The Cosmic Ballet Goes On

•December 20, 2010 • Leave a Comment

A once-in-several-lifetime event is happening tonight- The full moon will pass into the shadow of the earth on the shortest day of the year, resulting in a total lunar eclipse  that will be visible to all of North America. The last time this particular arrangement occurred was 456 years ago, so tonight is a night to party like it’s 1554! The action will start around 11:30 tonight (mountain standard time), with the glorious red totality occurring by 1:30 AM.

For the curious, there is lots of cool stuff that’s associated with both eclipses  and solstices. The planets all rotate on the same plane, because they all formed from the same rotating disc of baby planet stuff. The moon came later, resulting from the collision of a Mars sized planetoid bashing into the earth, so the orbit of the moon isn’t on the same plane as the ecliptic.

Solstice timesThe solstice is when the sun is at it’s lowest in the sky, which occurs because our planet rotates at a tilt with respect to the ecliptic plane. In addition to this tilty business, the shape of the earth’s path around the sun is slightly oval, so on December 21st, the earth is actually closer to the sun around this time of the year, where it is about 5 million kilometers closer than at the peak of summer. It’s counterintuitive that we’re closer to the sun when it’s so damn cold in the northern hemisphere, but it just heightens the importance of the axial tilt in determining our seasons.



The Solstice is also the date of another cosmic alignment- between the earth, sun and the centre of the milky way. This is a pure coincidence, although those disingenuous conspiracy mongers behind the 2012 fallacy, along with any astrologers, will claim that this has ‘special significance’. For the record, the galactic alignment happens every year without anything particularly interesting happening, so those guys are obviously full of shit. Still, this year will have the sun, earth, moon and galactic center in a straight line, which is pretty cool, but meaningless.

As for why the moon will be red during totality, this is because the suns light diffracts through the atmosphere- think the redness in sunsets and sunrise. If you were standing on the moon during the eclipse, you would be seeing every sunrise and sunset on the entire planet simultaneously , which is also awesome.

Total Eclipse of the SunEvents like the eclipse today always remind me of the insanely awesomeness of reality. We’re little specks on a bigger speck, hurtling at thousands of kilometers a second endlessly around a thermonuclear furnace that sustains all life, which itself is one of hundreds of billions of similar stars in one mind-boggingly massive  galaxy, which is just one of countless other galaxies. We are made from the dust of exploded stars, but uniquely (as far as we know), these particular arrangements of stardust can look up at the endless cosmic dance and understand. Cultures all about the world have celebrated both the eclipse and the solstice in their own way for millennia, creating traditions and stories that define us. I find this resonance of astronomical events with the fabric of human experience to be deeply satisfying, which is why I’ll be watching the eclipse and celebrating the connection between myself, humanity, and the cosmos that we all share.


F***ing Strings, How Do They Work?

•December 19, 2010 • Leave a Comment

In the last 100 years, our understanding of the universe has increased more than at any previous point in human history. Einstein gave us relativity, which describes the nature of the universe at its largest scales. He described precisely the way in which the universe warps and bends at high speeds or around lots of stuff, by understanding that time itself is another dimension of reality (the 4th). Around the same time, physicists developed quantum mechanics: the  characterization of the bizarre and ‘swervy’ behavior of the universe at the atomic level. Both of these theories have passed the most stringent experimental tests ever devised. However, there is a glaring problem staring physicists in the face: quantum mechanics and relativity are mutually incompatible.

The quest for a ‘unified theory’ has been taken up by the best and the brightest, including Einstein, who spend the last 20 years of his life unsuccessfully attempting to reconcile the two theories. The seeds of a new theory were planted by following Einstein’s example of rethinking the nature of reality. Just as Einstein came to understand gravity by mathematically including the 4th dimension, Kazula and Klein realized that they could understand gravity AND electromagnetism by modifying Einstein’s equations to include a 5th dimension. Unfortunately, the Kazula-Klein theory ultimately proved unsuccessful, but it was this radical notion of adding extra spatial dimensions beyond the familiar three dimensions (plus the fourth dimension of time) that allows us to understand a modern day contender for the unified theory: String theory.

The basic idea behind string theory is straightforward: the most fundamental thing in the universe is a string. These strings are so small that you could fit a billion billion strings into the width of one atom. The strings can be open or closed loops, but the important thing to know is that they vibrate, just like a guitar string. The specific ‘notes’ at which the string is vibrating correspond to more familiar bits: quarks, electrons, and the whole menagerie of the subatomic world. If the theory is correct, than that means that everything that exists is the product of the harmony of universal strings.

