Beware the next Carrington storm – a Q&A wrap-up

After last week’s post on a Carrington storm – a solar event able to do large-scale damage to anything electrical, especially power grids. I fielded a few questions which deserved a post. And I had some new ones of my own…

Does the whole Earth get hit?
The issue isn’t the Coronal Mass Ejection that goes with the flare, but the magnetic storm the CME provokes when it hits us. This affects the whole Earth in one hit, because the Sun-side of Earth’s magnetic field is pushed. The shadow side is pulled and zings back. Here’s an animation:

How powerful are these geomagnetic storms?
It depends on the CME, which – don’t forget – is super-hot plasma. The biggest can mass up to 100,000,000 tonnes, moving at up to 1000 km/second. These can really bang into our magnetic field. The current the geomagnetic storm induces in conductive material on Earth will vary as a result of the speed of the field movement, and of the scale of the conductive material. This acts like an aerial, so the more conductive material, the higher the voltages and current induced in it. That’s why the power grid is vulnerable, because transmission lines act as aerials and transformers have copper windings.

A large solar flare observed on 8 September 2010 by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. Public Domain, NASA.

A large solar flare observed on 8 September 2010 by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Public Domain, NASA.

Can the excess voltages be calculated?
The voltage generated in a conductor is a product of the rate of change of magnetic flux and the direction of the field lines relative to the conductive material. In a closed loop like a transformer, for instance, this voltage can be calculated by Faraday’s Law of Induction, via James Clerk Maxwell, which states that the negative of the rate of change is equal to the line integral of the electric field. This is a bit of math that quantifies results when direction and intensity are both changing.

Will a geomagnetic storm burn out all power grids?
It depends on the loading of the grid and on the intensity of the storm, which will differ from place to place because the rate of change and flux direction keep changing. A heavily loaded power grid is more vulnerable because it’s operating closer to its designed tolerances. Needless to say, in this age of engineering to cost, some grids are fully loaded in normal operation. That’s why even the modest geomagnetic storms of in the last few decades have sometimes generated localised blackouts – some grids were vulnerable when others weren’t. With a big enough geomagnetic storm, all power grids would be blown out.

OK, so I'm a geek. Today anyway. From the left: laptop, i7 4771 desktop, i7 860 desktop.

OK, so I’m a geek. Today anyway.

What about domestic appliances – computers, hand-helds and so forth?
It depends on the intensity of the storm. Anything plugged into the mains would suffer a voltage spike. Your stove or kettle wouldn’t notice it. Your computer might lock up. A re-boot might fix it, if the power stayed on. Or gear might be physically damaged. Newer devices are more vulnerable than old, partly because the older stuff was over-engineered. Anything with looped wire in it, like an electric motor – which includes DVD drives – might be at risk. Just about everything relies on low-voltage CPU’s these days, including cars, and it’s possible a really big geomagnetic storm would damage some of these. The effects probably wouldn’t be consistent across all gear because there are so many variables in electrical hardware, including whether it’s operating or not when the storm hits.

So some stuff, like the old Morrie Thou every Kiwi wishes they never got rid of, would still work and we’d otherwise mostly be OK?
Don’t forget, there won’t be any mains power, possibly not for months. No water pumps. No sewerage pumps. No heat. No light. No cooking. No battery charging. Hospitals out of action just when needed. Shall I go on?

Please don’t. Will the storm induce current in anything else?
Gas and oil pipelines. Older plumbing. They’re metal too.

Sounds scary. Is there anything we can do?
NASA has satellites on solar weather watch. They’re also implementing Solar Shield, an early-warning project. Whether anybody pays attention to warnings, or even hears them, is another matter. Even if the warning’s broadcast, who listens to dumb science stuff when the rugby news is about to start? But if you hear a warning, turn everything off, keep things unplugged, get your emergency kit stocked with food and water, buy a can opener, dig a long drop, and so on.

Is there a plus side?
We’d get amazing aurora displays towards the equator. Would that compensate for the damage? Uh…no.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Apocalypse now: why we must fear a Carrington storm

On 28 August 1859, British astronomer Richard Carrington noticed something unusual on the Sun. A flare, larger than anything he’d seen before.

