Showing posts with label SciTech. Show all posts
Showing posts with label SciTech. Show all posts

24 April 2013

Space, a new era

A new age is beginning in space commerce. After a little history this article considers where things may go next in timescales of ten, twenty and a hundred years. This is no longer purely science fiction, it is becoming technological fact. It's possible to foresee voyages to the stars a hundred years from now.

Apollo 4 on the pad
Yes, we really are at the beginning of a new era in spaceflight. Until recently almost all efforts in space were the preserve of governments or multinational bodies like the European Space Agency (ESA).

In a few areas private companies were able to play a role, but the funding was mostly government based.

The only real exception has been for communications satellites, and even these had to be flown on rockets designed and built for governments.

In this article we'll look at how the situation has been changing, especially over the last five years.

Early history - I was nine-years-old when Sputnik 1 was launched by the Soviet Union in October 1957. I remember hearing its bleeping tone on the radio and noticing how anxious Mum and Dad seemed that the Russians rather than the Americans had achieved this feat of engineering.

Of course, America wasn't far behind; though early European cooperation in rocketry failed.

In April 1961 Yuri Gagarin flew on Vostok 1 and before long orbital trips seemed almost routine. The Americans landed Apollo 11 on the Moon in July 1969. Today we can add many more nations, an international organisation (ESA), and even a private company (SpaceX) to the list.

Commercial satellites - Commercial space businesses began with government contracts to construct rockets and build satellites. But the first businesses to make a profit from space were broadcasting and telecommunications companies.

Since then direct broadcast TV, weather satellites, earth resources, mapping, messaging, delivery tracking and global positioning (GPS) have become mainstream commercial applications. And military satellites, although not commercial in nature, are widely deployed and used by many national governments.

The space launch industry - With so many commercial satellite operators, it was clear that there was a  market for a commercial space launch industry.

Until recently those launchers have been funded and specified by governments, but now SpaceX, a number of other companies and some cooperative ventures such as the United Launch Alliance (ULA) are looking to make a profit by selling launch services. This includes provision of the launch vehicles, payload integration, fuelling, pad infrastructure, and managing the launch itself.

Virgin Galactic - Virgin is close to providing sub-orbital short hops into space. They plan to cater for space tourism as well as offering research flights. For the first time scientists and engineers will be able to fly with their experiments regularly and return them reliably. This service may replace throw-away sounding rockets.

Other companies are working on sub-orbital flight too, but Virgin are very close. Their spacecraft (SpaceShipTwo) is about to begin powered test flights.

SpaceX - Elon Musk's company already offers two sizes of commercial launcher (Falcon 1e and Falcon 9) and is close to testing Falcon Heavy for even larger payloads. They are also using their Dragon cargo ship to fly regularly to the International Space Station (ISS), are working hard on a crewed version of Dragon.

DragonLab is a free-flying commercial venture to provide a weightless platform for science and technology. Any organisation can book space on DragonLab knowing that their payload can be recovered and flown again as often as required.

A further project (Grasshopper) is developing the technology to safely land and re-use Falcon 9 rocket stages. And in the more distant future SpaceX has ambitions to see a viable human colony established on Mars.

Bigelow - Bigelow Aerospace has two prototype inflatable space habitat modules in orbit, is planning to attach one to the ISS for testing by NASA, and plans to offer orbital accommodation for science as well as for tourism.

Mars OneMars One is a non-profit foundation based in the Netherlands. They hope to colonise Mars and pay for it by a combination of donations, sponsorship and TV contracts. The plan is to send four people to Mars in 2023 with four more arriving every two years after that. These are one way trips. Mars One is now open for applicants and is signing contracts for initial design studies.

Asteroid mining - At least two companies have been created recently with a view to the commercial exploitation of asteroidal materials. Asteroids are rich in rare and precious metals as well as volatiles in the form of ices.

Where is it all leading? - This really is a special time in spaceflight. We are progressing from state funded and controlled projects at relatively small scale and high cost, towards commercial operations taking humankind and our machines further and doing so profitably.

The immediate future offers the prospect of short hops into space for anyone with £20 000 to £30 000 to spare, a reusable Falcon 9 first stage substantially reducing the cost to orbit, and commercial access to low Earth orbit (LEO) for both crewed and uncrewed spacecraft. This is likely to include small capsules like SpaceX's Dragon and much larger volumes such as the Bigelow inflatable modules. Much of this will happen in the next ten years.

In the longer term we can expect commercial operations to develop raw material supplies from Asteroids, as well as small colonies on Mars and perhaps the Moon too. For this we may be looking at a twenty year timescale.

But make no mistake, once this process has begun there will be no stopping it. We are probably heading for a Solar System wide civilisation within the next century. Children born today will find it quite normal to watch and read material created on a different planet or in orbit elsewhere around our local star.

And once the outer planets have been reached it will be only a matter of time before our descendants start to consider how best to reach other stars. Perhaps they will send out self-sufficient colonies based on and inside modified asteroids.


