Science Sunday: Black holes are really gray, and other science news

Hi friends, I took a bit of a break over the holidays, then was inundated with post-holiday work…now it’s time for some fun — and a return of Science Sunday. In this week’s round-up:

Space News

Mars

It wouldn’t be Science Sunday without my usual Mars news obsession.

In this case, it’s reports from NASA’s Curiosity rover (the big one) which has been experiencing unusually heavy wear and damage to its tracked wheels during its second year of operation.

Curiosity’s operators at JPL are trying to deal with this unexpected wear by lifting two wheels at a time and just driving on four of the six, finding less rocky ground to drive over, and so on. By point of comparison, Curiosity has only traveled about 3 miles since landing, whereas the Energizer Bunny of Mars rovers, Opportunity, has traveled over 24 miles since 2004 — and is still going strong.

The left-front wheel of NASA's Curiosity rover on Mars, showing dents and wear (photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

The left-front wheel of NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars, showing dents and wear (photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

(((sigh))) A ‘scientist’ by the name of Dr. Rhawn Joseph has sued NASA for what he alleges is a refusal to investigate an odd rock that showed up on one of Opportunity’s photographs from the Martian surface.

Dr. Joseph seems to think the rock is some kind of Mars Mushroom and has accused NASA and JPL of covering up evidence of life on the red planet.

Meanwhile, Opportunity’s ‘Principal Investigator,’ Dr. Steve Squyres, has said that they did look at the rock — including  several times with a microscope-camera — and it’s nothing but a rock.

While it’s true they’re not positive how the rock got there — whether it’s a fresh chunk of meteorite or, more likely, a rock dislodged by one of Opportunity’s wheels as it drove along — they’ve released plenty of information to indicate it really is just a rock. Dr. Joseph, on the other hand, has a reputation as more than a bit of a crank, having authored conspiracy-minded papers about alien life, the 9/11 attacks, and bizarre theory of panspermia in which not only did life on Earth originate from out there, but that somehow evolution itself is being directed intelligently and purposefully by our DNA.

A rock on Mars, most likely dislodged and flipped over by one of the Curiosity rover's wheels (photo: NASA)

A rock on Mars, most likely dislodged and flipped over by one of the Curiosity rover’s wheels (photo: NASA)

The tiny rover associated with China’s recently landed lunar probe, Yutu (Jade Rabbit) has been experiencing malfunctions recently. While the main probe itself, Chang’e, appears to be fine, last weekend Jade Rabbit began experiencing what were described as “mechanical control abnormalities” and shut down. Chinese mission controllers have presumably attempted some kind of reset and they’re hoping to reactivate the rover when the lunar night ends — which will be in about a week or so, for the rover’s location.

Blacks holes are actually gray

Stephen Hawking once again upsets the table of cosmology by theorizing that ‘black holes’ as commonly depicted in both science and science fiction, don’t actually exist as such. In particular, he’s now saying there probably is no such thing as an ‘event horizon’ — a fixed boundary at a certain distance from a gravitational singularity beyond which light cannot escape. He now thinks that the ‘horizon’ actually varies considerably based on quantum interactions between the particles inside the hole. And what this means is that although energy (light) and matter would have a difficult time escaping, eventually they would. In short, black holes viewed up close would be dark, dark gray.

Earth News

Indonesia’s volcano

Gorgeous blue sulfur flames from Indonesia’s Kawah Ijen volcano. (Sorry, can’t include photos due to copyright issues. It’s worth checking out though, over on the National Geographic website.)

Peanut allergies

Researchers at the University of Cambridge, led by Dr. Andrew Clark, believe they may have found a successful desensitization treatment for sufferers of peanut allergies. According to the linked story, as many as 15 million Americans have food allergies of some kind, and a little over 7.5% of kids under 18 can have life-threatening reactions, and for kids apparently peanut allergies are the worst and most common. The treatment is simple “oral immunotherapy” or OIT, and consists of ingesting small but increasing amounts of peanut powder over the course of months.  In the study, after six months, “84 to 91 percent of children in the trial could safely tolerate 800 mg of peanut powder or the equivalent of five peanuts.” This may not sound like much, but we’re talking about going from “anaphylactic shock if simply near someone eating peanuts” to “should just try to avoid.” That’s a huge and life-altering improvement.

Tech news

Is Google trying to become Cyberdyne and build Skynet?

They’re already building driverless cars. They’ve acquired Boston Dynamics, the company that has built some incredibly creepy four and two legged robots. And now Google has acquired DeepMind, a company involved in artificial intelligence technologies.