This idyllic view is a bit oversimplified though, because the math tells us that we have to do the same thing that Einstein did for everything to make sense. We have to add more dimensions. The bad news is that if string theory is correct, than our universe actually has 10 dimensions, not 3. To understand this idea, picture a cube. The corner of the cube has 3 lines (length, width and height) that make up the corner. A 10 dimensional universe would have 10 lines, all perpendicular to each other,  making up the same corner! So, you might ask, where the hell are these 7 extra dimensions? String theory gets around this by making the other 7 dimensions really, really small (around the same size as the strings themselves) and curls them up in fiendishly complicated ways. You can picture these extra dimensions by imagining an ant walking on a cable. From far away, the cable looks like a line, and the ant can only go forward or backwards on the line. But if you ‘zoom in’ really close, you can see the cable has a thickness, so the ant can walk ‘around’ the cable without going forward or back. The extra 7 dimensions of string theory are so small and so curled up that we don’t even notice they are there!

There is more bad news: the specific way that those extra dimensions are curled up affects how the strings vibrate (and therefore the properties of the entire universe), but our mathematical understanding doesn’t tell us which exact configuration our universe has. In fact, string theory has five different kinds of over 10^500 possible solutions to this particular problem, with no way for us to tell which one uniquely describes our own universe. Unfortunately, due to the smallness of the strings and extra dimensions, there isn’t really any way we could possibly experimentally investigate them. For experimental physicists, this effectively means there is no way to directly investigate string theory, either to confirm or reject it.

As a scientific theory, it may not ever gain the experimental successes of quantum theory or relativity. Critics of string theory rightly point out that this lack of experimental verification makes string theory more of a mathematical construct than a proper scientific theory. These critics fear that the current research emphasis on string theory is excluding development of other possible unified theories. But currently, string theory is the best candidate for a theory of everything. Stephen Hawking has even used the theory to demonstrate that the universe could be essentially self-caused, answering long outstanding questions like “why are we here” with the elegant vibrations of untold strings drifting through the hidden dimensions of our wonderful and strange universe.

The Shuttle in Retrospect

•December 19, 2010 • Leave a Comment

It’s pre-dawn, southern Florida. Distant spotlights reflect off a white craft over the water, and at once, the craft is lost in a supernatural light. Brighter than the sun, the ship silently rises up, faster and faster into the sunrise. A half minute later, you are pummeled with a wall of sound, louder than anything you’ve ever heard, deafening as the Space Shuttle shrinks to a tiny point atop a titanic column of smoke.

The drama that accompanies a shuttle launch will soon be a thing of the past, as NASA will be retiring the program soon after the next mission (STS-133). The shuttles have been in service since 1981, and have greatly contributed to our modern understanding of the universe. Discovery brought the Hubble Telescope to orbit, which has given us indescribable beauty and wonder as it allowed us to peer farther into the cosmos than we’ve ever been able to look before. The Chandra X-ray observatory, launched from Columbia, discovered  evidence for black holes among many other accomplishments. Many other satellites were launched that gave us unprecedented data about the cosmos and our own planet, including the fact that we were putting a hole in the ozone that we eventually stopped. Microgravity experiments performed aboard the shuttle eventually led to the development of the International Space Station, a symbol of peaceful international cooperation in an increasingly fractured world.

The history of the shuttle is also marred by tragic failures. Out of the five shuttles built to fly in space, only three remain intact today, as two of the 134 missions launched  were destroyed in flight. The first, Challenger, exploded seconds after launch, taking 6 astronauts and a teacher with it, due to an inadequate devotion to safety and a lax  bureaucratic climate.The second failure, Columbia, was in 2003, and it’s failure was due to the shuttle deteriorating systems combined with inadequate safety measures. These 23 year old systems were critical in resisting the extreme temperatures found during re-entry into our atmosphere, but they were compromised during launch because of some debris that fell onto the wings during launch. Seven astronauts, whose names are now commemorated on martian hills, lost their lives during this failure.
The eventual cost of the shuttle also proved to be much more expensive than its designers had ever anticipated. The shuttle program began in the aftermath of the Apollo program, to create a reusable spacecraft to shuttle people and cargo reliably to low-earth-orbit (LEO). The original shuttle program called for up to 55 launches a year, but complexity and unanticipated needs (such as the need to inspect 35,000 individual heat-resisting tiles after every landing) made that design a dream. The most complicated machine ever built would prove to be more challenging than they anticipated.The reality was a final cost of about 500 million dollars per launch, with a total failure rate of 2%. The final ability to haul cargo to LEO was also much less than it had been just a decade earlier, as NASA retired the monstrous Saturn-5 rockets that brought man to the moon.
At the end of the last flight, NASA will lose it’s capacity to shuttle people into space, relying instead on the Russian Soyuz vehicles to service the human needs of the ISS.

