Cambridge Nights, an Online Late-Night Science Talk Show

MIT’s Media Lab is producing an online show called Cambridge Nights, consisting of interviews with distinguished scientists about their research and their lives. It’s an interesting effort at bringing scientists into the public spotlight, which I fully support – we rely on science for everything, so understanding how and by whom it’s done is pretty key.  

From PhysOrg:

Similar to how Leno, Letterman, and John Stewart interview interesting people in pop culture, Cesar Hidalgo, ABC Career Development Professor at MIT’s Media Lab, interviews academic professionals about their research, their life stories, and their views of the world.

So far, eight episodes have been filmed, each about 30-45 minutes long. The episodes are being released every Wednesday, with the fourth episode appearing this week. The three episodes that have been released so far feature interviews with Marc Vidal, Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School; Geoffrey West, former President of the Santa Fe Institute; and Albert-László Barabási, director of Northeastern University’s Center for Complex Networks Research.

Due to the laid-back setting, the guests are able to tell stories that span their careers, peppered with interesting bits of trivia. For instance, as West discusses his research on how metabolism scales with an organism’s body mass, he notes that life is often marveled at for its diversity, but no less intriguing is how the characteristics of all known life forms follow some simple physical and mathematical laws. Even the arrangement of trees in a forest follows a formula, despite looking random, he explains.

As the shows are not pressed for time or commercial breaks, the guests are allowed to take their time while talking without being cut short by frequent interruptions or confrontational questions.

“Guests are not asked to simplify or condense their narratives,” according to the “Cambridge Nights” philosophy. “We invite them because we want to hear what they have to say, and we want to give them the time to say it comfortably. There are many high-speed formats out there. ‘Cambridge Nights’ is an alternative where thoughts can be developed and reflected upon without the need to rush.”

You should check it out. Be warned, the videos are ~40 minutes each, but you can just listen to it in the background in any case, if you’re the kind of person who can do that (I’m not, sadly). I really hope growing public interaction with scientists becomes a trend – and we can get closer to a society something more like this.

Big Science and a Big Laser

Scientific research is generally rather expensive and requires specialized equipment and real estate, but some projects are bigger than others. Physics World has a pdf of a supplement to their magazine describing a few giant-sized physics facilities currently working (like the LHC at CERN) or in the works; it’s pretty interesting to look over and see the huge ambition at play, and the frontiers of science. 

One of the proposed projects, the Extreme Light Infrastructure Ultra-High Field Facility, is the subject of a Telegraph article today. It’s going to include the most powerful laser in the world by orders of magnitude, strong enough to tear apart the virtual particles that are theorized to appear and disappear in a vacuum, and thus be able to learn more about them.

From the Telegraph:

Contrary to popular belief, a vacuum is not devoid of material but in fact fizzles with tiny mysterious particles that pop in and out of existence, but at speeds so fast that no one has been able to prove they exist.

The Extreme Light Infrastructure Ultra-High Field Facility would produce a laser so intense that scientists say it would allow them to reveal these particles for the first time by pulling this vacuum “fabric” apart.

They also believe it could even allow them to prove whether extra-dimensions exist.

“This laser will be 200 times more powerful than the most powerful lasers that currently exist,” said Professor John Collier, a scientific leader for the ELI project and director of the Central Laser Facility at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Didcot, Oxfordshire…

The ELI Ultra-High Field laser is due to be complete by the end of the decade and will cost an estimated £1 billion. Although the location for the facility will not be decided until next year, the UK is among several European countries in the running to host it…

The Ultra-High Field laser will be made up of 10 beams, each twice as powerful as the prototype lasers, allowing it to produce 200 petawatts of power – more than 100,000 times the power of the world’s combined electricity production – for less than a trillionth of a second…

It will cause the mysterious particles of matter and antimatter thought to make up a vacuum to be pulled apart, allowing scientists to detect the tiny electrical charges they produce.

These “ghost particles”, as they are known, normally annihilate one another as soon as they appear, but by using the laser to pull them apart, physicists believe they will be able to detect them.

Cool. It’s funny to think that the solution to the most subtle universal mysteries are solved by building giant crazy lasers and shooting stuff – it sounds like a solution from the mind of a 12-year-old boy. Or look at supercolliders like the LHC, where the solution instead is to smash particles together really really hard. Then again, those are descriptions tailored for mass consumption, so they leave out the 99.99% of the work that’s not quite so exciting – but still, at least parts of it are pretty exciting. 

