Science Sunday 11-08-17

A Brief History of Flight – The Rocket Age, Part 1

Rocket Bombs

During World War II, the Germans were way ahead of the Allies in all matters Rocketry.  Even as they were decisively losing the ground war, London (and later Antwerp, in the Battle of the Bulge) were being bombarded by rocket bombs called the V-1.  The British dubbed these rocket bombs “buzz bombs” because of their distinctive buzzing sound.

The V-1 was powered by a pulsed jet engine, and was launched from airplanes.  It had no inherent guidance system, and just turned off and fell after a set amount of time.

Contrary to popular belief, less that 20% of the “buzz bombs” fired ever reached their intended targets.  They were relatively slow, and could easily be shot out of the air by allied antiaircraft guns and war planes.

Nevertheless, as the allies advanced towards Berlin, intact V-1 bombs were captured and sent back to the US, and thereof was born the first US guided missile, the JB-2.


The X-15

After WWII, The US embarked on a program to develop the first true rocket plane or space plane, the X-15.  Because the X-15 was a liquid fueled manned rocket, it could go into true space, which at the time was defined as an elevation of 62 miles.

The X-15 was not a warplane, but a research plane built for NASA.  It used up its fuel in a mere 2 minutes, so it was launched from the underside of a specially modified B-52.

The X-15 flew 199 missions from 1959 to 1968, and during that time set world altitude and speed records for a manned aircraft that have never been exceeded.  In October, 1967, pilot William J. Knight flew at a speed of 4,519 miles per hour, or Mach 6.72, at an altitude of 102,100 feet.

The X-15 was originally considered as part of a low-Earth orbit satellite delivery system, but that idea was retired with the encroaching successes of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space flight programs.


The Russians Are Coming

On October 4, 1957, Americans (and the whole world) woke up to find that the Soviets (the USSR) has launched a satellite into near-Earth orbit for the very first time in human history.

At an altitude of about 560 miles, this satellite, Sputnik I, was moving at about 18,000 mph, and took a little over 90 minutes to circumnavigate the Earth.

There was no doubt that the Soviets had done this: any amateur radio operator could easily pick up Sputnik’s radio signals broadcasting at 20MHz and 40MHz.   The space age, and the space race, had begun.

Launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome, the Soviet space mecca in what today is called Kazakhstan, Sputnik I was quite small by today’s satellite standards, only being 23 inches in diameter, but it certainly made a big splash in the worldwide press, as indicated by the above video.

The satellite made only 1440 revolutions of the Earth before reentering Earth’s atmosphere and burning up in January of 1958.



Science Sunday 09-03-17

A Brief History of Flight – Part 3

The Jet Age

Much like the development of FM radio and television, the development of truly operational military and commercial jet aircraft was delayed by the exigencies of World War II.

The “fathers” of turbojet propulsion and jet aircraft were an Englishman named Frank Whittle and a German named Hans Von Ohain.

Ohain’s work led to the first jet powered fighter aircraft, the Heinkel He 178, which first flew in August of 1939.  Whittle’s work led to the Gloster E.28/39 jet aircraft, which first flew in March of 1941.

The drawings for the Gloster E.28/39 were shared one month later with Major General Henry “Hap” Arnold, commanding officer of the US Army Air Force, who immediately requested that Bell Aircraft design an American equivalent.  Bell Aircraft did this in a mere 6 months, and the first American jet-powered aircraft, the XP-59A (featured in the above video), flew for the first time in October of 1941.

Unfortunately, the speed, handling and reliability characteristics of piston-driven propeller aircraft far outperformed all early jet aircraft, and so jet aircraft development floundered during the war.  The only jet aircraft to make it into action in World War II was the German Messerschmitt Me 262, which flew combat missions in 1944, too late in the war to affect its outcome.

