Category Archives: Space

Mankind’s Next Giant Leap: Meet The Space Launch System

Space Shuttle Atlantis touches down at the John F. Kennedy Space Centre for the final time
Space Shuttle Atlantis touches down at the John F. Kennedy Space Center for the final time

On the 21st of July, 2011, Space Shuttle Atlantis landed, for the final time, on Runway 15 of the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Merritt Island, Florida at 5:57 am EDT (about 6:57 pm here in Shanghai). Atlantis’s landing marked both the end of its final mission, STS-135, to the International Space Station, and, on a much more significant level, the Space Shuttle program as a whole, concluding the program’s faithful service to the wider scientific community, and indeed, people the world over. As CAPCOM (capsule communicator) Barry Wilmore pointed out in his congratulatory remarks to Mission Commander Chris Ferguson, who had earlier commented that the shuttle had “earned its place in history” after “serving the world for over 30 years”, this marked the end of operations conducted by “this incredible spacecraft” which had “inspired millions around the globe”.

About two months later, on the 14th of September, NASA introduced the next major development in American spaceflight, a craft dubbed the “Space Launch System” (SLS), which was essentially a consolidation of the previously planned Ares I and IV craft into a singular craft for the use of cargo and crew. Unlike the Space Shuttle before it, the SLS is a heavy launch vehicle than an orbiter, sharing more similarities with the Saturn V launch vehicle, which helped send the Apollo Lunar Module escape the Earth’s gravitational influence on its way to the surface of the Moon, than the Space Shuttle, which saw most of its use in orbit around the Earth, as can be seen by the diagram below:

A diagram displaying the configuration of the Space Launch System
A diagram displaying the configuration of the Space Launch System

Unlike the Saturn V, however as explained by this article from NASA’s website, the SLS will serve as the launch vehicle for the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), the craft that will carry astronauts and essential equipment on missions to celestial bodies beyond the distance of the Moon, with a yet-unspecified near-Earth asteroid and eventually, Mars, being marked as potential destinations. As a result of these lofty expectations, the SLS has thus been tooled to eventually be a significantly more powerful launch vehicle than the Saturn V, effectively being a bigger, badder version of the launch vehicle that helped put men on the moon. As this infographic at Space.com shows, the initial operational version of the launcher that will be commissioned for spaceflight in 2017 will be used primarily for missions in low-Earth orbit and deep space around Earth, and will already provide 0.4 million more kilograms of thrust than the Saturn V. This version of the SLS will have 3.8 million kg of thrust provided at launch by five RS-25D/E engines (modified versions of the Shuttle’s main engines) which provide power through the combustion of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, and by two additional solid-fuel boosters, which are larger, longer versions of the shuttle’s boosters due to these boosters carrying more fuel (an aluminum perchlorate composite mixture) for combustion upon launch. The final operational version of the SLS will have 4.2 million kg of thrust at launch (0.8 million kg more than the Saturn V), with the further 0.4 million kg of thrust in comparison to the initial version being provided by an additional liquid-fuel (liquid hydrogen and oxygen) J-2X engine, derived from the engines used on the Saturn V itself. This final configuration, which currently does not have a defined period of operation, will be the launch vehicle used in the missions to near-Earth asteroids and Mars, the latter of which is slated to be conducted by 2030.

There are a number of implications to the development of the SLS, both to me personally and on a wider scope. In the grand scheme of things, the SLS provides the means for NASA to take the next great leap into the manned exploration of the Solar System, having the capacity to potentially take man far beyond the orbit of the Earth to places yet uncharted. The manned exploration of Mars will mark the next significant milestone in mankind’s exploration of the cosmos, as it will show that we do indeed have the capacity to visit worlds far beyond the influence of our planet and return. This will perhaps pave the way for the eventual extraterrestrial survival of the human race via the establishment of colonies on other worlds than the Earth some day, making a dream of many science-fiction fans everywhere a reality.

