Recently in Science Category

And we still do not know - solar telescope

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I first posted about its mysterious closing on the 12th of this month. Science is reporting yesterday that they still do not know what prompted the closing:

Remote solar observatory remains closed after mysterious evacuation
Nobody is quite sure what’s going on at the Sunspot Solar Observatory in New Mexico, which was quickly and mysteriously evacuated on 6 September amid reports of a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) probe, and has remained closed. The manager of the mountaintop site, the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), today released a statement saying the observatory “will remain closed until further notice due to an ongoing security concern.”

In the wake of the shutdown, Otero County Sheriff Benny House told the Alamogordo Daily News: “The FBI were up there. What their purpose was nobody will say.” Facility employees are similarly in the dark. “We have absolutely no idea what is going on,” says Alisdair Davey, a data center scientist at the National Solar Observatory (NSO). “As in truly nothing, which in itself is just weird.” Messages left with the FBI field office in Albuquerque were not returned.

The writer concludes with this:

While the actual nature of the security issue remains unresolved, the tight-lipped nature of the authorities is only driving more interest. “The mystery is more intriguing than what the ultimate explanation is likely to be,” Aftergood says.

True that!

Curious - an observatory

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Curious news - from CNet:

Mysterious observatory evacuation stirs alien conspiracy theories
Reports that a Blackhawk helicopter and federal agents swooped in and inexplicably evacuated a remote part of New Mexico, including a prominent solar observatory, has some corners of the internet predictably atwitter about a possible alien coverup.

FBI agents showed up at the Sunspot solar observatory in tiny Sunspot, New Mexico, on Friday and shut down the facility, evacuating the local area, including the Sunspot post office.

"There was a Blackhawk helicopter, a bunch of people around antennas and work crews on towers, but nobody would tell us anything," Otero County Sheriff Benny House told the Alamogordo Daily News. "I don't know why the FBI would get involved so quick and not tell us anything."

Five days later, the observatory's website confirms the entire facility is closed to both staff and the public until further notice.

Odd coming on the heels of this story. Hope they are not bringing a cookbook...

And here's the video (20 seconds):


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Someone is phoning home - from Breakthrough Listen:

Machine learning algorithm also helping Listen search for new kinds of candidate signals from extraterrestrial intelligence.

San Francisco – September 10, 2018 – Breakthrough Listen – the astronomical program searching for signs of intelligent life in the Universe – has applied machine learning techniques to detect 72 new fast radio bursts (FRBs) emanating from the "repeater" FRB 121102.

Fast radio bursts, or FRBs, are bright pulses of radio emission, just milliseconds in duration, thought to originate from distant galaxies. Most FRBs have been witnessed during just a single outburst. In contrast, FRB 121102 is the only one to date known to emit repeated bursts, including 21 detected during Breakthrough Listen observations made in 2017 with the Green Bank Telescope (GBT) in West Virginia.

No regular pattern. The signal starts and stops. Up until now, the only fast radio bursts we have seen have been isolated events. Now we are seeing one source sending out multiple signals. Fascinating.

Breakthrough Listen is a serious SETI program - finally using some of the larger radio telescopes - from their web site:

Breakthrough Listen is the largest ever scientific research program aimed at finding evidence of civilizations beyond Earth. The scope and power of the search are on an unprecedented scale:

The program includes a survey of the 1,000,000 closest stars to Earth. It scans the center of our galaxy and the entire galactic plane. Beyond the Milky Way, it listens for messages from the 100 closest galaxies to ours.

The instruments used are among the world’s most powerful. They are 50 times more sensitive than existing telescopes dedicated to the search for intelligence.

The radio surveys cover 10 times more of the sky than previous programs. They also cover at least 5 times more of the radio spectrum – and do it 100 times faster. They are sensitive enough to hear a common aircraft radar transmitting to us from any of the 1000 nearest stars.

We are also carrying out the deepest and broadest ever search for optical laser transmissions. These spectroscopic searches are 1000 times more effective at finding laser signals than ordinary visible light surveys. They could detect a 100 watt laser (the energy of a normal household bulb) from 25 trillion miles away.

Listen combines these instruments with innovative software and data analysis techniques.

The initiative will span 10 years and commit a total of $100,000,000.

Very cool - these are the same people who gave the $3M prize to Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell - she discovered Pulsars and her supervisor at the University of Cambridge, Antony Hewish got the Nobel Prize for it. He built the telescope but did not discover the pulsar.

Look up tonight - chance of aurora

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Good chance of an aurora display tonight - the Planetary K Index is quite high - solar wind.


When it gets to six or above, we have a really good chance of Aurora at these latitudes. Of course, it is socked in with low clouds and rainfall...

Shake rattle and roll - small quake

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Checking into the USGS earthquake website and saw that we had a small quake about 80 miles to our West in Sequim, WA. 3.3Mag but 23.1km deep so not much surface activity.

Finally - Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

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Great news - from Live Science:

Scientist Robbed of Nobel in 1974 Finally Wins $3 Million Physics Prize — And Gives It Away
Jocelyn Bell Burnell is responsible for one of the most important astrophysics discoveries of the 20th century: the radio pulsar. The discovery, which she made as graduate student, earned a Nobel Prize in 1974. And it could one day form the basis of a "galactic positioning system" for navigating outside our solar system.

