.

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If creationism is the zombie lie behind all biology and geology, the Governor's Mansion in Louisiana might stand in for the castle ruins where the burnt and battered monster is reanimated and sent off to terrorize the countryside again. There's certainly no shortage of creeps and crackpots lurking in the political shadows to cast lesser characters in the horror-genre analogy. But when it comes to one specific zombie lie about evolution, ladies and gentlemen, I believe we have found our Igor and Wormtail rolled into one!

Standing at the witness table, [Darrell] White [a retired millitary judge and member of the Creation Museum] held a cane in" one hand and with the other was shaking a shirt that read, “natural selection.” According to White, it was the same as the shirt that Columbine murderer Dylan Klebold had worn (Eric Harris, not Klebold, actually wore the shirt), and teaching evolution would lead to a “Columbine-style shooting” in the schools of Baton Rouge.

White, a lifetime member of the Creation Museum in Kentucky, has spent years trying to connect evolution to the Columbine massacre. In a 2006 article for the creationist site Answers in Genesis, he proclaimed that Charles Darwin should be “dubbed the patron saint of school violence.”


Sat Apr 25, 2015 at 06:00 AM PDT

This week in science: she's a witch!

by DarkSyde

Will the real Mike Rogers (R-AL) please stand up? Because there's a fire and brimstone Mike Rogers who hates him some commie leader and likes to wax elegantly on a certain president who purportedly cowers most cowardly before Putin's manliness:

"[Putin] breaks treaties, he invades countries and then stations his nuclear forces on their soil, and he cozies up to terrorist regimes ... What's next? Who's next? Concessions on missile defense and arms control only emboldened the former KGB officer."
“The world is more dangerous than ever, and under the President’s lead-from-behind policy, [Putin's] ballistic missile and nuclear weapons technology is spreading.  
Holy ICBMs, Mike! How can we stop our feebleminded president from appeasing Putin's mad quest for power, leverage and advanced missile technology?
There is a markup session tomorrow at 12:00 pm EDT with the House Armed Services Committee's Subcommittee on Strategic Forces Markup. It certainly looks like Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL) is trying to slip in language that would allow more Russian-built RD-180 engines to be purchased using tax dollars at the same time when Rogers is (otherwise) actively promoting policies that would punish the exact same sector of Russia's economy for actions in Ukraine and Iran, treaty violations, and other bad behavior.
I've seen better' "logic" exercised by a bunch of Monty Python characters and an actress wearing a carrot for a nose.
  • You can actually now take a course on dealing with climate change deniers.
  • GMO humans? Looks like China went there.
  • NASA to undertake comprehensive search of for life on other worlds.
  • Tomorrow on Sunday Kos, I'll be reviewing the basics of drones and drone warfare. This was in the works before the tragic news of friendly unmanned fire broke on Thursday. Come prepared. And here's a snippet from a related project we're working on for next month:
    After surviving over 200 missions flying over hostile territory and more close calls than he can remember, for the first time, Major Tommy Egan is about to become a casualty of war. Ironically, in a war he’s fighting from half a world away while in absolutely no danger.
  • The pocket shark is adorable!
  • Via the Bad Astronomer (where vaccines still don't cause autism): the cloud isn't expanding! What you are seeing by Hubble time lapse from 2002 to 2006 is a pulse of light move through and light up the invisible outer sections as it goes. This is about as close to literally seeing the speed of light over interstellar distances as it gets:


So close! SpaceX almost landed a Falcon 9 lower stage vertically on an autonomous barge and they'll probably succeed soon

If it was written into a Cold War movie plot 40 years ago no one would buy it: for now, our ground to orbit launch capability is dependent in part on the good graces of former KGB megalomaniac Vladimir Putin and his shadowy Russian cronies. This includes both civilian and DoD projects:
For a start, we depend on the Atlas V rocket, which carries many of our most important satellites and is powered by the Russian-made RD-180 rocket engine. The fact that we rely on Russia, currently under sanctions for invading a sovereign nation, should reinforce the need for a change in our current course. [...]

The Ukraine crisis should have served as a wake-up call, highlighting the danger of dependence on Russia to launch national security satellites into space. And the United States should play no part in supporting the defense industry of a country that continues to abrogate the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its neighbors. Simply put, it is bad policy to rely on others for critical national security requirements, and worse policy when this reliance supports countries taking action in direct contradiction to U.S. national security interests.

There are companies like SpaceX, United Launch Alliance and others, that on are on track to resolve the dependence issue with all US-built rockets. But getting those vehicles cleared can be a tedious, at times plodding process demanding cooperation between government agencies -- with a legendary revolving door to the firms they work with -- and corporations that otherwise directly compete with one another in the high-stakes government contracting game.

Congress has it within their power to facilitate this transition. And while small bipartisan steps have been taken in that regard, our domestic launch capacity really needs more giant leaps to quickly clear the remaining hurdles.


Sun Apr 19, 2015 at 04:30 PM PDT

Beyond the Hubble

by DarkSyde

The Cat's Eye Nebula as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope in the constellation Draco. Click to embiggen
Ask anyone to name a telescope and odds are one answer will come up every time: Hubble. Not as many know it was named after Edwin Hubble, the father of modern cosmology, who found the universe wasn't just far larger than we dared imagine, its very fabric was expanding in all directions at warp speeds every second of every day. Hubble the man expanded our appreciation of the universe and our place in it much the same way Hubble the telescope has blown our minds with thousands of images since.