An artists depiction of the SLSs potential destinations
An artist's depiction of the SLS's potential destinations

On a personal level, the thought that I could actually be seeing a man set foot on Mars in person before the end of the century as a result of the SLS is a prospect that I will undoubtedly be looking forward to experiencing. While I wasn’t alive (as far as I know, anyway) to witness the Moon landing in 1969, the exhilaration, awe and indeed relief that I recall seeing on long-time CBS News Anchor Walter Cronkite’s face while watching archival footage of the landing on Youtube is an image that ingrained itself into my brain, for to me, it represents a feeling I someday hope to experience too. It was a childhood dream of mine to someday work for NASA and help with a manned mission to Mars. A dream that was fueled by many hours playing with a Lego “Mission to Mars” playset, and a dream that, due to many a struggle with the evil forces of Algebra 2/Trig, was ultimately laid to rest. While it was perhaps not my calling to work in the aeronautics industry, this childhood dream of mine instilled in me an appreciation of the stars above, and indeed, for the innovation and creativity of the men and women involved in the name of advancing the field of astronomy. I, for the past 13 or 14 years of my life, have been continually amazed by NASA and its achievements, which they have done on an approximate annual budget of around 17 billion USD as of 2007, a whopping 0.58% according to this article at The Space Review. The fact that this agency stands before us today with the potential means of sending man farther from home to other, more distant worlds in our Solar System in the name of advancing our knowledge of the cosmos and perhaps, one day ensuring the long-term survival of our race on what is essentially a pittance of an annual budget, is something that should not be understated. Take a moment and think about this, just what could NASA achieve with a higher allocation of the federal budget?

Citations:

Braukus, Michael, J.D. Harrington, and Josh Byerly. “NASA – NASA Announces Key Decision For Next Deep Space Transportation System.” National Aeronautics and Space Association, 24 May 2011. Web. 3 Nov 2011. <http://www.nasa.gov/home/hqnews/2011/may/HQ_11-164_MPCV_Decision.html>.

Brooks, Jeff. “The Space Review: Putting NASA’s budget in perspective.” The Space Review: essays and commentary about the final frontier. The Space Review, 02 Jul 2007. Web. 3 Nov 2011. <http://www.thespacereview.com/article/898/1>.

Tate, Karl. “Space Launch System: NASA’s Giant Rocket Explained (Infographic).” Space.com. N.p., 14 Sep 2011. Web. 3 Nov 2011. <http://www.space.com/12957-nasa-giant-rocket-space-launch-system-infographic.html>.

Weaver, David, Michael Braukus, J.D. Harrington, and Dan Kanigan. “NASA – NASA Announces Design for New Deep Space Exploration System.” National Aeronautics and Space Association, 14 Sep 2011. Web. 3 Nov 2011. <http://www.nasa.gov/exploration/systems/sls/sls1.html>.

Faster Than LIGHT!

Some of you might heard the news about a new discovery that has the potential to shake the foundation of modern science. A group of nearly 200 scientists works at the Gran Sasso underground laboratory in central Italy discovered a phenomenon that was categorized as impossible by Einstein’s theory of relativity. The scientists discovered a particle, neutrino, that travelled faster than the speed of light, which was viewed as the speed limit in our universe for a long time. (Aczel, Amir D.)

stock-photo-a-glowing-planet-earth-illustration-with-glowing-rings-of-light-spinning-around-it-13173847

How fast is the speed of light? Light travels at a speed of 3*10^8 m/s. In other words, light can go around the Earth for more than 8 loops in 1 second. And according to the modern physics, no matter can travel at or above the speed of light because as matter’s velocity gets closer to speed of light, its mass increases to infinity and time slows to almost zero. This situation is unlikely to happen, and the process takes infinite amount of energy, too. As a result, no matter can be speeded up to the speed of light.

Neutrino is one of the fundamental particles that makes up the universe. Even though neutrino is similar to electrons, but it is electrically neutral, so no forces other than gravity and short-ranged sub-atomic force work on it. This property suggests that neutrino has little interaction with other particles. As the result scientists have little knowledge about neutrinos.

Despite the difficulty to observe, the existence of neutrino was predicted by the theorist Wolfgang Pauli in 1931. He found that energy and momentum of atoms were not conserved during radioactive decay, and this led him to conclude some energy and momentum must be lost through another form, in the form of neutrino. The first electron neutrino was observed in 1959 by Clyde Cowan and Fred Reines. In 1962, Brookhaven National Laboratory and CERN discovered another kind of neutrino that had different properties than electron neutrino was observed. This neutrino was named muon neutrino. The third kind of neutrino, tau neutrino, was discovered in 1978 in SLAC (Stanford Linear Accelerator Center). Lastly, the mass of neutrino was measured in 1985, and the number is surprisingly small, about 10,000 times smaller than that of electron. (“What’s a Neutrino?”)