But Bell Burnell didn't collect the Nobel. Instead, as NPR reported, the award went to her supervisor at the University of Cambridge, Antony Hewish — who had built the necessary radio telescope with her but didn't discover the pulsar.

Now, 34 years later, Bell Burnell has recieved the much heftier Breakthrough Prize for the same discovery, and for her scientific leadership in the years since. In 1974, the Nobel comittee gave away about $124,000 to winners (about $620,000 adjusted for inflation). Hewish would have recieved half of that, after splitting the prize with another radio astronomer who won the same year. The Breakthrough Prize, funded by Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, Ma Huateng, Yuri and Julia Milner, and Anne Wojcicki, comes with a prize of $3 million, making it the largest scientific award in the world. [The 18 Biggest Unsolved Mysteries in Physics ]

Bell Burnell told the BBC that she plans to give the money away, setting up a scholarship to support women and ethnic minorities interested in science.

"I don't want or need the money myself, and it seemed to me that this was perhaps the best use I could put to it," she said in her BBC interview, adding that she believes unconscious bias keeps such groups out of science and that the fact of her own status as an outsider at Cambridge helped her make her universe-unlocking discovery.

A very classy lady! Nice that she was finally recognized for her work.

Funding at NIST - an urgent request

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NIST is our National Institute of Standards and Technology - they are now what the National Bureau of Standards used to be - the Federal agency responsible for maintaining all the standards that we use today. Instruments to be calibrated can be sent to them and they will test them against the standards that they maintain - volt, ampere, ohm, pound, yard, second, lumen (light intensity), etc... These are vital to every aspect of our daily life - those self-setting clocks that you can buy get their settings from the two radio stations that NIST runs. I use these signals in my amateur radio work.

Although I am a big believer in cutting wasteful spending, their budget has been cut by 27.8% and one of the products on the chopping block is this radio service.

There are two petitions in to the White House to address this - please go there and sign them.

Maintain funding for NIST stations WWV & WWVH

The Proposed Shutdown of NIST's WWV and WWVH Radio Stations

From the first petition:

NIST station WWV and sister stations are among the oldest radio stations in the United States, having been in continuous operation since May 1920. The station has transmitted the official US Time for nearly 100 years, and is an instrumental part in the telecommunications field, ranging from broadcasting to scientific research and education. Additionally, these stations transmit marine storm warnings from the National Weather Service, GPS satellite health reports, and specific information concerning current solar activity, and radio propagation conditions. These broadcasts are an essential resource to the worldwide communications industry. This petition requests continued funding of these stations be maintained into the 21st century and beyond to ensure future operations.

Dr. Judah Levine is the guy who takes care of the clocks at NIST - he is America's Time Lord - a nice profile:

The petition process is quite nice - it is a White House website - if you get 100,000 signatures in 30 days, the White House will officially respond within 60 days.

Happy 159th birthday - The Carrington Event

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From NASA's wonderful Space Weather (a daily read for me)

159 YEARS AGO, A GEOMAGNETIC MEGA-STORM: Picture this: A billion-ton coronal mass ejection (CME) slams into Earth's magnetic field. Campers in the Rocky Mountains wake up in the middle of the night, thinking that the glow they see is sunrise. No, it's the Northern Lights. People in Cuba read their morning paper by the red illumination of aurora borealis. Earth is peppered by particles so energetic, they alter the chemistry of polar ice.

Hard to believe? It really happened--exactly 159 years ago.

As the day unfolded, the gathering storm electrified telegraph lines, shocking technicians and setting their telegraph papers on fire. The "Victorian Internet" was knocked offline. Magnetometers around the world recorded strong disturbances in the planetary magnetic field for more than a week.

The cause of all this was an extraordinary solar flare witnessed the day before by British astronomer Richard Carrington. His sighting on Sept. 1, 1859, marked the discovery of solar flares and foreshadowed a new field of study: space weather. According to a NASA-funded study by the National Academy of Sciences, if a similar "Carrington Event" occurred today, it could cause substantial damage to society's high-tech infrastructure and require years for complete recovery.

Could it happen again? Almost certainly. In a paper published just a few months ago, researchers from the University of Birmingham used Extreme Value Theory to estimate the average time between "Carrington-like flares." Their best answer: ~100 years. In other words, we may be overdue for a really big storm. Read their original research here.

Not only CAN happen, WILL happen. Fortune favors the prepared.

The practice was to stamp out forest fires whenever they occured - this did not mimic how nature operates. The Native Americans knew that small limited fires made the forest (and other plant and animal life) happy and well taken care of. The end result is that we had all sorts of brush growing alongside trees of various ages, species and sizes - perfect fuel for a killer fire.

I thought we had learned our lesson with the great Yellowstone fires of 1988 but here, 30 years later, we are operating under the same stupid management theories. Fortunately, from The Daily Caller:

California Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown is working with state lawmakers on a proposal that would increase thinning of forests and decrease the likelihood of more devastating wildfires tearing through the state.

Brown’s proposal would let landowners clear out trees up to 36 inches in diameter — up from 26 inches currently — in an area as large as 300 acres without a permit. It would also allow landowners to construct a road no longer than 600 feet without a permit, provided the damaged area later be restored and replanted, The Mercury News reports.

