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Posts from the ‘Science’ Category

Book Review: The 4 Percent Universe

The 4 Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality

It has been a while since I’ve posted a book review to this blog, but after finishing a couple new books this past weekend, I thought a few readers might be interested in this one.

The 4 Percent Universe is a fairly typical “popular” physics book, namely one of the dozen or so books that gets published every year to try and simplify modern physics for the casual reader.  Originally, I picked this book up based on a Wall Street Journal review that recommended it as an up-to-date assessment of current theory around dark matter and dark energy.

For those of you who haven’t followed the progress on these topics over the past two decades, dark matter is a the common term given to the matter in the universe that we can detect due to gravitational effect, but can’t see based on any traditional form of observation.  Dark matter, as it turns out, does not emit or react to photons, which are the basis of most forms of astronomic observation.  Dark energy is the term given for the incredibly large volume of energy that has been calculated to exist in our universe, but that once again we haven’t been able to measure.  Both are fascinating outcomes of the development of mathematical theories around cosmology that predict facets of our universe that have not yet been measured or observed.  The “4%” in the book title refers to the fact that only about 4% of our universe is actually the traditional forms of matter and energy that most of humanity assumed was “everything” through the 20th century.

What makes this book different than most is the style of writing.  Instead of a chapter-by-chapter introduction and explanation of concepts, the entire book is presented as narrative, literally walking through the individual stories of the researchers and scientists who played different roles in discovering relevant theories and concepts.  As a result, it’s a much deeper look into the politics and competitiveness between scientists and academics of different disciplines (math, physics, astronomy, cosmology), as well as the bare knuckles process of research, peer-review, and all-too-common resistance to data and/or theories that don’t conform to existing cannon.

Personally, I found the first 150 pages or so fairly boring – too far in the past for me to really engage on the play-by-play discoveries that led to an acceptance of cosmology, big bang theory, and inflation.  These are topics that Stephen Hawking covered fairly well in his books.  However, the last half of the book really drew me in, as the narrative really took over in presenting the mounting evidence for dark energy, with explanations of key experiments and theories in the past decade (as recently as 2007/2008).

As a result, I definitely recommend this book to those who fashion themselves “physics hobbyists”, or those who wish to remain up-to-date on modern cosmology.

Lunar Mission: The First Step in Putting the Past Behind Us

Wonderful news today coming out of NASA today:

NASA took the first concrete step toward returning human beings to the moon Thursday, successfully launching the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter on a mission to find the best place to build Earth’s first off-world colony.

The 19-story-high, two-stage rocket and spacecraft launched at 2:32 p.m. PDT. As the huge first-stage Atlas V rocket roared to life at Cape Canaveral in central Florida, NASA spokesman George Diller called it “America’s first step in a lasting return to the moon.”

The $500 million orbiter will spend the next year cruising just 31 miles above the lunar surface, employing a suite of seven instruments to identify landing hazards such as rocks and craters. It will be paying particular attention to the largely unknown lunar poles, where previous missions have picked up hints that water ice may exist in some permanently shadowed craters.

Thousands of sky watchers are expected to turn their telescopes to the moon on the morning of Oct. 9, when the water-seeking satellite steers the fuel-depleted second stage Centaur rocket into a crater at 5,600 mph. For those in the western U.S., where the moon will still be up, the plume should be clearly visible with a moderately sized backyard telescope, NASA said.

Time to start putting forty years of the unprecedented embarrassment of the US space program since the late 1970s.  I’m not sure that any other country has so thoroughly trashed such a magnificent technological edge in a crucial field before, unilaterally.

The space shuttle.  The international space station.   Ugh. I think I just threw up in my mouth a little.

Ironically, we may look back and give the Bush Administration surprising credit for finally tilting US space exploration back in the right direction.  (Don’t worry, I’m under no delusion that people will say anything nice about Bush 43 for a while…)

There are tremendous technical and commercial advantages to establishing the first, ongoing presence on the Moon.  It’s a little know fact, but as an independent side project at Harvard, I built out an initial business model and operating plan for financing a private moon base.  It’s hard to think back, but at the time (2000), companies were raising $10B-$15B in private capital markets to fund the build-out of fiber-optic networks across the world.

It wasn’t such a stretch to imagine raising $60B in sequential rounds to fund a moon base, particularly when the economics of a moon base are so strong.

You see, the moon is such a hostile environment, that once you have a self-sustaining and expandable eco-system set up, it’s a natural monopoly.  For quite some time, it will always be significantly cheaper to add on to an existing base, rather than build a new one from scratch.