However, this vacuum of governmental involvement in manned space travel could be the best thing possible for the space industry, as private companies are now slated to fill in the gaps that NASA has left with the retiring shuttle. Some of the 6 billion dollars NASA has seeded into this private industry with their latest budget will go to projects like SpaceShip One, the Virgin Galactic owned craft that will soon be flinging people into LEO over the skies of New Mexico. Others, such as the Falcon 9 rocket owned by SpaceX, are slated to ferry cargo to orbit at a fraction of the cost of the shuttle with similar payloads. For reference, the cost to get a pound of anything to orbit on the shuttle was about $10,000, whereas the Falcon 9 will get the same amount into orbit for $500.
With the burden of cargo lifting transferred to the private sector, NASA will be free to do what it does best: Science. Instead of wasting half their budget on obsolete and dangerous technology, they can use their limited budget to better explore our universe, while opening up space travel to the rest of us.

Personal space travel is today is where personal air travel was a century ago, and it can only improve with the room the retired shuttle will leave us. As for the Space Shuttle, her successes and failures will be forever remembered as part of our first, tenous steps into the cosmic playground.

This was a post originally written for my school newspaper, the McGill Daily

Ding-Dong, DADT’s Dead

•December 19, 2010 • Leave a Comment

HOORAY! Chalk another one up for human rights in the world. After 17 ridiculous years, and after a theatrical performance from republican bigots like Jon ‘get off my lawn’ McCain so long it lasted for years, gay people can finally openly serve in the military. Never mind you were among the last NATO nations to drop the discrimination (it was you and that bastion of progressiveness, Turkey left in that race). Canada’s been open to teh gay dying for freedom since 1992, so hey, 18 years later isn’t that bad.

I’m not holding my breath for any other improvements in American social policy (universal health care, immigration reform, education and so forth), but congratulations all the same.

On Wiki-leaks

•December 19, 2010 • Leave a Comment

The latest wikileaks reveal has left much of our media in a bind; by releasing these secret documents, wikileaks has replaced the media as the source for truth, even an ugly truth. It wasn’t so long ago that this type of whistleblowing was regarded as ‘keeping them honest’, but the reaction to these releases has been absurd. I can’t imagine that other notable whistleblowers would be threatened with assassination, but here we are. Now Julian Assanage is certainly a misogynistic egomaniac who may have raped two women, and I am not in any way defending that man. However, the organization that he founded  has proven very capable at doing exactly what it was set out to do.

The content of the latest leaks, which were American diplomatic cables sent over many years, have mostly been things that everyone already knew. The frankness of the diplomats may surprise those of us more used to the boring consensus-building style of diplomacy, but having honest opinions (even if they make the parties in question look like insecure babies) is integral to creating policy that reflects reality. It’s the dirty underside that has also been brought to light by these leaks that represents the true importance of the leaks.

The taxpayers deserve to know that those countless millions of aid dollars pouring into Afganistan is leaving at the airport. Just yesterday, another Canadian soldier died in Afganistan, and the fact that NATO governments know that this death was in vain while they publicly posture otherwise is sickening. The wikileaks cables reveal more damning evidence that the Vatican obstructed investigation into child-sex abusers while publicly proclaiming they were fighting that very scourge. They also revealed that the US government enabled a government contractor to sell little boys into sexual slavery to Afganistan government officials. All these egregious abuses of justice  by the government would remain shrouded in secret, were it not for Wikileaks.