If you looked at the supplement about “big science” from Physics World, you may have noticed that all of the projects they discuss are mainly or entirely European, which is kind of disappointing. It should be clear why science can be damn expensive, but if our continent doesn’t step its game up it looks like it’s going to fall behind, at least in this realm.

The Prospects for Alternative Energy

MIT recently published a five-part series of articles on our options for new methods of energy production, probably timed to coincide with humanity passing the 7 billion person mark this weekend. The articles are the intro, one article on wind energy, one on solar, one on biofuel, geothermal and nuclear energy, and one on energy conservation. I’ll excerpt the juicy bits from all of them below; since this is an entire series of articles again, this’ll be a nice long post.

From the intro:

At any given moment, the world is consuming about 14 terawatts (trillions of watts) of energy — everything from the fuel for our cars and trucks, to wood burned to cook dinner, to coal burned to provide the electricity for our lights, air conditioners and gadgets.

To put those 14,000,000,000,000 watts in perspective, an average person working at manual labor eight hours a day can expend energy at a sustained rate of about 100 watts. But the average American consumes energy (in all forms) at a rate of about 600 times that much. “So our lifestyle is equivalent to having 600 servants, in terms of direct energy consumption,” says Robert Jaffe, the Otto (1939) and Jane Morningstar Professor of Physics at MIT.

Of that 14 terawatts (TW), about 85 percent comes from fossil fuels. But since world energy use is expected to double by 2050, just maintaining carbon emissions at their present rate would require coming up with about 14 TW of new, non-carbon sources over the next few decades. Reducing emissions — which many climate scientists consider essential to averting catastrophic changes — would require even more…

Ultimately, Moniz suggests, a non-carbon energy future will likely consist largely of some combination of nuclear power, renewable energy sources and carbon-capture systems that allow fossil fuels to be used with little or no emissions of greenhouse gases. Which of these will dominate in a given area comes down to costs and local conditions.

“No one technology is going to get us into a sustainable energy future,” Jaffe says. Rather, he says, it’s going to take a carefully considered combination of many different approaches, technologies and policies.

From the second article:

Globally, 2 percent of electricity now comes from wind, and in some places the rate is much higher: Denmark, the present world leader, gets more than 19 percent of its electricity from wind, and is aiming to boost that number to 50 percent. Some experts estimate wind power could account for 10 to 20 percent of world electricity generation over the next few decades…

MIT’s Sclavounos has been working on the design of wind turbines for installation far offshore, using floating platforms based on technology used in offshore oilrigs. Such installations along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States could theoretically provide most of the electricity needed for the eastern half of the country. And a study in California showed that platforms off the coast there could provide more than two-thirds of the state’s electricity…

The main problem with wind energy, it seems, is its unreliability – having power generated on and off unpredictably results in expensive logistical problems.

From the third article:

Since solar energy is, at least in theory, sufficient to meet all of humanity’s energy needs, the question becomes: “How big is the engineering challenge to get all our energy from solar?” Taylor says.

Solar thermal systems covering 10 percent of the world’s deserts — about 1.5 percent of the planet’s total land area — could generate about 15 terawatts of energy, given a total efficiency of 2 percent. This amount is roughly equal to the projected growth in worldwide energy demand over the next half-century.

Such grand-scale installations have been seriously proposed. For example, there are suggestions for solar installations in the Sahara, connected to Europe via cables under the Mediterranean, that could meet all of that continent’s electricity needs…

Nocera foresees a time when every home could have its own self-contained system: For instance, photovoltaic panels on the roof could run an electrolyzer in the basement, producing hydrogen to feed a fuel cell that generates power…

Like nuclear power, Moniz says, solar is characterized by high initial costs, but very low operating costs. But one significant advantage solar has over nuclear is “you can do it in smaller bites,” rather than needing to build multibillion-dollar plants.

From the fourth article:

Beyond wind and solar power, a variety of carbon-free sources of energy — notably biofuels, geothermal energy and advanced nuclear power — are seen as possible ways of meeting rising global demand…

Biofuels have been an especially controversial and complex subject for analysts. Different studies have come to radically different conclusions, ranging from some suggesting the potential for significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to others showing a possible net increase in emissions through increased use of biofuels…

Key to biofuel’s success is the development of some sort of agriculture that wouldn’t take away land otherwise used to grow food crops. There are at least two broad areas being studied: using microbes, perhaps biologically engineered ones, to break down plant material so biofuels can be produced from agricultural waste; or using microscopic organisms such as algae to convert sunlight directly into molecules that can be made into fuel. Both are active areas of research…

Geothermal energy has huge theoretical potential: The Earth continuously puts out some 44 terawatts (trillions of watts) of heat, which is three times humanity’s current energy use…

Using this method, “there are thousands of years’ worth of energy available,” says Professor of Physics Washington Taylor. “But you have to drill deeply,” which can be expensive using present-day drilling methods, he says.

