Category Archives: Science

The Pope, You and I. And Gadgets!

In recognition of an event that has not happened in more than half a millennium, the Bishop of Rome abdicating, here is a piece of music composed by Bach and played on a cathedral organ.

I am not a religious person in any traditional sense. However, I do recognize history. As much harm has been done in the name of God, so too has much benefit come.

Cathedral organs were, for centuries, the pinnacle of human technological achievement. The complexity, scale, craftsmanship, art and engineering was a major milestone. Cathedrals themselves are astonishing achievements.

While browsing through YouTube for a good video example, I ran across several submissions where the person taking the video within the cathedral could not help but continue panning around the vista continuously. Even today these structures manage to fill us with a sense of awe, whether we believe in any god or not.

The West has Christianity because of the Catholic Church. They brought education. And even today the Catholic Church strongly advocates academic achievement, even in deference to science, particularly amongst the Jesuit order.

I have never been Catholic. But if you are aware of our history in the West, you realize the significance – the impact the Catholic Church has had upon our most fundamental thought processes. It is our legacy, in many ways.

It was the first multinational organization, at a time, much like today, when all people were ruled by a very few individuals who held nearly all the resources and power. The Catholic Church brought a common sense of ethics and morality, and a respect for written law, that all Western nations, despite language differences, share in common. They became a force that dictators and rulers had to heed. And this helped bind Europe with a common identity that eventually transcended the notion of earthly rulers.

And that’s the key here. Transcendence. Moving beyond where we find ourselves. And this can be sad, painful and exhilarating. We look for a rebirth into something new. As individuals, and as nations. A rebirth into something kinder. Something better. Something wiser.

The Pontiff has abdicated his position, calling for someone who will be, perhaps, more open. But perhaps not caught up so much as us in all the fast-paced, momentary and superficial trappings we lap up. Perhaps while even being more open, he will still remind us of the importance – to look within ourselves.

God knows we need some good and big changes for the better. Or perhaps there is no being to know this. Perhaps we have to do this on our own. The harder route. The route where we must take responsibility for all that we say and do. And all that we do not say – and all that we do not do.

It is worth a prayer to something larger than ourselves. If only to our better selves that we aspire. May we all make wise choices in the time to come. And may we find peace and comfort in that.

No Time for Time

No Time for TimeI think people, including myself, easily get confused by thinking of time as an actual thing. I suspect that time is no more an actual thing than the number 3 is an actual thing. The number 3 is simply an abstraction that helps us represent a quantity (usually) of one thing or another. But the number 3 isn’t really a thing, in and of itself.

Time is similar. It’s nowhere to be found. Yet we can measure a quantity of changes within physical space by comparing them with other quantities of change within physical space, and we call that time.

For example, this crystal will vibrate 2,000 times before this ball arrives to hit me upside the head. Time isn’t anywhere in there, unless we want to say that 2,000 vibrations of that crystal is 2 seconds. Just keep in mind, though, we’ve made that up.

Now, suppose I’m next to a black hole, which isn’t far from the truth. My crystal will be vibrating slower if you’re looking from the outside, because space is so much more densely packed where I’m sitting – or rather gravity is stronger. My crystal will vibrate a different number of times before the ball smacks me upside the head. But is that necessarily something called time, or is it just a characteristic of more densely-packed space, behaving as it “ought”?

Preconceptions are buggery gremlins which often lead us easily astray. We can measure stuff, and compare it against other stuff, and even accurately predict what those measurements will be. But we’re just saying that stuff happening at seemingly constant intervals is time, and stuff happening to those same things, when the intervals change, are alterations to time.

Always remember, though, that a thing called time doesn’t need to exist — any more than the number three. It just helps when we’re counting.

Caught in Orbit Tonight with Ion Drives – Vesta and Dawn

Vesta as seen from Dawn spacecraft
Image of Vesta taken during approach of NASA's Dawn spacecraft. NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

If years of planning and work pay off, NASA’s Dawn space craft was just now gravitationally captured, as of 10pm PST, by an asteroid that lives in the wide region of our solar system between Mars and Jupiter. The asteroid is named Vesta.

It’s thought that Vesta, which is only 326 miles in diameter, once had lava flows. If Vesta did once have lava flows, it makes no sense with our current understanding, since Vesta is too small to contain a molten interior. The Dawn spacecraft will spend a year orbiting Vesta investigating its composition in an attempt to shed some light on this puzzling situation.