The state’s logging industry is backing the proposal while environmentalists say the law is too lax and could result in the harvesting of oldgrowth redwoods without enough oversight.

Of course the environmentalists are going to have a fit over this. Is their statement based on science? Is it better for the overall health of the environment? No and No.

A bit more:

California’s environmental laws were forced into the national spotlight in early August when President Donald Trump blamed “bad environmental laws” for the severity of the wildfires that were coursing through the state.

That is why I like President Trump. He may be an a**hole in life but he is able to see what the facts are and get to the point.

Yikes - earthquake

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M6.2 right on the Cascadian Subduction Zone

No tsunami warning.

Interesting development - metallurgy

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From Machine Design:

Have Researchers Created the Most Wear-resistant Metal Ever?
Sandia material scientists have created a platinum-gold alloy believed to be the most wear-resistant metal in the world. It’s 100 times more durable than high-strength steel, making it the first alloy to get into the same class as diamond sand sapphires, nature’s most wear-resistant materials. During development, the team also uncovered a fundamental modification that can be made to some alloys that imparts a tremendous increase in performance.

Although metals are typically thought of as strong, when they repeatedly rub against other metals, like in an engine, they wear down, deform, and corrode unless they have a protective barrier, like additives in motor oil. In electronics, moving metal-to-metal contacts receive similar protections with outer layers of gold or other precious metal alloys. But these coatings are expensive. And eventually they wear out as connections press and slide across each other day after day, year after year, sometimes millions (or even billions) of times. These effects are exacerbated with smaller connections because the less material you start with, the less wear-and-tear a connection can endure before it no longer works.

The ultradurable Sandia coating could save the electronics industry more than $100 million a year in materials alone, and make electronics of all sizes and across many industries more cost-effective, long-lasting, and dependable, from aerospace systems and wind turbines to microelectronics for cell phones and radar systems. A hypothetical (and unrealistic) example which shows the new alloy’s wear resistance is that if you put a a set of alloy tires on a car, they would lose only a single layer of atoms after skidding a mile.

Emphasis mine - much more at the site. This is big.

Tip of the hat to The Silicon Graybeard for the link.

This could be a Nobel and fame and fortune if it is real and reproducible - from Cornell University:

Evidence for Superconductivity at Ambient Temperature and Pressure in Nanostructures
Despite being a low temperature phenomenon till date, superconductivity has found numerous applications in diverse fields of medicine, science and engineering. The great scientific interest in the phenomenon as well as its practical utility has motivated extensive efforts to discover and understand new superconductors. We report the observation of superconductivity at ambient temperature and pressure conditions in films and pellets of a nanostructured material that is composed of silver particles embedded into a gold matrix.

Ho. Li. Crap. If this pans out, a lot of things will be changed.

Our quiet sun - sunspots

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Sunspots make for a good proxy of solar output. They are visible with modest equipment and the more active the sun is, the more sunspots dod its surface. Here is the data from the last couple of years - the number of days are days without any visible sunspots:

2018 total: 131 days (58%)
2017 total: 104 days (28%)
2016 total: 32 days (9%)
2015 total: 0 days (0%)
2014 total: 1 day (<1%)
2013 total: 0 days (0%)
2012 total: 0 days (0%)

We are heading into a period of global cooling. This last happened during the Maunder Minimum (1645 to 1715) - sunspots were exceedingly rare at that time too. Lots more information at the Maunder Minimum link.

Whole lotta shakin' going on - Alaska

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Big cluster of small earthquakes in Northeast Alaska today - from the U.S. Geological Service:


Now this is interesting - corn

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From The Atlantic:

The Wonder Plant That Could Slash Fertilizer Use
For thousands of years, people from Sierra Mixe, a mountainous region in southern Mexico, have been cultivating an unusual variety of giant corn. They grow the crop on soils that are poor in nitrogen—an essential nutrient—and they barely use any additional fertilizer. And yet, their corn towers over conventional varieties, reaching heights of more than 16 feet.

A team of researchers led by Alan Bennett from UC Davis has shown that the secret of the corn’s success lies in its aerial roots—necklaces of finger-sized, rhubarb-red tubes that encircle the stem. These roots drip with a thick, clear, glistening mucus that’s loaded with bacteria. Thanks to these microbes, the corn can fertilize itself by pulling nitrogen directly from the surrounding air.

The Sierra Mixe corn takes eight months to mature—too long to make it commercially useful. But if its remarkable ability could be bred into conventional corn, which matures in just three months, it would be an agricultural game changer.

What a wonderful example of mutualism - the bacteria get their own little environment and the corn plant gets its nitrogen. They did this ethically too - nice touch:

Crucially, the Davis team involved the Sierra Mixe community throughout their research. They also established legal agreements with the Mexican government to ensure that any benefits from their research—and its subsequent commercialization—would be shared with the community, under the auspices of the Nagoya Protocol, an international framework intended to thwart bio-piracy. Alejandra Barrios, the director of biosafety and biodiversity at Mexico’s environmental agency, repeatedly praised the approach on Twitter, calling it “great work” and a “win-win solution.”

This discovery has wide-ranging inmplications for other crops as well. Nitrogen is a key element for plant growth (along with CO2)

Big earthquake there.From FOX News:

At least 82 killed after 6.9 magnitude earthquake strikes Indonesia's Lombok Island, near Bali
A strong earthquake near the popular tourist mecca of Bali killed at least 82 people and wounded hundreds more, damaging buildings in the area as people were seen running into the streets screaming.