  • If humans colonise space, how will that affect society, faith, and the future?
  • Are you going to sign up for Mars One's one way trip to Mars? (I'm not!)
  • How would you feel if your children or grandchildren were living on Mars?
  • If the cost comes down enough, would you fancy a sub-orbital hop into space?

See also:

20 March 2013

Elon Musk at TED

Elon Musk is an extraordinary entrepreneur. He is behind SpaceX and several other ground-breaking companies. Interviewed here for TED he explains how he has achieved such success. It seems that it essentially depends on beginning with sound principles, aiming high and taking risks.

This rocket is landing, not taking off!
Sometimes a truly extraordinary event or person comes along and changes everything. Elon Musk is one of those people.

He was a co-founder of PayPal and sold his share in the company for a considerable fortune.

Wanting to devote his life to things that would solve major issues for the human race, he went on to develop a company building electric cars to reduce our need for fossil fuels (Tesla), a company to dramatically reduce the cost of spaceflight (SpaceX) and a solar power company  (SolarCity) to eliminate the fossil fuel industry.

Elon Musk hopes to make humanity a multi-planet species by making it possible to colonise Mars.

How does he do it? - Chris Anderson, the curator of the TED Talks, interviewed Elon to find out what makes him tick and exactly what it is that has enabled him to succeed repeatedly. Chris would also like to know whether the essential factors can be identified and encouraged in others. Can Elon Musk become a sort of 'template' or guide for success with extreme projects?

The answer is, quite possibly, 'Yes'. The keys seem to be to aim high, take risks, base new ventures on the underlying principles and work up from there. It's also useful to pay close attention to negative feedback from friends.

Watch the interview for yourself. It is short, fascinating, and informative.


  • What most astonishes you about Elon Musk's achievements?
  • What is the most interesting part of his thinking? What is fundamental?
  • How might you use the underlying principles in business, church, politics, education... ?
  • What are you waiting for?

See also:

04 March 2013

Penzias, Wilson and some noise

The universe, Part 5
< From the beginning to atoms | Series index | No later items >

Penzias and Wilson discovered an unknown microwave signal that turned out to be evidence for the origin of the universe. The story involves inconvenient pigeon droppings and more than a little serendipity. It ends with a Nobel Prize for physics and fame.

The Holmdel Horn Antenna
In part 4 of the series we saw how the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR) provides the earliest visible image of structure in the universe.

This time we're going to follow the curious story of its accidental detection by Penzias and Wilson.

The Holmdel microwave antenna in the image is at Bell Labs in New Jersey and was built in 1959 for early radio experiments with the Echo satellites (reflective balloons in earth orbit).

The horn antenna was being used by Arno Penzias and Bob Wilson in 1964. They were building sensitive, low noise, microwave radio receivers for use with the Echo satellites and had a serious problem with unexplained radio noise. They ruled out several possible causes, including a build-up of pigeon droppings in the horn, but nothing they could think of seemed to reduce the frustrating noise. Eventually they concluded it was not noise, but a genuine signal from an unknown source.

The noise explained - Another physicist, Robert Dicke had been searching for a signal just like the one that had caused Arno and Penzias so much trouble. Dicke had failed in his search but he heard about Penzias and Wilson's results and recognised it as relic light from the early universe, the elusive CMBR! The Penzias and Wilson paper and another by Dicke and three others were published together in July 1965. There's a lot more about this story in the book 'Genesis of the Big Bang' by Ralph A Alpher and Robert Herman who remembered the events well.

This is an interesting example of the way science progresses. Dicke, like George Gamow before him, had predicted the CMBR based on cosmological theory. Now that it had been found, the credibility of the theory was greatly strengthened.

Dicke was soon able to observe the CMBR himself, and later the COBE satellite would observe it in much greater detail, finding small irregularities in temperature. These too had been theoretically predicted.

When experimental results bear out theoretical predictions like this, scientists can be confident the theory is on track and more likely to be reliable.

WMAP, Planck and other instruments have refined the detail still further and strongly support the current Standard Model of Cosmology known as the Lambda-CDM Model..

Penzias and Wilson were awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 1978 for their discovery.

  • Which interests you the most, the science itself or personal stories like this one?
  • Can you imagine the amount of dedicated effort involved in doing science?
  • Do you sense the determined search for truth in the hearts of dedicated scientists?

See also: 

< From the beginning to atoms | Series index | No later items >

03 March 2013

Ecotricity - greener, greener, green

Ecotricity builds wind and solar generating systems. They also supply green energy to commercial and domestic customers in the UK. Starting from small beginnings they have made a significant impact in the market and continue to grow rapidly in capacity and popularity.

Turbine blades transported by road
Ecotricity was started by Dale Vince who built a small windmill generator from reclaimed components for his own use.

Friends asked him to build similar generators and eventually he made a much larger one for a local farmer.