Solar flare of 16 April 2012, captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. Image is red because it wa captured at 304 Angstroms. (NASA/SDO, public domain).

Solar flare of 16 April 2012, captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Image is red because it was captured at 304 angstroms. (NASA/SDO, public domain).

Three days later, Earth lit up. Aurorae erupted as far south as the Carribean. All hell broke loose in telegraph systems across the world. Lines began spraying sparks. Operators were electrocuted. Other telegraphs worked without being switched on.

Later, we figured it out. The sun ordinarily blasts Earth with a barrage of fast-moving protons and electrons; the solar wind. Most is deflected by the Earth’s magnetic field – particles are trapped by the field, forming the Van Allen radiation belts.

Flares add to this in two ways. The first is through intense electromagnetic radiation – a mix of X-ray frequencies produced by Bremmstrahlung, coupled with enhanced broad-spectrum radiation as a result of synchotron effects – both of them slightly abstruse results of relativistic physics. This strikes Earth, on average, 499 seconds after a major flare erupts in our direction. We’re safe on the surface from the effects; the Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere stops even radiation on a Carrington scale. In 1859, nobody noticed. But today, astronauts on the ISS wouldn’t be safe. Nor would our satellites.  So aside from the human tragedy unfolding in orbit, we’d lose everything associated with satellites – GPS to transaction systems to weather to Google Earth updates and everything else. Gone.

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon in July 1969 with the Solar Wind Experiment - a device to measure the wind from the sun. Public domain, NASA.

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon in July 1969 with the Solar Wind Experiment. (NASA/public domain).

It gets worse. Some flares also emit a mass of charged particles, known as a CME (Coronal Mass Ejection). Seen from the Sun, Earth is a tiny target in the sky. But sometimes we are in the way, as in 1859. The problem is that a CME  hitting Earth’s magnetic field compresses it. Then the CME passes, whereupon the Earth’s magnetic field bounces back.

The bad juju is the oscillation, which causes inductiion on a huge scale. Induction is a principle of electromagnetics, discovered by Michael Faraday in September 1845 when he moved a conductor through a magnetic field, generating electricity down the conductor as long as it moved. It also works vice-versa – a moving magnetic field induces electricity in a stationary conductor. And electricity can be used to create magnetism. We’ve been able to exploit the effect in all sorts of ways. It’s how electric motors and loudspeakers work, for instance. Also radio, TV, bluetooth, ‘wireless’ internet broadband. Actually, pretty much everything. When inducing an electric current with magnetism, the strength of current is a function of (a) the size of the conductor, and (b) the flux of the magnetic field. Maxwell’s equations apply. The longer the cable, the more current generated in it. That’s how aerials work – like the one in your cellphone, ‘wireless’ router, laptop – and so the list goes on.

Now scale it up. Earth’s magnetic field moves, generating electrical current in all conductive material. Zzzzzzt! That’s why so much current was generated down telegraph lines back in 1859 – they were immense aerials.

Geothermal steam from the Taupo system is used to generate power - up to 13 percent of the North Island's needs, in fact. The techniques were developed right here in New Zealand.

Geothermal power station at Wairakei, New Zealand. This generates up to 13 percent of the North Island’s needs. Note the power lines – vulnerable to induced voltage in a Carrington event.

Fast forward to today. Heavy duty devices like a toaster or kettle don’t contain enough conductive material to induce voltage that will fry them during a CME event, and that’s true of most appliances – though your phone or computer might be damaged, because microprocessor chips and hard drives are vulnerable to very small fluctuations. Personally, if I knew a Carrington storm was coming, I’d unplug my computer at the CPU (the power cable acts as an aerial). But none of it will work afterwards anyway. Why? No mains power. That’s the problem – the power grid. Those 220,000 volt lines. They’re plenty big enough to suffer colossal induced voltages, as are the cable windings inside the transformers that handle them. Power grids around the world go boom.

