Monday, July 28, 2014

Urban Butterflies

I have mentioned before that Changi Airport in Singapore is a step above your average travel hub, to the point of seeming almost magical to the sleep-deprived, Jetlagged traveller.. But this is the first time I have been here in the daytime.  So I made sure to stop in to see the butterfly garden. A step above EWR. So here are some phone pictures:

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Science isn’t always linear

 These days mostly I build scientific instrumentation- I don’t do a lot of science.  But last year I did get a small grant to look at some novel stuff.  I don’t want to go into it right now; but the process was interesting enough to share.  Figure one shows how we thought the project would progress; that is what we proposed to the funding body.
 Figure 1: We’ll do this- what could possibly go wrong?

Figure two is how it all actually went down. Obviously, there were a few complications, dead-ends, and in the end we discovered some cool stuff, which was actually not too far from where we were aiming to go.  The point is that science, especially natural science, does not always flow in a linear, predictable, orderly manner.  But if you’re lucky, it does eventually go somewhere.

Figure 2: This is how it actually went down.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Geological Society of America announces a new early career award

The Geological Society of America’s (GSA) Mineralogy, Geochemistry, Petrology, and Volcanology (MGPV) division has announced a new Early Career award.  Details are available here. Any GSA member can nominate a contender, using the process described in the announcement.  Any geoblogger who has bemoaned the unrepresentativeness of nominees for previous awards in various Earth Science organizations can use this opportunity to create a more representative pool of candidates.  As, indeed, can any other GSA members.

Nominations Deadline: midnight (EDT) 15 July 2014

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Don’t weaponize space

On the Planetary Society  website, the normally responsible and pro-science Planetary Society has posted an opinion piece by Louis Freedman and Tom Jones asking NASA to reconsider its refusal to fund the Asteroid Redirect Mission.  In short, this is a mission to kidnap a small asteroid from elsewhere in the inner solar system, and redirect it towards the earth, hopefully parking it in the most stable lunar orbit they can find (the Moon’s uneven gravity, and the tidal interactions between the Earth and Sun, tend to make most lunar orbits unstable).  Once there, the asteroid can do three things:
1. Fall into the Moon.
2. Fall into the Earth.
3. Be ejected into an Earth-crossing orbit around the sun.

One of the goals of this project is to give manned space missions a target that is easier to get to and from than either a wild inner solar system asteroid, or the Moon.  Because this will give them a stepping stone to Mars. 

The prospect of asteroid redirection technology being used to crash asteroids into the Earth doesn’t seem to faze Drs. Freedman and Jones; they don’t lay our any risk assessment or amelioration plans.    But an asteroid strike on Earth, especially a targeted asteroid strike, could be extremely damaging, as only nuclear weapons are capable of putting as much energy into the atmosphere in a comparable amount of time. And any asteroid-fetching spacecraft could be communicated with by a dish pretty much anywhere on Earth at some points during its flight. 

Amateurs often build radio receivers, point them at the sky, and listed to NASA spacecraft.  To date, nobody has managed to hack one, but there has been very little incentive to do so.  Putting a asteroid redirecting spacecraft into the inner solar system that is a computer hack away from becoming a weapon of mass destruction seems like a pretty rash thing to do, so I am surprised that the Planetary Society is advocating this.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Glaciers are all individuals!

Between 16 and 11 thousand years ago, the Fennoscandian Ice sheet, which once covered the greater Scandinavia area, collapsed. When coastal ice sheets disappear, they don’t just melt in place.  Rather, the outflow glaciers carry the ice to the sea, where it breaks off and floats away as icebergs, faster than snow in the interior of the ice sheets falls and gets compressed into new ice.  But the details of this process are not understood. As one of the more serious potential consequences of global warming is the collapse of one or more current ice sheets (which would result in several meters of sea level rise), figuring out exactly how ice sheets collapse is kinda important.
Stokes et al. (2014) look at the rate of glacial retreat on the glaciers the carried Fennoscandian ice into the Atlantic Ocean.  Specifically, they looked at eight outflow glaciers in Northern Norway.  These outflow glaciers (not fjords, because the ice is all gone) are all close together, so experienced similar climactic conditions.  What the study found was that despite similar forcing, the glaciers experienced very different responses, and all retreated at different speeds and times. This shows that glacial dynamics cannot be predicted based on local climactic conditions, without also accounting for local topography, bathymetry, and ice flow. 

