Do the Funky Conch Hop

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A conch is a kind of snail, right? And snails don’t jump; they ooze, right? Well, not always, it turns out. Here, from Science News, is a story about the motion of Gibberulus gibberulus gibbosus, aka hunchbacked conch.

To quote: “The sea snails save their jumping for conch emergencies, such as when they detect dissolved body odor from the deadly cone snail Conus marmoreus. Cone snails glide rather than jump. But if a cone snail gets close enough, it harpoons the conch with a long, venom-delivering proboscis that is as agile as an elephant’s trunk. Then it reels in the paralyzed conch like a fish on the line. Such threats favor epic jumping in spite of the conch circulatory system…” [more]

Watch this conch jump. (It’s small in the screen, so click in the lower right corner to maximize.)

Braided Clouds, from Space

posted in: nature, science, space, weather 0

This NASA image caught my eye on The Atlantic’s website. (Click the link if this embed code doesn’t work. Ah, nope, it doesn’t. Click the link.) Cloud vortices off Heard Island, south Indian Ocean, from NASA’s Aqua satellite.

Cloud vortices off Heard Island, south Indian Ocean. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard NASA’s Aqua satellite captured this true-color image of sea ice off Heard Island on Nov 2, 2015 at 5:02 AM EST (09:20 UTC). A cloud vortex- the circular pattern seen here- is produced by the flow of air in the atmosphere. Heard Island (visible in the lower right portion of the image) is located in the Indian Ocean, about two-thirds of the way from Madagascar to Antarctica. The island is uninhabited by humans, although it is home to many birds and seals. Heard Island is rugged and mountainous, and is mostly covered with ice. It is also home to an active volcano, Mawson Peak. The island has been a territory of Australia since 1947. Credit: NASA/Goddard/Jeff Schmaltz/MODIS Land Rapid Response Team #nasagoddard
A photo posted by NASA Goddard (@nasagoddard) on

The Cat’s Still Alive (and Dead)! — Schrödinger Sessions

Not really Schrödinger’s cat, but she is in a box.

I’ve just come back from an incredible weekend at the Schrödinger Sessions: Science for Science Fiction, at the Joint Quantum Institute at the University of Maryland, near Washington, D.C. The JQI staff hosted just over a dozen SF writers, and for several days stuffed our heads full of information about quantum physics. It was head-exploding. But in a good way!

Here are some of the things we learned from Chad Orzel, Steve Rolston, Chris Monroe, and others:

  • How to become quantum (which only works if you are very small, much smaller even than I was when I was at my low weight).
  • How (if you can master the first step) you can be in two places at one time—and also how to collapse that state so that you’re just in one.
  • How to trap a single charged atom (ion) in a vacuum trap and cool it to just a whisker above Absolute Zero. (And we leaned over and didn’t touch! equipment that does just that.)
  • How to quantum-entangle two or more particles in the above-mentioned apparatus. (Okay, I still don’t really understand how to do that.)
  • How to make light disappear with two polarized filters, and reappear with the addition of a third. (I sort of understand that.)
  • That sometimes the answer to the question “Why?” is “Just shut up and calculate.”
  • That probability is not a definition of a thing, but a statement of our knowledge of a system.
  • That probability is not a definition of knowledge after all, but of our ignorance about a system.
  • That there are two rules of quantum mechanics:
  1. Quantum objects are waves, and can be in states of superposition (more than one position at a time).
  2. Rule #1 holds as long as you don’t look!

Professor James Gates (familiar from countless PBS documentaries) told us why he doesn’t buy the extra dimensions suggested by most string theorists.
Professor Raman Sundrum (of the Randall-Sundrum Model) told us why he does, and furthermore why it’s possible we’re living in a holographic universe.

I learned that quantum physicists say “I don’t know” a lot.

There was tons more, presented by a bunch of professors. I hope I can remember it. Or most of it. Or some of it.

Part of it, in fact, plays right into what I’m trying to do in The Reefs of Time. So I really hope I can remember that part.

Maybe I’ll buy the book by Chad Orzel, one of the workshop leaders, How to Teach [Quantum] Physics to Your Dog.

Down in there is a glowing cluster of verra verra cold ytterbium atoms.    