He then wanted to build something even larger to connect to the grid, but hit all kinds of difficulties and additional costs imposed by the larger companies and distributors.

Through persistent effort he managed to negotiate a deal and since then Ecotricity, the world's first green electricity company, has built many more large wind turbines and wind farms.

Innovation - Dale has had many interesting and innovative business ideas and has never been willing to take 'no' for an answer. He raises extra finance by issuing bonds, his company also sells wind and solar generated power to end users and offers (at slightly higher cost) a 100% renewable deal.

They have a policy of not having shareholders; instead, profits are ploughed back into building additional generating capacity. The company encourages new customers to sign up so as to use their power bills wisely, in other words to help build additional capacity. Their customer service is exceptionally good, polite and helpful.

More recently Ecotricity has also developed a green gas plant, generating methane by biodigestion of waste. Dale has built record breaking electric vehicles, both a motorcycle and a high performance car that recently set a new world land speed record for electric vehicles.

Caring for the planet - Surely we have a duty to care for the planet on which we live? Dale Vince is certainly doing his part to reduce environmental damage. If you live in the UK you could help simply by changing your electricity and/or gas supplier to Ecotricity.

In other parts of the world you may be able to help in other ways. We can all do our part by reducing our use of energy, by walking or cycling instead of driving, by flying less often, by taking the train, insulating our homes, turning down the thermostat, showering more quickly - the list is long.

But many small actions by large numbers of people add up to a significant difference.

Making the switch - You can switch to Ecotricity online (if you use this link I'll get a partner contribution from the company). If you prefer to speak to them by phone call 08000 302 302 and quote 'SCI1' and I'll still receive the contribution.


  • Have you heard of Ecotricity before?
  • Are you doing all you can to reduce your household and business energy use?
  • Are you using green sources of energy where available?

See also:

10 February 2013

Sixteen years climate myth

For some decades there have been constant disputes between climate scientists and those who deny that humanity is causing global temperatures to increase. This article presents a video made by Skeptical Science to show that one of the more recent claims by the deniers is wrong.

The Skeptical Science website
Skeptical Science is dedicated to debunking arguments that deny burning fossil fuels causes climate change.

One of these arguments is that there has been no detectable warming during the last sixteen years and Skeptical Science made a video (below) to show why this is false. It's well worth watching whatever your views on the science.

More detail about the 16-year claim is available on the Skeptical Science website.

No room for doubt - The temperature trends are very clear and the rate of fossil fuel burning is still rising year on year. Some countries are reducing their output already, but most are not. It's already far too late to prevent serious effects, but these will become even worse if we just carry on as we are.

Global warming sceptics have repeatedly clutched at every straw they can. Again and again they have attempted to find fault with the measurements, the reasoning or the conclusions and every time the scientists have show that the sceptics are the ones with the faulty reasoning. The 16-years argument is one of the most recent of these insubstantial straws.

Take a look at Skeptical Science's website for more information on all aspects of the data and discussions. It's also worth referring to the Wikipedia article on the continuing controversy. The great majority of climate scientists agree that global warming is happening and is caused by human activity.


  • Who will best understand global warming data, professional climate scientists or the media?
  • Climate warming may be severe, is it wiser to make cuts or just carry on as usual?
  • Are there simple things you could do to reduce your own, personal energy use?

See also:

22 January 2013

From the beginning to atoms

The universe, Part 4
< In the beginningSeries index | Penzias, Wilson and some noise >

The universe grows larger, cooler and more complex at astonishing speed until it's a few minutes old. Further change is much slower and less dramatic. Fundamental forces and particles are generated, hydrogen and helium are formed and light is released.

The cosmic microwave background radiation
The first few minutes of the universe's existence see a huge increase in volume and a dramatic reduction in temperature. Gravity, light, and atomic forces separate from one another. And finally matter comes into existence in the form of hydrogen and helium nuclei and electrons.

More fundamentally we could say that the universe evolves from a simple, evenly distributed beginning and generates greater and greater complexities confined to smaller and smaller volumes as it expands. We'll explore this concept in a later post.

In Part 3 we discussed the beginning but also understood that we can't directly understand or observe it. A good theory of quantum gravity might help, but we don't have one yet.

So how near the beginning can we claim to have any real understanding? The answer is back to 10-43 of a second. If you want to see that as an ordinary fraction you would need to write 1 at the top with 1 followed by 43 zeroes at the bottom. So we understand the universe (in some sense) back to a very, very tiny part of a second.

What exactly do we know from that very early time?

Gravity and inflation - For one thing, gravity and the other fundamental forces may have all been of equal strength at first, with gravity separating out at 10-43 seconds. There is theoretical support for this. After gravity separated to become the very mild force it is today, the universe entered a time of extremely rapid expansion known as inflation.

