We need cleaner energy. This is one of the great issues of our time and its development is essential to the long-term survival of the human species. In the modern world, everything is about energy- it powers our vehicles and provides the electricity in our homes. Everything that we take for granted today depends on our ability to safely and cheaply generate power.
There are three ways that energy can be generated, chemical, nuclear fission and nuclear fusion. Throughout most of the industrial age and up until today, chemical power generation has been by far the most common. Through this method, fossil fuels, such as petroleum or natural gas are burned creating heat. This heat is then converted into useable energy through various processes. It has certainly served mankind well in the past few centuries and has allowed humanity to develop at an unprecedented rate. There are many advantages to this form of energy generation- it is fairly cheap and uses fairly simple processes. Nonetheless, fossil fuels have some serious drawbacks. Number one among the issues is that fossil fuels are a non-renewable energy source. This means that there is a finite amount of these fossil fuels available for our use- eventually we will run out. The second and possibly more alarming drawback to fossil fuels is their impact on our environment. When fuels are burned, they produce byproducts such as carbon dioxide and methane. These are known as greenhouse gasses. When these gasses enter the atmosphere, they have the effect of trapping heat from the sun that otherwise would have escaped into space. At our current levels of greenhouse gas production, we are on a sure course to irreversibly change the climate of our planet- and not for the better. We already see these effects.
An additional source that is in use today is nuclear fission power. In this process, atomic nuclei are split, releasing energy. This is how our nuclear power plants generate their energy. It is also the reaction that powered the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the early days of World War II. Nuclear fission is a renewable energy source- meaning that we cannot run out. Additionally, it does not release greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Fission, however, produces dangerous radioactive waste. How to dispose of this waste is a serious question that is being addressed today. A further problem can occur at fission plants – they can cause serious disasters if something goes wrong. Examples of nuclear fission gone bad can be seen at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fushikima. These types of nuclear disasters can have long-term health effects on those who live in surrounding communities. Today, much effort goes in to research into how to make fission power safer and more efficient, but, at best, it should be seen as a stopgap measure in our quest to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels.
So what is the long term, sustainable, solution to our energy needs? Nuclear fusion is the only option left. This is the power source for the stars, including our sun. In fusion, atomic nuclei are fused together releasing large amounts of energy. In the sun, for example, two hydrogen atoms fuse together to create helium plus energy. This type of power is both self-sustaining and clean and could, one day, provide more cheap energy than we could possibly imagine. The real stumbling block towards fusion power is taming these awesome reactions. The first manmade fusion reaction was made in the mid 20th century with the hydrogen bomb. These bombs use a small fission reaction as a catalyst for a much larger fusion reaction. The amount of energy released is enormous! Hydrogen bombs, however, are not a good example of a controlled reaction. For a half century, some of the world’s greatest minds- and billions of dollars- have been hard at work trying to develop controlled fusion reactions. Progress has been slow, but tangible.
Research institutions throughout the world have invested in fusion research. Numerous fusion reactors have been built and successfully instigated controlled fusion reactions. One problem has plagued them all, however. All fusion reactors thus built have required more energy to start the reaction than was produced by the fusion itself. Until last week, that is. Last week, the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California announced a net gain in energy from a fusion reaction in their laboratory. The reaction lasted for less than a second, but offers a template for continuing research in this field. The catalyst for the reaction was a number of high-powered lasers fired into a deuterium-tritium plasma. This caused an implosion in the plasma, forcing the atoms to fuse. The scientists are riding the high of their success, but are not yet ready to rest. They are already researching ways to increase the efficiency of the reaction and ways to be able to control it for sustained time periods. This is exciting research that could shape the world in years to come!
A new idea for a little mini series- a countdown, so to speak. So over the next week or so we’ll go from the 5th greatest fail in science, today, down to the number one.
Coming in at number 5, the New York Times. It was January, 1920. Robert Goddard was a young scientist who dreamed of spaceflight. He is known for inventing the liquid fueled rocket, an invention, he imagined, would one day fly mankind to the stars. He was mocked and ridiculed by the New York Times, who reported that rockets were a “waste of time” as rockets couldn’t fly in space. In a vacuum, the paper claimed, it was obvious that a rocket could not fly- there was no air for it to push against! But Goddard remained convinced, a rocket’s ability to fly depended solely on its ability to make something (fuel) come out of one end of the vehicle, propelling the vehicle forward with a proportional force.