I’m more of a technophile than most, but I’ve always wondered, “If we ever do build an AI, how do we know for sure it’ll be benign towards humans?” (For those who think that Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics” will suffice, it’s worth remembering that even he later wrote of AIs finding ways around those laws.)

New passpword protections

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU — and my own alma mater) have come up with a new double-layer of password protection that they say is far more secure against brute force computerized attacks.

Called GOTCHA (Generating panOptic Turing Tests to Tell Computers and Humans Apart), it combines a traditional password with a colored inkblot test. The system shows you several inkblots and you’re supposed to come up with a phrase to describe each. Then, the next time you log in and enter your password, you’re shown both the blots and your phrases and told to match them again.

Apparently computers just can’t guess which blot a human might see as a butterfly or as a spatter of paint (that is until Google Skynet gets their hands on them). On the other hand, I always felt that XKCD’s approach to password strength to be far more effective and elegant — not to mention crazy-simple.

Password strength, by XKCD.com, Creative Commons License

Password strength, by XKCD.com, Creative Commons License

Finally, in closing, our treat of the day: The unbelievable — and complete — video footage of Felix Baumgartner’s record-breaking Mach 1-shattering freefall from 23 miles up on 14 October 2012. We’re not talking just video from the balloon capsule from which he made the jump, or the grainy almost impossible-to-see video from the ground.

Baumgartner was festooned with those GoPro high-def video cameras, and this is a first-person view of his experience. Enjoy.


Published professional writer and poet, Becca had a three decade career in technical writing and consulting before selling off most of her possessions in 2006 to go live at an ashram in India for 3 years. She loves literature (especially science fiction), technology and science, progressive politics, cool electronic gadgets, and perfecting Hatch green chile recipes. Fortunately for this last, Becca and her wife currently live in New Mexico. @BeccaMorn

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  • Bomer

    There isn’t enough alcohol in the world that could get me to toss myself out of an airplane, let alone a capsule suspended from a balloon 24 miles up. I don’t care how pretty the sight might be.

  • lynchie

    Becca: I have missed these posts. They pique my curiosity and get me onto the goggle to find out more. Reminds me of a saying one of my college profs had (he stole it) “Theories are like assholes everyone has one”. Getting your gray matter to do some work is what keeps me as an old coot going.

  • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

    The funniest part of conspiracy theories is the idea that anyone in government can keep a secret.

  • Indigo

    Four random common words? That’d be the first password, right there. :-)
    But that jelly donut on Mars? That’s got traction among the anything-but-real-science set.
    And as for Stephen Hawkings? I liked ‘Brief History of Time’ even though I don’t think that blending in a few Sherlock Holmes stories made him sound like a real boy.

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    Well, my physicist wife has never had much liking for Dr. Hawking, but she thinks this new theory actually makes some sense. “Nothing in the universe is absolute,” she said. And so she believes this notion of a slightly varying event horizon — even if it’s just on the scale of millimeters — makes sense.

    But yeah, re: NASA — I can think of no conceivable reason why the government would hide evidence of life on Mars. It’s be the frickin’ gravy train for the whole aerospace industry, plus the boasting rights of having discovered the first evidence of life off-planet.

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    In short, Dr. Joseph seems to believe that the beginning Ridley Scott’s recent film, ‘Prometheus,’ is how life started on Earth. Or near enough to it.

    As always with these theories, all it does is push the “when did it begin?” back one step. If life didn’t arise on its own here on Earth, then how would it have arisen elsewhere and when?

    And of course these ‘Prometheus’-like theories attempt to provide some kind of deity-like comfort that whoever seeded life on Earth and directed evolution through the intelligent self-expression of DNA must therefore (1) intended for humans to be special and (2) there’s a hidden but important purpose for the human race itself. In other words, it just creates a different sort of god so that we don’t have to generate meaning for ourselves.

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    Correction: The photo up there should say ‘kicked up by Opportunity’s wheel’. My bad. I’m constantly getting the names of the rovers mixed up. Opportunity is the littler one that’s been there since 2004. Spirit is the one that landed at the same time, but finally died a few years ago — still well after its predicted mission lifetime (90 days originally).