Yes, we can rebuild the system. Eventually. Estimates suggest a minimum of five months in the UK, for instance, to get enough transformers back on line. Always assuming they were available, which they might not be if every other country in the world also wanted whatever was in stock. In any case, the crisis starts within hours. Modern cities rely on electrically pumped water. Feeling thirsty? Maybe you’re lucky enough to live near a river. You struggle through crowds dipping water. Struggle home with a pan of muddy liquid. No power – how do you boil it? You have a barbecue. What happens when the gas runs out?

Now think about everything that relies on electrically pumped water. Nuclear power stations.  Their diesel generators are not designed to run for weeks or months. Think Fukushima. Over and over. I am SO GLAD I live in nuclear-free New Zealand.

This isn’t speculation. A CME-driven grid burn-out already happened to Quebec in 1989. Luckily the solar storm wasn’t colossal. Studies suggest that 1859 storms occur every 500 years or so, but we’re learning about the Sun all the time, and that may change. We had near-misses from dangerous CME’s in 2012 and earlier this year. We’re vulnerable.

A CME might not take down the whole planet. All depends on its size. But it could still do colossal damage. A study in 2013 put the potential cost of another Carrington storm at $US2,600,000,000,000. If you stacked 2.6 trillion US $1 notes, one on top of another, the pile would be 291,200 km tall, which is a shade over 75 percent the average distance of the Moon. That’s without considering the human cost. But there are ways to ameliorate the issue. Including shutting down the grid and disconnecting things if we get warning. If. The take home lesson? Remember the Carrington storm. Fear it.

If you want to read about how we might cope after a big CME, check out the novels by New Zealand author Bev Robitai. Sunstrike and Sunstrike: The Journey Home.

http://www.amazon.com/Sunstrike-Journey-Home-Bev-Robitai-ebook/dp/B00MBLF51K/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1407550631&sr=8-1&keywords=bev+robitai

 

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

Fringe thinking fruit-loops or just misunderstood?

I am often bemused at the way some people seem to think. Particularly those who advocate what we might call ‘fringe’ theories.

I took this photo of the Moeraki boulders in 2007. They fact that they are not perfect spheres is evident.

Moeraki boulders, north of Dunedin. It’s been argued that they are weights used by Chinese sailors to raise sail. As I know the natural geological origin of them, that’s not a theory I believe myself, but hey…

These are often portrayed in pseudo-scientific terms; there is a hypothesis. Then comes the apparent basis for the hypothesis, frequently explicitly titled ‘the evidence’ or ‘the facts’. And finally, the fringe thinker tells us that this evidence therefore proves the proposal. QED.

All of which sounds suitably watertight, except that – every time – the connection between the hypothesis and the evidence offered to support it is non-existent by actual scientific measure. Or the evidence is presented without proper context.

Some years ago I was asked to review a book which hypothesised that a Chinese civilisation had existed in New Zealand before what they called ‘Maori’ arrived. (I think they mean ‘Polynesians’, but hey…)

This Chinese hypothesis stood against orthodox archaeology which discredited the notion of a ‘pre-Maori’ settlement as early as 1923, and has since shown that New Zealand was settled by Polynesians around 1280 AD. They were the first humans to ever walk this land. Their Polynesian settler culture, later, developed into a distinct form whose people called themselves Maori. In other words, the Maori never ‘arrived’ – they were indigenous to New Zealand.

This picture has been built from a multi-disciplinary approach; archaeology, linguistics, genetic analysis, and available oral record. Data from all these different forms of scholarship fits together. It is also consistent with the wider picture of how the South Pacific was settled, including the places the Polynesian settlers came from.

Nonetheless, that didn’t stop someone touring the South Island looking for ‘facts’ to ‘prove’ that a Chinese civilisation had been thriving here before they were (inevitably) conquered by arriving Maori. This ‘evidence’ was packed off to the Rafter Radiation Laboratory in Gracefield, Lower Hutt, for carbon dating. And sure enough, it was of suitable age. Proof, of course, that the hypothesis had been ‘scientifically’ proven. Aha! QED.

Except, of course, it wasn’t proof at all. Like any good journalist I rang the head of the lab and discovered that they’d been given some bagged samples of debris, which they were asked to test. They did, and provided the answer without comment. The problem was that the material had been provided without context. This meant the results were scientifically meaningless.

