Floating Quantum Puck

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Do you have a puck-sized disk of sapphire (coated, obviously, with yttrium barium copper oxide) gathering dust in the back of your junk drawer? If so, you’re halfway to your own personal “quantum locked” maglev train. All you need is some liquid nitrogen and a magnetic track. Here’s what your project will look like when you’re done:

You can read about it at Discover Magazine, which also has links to some explanation of the physics.

Cool Things in Space

posted in: quirky, science, space, Sunborn 0

We might not have the space shuttle anymore, but there’s a lot to be psyched about in space. Here are a few, in case you haven’t heard about them.

Antimatter Orbiting the Earth?
Sounds crazy, but it could be for real. Scientists working with the Pamela spacecraft (Payload for Antimatter Matter Exploration and Light-nuclei Astrophysics, in case you were wondering about the name) report that they have found antiprotons in orbit around the Earth, apparently gathered into bands similar to the Van Allen radiation belts. While not in large enough concentrations to cause passing spacecraft to go boom, the researchers note that they could be a source of fuel for future spacecraft.

Water Flowing on Mars?
Could be. New studies of images from Mars orbit sure look a lot like seasonal flows of water. If it’s the real deal, this could mean liquid water close to the surface, and that could mean a greater likelihood of life on Mars. Now, not a million years ago.

Beer in Space!
Now we’re talking. Yeah, people—including NASA types—are really looking into the possibility of beer in weightlessness. Very serious stuff! They’ve already done parabolic flight testing!

Star Trek Theme Park in Jordan?
Okay, this isn’t real space, but damn. King Abdullah II of Jordan is the main investor in a proposed Star Trek theme park, which has secured $1.5 billion in funding. Plans are to build it in Aqaba, Jordan. King Abdullah, you see, is a Trekfan, and even got himself a cameo appearance, back before he was king, in Star Trek: Voyager. You’ve gotta love it. But I haven’t even made it to Universal Studios yet!

By the way, one reason I haven’t posted in a while is that I’ve been really busy writing. I’ve also finished the proofing of text for the World Edition of Sunborn (crazy problems with Word losing styles, which I’ve finally gotten under control). Look for an announcement soon on that!

Time Travel My Way

The SF novel I’m currently writing, The Reefs of Time (Book Five of The Chaos Chronicles), involves time travel as an important story element. Specifically, a couple of my characters need to go back in time a few hundred million years, to see what they can learn about a malignant entity believed to have originated that long ago, near the center of the galaxy.

This is a pretty demanding jaunt for anyone, even those who travel with the help of far-future alien technologies. The time-travel theory involved, which I devised after a long period of mulling possibilities (and for which the prime criteria were: Does it make sense to me? and, Does it work in the story?), posits that travel back into deep time can be accomplished through an extreme version of exploiting quantum entanglement: essentially the possibility that we live in a vast web of entangled particles spanning deep space and deep time. (If you don’t know what quantum entanglement means, stay with me for a moment. I’ll get to it.)

According to theory (of alien origin, in my story), there are a couple of limitations on this form of time travel. One is that you don’t really travel physically or materialize in the past. It’s more like projecting yourself, ghostlike, in a way that lets you observe the past without actually (in theory!) interacting with anything in a way that could change the present or future. It’s so ghostly that it’s called ghoststream transmission. The theory (being tested right now by my characters Julie and Ik, under dangerous conditions) further says that any change that might be made in the past will create only limited local ripples. Nature has its own self-correcting mechanism that prevents, for example, the grandfather paradox (where you go back and shoot your grandfather before he meets your grandmother).

All fiction, folks.

Except, maybe not. This week’s New Scientist has an article about a couple of researchers who believe they may have shown that quantum time travel is theoretically possible (registration required to read article), not by the usually-cited method of flying through a wormhole or other means requiring black holes, but by performing just the right trickery with quantum-entangled particles. (Quantum-entangled particles are particles joined in a spooky way such that an action on one—change in polarization or spin, for example—is instantaneously reflected in the state of the other, even if they are separated in distance, theoretically limitless distance.) It’s one of those weird things that makes quantum physics so mind-bendy.

The New Scientist article goes on to explain that this model for time travel has a built-in mechanism that prevents time-travel paradoxes. Effectively, an entangled photon cannot go back and kill its grandfather photon, because if conditions are such that it can actually pull the trigger on its little quantum gun and pull off the photonicide, then the time travel fails to work in the first place. How’s that for prevention of terrorism?

