Archive for the ‘News’ Category

Allen Telescope Array

Allen Telescope Array

The Search for Extraterrestrial (meaning outside Earth) Intelligence (SETI) has been going on for 50 years and as you can probably guess, we have not found any aliens yet. Otherwise, we would have stopped looking. 🙂

It STARTED with an astronomer named Frank Drake. He thought, quite reasonably, that since we were using radio waves to communicate here on Earth, beings on OTHER planets around other stars might be doing the same thing. The thing about radio wave transmitters, especially the kinds used by broadcasting stations, is that they transmit radio waves in all directions, including into out space. And if there were anybody out there with a receiver, they could easily pick up those transmissions.

If we can do it, why couldn’t another, sufficiently ADVANCED civilization on another planet do the same? And so, SETI astronomers have been using radio telescopes to look for signals from other civilizations.

Where are they?

There are many reasons why we have not yet detected any aliens. They may not have developed the technology to use radio transmissions, or they may have developed other means of communication like lasers. There is a branch of SETI that looks for laser signals from aliens but this is a very difficult search. As you are probably aware a laser is a concentrated light beam. In order to detect it, the laser has to be pointed right at us.

Is it possible that we have not detected anything because there is nothing to detect? Yes, it is possible but highly improbable. As one character from one of my favorite movies of all time put it, “I’ll tell you one thing about the universe, though. The universe is a pretty BIG place. It’s bigger than anything anyone has ever dreamed of before. So if it’s just us… seems like an awful waste of space. Right?”

Will we ever find life outside our solar system?

I believe we will FIND life on planets outside our solar system before the next 50 years of SETI are up. It may not be intelligent life that SETI looks for but it will be life, most likely plant life. As I have posted before, we are looking for other Earth-like planets. Once we find a few, we can start studying them with better telescopes to find the composition, or makeup, of their atmosphere. If we detect oxygen in the planets’ atmosphere, we will know that there are at least plant-based life on those planets. And where there are plants, there are critters to munch on them. 🙂

You can help look for ET.

Due to advances in radio telescope technology, SETI astronomers are flooded with data they have not yet analyzed because they do not have the computing resources to do so. So, just like Galaxy Zoo, scientists are recruiting the help of people just like to you to help them sort through the data and see if we have received signals from outside Earth. The project, called SETI@Home allows anyone with a computer and an internet connection to download data from telescopes like the Allen Telescope Array pictured above and analyze it to see if CONTACT has been made. SETI is not just for professionals anymore; YOU could be the one who discovers ET!

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This is the QUESTION you may be asking yourself after you heard the news. The next generation of spacecrafts being built to take astronauts into space, to the moon and BEYOND, otherwise known as the Constellation Program has been canceled.

Traveling into space.

Traveling into space. Credit: NASA


When I first heard the possibility of this happening, I was disappointed and saddened. As a young boy, I had dreamed of becoming an astronaut one day. I am sure that is still the case with many young boys and GIRLS who are in school today but hope to go into SPACE someday. What does this bit of news mean to them and YOU, if you are a young girl or boy?

What the news media is not reporting as widely is the fact that NASA has been issued a new directive by President Obama to work more closely with the private sector, companies like Virgin Galactic, SpaceX and others to take astronauts into space. This means there will be MORE spots for astronauts on spaceships than exist today.

If you DREAM of someday going into space, do not give up that dream. Your chances of becoming an astronaut just went up. Of course, you will still need a good education to secure your place on a spaceship.

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Kodu programming interface.

Kodu programming interface.


A new week, a new TWIST.

Do you Kodu?

I have talked about the joys of graphical programming before. This week there is a NEW entry in easy and fun to use graphical programming language designed to get kids into programming. Microsoft has release the technical preview download for KODU, which “a visual programming language made specifically for creating GAMES. It is designed to be accessible for children and enjoyable for anyone.” While this has been available for the Xbox 360 for sometime, now anyone with a decent PC can jump in and start making games EASILY. Kodu’s website has all that you will need to get started and the program comes with samples of what can be accomplished with it. The cool thing is you can edit those samples and add your own flavor to them. If you make a game that you wanna show-off, feel free to post a link to it in the comments.