That difference in cost, which is measured in billions, is an incredibly revenue opportunity, assuming there is demand to establish presence on the moon.

It was 2000, but I believe I laid out at least 10 potential revenue lines for the moon base, to help it become cash flow positive, even across that type of capital raise.

(Yes, I was assuming the US would never ratify the Moon Treaty from the insane 1970s.  Beyond ridiculous.)

In any case, very exciting to see us finally moving down the correct path.  My only regret is that if we had moved down this path in the late 1970s, we’d all be jostling for positions on a fully operational moon base by now.

I’m still optimistic that I will be able to travel to the moon in my lifetime.  The only question now is whether it will be a US or Chinese built lunar city.

US Patent 7,490,056 Has Been Granted

Interesting milestone this week.  My very first patent granted.

USPTO: Patent #7,490,056

  • Filed: November, 2004
  • Granted: February 10, 2009

Ironically, I wouldn’t have known about it except for a promotion catalog I got in the mail today with a list of plaques I could buy to commemorate this patent from some souvenir company in Florida.  Yes, I know.  Weird.

This was the first of several patent applications I submitted while at eBay.  This particular application surrounded the logic and algorithm around assessing popularity for e-commerce listings based on “following” behavior, aka “Watch” in eBay terms.

Yes, this was the “Most Watched” patent, from the debut of eBay Pulse.  (Sadly, it looks like the patent office has actually moved faster approving this patent than eBay has updating eBay Pulse since that 2004 launch.)

There is a lot I could comment on here about the USPTO, the dubious nature of software patents, the length of time, etc.  Normally, I’d go on at length about some of these issues.

Instead, however, I’ll just note that it’s a somewhat sentimental moment for me, because I always remember hearing about how my late grandfather had filed an important patent on his path to business success.

Closing in on Sequencing the Neanderthal Genome

This news is from tomorrow’s New York Times:

Scientists in Germany Draft Neanderthal Genome

It’s about 63% complete at this point.  We live in magical times, scientifically.  Unbelievable.

Some nice tidbits from the article:

The Neanderthal genome, when fully analyzed, is expected to shed light on many critical aspects of human evolution. It will help document two important sets of genetic changes: those that occurred between 5.7 million years ago, when the human line split from the line leading to chimpanzees, and 300,000 years ago, when Neanderthals and the ancestors of modern humans parted ways; and second, the changes in the human line after it diverged from Neanderthals.

An early inference that can be drawn from the new findings, which were announced Thursday in Leipzig, Germany, is that there is no significant trace of Neanderthal genes in modern humans. This confounds the speculation that modern humans could have interbred with Neanderthals, thus benefiting from the genes that adapted the Neanderthals to the cold climate that prevailed in Europe in last ice age, which ended 10,000 years ago. Researchers have not ascertained if human genes entered the Neanderthal population.

Unfortunate for me – I had long been in the camp that speculated that Neanderthals weren’t actually a true species by the definition of inter-breeding.  I had expected that we’d discover some genetic evidence of interbreeding.

We’re in such early days of understanding our genome, it may be hard to appreciate how the advances in information science and genomics will profounding affect our understanding of species, both current & extinct.

I’m going to be on the lookout for more formal academic writings on this research.  A little surprised to see this come out today, instead of Tuesday, which is the official “Science Times” day…

The Latest Large Prime Discovered: 2^43,112,609 – 1

From Science News:

Here’s a number to savor: 243,112,609-1.

Its size is mind-boggling. With nearly 13 million digits, it makes the number of atoms in the known universe seem negligible, a mere 80 digits.

And its form is tidy and lovely: 2n-1.

But its true beauty is far grander: It is a prime number. Indeed, it is the largest prime number ever found.

The Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search, or GIMPS, a computing project that uses volunteers’ computers to hunt for primes, found the prime and just confirmed the discovery. It can now claim a $100,000 prize from the Electronic Frontier Foundation for being the first to find a prime number that has more than 10 million digits.

Don’t worry prime hunters, there are prizes still to be claimed:

The Electronic Frontier Foundation became interested in prime hunting because it makes an excellent challenge problem for cooperative, distributed computing. “The award is an incentive to stretch the computational ability of the Internet,” says Landon Noll of Cisco Systems Inc., one of the judges for the Electronic Frontier Foundation prize and a discoverer of a former biggest known prime. More prizes remain to be claimed: a $150,000 award for a prime with 100 million digits, and a $250,000 award for one with a billion digits.

In case you are wondering why I’m posting this here on my blog, I do have some personal historical trivia that makes the issue of large primes sentimental for me.

