Sunday, January 24, 2010

There and Back Again... A Physicist's Tale

Burkhard Heim was a physicist who died in 2001 at the ripe old age of 75. Many folks may not know the strange tale of this German scientist's strange climb to obscurity. But soon enough, he may be responsible for getting us to Mars. In 3 hours.

Heim, as a boy, had an ambition. As all children do. Mine was to be Optimus Prime. His was no less eccentric, he wanted to develop a method of space travel.

Heim's history sounds like something out of a comic book. But unlike Barry Allen's lab explosion giving him powers, Heim's accidental lab explosion left him without hands and mostly deaf and blind at the age of 19.

This did not stop Heim. Though he didn't go the super hero route, he did go the mad scientist route. He became an eccentric and a recluse. Going into almost complete isolation to work on his "theory of everything" (yes there is a 'theory of everything' look it up, it's crazy sauce).

But his "man behind the curtain" move did pan out. And today we have Heim's theory.

In a nutshell, it's a collection of ideas about the fundamental laws of physics. He developed a mathematical approach called "Selector calculus" which is based on quantizing spacetime itself.

In non-geek talk? Heim suggests that we could use a very strong magnetic field to push a spacecraft into another dimension. A dimension in where the physical laws that make the speed of light as fast as anything can go don't exist.

Sounds farfetched, right? And many scientists agree it does. But if it's real, it means we could travel to Mars in like 3 hours. To the nearest star in like 3 months.

The kicker?

It seems that the Department of Energy just so happens to have a device that could produce the uber-powerful fields needed to work. The device is called the Z-Machine.

If we are in fact successful in producing these fields, researchers could be testing a working engine within 5 years.

And a man, who you knew nothing about, who's life went unnoticed in a world of Einsteins, Hawkings, and Oppenheimers will finally come to light.

As the man who started our Star Trek.

Not bad for a mad scientist.

Friday, January 08, 2010

A bedtime story...

“Mountains VS Ocean ”


Americo Alvarenga

There was once a day. It could’ve happened a long time ago. It could’ve been yesterday. It could even be far into the future, but for argument’s sake, let’s just say it was today. There was nothing particularly different about this day than any other day. The Sun rose like it was supposed to. The Flowers bloomed like they’re used to. And Lilly woke up like she always does.

Lilly was a little girl who wasn’t as ordinary as her days were. Sure, Lilly rubbed her eyes to take the sleepiness away in the morning, like you and I do. And yes, Lilly puts on her sandals, one at a time, just like you and I would. But when Lilly steps outside and says, “Good morning”! The Trees, the Flowers, the Sun, the Clouds, all of nature, would answer back.

Lilly loved to talk to all the things around her, they would tell her jokes, they would sing her songs, and they would tell her stories about how things were going on in other parts of the world. As the day carried on, Lilly came to talk to Wind. Everyone gets ecstatic when the Wind comes by, because the wind knows more about what is happening around the world than anyone else. Sure you could talk to the Ocean, and ask it what is going on, but do you know how long it takes to carry a message by wave?

Lilly was very excited about what Wind had to say, it turns out that Shooting Stars were visiting the other side of the world. They were showing up because it was nighttime there, and would arrive to Lilly’s side of the world when it became nighttime for her. Lilly couldn’t contain herself about seeing Shooting Stars, they hardly ever come to visit, and when they do she is usually too tired to stay up to talk to them. She thanks Wind, who was busy making Trees sing, and Lilly starts to hatch a plan.

She walks over to where she can see Sun, and asks Sun for a favor.

“Sun?” She says, “I need you to go down early today.” Sun was surprised, for it was way to early for him to go away. “Sun,” she continued, “I must see the Shooting Stars tonight, and if you go to sleep now, I can be awake longer to see them. Sun felt a little sad, because it seemed that Lilly forgot that he was a Star too, only he wasn’t as flashy as Shooting Stars. Sun agreed, but only if Lilly let him stay up longer and shine brighter tomorrow to make up for it. She said yes.

Sun started to go down, and it started to grow dark. Lilly started to get happy but she soon realized she couldn’t see any stars. Clouds were still out.

“Clouds!” Lilly exclaimed. “I need you to go away.” Clouds felt quite sad being talked to in this way. Clouds feelings were easily hurt, but Lilly didn’t notice. Cloud quietly slipped away, and the night sky opened up.

Sparkling stars could be seen clearly now, and Lilly couldn’t wait till Shooting Stars came. But things still weren’t perfect for Lilly. Lilly was easily distracted by the Trees moving to and fro in the night; she asked Trees to leave. Lilly then asked Mountains to move back so she could see more into the horizon. Mountains did. Soon nothing was left around Lilly but her, her house, and the night sky.

And then with a zip, the first shooting star showed up. Lilly yelled, “Hello!” as more and more of them began to appear and light up the night sky. But Shooting Stars quickly became confused.