Quantum computer makes quantum leap.

In science, quantum is the SMALLEST piece of an object. Therefore, it is weird to me when people say that they have made a “quantum leap” to indicate a giant progress.

Anyhoo, things at the quantum level do not behave like everyday objects. Strange things can and do happen. One STRANGE thing is an object can be in two states at the same. It would be like you being asleep and awake at the same time. Scientists have been for a long time trying to use this strange behavior to build POWERFUL computers. The basic idea is what with a quantum computer it would be possible to try out all the solutions to a problem at once and extract the correct answer instantaneously. You can easily imagine how hard that is. For example, consider a simple math problem, which only has one answer. Well, there are an INFINITY of numbers to pick from, how do you create something that can hold an infinity of anything?

But, just because something may seem hard does not mean we should not try. After all, that is what makes science fun!

It was reported this week, that scientists have built a quantum computer to model the hydrogen atom. Hydrogen is the simplest of the elements consisting only of one proton and one electron so it was a great way to demonstrate the computer since it can be easily checked against other methods. The question is, once they can build a quantum computer that can solve ANY mathematical problem, will we still have do to homework? 🙂

Resources

How quantum computers work.
A tale of two qubits: how quantum computers work – A more technical look at how quantum computers work.

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TWIST

Twist, twist.

I have decided to try to write one post a week summarizing some of the science and technology news of the week (well, it could be older news that I am just discovering :)) that I think are EXCITING. I will not go into details of each of the topics but try to give a brief non-technical description and should you choose to investigate it further, I will provide appropriate links. I am calling is TWIST. Any guesses what it stands for? 🙂

Anyway, here is the first TWIST.

Planet hunter’s first catch.

Kepler, the planet hunting satellite has FOUND 5 planets in the first 6 weeks it has been searching for them. Kepler looks for planets that might lie in between Kepler and another star by measuring the dip in the amount of light coming from that star as the planet goes around it. These planets are not Earth-like (these will take longer to detect), which is what Kepler is primarily looking for but it is a good thing anyway since it shows that Kepler is WORKING as expected. News article.

3D or not 3D?

CES, or the Consumer Electronics Show, takes place very first week of January where technology companies bring out their LATEST and GREATEST gadgets along with cool technologies that will be available in stores soon. This year was no different. One of the coolest emerging technologies is 3D televisions. Yes, I know that 3D has been around for a while but it hasn’t quite taken off. This year it will be different. The technology has improved a lot and some TVs don’t even require you to wear those annoying glasses. While a 3D TV may not exist in every home, this is the year when every TV store will start carrying TVs that allow you to watch movies and play games in TRUE 3D. How 3-D TV Works.

You CAN touch this!

This is also the year of the TOUCH computer. No longer will you have to drag your mouse around and enter text using a keyboard. Touch enabled computers allow you to USE your finger(s) to open, close programs, draw pictures and do anything that you used to do with a mouse. You can also write directly on a touch computer as if you were writing on a piece of paper. What’s great is that your input is AUTOMATICALLY converted to text as if it were typed in. This technology has existed for a while but computer screens that could accept touch input were very expensive. Not any more. Some of these computers will just be a screen with no keyboard or mouse, although you could attach them if you wanted to. But why? Here is a good example of what a touch PC would be capable of: Microsoft Courier. Too bad this product was not actually announced so we don’t if it will ever be available for sale.

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Well, Earth-like planets to be precise. What does that mean, you ask? You see, Earth is a very SPECIAL planet. Special in the sense that it is the only planet that we (currently) know of that can support life.

How does Earth support life?