This is not just something scientists have dreamed up; the observed properties of the universe can only be explained by such a rapid inflation during which it became unimaginably larger in a tiny, tiny fraction of a second. Before inflation the universe was smaller than a sub atomic particle. Inflation ended between 10-33 and 10-32 seconds, but by this time the universe was spacious (perhaps as large as a football) and packed with elementary particles that still exist in our own time - quarks, antiquarks and gluons.

How do we know all this? There are three important things that constrain what is possible.

  • Theory - Based on what we know of the later universe, theory rules out most hypotheses about the earliest eras. Only an early universe similar to what is described above could have resulted in what we see today.
  • Cosmology - Observations suggest a great deal. The cosmic background radiation (shown above) and the distribution of galaxy clusters, for example, can only be explained by inflation.
  • High energy physics experiments - By creating high energies in particle accelerators we can observe the properties and behaviour of particles in a similar state to these early phases of the universe.

Here's one more thing about inflation. If, as many think, our universe began as a quantum fluctuation, then without inflation it would have been the most transient of fluctuations and the universe would have been snuffed out almost immediately while it was still very tiny.

The electroweak epoch - The next stage in the evolution of the universe involved the strong nuclear force separating from the remaining two fundamental forces. Like the earlier events, this too happened at a very early time, around 10-34 seconds. More particles were able to condense out of the soup of energy at this stage, W bosons, Z bosons and Higgs Bosons became common. These are particles that can be generated in our most powerful accelerators today, so we are able to study them and understand them reasonably well.

The universe continued to expand and cool so that by 10-12 seconds bosons could no longer be created. 10-12 seconds is also called a picosecond (one quadrillionth of a second). Lasers with pulses as short as a picosecond are used for cutting and shaping materials, in medicine, and for removing tatoos. It's still a very brief time, but meaningful enough for real life use. Light travels just 0.3 mm in this time.

The quark, hadron and lepton epochs - The universe continued to expand and cool. After it was a picosecond old the electromagnetic and weak forces separated and the universe at this time was full of a dense quark-gluon plasma.

By the end of this epoch at around a microsecond old (one millionth of a second), the universe was cool enough that the quarks could combine to form protons, neutrons and their anti-particles. At an age of about one second the universe was cool enough for particles and anti-particles to annihilate, leaving a small excess of protons and neutrons.

As the universe expanded and cooled further and aged to about ten seconds, electrons and other leptons were also able to annihilate with their anti-particles leaving a small excess of mostly protons, neutrons, electrons, and photons.

Over the next few minutes conditions cooled to a point where atomic nuclei could form, mostly deuterium and helium with a little lithium. At this point the universe contained these nuclei, protons, electrons, and photons. After a further 380 000 years of cooling and expansion the protons and other nuclei combined with the electrons to form hydrogen and helium atoms (and some lithium atoms). This allowed the photons to move freely (the cosmic microwave background radiation), space became transparent and the earliest structures formed. These structures were simply volumes of slightly varying density and temperature. They are the first things we can 'see' directly and are shown in the illustration at the top of the article.

From this point on the universe becomes more and more recognisable to us, albeit still far hotter and denser than today. We will be able to see the rest of the story much more in terms of astronomy.

  • Are you surprised at the amount of change that took place in the first second?
  • Is the creation of the universe more complex than you had imagined?
  • How do you feel about a universe that started this way?

See also: 

< In the beginning | Series index | Penzias, Wilson and some noise >

07 January 2013

The climate in 2012 and 2013

Global warming is real and is coming to a country near you. In fact it's coming everywhere and the effects will be very serious. Here's a report on some of the main points as discussed in a recent series of New Zealand radio shows. What can you do about it? Try to make more people aware of the facts.

A frosty scene in EnglandA series of ten minute slots in a New Zealand radio show provide a useful climate update. Listen to Glenn Williams discussing the climate with Gareth Renowden.

They review some of the worst weather events in 2012 including Hurricane Sandy, and look to the coming year for hints of what to expect next.

The stunning lack of official action to reduce our impact on climate also gets a mention.

We're now in a place where we must expect a severely changed planet, perhaps four or even six degrees celsius warmer than it is right now. Carbon dioxide levels are continuing to rise and are likely to top 400 ppm in 2013. The consequences involve considerable sea level rises, ocean acidification, serious ocean ecosystem damage and further loss of Arctic sea ice.

My own conclusion is that we are doing nowhere near enough to limit our carbon dioxide output at a time when the pace of change is proving to be far faster than we expected just a few years ago.

There's much more detail about all these matters at the Skeptical Science website.

Oh, and if you don't live in New Zealand don't think you don't need to listen. You do. You really, really do. We all need to listen.


  • Is there anything you can do to help make more people aware of the facts?
  • What do you think will happen if we do nothing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?
  • On present showing, do you think humans are looking after the Earth well?

See also:

06 January 2013

How does science work?

The universe, Part 2
< Introducing the universeSeries index | In the beginning >

We need to understand the basis upon which science operates and justifies its findings. Without this basis we would be unable to understand and describe the universe in any meaningful way. We see that science has a rigorous method and underpins reliable technology.