Most analysts agree nuclear power provides substantial long-term potential for low-carbon power. But a broad interdisciplinary study published this year by the MIT Energy Initiative concluded that its near-term potential — that is, in the first half of this century — is limited. For the second half of the century, the study concluded, nuclear power’s role could be significant, as new designs prove themselves both technically and economically.

The biggest factors limiting the growth of nuclear power in the near term are financial and regulatory uncertainties, which result in high interest rates for the upfront capital needed for construction. Concerns also abound about nuclear proliferation and the risks of radioactive materials — some of which could be made into nuclear weapons — falling into the hands of terrorists or rogue governments…

I think making nuclear mainstream is only going to be more difficult after the recent disaster in Japan, unfortunately.

Aaand from the final article:

Doing more with less fuel or electricity could reduce humanity’s energy demands by as much as half. No technological breakthroughs are needed for such savings, just some well-designed regulations and policies…

But even though the importance of efficiency is well-known, implementation faces many obstacles. For example, there’s the hurdle known as the landlord-tenant problem. In a nutshell, improvements in a building’s energy efficiency are typically paid for by the building’s owner, whereas the tenants — who often pay the utility bills — get the savings. Without regulations such as stronger building codes, financial incentives or gain-sharing mechanisms, a landlord has little motivation to make changes…

But some kinds of inefficiencies are not so easily reduced. For example, about two-thirds of the energy used to generate electricity using conventional steam turbines is wasted, regardless of whether the steam is heated by coal, oil, gas or nuclear fission…

Still, some of these systems are better than others: Currently, the most efficient heat-based generators are combined-cycle natural-gas plants, which use a two-stage system to squeeze the maximum energy out of the fuel, achieving overall efficiencies of around 60 percent…

That means simply making greater use of existing combined-cycle gas plants, and less use of older, much less efficient coal plants, could achieve a 20 percent reduction in overall U.S. greenhouse gas emissions without building a single new powerplant, according to a 2011 MIT study…

The implementation of efficiency improvements is full of questions and complexities, but the basic goal — and overwhelmingly, the single most important arena for making a major dent in greenhouse emissions — is crystal clear. As Jaffe puts it: “What can be done? Conserve, conserve, conserve.”

So there’s a very brief overview of alternative energy as it stands today and in the near future. Of course, as I’ve said before, there are tons of other ideas for generating electricity, but there’s always the issue of how much they cost and how large they can be scaled. For now it looks like we’ll have to keep tackling electricity generation through a combination of things, with carbon-emitting forms taking a smaller and smaller role.

I’m holding out for a breakthrough in nuclear fusionhere’s an article on a current effort at fusion at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Fusion uses hydrogen as fuel and produces plenty of energy (as you can see when you look in the sky); I would hope that’s the clean, efficient future of energy production.

Floating in the ISS

Here’s a video (via Gizmodo) of some astronauts showing the magic of acceleration in the International Space Station to the world. It has nothing to do with anything really, but it’s interesting to see astronauts seemingly enjoying themselves quite a bit. This is more striking considering one is American, one is Russian and one is Japanese – it makes the ISS look like an international summer camp or something.

Free Online Access to Historical Science Papers

The oldest scientific publisher in the world, the Royal Society, has made over 60,000 papers available for free online access. They date anywhere from 1665 up until 1941, and include papers by Darwin, Newton, and Franklin, to name a few. If you want to see how science was done back in the day, this is probably a great portal to do so; these are the oldest peer-reviewed science articles in history. 

Here‘s the announcement from the Royal Society, here are some examples of interesting finds by the BBC, and here‘s the searchable archive itself. Go nuts, time traveler!

Complex Organic Compounds in Space

Researchers have discovered that stars are capable of creating more complex organic compounds than previously thought possible. This ties in pretty nicely with the previous post, since it’s thought that asteroids may have brought organic compounds to Earth and played a role in the origin of life. 