For starters, Earth is right DISTANCE from our Sun, in what some call the Goldilocks Zone (also known as the habitable zone). It is the region where water can exist in a liquid form on the surface of a planet. Too much closer and the heat from the sun would boil away all the water. Too far, and there isn’t enough heat causing any water on the planet to freeze.

Earth is also a TERRESTRIAL planet, meaning that part of the surface is solid, i.e. made up of rocks and dirt. The Earth is also large enough to have a GRAVITY that can have an atmosphere, you know, the air we breathe. Without enough mass, the gravity would be too low to prevent the air from escaping out into space. You can read more about this in my book. 😉

Believe it or not, those are the pretty much all the things that are needed for a planet to support life. What about OXYGEN, you ask? Oxygen that we breathe is created by plants, which are a form of life. You would think, with these meager requirements, there are probably HUNDREDS, if not thousands, of planets that can support life.

The thing is, detecting other Earth-like planets is not an easy thing to do. Stars are really far away, and planet that may exist around those stars tend to be very TINY compared to the star they orbit. Our own Sun contains more that 99% of all the mass in our solar system. And our, habitable Earth is quite small compared to giants like Jupiter and Saturn.

Kepler Satellite

Kepler Satellite

Kepler, the planet hunter.

As you can imagine, looking for other Earth-like planets is not an easy task. However, a space mission launched in March of 2009 aims to do just that. Kepler, named after the astronomer, Johannes Kepler carries very POWERFUL cameras to catch a planet transiting its parent star. A transit is when the planet that we are looking is in between us and its parent star as the planet goes around the star. When the planet is between us and its star, the brightness of that star as seen by us is lower than when the planet is behind star. The animation below explains it better than I can write it.

Look at the sky on a clear night. What is the largest star you see? Imagine looking for a planet in front of that star. A tiny Earth-like planet around a star that already looks only like a dot from where we are. That is what Kepler is trying to do. At a lecture given by a Kepler mission scientist that I attended, she said that they expected to find about a 100 Earth-like planets in the tiny patch of the sky it will look at. Whether those planets will have ALIENS will be another matter.

Resources

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The Internet has opened up a whole new world to public participation in science projects both big and small. These were usually restricted to the in-crowd but are now available to anyone with a computer. The level of participation can be very active, as in the case of GalaxyZoo.org (more on this later), or very passive like in Folding@home and SETI@home.

Akatsui space craft.

Illustration of the Akatsui spacecraft around the planet Venus. Credit: Akihiro Ikeshita


Sometimes, they are a one time deal that can still be very exciting to participate in. Akatsuki (Japanese for dawn) is one such opportunity. Akatsui is a Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) space mission to study the planet Venus. The Akatsui Message Campaign is a public outreach effort for the mission, which allows people to submit a very short message that will be printed onto an aluminum plate what will be attached to the Akatsui spacecraft.

The deadline for submissions is January 10, 2010. Sorry for the late notice but I just found out about it. I should add, although the slogan for this outreach program reads, “We will deliver your message to the bright star Venus,” Venus is actually a planet. But, you already knew that. Thanks to my friend Robert Sparks for the info.

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Evil Scientist
Evil Scientist.
Copyright AE0538T

I was watching a sci-fi, superhero movie the other day and it occurred to me how evil scientists are always trying to take over the world or something similar, at least in the movies. It is perhaps because of this or, still, the most recognizable scientist that ever existed, Albert Einstein, that when children are asked to draw scientists, they draw them with spiky hair, lab coat and an evil GRIN, although Einstein is rarely pictured with a lab coat and NEVER with an evil grin.

The point is that some children, and, unfortunately, quite a few adults, always imagine scientists as evil. And, because scientists do science, somehow science is evil too. Well, it is NOT. The reason that scientists are depicted as evil GENIUSES in movies is because they have to stand in contrast to the hero or heroine of the movies. The hero/heroine is usually the underdog who has to overcome great odds (in this case the evil scientist and his evil, scientific gadgets) to save the day. If the hero/heroine was as, or more, powerful than the evil scientist, he/she defeat the villain quite easily and then there would not be much a movie to show.

