Monday, March 29, 2021

What Happened Before the Big Bang?

   A few centuries past, people thought the Universe was static. Then we invented better and better telescopes and finally eccentric astronomer Edwin Hubble found that star cities called galaxies exist, that everything out there is moving, and that galaxies are dispersing.

   So cosmic theory went from static to expansive with the logical probability that expansion ought to eventually slow down under gravitational attraction and then contract all the way back to a singularity that might again expand into a new Universe.

   But then we discovered that the Universal rate of expansion is not slowing at all but is instead accelerating under some strange unknown repulsive force we're calling dark energy, posing the prospect that the Universe we know and love is doomed to eventually cool, with star and planet formation slowing and eventually ceasing, and the whole grand show dying.

   We know our lives can't last forever and neither can our solar system because our private star only has a finite fuel supply and is already in middle age, having burned for 4.5 billion of our years. But to think the whole Universe also has a finite life with only utter darkness before and after is supremely depressing. It has been some 13.5 billion years since the Big Bang and maybe the Universe is middle aged or more, too.

   There has been a theory floating around that ours is just one of multiple parallel universes, but this is intuitively improbable and unsupported by any evidence whatever, lacking even credible theoretical support from various disciplines such as astronomy, mathematics, and physics.

   Leaving us with a profound question. We think we know the sad fate of our Universe, but what happened before the big bang birthed it?

   Some highly respected scientists believe they have a good idea.

   Sir Roger Penrose is a genius Oxford physicist, mathematician, and philosopher. He and several equally bright colleagues from various disciplines have developed a promising theory they call Conformable Cyclic Cosmology or CCC, which suggests there has been and will continue to be a succession of Universes, one after the other, each growing from a singularity and eventually dissipating. They call the whole process from birth to death an eon. Their theory says it's possible there has been eon after eon in the past before ours and there will be still more eons in never ending succession after ours is gone. There is both mathematical and geometric support for this theory, and there may even be hard evidence for it in physics. Part of the theory says that effects lingering from the previous eon to ours should be detectable.

   In 2002, a physics experiment called LIGO was set up in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana. to detect gravitational waves for fundamental studies. That has been a success. They found those waves with much deserved exuberant celebration. The experiment, however, also picked up signals thought to be mere noise, and this data was summarily discarded as unhelpful. But Sir Penrose suggested they take a closer look at the noise. The Universe has been thoroughly mapped by various means over the years and is known to have a filamentary structure of stars connecting clusters of galaxies. Our own Milky Way galaxy lives within a cluster called the Local Group. Here and there within this Universal structure there are odd patches empty of stars but filled with a mysterious magnetism. Sir Penrose suggests those areas may be leftover ingredients from the previous eon cycle.

   And that in turn suggests the good news that life itself may well regenerate and endure.


Check out the North Carolina suspense series GUNS, DIAMONDBACK, KLLRS, and DEATHSMAN on Amazon in print or Kindle. Find easy buy links on my website. And thanks to all those who have kindly sent me e-mails and posted reviews. You're the reason I do it.


Sunday, March 21, 2021

Where Does the ISS Get its Water?

   Transporting enough water to the International Space Station for the astronauts to drink, rehydrate their food, keep them clean, and help them carry out science experiments would cost billions of dollars if it all had to be rocketed up to them. So, NASA has devised ingenious ways to recycle 90 percent of the supply they have. Their perspiration, urine, and even their moist exhalations are captured, treated. and stored as fresh water for reuse over and over. (The rest is sent to them in resupply ships.)

   Sounds kind of gross, doesn’t it?

   But our Spaceship Earth also only has pretty much the same finite supply of water she was born with billions of years ago. She must also carry out endless recycling of that supply.

   Water hardly ever gets destroyed. It only changes form, of course, from liquid to vapor or solids like snow and hail and ice, which, except for permanent ancient ice at the poles, melts with seasonal change. The liquid evaporates into clouds, leaving behind any contaminants it had carried, and the clouds then kindly return it as a clean liquid once again.

   We’re all drinking water molecules that have had a complicated and often even a sordid past, from washing cars to hosing out gutters to putting out fires to nourishing billions of plants and animals and other humans. It’s nature’s best solvent and balm, with nearly uncountable thousands upon thousands of critical uses.

   From space, our planet looks like a beautiful water world with vast oceans far bigger than the verdant land masses, but most of that water is salty and thus undrinkable. Only three percent of the supply is fresh, and only just over one percent is drinkable without further treatment. mostly because we constantly pollute our rivers and lakes and atmosphere so badly.

   The astronauts on the ISS respect their supply of water as the precious resource it is. They know they can’t live without it.

