Black Holes, Steven Hawking, Oh My

According to much of the media, Steven Hawking says there’s no such thing as a black hole. This sounds really rad but is the media reflecting celebrity and titillating terminology rather than substance and veracity? Of course, Hawking is a media magnet, as are (ahem) Black Holes. Besides, didn’t Hawking write the book on black holes? Yes he wrote an influential papers on the subject. However, if you look at what he was saying then and what he’s saying now…for one thing, he’s not saying there’s no such thing as a black hole.

The actual quote from his recent paper (taken from a talk he gave in 2013) is, “The absence of event horizons mean that there are no black holes – in the sense of regimes from which light can’t escape to infinity.”

Notice, there are two parts to the sentence. The media generally picked up the first and ignored the second. Here and elsewhere in the paper, Hawking is dealing with a long-held belief in cosmology – the definition of a black hole says it is a phenomenon of space-time with an event horizon, such that when the event horizon is crossed nothing (not even light) ever comes back out. In practice, we are (with current technology) limited to observing apparent horizons. The apparent horizon, according to Hawking’s current thinking, is a quantum phenomenon in which it is (theoretically) possible for energy and information to escape a black hole. So, not really a black hole in the classical sense, but still a kind of black hole – black holes do exist. More »

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Flow batteries: For when the wind don’t blow and the sun don’t shine

prototype flow battery
The Harvard prototype organic flow battery….Credit: SEAS

A team of scientists and engineers at Harvard tackled the problem of storing electricity from short term or irregular energy sources, such as wind mills or solar panels by looking to improve on a type of battery technology known as a flow battery. As published in the journal Nature [08 January 2014, paywalled, A metal-free organic–inorganic aqueous flow battery], the researchers believe they may have found a way to make flow batteries commercially viable for mass energy storage (that is, for grid-level applications).

While we all know about batteries, including the buzzwords such as ‘rechargeable’ and ‘lithium ion,’ people are generally not very familiar with the underlying technology (much less the physics), so that types of batteries such as a flow battery are almost unknown. Most common batteries, such as those used in the home, store the electrolyte (which conducts the electricity) and the electrode (which stores the electric energy) in the same container. In a flow battery, the two kinds of electrolytes store oppositely charged electric energy and are in separate containers. An outside source such as windmill or solar panel charges each electrolyte. When electricity is needed, the electrolytes are pumped into a container with a membrane that separates the electrolytes but allows an energy exchange that provides the electrical current. More »

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Peer reviewed climate change deniers

Sometimes overwhelming numbers are a stand-in for credibility (or the lack of it). Consider these figures of published peer reviewed papers compiled by James Lawrence Powell*:

November 2012 through December 2013:
9136 authors published 2258 peer-reviewed climate articles
1 author rejected man-made global warming (0.0106 percent)

And the longer view:

For the years 1991-2012:
13,950 peer reviewed climate articles
24 articles rejected global warming (0.17 percent)

Of course, deniers will say “Peer review? Why that’s obviously a global conspiracy!” And you can say, “Since when did human beings, much less scientists, agree on anything so that only 1 out of 9136 people disagreed? That’s one hell of a conspiracy!”

*Currently Executive Director of the National Physical Science Consortium, Ph.D. Geochemistry, M.I.T, former president of Oberlin College, Franklin and Marshall College, Reed College, Franklin Institute Science Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, appointed by Presidents Reagan and G.H.W. Bush to the National Science Board (12 years).

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What do we lose as large carnivores disappear?

Top predators - gone
A world without top predators? Wolves, for example….Credit: Doug McLaughlin, Oregon State University

Globally, we are losing our large carnivores. That is the central conclusion of a large international study (participants from the U.S., Sweden, Australia, and Italy). These are the animals at the top of the food chain, the ones people most readily recognize. There aren’t many species; scientists identify just 31 significant species such as bear, wolf, lion, leopard, tiger, otter, cougar and lynx. Of these species, 17 now occupy half (or less) of the former ranges and 75 percent of them are declining in population. Some species are already exterminated (Lobo wolf, for example) or driven completely out of large natural ranges (such as the Eastern U.S.). The big question addressed by the study, published in Science [10 January 2014, paywalled, Status and Ecological Effects of the World’s Largest Carnivores] is what does the decline of large predators mean for the environment? More »

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Sci-Fi Movie Review: Elysium

[Elysium. Released August 9, 2013. Directed by Neill Blomkamp, Writers: Neill Blomkamp. DVD/Blu-Ray released. As usual, this “post-viewing review” contains spoilers.]

What to make of a shoot-em-up action science fiction movie with a MacGuffin of health care? I’m deliberately using Hitchcock’s term (MacGuffin: a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivation often with little or no narrative development as to why it’s important). Imagine, a plot driven by the need for medical attention in the age of Obamacare (in the U.S. anyway). A MacGuffin captures the notion that Elysium is going to upset some people with its obvious political sentiment and at times kack-handed plotting. More »

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Sci-Fi Movie Review: Pacific Rim

[Pacific Rim. Released July 1, 2013. Directed by Guillermo del Toro, Writers Guillermo del Toro and Travis Beacham. DVD/Blu-Ray released. As usual, this “post-viewing review” contains many spoilers.]