  • quax

    “Stephen Hawking once again upsets the table of cosmology”

    No he has not, he just has the name recognition.
    http://wp.me/p2lHU6-Mh (the link just re-blogs, but I think the crowd here may appreciate the rainbow colored black hole)

  • Ninong

    Reading what you wrote about him, I was curious about this scientist, Dr. Rhawn Joseph, so I read a little of his online stuff. First of all, let’s just establish that he is a neuropsychologist who has been publishing peer-reviewed articles in his field of neuropsychology for at least the past four decades. I know very little about neruopsychology but it appears to me that Dr. Joseph credits himself with discoveries that I thought were self-evident. However, that’s not the fun stuff.

    Where it gets interesting is when Dr. Joseph asserts that as a neuropsychologist he understands the limits of human comprehension and perception, as well as the evolution of both, and Charles Darwin didn’t and Stephen Hawking doesn’t. He incorrectly asserts that the Big Bang theory implies a finite universe. Not so if you read Hawking. He also incorrectly claims that the Big Bang theory implies creation and it’s does no such thing. In fact, Hawking specifically addressed that point when he explained his conception of time and space.

    Joseph offers a totally confused explanation of the genetics of DNA. He writes that environment “effects” the expression of genes (as if he’s the first one to discover that) then marvels at the untold amount of DNA information that has not yet been expressed. His absurd explanation of that is that it’s preprogrammed information that will be useful in the future. Most of it is the historical record of mutations that were either not beneficial or simply irrelevant at the time.

    Anyway, that’s where Joseph delves into preprogrammed DNA. According to him, DNA seeds arrived on Earth some 700 million years ago and those DNA seeds were preprogrammed for all subsequent biological metamorphosis that has occured in the past and will occur in the future. Apparently Joseph thinks that the rock he wants NASA to investigate is proof of his theory of extraterrestrial DNA seeding and he thinks NASA is deliberately trying to deny him his rightful place in history.

    Here are a few select quotes from Dr. Joseph: ” I believe the evidence demonstrates conclusively that life on Earth came from other planets.” He rejects the possibility that DNA evolved from RNA which evolved from earlier biochemical reactions. In his mind, it was all preprogrammed in those DNA seeds that arrived from outer space, specifically “other planets.” Even if organic compounds arrived on early Earth imbedded in comets, that doesn’t prove preprogrammed DNA seeds.

    There’s more: “I understood the environment acts on gene selection, and altering the
    environment profoundly effects gene expression; which led me to realize the
    genome contained thousands of genes which had not yet been expressed and which
    contain vast genetic libraries of information, and which had been inherited from
    ancient ancestors.”

    And here’s my absolute favorite quote: “When I studied slices of brain under a microscope, I saw
    patterns suggestive of planets, stars, and galaxies.”

    That last sentence is my favorite by far. LOL

  • Monophylos Fortikos

    I laugh at all of the claims from crackpots like Hoagland and Rhawn Joseph that NASA wants to hide evidence of Martian life. Are they kidding? If NASA actually had demonstrable, irrefutable proof that Mars harbored life or even just fossils of life, they’d be set. They’d probably never have to worry about funding again. Why on Earth would NASA want to hide the one thing that would rekindle enthusiasm for space exploration like nothing else could?

    EDIT: And, meh, Hawking. He’s really gone off the rails in the last several years with “multiverse” nonsense and a whole bunch of other wild and utterly unprovable speculations that get passed off as high-energy physics these days.

  • Hue-Man

    Supernova 2014J in galaxy M82 generated (it happened 12 million years ago but the light just arrived here Jan 21st) the elements necessary for life. http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-supernova-2014j-online-20140129,0,5829123.story#axzz2sBaNxCXo

    Meanwhile, here on Earth we seem intent on making a truly remarkable life-form disappear; I feel like the people who saw the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon as the number of Monarch Butterflies reaching Mexico falls to perilous levels. http://www.kcet.org/news/redefine/rewild/invertebrates/bad-news-on-monarch-butterflies-part-of-long-trend-in-california.html

    If you missed it, PBS Newshour reported this week on the mysterious die-off of starfish in ocean waters from California to Alaska. “There were just bodies everywhere. And they were just like splats. To me, it always looked like somebody had taken a laser gun and just zapped them and they just vaporized.” http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/mysterious-epidemic-devastates-starfish-population-pacific-coast/

  • docsterx

    Some places in Indonesia are breathtakingly beautiful. Bali, Jambi, the Marine Park, temples and other sites http://www.indonesia.travel/ are incredible. But, with flaming sulfur, the lake filled with hydrochloric acid and the fumes in the air, I think I’ll avoid the volcano in person and just look at the pictures

  • Dave of the Jungle

    Space is the Place.

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