Missing Hydrocarbons

Cosmology, origin of life, and astronomy are topics about which I read quite a bit. Any NASA and JPL discovery makes me stop whatever to read more about it. This is not something new as one of my school science fair projects was on O-Rings and Challenger. Before that I even attended Space Camp. (This was all so I could post this cute photo.)

The Saturn Group


Carl Sagan discusses the presence of hydrocarbons other than Earth in The Varieties of Scientific Experience. Materials vary in the distance from the Sun at which they condense. Water condenses at the distance of Earth. Methane condenses out at the distance of Saturn. This makes perfect sense for Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, who has lakes of methane. How hydrocarbons formed on Earth if they are not readily available is the problem.

Then I made the mistake of seeing this, Life Could Have Hitched a Ride to the Moons of Jupiter and Saturn, which discusses the idea that lithopanspermia, microbes catching a ride on meteoroids, could have helped life on Earth or Mars reach the outer planets or their moons. Perhaps it worked the other way around? I have heard similar ideas that comets or panspermia from Mars or planets outside the solar system could be the origin of life on Earth. The latter is an extraterrestrial.

If one finds Earth-style cellular life forms on Europa, then how does one determine whether it came from Earth to Europa or from Europa to Earth? Successful colonization on Earth usually means the colonies having larger populations than the parent. Look at how many people in the world speak English as their primary language compared to the population of England. Or French vs France. That analogy suggests Earth could be the colony of somewhere else in the solar system. I hope we do find life near the outer planets as the amount of speculation and journal articles will be very entertaining.

P.S. The Varieties of Scientific Experience was originally Glasgow University Gifford Lectures for the theme The Search for Who We Are in 1985.

Foundation and Earth and Alpha

Wired Science has a post about a newly found Earth-sized planet around our closest star system neighbor:

The Alpha Centauri system — composed of three stars orbiting one another — is only 4.4 light-years away, a cosmic stone’s throw from us. Though the newly discovered planet has about the same mass as our own, its orbit is 25 times smaller, so a year on this planet passes in just 3.2 days. This means the planet is sitting up against its star, roasting at perhaps 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit with a surface likely composed of molten lava.

Last year I read the Foundation series by  Isaac Asimov. In Foundation and Earth, Asimov describes a water covered planet with a small island with refugees of Earth on a planet named Alpha orbiting Alpha Centauri. This gem is nowhere close to the fictional Alpha.  But, still, a planet so close is exciting!

We have a long way to go before we could travel there as well. Probably not in my life time. Nor in the next few generations.

TED: How simple ideas lead to scientific discoveries

Adam Savage holds the position of my favorite story teller. Part of it might be that he speeds his rate of talking up to the edge of where I think he is about to stumble, but he does not. It lends to sensing his excitement. He talks about Feynman and Eratosthenes here.

If the above video does not work, then try How simple ideas lead to scientific discoveries

50 Years of Americans in Orbit

Space Ship One Fifty years ago today, John Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth. For some reason, Alan Shepard, Jr. being the first American in space did not impress me as a kid. Going up and coming back down did not count. Achieving orbit was realer space. Glenn was the American response to Yuri Gagarin being the first human to orbit the Earth on 12 April 1961.

Well. To me Glenn was the hero.

TED Talk: Finding planets around other stars

How do we find planets — even habitable planets — around other stars? By looking for tiny dimming as a planet passes in front of its sun, TED Fellow Lucianne Walkowicz and the Kepler mission have found some 1,200 potential new planetary systems. With new techniques, they may even find ones with the right conditions for life.

A prior method of detecting planets around other stars was looking for the wobble. As planets orbit their star, they affect the position of the star. The more mass the planet has, the more the wobble and easier to detect. Of course, a shorter orbit also makes it easier to detect. So it was really good at locating gas giants like Jupiter or larger as close as Mercury or Venus. It would not find an Earth.

Kepler has done a fantastic job so far locating planets, especially those near the size of Earth. Apparently we can even participate by looking for the light dips through the Planet Hunters web site. (Kind of surprised this is not automated. But then, getting credit for having helped find a star is pretty cool.)

If you cannot see the video below, visit Finding planets around other stars.

Elemental Nuclear Threats

I was sequestered in a war room for a month during which the Japanese earthquake and tsunami happened as well as the meltdown of the nuclear power plant at Fukushima. We projected on the wall video of the stories over and over.

It just occurred to me each of the Empedocles classical elements (air, fire, earth, and water) have threatened a nuclear power plant this year. True, only the one event resulted in a melt down. Still, it is interesting how a bit of everything has been a problem.

  • Air: “A nuclear power plant in Alabama that lost power after violent thunderstorms and tornadoes on Wednesday will be down for days and possibly weeks but the backup power systems worked as designed to prevent a partial meltdown like the disaster in Japan.”
  • Fire: “A raging wildfire in Los Alamos on Monday briefly entered the property of the nation’s preeminent nuclear facility, Los Alamos National Laboratory, a vast complex that houses research laboratories and a plutonium facility.”
  • Earth: Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. (Okay technically, seawater from the tsunami is what caused the worst problems.)
  • Water: “The head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been dispatched to a nuclear power plant in Fort Calhoun, Neb., where a berm collapsed Sunday…. The breach allowed Missouri River flood waters to reach containment buildings and transformers and forcing the shutdown of electrical power.”

Before you ask, no, the classical elements are not fighting back against the modern elements (Uranium and Plutonium).

Margin of Error

The Trojan Nuclear Plant on the Banks of the Columbia River Is Under Construction by Portland General Electric Environmentalists Strongly Oppose the Project 05/1973
Trojan Nuclear Plant from the U.S. National Archives

The New York Times article “Nuclear Agency Tells a Concerned Congress That U.S. Industry Remains Safe” had a curious statement from Gregory Jaczko, of the chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, in front of Congress.

“U.S. nuclear facilities remain safe,” Mr. Jaczko told two House Energy and Commerce subcommittees, which had originally planned to consider his agency’s budget for the coming fiscal year at the hearing. “We will continue to work to maintain that level of protection.” Reactors are designed to meet the challenges of “the most severe natural phenomena historically reported,” he said. For earthquakes, that means any that occur within 200 miles of the reactor, and a margin of error, he said.

Jaczko sounds similar to the planning the Japanese did. Earlier I read a Wired Science article, Japan Quake Epicenter Was in Unexpected Location, which said the Japanese looked to patterns in the past to determine the future. Therefore they expected a strong earthquake in the south where the Phillipine plate is overdue for a massive event.

Japan has been expecting and preparing for the “big one” for more than 30 years. But the magnitude-9.0 temblor that struck March 11 — the world’s fourth biggest quake since 1900 — wasn’t the catastrophe the island nation had in mind. The epicenter of the quake was about 80 miles east of the city of Sendai, in a strip of ocean crust previously thought unlikely to be capable of unleashing such energy. “This area has a long history of earthquakes, but [the Sendai earthquake] doesn’t fit the pattern,” says Harold Tobin, a marine geophysicist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “The expectation was high for a 7.5, but that’s a hundred times smaller than a 9.0.”

It sounds to me like, if in the United States the most powerful earthquake in the area of a nuclear reactor was a 7.5 magnitude event, then a 9.0 could surprise those running it. Given a 9.0 is a hundred times more powerful and a broken reactor so dangerous, I would hope the preparedness is for the larger even where seemingly unlikely.

The Haiti quake was “expected“. However the Chilean, both New Zealand, and the Sendai earthquakes have all sounded unexpected. Of course, living on the Ring of Fire, how can any earthquake be unexpected?