I’m contemplating writing a book myself on the pseudo-science phenomenon with its hilarious syllogisms and wonderful exploration of every logical fallacy so far discovered. How do these crazy ideas get such traction? Why do they seem to appeal more than the obvious science?

Would anybody be interested if I wrote something on this whole intriguing phenomenon?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Cool! New Zealand joins the orbital rocket club – for real

Private-enterprise orbital ventures aren’t just an American dream. Last week, New Zealand’s own Rocket Lab unveiled their commercial booster.

Voyager 1 launching, 5 September 1977. Photo: NASA, public domain.

OK, this is a generic rocket pic, but you get the picture. Voyager 1 launching, 5 September 1977, by Titan. Photo: NASA, public domain.

It’s called Electron. Very cool. It’s not a big rocket – 10 tonnes of carbon composite and 18 metres long. But it’ll put 110kg into a 500 km orbit, with the help of locally developed Rutherford LOX/ kerosine engines. And in this day of micro-sats, that’s plenty for a whole host of commercial uses. The company states that it already has 30 launches pre-booked.

Space boosters? We are a country of 4 million people previously known for our large numbers of nervous sheep. I’m put in mind of the ‘mouse that roared’.

But of course New Zealand long ago ditched the ‘No. 8 wire’ notion. We have world-class scientific minds (Lord Rutherford led the way – and don’t forget JPL head Sir William Pickering, or Sir Ian Axford, a friend of my family who ran the Max Planck Institute). It’s over half a century since we designed and built the world’s first jet-boat. Today we design and build world-leading quake-proofing systems. We build yachts that ‘fly’ with underwater carbon fibre wings, literally, at double wind speed. We have the world’s leading SFX studio, right here where I live in Wellington.

I was wondering. What could Kiwis put into orbit? Here’s my list.

1. Justin Bieber. Of course, a 110kg payload doesn’t leave much room for niceties like a pressure suit, life support or space capsule, parachutes, heat shield etc, I suspect we’re looking here at just Mr Bieber and a one-way trip to orbit. But hey…
2. Can’t actually think of a No. 2.
3. A radio endlessly suggesting to the world that it’s best to buy the books variously written by me, and by my blogging writer friends.

I’m leaning towards (3), but given (1), it’s…well, pretty evenly balanced…

What’s your list?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

The paradox of Europe’s high-fat, low heart-disease diets

I am always fascinated by the way science occasionally comes up with ‘insoluble questions’ or ‘paradoxes’. After a while, these tricky queries go away because, it turns out, everybody was barking up a tree to which they had been led by an expert whose ideas had captured peer and public attention.

The Rue de Lafayette one night in 2004

Photo I took of the Rue de Lafayette in central Paris. I scoffed as much high-fat French cuisine as I could get down this boulevard. And it was delicious.

The big one, these days, is the link between high cholesterol and heart disease.  This has been dogma for decades. After the Second World War, US scientists theorised that saturated fats contributed to high cholesterol, hence clogged arteries, and therefore caused heart disease. The idea was enshrined in a US Department of Agriculture guideline in 1980.

Low fat, it seemed, was the way ahead – and it was embraced by the food industry in the US, followed by large parts of the rest of the western world.

Except Europe. They didn’t much change – and traditional French, German and Italian cuisine is awash with saturated fats and high-cholesterol foods. Yet they suffer less heart disease and are less obese than Americans. What’s more, since 1980 obesity has become a major issue in the United States and other countries that have followed the US low-fat lead, such as New Zealand.

A paradox! Something science can’t explain. Or is it?

The problem is that research often tests only what can be funded, something often framed by commercial priorities. This framework is further shaped by one of the philosophical flaws of western rational thinking; the notion that complex questions can be eventually reduced to single-cause questions and answers.

Reality is far less co-operative. The real world isn’t black-and-white. It’s not even shades of grey. It’s filled with mathematically complex systems that can sometimes settle into states of meta-stability, or which appear to present superficial patterns to initial human observation. An observation framed by the innate human tendency to see patterns in the first instance.

