Posts Tagged ‘science’

How big are you?

January 16, 2009

suns2
A representation of our sun (on the left) compared to other stars in the universe.

And last but not least, we’ve got Emma-Lu coming through with the following bit.  I’m only including the link because there are a lot of pictures, and text corresponding with the pictures, etc….so I figured it would be easier to give you the link instead of trying to reproduce everything here.  I do have a life after all.  😉  But check it out.  It’s pretty amazing, the sizes of everything relative to each other, and how much is out there, beyond our planet.

HOW BIG ARE YOU?

Isn’t that weird?  Emma-Lu sent me this not long after I made yesterday’s post about the Scales of the Universe, but before that post was published.  So we were both kind of thinking of the same thing around the same time.  OooOooOoo.  😉

And that does it for me today.  Not that I really did much since today’s content was all provided by you gals.  Again, thank you so much to everyone who contributed.  Despite the cold outside, I will go to sleep warm with the knowledge that GBD peepz rock.  🙂

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Impossible. Yet here we are.

January 15, 2009

rose-center

Chris requested inspirational quotes or stories, and stuff about science and nature.  This reminded me of the Scales of the Universe walk inside the planetarium at one of my favorite museums, the American Museum of Natural History.  The Scales of the Universe is basically a walk around that huge sphere you see in the photo above, called the Hayden sphere (which houses the Space Theater, which is so friggin’ cool…like, if you can’t go into space yourself, this is the next best thing).  Anyway, there are stations set up around the sphere that help you compare how big or small things are relative to each other.  For example, in the picture above, if the Hayden sphere represents our sun, then off to the right, you can see how big Jupiter, and behind it Saturn, are.  Below Jupiter, in the lower right-hand corner, you can see three much smaller spheres clustered together in a row.  I think the one in the middle is how big Earth would be if the Hayden sphere were the sun.  Do you see that?  How small Earth is compared to the sun?  Anyway, every time I visit this museum, I go on this walk around the sphere because it never fails to amaze me, to see how small we are compared to the universe, and how big we are compared to atoms.  It’s mind-boggling.

So Chris’ request reminded me of this walk, which then reminded of something Richard Dawkins wrote:

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We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

Here is another respect in which we are lucky. The universe is older than 100 million centuries. Within a comparable time the sun will swell to a red giant and engulf the earth…The present moves from the past to the future, like a tiny spotlight, inching its way along a gigantic ruler of time. Everything behind the spotlight is in darkness, the darkness of the dead past. Everything ahead of the spotlight is in the darkness of the unknown future. The odds of your century’s being the one in the spotlight are the same as the odds that a penny, tossed down at random, will land on a particular ant crawling somewhere along the road from New York to San Francisco. You are lucky to be alive and so am I.

We live on a planet that is all but perfect for our kind of life: not too warm and not too cold, basking in kindly sunshine, softly watered; a gently spinning, green and gold harvest-festival of a planet. Yes, and alas, there are deserts and slums; there is starvation and racking misery to be found. But take a look at the competition. Compared with most planets this is paradise, and parts of Earth are still paradise by any standards. What are the odds that a planet picked at random will have these complaisant properties? Even the most optimistic calculation will put it at less than one in a million.

Imagine a spaceship full of sleeping explorers, deep-frozen would-be colonists of some distant world…The voyagers go into the deep-freeze soberly reckoning the odds against their spaceship’s ever chancing upon a planet friendly to life. If one in a million planets is suitable at best, and it takes centuries to travel from each star to the next, the spaceship is pathetically unlikely to find a tolerable, let alone safe, haven for its sleeping cargo.

But imagine that the ship’s robot pilot turns out to be unthinkably lucky. After millions of years the ship does find a planet capable of sustaining life: a planet of equable temperature, bathed in warm starshine, refreshed by oxygen and water…here is a whole new fertile globe, a lush planet of warm pastures, sparkling streams and waterfalls, a world bountiful with creatures, darting through alien green felicity. Our travelers walk entranced, stupefied, unable to believe their unaccustomed senses or their luck.

As I said, the story asks for too much luck; it would never happen. And yet, isn’t it what has happened to each one of us? We have woken after hundreds of millions of years asleep, defying astronomical odds. Admittedly we didn’t arrive by spaceship, we arrived by being born, and we didn’t burst conscious into the world but accumulated awareness gradually through babyhood. The fact that we gradually apprehend our world, rather than suddenly discovering it, should not subtract from its wonder.

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The original passage is here.

I know some people think that science strips away the magic of our experience.  But I don’t see it that way at all.  For me at least, science opens my eyes and sharpens my focus, so that I can see – really SEE – all of the beauty and magic in this life.

Tunable Glasses

January 15, 2009

tunable-glasses
A Zulu man wearing adaptive glasses. (photo: Michael Lewis for The Guardian)

You ever notice how water in a glass will distort things?  Like this…

water-refraction

…so that things will look closer or bigger than they really are?

Well, a physicist has finally figured out how to use that property of water to make “tunable” eyeglasses.  Starting back in 1985, Josh Silver embarked on a mission to help the world’s poor see better.  He knew that many areas of the world didn’t have access to optometrists or couldn’t afford prescription glasses.  So he invented glasses that let wearers adjust their own “prescription.”