The reason this is important is that many current glaciers in Greenland and the Antarctic Peninsula are retreating even faster than these glaciers did at the end of the last ice age.  And this paper shows that our current predictive tools are inadequate to tell us how fast outflow glaciers retreat, even when subjected to similar conditions. Individual glaciers, it seems, all react in their own peculiar way.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

That word doesn't mean what you think it means

Dear American advertising industry:
English is a wide and diverse language.  It has many different dialects, which have evolved their own vocabulary, spelling, and slang over the centuries.  However, with the invention of the internet, any of these strains of our language can be instantly be linked to each other.  This can be a benefit, but it can also be embarrassing. For example, I am guessing that whomever wrote this ad did not realize that in some forms of English, "root" is a synonym for "fuck" (especially the verb, but also the noun).

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Tourmaline lemonade

crystallographic sector zoning is a phenomenon that causes all sorts of headaches for geochemists and petrologists.  Basically, as different crystallographic faces grow in a medium (e.g. magma), they have different selectivities for different elements.  If you want to measure how much of a particular element a growing crystal scavenges from its surrounding, and you don’t measure all sectors, or don’t know their true relative volume, this can cause errors.

However, at least two scientists have turned this around, and used the zoning as a feature, not a problem.  Hinsberg and Schumacher (2007) treat the different sectors as co-existing minerals, calculate D values between them, and note that the D values are temperature dependent. Ta da!  They now have a single crystal geothermometer that records T over the growth of the mineral.  If life hands you lemons, compare the sections and build a new tool.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

A dumb gun is not a smart gun

There has been a minor brouhaha in the American media this week about the refusal for gunshops to sell the  Armatix “smart” gun.  These revolve around fears that the sale of this weapon will restrict consumer choice in other, non-adjacent states.

This is not surprising.  The tactic of making a product that nobody wants to buy, and them compelling its purchase through legislation is not new.  Nor is it unique to liberals; rather is practiced by all sides of politics on everything from health insurance to self-propelled artillery to NASA rockets. And this is where the smart gun falls down.

Compared to every other smart product to hit the market in the last ten years, the smart gun is really, really fucking stupid. It make no attempt at all to leverage the information revolution to its core utility, in the way that smart phones, smart glasses, smart cars, and smart everything else do.  So unsurprisingly, not even people who like guns want to but a smart gun.

It doesn't have to be that way.  There is no reason a well-designed actual smart gun can’t be so compelling, useful, and clever that everyone with even a remote interest in physics would want to have one. A gun with integrated display/user interface/ cameras/ standard hand-held computer sensors could to all sorts of amazing things not currently available to current weapons. 

Just off the top of my dome, these include:
  • Integrated tiltmeter/ compass/ gps system that shows you (on a map), where rounds are expected to fall when the gun is pointed into the air.
  • Breathalayzer interlocks.
  • Hunting and firearm regulation and helpful hints relevant to your GPS position.
  • High precision integrated camera/gunsight that records a pic every shot, automatically scores targets based on image analysis, uses image recognition to identify targets.
  • Digital map record of hunting sites, game seen, missed, taken, time spent.
  • Programmable trigger lockouts from image recognition to block unwanted targets, such as:
  • -children.
  • -birds and beasts not in season.
  • -cops.
  • -unsafe elevation (see above).
  • -people who have turned their back/ are retreating.
  • -recognized “do not shoot” faces.
  • -and any other targets where the shooter wants an extra layer of protection against accidents. 

There are all sorts of totally awesome things you could do with a computer-integrated, geospatially aware weapon.  And the fact that guns are exempt from consumer protection laws should only increase innovation in this area.  Done properly, a genuinely smart gun could make uncomputerized guns as obsolete as flip phones.

I don’t know who would make them, but perhaps a hugecomputer company in a gun-loving state desperate for a new product would be interested.