For me, from my philosophical perspective, it’s intriguing that recent research suggests that the link between saturated fat and ischemic (blood-flow related) heart disease is more tenuous than thought. Certainly it’s been well accepted – and was, even fifty years ago when the low-fat message was being developed – that types of cholesterol are utterly vital. If you had none at all in your system, you’d die, because it plays a crucial role in human biochemistry on a number of levels. Cholesterol even makes it possible for you to synthesise Vitamin D when exposed to sunlight. It’s one of the things humans can produce – your liver actually makes it, for these reasons.

As I understand it, recent studies suggest that the effort to diagnose and fix the problem of ‘heart attacks’ based on a simplistic mid-twentieth century premise – something picked up by much of western society as dogma – has been one of the factors implicated in a new epidemic of health problems. There is evidence that the current epidemic of diabetes (especially Type 2) and other diseases is one symptom of the way carbohydrates were substituted for fatty foods a generation ago, and of the way food manufacturers also compensated for a reduction in saturated fats by adding sugar or artificial sweeteners. Use of corn syrup in the US, for example, is up by 198 percent on 1970 figures.

I’m not a medical doctor. And from the scientific perspective all this demands testing. But the intellectual mechanisms behind this picture seem obvious to me from the principles of logic and philosophy – I learned the latter, incidentally, at post-grad level from Peter Munz, one of only two students of both Karl Popper (the inventor of modern scientific method) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (who theorised that language distorts understanding). I am in no doubt that language alone cannot convey pure concept; and I think the onus is on us to extend our understanding through careful reason – which includes being reasonable.

What am I getting at? Start with a premise and an if-then chain of reasoning, and you can build a compelling argument that is watertight of itself – but it doesn’t mean the answer is right. Data may be incomplete; or the interplay of possibilities may not be fully considered.

What follows? A human failing – self-evident smugness, pride in the ‘discovery’, followed by over-compensation that reverses the old thinking without properly considering the lateral issues. Why? Because very few people are equipped to think ‘sideways’, and scientists aren’t exceptions.

Which would be fine if it was confined to academic papers. But it isn’t. Is it.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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A lament to a past that might have been but never was

Conventional wisdom pins the invention of agriculture down to the ‘fertile crescent’ of the Middle East. Possibly starting in Chogha Golan some 11,700 years before the present.

A 1905 map showing Europe at the height of the last glaciation, with modern names overlaid. Public domain.

A 1905 map showing Europe at the end of the last glaciation, with modern names overlaid. Public domain.

This was where humanity started on its journey to the current world of climate change, extinctions, pollution and over-consumption. However, new research suggests agriculture was also invented much earlier by the Gravettian culture who flourished during an inter-glacial period, around what is now the Black Sea, maybe 33,000 years ago. Humans around this time also domesticated dogs – the oldest evidence has been found in Belgium, dated 32,000 years before the present.

That interglacial was apparently brought to a sharp end when New Zealand’s Taupo super-volcano exploded and knocked the world back into a new sequence of Ice Ages, also apparently nipping the agricultural revolution in the bud.

But suppose it hadn’t – that the climate had stayed warm. How would the world be today, 33,000 years after the agricultural revolution instead of about 11 or 12000? There was nothing inevitable about the way technology emerged – if you look at general tech, by which I mean everything from energy harnessed to the things people had in their homes, like combs, pots, pans and so forth, we find little real difference between (say) the Roman period and the Medieval period.

The Oruanui eruption, Taupo, 26,500 BP. From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Taupo_2.png

The Oruanui eruption, Taupo, 26,500 BP. From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Taupo_2.png

A lot had to do with energy sources – which were limited to wind, fire, falling water, and human and animal power. Even the invention of gunpowder did not much change the calculation: it was not until steam came along that things took off.

The industrial revolution was product of a unique diaspora that combined the thinking of the ‘age of reason’ with a climatic downturn that seemed to prod people into new innovations, financed by a rising band of new-rich Englishmen who’d made their fortunes on Carribean sugar and had money to burn.

Don’t forget – this was partly a result of chance. The Chinese never industrialised despite being just as smart, just as resourceful, and having similar opportunities. The Romans didn’t, either, earlier on, though they had a society as complex and urbanised as our modern one.