Clearly. Goddard was vindicated. In 1969, when Apollo 11 launched, the New York Times printed a retraction.
Today featured a somewhat special occasion: a partial solar eclipse. These are so rare that the next one is not expected to occur until 2015. A solar eclipse can only happen on a new moon as they require the moon to move between the earth and the sun. In a partial eclipse, the sun is only partially blocked. This is what we saw today. It was still a more spectacular sight. A full eclipse, where the sun is entirely blocked, is far more rare- the next will occur in 2020.
Why don’t these events come to pass more often? With only a 5 degree change in the inclination of the moon’s orbit, this would not be the case. Had the moon orbited the earth along the ecliptic, solar eclipses would occur every month! This, however is not the case.
Full solar eclipses are of extreme scientific value as they allow scientists to observe objects behind the sun. Of particular note, is Einstein’s theory. The first confirmation of General Relativity came by observations by an astronomer in 1919. He was able to observe that light was actually bent by the sun’s gravitational field, as predicted by Einstein. when the next arrives in 2020, be sure not to miss it, the next one won’t be for a really long time.
But eben a partial eclipse is a sight to behold. It was beautiful.
Many people may have heard of String Theory, Superstring Theory or, possibly, even M-Theory. In the popular television series “The Big Bang Theory”, the character Sheldon is working on this very theory, something referenced in a few episodes. Fewer people know what these theories are. Superstring Theory is among the leading candidates to unify gravity with the other forces of mature and matter and energy under one “Theory of Everything”, but it’s kind of weird.
String Theory postulates extra dimensions, a total of either 10 or 11. Okay, so we have the usual 3 spatial dimensions and time. That makes 4. Where are the other 6 (or 7)? There are a few hypotheses of where they may be hidden. The hidden dimensions may be curled up at the Plank Length -that’s really f-in’ small- so that light just circles around them so that we cannot see them. Possibly, this universe exists on a 3-dimensional membrane, floating in a higher dimensional space. There could be other universes out there- similar to this one or quite different. They could exist in 7 dimensions. Or 2. Floating in this same space. See, membranes, along with strings, are the heart of String Theory.
Everything in the universe, according to String Theory, can be equated to a rock and roll band. On a guitar, various strings can be played to create different notes. In the same way, it is believed, nature is played on strings. These strings vibrate against a system of higher dimensional membranes, called “P-branes”. The various “notes” of these vibrations manifest themselves as the subatomic particles currently understood. The different strings can play different notes and, like a band playing together in harmony, bring together the greatest anthem of all time, existence itself.
Everything is made of matter and energy, right? Matter and energy, of course, have a duality- as we learn from relativity- meaning they are like two side to the same quarter. Whether you see heads or tails, its still 25 cents. Matter is made of atoms, right? Which are made up of particles. Energy is also carried by particles. Or waves, because particles ARE waves. We have it all figured out. Except, there’s a problem. All of the matter-energy that we understand consists of roughly only 4% of the observable universe. The other 96% consists of Dark Matter and Dark Energy. 23% Dark Matter and 73% Dark Energy.
We understand the way gravity works fairly well. We were able to accurately predict the movements of the planets centuries ago. In 1969, we were even able to land a man on the moon. We got that shit. Why then, a fluke? By observing galaxies, astronomers have noticed an anomaly; the stars further away from the center of the galaxy were orbiting too fast. According for the laws of physics, objects are supposed to orbit slower the farther they are from the center of their orbit. This does not seen to be the case in galaxies. Physicists know there must be more matter somewhere to account for these weird orbits- a lot of it. They have called it “Dark Matter”, not because it is evil like Darth Vader, but because it doesn’t seem to interact with light. It really doesn’t seem to interact with ANYTHING, except for gravity and the weak force. We really have no idea what it is at all, except that its not like any of the matter we know. It’s going to be tough to find, but be sure, searching for this mysterious substance that makes up the majority of the matter in this universe is one of science’s top priorities.
