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.


Science Sunday 07-16-17

Deep Space Testing

On July 10th, NASA sealed the James Webb Telescope into a chamber designed to see how well the telescope will work in the environment of outer space.

The telescope is a successor to the famed Hubble Space Telescope, and is expected to pick up the much fainter infrared light of galaxies shining from near the edge of the visible universe, some 13.4 billion light years away.

Testing is expected to last 100 days, with the first 40 days devoted to conditioning the spacecraft to the extremely cold conditions needed for it to operate properly.

Named after NASA’s second administrator James Webb, the telescope is extremely complicated in form and deployment.  It will be positioned at Lagrange Point 2, about 1 million miles away from Earth’s unilluminated side.  The scope will have a primary mirror greater than 20 feet across, and will permanently face away from the Sun, protected by a football field sized sunshield that reduces the temperature around the mirror to minus 370 degrees Fahreinheit.

The mission will launch in October of 2018, from French Guiana, aboard an Arianne 5 rocket.  It will take about 10 days from launch to become fully operational.


Banana Nana Fo Fana

From Time Magazine:

Genetically engineered bananas, packed with micronutrients, are to undergo their first human trial in the United States to test their ability to battle rampant vitamin A deficiency — a large cause of infant death and blindness throughout low-income communities around the world.

“The consequences of vitamin A deficiency are dire with 650,000 to 700,000 children worldwide dying … each year and at least another 300,000 going blind,” the project leader, Professor James Dale from Australia’s Queensland University of Technology, told AFP.

The six-week trial backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation expects to have results by the end of the year and plans to have the bananas growing in Uganda by 2020.


CAR-T Therapy Shows High Cure Rate for Leukemia

CAR-T stands for chimeric antigen receptor T cell therapy, a gene editing technique that promises to cure certain cancers on an individual by individual basis.

The FDA has just given tentative approval for a version of this therapy that promises to knock out B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).  Clinical trials showed a complete remission (or cure) rate of 83%.

The treatment is called CTL019, and is being manufactured by Novartis.


Exploring Inner Space

The above video is a Ted Talk by Robert “Bob” Ballard, deep sea explorer extraordinaire.  Professor Ballard is best known for finding sunken ships like the Titanic, the Bismarck, and the Yorktown.

But Mr. Ballard is a polymath of the unexplored world of Earth’s oceans and seas, known not only for finding lost ships like those listed above, but also for exploring the Mid-Ocean Ridge, which altogether comprise an essentially uninterrupted span of underwater mountains over 40,000 miles long.

Along this mid-ocean ridge and its accompanying “rift” valley, hydrothermal vents spawn an amazing diversity of life, including bacteria that can change chemicals into the energy needed by the creatures hosting them (chemosynthesis).

In Mr. Ballard’s Ted Talk, he “complains” that the yearly budget for NASA would pay NOAA’s budget for 1600 years.  A compelling speaker, Mr. Ballard makes the case that humanity should as much explore the inner space of our oceans and seas as we do the outer space we seek to understand.





Science Sunday 07-09-17

You Go Frogs

A recent article in National Academy of Sciences Journal asserts that frogs were a primary beneficiary of the asteroid strike some 66 million years ago that wiped out the dinosaurs.

Known as the Cretaceous-Paleogene Extinction Event, the asteroid impact was so devastating that nearly 75% of all life on Earth was wiped out.

Frogs, which have been around for at least 200 million years, were able to survive and flourish after this extinction event, asserts the authors, because of the frogs’ relatively small sizes, their post extinction adaptive behaviors, and abandoned ecosystems.

The article’s authors, David Blackburn and Peng Zhang, studied DNA evidence from modern frogs to show that that most of the current 6,700 frog species date from the post extinction period.  They suggest that the frogs may have initially survived the extinction event because they could either burrow into the ground or live in trees.


New Baryon Discovered

Scientists using the large hadron collider (LHC) at CERN have discovered a long sought after baryon called the Xi-CC++.  It is composed of two charm quarks and an up quark.

Lead scientist Patrick Spradlin of the University of Glasgow “explains” the structure of this new particle (which only lasts a trillionth of a second, and whose existence must be inferred by the debris left behind when it decays) by making an analogy to a peculiar kind of star-planet system.

The particle is composed of two heavy charm quarks, and one light up quark.  The charm quarks are slow moving, like a binary star system, and the fast moving up quark acts like a planet moving around the two “charm stars”.

Although the discovery of this new particle is just “pure science”, it is nevertheless important because it reinforces the standard model of how ordinary matter is constructed, and paves the way for further exploration of the strong nuclear force that binds nuclear particles together.


Blow Blow Thou Winter Wind

There’s been a lot of hot air blowing out of Washington, DC, recently, about global warming and a resurgence of coal as an electrical power source, but the inevitability of renewable electrical power production eventually eclipsing fossil fuel electrical power production (i.e. natural gas, coal and nuclear) is becoming increasingly obvious.

I was struck by an AP article that said that electrical power production from renewable sources had outpaced electrical power production from nuclear power plants (for the months of March and April 2017) for the first time since 1984.

To put things in perspective, for the calendar year 2016, nuclear energy accounted for 19.7% of total electrical energy production, and renewables accounted for 14.9 %.  So this is a big shift just this year.

As a possible explanation for this shift, the article went on to say that more than 60% of all utility-scale electrical power generating capacity that went online in 2016 was from wind and solar.

Solar has a way to go, accounting for less than 1% of total electrical energy production in 2016, but it is quite popular in California, where 13.2 GW of solar power production occurred in 2015.  Recent increases in solar power efficiency (out of Australia) seem very promising.

What struck me the most was the incredible increase in electrical energy produced by offshore and onshore wind turbines.  In the period from 2004 to 2016, total power capacity from wind increased from 6.46 GW (Gigawatts or trillions of watts) to 81.3 GW, a 12,600% increase.  Wind power now accounts for 5.56% of total electrical energy production in the US.

Here’s a little 101 video on wind turbine electrical energy production:

In a comparable period (2006 to 2016), US coal production declined by a whopping 37%, with 7% of coal mined in 2015 being exported.

The opening video, from D News, discusses what the positive consequences would be to the US if traditional fossil fuel power plants were replaced by renewable power sources like wind and solar.

The bottom line: as renewable power sources become cheaper and more efficient, more traditional power plants will inevitably go offline.  Hopefully the US will continue to be a leader in renewable electrical energy source production.