   I think maybe more of us here on Spaceship Earth need to adopt that same attitude.


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Monday, March 15, 2021

 It’s About Time (again) 

     Like the periodic debate over whether to abolish the electoral college, which pops up every four years just before a presidential election but is forgotten just after the election, a debate over whether to simply keep daylight savings pops up every year before the time change but is forgotten just after the change until the next cycle. This year some states are saying the heck with all that and are electing to keep daylight savings year round.

     This brings up a question, though. What time is it ever, really?

     Turns out that depends on many things.

     Military people count time quite sensibly, as minutes and seconds within 24 of our hours.  

For them, 2:20 in the afternoon is simply 1420.  The rest of us are often unsure whether someone means before or after noon when they suggest a time to rendezvous for romance.  And time is always different for all the zones around the globe, of course.  It must be confusing for those poor folks near a time zone border who live on one side and work on the other.  They could get to work at a time before they left home, for example. 

     We divide our year arbitrarily into 12 months, but what is a year?  For us, it’s one trip around our star, or about 365 days, and a day, of course, is one earth rotation.  But on Mars a year is 687 of our days, and a single day on Venus is 243 of our days, but a day on Jupiter is only 10 of our hours.  A year on Uranus lasts over 84 of our years, on Pluto it’s 165 of our years.  Nobody on Earth can live so much as a single Pluto year even if they drink veggie smoothies and don’t watch politicians debate or Congress attempt to legislate something.

     It takes our star about two minutes to rise and clear the horizon; in other words it appears to move its own diameter in 2.13 of our minutes.  But on Mars sunrise takes 1.44 of our minutes, on Mercury it’s 16.13 of our hours, while for a maximum type-A Neptunian, it’s but 2.85 Earth-seconds.  Yet of course the sun is not really moving at all in relation to any of us.

     All this was hard enough to sort out, but then along came that electric-haired Einstein who, one of our centuries ago, told us in his relativity theory—long since now a proven fact—that time is not a constant and is really quite unreliable because it moves slower under increasing gravity or under increasing speed.  Near the speed of light (186,000 miles in a single one of our Earth-seconds) time nearly brakes to a relative stop.  This means that time moves a little slower for somebody standing at our equator, zipping along at 1,100 miles per hour as the earth rotates, than for somebody standing on the north pole, who is only turning around in place as the earth rotates (you’d think they’d get dizzy), but astronauts on the ISS are in an even slower relative time frame because they’re doing 17,150 mph to keep from falling onto Disney World or New Jersey.  But wait just an Earth-minute, they’re in zero gravity so they also experience a faster time factor.  Luckily, all their time variations don’t work out to zero or they’d never get anything done.  They’re already wasting enough of whatever their time frame is playing with their weightless food and beverages.

     On some huge dervishing distant planet, a hundred of our years unfold while only a single minute elapses for us.  Wow.  Imagine how THOSE poor creatures would feel waiting in line at the DMV. 

     And consider the geniuses who figured out how to make the GPS system work.  The satellites are speeding so their time slows down by our Earth-based reckoning.  They’re in elliptical orbits so their distances from earth and their speeds are constantly varying too, so . . .  Anyway, those clever GPS math wizards had to accommodate half a dozen different time-shifting gremlins just so you can find your way to the World’s Biggest Gator Attraction somewhere in Florida before you run out of ethanoled gas.

     The next, ah, time somebody asks you the time, it’s okay if you tell them you honestly don’t know and nobody else in the whole Universe does either.


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Monday, March 8, 2021

 Why Go to Space? (Part Two)

   Last post we thought about why the space effort can ultimately prove critical to humankind’s survival in the Universe. But there are hundreds of other ways space program developments are already benefiting us. Here are just a few:

   Improvements in Mechanics: magnetic bearings that eliminate friction and thus wear; plasma coatings that eliminate lubricants in moving parts; laser-based welding that’s stronger and more uniform; micro lasers for precision drilling and cutting materials; structural analysis software that’s used extensively in manufacturing; cleaner paint stripping methods; weight reduction materials with increased strength.

   Medical and Safety Advances: a voice-controlled wheelchair, ultrasound skin damage assessment; emergency rescue cutters; a self-righting life raft; personal medical alarms; a tollbooth purification system to protect workers; better environmental sensors; an enriched baby food ingredient to enhance infant mental and physical development; improved swimming pool purification; a miniature programmable pacemaker; safer ocular screening for children; a digital imaging breast biopsy procedure that greatly reduces pain and scarring; a fast automated urinalysis system.

