Science Sunday 06-03-17

Popular Science Cassini Retrospective


Popular Science has put together an amazing retrospective collection of images from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft.  It’s just one web page, so it will probably blow out your browser’s temporary memory, but check it out anyway.  There are quite a few worthy wallpaper images you can use.  Click on the link above to see this collection.

The white dot next to the arrow is Earth.

Icarus Redux

NASA just announced that it will be sending a probe to the Sun to study the Sun’s corona and its solar wind, among other things.

The probe is named after University of Chicago professor Eugene Parker, who first hypothesized the existence of a supersonic solar wind emanating from our star.

The probe will launch in July of 2018 and will fly to within 6.2 million kilometers of the Sun.  That’s about 96% of the way from the Earth to the Sun, so the probe will have to withstand very high temperatures and immense solar radiation.

Minority Report

The BBC reports that Dr. Doris Tsao has shown that a mere 200 neurons in a monkey’s brain completely specify the image seen and remembered by the monkey.

Dr. Tsao was able to take the excitation pattern of the 200 neurons and recreate with remarkable accuracy the image that the monkey actually saw.

In principle, this means that at least for visual memories, it might soon be possible to “read” a person’s mind and accurately recreate the visual image the person is seeing in her mind.  Police could use this technique to produce significantly more faithful “sketches” of an eyewitness’ visual account of a reported criminal.

A New Ripple From Outer Space

Scientists at Caltech have just announced that a third gravitational wave (or space-time ripple) has been detected.  The wave detected is due to two black holes merging after circling each other.  The combined mass of the two black holes was estimated to be 49 solar masses (49 times the current mass of the Sun).

The two LIGO observatories have localized this latest collision to a spot 3 billion light years away, meaning the event detected in January, 2017, actually occurred 3 billion years ago.  Talk about ancient history!

The previous two instances of gravitational wave detection were also black hole mergers, the first having a combined mass of 62 solar masses, and the second having a combined mass of 21 solar masses.

For a primer on gravitational waves and why they are so important, check out this video:

Godel’s Incompleteness Theorems

As is often the case, I stumbled upon a series of Numberphile2 videos about a fellow named Godel who basically showed that there are some truths (statements known incontrovertibly to be true) that cannot be proven within the axiomatic boundaries of mathematics.

The above video (which is the third of three videos) deals with the suggestion that maybe theology can invoke Godel’s theorems to “save itself” from the ongoing assault of science on various religious assertions.






Science Sunday

Climate Change

In the video above, Hari Sreenivasan of PBS News Hour interviews the editor in chief of National Geographic Susan Goldberg about the lead article in the magazine’s latest issue concerning the seven facts about global warming we need to focus on going forward.

To view a very nice animation of these seven facts, click here.


Emails From Heaven

Robert Kuhn interviews the ever ebullient and entertaining physicist and futurist Michio Kaku on the always pressing question of whether life – and the Universe itself – has any meaning.

Kaku ultimately suggests that meaning for homo sapiens comes from what we do with our lives, and how we value our activities.

Kaku quotes Freud’s answer to this question, namely that life gains meaning through work and through love.  He speaks of more conservative scientists who say that the purpose of life – to quote Saint Ignatius – is to give greater glory to God (ad majorem dei gloriam).

Putting the two together, it seems to me that work that makes a difference in society, as well as helping our fellow human beings in a Christ like way, is doing God’s work.

I once asked my brother – who was teaching Sunday School, and didn’t know how to pop the hood of his car – where heaven was.  He knew he was in for a sparring, but his answer was nevertheless brilliant:

Heaven is where your heart is.


Whither the Martian Atmosphere?

In late 2013, NASA launched a mission to Mars called MAVEN.  The MAVEN spacecraft was designed to orbit Mars and try to find out what happened to its atmosphere.

The principal scientific team – out of the University of Colorado at Boulder – has now just reported what it thinks happened to Mars’ atmosphere.

Because Mars does not have a significant magnetic field, it cannot “shield itself” from the solar wind and that wind’s own magnetic field.

When the solar wind’s charged particles hit the Martian atmosphere, at speeds up to 1.8 million miles per hour, molecules in the Martian atmosphere become ionized, and can be transported into space by the solar wind’s own magnetic field.  This process is called sputtering.

If you have time for a more extended discussion of why life flourished on Earth but failed on Mars, check out this video from SpaceRip:

Two For the Price of One

This image, taken with the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 on board the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, shows the galaxy NGC 6052, located around 230 million light-years away in the constellation of Hercules. It would be reasonable to think of this as a single abnormal galaxy, and it was originally classified as such. However, it is in fact a “new” galaxy in the process of forming. Two separate galaxies have been gradually drawn together, attracted by gravity, and have collided. We now see them merging into a single structure. As the merging process continues, individual stars are thrown out of their original orbits and placed onto entirely new paths, some very distant from the region of the collision itself. Since the stars produce the light we see, the “galaxy” now appears to have a highly chaotic shape. Eventually, this new galaxy will settle down into a stable shape, which may not resemble either of the two original galaxies.NASA announced today that the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 of the Hubble Space Telescope has imaged the collision of two galaxies merging into one.

The double galaxy is identified as NGC 6052, and is located 230 million light years away, in the constellation Hercules.

So the image to the left shows the galaxies colliding about the time that dinosaurs were starting to dominate this planet, and when the mean Earth day was about 23 hours.

No need to check back for an update of the picture though: the whole merging process will take about a million years.