Dark Energy is equally baffling. Galaxies are all flying apart from each-other. And the rate is accelerating. Gravity should be slowing the universe’s expansion down, but evidence has shown that the opposite is true. There must be an enormous amount of energy to compensate for this gravity. This energy is so great that it has been calculated to consist of 73% of the total mass-energy content of the universe. The search is on for Dark Energy as scientists march on trying to unravel the mysteries of the universe.
So what do we really know? Not much. But the search is on.
Isaac Newton was, without a doubt, among the most brilliant men who ever walked the earth. The story goes such. One day, Newton was sitting under an apple tree, and saw an apple fall to the ground. He then asked the question, “does the moon fall too? This profound question – and its answer- would set off a revolution in science and engineering that continues to this day. In doing so, Isaac Newton invented an entirely new form of mathematics called calculus. Not bad for a man in his 20s.
In his book “Principia Mathematica”, published in 1687, Isaac Newton presented his ideas to the world. The moon does fall. It just is moving sideways with a fast enough speed that it falls around the earth. In order to explain how this works, Newton proposed the following thought experiment. One could imagine a cannon. If a cannonball is fired at a certain speed, it will fly forward a certain distance before falling to the ground. If the cannonball is fired faster, it will go farther before falling. As the earth is round, Newton reasoned, there must be a speed at which the cannonball can be fired that it will fall around the curvature of the earth, thus remain in orbit indefinitely. This is the same way, he realized, that the moon stays in orbit of the earth and all the planets in orbit of the sun. He was able to calculate these speeds and orbits using his calculus- the mathematics of motion. One might think that that is a hearty career for a scientist, but Newton was a special man. He also contributed to mankind’s understanding of optics, and is largely responsible to working out the colors of the rainbow.
Despite his staggering achievements in the field of science, Isaac Newton devoted a significant portion of his time to pursuits that were decidedly non-scientific. He believed in the occult and spent much time contemplating the apocalypse. Other studies in psuedosciences included the fields of astrology and, most famously, alchemy. He was known to deeply study the bible and was religious. It is quite strange that a man with such a capacity to question his surroundings and study based on observation could be involved in such strange practices. That is the paradox that is Isaac Newton.newton
It is widely accepted that the universe was created from the Big Bang, a cosmic event in which space and time emerged and expanded rapidly. Almost everybody knows this, but what was the Big Bang? What caused it? What was BEFORE the big bang?
Space and time had always been thought of as fixed. Until General Relativity came along. While formulating the theory, Einstein came across a problem: the equations predicted either the expansion or the contraction of the universe. He knew that could not be the case as the universe was static. Einstein invented a number, called the “cosmological constant”, to counteract this effect and inserted it into his equations. It took an astronomer named Edwin Hubble to prove even Einstein wrong :the universe was expanding. Einstein later called the “cosmological constant” his “greatest blunder”.
Hubble used what, at the time, was the world’s largest telescope to observe far off galaxies. By observing a redshift in far off galaxies via the Doppler Effect, He was able to determine that the universe was expanding, and at what rate. Well, if one knows the speed that the universe is expanding, one can extrapolate backwards that at one point, today calculated at 13.7 billion years ago, everything was in one single point. From this infinitely dense singularity, everything expanded into the universe seen today. It was thought that the universe would expand until the energy of the Big Bang was no longer strong enough to counteract the gravity of the universe itself. It would collapse in an event referred to as the Big Crunch. In the past few decades, things have changed. The readings seem to indicate that not only is the universe expanding, its rate of expansion is ACCELERATING. This would mean that the Big Crunch would appear to be wrong and the universe will be infinitely expanding.
Via deep space telescopes, like the one in Hubble’s name, and particle accelerators, today’s scientists have been able to probe the very moments following the Big Bang, but still search for some final answers. What happened in the first second of the Big Bang? What, exactly, banged? What was BEFORE the big bang. There are some interesting insights.
Since the Big Bang was the start of time, it is often argued, there can be no before. It is truly astounding to see the way that the universe must have expanded from nothing into what is seen today. Some scientists now argue that this isn’t the way it happened at all- there are some fairly intriguing ideas, some of which may be discussed in later articles. Nonetheless, despite the open questions it leaves, the Big Bang theory seems to be the best explanation for the beginning of everything.