The famous Miller-Urey experimentBefore we look at the story of the universe, there's some groundwork we need to put in place. In the previous part I explained why I wanted to embark on this project and why I thought I'm suited to it. But this time I want to address science itself.

How do we know science works? Why should we accept its claims, for the universe or for anything else?

There are two lines of argument that should encourage us to accept the ability of science to produce valid conclusions. One is theoretical and is based on how science works. The other is practical and looks for evidence that science has worked.

How does science work? - At its most basic, science is pretty straightforward. It's really just good observation, making a best guess as to what might account for the observation, devising an experiment to test the guess, and then either rejecting the guess because it failed or making a new guess and trying again.

When a guess (science calls it an hypothesis) has been tested for a prolonged period of time and has passed every single test thrown at it, we become convinced it really is correct and then science calls it a theory. And we're not talking about ten tests, or a hundred. It may take fifty years or more of serious effort before a theory is widely accepted.

The words 'observation', 'hypothesis', 'experiment' and 'theory' are scientific jargon and should not be taken to have their everyday meanings. In the area of science they have precise definitions that we must keep in mind if we want to understand scientific debate and writing. 'Theory' in particular is commonly misunderstood.

(That is a simplified description of science, for a more thorough version read the Wikipedia article on the scientific method.)

The image above is a diagram of the apparatus used in the famous Milley-Urey experiment. This experiment disproved the hypothesis that organic chemicals could not form naturally in early planetary atmospheres.

So what does science look like in practice? - An example will help.

Let's say we notice that grass doesn't grow well underneath mature trees. That's an observation.

We might guess that grass doesn't like to be covered in dead leaves. That's an hypothesis.

We decide to grow grass in pots and then cover some of the pots with dead leaves gathered from the woods. That's an experiment.

We let the experiment run for some time and then come to look at the results. All the grass is still growing happily. So it looks as if the hypothesis was wrong, there must be some other reason that grass doesn't grow under trees. The hypothesis can't become a theory because we've shown it was wrong.

Suppose instead that we had guessed that grass needs plenty of light to grow. This time we'd find we couldn't disprove the guess. We might do dozens of different experiments and find grass always dies if it doesn't get plenty of light. We could now make a theory - 'grass needs plenty of light to grow'.

We can now say that grass almost certainly needs plenty of light to grow, and dead leaves definitely don't prevent it from growing. That's an advance in scientific knowledge.

Because of the way science works there is little room for argument. A single negative result kills an hypothesis stone dead. Hypotheses become reliable theories when they have passed many unsuccessful challenges. For example general relativity, evolution, quantum mechanics and electro-magnetism are regarded as theories. They have very, very high likelihoods of being correct and long histories of passing experimental tests.

Technology stands on the shoulders of science - Technology also gives us great confidence in the results of science. Technology often depends on the results of scientific understanding in order to make something useful or to make it more efficiently. If the underlying science was wrong, the technology based on it would fail.

The fact that technology works as well as it does is strong, additional evidence that the scientific method produces reliable and correct results. We are surrounded by proof that science is trustworthy. Cars, ships, computers, TV sets, radio communications, plastics, medicines, heart pacemakers, electricity, fridges, washing machines, microwaves, air conditioning, central heating, felt pens, emulsion paint, rubber, plant and animal breeding - all these technologies and many, many more depend on the reliability of science.

There are also examples of technology that failed because it was not based on sound science. The best example is plant breeding in the Soviet Union during the cold war. It was based on Lysenkoism, a falsified theory of inheritance.

If we can be sure science is reliable and produces correct results, then we can also be confident about what it tells us about the universe.

  • If science is purely well-tested observation, on what grounds can we question it?
  • The nature of the universe makes technology possible, what can we conclude from that?
  • Can you imagine a world in which there were no underlying rules?

See also:

< Introducing the universeSeries index | In the beginning >

03 January 2013

The universe - INDEX

(See indexes on other topics)

This is the index page for a major series on the story of the universe. I'll be adding sections from time to time and provide links to all the parts below.

Where does it begin and end?I would like to attempt a major project in which I'll do my best to describe and explain the universe as we understand it in 2012 and 2013. The first part of the series is an introduction and explains why and how I am doing this.

The list below will expand as fresh parts are written. It's a story with no beginning as we cannot currently investigate the state of the universe right at the start (assuming 'the start' has any rational meaning for the universe). And it's a story with no end because it seems unlikely that the universe will have an ending in the sense of ceasing to exist.

Besides, time itself might be seen as part of the universe. In that case we would be talking about the beginning and end of time. What would that mean?

One of the truly astonishing things about the universe is that it contains tiny blobs of matter (us) that are capable, in some sense, of comprehending it. This should seem far more extraordinary than it does to most people most of the time.