While the villains are clearly marked as evil scientists in movies, the heroes of many of those movies also tend to be scientists, although that fact is often overlooked. Below are listing of some movie scientist heroes.

  • Indiana Jones – Archaeologist, a person who studies history and historic creatures, including humans, through analysis of their artifacts, inscriptions, monuments, and other remains that may have been excavated (dug up).
  • Mr. Fantastic (leader of the Fantastic Four) – Physicist.
  • Robert Neville (played by Will Smith in the movie, I Am Legend) – Virologist, someone who studies viruses and the diseases caused by them.

I have not listed more only because these are, after all, fictional characters.

There are a lot of REAL hard-working scientists, who, every day, work to find a CURE for cancer and other diseases, make alternative energy solutions more AFFORDABLE and easier to implement, help us understand the universe in which we live, and push the limits of technology to make BETTER computers, which can aid in all these areas. These scientists DESERVE better than to be looked upon as mad, evil geniuses.

Online resources about scientists in popular media.

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Web I see doomsday predictions about 2012 almost everywhere these days. Even students ask me if the world is going to end in 2012 when I am doing workshops.

The reason everyone is so… I am not sure if scared is the right word, but let’s use that. The reason everyone is so scared is because the Mayan calendar ends in the year 2012. Now, this would not be a big deal if it were not for websites, TV shows and movies turning the lack of 2013 in the Mayan calendar into some sort of prediction that there will never be a 2013.

Below, I have included some links that debunk theories about the end of the world in 2012 but here is an argument I have not seen presented elsewhere so I will do it.

Why might a calendar, any calendar, end in 2012?

Suppose you were to make a calendar for yourself. How many years would you include in your calendar? It is reasonable to say that you would not create a calendar that went 200 years into the future (unless you expected to live that long).

For a society creating a calendar, the creators not only have to think about themselves but future generations as well. For a society as a whole, it makes sense to create a calendar that is longer than the lifetimes of the individuals of that society. But would it make sense for them to create a calendar that went on for thousands of years? I don’t think so. I am sure that the members of that society have better things to do than work on creating calendars that go on forever.

Even with the advent of computers, which makes it easier to calculate future dates, the computer I wrote this on will not let me set its date to be after December 31, 2099.

So, according to my computer the world will end on December 31, 2099, not in 2012 like “predicted” by the Mayans. Of course, I am being facetious. I hope you see my point.

Are we in the clear?

Yes and no. We do not have to worry about the end of the world in 2012 but there are very serious threats that face us in the future. I believe that CLIMATE CHANGE and the LOSS OF BIODIVERSITY will threaten the existence of humans. The GOOD NEWS is that we can do something about it. But, just because I say something will threaten the future of our existence does not make it so. Do your own research about the effects of climate change and loss of biodiversity, use the evidence presented to make your own conclusions and then decide what you are going to do about it.

Resources

There you have it. While the end of the world will make good movies and TV shows, and it is interesting to think about, 2012 is NOT the year when the world will end.

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Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space Image by
mint imperial

“Mission: 10,000 Rockets is an educational project developed to inspire the passion for scientific discovery in young people.”

It is a drawing contest open to K-12 grade students in the United States. Please visit http://10000rockets.com/ to get all the details.

This contest is being sponsored by the Bing search engine.

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Hey Kids! This post may not be very interesting to you, although I think it is an important one. That is the reason I am posting it; to get as many people aware of the need for science. If grown-ups you know do not read this blog, this is the one post you want to share with them. What would be even more awesome is if you and a grown up watched the video below together and then discuss some of the things that are mentioned in the video. Of course, you are more than welcome to discuss them with me by making a comment or sending me an email.

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