Commercial jet flight first became a household item in the early 1950s, when British manufacturer De Havilland introduced the 36 seat Comet 1 to the public in May of 1952.  Unfortunately, the design of the plane led to some early crashes, which allowed American manufacturer Boeing to capture the jet aircraft market, when it introduced its now famous 707-120, with Pan-Am airlines flying from New York to London in October of 1958.  Rival manufacturer Douglas would introduce its DC-8 aircraft eleven months later.

During this period, Boeing continued its relationship with the US military, manufacturing the B-52 “Stratofortress” long range jet bomber, a plane still in service today.

For a nice summary of early jet aircraft, click here.


Cold War Reconnaissance: U2 and the SR-71

After World War II, tension between the United States and the USSR (Russia and its satellite countries) were at the highest level.  Spy satellite imagery was just a dream, decades away.

So it was imperative that the US develop high altitude planes capable of flying over any rival’s territory so as to take pictures of military installations, preparations and the like.

Lockheed Corporation was tasked with developing such planes, and the first one was the U2.  Americans and the world first heard of the U2 in 1960, when one of them was shot down over the USSR.  The pilot, Gary Powers, survived and was captured, much to the embarrassment of then President Eisenhower.

In the vast diaspora of Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories, it has been suggested that Kennedy’s alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, having worked at a secret military airfield in Japan, may have tipped off the soviets as to the altitude at which the planes flew (70,000 ft) when he defected to Russia in 1959.  Certainly the Soviets knew of the flyovers, tracked them, and shot at them prior to Powers’ plane being shot down.

The U2 would prove very useful again during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when pictures of the missile installations were obtained by flyovers of U2 planes.  One U2 was shot down during the crisis.

It was clear in the early 60s that a new reconnaissance plane was needed, one that could fly higher and faster.  Enter Lockheed’s SR-71, the Blackbird.

The SR-71 was a remarkable plane, as indicated in the video above.  With a crew of 2, it regularly flew at Mach 3.2 (that’s 3.2 times the speed of sound, or 2,458 miles per hour, or 3,600 feet  per second), at an altitude of 80,000 feet.

Because of its speed, the SR-71 would experience temperatures at high altitude of over 900 degrees Fahrenheit, with the inside of its windshield registering a temperature of about 250 degrees Fahrenheit.  These temperatures required that the plane be 90% composed of titanium.

Today, there is much speculation that Lockheed has produced and is testing a SR-71 successor code-named Aurora, with a purported maximum speed of Mach 5 to Mach 6, but there is almost no hard evidence to verify this speculation.


Science Sunday 08-26-17

A Brief History of Flight – Part 2

Lucky Lindy

No other pilot of the 1920s is better known than the American  Charles Lindbergh, who flew his Ryan Monoplane, the Spirit of St. Louis, from Long Island, NY, to Paris, France, in May of 1927.

Lindbergh was the first person to fly a fixed wing aircraft from the United States to continental Europe, but not the first person to fly a fixed wing aircraft from North America  to Europe.  That honor goes to the team of Alcock and Brown, who flew from Newfoundland to County Galway, Ireland in a mere 16 hours, traversing about 1900 miles at an average speed of 115 mph.

Lindbergh learned how to fly the “old fashioned” way, first as a post World War I barnstormer, then as a flying ace in the US Army Air Service, and finally as a US airmail pilot.

Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight was long and arduous, flying a little more than 33 hours and 3600 miles through icy storms and fog, and without a front window, landing finally at Le Bourget Field just outside Paris, to the acclaim of 150,000 witnesses.  For Lindbergh’s efforts, he won the Orteig Prize of $25,000 (in today’s money, $342,000), and received two medals, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and The Medal of Honor, from President Calvin Coolidge.

The remainder of Lindbergh’s life was no less exciting.  His first son and namesake was kidnapped and murdered, to much notoriety.  Lindbergh was an avowed isolationist prior to World War II, only seeing the error of his ways after Pearl Harbor.

During World War II, Lindbergh flew 50 combat missions in the Pacific theater, as a private consultant.

Lindbergh died in Maui, Hawaii, in 1974.

Le Bourget Airport is no longer used for commercial flights, but is home to the world famous yearly Paris Air Show.