Here's the list of parts so far.
  1. Introducing the universe - Why am I attempting this project?
  2. How does science work? - So, why should we accept the claims of science?
  3. In the beginning - Even time and space began at the beginning.
  4. From the beginning to atoms - Forces and particles condense from energy
  5. Penzias, Wilson and some noise - How the cosmic background was found.


  • Do 'beginning' and 'end' in science and in religion refer to the same thing?
  • Scientific and religious - do they overlap or conflict or are they distinct?
  • What lies beyond the universe? How could we know?

See also:

11 December 2012

Introducing the universe

The universe, Part 1
< No earlier items | Series index | How does science work? >

This is the first post in a series on the story of the universe, insofar as we know it in the first eighth of the twenty-first century. In this introduction I provide a little background about my reasons for tackling this subject and my own training and experience in science.

The Hubble extreme deep field view
I have a new project, and this post is the very first part of it. What I'd like to attempt is a sweeping review of the development of the entire universe, from the earliest moments right up to the present. It goes without saying that this is a rather ambitious task.

Why would I want to do this? - There are several reasons. One is the current battle of ideas between science on the one hand and people who think they know better on the other. And here I include creationists, the detractors of the evidence for global warming, deniers of human causes of global warming, those who are anxious about the side effects of inoculations and all sorts of other groups denying that scientific understanding of this or that topic is correct. I'll refer to these disparate groups as deniers and disbelievers (DDs).

DDs have a variety of reasons for their views. Some are genuinely concerned that science has a wrong view that is dangerous or harmful. Others may have some kind of hidden agenda. DDs of both kinds can be extraordinarily resistant to logical argument. Some (a small minority) can be manipulative and a few have been abusive.

Another reason is simply to share what are to me profound and amazing truths about the nature of existence. When you see something astonishing and beautiful, don't you want to share it with others?

Fun along the way - I have a scientific background (I was a professional biologist for many years) and I enjoy explaining things. I don't know a whole lot about fields other than my specialist area of biology, but I do have a science education and I possess the basic tools needed to understand scientific arguments and the principles by which science progresses.

I expect we can have a lot of fun along the way. Get ready for some amazing images and videos. Prepare to meet some extraordinary characters. And don't be surprised if some of the things we see are truly beautiful and awe inspiring - that's the way the universe is. To see some of these now, click on the photo of distant galaxies for a more detailed view, and take a look at the scale of the universe, an interactive journey up and down from the scale of our normal environment.

Not all my blog posts will be devoted to this journey of discovery. They'll be interspersed with much else besides - all the other topics I've posted on in the past. But every so often I plan to slip in another post in this series on the story of the universe. I'll link the posts together so you can easily browse back and forth between them, and there's an index to help you jump straight to a particular topic.


  • Broadly speaking, is your inclination to trust or distrust science and scientists?
  • Do you find the natural world beautiful, perplexing, and thought provoking?
  • In your opinion, does the existence of the universe demand an ultimate cause?
  • If not, would you say it's enough to assume that there is no cause?

See also:

< No earlier itemsSeries index | How does science work? >

19 November 2012

Other species in heaven

Is heaven a place to which we go after this life is over? If so, who gets to go, just humans? We take a look at our closest relatives and ponder where to draw the line between human and not human. If drawing a line is impractical, might there be something wrong with our understanding of the nature of heaven?

Reconstructed Neanderthals
Here's an interesting idea, something I haven't seen discussed before. If it has been, I missed it.

(Note: If you are a creationist you may not like what follows. The article is not intended to be provocative but you might prefer not to read the rest.)

Many believers in Jesus would say that heaven is a specific place to which we go after this life is over (assuming we have faith in Christ as Lord and Saviour). And many of those same people would also say that only people go to heaven - in other words there will be no cats, dogs, snakes, pigeons or earwigs in heaven.

There are many reasons for thinking heaven may not be exactly what we imagine it to be. But let's leave that aside for the moment and accept that it's a place for retired saints, and animals are not allowed.

The big question is this... Where do we draw the line between humans and non humans?

I hope we can all agree that the major races of people are indeed all human. Negroid, Asiatic, Caucasian, North American Indian and all the rest. Broad divisions and minor differences, we are all one species, Homo sapiens. If we can't agree that - we are in trouble!

Various species - Modern humans are the only species remaining today, but other types of  hominin (human-like primates) existed in the past.

Modern humans - Fossil evidence suggests that modern humans (Homo sapiens) have been around now for perhaps 200 000 years, and most definitely for at least 50 000 years by which time our ancestors were showing evidence of modern human behaviour.

But other fascinating fossil and sub-fossil discoveries have been made, some of them rather recently.

Red Deer Cave People - These may or may not be a different species from us. They lived until 11 500 years ago in China. Research is continuing but attempts to recover DNA have so far failed and other evidence is not yet conclusive. They are known to have used fire and cooked deer meat.

Flores man - This species (Homo floresiensis) was very small and is only known from the Indonesian island of Flores. The most recent specimens date to only 12 000 years ago. They were also toolmakers like us, stone tools have been found with their remains.