The point being that our alternative Gravettian timeline might have rolled along with what we might call the ‘Roman/Medieval’ level, forever. Or they might have industrialised. Steam engines and a moon programme 28,000 years ago? Why not?

There are other dimensions, too. Back then, Neanderthals were alive, well and living in Gibraltar. Sea levels differed – anybody heard of ‘Doggerland’? Or ‘Sahul’?

Whichever way things went, odds are on that if the glaciations hadn’t done for that agricultural revolution 33,000 years ago, we’d be rag-tag bands back in the stone age again now, this time without easily-scoopable fossil fuels and metals.  Pessimistic, but when you look at the way the world’s going now – where else are we going to end up? We lost the space dream, and we’re busy smashing each other and using the resources we’ve got as if there’s no tomorrow. Which there won’t be, if this carries on.

Do you think the Gravettian world might have been different?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Busy busy busy busy…with science!

Last year I signed a contract with Penguin Random House to write a science book on a subject close to the hearts of everybody around the Pacific Rim.

OK, so I'm a geek. Today anyway. From the left: laptop, i7 4771 desktop, i7 860 desktop.

OK, I’m a geek. I have three computers (temporarily) on my desk with “2001-esque” wallpaper. Headphones by Sennheiser deliver Nightwish at high volume. Click to enlarge.

A science book? I’m known as a historian. And I can legitimately call myself one if I want – I have post-graduate academic qualifications in that field. Indeed, the Royal Historical Society at University College, London, elected me a Fellow, on merit of my contribution. Which I very much appreciate, it’s one of the highest recognitions of historical scholarship worldwide.

However, I don’t label myself ‘a historian’. Nor is it my sole interest or qualification; I spent longer learning music, formally, than history – and my home field always has been physics. I began learning it aged 4, as I learned to read. Seriously. When I was 16 I won a regional science contest prize for an entry on Einsteinian physics and black holes, which I hadn’t learned at school – I had to read the papers and then deduce the math myself, without help, aged 16. (I am not Sheldon…really…)

What all this adds up to is an interest in understanding stuff – in seeing the shapes and patterns and inter-relationships between things and fields. And so – a book on science. Time was tight, but I wouldn’t have agreed to the contract if I thought quality might be affected. All writing has to be fast and good. If you’ve ever been a journalist (another of my jags) you have no option. The key is having writing as second nature – and planning. Good plans also have built-in capacity to adapt to circumstance, which meant that one weekend I had to sit down with a pile of science papers and:

1. Read those science papers. These included content such as: “Our estimate based on the seismic moment equation of Aki & Richards (2002, p. 48) (Mo = (X x D x RA; where Mo is seismic moment; (X is the rigidity modulus, D is fault plane displacement and RA is rupture area.”

2. Write a draft that drew from this and a lot of other stuff, in English pitched for a general reading audience. I did end up writing occasional sentences like: “This is known as the phase velocity, and is determined by the equation v = √g x d , where v is the velocity of the wave, d is the depth of water, and g is the acceleration of gravity.”  No other way of explaining fluid dynamics, you see… and well, this is science!

3. Revise that draft to clean up the wording. Final word count added to the MS in this 48-hour burst? A shade over 7000. That’s researched and mostly finished for publication. Think about it.

What got sacrificed was social media. That week and most others. I kept this blog going because I’d stacked posts. I’ll be back full force. Soon. What’s more, I’m going to share how to write quality, write accurately and quickly. There is, dare I say, a science to it. More soon.

The book is already being promoted on Random’s website. Check it out.

Science! A good word, that. Sort of thing the late Magnus Pyke might say. Science!

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Finding another Earth isn’t easy. Unfortunately.

Are you looking for a second Earth? We need to – humanity is on the fast track to ruining our one.

Simulated Exo-Earth. A picture I made. Apart from the fractal artefacts, does anybody notice what's wrong with it?

Simulated Exo-Earth. A picture I made. Apart from the fractal artefacts, does anybody notice the science issue that I didn’t correct?