Amelia Earhart

Perhaps the best know female pilot of all time is the aviatrix Amelia Earhart.

Earhart only lived 40 years, but in that time she accomplished many aerial feats, including being the first woman to fly solo non-stop across the Atlantic, flying from Newfoundland to Derry, Northern Ireland, in May of 1932, in a single engine Lockheed Vega 5B.  For this feat, she received the Distinguished Flying Cross from President Herbert Hoover.

Married to promoter and publicist G. P. Putnam, Earhart bounced from one record flight to another, until in 1937 she decided to aerially circumnavigate the globe.  Her first attempt, from east to west failed, when she accidentally damaged her plane in Hawaii.

Her second attempt, flying from west to east was initially more successful.  She had travelled an astounding 22,000 miles when she and her navigator Fred Noonan departed Lae, New Guinea, on July 2, 1937, destination the American territory of Howland Island situated on the Equator and the International Date Line.

The date of their departure was no coincidence: they intended to be back in the states in time for the Fourth of July.  But that was not to be, because Earhart and Noonan disappeared somewhere between Lae and Howland Island.

There continues to be controversy as to whether Earhart and Noonan perished at sea, or whether they ended up on some other island, possibly even a Japanese possession.  No one knows for sure what happened to them.

We should remember Earhart not only for her aerial derrings-dos, but also for her service as a nurse’s aide in Toronto helping returning World War I veterans, and her work teaching English to impoverished children.


Aircraft of World War II

Many innovations in aircraft design happened in the run up to (and during) World War II, but I thought it would suffice in this brief history to talk about one plane that probably won the war for the Allies.

I speak of the B17, the flying fortress.  Originally designed by Boeing Corporation, during the war the plane was manufactured by Douglas and Lockheed as well.

The bomber had the deserved reputation of taking a terrible beating while still being able to limp back home to England.

More than 12,000 B17s were made during the period of 1935 to 1945 inclusive.  At the end of production, the bomber had four 1200 hp engines, 13 machine guns, could drop from 8,000 to 17,500 lbs. of ordnance, and sported a 10 man crew.

For a truly moving recollection of what it was to fly bombing raids over Germany in 1943 without a fighter escort, read Half a Wing, Three Engines and a Prayer.

For a review of the “25 planes that won World War II”, see this fascinating article.

Science Sunday 08-13-2017

A Brief History of Flight, Part 1

The Wright Brothers

I am in the process of developing a new physics course for students interesting in the field of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), commonly known as drones.  It occurred to me to put together a brief history of human flight.

Most of us are familiar with the immense and courageous achievements of Orville and Wilbur Wright, brothers who owned a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, and who shared an inextinguishable passion for manned flight.

While there were many pioneers in manned flight, no one now doubts that the Wright brothers achieved the first heavier-than-air, fixed wing, controlled and powered flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903.

At first ignored by the press and the US government, the brothers would go on to become world celebrities, showing off their latest aircraft design in Europe and the US in 1908.

Wilbur died at the relatively young age of 45 years, of typhoid fever.  Orville was more fortunate, living to the ripe old age of 76, when he succumbed to his second heart attack.

The video above is a short but reverential bio of the Wright brothers and their indispensable sister and business partner Katharine.   A more direct and compact biography of the Wright brothers early achievements can be viewed here:


The Montgolfier Brothers

Lesser well known are the Montgolfier brothers Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne, who invented the hot air balloon in the early 1780s.  The first human flight was in one of their balloons.  It flew over Paris for over 5 miles at a height of 3000 feet on November 21, 1783, to the incredulous surprise of many dignitaries, including John Adams, his wife Abigail, and Thomas Jefferson.  HBO recreated this event at considerable expense in its award winning series John Adams.  The above video shows that part of the series, including some brilliant dialogue between the principals.




Of course, the desire of humankind to fly did not start with the Montgolfier or Wright brothers, as witnessed by the Greek legend of Icarus, son of Daedalus.