In modern day, scientists use detector called Super-Kamiokande to detect the presence of neutrino. Neutrino is neutral, but it still interacts with other particles slightly. Super-Kamiokande is filled with water that surrounds by detector, and the detector detects the byproduct of neutrino’s interaction with water molecule. Super-Kamiokande also detects neutrino’s interaction with particles around detectors, and combining both observation to give data. (“Super-Kamiokande”)

Why do we need to care about such tiny particle that hardly interact with anything else? Because it might topples many physic theories and astronomical observations that we have established over the past 100 years. Most of our astronomical observations and physic theories are based on relativity, and one important principle is that nothing can travel faster or at the speed of light. If relativity is proved wrong, then anything build on top of that will no longer be valid. We need to construct everything from the beginning. Other than shaking the foundation of modern science, this discovery might make things human never dare to dream possible. Things such as space travel and even time travel are possible if we can go beyond the speed limit of matter.

Regardless the exciting and influential changes that the discovery might brings, many scientists are still skeptical about the discovery, and they doubt that the discovery is actually a experimental error.

Source

Aczel, Amir D. “Rest Easy, Einstein—Faster-Than-Light Neutrinos Would Not Violate Relativity.” discovermagazine.com. Discover Magazine. 28 September 2011. Web. 11 October 2011.

Matson, John. “Faster-Than-Light Neutrinos? Physics Luminaries Voice Doubts.” scientificamerican.com. Scientific American. 26 September 2011. Web. 11 October 2011.

“What’s a Neutrino?” ps.uci.edu. UCI. n.d. Web. 11 October 2011.

“Super-Kamiokande.” ps.uci.edu. UCI. n.d. Web. 11 October 2011.

Krauthammer, Charles. “In a blink, physics goes lawless, chaotic.” reporternews.com. reporternews. 10 October 2011. Web. 11 October 2011.

Fatalism doesn’t exist; Big Bang didn’t exist.

Do you believe in Fatalism and Big Bang Theory? You might say ‘Fatalism and Big Bang Theory is not related.’ But, yes, they are related. How are they related? For a long time, scientists have done lots of investigations to figure out their questions and one of the questions they had was how did the universe was formed. Finally they could come up with reasonable theory, which is Big Bang Theory and its physical property connects Fatalism and Big Bang Theory.

What’s Big Bang Theory then?  The basic concept of Big Band Theory is that the universe, which is keep expanding formed present state by the huge expansion at a single point trillion years ago.

Alexander Friedmann first suggested the expansion of the universe. He derived the Friedmann equation that shows the universe might be expanding. Later, Lemaître, Belgian physicist suggested that the evident expansion in forward time required the universe contracted backwards in time, and would continue to do so until it could contract no further bringing all the mass of the universe into a single point. He concluded that massive expansion from this point resulted the expansion of the universe today. Look at Figure 1 and Big Bang Theory Video for better understanding.

Figure 1
Figure 1

the ancient universe was a single point and huge expansion formed present size of universe.

This is what Big Bang Theory is. Then you might say ‘Still, I can’t find any relationship between Big Bang Theory and Fatalism.’ Here, we have to jump into Physics to understand the relationship between fatalism and Big Bang Theory. There is a basic physical property that every material follows, which is Newton’s third law. It is also known as the properties of action and reaction. It states that every action, there is a reaction that has equal but opposite direction force. For example, if a pen is dropped (action), the pen will hit the ground (reaction). The action force is downward with its force, weight, while the reaction force is upward with equal magnitude of force to the action force. Also, when the rocket propulsion exerts force downward (action), the rocket goes straight up (reaction). (Figure 2) The reaction is what is caused as a result of the action and it applies for all areas of the known universe. Also, all the reaction is fixed and never changes, which means that every time I apply 10N (10 units) of force on certain object, the reaction will be same.

Figure 2
Figure 2

Let’s assume that the Big Bang itself as an action. Then, there should be a reaction that was caused by the action of the Big Bang. The reaction that happened after the Big Bang was the expansion of the universe, and the formation of the planets. Even the evolution of human beings and all living things can be considered as a reaction to the Big Bang that had happened trillions of years ago. Since the reaction to an action is always defined, the Big Bang (action) has its defined reaction. This can be interpreted as a means to fatalism. This means that when we assume a reaction to the Big Bang, our decisions as human beings have already been fixed since the universe was born.

Strange, huh? So, do you still believe in the Big Bang Theory?

Bibliography

1. “All About Science.” Big Bang Theory. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Oct 2010. <http://www.big-bang-theory.com/>.

