Water, water, who cares



We still teach that the search for life elsewhere in the universe is he essentially a search for water in its liquid form. This seems based on sound principals- every form of life we know of requires water. New research is turning up more opportunities for life though. In this article above, they find a new way for proteins to fold without requiring liquid water. Water still is a vital element, but this result shows that somewhere life may have formed without access to liquid water, meaning the search to ET can widen.


Billionaires and asteroid mining


Asteroid mining a reality

One of the best stories of the year.

A bunch of billionaires want to go and mine asteroids for water and platinum. With the depressing news recently regarding government funding of science, the demise of the shuttle, and the lack of jobs, it is actually refreshing to see private money step in. Even if they only do it for profit the spin off for society will be huge. It is natural and human to explore, to see what it out where, to stretch the boundaries. And it could start new interest in engineering and science, similar to the Apollo era.
This is what makes space great.

Dark matter becomes darker

No dark matter here


This new report in astrophysical journal opens up new questions about the the not-so-small matter of dark matter. Dark matter is an essential element in explaining why stars stay combined in galaxies, and hence why galaxies stay close to each other. So it should be all around us. This news study tried to look for the evidence of it in our local neighborhood and came up empty. Of course a lack of evidence does not mean it isn’t there. You can see the usual reasons why studies this this will always be doubted- either the study is lacking in quality, statistics are small, or theory is misunderstood. In this case, the study seems good, but perhaps the method is incapable of finding dark matter. Either way this mysterious concept seems like it’ll confuse us more before it lets us into its secret.

The dwindling pot pits astronomers against each other

At first glance at this story I think ‘Great. Another achievement for ESA’

JUpiter ICy moon Explorer mcateer JUICY

but then the flip side reveals itself as

the Advanced Telescope for High Energy Astrophysics mcateer ATHENA

organizes a preemptive strike against a possible forthcoming rejection. At 2 euro per person per year ESA basically is struggling on a shoestring. It is having to make impossible scientific judgement calls on comparing a mission to Jupiter’s moon to X-ray cosmology. It’s like pitting apples and oranges in a fight to see who is ‘most fruity’. And so the decision, although supposedly based on science, often turns to be based on history, politics, and supposed technology readiness level.

Astronomers are left fighting amongst themselves for 2-euro scraps off the table. Economies are bad, money is tight, but is asking for another couple of Euro per person really that bad? After all, UK alone spends 50 billion euro (38 billion pounds) per year in military – 1000 euro per UK taxpayer. And we just ‘awarded’ over 120 billions euros (100 billion pounds) to the banks – 2000 euro per taxpayer.

For less than the price of a morning coffee Europe could have a space agency to be proud of, with missions surpassing all other nations – even NASA.

A very cool union of Astrophysics and Particle Physics


A new discovery by the IceCube is discussed in this

BBC link to the article in Nature

Besides being a very cool (pun intended) way of using the environment without misusing the environment (a big hunk of ice captures neutrinos) the discovery also raised new question about the origins of cosmic rays. To most astronomers, cosmic rays are a nuisance. They interfere with my data, creating spikes and tracks across images, which I then have to remove
(they also create hype in the UFO field as some people are determined to show these are evidence of alien spacecraft). Scientifically, it is vital to learn more about their origin as we worry about astronaut and satellite safety). These ‘little’ bursts of light may only last a few seconds but can do a lot of damage. In this article they show that the cosmic rays do not originate from gamma-ray bursts and hence most likely originate in supermassive black holes.

Of course there sample size is only 8, and possibly the neutrinos they fail to detect in these 8 events may be undetectable. But as it stands, this cool piece of particle physics is opening a new understanding of the streaks in my data.

Astronomy, astronauts, and the president

11 jobs that are hard to get


So 50 jobs a year appear in astronomy? Not too sure about that one. Seems a little high to me. I wonder how many of those were real job, and not just 2 year soft money positions somewhere. We have a real problem in science with this. If we assume that a retired professor’s position will be replaced, then each professor should only ever have 1 PhD student. An average professor will put through 30-40 PhD students in a career, so that means 29-39 students must get a job in a research institute. Sounds unlikely.

So what is the solution? More research money in industry might work, and leads to the bonus of making companies more efficient. But this poses a second question- why should the tax layer fund PhDs if the students are just going to go into industry. More money in education, and a stricter selection of grad student might work. But this leads to the accusation of throwing good money after bad.

In general education is always good. So I recommend that students pursue a PhD because they love science, not because they think it’ll be good for their career or will lead to a job. If money is your chief concern, better to stay clear of research. Or aim to become president instead.

Space shuttle

discovery over the mall

End of an era for American space flight. It did get too expensive and turned into a real cash cow, but now what do we do. The two options left now are either hitch a ride with other nations (russia or china) or buy a lift with Richard Branson. The real problem is what happens if we want to get back into the space travel game again. It’ll take even more to catch up with those who have continued to fund this.

As humans, we want to explore. It is a natural instinct and one we should pay attention to. A nation that stops exploring is a nation that needs to reassess priorities.

The Sun and Global Warming

The Sun and Global Warming

Sun Earth

Sun Earth

So is the Sun’s cycle linked to global warming? The key line is this entire article is that “Milligan, like most scientists, enters many caveats and warns that specific weather predictions are very difficult to make and that this form of study is in its relative infancy”. We may have a tentative correlation, but what does a correlation tell us? It is well-known that the global temperature is inversely correlated to the number of pirates in the Sea (*) . But one does not cause the other, i.e, causality is missing. Causality differs from correlation in a key manner in that causality does not only say A is linked by B, by it predicts how much A will change if B changes. In this case we can model global temperature changes from the burning of fossil fuels and predict how much this temperature change will be. But when we try to model the link to solar changes it turns out to be very small, if it exists at all. Correlation without causality will disappear when faced with lots of data.

(*) In this case, the causality is the rise of the global population and technology. As our society is now larger and more advanced than the 19th century, we no longer do everything by sea and so the number of pirates has plummeted. As our society is now larger and more advanced than the 19th century, we burn more fossil fuels and hence global temperatures has risen. Hence the correlation occurs through a common causal mechanism.

Women in science


I saw a plot yesterday in the latest edition of physics world, a publication of the UK institute of physics. It showed that the ratio of males to females in science is almost 50/50 at high school level. This drops dramatically at college, and grad school level, such that when it comes to filling faculty posts, the ratio of males to females is 95-5. So why the sudden drop?

One theory is that is a self fulfilling prophecy. There are few women at faculty level hence female students have no role models and do not see career prospects. Another theory is the teaching of the more mathematical sciences is still carried out in a didactic linear fashion that men seem to respond to better ( or least, “less worse”). Studies in china and india, where they have lots of females science students entering grad school, but few female faculty, suggest the the second reason may be more correct.

Either way, it is clear we need to entice more top quality female students into science.

The Big Data Problem

Out latest spacecraft which observes the Sun has give us a new headache.

This video by Dean Pesnell explains the problem pretty well

At 2 Tb per day we’re constantly trying to sift through these data to do science that we expect to do and, perhaps more importantly, science we may not have expected. It’s pretty easy to come up with a program to sift through data and detect features or events that you expect to see. But how do you go about detecting the unexpected? A quick look at the eye and brain may tell us the answer. How does our brain tell us that something unexpected or new is happening? The brain is very good at taking data from the eye and ignoring most of it. But if something unusual appears it tells us immediately.