I started to develop a peculiar sense of déjà vu as I read this article. Didn’t I just write this stuff a few months ago, weaving a bit of world-building that would make my story make sense to me? What are they doing, talking about it now in a serious scientific magazine?

You don’t suppose the researchers took a little trip forward in time and read my finished book, do you? Hey guys—if you did, please tell me, how the heck does the story turn out?

Our Thieving Sun

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According to NASA Science News, the sun has been stealing comets from other stars. Or rather, it did in its scofflaw youth, when it was part of a disintegrating star-forming nebula. This assertion is based on computer modeling of the Oort Cloud, the enormous cloud of comets that encircles the solar system at a distance of about a light-year. Mind you, the evidence of theft is based on measurements of a cloud that has never directly been observed, though there’s plenty of evidence for its existence. Apparently the cloud (which has never been seen directly) has way more comets than can be accounted for by honest procurement. And so, the evidence for the misappropriation.

Therefore, it’s possible that this weird-looking Comet Hartley 2, photographed last week by NASA’s robotic EPOXI spacecraft (no, it’s not made of glue), is actually not from our own system originally, but rather from an alien sun. Is that cool or what?

Cosmic Accidents

posted in: religion, science, space 0

New Scientist magazine recently ran a long article called Cosmic Accidents: 10 Lucky Breaks for Humanity. It’s a timeline, starting with the Big Bang, of all the things that had to happen just so, for the universe to develop in a fashion that would allow us to be here.

 (Image: NASA/ESA/ESO/Wolfram Freudling et al. (STECF))

It starts with getting the density of the universe just right, and the balance of matter and antimatter just right, and goes all the way up through the dinosaur-killing asteroid making room for us little mammals, and the conditions that may have led to the evolution of language. The whole thing is online here.

But wait—aren’t there supposed to be “no accidents”? Hmm. If questions like that, in the context of issues like this, cause you to twitch one way or another, maybe you should read Beyond God and Atheism: Why I am a ‘Possibilian’ in the same issue of New Scientist. Alas, you must be a subscriber to read the whole article, but the title and opening paragraphs give you a pretty good idea of the content.

Students Shoot Down Disintegrating Spacecraft!

Yes, it’s true! (If you forgive my slight poetic license.) High school students from Brookline, Massachusetts shot a terrific video of Japan’s Hayabusa spacecraft coming down through the atmosphere and breaking apart in a fiery cascade over the Australian outback. The lucky students were aboard a NASA DC-8 aircraft, monitoring the reentry, which landed a separate reentry vehicle (visible to the right of the breakup in the video), bringing back samples of an asteroid.

I can’t find a way to embed the video (dang!), which might be just as well, considering how my last embedding effort turned out. But watch it here. And read the full story about these high school students who got a surprise trip Downunder in a NASA jet.

What Drives Us?

I first came across this video on Tobias Buckell’s blog. It’s a short animation of a talk about what gives us motivation, according to psychological studies. The speaker is Dan Pink, author of the book Drive. If you’re interested in which drives us more, money or satisfaction, take a few minutes to watch this.

(EDIT: That totally broke out of my template, and I can’t seem to make the screen smaller. So I took out the embedded video. But click the link!)

There’s a longer version of his talk on Ted.com. (And enough cool talks on Ted.com to keep you from your work for hours.)

I wondered how sound the actual science was, so I asked my resident expert, my brother Chuck, who happens to be a distinguished professor of psychology. The answer? “Go to selfdeterminationtheory.org. Deci and Ryan have been studying these things for…40 years.” Sound, in other words, but hardly new.

New or not, though, it’s something people all walks of life would do well to think about.

Atlantis Launch Video

Here’s our view of the space shuttle Atlantis launching last Friday for its last flight, STS-132. The videography might best be described as “earnest” rather than “excellent,” but it’s still a pretty fair approximation of the view we had. Except that everything in real life was brighter, and louder. And five days later, I still tingle when I think about it.

I actually wanted to cut that down a little more, but I got tired of the crappy video software crashing all the time, so I gave up and posted it the way it was.

My Launchpad Workshop and SF colleague Eugie Foster took a pretty neat video with her Android cellphone, and you can see that one one here:

And if you want to get away from the science fiction crowd experience and see what some folks with real equipment and skill took, here are a couple of the best that I found:

If you get a chance to see one of the last shuttle launches, don’t miss it!

Speaking of missing, if you missed my Sunborn video earlier, here’s another chance:

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