Of course it’s not an easy task. A planet discovered the other week with the help of Kiwi astronomers underlines the problems. Four astronomers here in New Zealand contributed data to the OGLE microlensing follow-up network program in 2012. The results were published recently – and the good news is, OGLE found a planet.

OGLE, incidentally, stands for ‘Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment’. An apt acronym. It works by exploiting a quirk of Einstein’s theory of relativity – that mass distorts space-time. Massive stars bend light around themselves, acting as ‘lenses’ and enabling us to point a telescope at the massive star, and so detect faint objects passing directly between us and them, that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to observe. The gravity lens around the distant star is known as an ‘Einstein Ring’, and the method is usually used to pick up planets orbiting in the ‘halo’ of a star – the debris orbiting it, like our Oort Cloud. These are known as Massive Compact Halo Objects (MACHOS). Cool or what?

Anyhow, back to the news. The planet is called OGLE-2013-BLG-0341LBb, and it’s about 3000 light years away in the constellation Cassiopeia.

The good news?

- It orbits its sun at 0.8 AU – nearly the distance of Earth (yay!)

- It’s about Earth sized – mass is thought to be only twice ours (yay!)

- That doesn’t imply twice our surface gravity (yay!) [I can't calculate it unless I know the radius and density of the planet, which I don't, but if density is the same as Earth, average 5.5 g cm <exp>3, then the surface gravity won't be double because surface gravity is also proportional to the radius. Just saying.]

- It’s orbiting just one star in a binary pair (Tattooine, sort of – yay!)

Let me illustrate mass vs surface gravity. Although it has a mass 14.5 times that of Earth, 'surface gravity' on Uranus is just  89 percent that of Earth. That's because the radius is about 4 times Earth's. I made this picture with Celestia.

Let me use Uranus to illustrate mass vs surface gravity. Although it has a mass 14.5 times that of Earth, ‘surface gravity’ on Uranus is just 89 percent that of Earth. That’s because the radius is about 4 times Earth’s. I made this picture with Celestia.

So is this Earth 2? Well, if I were you I’d take warm clothes. The bad news is that the star is a red dwarf, 400 times less energetic than the Sun, so the planet has a surface temperature of 60 degrees Kelvin – in centigrade, a chilly -210 degrees. (Booooo!)

The search for Earth-like planets has got exciting lately as we’ve developed the tech to discover them. Problem is, the gear is not good enough to image them directly. We can’t learn much other than the size and orbital distance – from which we can derive its year, mass and temperature. If we’re lucky, we might also get a handle on its atmospheric makeup, via spectrography as it transits its sun.

For these reasons, usually when we detect a planet that’s otherwise in the ‘goldilocks’ zone, we don’t know whether it’s actually like Earth. It might be like Venus – runaway greenhouse with sulphuric acid, crushing atmosphere and oven-like temperatures. We don’t know. Don’t forget, if astronomers 3000 light years away were using the same techniques to analyse our solar system, they might conclude there were two Earths here from the planetary mass and orbital data.

The way things are going, of course, we’re likely to end up with two Venuses. Venuses? Venii? You know what I mean.

And it’s a worry.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Science: Nil. Stupidity: 1,000,000,000

It was Albert Einstein, I believe, who suggested only two things were infinite. The universe and stupidity. And he wasn’t sure about the universe.

According to media reports, Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison has been tinkering with the H1N1 flu virus that triggered a pandemic in 2009 and killed 500,000. Apparently, he’s altered it to take away human immunity built up since 2009. There are solid scientific reasons for doing so – we learn how to make better vaccines. Excellent motive.

Except – e-e-e-except…the modified virus poses a threat if it escapes. Estimates of casualties range from a billion people down to  merely 400,000,000. Kawaoka’s effort has been criticised as irresponsible, and response generally, seems critical.

I’m not a virologist. But I know what happened when the Justinian plague and the Black Death hit Europe, or when Europe’s diseases hit the Americas and Australasia. I know what happened in 1918-19. Diseases to which humans had no immunity. And I think if someone shows something can be done, somebody else will repeat it on that knowledge alone.