2. “Physics Classroom.” The Law of Action-Reaction. N.p., 2010. Web. 18 Oct 2010. <http://www.physicsclassroom.com/class/momentum/u4l2a.cfm>.

Human Victory!

I’m pretty sure that everyone will still remember the moment when the Chilean miners were rescued (if you were watching).
On October 14th 2010, CBC reported on live camera that all 33 Chilean miners were rescued after  69 days under 2047 ft ground.  They were first trapped on August 5th without any necessities until August 20th when people found that the miners were still alive. NASA engineer and Chilean government began to work together to rescue the trapped miners. The rescuing operation began on October 13 and one miner was rescued one at a time in the rescuing capsule, Phoenix.  After 22 hours, all 33 miners were rescued and the whole world was cheering for their rescues!  However, after short meeting with their family, they were sent to field hospital to observe their health for four hours and have to check their health for the next two days.
Even though the miners were rescued earlier than expected, I was curious about the problems that they needed to consider so much with so many equipments. What were they rescued by and  what dangers were they exposed to during their stay under ground and coming up to the surface?

Chilean Miners

What was the capsule that rescued the miners?
The capsule, “Phoenix” was designed in part by NASA engineer and Chilean government to help rescue the miners under 2047 feet. It was built with high technology to avoid friction against the walls, to provide oxygen to the miners, and keep the communication between the miners and the rescuers. Phoenix was about 21.5 inches in diameter with weight of 926pounds and length of 13ft. Only one miner was able to fit into the capsule and he had to take 20 minutes ride to come to the surface. There were wheels to absorb shocks and to avoid friction. The miners stayed in the harness where their temperature, heart, and respiratory rate were constantly monitored.

Capsule

What dangers encounter under the ground?

The miners were not exposed to the sun light for 69 days. Humans gain vitamin D thorough the sunlight. The Vitamin D produces an ingredient to prevent rickets (weak development of bones) and to reduce hypertension (abnormally high blood pressure). Sunlight turns the cholesterol molecules in our body into vitamin D and help to produce serotonin. Serotonin is very important hormone to express moods and emotion. Not producing serotonin can cause a severe depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Therefore the KBS reported that the miners counseled with psychologist once a week thorough web cam to avoid their mental breakdown and they were also provided with extra nutrients and food from the surface.Role ofVitamin D in Orange

The miners were also very lucky to have oxygen under the ground since the mountain was made of copper. If it was coalmine, it consists of Methane (CH4) and other toxic gases that it reacts with Oxygen to produce carbon dioxide (CO2). Fortunately copper does not react with oxygen that the oxygen remains in their chamber.

What were the problems during the ride in the Phoenix?

The Chilean Health Minister Jaime Manalich says that the miners may have suffered from the decompressions. The decompression sickness is described by a variety of symptoms caused by exposure to low barometric pressure.
According to Henry’s Law, when the pressure of a gas over a liquid is decreased, the amount of gas in the liquid will also decrease.

“At a constant temperature, the amount of a given gas dissolved in a given type and volume of liquid is directly proportional to the partial pressure of that gas in equilibrium with that liquid.”

On human bodies, nitrogen is an inert gas that is stored throughout the tissues and fluids. When the body is exposed to decreased barometric pressure, the nitrogen gas in our body comes out due to Henry’s Law. If the nitrogen gas leaves the solution too rapidly, the bubbles will form in different parts of body causing, “the bends” or “chokes”.

decompression sickness

Luckily James Polk, NASA’s deputy chief medical officer reported: “ we considered decompression sickness but because the miners were at sea level, found the risk to be very low. We did the calculations. We found the risk was negligible.”

To be certain for the miners’ health, the oxygen in the capsule were provided to reduce any chance of decompression sickness. The miners were provided special socks that resist against pressure that the miners would not suffer from one of the decompression symptom: athlete’s foot.

Only reason that the miners were rescued so safely with great health is that the rescuers considered all the variables that may have affected the miners health or stop the capsule from operating. I learned that rescuing someone is more complex task than as it seems. Also I learned that people should think about all the consequences before moving on to action. Carefully considering all the consequence will prevent worse accidents and to be prepared for any danger.

Work Cited

“Ascent could bring health risks to miners – The Chart – CNN.com Blogs.” CNN.com Blogs . N.p., 15 Oct. 2010. Web. 19 Oct. 2010. <http://pagingdrgupta.blogs.cnn.com/2010/10/11/ascent-could-bring-bends-chokes-miners-to-be-monitored-closely/?hpt=C1>.