As the story goes, Daedalus was an Athenian craftsman who designed and built the labyrinth for King Minos of Crete, a maze meant to imprison the half-man half-bull monster, the Minotaur.

Imprisoned in the labyrinth by Minos himself, Daedalus fashioned wings of wax and feathers for himself and his son to escape with.  He warned his son not to fly too close to the Sun, but Icarus could not control his impetuous self, and flying too high, his wings melted over the sea on their way back to Greece, with Icarus plunging to his death.


The Red Baron


After the Wright brothers showed the world that manned flight was possible, many improvements in aircraft design rapidly ensued, including using aircraft in war.

Blimps or dirigibles were used exclusively at first, for reconnaissance only, but it soon became apparent that fixed wing aircraft could do a better job of both reconnaissance and warfare.

The Germans were the first to realize that a machine gun could be synchronized to fire between an airplane’s propellers, and they quickly took advantage of this design improvement.

The most notable of German World War I flying aces was the inestimable Baron von Richthofen, also known as the Red Baron (his plane was painted red).  He is credited with 80 confirmed aerial combat kills, but was himself shot down before the end of the war.


Bessie Coleman

Anyone who lives in the Chicagoland area and has visited O’Hare Airport has driven by or on Bessie Coleman Drive, named after Bessie Coleman, the first African-American and Native-American woman to earn a pilot’s license.

Born the 10th of 13 children to George Coleman, a Texas sharecropper, and his wife Susan, Bessie distinguished herself in school, but soon grew restless, wanting to make something of her life.  She moved to Chicago, saving her money as she worked both as a manicurist and in a chili restaurant.  Wanting badly to be a licensed pilot, but denied that opportunity in her home country, she set sail for France, where she soon learned how to fly.

She returned to the states with her pilot’s license to much notoriety, but soon realized that she would need additional flight training to make a living as a barnstormer, or aerial acrobatic pilot, so she returned to Europe for additional advanced training.

She returned to the US and to a successful career as a barnstormer, but died unexpectedly in a plane crash in 1926.


Science Sunday 08-06-17

Clingy Drones

Vice News’ Motherboard reports that a new type of drone has successfully been designed by researchers at the Createk Design Lab at the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec that can semi-autonomously alight on, and cling to, vertical surfaces, both hard and soft.

Besides obvious spy applications which were not intentionally part of the design process, the researchers suggest that the drone can be used to survey areas damaged by earthquakes, or inspect tall structures that are difficult to get to.



Recently, a team of eleven geologists strongly recommended that the sunken land mass between Australia and New Zealand, called Zeelandia, be declared a full (as opposed to mini) continent.

Zealandia was completely submerged until about 23 million years ago, when New Zealand, the French territory of New Caledonia, and assorted islands began popping out of the sea.

If the gelogists recommendation flies, we will have eight continents, instead of the seven we learned in grammar school.


Matter Matter Everywhere

Science Daily reports that scientists may have finally determined the reason why matter dominates our Universe, and why we are actually here.

In physics there is a kind of symmetry called CP (shorthand for charge parity), and it has been thought for some time that this symmetry might be violated for a certain subatomic process called neutrino oscillation.

Neutrinos come in three varieties (or flavors) depending on what lightly massive particle the neutrino is paired with.  There is a neutrino for electrons, one for muons, and one for tauons, and as odd as it sounds, as these neutrinos fly through space, they repeatedly change (or oscillate) from one neutrino kind to another.

Maintaining CP symmetry would require that these neutrino oscillations be exactly mirrored by their antiparticle cousins (for example an electron antineutrino), but recent work in Japan strongly suggests that this is not the case.

The above video is a nice introduction to neutrinos and how we detect their existence.

Stay tuned: some folks might soon be winning a Nobel prize in physics for this work.


 Job Opening

This week featured a bizarre and somewhat amusing story about a job opening at NASA for “planetary protection officer”, with annual pay of about $187K.  A nine year old boy was an early applicant for the job.