What worries me is the wider trend towards tinkering with viruses in labs. We can, I fear, only get away for so long without an accident. Professor Simon Wain-Hobson, of the Virology Department at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, is reported as using more direct terms. ‘If society understood what was going on,’ he was quoted in the Independent, ‘‘they would say “What the F… are you doing?”’

Quite right, too.

Artwork by Plognark http://www.plognark.com/ Creative Commons license

Artwork by Plognark http://www.plognark.com/ Creative Commons license

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Remembering ROMBUS and days of future passed

They were heady days, the 1960s. Back then nothing seemed too big to engineer on Earth. Or off it.

Launch of Apollo 11, atop a Saturn V booster. One of the readers of this blog's Dad was the pad safety officer for Apollo 11. How cool is THAT? Public domain, NASA.

Apollo 11 departs by Saturn V. Public domain, NASA.

When the moon race began in 1961, humanity had barely begun to step into space. But the job was done – twice. The Soviets had a serious programme, but started late, were under-funded, and work was divided between rival bureaux. Then Sergei Korolev died. With him died any chance of their N-1 moon booster working. The US equivalent, Wernher von Braun’s Saturn V, won the day.

Both derived from technologies von Braun pioneered in the 1930s. The Saturn V was a direct descendant of the V-2, with the same arrangement of  traditional rocket engines and massive fuel tanks.

Project Deimos departs Earth orbit with one of Bono's colossal ROMBUS boosters. Public domain, NASA.

ROMBUS leaving for Mars, 9 May 1986. Public domain, NASA.

What that added up to was weight. It’s why a conventional single-stage rocket can’t make orbit with useful payload; too much mass is taken up in structure. Von Braun’s Saturn V managed a mass-ratio of 22 because it had three stages. The problem was that each stage was discarded after one use. Costs were astronomical.

However, they weren’t the only way ahead. In 1964, Douglas Aircraft engineer Philip Bono proposed a ‘plug nozzle’ engine that did away with the combustion chamber and complex cooling systems. Fuel (liquid hydrogen) was stored in jettisonable external tanks, with the oxidiser (liquid oxygen) inside the booster.

ROMBUS in Mars orbit: Mars Excursion Module backs away ready for landing. Public domain, NASA.

ROMBUS in Mars orbit: Mars Excursion Module backs away for landing, late November 1986. Public domain, NASA.

Bono called it ROMBUS – Reusable Orbital Module-Booster & Utility Shuttle. The design he and his associates came up with was enormous, with a launch mass of just over 6,300 tonnes. That was nearly twice the mass of a Saturn V, but the mass-ratio available in ROMBUS was good enough to fly to orbit in one hit, dropping external tanks along the way. What’s more, it could re-enter using the plug as a heat shield, pumping residual fuel across it as a coolant. And fly again, up to five or six times per booster. It was a different approach from carpeting the bottom of the Atlantic with dead Saturn stages.

Bono calculated that ROMBUS could put 450 tonnes into low Earth orbit, nearly four times that of Saturn V. The Moon was within reach of the system – and then Bono came up with a plan for flying one of his colossal boosters to Mars and back.

Mars Excursion Module docking with the huge ROMBUS booster in Mars orbit. Public domain, NASA.

Mars Excursion Module docking with the gigantic ROMBUS booster in Mars orbit, September 1987. Public domain, NASA.

Bono estimated that ROMBUS could be flying by 1975 and drop launch costs to $12-per-pound to orbit, in 1964 terms. That compared wonderfully with the $150/pound of Saturn. Development costs were estimated at nearly $4.1 billion in 1964 dollars, this when the entire Apollo project was budgeted at $18 billion.

Technical issues relating to the plug nozzle would likely have taken some solving. Still, we can imagine the what-if scenarios. Project Selena looked towards a 1000-person lunar colony by 1984, and – providing ways could be found of stopping the cryo-fuels from boiling off during the 800-day mission – Project Deimos would have landed six astronauts on Mars by November 1986.

Bono’s huge rocket was a vision of its age – a vision of the 1960s, a vision of the era before humanity lost the dream, when anything seemed possible. But it never came to pass – and I can’t help thinking that today, that vision simply isn’t there.

What happened?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014