Clark, Josh. “Underground Living.” Howstuffworks “Geography”. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Oct. 2010. <http://geography.howstuffworks.com/terms-and-associations/live-underground1.htm>.

“Decompression sickness.” NetDoctor.co.uk . N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Oct. 2010. <http://www.netdoctor.co.uk/travel/diseases/decompression_sickness.htm>.

“Gas Laws.” Scottish Diving Medicine. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Oct. 2010. <http://www.sdm.scot.nhs.uk/gas_laws/>.

“overview article.” emedicine. N.p., 11 Oct. 2010. Web. 16 Oct. 2010. <emedicine.medscape.com/article/769717-overview>.

The Inadequacy of Language

(Cross-posted from the ToK Blog)

For blogposts like this, where do you usually go for information? Wikipedia maybe, or Questia, but every so often you stumble across a really interesting news article, like this one. The New York Times has a reputation for being a fairly reliable newsource, but perhaps not for every topic. The above article about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) for example, was written by a journalist and not a physicist. As journalists write a different audience, to the general public instead of to other scientists, explanations of scientific concepts have to be simplified.

Science reporting like this could be unintentionally spreading misinformation. Newspapers, no matter what their quality or their content, are businesses. That New York Times article for example may sound tongue-in-cheek, but you can bet that there will be some readers who will take it at face value.

Problems arise when readers try to share the news. It’s like a game of Chinese telephone, where the sentence that emerges at the end is completely different from the one you started with. The sentence could have warped naturally as it went through the players, or it could have been intentionally changed by someone in the group. For example, a news agency may zero in on one aspect of the discovery or concept, and spin a story out of it. With the LHC, it was about the possibility of the Collider creating a black hole that would destroy the Earth. The probability of this is actually happening extremely slim, so slim that it’s practically negligible. Furthermore, even if a black hole were created, it certainly would not be able to destroy the earth. Doesn’t stop people from freaking out and suing CERN though.

However, reporters and newspapers are not all at fault, the limitations of language must also be examined. How do you properly explain something that can only be best explained with mathematics and complicated equations? Well, you could use an analogy.

Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity for example, is often explained with the use of a flat, rubbery surface, much like a stocking. If you place a cannonball on the sheet, the sheet warps, forming an indentation in the stocking. Now imagine that you start flicking marbles on the sheet. If you flick them across a flat section of the sheet, the marbles will go straight. If you flick them near the indentation instead, the marbles will start to curve around the indentation. Now imagine that the rubber sheet is the spacetime continuum, our universe, the cannonball our sun and the marbles the planets in the solar system. Now you have a pretty good visualisation of how gravity is the result of the curvature of spacetime.

The main problem with analogies is that they’re not quite right. Analogies allow you to grasp the concept more easily, but they not an accurate representation of our universe. We do not live on a rubber stocking. Analogies are only models of a concept, and may be inadequate representations of those concepts. I can explain the analogy, but because I do not know the physics behind the theory, I cannot be said to understand it. However, for the majority of us who do not have a solid background in physics, analogies are the best explanations that we can get.

A Stitch In Time

Humans dear friends, are embarrassingly weak and fragile – and from time to time, we break. Humans aren’t meant for collisions above those of a body running at jogging speed into a solid object, and yet we speed around at much faster speeds around sharp, flammable, poisonous and acidic objects. But fear not! Modern medicine can patch most injuries back up at increasing speeds, and its future is even more promising still.

Recently, I had the honor of receiving one of the oldest medical treatments there is: stitches, or as they are known in the medical community, surgical sutures. Sutures are used to close up wounds – by holding lacerated flesh together, they allow the body to heal itself with greater ease and minimize scarring.

The evidence of the first stitches, come from Egypt, where animal sinew was used over 4000 years ago to deep injuries potentially caused by pandas. In ancient India, the doctors of the time ingeniously wove nature into the healing process in another way by using ants or beetles that would pincer wounds shut, only to have their bodies then cut off. Of course, as these wise Indian physicians knew, the heads of these bugs held their death grip on the wound and effectively stapled it shut. A more detailed account of the history of sutures can be found here.

Fast forward a couple thousand years, and doctors are now using catgut. Catgut originally was… well, the intestine of cute kitties, but later developed into lined intestines of sheep and cows even though it retained its name. The benefits of using catgut? It’s biodegradable.