It happened just one week after another quake in the same region killed more than a dozen people.

6.9 is serious building damage - the quake was shallow: 19 miles. No tsunami danger.

Great analysis of the plastic drinking straw debate - from the Competitive Enterprise Institute:

Debunking the (Plastic) Straw Man Arguments
Of all the consumer products one might have expected to become a flashpoint for political controversy, the humble plastic drinking straw is an unlikely contender. Leap into the headlines it has, though, with communities like Seattle and San Francisco recently enacting bans on disposable straws. The city council of Santa Barbara, California initially voted for a ban that would have punished restaurant workers with up to six months of jail time for giving out a disposable plastic straw, but city officials agreed to revisit the ordinance when it appeared to also ban the sale of straws at supermarkets.

Fortunately, we can depend on our friends at Reason TV and my colleague Angela Logomasini for some commonsense analysis. As Angela points out in the video above, the case against the plastic straw is exceedingly weak. There aren’t as many plastic straws thrown away as claimed, and only a tiny portion of U.S. straws end up anywhere near the oceans—the vast majority of municipal solid waste in this country ends up either buried in landfills, recycled, or burned up in incinerators, far from any congested sea turtles.  

The vast majority of plastic waste in oceans actually comes not from advanced countries like the U.S. but from countries like China and Indonesia that consume a large volume of plastic products but lack our modern waste collection infrastructure. Much of their plastic waste ends up washed into major river systems that empty into the oceans. A study published last year in the journal Environment Science & Technology by three German researchers found that 90% of the plastic debris found in the world’s oceans is dumped there by just ten of the world’s rivers—none of which are in the Western Hemisphere, much less the United States.

Much more at the site and be sure to click on the many links in the article - they researched this very carefully and present the facts, not some narrative.

Sixty years ago today

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NASA's birthday is today:

From Infogalactic:

The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 (Pub.L. 85–568) is the United States federal statute that created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The Act, which followed close on the heels of the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik, was drafted by the United States House Select Committee on Astronautics and Space Exploration and on July 29, 1958 was signed by President Eisenhower. Prior to enactment, the responsibility for space exploration was deemed primarily a military venture, in line with the Soviet model that had launched the first orbital satellite. In large measure, the Act was prompted by the lack of response by a US military infrastructure that seemed incapable of keeping up the space race.

The original 1958 act charged the new Agency with conducting the aeronautical and space activities of the United States "so as to contribute materially to one or more of the following objectives:"

    • The expansion of human knowledge of phenomena in the atmosphere and space;
    • The improvement of the usefulness, performance, speed, safety, and efficiency of aeronautical and space vehicles;
    • The development and operation of vehicles capable of carrying instruments, equipment, supplies and living organisms through space;
    • The establishment of long-range studies of the potential benefits to be gained from, the opportunities for, and the problems involved in the utilization of aeronautical and space activities for peaceful and scientific purposes.
    • The preservation of the role of the United States as a leader in aeronautical and space science and technology and in the application thereof to the conduct of peaceful activities within and outside the atmosphere.
    • The making available to agencies directly concerned with national defenses of discoveries that have military value or significance, and the furnishing by such agencies, to the civilian agency established to direct and control nonmilitary aeronautical and space activities, of information as to discoveries which have value or significance to that agency;
    • Cooperation by the United States with other nations and groups of nations in work done pursuant to this Act and in the peaceful application of the results, thereof; and
    • The most effective utilization of the scientific and engineering resources of the United States, with close cooperation among all interested agencies of the United States in order to avoid unnecessary duplication of effort, facilities, and equipment.

In 2012, a ninth objective was added: "The preservation of the United States preeminent position in aeronautics and space through research and technology development related to associated manufacturing processes."

A fun time to be alive and it looks like NASA may be getting back to basic research and exploration again. Now we have to hitch a ride from the Russians. I love that there are private Aerospace companies building rockets too - no reason it has to be a government monopoly...

From Fox News:

'Mercury in retrograde': Should we expect 3 weeks of bad luck?
If you're experiencing a spell of bad luck, many people may ask you the same question: is Mercury in retrograde? Astrologists believe the planet is to blame for bringing periods of misfortune down to Earth – and it's happening again on Thursday.

Mercury is expected to enter retrograde, appearing to turn the opposite direction in relation to other planets within its solar system, for the first time in 2018 on Thursday. It will remain in that position until Aug. 19.

"Normally, the planets move west-to-east through the stars at night. This is referred to as prograde motion," a blog post by NASA's Astrophysics Science Division (ASD) explains. "However, peridiocally the motion changes and they move east-to-west through the stars. We call this retrograde motion."

One of my employees does astrology and she always correlates events in the business to the status of Mercury. Anecdotal but it seems to line up with some measure of accuracy.

Tidally influenced

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The United States Geological Survey maintains gages on the major rivers in the USA - these measure height, flow, temperature and sometimes other elements like turbidity and chemistry. The home page for this service is here: USGS Water Resources

What is fun is that Camano Island is very close to the outflow of the Stillaguamish river near Stanwood, WA. The USGS sensor reports are usually graphs like this - showing the effects of upstream precipitation, snow melt, etc... This is the Stilly near the town of Arlington:


And now, here is the Stilly near Stanwood:


What you are looking at is the back pressure of the ocean tides raising and lowering the river level. I do not know where the sensor is located (I have an idea and am planning to look for it) but it is close enough to the mouth for the tides to swamp any other changes in height.