Some people believe Vesta may have a high concentration of radioactive elements, such as Aluminum-26, that fell together from a nearby supernova explosion, and worked its way to the core of the asteroid, resulting in geologies similar to what we find on Earth and Mars. Hopefully, we’ll know soon enough.

After a year, Dawn will depart from Vesta heading toward the nearby dwarf planet Ceres. This will mark the first time any spacecraft has managed to orbit one celestial body, then move away to orbit another.

Ion EngineNASA accomplishes this feat through the use of ion propulsion drives rather than chemical rocket drives. The Deep Space 1 mission years ago proved the viability of using ion propulsion drives for space exploration. Ion drives allow spacecraft to travel considerably faster than chemically-propelled rockets. Although chemical rockets produce a lot more up-front force, ion drives produce a small force over thousands of days, which gives you much faster speeds, and incredible “gas mileage”. In fact, at full throttle, the ion propulsion drives will produce little more force than a piece of paper does when held in your hand.

Tomorrow night around this time we’ll know for certain if Dawn was captured by the gravitational field of asteroid Vesta, and the science will begin. It could well be we will learn some important facts about how our solar system coalesced into this big ball of dust we’ve come wandering out from. Here’s hoping!

Nothing is Not Undefined in Relationships

NullData can be arranged relationally. When you order data with relationships in mind, it can be important to know what type of data we’re talking about.

Data types can be many things; numeric, integer, floating point, text, binary, dates, times, addresses — data types can be anything a database daemon was designed to support.

A problem can arise when you have a data container that is empty, awaiting data. For example, if your data type is integer, you may believe that a 0 represents nothing. But a zero represents a 0, not nothing, even though a 0 can represent nothing to us. Some databases might automatically place a 0 in a data container if no other value was provided. Other databases might not be so bold and reckless.

The problem is more apparent when considering text, or strings. If your container is meant to contain a string, yet you find yourself with no string to put in it, you have to ask yourself a question: “is the fact that I have nothing to put in it purposefully nothing – an empty string – or is it instead that it is an unknown, or undefined?”

Consider being told that you will have something done for you on Thursday. That’s great. It fits nicely in the date container. However, the Tuesday before, when you re-query the person, you find out that it may or may not happen on Thursday. If that confluence between a date and an event were to be filled, should it be an empty value, or an undefined (NULL) value?

Really, it depends upon the person who may or may not show on Thursday. Most people would say not to even define an event until that event is a “real” event. You can always add or delete things at any time. But that takes measurable work, and it consumes resources, and you have no built-in way to know if it’s tentative or not – it either is, or it isn’t going to happen.

A null in this case is very good at stringing people along. The event will easily be update-able to be happening or not, yet will never cause a conflict with any other overlapping event because it has an undefined value – NULL.

Interestingly, database users still argue over the usefulness of nulls in databases. Opponents of nulls claim that nulls easily confuse people and that any facts of known, unknown, or undefined values should live in the logic of the program running, rather than in the structure of data reality.

On the other hand, proponents of nulls claim that nulls reflect the reality of experience, in that some data must have the potential to be undefined when it has not specifically been set, even to nothing — because in doing so you can then claim data related to that thing may also be unknown or undefined.

Unfortunately, the real reality is that people and their languages are not always the best at accommodating undefined things – whether they are the ones generating the undefined things,  attempting to process them, or just simply to sensibly store them, in relation to any knowns.

Personally, I like nulls. Because they tell a story — and a fuller, richer one at that. Just keep in mind your own logic and language issues. Oh, and of course, those same things of others.

Worlds Without a Star

Free-floating planet conception
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

We are small — very small — isolated in our ways, and environments. So rarely do we trouble ourselves to imagine beyond whatever sky contains us.

Astronomers do. Physicists do. As do philosophers, poets, and even some writers. Politicians unconcerned with their own petty gains imagine what might lay beyond for us, in what may become our future. There are few.

Perhaps it is a sad tail; a failed sun. Not quite enough mass to ignite, though larger than Jupiter — flung out from its stellar nursery before gathering enough of itself in.

Dark planets drifting through our space with no star to fall toward. Warping the background points of light, invisible but for the slightest noticeable effect. Through the force that binds all things despite any distance.

Small collapsing spheres of dust larger than our world — more numerous than the stars.

Japan and New Zealand working together discovered these “free-floating” planets by observing gravitational lensing effects. That is, they watched how something invisible was warping spacetime in the night sky, by seeing star positions distort as it passed. The level of detail they must observe is astonishing, particularly from ground-based telescopes.

Just look what we can see.