For 25 years the Hubble Space Telescope has graced our textbooks and computer monitors with a seemingly endless procession of jaw-dropping beauty hidden far away, in tiny spaces—from our perspective. It stares at a hunk of sky the size of a dust grain once thought totally empty and finds hundreds of primeval galaxies, each an island universe, each one made of billions of stars. It glances briefly at a distant supernova remnant and we fall into infinitely recursive filaments and sheets of star-stuff. You could spend hours and hours scrolling through Hubble space porn and not see the half of it. Not a bad rebound for an instrument that first went up half-blind, needing corrective glasses.

Of course like all man-made devices, Hubble's days were always numbered. It is nearing the end of its operational life. There is a successor slated for launch as early as 2018. It's big, it's bad, it's even a little risky. But boy howdy, if it works as designed, we will all be the richer. Come on down below the fold and meet the James Webb Space Telescope.

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Who could have possibly predicted that a sharp increase in the number of Americans with comprehensive health insurance would result in more paying customers for the medical industry? Outside of anyone in Congress with an "R" after their name and the frothing-mad reality-challenged voter base that inflicted them on the rest of the nation, all it takes to make that simple prediction is the ability to count and do basic arithmetic:
Spending on prescription medicines by U.S. patients may rise 41 percent to as much as $480 billion by 2018, according to a new study from researcher IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics. The biggest drivers in the rise in spending are the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, an aging American population, and higher drug prices, the report said.

Medicaid prescriptions jumped 25.4 percent in states that expanded Medicaid coverage, compared with 2.8 percent in the states that didn't expand coverage. With the Affordable Care Act going into effect in 2014, that led to a 13 percent jump in spending last year, the highest level since 2001, the report found.

If you're employed or invested in the medical industry, the best news is there's mountains of mo' money waiting unclaimed on the table for companies and their lobbyists who successfully expands the ACA to its full potential in every state. Your only real obstacles are Republicans at the state and federal level who have sworn an oath to keep it out of your hands using the three "L's" strategy: legislation, lawsuits, and lies.

Sat Apr 18, 2015 at 06:00 AM PDT

This week in science: pinko-world

by DarkSyde

Dwarf planet planet Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, acquire a pinkish hue as seen by New Horizons' color camera recently. Click image for more on mission and timeline
Do you think scientists go into science for the money? Have you often wondered if NASA faked the moon landings and is now running a global conspiracy to trick people into believing global warming? Are you or someone you know willfully ignorant of the difference between day-to-day weather and longer term weather trends?

If the answer is yes to any of these questions, you may be suffering from Climate Change Denial Disorder. CCDD is a fast-moving condition that affects the brain's neurons. It starts with the critical thinking cortex and spreads rapidly, quickly rendering its victim unable to comprehend basic text or read the numbers of a simple thermometer. It is highly infectious with insidious results: even as it reduces patients to a gibbering ditto-head, the disease makes them feel smarter and more confident than ever. To learn if you or someone you love may be in the early stages of CCDD, watch this short video.

  • Suspended animation a reality soon?
  • Tomorrow on Sunday Kos I'll be introducing the planned successor to the Hubble Space telescope. We hope to see you there!
  • Once upon a time, I was a proud night owl and late riser: Victory is mine!
  • SpaceX successfully launched a resupply module to the ISS this week and came close, so close, to landing the lower stage safely on an autonomous floating barge for reuse on future missions. See video here.
  • Anatomically modern humans all share a distinctive feature not found in our closest relatives: the pointy chin.
  • As long as all eyes are on Iowa:
    Iowa's Science Standards Review Team, a panel of 16 science experts and educators, made the decision during its meeting Tuesday at the Science Center of Iowa. The review team plans to recommend to the Board of Education that the state adopt the Next Generation Science Standards with only minor alterations, including none to the standards themselves, which include benchmarks dealing with climate change and evolution.

Methane is a gas often associated with swamps in the southeast or West Texas oil deposits. But last year scientists found the largest concentration in the US hanging quietly above in an unexpected place. Now, researchers are gearing up to get to the bottom of the Four Corners plume:
“With all the ground-based and airborne resources that the different groups are bringing to the region, we have the unique chance to unequivocally solve the Four Corners mystery,” Christian Frankenberg, a scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said, in a statement.

As part of the experiment, scientists will fly two Twin Otter aircraft over the Four Corners area, where the borders of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah meet. These planes will carry two instruments -- the Next-Generation Airborne Visible/Infrared Imaging Spectrometer (AVIRISng), which can be used to map methane in great detail in the entire region, and the Hyperspectral Thermal Emission Spectrometer (HyTES), which can carry out highly sensitive measurements.

Methane is a greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon-dioxide. There's enough of it above the area to equal the amount of greenhouse gas emissions from three million averaged sized cars. And yet, just ten or twenty years ago there was no indication of a large plume in the region.

It's certainly possible it went unnoticed until now. But a lot has changed in the last two decades. The middle and high western desert is now home to one of the larger coal mining operations in the world and a number of natural gas fracking sites have come online all around the area as well. If methane is leaking en mass from those kinds of places, it could mean a new, unwelcome factor contributing to climate change.

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