Fun stuff with numbers...

A great editorial at the New York Times about the real problems with Flint Mischigan's water supply. Very long so I will just excerpt the opening few paragraphs. Worth your time to go and read the whole thing.

The Children of Flint Were Not ‘Poisoned’
Words are toxic, too. Labeling Flint’s children as “poisoned,” as many journalists and activists have done since the city’s water was found to be contaminated with lead in 2014, unjustly stigmatizes their generation.

Let’s be clear. It’s unacceptable that any child was exposed to drinking water with elevated lead concentrations. We know that lead is a powerful neurotoxicant, that there is no safe level, that the very young are particularly vulnerable and that long-term exposure to low to moderate levels of lead is associated with decreased I.Q.s and other cognitive and behavioral problems, including criminal behavior.

But there is no reason to expect that what happened for a year and a half in Flint will inevitably lead to such effects. The casual use of the word “poisoned,” which suggests that the affected children are irreparably brain-damaged, is grossly inaccurate. In a city that already battles high poverty and crime rates, this is particularly problematic.

It is worth noting the biographies of the two authors:

Hernán Gómez, an associate professor at the University of Michigan, emergency medicine pediatrician and medical toxicologist at Hurley Medical Center, was the lead author of the study “Blood Lead Levels of Children in Flint, Michigan: 2006-2016.” Kim Dietrich, a professor of epidemiology and environmental health at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, is the principal investigator of the Cincinnati Lead Study.

They know what they are talking about.

Norora last night

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They were forecasting an Aurora last night but the Planetary K Index never got above 4 and it needs to be at 6 for there to be a display at these latitudes. We will be in the stream for another day or two so there is hope. This will be good for radio propegation so will be firing up the ham radio at sunset and see who is out there.

From today's Space Weather:

THE SOLAR WIND HAS ARRIVED: As predicted, a stream of solar wind has enveloped Earth on July 24th with wind speeds near 600 km/s. First contact with the stream sparked a brief outburst of summertime auroras over Canada. An anticipated G1-class geomagnetic storm has yet to materialize, but it is too soon to rule out such a storm. The gaseous material is flowing from a broad hole in the sun's atmosphere--so broad that Earth will remain inside the stream for 2 or 3 more days.

Look up tonight - aurora

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We are getting the possibility of some G1 solar storms this evening. Planetary K Index is not that high right now but it is spiking and may get higher. Above 6 and we have a great chance of aurora.

Happy 49th birthday

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My Mom and Dad were vacationing in Massachusetts when the Apollo moon landing took place. I was working a summer job (with a pipe organ builder) and drove to their place to watch it together.

Such a pinnacle of our civilization. We did this in less than ten years from commitment to footsteps. Always loved this photo:


Our quiet sun

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Three weeks without sunspots. The story at Spaceweather:

As July 17th comes to a close, the sun has been blank for 21 straight days--a remarkable 3 weeks without sunspots. To find an equal stretch of spotless suns in the historical record, you have to go back to July-August 2009 when the sun was emerging from a century-class solar minimum. We are now entering a new solar minimum, possibly as deep as the last one.

Solar minimum is a normal part of the solar cycle. Every 11 years or so, sunspot production sputters. Dark cores that produce solar flares and CMEs vanish from the solar disk, leaving the sun blank for long stretches of time. These quiet spells have been coming with regularity since the sunspot cycle was discovered in 1859.

However, not all solar minima are alike. The last one in 2008-2009 surprised observers with its depth and side-effects. Sunspot counts dropped to a 100-year low; the sun dimmed by 0.1%; Earth's upper atmosphere collapsed, allowing space junk to accumulate; and the pressure of the solar wind flagged while cosmic rays (normally repelled by solar wind) surged to Space Age highs. These events upended the orthodox picture of solar minimum as "uneventful."

Our sun's activity has a direct bearing on our climate - should make for some interesting times ahead...

Looks like a case of dumb criminal stealing the wrong thing - wonder if they are still alive. From the Idaho Statesman:

INL specialists left plutonium in their car. In the morning, it was gone
Two security experts from the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory drove to San Antonio, Texas, in March 2017 with a sensitive mission: to retrieve dangerous nuclear materials from a nonprofit research lab there.

Their task was to ensure that the radioactive materials did not fall into the wrong hands on the way back to Idaho, where the government maintains a stockpile of nuclear explosive materials for the military and others.

To ensure they got the right items, the specialists from Idaho brought radiation detectors and small samples of dangerous materials to calibrate them: specifically, a plastic-covered disk of plutonium, a material that can be used to fuel nuclear weapons, and another of cesium, a highly radioactive isotope that could potentially be used in a so-called “dirty” radioactive bomb.

But when they stopped at a Marriott hotel just off Highway 410, in a high-crime neighborhood filled with temp agencies and ranch homes, they left those sensors on the back seat of their rented Ford Expedition. When they awoke the next morning, the window had been smashed and the special valises holding these sensors and nuclear materials had vanished.