Yet medicine has advanced further in the last 40 years. These days there are two types of sutures; non-absorbable sutures, made out of nylon or cotton, or fancy absorbable. There are stitches made out of polyactic acid that can be made at different strengths and varying lengths of life, as well as a variation of the catgut stitches mixed with purified collagen. The introduction of the polyactic acid sutures 40 years ago was medicinally relevant to the extent that I was able to find a Times article of the time about their then imminent widespread use. The polyactic acid stitches are absorbed with a hydrolysis process whilst the modified catgut sutures are decomposed through enzymatic digestion reactions, which makes the latter unsuitable for certain internal injuries. To learn more about these biodegradable sutures, more information can be found at this suture manufacturing company’s website.

What can be learnt from this other than the cool idea that acids are actively used in medicine and that at one point a dung beetle might have been used to treat wounds? Well, it reminds us that our ever changing scientific knowledge has positive implications in the medicinal world. As we learn more about our biological composition as well as the uses of certain structures down to the level of nanometers, we are enabling medicine to advance greatly and mend our bodies as we find faster and more dangerous ways to hurt ourselves.

Additional resources:
One excellent Wikipedia page – see it to believe it:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surgical_suture

2012…The end is nigh.

(Author’s Note: The other day, I encountered the intriguing claim that the world will end by the year 2012. Having cast my opinions on the fate of mankind once too often, I decided to pursue the origins of this claim)

An artist depection of the end of the world. Possibly from the movie Constantine.
An artist’s  depection of the end of the world.

It is many names such as the Apoclaypse, Armageddon, the End Times, Götterdämmerung, the Big Crunch etc., but the idea of the end of humanity, the world or the universe have persisted in the many civilizations (Mayan, Aztec, Norse, Greek, Roman) of the world throughout history. The study of the end is known as eschatology. Eschatology is deeply rooted in the theology of almost every religion (save perhaps, atheism), where religious scholars use scripture to determine when humanity comes to an end and the signs of this event coming to pass. Religions such as Judaism present a linear path of the universe where the universe is created by God and led to its end in which the universe becomes the perfect creation of God. This is contrasted by other religions that present a cyclical view of the universe such as Hinduism, where the universe is destroyed and recreated in an endless cycle. Take note the generalized views I have presented above are not absolute as there are differing beliefs proposed  by the smaller sects of the main religions.

Eschatology is by no means limited to a religious perspective. Since Einstein’s theory of general relativity (1916), the scientific community has made theoretical explorations into the matter of the ultimate fate of the universe. Ironically, it was through this inquiry that lead to the model of the Big Bang (characterizing the beginning of the universe) which was theorized by Monsignor Georges-Henri Lemaitre. His 1927 work in the Annales de la Société Scientifique de Bruxelles, he presented the idea of an expanding universe. However, the acceptance of this idea was delayed as scientists, including Einstein himself, were skeptical of his ideas. It wasn’t until 1933 that he was internationally recognized as the founder of this now-deemed plausible theory. From this idea, some scientists began to establish parameters from which the ultimate fate of the universe could be determined.

Nowadays, the general consensus is that the ultimate fate of the universe depends on the following factors: the overall shape and the amount of dark energy contained within the universe. The graph below, showing the relation of the average distance between galaxies and time, presents three possible scenarios:

A Closed universe (Ω > 1) resembles the shape of a sphere. If there is too little dark energy, there will be insufficient repulsion to oppose the internal gravity of the universe leading the “Big Crunch“. And if there is too much dark energy, the universe will continue to expand forever.

An Open universe (Ω<1) resembles the shape of a saddle. Even without dark energy, this universe is able to expand. With dark energy, the expansion of the universe is accelerated considerably. This acceleration poses the potential danger of weakening the effects of gravity, electromagnetic and weak binding forces creating end situations such as the “Big Freeze”, “Big Rip” or universal heat death. Under special circumstances, it is even possible for an open universe to succumb to a “Big Crunch”.

A Flat universe (Ω=1) resembles a plane. Should there be no dark energy in this universe, it will continue to expand with a decelerating rate of expansion. With dark energy, there would be an initial slowdown of expansion, but this would recover over time. The end situations are the same as that of an Open Universe, besides the “Fermion-boson fate of the universe” which was only been recently proposed (2005).