The job is not about protecting Earth from an invasion of ruthless space aliens, but is instead all about keeping the Earth, and solar system places NASA space probes visit, biologically separated.  What NASA doesn’t want under any circumstances is to bring Earth bacteria (and other living stuff) to (say) Mars, or vice versa.

This way Earth would not inadvertently be biologically injured by life from outside Earth, or vice versa.  Such life might be so different that Earth life might be literally defenseless.

You have until August 14th to apply for the position.


Mars Or Bust

Elon Musk of Space X is determined to get to Mars, and soon, and like his work with electric cars, he cannot be faulted for lack of vision.

The video above shows an ingenious system for sending a proto-colony of 100 brave souls to the red planet in a time frame of about 10 years.

Powered by 42 newly designed Raptor engines, our pioneers will have to wait in orbit a while before taking off for Mars, as the original booster rockets needs to come back a few times to refuel the mother ship for the long (roughly three month) journey ahead.

As a first step, Space X expects to send a Dragon cargo ship to Mars sometime in 2018, so stay tuned.

But don’t worry, Dave Chapelle is on the job:

Science Sunday 07-30-17

Tesla Model 3

Well, it’s finally “almost” here, the Tesla Model 3 all electric sedan and sportscar, that promises to be affordable to the masses, and be practical to use.

Over a half million blokes have put down a deposit of $1,000 to purchase what has to be the iPhone of cars.  Although 30 cars have been produced thus far, they were released only to Tesla employees to try out and report bugs.

Although Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla (and Space X) asserts that you will be able to buy one of these pups for “only” 35 grand, a base model is more likely to run you $42,000.

The base model will have a reported range of 220 miles per charge, but for extra money, you can buy a battery upgrade and enjoy an extended range of 310 miles.

The vehicle has no dedicated instrumentation, instead relying exclusively on a tri-partitioned touch screen that shows gauge information, map information, and apps controls.  Even the glove box opens via a button on the touch screen.

The base model and the more expensive souped up models are quite peppy, doing 0 to 60 mph in under 6 seconds.

Musk is “betting the farm” on economies of scale, in particular building the world’s largest factory for batteries (or anything else) in Nevada.

While the first production models will have a single rear wheel drive motor, later versions of the Model 3 will sport all wheel drive.

For a European perspective on this blockbuster announcement, watch this video:


Plastic bottles – The Inquiry

Last week, I wrote about the environmental dangers of plastics, especially one-time-use plastic bottles.  So it was refreshing to hear in detail about that same subject on the (soon to be one of my favorite) podcasts from the BBC called The Inquiry.

The July 23rd episode addresses the question of whether it is time to ban the plastic bottle.  As is the case with all Inquiry podcasts, four experts hold forth of the subject being investigated, and this episode did not disappoint me.

I learned that currently every second of every day, 20 thousand one-time-use plastic water bottles are sold world-wide.  That works out to one million non-biodegradable bottles sold per minute.

The first expert, a Captain Charles Moore, credited with discovering the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the late 1990s, said that the amount of plastic waste floating in gyres in the oceans of the world has increased 60 fold since his initial discovery.  He estimates that if humanity does nothing to curtail plastic waste, then by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans.

Other experts on the podcast talk about government banning of plastic bottles, the need to improve recycling of plastics, the need to create biodegradable plastics, and the need to give users a monetary incentive to recycle disposable plastics, or to not use them in the first place.

The podcast goes on to report that in Europe, consumers of shell fish ingest an average of 11,000 very small pieces of plastic per fish.  The plastic used in bottled water, PETE, is now under investigation as a source of endocrine disruptors, chemicals that can affect human fertility.


Sperm Down For the Count

A recent study in the journal Human Reproduction Update reports that human sperm count has declined by about 60% in the last 40 years in North America, Australia and New Zealand.  Factoring in Europe, the decline is about 50%.

The lead author, Dr. Hagai Levine of Hebrew University, gives no opinion on why this precipitous decline has occurred, but some factors mentioned in news reports are obesity and estrogenic compounds in plastics.  Estrogenics are the endocrine inhibitors mentioned in the plastics post above.

