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.


Wewease the Secwet Weapon

I am a strong advocate of the various you tube inspired channels that inform the general public regarding all matters scientific.  These channels include the original V-Sauce, I Luv Vi Hart, Veristasium, Minute Physics, Numberphile, and the Periodic Table of Videos.

Add to this list the delightful “Talk Nerdy to Me”, courtesy of the Huffpost.  In the video linked above, we see a fun but accurate description of developments in the hot field of renewable energy sources, including solar energy that would otherwise bypass the Earth being transmitted from a (presumably geosynchronous) satellite to a ground station below via collimated laser or microwave beams.

On the subject of energy, a pet peeve of mine was reinforced by a comment made my Richard Feynman in his autobiography “Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman!”  On page 271, he states that energy is not consumed (destroyed) in the process of doing work, but is instead transformed from a concentrated form to a diluted form.  In my entire teaching career, I have never seen this mentioned in a single physics text book, although I teach it every semester.

BTW, these new sources of “free” energy reminded me of Madeleine Kahn, the great comedic actress, who was the voice, with obvious speech defect, of Gussie Mausheimer, leader of the mice rebelling against the cats in the animated film “An American Tail”, who directs the release of the “secret weapon” (a giant mechanical mouse) at just the right time for the mice to defeat the cats.

May renewable energy sources produce the “secret weapon” we need to achieve energy independence.