The first job I ever had writing software was an unpaid high school internship at NASA Ames Research Center, here in Mountain View.  My project was to build a simulation model to evaluate error rates for different fluid dynamics algorithms.  In order to do the project, which was executed on a Cray X-MP supercomputer, I had to learn Fortran.

The sample project I chose to do to learn the language was a simple program to take as input a Mersenne Prime, and then generate the actual digits for the number in a large output file.

As a side note, this was the first time I also ever became familiar with the operating costs of these type of high end systems… I remember being fairly shocked when the scientist I was working with explained to me that my program had taken several hours of Cray time, which was billed at about $2,000 per hour.

Of course, I’m fairly certain that my new 8-core Mac Pro is significantly faster than those old Cray supercomputers… :)

MythBusters Takes On The Interleaved Phonebooks

There are so many reasons to love the Dutch, and MythBusters has just provided another.

Many thanks to Rob Go for providing the link to this 4-minute clip, which shows that it is, in fact, impossible to pull apart two interleaved phone books, even with the use of automobiles…

The Tower of Babel 2008: Burj Dubai

Remakes are all the rage in Hollywood, and what better original material is there than the Old Testament?

If you are not familiar with the Burj Dubai, it’s the tallest building in the world, and the construction isn’t even finished yet.  It currently stands about 2,275 feet tall, but they are keeping the final height a secret.  Some rumors state that the final height will actually be over 940m (about 3,055 feet, for US types).

Here is what it is supposed to look like when it is done:

Last week, I caught this article in Gizmodo, and it had this great picture in it:

It seems that, like the story of the Tower of Babel, recently the building reached heights that interfered with the functioning of the construction site walkie talkies.  Literally, they built a building so high that they could no longer communicate.

When the unbelievable Burj Dubai started to get really high, the construction workers discovered one problem that seems obvious now: their walkie-talkies stopped working as they climbed the structure. The reason was simple: distance. At the beginning of the construction they used walkie-talkies—which are light, durable, and have a long battery life—across the site.

Not to get too biblical, but a quick synopsis of the original story:

According to the narrative in Genesis Chapter 11 of the Bible, the Tower of Babel was a tower built by a united humanity in order to reach the heavens. To prevent the project from succeeding, God confused their languages so that each spoke a different language. They could no longer communicate with one another and the work could not proceed. After that time, people moved away to different parts of Earth. The story is used to explain the existence of many different languages and races.

Interesting to consider… if just for a moment. Fortunately, there is a happy ending for the Burj Dubai:

Fortunately for them, they turned to mesh networks, which are similar to the ones used in mobiles, but local. For that they used a company called Firetide, using several Wi-Fi-enabled VoIP phones over a HotPort wireless mesh, which also serves as the transport for the security video in the site.

Gotta love technology.

By the way, the Wikipedia page on the world’s tallest buildings is really, really fun to explore.

Understanding the Nature of Glass

This is from over a month ago, but there was a wonderful article for all the closet material scientists out there in the New York Times on Glass a few weeks ago.

Here is an except:

It is well known that panes of stained glass in old European churches are thicker at the bottom because glass is a slow-moving liquid that flows downward over centuries.

Well known, but wrong. Medieval stained glass makers were simply unable to make perfectly flat panes, and the windows were just as unevenly thick when new.

The tale contains a grain of truth about glass resembling a liquid, however. The arrangement of atoms and molecules in glass is indistinguishable from that of a liquid. But how can a liquid be as strikingly hard as glass?

“They’re the thickest and gooiest of liquids and the most disordered and structureless of rigid solids,” said Peter Harrowell, a professor of chemistry at the University of Sydney in Australia, speaking of glasses, which can be formed from different raw materials. “They sit right at this really profound sort of puzzle.”

It’s a great article, and a wonderful exploration of an area of material science that most people assume they know more about than they do.

New York Times: The Nature of Glass Remains Anything But Clear


The Self Organizing Quantum Universe

I’m a big fan of distributed systems – complex networks of an extremely large number of independent entities governed by simple and transparent rules.  Not surprising, really, that I work professionally on next-generation products and services based on the Internet, one of the most successful man-made distributed systems in existence.