From PhysOrg (but check out Space.com for a less succinct but better article):

The researchers investigated an unsolved phenomenon: a set of infrared emissions detected in stars, interstellar space, and galaxies. These spectral signatures are known as “Unidentified Infrared Emission features”. For over two decades, the most commonly accepted theory on the origin of these signatures has been that they come from simple organic molecules made of carbon and hydrogen atoms, called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) molecules. From observations taken by the Infrared Space Observatory and the Spitzer Space Telescope, Kwok and Zhang showed that the astronomical spectra have features that cannot be explained by PAH molecules. Instead, the team proposes that the substances generating these infrared emissions have chemical structures that are much more complex. By analyzing spectra of star dust formed in exploding stars called novae, they show that stars are making these complex organic compounds on extremely short time scales of weeks.

Not only are stars producing this complex organic matter, they are also ejecting it into the general interstellar space, the region between stars. The work supports an earlier idea proposed by Kwok that old stars are molecular factories capable of manufacturing organic compounds. “Our work has shown that stars have no problem making complex organic compounds under near-vacuum conditions,” says Kwok. “Theoretically, this is impossible, but observationally we can see it happening.”

I like how this can be seen as an astronomy, physics, chemistry or evolutionary biology discovery, depending on your focus. It may really be all of them. The idea of stars creating (relatively) complex organic compounds is pretty crazy, and will definitely fuel the idea that life probably developed elsewhere in the universe as well as here.

To be clear, the compounds they’re talking about are not anything on the scale of proteins or genetic material, but simpler molecules than those are enough to form a membrane, which is a prerequisite to life as we know it (since you need an “inside” of a living thing and an outside). There’s a manned mission to an asteroid coming up in the near future; maybe we’ll find something totally unexpected?

The Possible Birthplace of Life on Earth

I wanted my 100th post on this blog to be about something suitably epic; this article should do. It’s about the identification of a group of volcanoes in Greenland that may have had the right conditions for creating life 3.8 billion years ago, something that hasn’t been found anywhere else. 

From Science Daily:

The mud volcanoes at Isua, in south-west Greenland, have been identified as a possible birthplace for life on Earth by an international team headed by researchers from the Laboratoire de Géologie de Lyon: Terre, Planètes et Environnement (CNRS/Université Claude Bernard Lyon 1/ENS de Lyon). Almost four billion years ago, these volcanoes released chemical elements indispensable to the formation of the first biomolecules, under conditions favorable to life. It is the first time that such an environment, meeting all the requirements for the emergence of life, has been identified by scientists in 3.8 billion year-old formations…

Mud volcanoes are cooler than igneous volcanoes, and don’t eject lava. According to Wikipedia, “Ejected materials are often a slurry of fine solids suspended in liquids which may include water, which is frequently acidic or salty, and hydrocarbon fluids.” Sounds nasty. 

Serpentinite is a dark green mineral used in decoration and jewelry. In nature, it is formed when sea water infiltrates into Earth’s upper mantle, at depths that can reach 200 km in subduction zones. According to the scientists, this mineral, often found in the walls of hydrothermal sources, could play a major role in the appearance of the first biomolecules…

The team of scientists publishing this article focused their studies on serpentinites from Isua, in south-west Greenland, which date from the start of the Archean [4 to 2.5 billion years ago]. Dating back some 3.8 billion years, the rocks of Isua are some of the oldest in the world. Using isotopes of zinc as indicators of the basic or acid nature of an environment, the researchers highlighted the basic character of the thermal fluids that permeated the Isua serpentinites, thus demonstrating that these minerals formed a favorable environment for amino-acid stabilization…

Nearly four billion years ago, at a time when the continents only occupied a very small part of the surface area of the globe, the oceanic crust of Isua was permeated by basic hydrothermal fluids, rich in carbonates, and at temperatures ranging from 100 to 300°C. Phosphorus, another indispensable element to life, is abundant in environments where serpentinization takes place. As this process generates mud volcanoes, all the necessary conditions were gathered at Isua for organic molecules to form and be stable. The mud volcanoes at Isua thus represent a particularly favorable setting for the emergence of primitive terrestrial life.

So that’s pretty cool. However, as fun as it may be to point at a specific place as the origin of life, we have to of course keep in mind that this is just one possibility. Life is generally thought to have originated near hydrothermal vents, so those are still a possibility. It’s also hard or impossible to say that this location at Isua is more likely than others, since, as they say, those are some of the oldest rocks in the world; there’s no way to compare them to equally old rocks everywhere else.

Could still make for a good tourist attraction though…

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