Space-X Explosion: Even the Students Feel the Pain

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Julia Powell, age 15, is in high school. Her group’s science experiment was on its way to the International Space Station aboard the Space-X rocket when it was blown to smithereens by the failure of the Falcon 9 booster last Sunday.

That’s got to hurt.

What’s got to hurt even more is that it was the second time her experiment was blown up in a launch failure. Yes, she and fellow students had their first space-bound experiment aboard the Antares rocket that exploded on launch last October.

Those students are learning just how hard spaceflight can be. But God bless them, they’re not giving up. You go, girls and guys.

Riding a Comet!

The successful landing of Philae on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko by the European Space Agency is a welcome bright spot in this month’s space news. Bright for science, and bright for the spirit of exploration. Well done, ESA!

As I type this, I don’t know if Philae has yet run out of battery power. In case you’ve been living in a mine this week, Philae dropped across space to a landing, but took a few unfortunate bounces and ended up resting on a precarious spot with too much shadow for its solar cells. I wish we could send it a light! I’d even contribute my Stanley car jumpstart battery, if it would help. Well, I’m sure Philae’s clever scientist-parents will make the most of it. And I can’t wait to find out what they learn. [Update: Apparently it has run out of battery power, after drilling into the comet, but before sending data back. Ow, that hurts. But there may be opportunity for it to recharge slowly, in the coming months, and maybe come back to life for a while. Let’s hope.]

It’s amazing how little we knew about comets until we started visiting them in robotic person. We used to think they were basically dirty snowballs. Now we see that they’re much more like asteroids, but with some snow and ice to provide outgassing for the halo.

As I looked at the pictures of the comet, I found myself thinking of John Bandicut, fictional space pilot in my novel Neptune Crossing. John had to smack just such a comet really really hard, to keep it from hitting Earth. Looking at those pictures of a real comet, I reflected on how Bandie was one mongo brave dude to do such a thing. Even if he did have alien science working for him, and was half out of his mind with silence fugue. When I wrote the scene, I knew he was brave. But I don’t think I knew just how brave.

Thanks, Bandie, for riding that other comet!  (Even if you are fictional, and in the future.)

I like XKCD’s view of the landing:

Fusion Power from Skunk Works?

posted in: science, technology 0

Ever since the 1950s, the promise of unlimited power from controlled nuclear fusion has been just around the corner—or, to be more precise, about fifty years in the future. It’s still fifty years in the future, according to most experts.

Well, the people at Lockheed Martin Skunk Works (creators of the famed SR-71 Blackbird spy plane), say they’re going to do it a lot faster. Here’s a talk by Charles Chase, of the Skunk Works. You can skip the first half of it, if you know more or less what fusion research is all about.

A lot was left unsaid, obviously, such as how close they have come to break-even—i.e., more energy coming out of the system from fusion reactions than is being put in. I’m skeptical of the claim, myself, but I would love to be proven wrong. For one thing, the application to space travel could be fantastic.

I guess we’ll wait and see. Usually the Skunk Works doesn’t advertise what they’re up to. Why is this different?

Heaven and Science

My friend Rich Bowker posted an interesting examination of a Newsweek cover story entitled… well, let me quote Rich:

So Newsweek has a cover story called Proof of Heaven: A Doctor’s Experience With the Afterlife. It’s a pretty standard near-death experience story, with a couple of twists: it’s told by a neurosurgeon, and it took place during a coma during which his brain supposedly wasn’t functioning:

There is no scientific explanation for the fact that while my body lay in coma, my mind—my conscious, inner self—was alive and well. While the neurons of my cortex were stunned to complete inactivity by the bacteria that had attacked them, my brain-free consciousness journeyed to another, larger dimension of the universe: a dimension I’d never dreamed existed and which the old, pre-coma me would have been more than happy to explain was a simple impossibility.

read Rich’s whole post

Rich goes on to cite a rebuttal in Huffington Post by physicist and vocal atheist Victor Stenger.