No word in the article as to the number of Curies that were stolen. The Plutonium is not that bad. The metal is poisonous but it is only an Alpha emitter so its radioactivity can be stopped by a sheet of paper or a half-inch of air. Bad news if it is ingested but pretty harmless on the shelf. Fun because the internal decay makes it noticeably warm to the touch. About twice as dense as lead too unexpectedly heavy. Cesium is another story entirely - it (depending on the isotope) emits Gamma and Beta particles and is highly flammable. It will spontaneously catch fire in air.

Quantum spookiness

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From Oak Ridge National Laboratory:

New insights bolster Einstein’s idea about how heat moves through solids
A discovery by scientists at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory supports a century-old theory by Albert Einstein that explains how heat moves through everything from travel mugs to engine parts.

The transfer of heat is fundamental to all materials. This new research, published in the journal Science, explored thermal insulators, which are materials that block transmission of heat.

“We saw evidence for what Einstein first proposed in 1911—that heat energy hops randomly from atom to atom in thermal insulators,” said Lucas Lindsay, materials theorist at ORNL. “The hopping is in addition to the normal heat flow through the collective vibration of atoms.”

The random energy hopping is not noticeable in materials that conduct heat well, like copper on the bottom of saucepans during cooking, but may be detectable in solids that are less able to transmit heat.

This observation advances understanding of heat conduction in thermal insulators and will aid the discovery of novel materials for applications from thermoelectrics that recover waste heat to barrier coatings that prevent transmission of heat.

More at the site - very interesting. The more we think we know, the more we find out that we don't know anything.

Fun at the Ice Cube Lab

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Quite the bit of science going on - from Nature:

Single subatomic particle illuminates mysterious origins of cosmic rays
A single subatomic particle detected at the South Pole last September is helping to solve a major cosmic mystery: what creates electrically charged cosmic rays, the most energetic particles in nature.

Follow-up studies by more than a dozen observatories suggest that researchers have, for the first time, identified a distant galaxy as a source of high-energy neutrinos

This discovery could, in turn, help scientists pin down the still mysterious source of protons and atomic nuclei that arrive to Earth from outer space, collectively called cosmic rays. The same mechanisms that produce cosmic rays should also make high-energy neutrinos.

The Ice Cube observatory detected a muon which was the result of a Nutrino decay. They were able to secure data from other observatories to look for other subatomic particles from the same source and they found it. Some great science and detective work.

There is a fascinating book about the origins and the building of the Ice Cube Lab - read it about a year ago and really enjoyed it: The Telescope in the Ice: Inventing a New Astronomy at the South Pole

Amazing story from National Geographic:

Oldest Tools Outside Africa Found, Rewriting Human Story
Modern humans' distant relatives left Africa earlier than previously thought—rewriting a key chapter in humankind's epic prequel, according to a discovery  unveiled on Wednesday in Nature.

Nearly a hundred stone tools found at the Shangchen site in central China may push back the spread of our ancient cousins—hominins—out of Africa by more than a quarter million years.

The toolmakers lived at Shangchen on and off for 800,000 years between 2.1 and 1.3 million years ago, leaving behind tools that are unprecedented  outside of Africa. The site's oldest tools are roughly 300,000 years older than Dmanisi, a 1.8-million-year-old site in the Republic of Georgia with the oldest known fossils of our extinct cousin Homo erectus.

A bit of what we know so far:

Early Wanderers
Today's modern humans, Homo sapiens, trace back to a migratory pulse that left Africa some 60,000 years ago. But that migration was hardly the first to leave the continent—nor were modern humans the only hominins to make the trip. Remains of Homo erectus have been found from Georgia to Java. Neanderthals' ancestors trekked to Europe  roughly half a million years ago. At least 700,000 years ago, early hominins somehow swept through the South Pacific, giving rise to the “hobbit”  Homo floresiensis and  other island toolmakers.

Some sites have hinted at an even older hominin presence in Asia. In the 1980s, researchers suggested that stone tools in Pakistan  could be as old as two million years old. In 2004, a Chinese team found  1.66-million-year-old stone tools in north China's Nihewan basin. And in 2015, researchers made the case that a Homo erectus skull found less than three miles from Shangchen  was more than 1.6 million years old.

I love it - the more we think we have a handle on something, the more we find out that we know nothing. Raising a glass of wine to our early ancestors - I salute you!!!

The Mediterranean Diet - an update

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Whoops - the New England Journal of Medicine paper has been retracted. From National Public Radio by way of Retraction Watch:

Errors Trigger Retraction Of Study On Mediterranean Diet's Heart Benefits
Ask just about anybody, and you'll probably hear that a healthy diet is one full of fruits and vegetables, olive oil, nuts and fish — what's called Mediterranean diet. A lot of research has suggested people who eat this way tend to be healthier, but it's been harder to prove whether that is because of the diet or some other factor.

So in 2013, many took notice of a study in the New England Journal of Medicine that seemed to provide some proof. The study found that people eating the Mediterranean diet supplemented with olive oil were 30 percent less likely to experience a heart attack, stroke, or death from cardiovascular causes than people assigned to a low-fat diet. People who stuck with a Mediterranean diet supplemented with mixed nuts had a 28 percent lower risk than those asked to follow a low-fat diet.

The results got wide media attention, including from NPR.