As a result, it’s not surprising that I found this article in the latest issue of Scientific American compelling:

Scientific American: Using Causality to Solve the Puzzle of Quantum Spacetime
A new approach to the decades-old problem of quantum gravity goes back to basics and shows how the building blocks of space and time pull themselves together
By Jerzy Jurkiewicz, Renate Loll and Jan Ambjorn

Here is a quick synopsis:

  • Quantum theory and Einstein’s general theory of relativity are famously at loggerheads. Physicists have long tried to reconcile them in a theory of quantum gravity—with only limited success.
  • A new approach introduces no exotic components but rather provides a novel way to apply existing laws to individual motes of spacetime. The motes fall into place of their own accord, like molecules in a crystal.
  • This approach shows how four-dimensional spacetime as we know it can emerge dynamically from more basic ingredients. It also suggests that spacetime shades from a smooth arena to a funky fractal on small scales.

I’ve been following modern cosmology theory fairly closely for the past 15 years, and I found this approach compelling and refreshing in a number of ways.  It may not be an effective path towards resolving theories around quantum gravity, but there are clear reasons to give it due consideration:

  • The modeling techniques will be extremely familiar to anyone with an advanced background in modern computer graphics approaches and theory.
  • The idea that a few simple assumptions will self-aggregate into the universe that we see around us avoids the never-satisfying anthropic principle fallback.  (The anthropic principle is effectively a circular argument that says, “Well, the universe is this way because if it wasn’t this way, we wouldn’t be here to ask the question.”   It’s about as intellectually satisfying as the movie 10,000 BC.
  • The simplicity of the model scores favorably with Occam’s Razor vs. other competing theories of quantum gravity and string theory.
  • The model is based on the insight that causality (related to the 2nd law of thermodynamics) is a fundamental principle of our universe.

That last bullet was particularly compelling for me, since the idea that time is a dimension with equal fluidity to the spacial dimensions has always conflicted philisophically with the concept that entropy must always increase.  It’s the reason why almost every form of time travel breaks the accounting for mass/energy.

Anyway, read it and let me know what you think.  I had someone at work tease me just last month about reading Scientific American, comparing it to Popular Science.  Personally, I find that articles like this continue to justify my subscription dollars.

I May Have Stepped into a Parallel Universe around 2000

I’ve had the growing realization over the past few years that something may be amiss with the universe.  As a fan of the various modern theories of quantum cosmology, it’s occurred to me that I may have accidentally ended up jumping out of the theoretical universe of maximum probability into another quantum variant.

I think the news that Apple sold 1 million iPhones in 3 days and is now the Number 3 PC Maker in the United States confirmed this for me.  As an Apple user since the early 1980s and a former employee, it’s just too hard to believe that the universe of maximum probability includes Apple’s exponential success in the past five years.

Honestly, doesn’t it seem like the most likely future for the computer industry in the 1990s was Bill Gates launching a mobile computer with sales of 1 million units in 3 days, and Steve Jobs taking a full time role in philanthropy?

Think about it.  I’m guessing the date of cross over was sometime in 2000, right around the time where Apple launched an MP3 player that cost around 300% more than the average player, and yet achieved over 70% market share in just 2 years.

The question is… what other improbable events exist in this variant of the universe?

New Evidence That Neanderthals Did Not Interbreed with Humans

Very interesting blog post on The Spitoon, the blog of 23andMe, the hip Google-backed, personal genetics company.

A quick excerpt:

The place of Neanderthals in the story of human evolution has been hotly debated for decades.  A distant cousin to our species, Neanderthals had already been in Europe over 250,000 years when Homo sapiens first arrived there 35,000 years ago.

Often called Cro-Magnoids, these first Europeans are believed by many scientists to have out-competed the Neanderthals, gradually driving them to extinction. The alternative theory, that Neanderthals and early humans are more closely related and may have even interbred upon meeting, is less popular, though it hasn’t yet been ruled out.  In order to resolve this debate, scientists have turned to genetics and methods of ancient DNA analysis to help them answer the questions surrounding the relationships between Neanderthals and Cro-Magnoids.

Basically, the evidence shows no contribution from Neanderthal DNA to either 28,000 year-old or modern European genetics, making the premise for Neanderthal interbreeding extremely weak.

Neat stuff if you are into either genetics or the evolution of human beings.

Full article is here.

Mandlebrot Set Music Video

This is too good not to share, from the same artist who wrote my previous blog favorite, Code Monkey.

This one is called Mandlebrot Set, but the key line, at around 2:05, is “A Bad Ass Fucking Fractal”.  Yes, this is now a PG-13 blog post.

The most interesting thing about Jonathan Coulton‘s work is that he releases his music under the Creative Commons license.  Anyone is free to take it and make music videos from it, as we saw with Code Monkey.

Anyway, check it out.  It’s definitely a keeper for anyone who grew up mathematically in the 80s and appreciates the intricacies of Mandlebrot, complexity & fractals.