By now, I would hope you have some idea of the religious and scientific views of the end of the universe. However, the crux of the problem remains unresolved: Is the world truly going to end in the year 2012? If not, what could have possibly have perpetuated such a myth? It turns out that this information is possibly false as it originates from two highly publicized sources.

The first is a possible misinterpretation of what is referred to as the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar, which is a special type of calendar that was used by several Mesoamerican cultures, such as the Maya. This calendar works in a non-linear system, which gives it a cyclical property at the end of every millennium (millennium of the Long Count calendar, not a Gregorian millennium).  It turns out that December 21, 2012 marks the end of the 13th cycle. Two monuments (referred to as Tortugero Monument 6 and the ) have texts that associate the end of this present cycle with Bolon Yookte’ K’uh, a god of war conflict and the underworld leading to the 2012 apoclaypse belief.

This view has been countered by a members of archaeological community who claim that the text on the monuments parallels that of the Mayan king who has been planning for a future celebration upon the passage of this cycle. Sandra Noble, the executive director of the Foundation for the advancement of Mesoamerican studies, asserts that:


We [the archaeological community] have no record or knowledge that [the Maya] would think the world would come to an end in 2012.[15] For the ancient Maya, it was a huge celebration to make it to the end of a whole cycle…[the Doomsday event is] a complete fabrication and a chance for a lot of people to cash in.

This leads us to the second source of the claim’s origin would be from the marketing efforts of the upcoming American film 2012 (which is to be released later this year) that have been so widespread that they have aided the pre-existing claim and risen it to the stuff of legend. This brings into the question of how the perpetuation of lies, even for marketing purposes, can somehow interlace themselves with the existing truth to change the intent of history. With so much misinformation present in all sources of reference, how will be able to tell the truth apart from the spurious claims?

Pluto Redefined

Ah, Pluto… you were my favorite, but alas – you are a planet no more.

Artist depiction of Plutos surface. Image from here

Artist depiction above

And why is that? Why now? I thought this was instinctual. I mean – I learned this in third grade, for crying out loud. And for as long as I can remember, Pluto’s always been that ninth planet. All the textbooks said so, and I believed them. Notable astronomers said so, and I believed them too, as did a lot of people.

But, as of 2006, the IAU (International Astronomical Union) classified Pluto as a dwarf planet, and more specifically, a pluton.

So, to set the record straight, here’s their new definition for a planet:

A celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit.”

This definition includes the other 8 planets, but Pluto falls short due to its size.

Instead, dwarf planets, while orbiting the sun, do not have enough gravity to “assume a hydrostatic equilibrium”, but rather, assume a round shape. Most importantly, however, they do not have a clear orbit and often may be found in a zone filled with other objects, such as asteroids.

As of 2006, Pluto shared the status of “dwarf planet” with 4 other objects in space: Ceres, Eris, Makemake, and Haumea.

The new solar system
The new solar system
And – there were even talks of adding Charon, Pluto’s moon, to the mix. Or should I say “ex-moon”? Yeah! Imagine my surprise when I heard that Charon and Pluto orbit each other. And that there are two other moons which had just been identified around that same time: Hydra and Nix. So, I’ll just skip over the further division of the “plutoids” while I recover from shock, but feel free to read about it here.

Pluto, Charon, Nix, Hydra
Pluto, Charon, Nix, Hydra

So, as much as I love science, I’m also struck by the harsh reality of scientific discovery. It’s an ever-growing pool of information that’s constantly changing. Take these definitions for example – to some, they may seem awkward, if not unnecessary, changes to an old system which has been in place for decades, but it’s a fresh, alternate perspective that improves, rather than impedes upon, our growing understanding of space. This certainly teaches us that even scientific “facts” have the potential for change.

Even though I’m hesitant to adopt the new system, I see its benefits when faced with an age of new discovery. I imagine even this will change as our understanding changes, and perhaps these divisions will only divide further as time goes by.

Therefore, I welcome Pluto under the new name of a dwarf planet… but I would have liked them to have consulted me about it first.

First image from: http://richardzowie.wordpress.com/2009/05/27/despite-pluto%E2%80%99s-dwarf-planet-status-the-countdown-continues-a-short-essay/ *Reliability of information on this page unknown

Second image from: http://www.nasm.si.edu/ceps/etp/pluto/pluto_planet.html *Reliability of information on this page unknown

Third image from: http://www.discoverychannel.co.uk/web/nasa/orbit/hubble/?selectedId=2559&galleryid=420