How?  The plastic lenses have clear circular sacs filled with fluid.  The wearer uses a syringe to add or remove fluid.  Adding more fluid increases the power of the lens (in the same way that thicker lenses are stronger in regular glasses).

Can you imagine what this means?  Think of all the things you need good eyesight for.  To be able to see is a tremendous improvement in quality of life.  People can read, thread needles, mend their clothes, make a living, support their families.

So far, about 30,000 pairs have been distributed in 15 countries, but Silver hopes to offer these glasses to a billion of the world’s poorest people by 2020.  Within the next year, he and his team plan to distribute 1 million pairs in India.

See?  Science is cool!  🙂

You can read the article here.

Thought Images

December 18, 2008

Check this out…Japanese neuroscientists have created images of thoughts.  What they did was show a bunch of images to people (for example, the top rows above, with the black & white squares), and recorded the brain activity when people looked at these images.  Then later on, the scientists had the people think of those images (without actually looking at them), and were able to decode the brain activity as images on a computer screen (the bottom rows above, with the grayish fuzzy squares). In other words, they were able to see what people were thinking.  You can read more about this here and here.

What could this possibly be used for?  The researchers say that it may be possible to one day record and replay dreams.  I can think of quite a few other things people might use it for, especially as a sophisticated lie detector of sorts.  In fact, a few months ago, India was the first country to convict someone of a crime using brain scans as evidence.  This, of course, has caused a lot of controversy because it raises many questions about the invasion of privacy and the ethics of accessing people’s thoughts.

So what do you all think?  Cool or scary or both or neither?  Can you think of any other uses for this technology?

Cool Shite. Literally.

December 13, 2008

The video above is actually a bit old (given in 2007), and it has already been in the news a while ago, but the invention that’s being talked about popped up again recently in Esquire Magazine’s Best and Brightest 2008 feature.  You can read the Esquire article here.  The video’s short – maybe 3 and a half minutes.

What’s the invention?  It’s a very portable refrigerator (8 lbs) that doesn’t require electricity to work – it uses fire instead.  I know, right?  Fire powers a cooling system.  Isn’t science amazing??  The other thing that’s great about the invention is that it’s relatively affordable – as low as $25 each.

The idea to build a cooling system that doesn’t require electricity to operate has been around for a long time.  Adam Grosser – the speaker in the video – mentions some dude who first came up with the idea of the Intermittent Absorption Refrigerator as far back as 1858.  In the 1920s and ’30s, there was a refrigerator called the Crosley IcyBall, which ran on kerosene instead of electricity.  And in the 1930s, Einstein and his colleague Leo Szilard came up with another design for a no-electricity fridge.  In fact, many RVs today use absorption refrigerators (RV = recreational vehicle…you know, those big things you take with you on long road trips and/or camping).

Perhaps one of the simplest and most elegant examples of a non-electrical cooling system was invented by a Nigerian man named Mohammed Bah Abba.  He invented the Pot-in-Pot, which was named as one of Time Magazine’s Inventions of the Year, back in 2001.  The principles behind the way the Pot-in-Pot works are also not new, and have been used before, but Mohammed was able to reinvent the system and scale up production in such a way as to provide tens of thousands of people in his community with a simple, affordable way to preserve their food for longer periods of time.  By doing so, he has transformed life for many in his community, especially for women, many of whom now have time to go to school instead of spending their days selling their food before it spoils.  You can read more about Mohammed and his invention here and here.

So why all the hoohah now?  If these ideas have been around for such a long time, and stuff has already been made, then why am I telling you about this now?  Cuz I think it’s friggin’ cool doggonit!  😉  Plus, the refrigerator presented in the video is potentially world-changing if they can get everything to work out.  By having such a portable, affordable, non-toxic refrigerator, it changes everything with regards to delivering much-needed medicines to the parts of the world that need it most.  There is also a lot of interest in these systems now because of concerns about climate change.  People are currently working on ways to power these types of refrigerators with solar energy, for example, instead of electricity or the burning of fuel.

Interested in reading about how this all works (more or less)?  Go here. But for those who would like the super-short SparkNotes version (or Cliff Notes for those who’re old school like me), here’s the gist: The driving principle behind all these types of refrigeration is the evaporation of a liquid to cool things. Our very own bodies use this principle all the time – we call it “sweating.” How exactly does sweating cool us down? Well, a liquid won’t evaporate unless it gets hot enough, and to do that it needs to absorb energy. The energy that sweat absorbs comes from our body heat. So, since we lose some of our body heat when our sweat evaporates, we end up feeling cooler (even though it might not seem like it on really hot days). Anyway, that’s the same idea behind refrigerators, except there are a lot of details that need to be worked out – like safety (because the liquids that evaporate easily also tend to be explosive and/or toxic), recycling the liquid (so that you don’t have to keep adding more), energy efficiency, etc.

Neat, huh?  For all you science, techie geeks out there…fear not.  Ima represent yo.  Holla!  😉