Denisovans were recently discovered (2008). They are known from a few minor bone remains in a Siberian cave. DNA analysis shows clearly that they are related to Neanderthals and interbred to some extent with the people who populated the Pacific islands. They survived until about 41 000 years ago and had a common ancestor with both modern humans and neanderthals around a million years ago.

Neanderthals - Quite similar to us, Neanderthals have been known from skeletal remains for many years. They are sometimes regarded as a separate species from us (Homo neanderthalensis) or sometimes as a subspecies (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis). Neanderthals lived in Europe and Asia from 600 000 until 30 000 years ago or perhaps even as recently as 25 000 years ago.

Neanderthals seem to have had behaviour strikingly similar to our own. They probably had language, they made tools, wore clothes, hunted large animals (even the giant mammoths), they wore jewellery, cared for invalids, used fire, painted cave walls and observed rituals for the dead.

Genetic evidence shows that there was limited interbreeding between our ancestors and Neanderthals.

Homo erectus - This hominin may have been the ancestor of  Homo sapiens (us), Homo neanderthalensis and the other groups listed above. They lived from 1.8 million until at least 300 000 years ago and may have remained even longer, perhaps overlapping with us and certainly with Neanderthals. Homo erectus lived in Africa, Europe and Asia, made stone tools, and ate meat as part of a mixed diet.

Homo ergaster - Another possible ancestor, perhaps of Homo erectus as well as the other groups, Homo ergaster lived in Africa from 1.8 million years ago. These ancestors, too, had an advanced stone tool culture.

Overlapping species - It seems that several different hominins were living on the Earth at the same time although we are now the only remaining kind. If we assume that sapiens, floresiensis, denisovans, and neanderthalensis are different species (as many scientistists do), then we have at least four species co-existing. We might even add the Red Deer Cave people which would make five. In many cases there was overlap in geographical range as well, and there was a modest amount of interbreeding between modern humans and both Denisovans and Neanderthals.

The question then arises whether all four (or five) will be present in heaven. Of course, it's possible to argue that all these groups are subspecies of Homo sapiens. In that case we might call them all 'human' and the 'heaven problem' might seem less of an issue. But many scientists studying these groups would say that they are different species of human.

The ancestor species, Homo erectus and Homo ergaster, are also usually regarded as human and it's just possible that a population of erectus remained recently enough to have overlapped with us. Will erectus be present in heaven? How about ergaster?

The question, as I mentioned, is where to draw the line. So in case you haven't drawn that line yet, let's continue along our family tree and see what comes before Homo ergaster.

Earlier hominid ancestors - The ancestor of Homo ergaster, Homo habilis, was another tool user living from 2.33 to 1.4 million years ago. With long arms and a brain only half the size of modern humans, we can be certain habilis was a distinct species. This early hominin died out long before our own species developed.

An earlier genus of hominin, Australopithecus gave rise to the early Homo line. They are represented by several species living between 4 and 2 million years ago. They walked upright, their brains were around a third of the size of ours. They used simple tools (as do chimpanzees and gorillas).

Chimpanzee and australopithecine lines separated around 5.4 to 6.3 million years ago (possibly earlier). Sahelanthropus may perhaps represent a late common ancestor. It has a brain size about a quarter of ours, more or less the same as a modern chimp.

The sub-family Homininae includes humans, chimpanzees and gorillas.

The family Hominidae includes the Homininae as well as orangutans which split off from them some 12 million years ago.

Simians include all the Old World monkeys and apes (the Hominidae and gibbons) as well as the New World monkeys.

The order Primates includes the Simians and the Prosimians (lemurs, lorises, bushbabies, and tarsiers). The order developed about 85 million years ago from ancestors that were early tree-dwelling mammals.

The Euarchontoglires superorder includes primates as well as rodents, lagomorphs, treeshrews, and colugos. Yes, rats are our distant cousins.

The Eutheria (placental mammals) include Euarchontoglires and all other mammals apart from non-placental types such as the monotremes and the marsupials. The group has it's origins at least 160 million years ago.

Where do we draw that line? - So now that tricky question again. Where do we draw the line? Which (if any) of these creatures will we find in heaven? It's not so easy, is it? Most believers might say modern humans are in and chimpanzees are out. But what about Neanderthals, what about Australopithecus?

Creationists will see the entire argument as foolish. Their view is that all extant species were created as they now are and Homo sapiens is distinct and special. But 150 years ago some would have excluded Negroid peoples as somehow 'sub-human'. They were useful as slaves but would have no place in heaven. Mercifully such views have been swept away, but we should not forget that opinions of that kind were taken perfectly seriously not so long ago.

Non-believers will accept the biology but have no place for the idea of heaven. For them, too, there is no problem.

But setting aside non-believers and Creationists, what do those in the middle think (non-Creationist believers)?