A newsletter I follow, the People’s Pharmacy, also mentioned this study, and opined that it may in part be due to the plastic compound BPA (Bisphenol-A).  The Mayo Clinic has some advice on how to reduce exposure to BPA.


Fracking and Earthquakes, Surely You Jest!

Ok Fracking Earthquake Animation

Click on the picture above to watch how fracking induced earthquakes in Senator Inhofe’s state have literally exploded over the last twelve or so years.

Courtesy of USGS, at least until Trump figures out how to defund it.



Science Sunday 07-23-17

Quoth The Raven “No Problem!”

A study in the July issue of Science once again demonstrates the stunningly high intelligence of ravens, and other members of the crow family.

Ravens are part of a larger species called corvids, which include crows, jays and magpies.  Tests conclusively prove that these birds can solve problems better than four year old humans and some great apes.

Ravens have shown the ability to fashion tools to obtain food, to exchange tokens for food on a delayed basis, to hold grudges against fellow birds, etc.

If it’s been a while since you read Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven”, click here.


Peering Into The Past

Don’t look now, but one of the largest ever scientific undertakings is occurring in the southern hemisphere, with strongest participation in South Africa and Australia.

Called the Square Kilometer Array, a massive number of radio telescopes will be deployed in two stages, called SKA1 and SKA2.

SKA1 is expected to be completes by 2023, and will consist of 64 mid-frequency range radio telescopes in South Africa (MeerKAT), as well as 2,048 low frequency range radio telescopes in Australia (Murchison Wide Field Array).

When this deployment is completed, this joint array of telescopes will be 10 times more sensitive than any current radio telescope, and will be able to look back to the earliest part of the illuminated Universe.  Many experiments will be performed, including ones designed to detect far away amino acids (a sign of life), to intercept possible radio signals from distant, advanced civilizations, and to explore the nature of dark matter.

To see this project from an Australian viewpoint, click below:


Rex, We Hardly Knew You

Recent studies demonstrate that it is likely that Tyrannosaurus Rex was not the speedy predator suggested in movies like Jurassic Park.

Instead of moving at the previously hypothesized maximum speed of 45 mph, these new studies suggest much slower maximum speeds.  In one study, the max speed given is about 17 mph, while the other study’s max speed is only 12 mph.


Plastic Twilight Zone

Plastics have only been around for about 65 years, but they seem to taking over the world, and not in a good way.

Roland Geyers of the University of California at Santa Barbara recently published a seminal paper on the problem of plastic waste, and its impact on the world’s lands and seas.

So far, humans have produced an astonishing 8 billion metric tons of plastic since 1952, with nearly half of that having been made in the last 13 years.  This total plastic production is the mass equivalent of 13 billion elephants.

Plastic can only be eliminated through incineration.  It is otherwise non-biodegradable.

Geyers estimates that if nothing is done, then by the year 2050, there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste in landfills, and 250 million metric tons of plastic waste in Earth’s oceans.

The big problem with plastics, says Geyers, is packaging, which gets used just once and is thrown away.  While some plastic will break down into smaller parts because of ultraviolet radiation, those smaller parts are still plastic, and if in the oceans, can be ingested by fish small and large, and ultimately end up on your dinner table.

Reminds me of the bread companies that 30 years ago put wood chips in their bread and claimed (correctly) that the bread was now much higher in fiber content.


Hidden Sounds in Microvibrations

Abe Davis and his fellow students at MIT are on to something truly amazing:  the retrieval of otherwise undetectable sounds from high speed “visual only” videos of objects that are apparently not moving but have nevertheless been affected by nearby ambient sounds, sounds of such low intensity that the objects are moving less than a micron (or one millionths of a meter) in lateral displacement.

In the Ted Talk above, we see how computer algorithms can take these incredibly small motions and cumulatively recreate what the original sounds must have been that caused the object to vibrate in the first place.