Despite standing up for the little guy, the world governments have been swift to act- cutting off wikileaks funding and making their continued existence as difficult as possible. Their claim that lives are endangered by these leaks is spurious at best, considering that the content of the leaks was poured over by four independent newspapers and that information was voluntarily redacted. Admittedly, some leaks detailing critical infrastructure to US security may look to be a terrorist wish list, but the location and significance of those sites was already available to anyone with an internet connection, though not with the seal of approval from the US government.

Free information is the basis of an informed society, which is why watchdogs like wikileaks are integral. The overreaction to this radically free information is telling- governments wish to commit their own legal abuses without fear of reprisal, masking their abuses under a label of “Top Secret”. Ideally, we would live in a system that has none of those abuses, but as the leaks show, we haven’t made it there yet. Until then, we need a wikileaks to tell us what they don’t want you to know.

Back from the Dead

•December 11, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Dear blog, It’s certainly been a while since we’ve last tangoed, isn’t it? Perhaps my four loyal readers are interested in an account of where exactly I’ve been the past month or so. So, here is my firsthand account of my month of hell.

I’m a Civil Engineering student, and part of the civil engineering degree is a course known simply as the design project. Two words, four credits, but within those two words is the biggest academic challenge that you face as an engineering student. Myself, along with three other teammates, are assigned a real world engineering problem that we have to solve, and we’re given a semester to do it.

There are various specializations, based on what you’ve studied in the four years leading up to it. I happen to love concrete (seriously, in fact, I’m going to graduate school to further my education), so I selected the structural design project. My group was given an 8 story, reinforced concrete hospital to be fully designed and detailed, right from the foundations to the very tip of the roof, and every millimeter in between.

To say that this was lots of work was a bit of an understatement. I won’t bore anyone with the gritty details of structural analysis, but accounting for everything that is going to be used in a building is surprisingly complicated. I was personally in charge of the LEED design, which is the international standard for sustainable buildings. In the course of the semester, I did research on really cutting edge building systems, things like the Sunlight Direct system, which actually uses fibre optic cables to transfer captured sunlight directly into the building, so you get sunshine inside even without any windows in the room.

I was also in charge of the concrete design. Concrete, for those not in the know, produces about a ton of CO2 for every ton of cement produced, which really adds up when you are talking about thousands of tons of concrete for your average building. I specified concrete that would decrease this sad reality by about 20-25%, while diverting thousands of tons of industrial garbage from the landfill in the process.

The really big thing that I got out of the design project was a newfound appreciation for the hidden details in structures. Perhaps it is just me speaking from the experience of design, but I look at a building now and I see the columns and beams bending, twisting and stretching under the giant forces they are subjected to. The way we construct buildings is quite elegant, minimizing the stuff we need while maximizing the utility, but underneath that elegance is an exhausting and rigorous process for ensuring that everything, from the largest foundation to the tiniest bolt. Everything, and I really do mean everything, is governed by the concrete design handbook, which is this brief little document:

Design project was a lot of work, a hell of a lot of work, which is why I was in the design lab for about 12 hours a day all through November. BUT WE FINISHED IT! The summary report was about 100 pages, and all of our detailed design calculations took up an additional 350 pages at least. But the documents we produced could have been used to actually build a building, which is why I got involved with this field in the first place. We were there at every step of the way, and the satisfaction I feel now that it is over and done with is really like nothing else.

So blog, sorry I was gone, you were not forgotten.

Carl Sagan Day

•November 6, 2010 • 1 Comment

Today would have been the 78th birthday of Carl Sagan, astronomer and populizer of science, and one of my greatest heroes. Mr Sagan worked on the viking and voyager spacecraft from NASA, and was instrumental in launching the golden record aboard Voyager 2 that represents our first ‘snail mail’ message to the cosmos. His role in bringing science to the masses was most obvious in his long-running TV series Cosmos, which tackled astronomy and critical thinking in society, often repeating his iconic phrase ‘billions and billions’.

What inspires me most about Carl was his view of humanity, which was incredibly optimistic and inclusive. Having worked on the Voyager program, it was Carl who asked them to turn the camera around to take a photo of earth, to offer us some perspective. The result is the pale blue dot, which I maintain is the most powerful photographs ever taken in history. I’ll give Carl the honor of fully explaining the significance of the pale blue dot in his inimitable style.


From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Look again at that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Amen, Carl, amen. I hope, someday, the heady vision Carl had of humanity will come to pass, because when that day comes, the inhabitants of the pale blue dot will be united under a banner of universal responsibility to take care of ourselves and our cradle of life.