But the New England Journal of Medicine retracted the paper Wednesday because of problems in the way the study was carried out.

It was a problem with the randomization of the data:

It turns out approximately 14 percent of the more than 7,400 study participants hadn't been assigned randomly to either the Mediterranean diet or a low-fat one. When couples joined the study together, both had been picked to follow the same diet. At one of the 11 participating study sites, the lead investigator had assigned the same diet to an entire village and didn't tell the rest of the investigators.

Oops - a lot of work went out the window just to make things easier for the participants.

An interesting bit of information - from Science Alert:

A Crucial Archaeological Dating Tool Is Wrong, And It Could Change History as We Know It
One of the most important dating tools used in archaeology may sometimes give misleading data, new study shows - and it could change whole historical timelines as a result.

The discrepancy is due to significant fluctuations in the amount of carbon-14 in the atmosphere, and it could force scientists to rethink how they use ancient organic remains to measure the passing of time.

A comparison of radiocarbon ages across the Northern Hemisphere suggests we might have been a little too hasty in assuming how the isotope - also known as radiocarbon - diffuses, potentially shaking up controversial conversations on the timing of events in history.

The ratio between C12 (stable) and C14 (radioactive) is not fixed - it varies. Oopsie!

Ho Li Crap - quite the shipwreck

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From Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution:

New Details on Discovery of San Jose Shipwreck
The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) recently obtained authorization by Maritime Archaeology Consultants (MAC), Switzerland AG, and the Colombian government to release new details from the successful search for the three-century old San José —a 62-gun, three-masted Spanish galleon ship that sank with a cargo believed to be worth billions of dollars. The ship, which is often called the “holy grail of shipwrecks,” went down with a treasure of gold, silver, and emeralds in 1708 during a battle with British ships in the War of Spanish Succession.

The legendary wreck was discovered off the coast of Cartagena, Colombia, on Nov. 27, 2015, by a team of international scientists and engineers during an expedition aboard the Colombian Navy research ship ARC Malpelo led by MAC’s Chief Project Archaeologist Roger Dooley. It was found more than 600 meters below the surface during a search initiated by MAC and approved by The Colombian Ministry of Culture. The search was supervised by Instituto Colombiano de Antropología e Historia (ICANH) and Dirección General Marítima (DIMAR).

WHOI used an autonomous underwater vehicle called REMUS 6000 to survey an area off Colombia’s Barú Peninsula:

“The REMUS 6000 was the ideal tool for the job, since it’s capable of conducting long-duration missions over wide areas,” said WHOI engineer and expedition leader Mike Purcell.

Finding high-profile wrecks is nothing new for REMUS, which played an instrumental role in finding the wreckage of Air France 447 in 2011. The airplane had crashed in 2009 several hundred miles off the northeastern coast of Brazil and landed deep in the ocean on some of the most rugged seafloor terrain on Earth. REMUS was also used to map and photograph the Titanic wreck site during a 2010 expedition.

The homepage for the REMUS 6000 is here. Some very nice specs... Amazing photographs:


Earthquake prediction

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Some advancement in Earthquake Prediction - from Nature:

In Japan, small shakes presage big quakes
Clusters of tiny earthquakes that happen every three years could help to signal when the next big one will hit Japan, researchers report in Science.

Small, subtle quakes happen in many places where a slab of sea floor dives beneath a continent, such as in the US Pacific Northwest or off the coast of Chile. But the study of seismic activity in Japan is the first to show that they happen in regular episodes, and that those events can precede larger earthquakes.

If the same patterns hold in other earthquake-prone regions, they could improve seismic risk estimates there, too.

A bit more:

Stress monitoring
Because the 2011 Tohoku earthquake relieved geological stress, Uchida says, that particular section of the fault is not likely to move in a large earthquake any time soon. But by monitoring slow slip to the north and south of Tohoku, seismologists may get a better idea of how much stress is building there and when a large earthquake is likely to strike again. “It means earthquake probabilities should be raised during times of accelerated [slow] slip,” says Gavin Hayes, a seismologist with the US Geological Survey in Golden, Colorado.

Slow slip has happened before other large earthquakes, such as the magnitude-8.1 Iquique earthquake in Chile in 2014. In 2014, off the coast of Guerrero, Mexico, a magnitude-7.2 earthquake occurred about two months after slow slip began, says Mathilde Radiguet, a seismologist at ISTerre Institute of Earth Sciences in Grenoble, France.

And slow slip is common along the Pacific Northwest coast, a spot thought to be ripe for a large earthquake in the zone known as Cascadia. For the past five weeks, in a fairly common occurrence, tiny quakes have been marching south from Vancouver Island and into Washington state. “It is key for us to know as much as possible about unsteady slow slip in Cascadia,” says Heidi Houston, a seismologist at the University of Washington in Seattle.

More on the Cascadian Episodic Tremor and Slip Events at the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network - new entries are at the bottom of the page.

Chinese space station Tiangong-1

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The Chinese space station lost orbital stability and is crashing down to earth soon. Aerospace is tracking its decent.

The world is watching as Chinese space station Tiangong-1 hurtles toward Earth and makes a fiery reentry. Chances that space debris will hurt anybody are extremely slim, although when and where the space station’s remains will land is still unknown.