“Lilly?” Shooting Stars asked, “Where is everyone? Where are Trees? Where are Mountains? And where is our brother Sun?” Lilly explained that she asked everyone to go away so that she could see Shooting Stars tonight. Shootings Stars was very sad by this.

“Oh, Lilly.” Shootings Stars said, “We travel very far and very long, and we rarely come to visit. But when we do, we’re happy to come see you, Lilly, but not only you. You see, nowhere else in this great big Universe can we see Trees. We’ve seen Mountains sure, but not as pretty as they are here. And Clouds here are so fluffy and white, we love swimming through them when we visit here. And to tell you the truth, without all these things that make your world so special, I really don’t think we can stay.”

Lilly listened quietly to Shooting Stars words, and one by one, they all went away. Soon, the night was clear again, and as far as the eye could see, there was nothing around for her to talk to. Flowers were close, but they fell asleep as soon as Sun went away. Lilly was wide-awake, and did not know what to do. So she sat near Flowers, hoping that when Sun came back, she would have someone to talk to. Many hours went by, and Lilly finally fell asleep.

When the Sun came back, he came back strong. Sun had so much energy that he shone very bright and hot. Lilly asked if he could turn it down a bit, but the Sun reminded her about her promise yesterday. She agreed it was only fair, and went inside. Soon she heard crying from outside, and Flowers were calling for her. They asked Lilly for water, but she had none. She looked for Clouds who usually bring the water, but they were nowhere to be seen. Even Mountains who could form a stream or a creek was still gone. She even realized that Trees was still absent, as Trees usually kept her cool when Sun was having fun.

“Oh Flowers,” Lilly says, “I made such a mess of things. I was so selfish to see Shootings Stars last night that I asked my friends who always take care of me to go away. If I could just tell them that I’m sorry, if I could just tell them that I’ll never let them go away again, if I could just let them know that this time I’ll take care of them…” Lilly went quiet. She was too hot to continue, and sat next to Flowers to try to shade them from Sun.

All of a sudden, she saw Flowers’ petals move, and she felt a soft, cool breeze on her face. She looked up, and saw that Winds had been listening high above her, and following Winds down was Clouds. Lilly jumped up for joy as she called out Clouds. Clouds rumbled and brought down rain for Lilly and Flowers. Lilly was happy that Flowers was getting something to drink, and thanked Clouds so much. She was about to go inside her home, so as not to get wet when she realized that she was being shaded. When she looked up, she saw that Trees was covering her with its leaves. Winds explained to her that she heard everything she said and quickly told everyone what she had said.

Lilly thanked Winds for listening to her, and promised to never take her friends for granted ever again. Lilly sat contently under Trees and waved at Mountains as they came rolling back from the horizon. Mountains, of course, being slower than Ocean’s waves.


Sunday, January 03, 2010

On a side note...

Oh, by the by. It's a new year.

And just an FYI...


New one starts next year, folks.

Enjoy this one.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Free Spirit. The rover, not the immortal soul. Though free that too.

Today (January 3rd), Nasa's Mars rover, Spirit, will mark its six year, unfathomable stay on the surface of the red planet. Intended to only be operational for three months, Spirit, and its twin, Opportunity (who will celebrate its six year mark on the 24th), have gone well beyond their limits bringing back contrary views of Mars. While Opportunity has documented a wet and acidic Mars, Spirit, halfway around the world has had a completely different experience encountering a steamy and violent environment.

But all does not bode well for the little rover that "does, kinda". Nine months ago, Spirit's wheel broke through a crusty patch of surface and found itself stuck in some very loose sand. In 2006, Spirit's right wheel stopped working, which has met the rover, trying to get out of its sandtrap, with a mid-nities colloquialism, "Psych!" With four or possibly five wheels working (the sixth comes in at random), it has only made the poor little rover sink deeper into the sand.

If the little guy can't come out of the trap soon, NASA's focus is going to switch from mobility to preservation. Autumn is coming in the southern hemisphere, and with it brings less daylight. Spirit is tilted five degrees south where it sits. The winter sun at this time is coming up low in the northern sky. As we have all learned from watching Wall-E, this is unfavorable conditions for its solar panels, which might not collect enough solar energy, and could force Spirit to power down completely.

But why bother, you may ask, since the rover is stuck, its pretty much useless, no?

No! You ignorant, pea-brained, yet handsome readers of my blog who I will hope continue to do-so even after I brought into question the scale of your cerebrum.

In fact, Spirit can still perform its duties and more in its stuck position. It can study the deposit that its spinning wheel can kick up, it can study the interior of Mars by using radio transmissions to measure the wobble of the planet's axis of rotation, something it couldn't do while mobile (Take that! Opportunity and your functioning six wheels).

For now, we sit and wait. And applaud the valiant spirit of the rover with the same monicker. Six years of passing along to us new-found knowledge of another world along with the cool shots of a Martian landscape, and with the potential of giving us new material in its immobile state. You've gone far and beyond, little guy. Literally.

Happy six years on Mars!