High tech advances: highly efficient telemetry systems; semiconductor stacking for faster processing speeds; computer scheduling of complex tasks; scratch resistant and stay-clean lens coatings; interactive computer training methods.

Improved Environmental Systems: great solar energy advances; a device for continuously measuring atmospheric pressure; satellite weather monitoring; satellite scanning for forest management; a more accurate lightning warning device; much improved air quality monitors.

Miscellaneous fields: improved school bus chassis design; a flywheel energy storage system;  advances in hydroponics for better global vegetable production; a stronger wing design for jet aircraft along with cleaner, quieter, and more efficient jet engines; studless winter tires; much improved 12v portable coolers and heaters for campers, truckers, and medical transport; improved golf ball aerodynamics.

    These are but a few of the advances in almost every field of human endeavor that have spun off from the space program, with more to surely come.

    When we send a rover like Perseverance to Mars, for one stellar example, it needs the best solar energy system we can invent, it need stronger, lighter materials, it needs long endurance, it needs advanced robotics, it needs bearings that won’t wear out under the harshest conditions, it needs advanced cameras and telemetry. Developing new materials and products and systems to meet all these many requirements means much of that vastly improved technology can also be put to work right here at home in myriad ways.

    Does anybody still think the Space Program is a wasted effort?


Check out the North Carolina suspense novel series Guns, Diamondback, Kllrs, and Deathsman in print or Kindle on Amazon for some distracting pandemic reading. And thanks to all those out there who have sent complimentary and encouraging e-mails about the series. You’re much appreciated.


Monday, March 1, 2021

 Why Go to Space?    

   We recently witnessed the culmination of a stupendous scientific achievement when NASA landed the car-sized rover Perseverance on a rugged area of cold and distant Mars. Now the exciting exploration phase begins. We may even find proof that life once existed there.

   Such missions always bring out the Space Scoffers who argue that we shouldn’t be spending so much to explore space when we have so many dire problems right here on Earth. Why, they ask, are we doing such worthless stuff?

   Why do these scoffers never mention the trillions squandered on our massive military complex that benefits mankind not at all? The staggering 2021 defense budget is $705 billion, yet few question that. The 2021 NASA budget is $23.3 billion, only three percent of what defense is costing us.

   When we first went to the Moon one of the astronauts took a picture of Earth with the desolate alien horizon in the foreground. That photo changed mankind’s collective thinking. It was striking and deeply moving. A small sphere impossibly floating in the blackness of space, and so incredibly beautiful. There were no color-coded nations, no artificial boundaries, only verdant continents and vast cobalt blue oceans and pristine cloud veils. We saw our planet for what it is—a precious home in the hostile cold and the stellar violence and the lonely vastness.

   That astonishing photo had a profound effect. What followed were the beginnings of efforts to preserve and protect our home. The EPA, the NOAA, and annual Earth Day were founded. We banned leaded gas. Congress passed the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. The fledgling environmental movement suddenly grew up and became serious. Many nations joined in. The whole Moon program was worth it for these initiatives alone.

   Of course, we still have major problems with pollution and climate change and explosive population growth and poverty and inequality. And we do need to fix all that, which good people are trying their best to do.

   But only the space program will ultimately save us a few hundred or a thousand years from now. And it will do that with what we're just beginning to learn.

   The Moon was a steppingstone. Mars will be another "giant leap" for mankind. Right now, our species is confined to this vulnerable planet. An asteroid strike, a nuclear exchange, or a virus far more deadly than Covid all have the potential to decimate us. Outposts on the Moon and Mars could be our lifeboats, preserving enough of us so that one day, after the effects of some such catastrophe dissipate, we could re-seed Earth with our kind. No more reasons for taking these steps are necessary, yet as with the Moon program, we are sure to reap an additional incidental bounty of scientific knowledge along the way to Mars. (More about that next week.)

   One unarguable fact looms over all of this. Our star, the sun, cannot last forever. This is true because it only has a finite amount of fuel and it is already middle aged. It does not have to die in order to make our planet uninhabitable. It only needs to shift a fraction either way in its output over time to kill us off.

   The space effort is in its infancy. One day we’ll have to migrate over several generations to some young habitable planet orbiting a young healthy star, or our species will vanish from the Universe. We cannot hope to do that without first learning how. We’re taking the first tentative steps toward that goal.

   The Moon and Mars are teaching us.

   We might compare the space effort to the history of flight. It was just over a century ago that the Wright Brothers took to the sky in their fragile homemade biplane and look what has happened in aviation since. Nobody could have foreseen just how important air travel would become. The current Mars missions, wondrous as they are, only represent the beginnings of what will become an even grander adventure—our migration out among the stars.


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