Correlation or Causality: Starbucks & Obama

This one was too good not to share.  See below for a graph mapping out the correlation between the number of Starbucks and the margin of victory/defeat for Obama vs. Clinton.  From the Urbanspoon:

Is there really a connection between sipping your double tall breve and voting for Obama? We’ll leave political analysis to the professionals, but this is the kind of food question we’re equipped to investigate. Unfortunately, we can’t directly measure how much latte everyone is drinking. But as an approximation, we looked at the number of Starbucks stores per capita on a state-by-state basis. Compare this to how states voted in the primary:

The blue line measures the percentage by which Obama beat (or lost to) Clinton. The green dots represent the number of Starbucks stores per million people for each state. The black line is the trend line of Starbucks stores, drawn to make it easier to see the relationship between voting and latte sipping.

Love it.  Thanks to Paul Kedrosky for the pointer.

Pluto is a Planet, Redux

Looking at my first blog posts has a certain charm to it.  One of the first posts on this blog that ever drove a significant amount of traffic was a post about the decision to demote Pluto as a planet at the IAU conference in 2006.

Pluto is a Planet

Scientific American has a nice article out on revisiting that debate, and the options that will be present at a conference on the topic this summer.  An except:

Pluto lovers, don’t despair: Researchers have not given up the fight for the former ninth planet. Many of them put up a fuss two years ago when the International Astronomical Union (IAU) downgraded Pluto to the status of mere dwarf planet. Now they plan to revive the debate, this time under the banner of public understanding of science.

Researchers on both sides of the issue are set to gather in August at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., for what’s being called “The Great Planet Debate: Science as Process.” The goal, says the conference’s co-organizer Mark Sykes, director of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Ariz., is to teach the public that science is a process of constant revision and refinement. “People should be exposed to that process,” he says. “The IAU process gave the impression that science is done by a bunch of scientists voting behind closed doors.”

In my original coverage, I posted this simple snippet on the Pluto Vote Revolt.   It received thousands of page views in a matter of days:

Pluto Vote Revolt!

In the end, I still agree largely with the comments from the NASA lead on the New Horizons project:

Dr Alan Stern, who leads the US space agency’s New Horizons mission to Pluto and did not vote in Prague, told BBC News: “It’s an awful definition; it’s sloppy science and it would never pass peer review – for two reasons.

Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh pictured in 1980 (AP)

Pluto was discovered in 1930 by the American Clyde Tombaugh

“Firstly, it is impossible and contrived to put a dividing line between dwarf planets and planets. It’s as if we declared people not people for some arbitrary reason, like ‘they tend to live in groups’.

“Secondly, the actual definition is even worse, because it’s inconsistent.”

One of the three criteria for planethood states that a planet must have “cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit”. The largest objects in the Solar System will either collect together material in their path or fling it out of the way with a gravitational swipe.

Pluto was disqualified because its highly elliptical orbit overlaps with that of Neptune.

But Dr Stern pointed out that Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Neptune have also not fully cleared their orbital zones. Earth orbits with 10,000 near-Earth asteroids. Jupiter, meanwhile, is accompanied by 100,000 Trojan asteroids on its orbital path.

These rocks are all essentially chunks of rubble left over from the formation of the Solar System more than four billion years ago.

“If Neptune had cleared its zone, Pluto wouldn’t be there,” he added.

Stern said like-minded astronomers had begun a petition to get Pluto reinstated. Car bumper stickers compelling motorists to “Honk if Pluto is still a planet” have gone on sale over the internet and e-mails circulating about the decision have been describing the IAU as the “Irrelevant Astronomical Union”.

Let’s hope that saner minds prevail, and that the fact that Pluto was “temporarily” demoted from planetary status becomes a piece of arcane trivial from the early 21st century.

Iraqi TV Debate: Is the Earth Flat or Round?

You be the judge.  Many thanks to Boing Boing and for this one.

Here’s a snippet:

Statement by a round-earther physicist: When you watch a ship sailing towards the shore, all you see at first is the mast. Then you see the bow, and eventually the entire ship.

Fadhel Al-Said: When you stand on the beach and look into the distance, everything you see is in the visible distance. In the blurred distance, you cannot see a thing. Later on as the ship gets closer to the shore or the harbor, you see the upper part. How do you see it? The eye, as I have said, no doctor has succeeded in understanding how the eye works.

Can you find the flaws in the flat earth “astronomy researcher”?  My favorite part is where he explains that since the moon covered the sun partially in 1999, he has been able to conclude that the moon is 1/2 the size of the sun.  :)

Just a little fun on a Friday.


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