Because I cannot leave well enough alone, I decided to chime in. And here’s the comment I left on Rich’s blog:

After reading both the Newsweek article and the Stenger “rebuttal” of it, I’d have to say I find both pieces of writing wanting for rigor. Dr. Alexander’s piece is interesting and provocative, but, to be sure, not “proof” of anything except that he had an extraordinary personal experience. Was his experience a glimpse of an objectively real extra-dimensional existence? It seemed so to him. You call it “pretty standard-issue stuff for near-death experience (NDE) stories,” which it is. But you can’t discount the possibility that the reason it’s standard issue is because many people have glimpsed the same otherworldly view, and it’s actually real. (It could also be because that’s the sort of image that the brain circuitry produces under certain stressful conditions.)

Bottom line, I don’t know any way the rest of us can know if it was real or not, nor is it clear to me how–even theoretically–one could scientifically study his particular case, unless there turned out to be EEG recordings or something that could shed light, perhaps by recording a burst of brain activity at some crucial point. Even that wouldn’t really prove anything. So we’re left with the evidence of his subjective experience, which I would say is not without value, but also not a smoking gun. One wishes he had asked those questions about alternative explanations. Maybe he does, in his book.

So Stenger asked the questions for him. And if you wonder if Stenger has a dog in this race*, it’s instructive to look at the titles of some of his books: God: The Failed Hypothesis. How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist and God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion — neither of which fills me with confidence about his objectivity on the question. He dismisses Alexander’s account as “the classic argument from ignorance,” and goes on about the “God of the gaps” view, but I don’t think that’s a fair characterization of Alexander’s account at all. In fact, I don’t find Stenger’s argument at all more objective than Alexander’s. Stenger has a clear axe to grind, and Newsweek and Alexander give him an easy target by claiming “proof of Heaven” when what Alexander has is powerful experiential evidence (powerful to him) that cannot easily be tested.

You’re right; it’s not proof of Heaven–any more than science shows that God does not exist. Both claims go way beyond the bounds of science.

What to do? Maybe SF has something interesting to say on the subject. Oh wait–it does. Connie Willis’s novel Passage.

*I seem to recall that Stenger was one of the authors I complained about in my own critique of the New Scientist’s “God Issue” last Spring. I complained because he presented very little science, but did so in a most authoritative voice. And I have to say, the more I read and think on the subject, the more convinced I become that the scientists who speak most authoritatively on questions of philosophy and theology seem to be the ones who fail to recognize when they’ve stepped out of bounds of science.

Curiosity Descent Caught on Camera by Mars Orbiter

posted in: astronomy, Mars, science, space 0

I can never seem to catch our animals, or for that matter, my family members, on camera when they’re in the act of doing something interesting. I always get something blurred, or dull, a few moments later. But NASA does a better job. The Mars Orbiter, with split-second timing, caught this photo of Curiosity on its way down to the planet’s surface.

The inset is a close-up of the landing craft hanging from the huge, supersonic parachute that helped slow Curiosity to a safe landing speed. If this doesn’t win an award for best action photography, I don’t know what will.

  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
Details here and here.

Mars Landing in an Hour and a Half!

I’m in my office, working. But Curiosity lands on Mars at about 1:30 a.m. Eastern time, and I don’t intend to miss it. It doesn’t seem that it’s going to be carried on any of the two thousand channels Comcast offers, so I have NASA TV set up via several different URLS, in different browser windows.

In Firefox, I’ve got a feed paused at and another at

In Chrome, I’ve got set up. At least one of them ought to work!

Just to get in the mood, I rewatched the Seven Minutes of Terror

Sally Ride, 1951 – 2012

America’s first woman astronaut died Monday at the age of 61, of pancreatic cancer. Sally Ride was an inspiration to millions, and not just girls and women. I remember what a triumph it felt to me, back in 1983, when she rode Challenger into space, ending once and for all the perception that American space travel was solely the domain of men. Nowadays, women fly missions all the time, and sometimes command them. It’s easy to forget that as recently as the early 1980’s, women were simply not part of the NASA equation. The Soviet Union had sent a woman, Valentina Tereshkova, into space twenty years earlier, but that had not signaled a general welcome of women into the Soviet space program. In the case of Sally Ride, it really was the shattering of a glass ceiling. After the loss of Challenger in 1986, Dr. Ride was named to the presidential commission that investigated the cause of the tragedy. She later went on to found Sally Ride Science, an organization devoted to supporting girls’ and boys’ interests in science, math and technology.

Here was a woman who made a difference. It’s sad to see her passing. Godspeed, Sally Ride.

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