What goes up must come down, which is generally true if the “what” is a space station. However, exactly when and where it will land on Earth is anybody’s guess, especially if the space station is China’s Tiangong-1. Sent into orbit on September 30, 2011, Tiangong-1, or “Heavenly Palace 1,” is China’s first space lab, the prototype for China’s ambitious space program to launch a permanent, 20-ton space station in 2023. Tiangong-1 weighs 8.5 tons, measures 34 feet by 11 feet, and is the approximate size of a school bus.

Tiangong-1’s initial launch was unmanned, but it has a habitable experimental module to house astronauts. Its primary mission was to perform docking and orbital experiments. Over a five-year period, two successful manned missions by taikonauts (Chinese astronauts) took place, which included China’s first female astronauts, Liu Yang and Wang Yaping.

For Tiangong-1’s return to Earth, China’s original plan was to control its descent using thruster burn. However, on March 16, 2016, China reported to the United Nations that Tiangong-1 “ceased functioning” but didn’t state why. There has been considerable speculation as to the cause, but only the Chinese know for certain. Tiangong-1 is now on a decaying orbit as its altitude slowly decreases while its falling speed toward Earth rapidly increases. When it reaches Earth’s upper atmosphere, the space station will make its uncontrolled reentry.

Current forecast is for re-entry at April 2nd, 2018 00:18 UTC ± 2 hours.

Aerospace is a non-profit organization with a fascinating history - a little bit from their About page:

The Aerospace Corporation traces its roots to the beginning of the space age, when landing on the moon was a distant but exciting possibility, and mastery of space was seen as a huge strategic asset in the conflict with the Soviet Union. Space promised adventure and held great potential, but reaching space—in addition to developing and managing the nation’s space and missile activities—presented unique technical challenges to the Air Force and other government agencies involved in the fledgling aerospace industry.

After concerns were raised about the potential for conflicts of interest between contractors and the Air Force, Congress formed the Millikan Committee to study the Air Force’s approach to missile and space systems work. The committee recommended the formation of a noncompetitive organization committed to providing objective, unbiased technical assistance to the Air Force. On June 3, 1960, The Aerospace Corporation was incorporated as a nonprofit corporation under California law.

An interesting website for space geeks...

News you can use - drug detection

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A bit of interesting news from England's University of Surrey

One in 10 people have traces of cocaine or heroin on their fingerprints
Scientists have found that drugs are now so prevalent that 13 per cent of those taking part in a test were found to have traces of class A drugs on their fingerprints - despite never using them.

But, it is possible to differentiate:

Researchers tested fingerprints from the unwashed hands of the drug-free volunteers and, despite having no history of drug use, still found traces of class A drugs. Around 13 per cent of fingerprints were found to contain cocaine and one per cent contained a metabolite of heroin. By setting a "cut-off" level, researchers were able to distinguish between fingerprints that had environmental contaminants from those produced after genuine drug use - even after people washed their hands.

The study is here: Noninvasive Detection of Cocaine and Heroin Use with Single Fingerprints: Determination of an Environmental Cutoff

Thought he was going to live forever

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Steven Hawking - from The Washington Post:

Stephen Hawking, physicist who came to symbolize the power of the human mind, dies at 76
Stephen W. Hawking, the British theoretical physicist who overcame a devastating neurological disease to probe the greatest mysteries of the cosmos and become a globally celebrated symbol of the power of the human mind, died March 14 at his home in Cambridge, England. He was 76.

His family announced the death but did not provide any further details.

He is at peace and sailing the stars that he loved so much.

So true - Nature

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From Mostly Cajun:


A big Ka Boom

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Indonesia's Mount Sinabung just popped its cork.

Not as big as Mt. St. Helens here in 2008 but that is a lot of ash. Indonesia is right on the Ring of Fire and has about 130 active volcanoes.

Cool archaeology find in Mexico

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A city the size of Manhatten - from the UK Guardian:

Laser scanning reveals 'lost' ancient Mexican city 'had as many buildings as Manhattan'
Archaeology might evoke thoughts of intrepid explorers and painstaking digging, but in fact researchers say it is a high-tech laser mapping technique that is rewriting the textbooks at an unprecedented rate.

The approach, known as light detection and ranging scanning (lidar) involves directing a rapid succession of laser pulses at the ground from an aircraft.

The time and wavelength of the pulses reflected by the surface are combined with GPS and other data to produce a precise, three-dimensional map of the landscape. Crucially, the technique probes beneath foliage – useful for areas where vegetation is dense.

Earlier this month researchers revealed it had been used to discover an ancient Mayan city within the dense jungles of Guatemala, while it has also helped archaeologists to map the city of Caracol – another Mayan metropolis.

A bit more - talking about the scope of the city:

“That is a huge area with a lot of people and a lot of architectural foundations that are represented,” said Fisher. “If you do the maths, all of a sudden you are talking about 40,000 building foundations up there, which is [about] the same number of building foundations that are on the island of Manhattan.”

The team also found that Angamuco has an unusual layout. Monuments such as pyramids and open plazas are largely concentrated in eight zones around the city’s edges, rather being located in one large city centre. According to Fisher, more than 100,000 people are thought to have lived in Angamuco in its heyday between about 1000AD to 1350AD. “[Its size] would make it the biggest city that we know of right now in western Mexico during this period,” said Fisher.

There is so much that we simply do not know about our history. Amazing find!

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