Among the fanboys (and yes, they’re often boys and great fans of shoot ’em up games), Pacific Rim is the heavily argued new gold standard in action movies. If you want to be paternalistic about it, this does not disqualify Pacific Rim from being a good, if not great movie. Like most genre movies, if you like the genre, then this is a very good movie. If you ask, “What genre is that?” Well, that’s a good question. More »

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Life on Mars: Curiosity finds a promising lake bed

Curiosity rover and Yellowknife Bay, Mars

After about two decades of poking around Mars, it’s clear that scientists don’t expect to find life, certainly not on the surface [SciTechStory: Life on Mars: If it exists, is below the surface]. There are no Martian yetis, or if any life at all, nothing bigger than a bacteria – probably living deep below the surface. So the excitement about the announcement that the U.S. Mars rover Curiosity has identified a “life friendly environment” in a former lake bed is not about today’s conditions, but the conditions that might have supported life billions of years ago.

Keep in mind that even former “life” has yet to be discovered on Mars, either direct (as in a fossil) or indirect (chemical traces). For now, scientists – mostly the people of the nascent field of exobiology – utilize suppositions about life that we’ve gleaned from studying life on Earth. It may turn out that life, if it ever existed on Mars, may have had different signatures than we expect – but that’s the importance of what’s happening now with the new data provided by Curiosity. More »

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Synaptic transmission: Another step illuminated

Neurovesicle recycling
Illustration of neural exo and endo cytosis. Credit: U of Utah

Many people, including neuroscientists, refer to the patterns of neurons in the brain and elsewhere in the body as “wiring.” It’s a metaphor, which makes it seem almost axiomatic that our nervous system operates on electricity and is akin to the electrical systems of, say, a house or a computer. Actually, for all but a small percentage of neurons in the human body, ‘wiring’ is not a good metaphor. Wiring, in the usual understanding, implies a flow of electrons through a wire, usually metallic such as copper or fiber-optic. “Electron flow” is hardly the best descriptor for the way axon bodies (the long form of the neuron) transmit electricity – and the synapses (the gaps between neurons); they’re something else again.

In most neurons, the axons transmit signals via “action potentials,” which involves channeling ions of sodium and potassium in a complex “impulse” consisting of passing ionic charges along the axon. This does not sound like house wiring…it works more like a burning fuse. For another thing, it’s a lot slower. Electron flows in copper wire can travel at a reasonable approximation of light speed. Action potentials in a neuron vary, but an average speed is about 10 meters per second, a lame tortoise’s view of the speed of light. Then the action potential inevitably comes to the end of an axon and encounters an actual physical gap – the synaptic cleft. More »

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Confirmation: Element 115

The thing about new elements these days is they don’t exist in nature. They’re a product of human research. A ‘new’ element, dubbed ununpentium with the symbol Uup, was first “discovered” (read: created) in 2003 by bombarding a nucleus of americium-243 with ions driven from calcium-48. This created an element with the atomic weight of 288. It doesn’t stick around, with a half-life of about 200 milliseconds.

Now it’s 2013 and in the true fashion of science, two of the few research facilities capable of reproducing the element 115 have finally chimed in to confirm the new element. The original creation was performed by the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna (Russia) and at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (California, USA). The recently announced confirmations were by Lund University (Sweden) and the Darmstadt research facility (Germany). With this confirmation, ununpentium is ready for ‘official’ confirmation by the IUPAC/IUPAP Joint Working Party and eventually a final name.

The superheavy artificial elements are exotic, to say the least. For the most part, their isotopes are unstable – meaning they are gone in the blink of an eye – so they will have no ‘practical’ application. However, physicists continue to learn about the behavior of elements and their particles through creating these new elements and their isotopes. Ununpentium will, someday, have a stable isotope, probably Uup-299, but at the moment, the technology to add 184 neutrons (the ‘magic’ closed-shell number) doesn’t exist.

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Frederick Sanger: Gone and should not be forgotten

If you don’t know about Fred Sanger, it’s not surprising. He was a quiet man, far more interested in his work than in recognition. In today’s world of media hypertrophy, that work generally gets a one-column, three-inch obituary, or about fifteen seconds of airtime.

Here’s a question. How many people have won more than one scientific Nobel Prize?

Three: Marie Curie (Physics, Chemistry), John Bardeen (Physics), and Fredrick Sanger (Chemistry)

I mention this because it is so rare and it indicates a contribution to science that is arguably more important to humanity than the contributions of all but a few political, military, cultural and sports figures. In the case of Fred Sanger, his work earned him the sobriquets (plural) among his peers as “The father of genomics,” and “The father of proteomics.” In other words, he did foundation work in the areas of genetics and proteins – the foundations of life. He was a great biochemist.

You could say that Sanger’s work (and life) was about getting things in order. His genius (and it was genius) was to look at something so complicated that it seemed either impenetrable or chaotic and find order – not only find it, but through painstaking laboratory techniques, many he developed himself, prove the existence of the order he saw (or suspected). More »

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