Could it be that there is nothing wrong with the biological understanding of species and evolution, but there is instead something wrong with our idea of what heaven is? We'll take a look at that next time.


  • People used to talk about 'missing links' in the fossil record. The record for human development is much more complete now. Do you think missing links are still an issue?
  • If humans evolved from earlier ancestors, where would you draw the line between human and pre-human?
  • If life evolved, does that render faith impossible? If so, how?
  • How do you understand the creation passages in Genesis? Is a literal view plausible? Is a literal view necessary?
  • What is heaven?

See also:

27 September 2012

Grasshopper at SpaceX

Reusing spacecraft instead of throwing them away after each launch would massively reduce costs per launch and costs per kilogram of payload. The Space Shuttle was largely reusable, but the work involved in making that possible was costly and safety was jeopardised.

SpaceX's Grasshopper
SpaceX have a number of projects going on in parallel. Perhaps they are best known for launching their Dragon spacecraft in May, successfully docking with the International Space Station (ISS), delivering cargo, and bringing a return cargo safely back to Earth. They plan to fly their first contracted operational flight to the ISS for NASA on 7th October.

But one of their objectives is to further reduce the cost of launching spacecraft. Their Falcon range of launchers are already cheap enough to take launch contracts from other operators, including Ariane. But to make a further reduction in costs SpaceX have always expressed the importance of making Falcon stages reusable.

Normally, the launcher stages plunge back to earth and are destroyed on impact with the ocean. The one exception to this in the past was the Space Shuttle's solid rocket boosters that descended by parachute and were refurbished, refilled with solid fuel, and restacked for another launch.

SpaceX is working on returning Falcon stages under rocket power (the 'Grasshopper' project) and the first test last week involved lifting a first stage tank structure to a height of just six feet and landing again. The test was a success and will lead to higher and longer flights attempting a return to the launch area.

If they can develop a commercial version of this powered recovery technique with the first stage (and it will be a major challenge), the company will then focus on techniques to recover the second stage of the launcher.

This will be a far greater challenge as the speeds, altitudes and horizontal distances involved will all be much larger.

22 August 2012

Science and faith - again

How do science and faith stack up against one another as ways of knowing the truth? Science provides truth about the physical universe while faith provides truth about spiritual things. Is there any overlap?

Sarewitz article in Nature
Nature has just published a short article entitled 'Sometimes science must give way to religion' by the atheist and scientist, Daniel Sarawitz.

In it, he argues that there are scientific concepts we cannot really understand except mathematically. He offers the Higgs field as an example.

This field provides other fundamental particles with their mass, preventing them from travelling at the speed of light. The famous Higgs particle is associated with the field, and is the evidence that such a field does, indeed, exist.

Sarawitz is right, it is difficult to visualise such things, or understand them in the way we might understand that gravity causes things to fall towards the ground. The Higgs is not part of our everyday experience, falling objects are. But Sarawitz goes on to say that therefore faith is involved in accepting the evidence for the Higgs.

But the early comments on his article take Sarawitz to task, pointing out that this is nonsense. They argue that accepting the Higgs is not a matter of faith, it's more a matter of accepting that the scientists involved in the discovery have track records of good science, honest hearts, and deserve our trust. The conclusions are rational and are based on evidence.

I agree with them. Faith has no place in science, and evidence (in the scientific sense) has little or no place in religious belief.

My career began in biological research. I have a BSc and an MSc, I understand the principles and practices of science. I am also a follower of the Way, a follower of Jesus. It's not a blind faith, I have my reasons for thinking and acting the way I do.

I would argue that there is a knowledge of material things that is advanced by science building on what is already known, but that there is also knowledge of spiritual things that is given from above. Many people accept one or the other, some people accept both.

To me, accepting both seems the obvious and right thing to do, and I find no conflict in doing so.

I'm interested to hear  your views on this. Please scroll down and leave a comment. Are science and faith incompatible? Do you have difficulties with one or the other? How do you deal with those issues? Does science show faith to be false? Must we reject science if it appears to contradict the Bible?

See also:

03 August 2012

Curiosity reaches Mars

NASA's next attempt to land a rover on Mars will be made on 6th August. It's going to be a scary process but if it's successful the results will soon begin to stream home from Curiosity on the floor of Gale Crater.

Three generations of Mars rovers
In a few days time, at 05:31 UT on August 6th, NASA will attempt a landing on Mars. The Curiosity rover is the size of a small car and weighs nearly a tonne. The objective is to gently place it on the ground inside Gale Crater.

The image shows NASA staff with engineering versions of Curiosity (the large rover on the right) and two earlier generations, Opportunity on the left and little Sojourner at the bottom.

The journey from the top of the Martian atmosphere to the ground will take about seven minutes. During this time, the spacecraft has to decelerate from nearly 6 kilometres per second to zero and leave the rover in the right place and undamaged.

You can see how this is intended to work 1n the NASA video 'The Challenges of Getting to Mars'.

It may not work out well, although I hope and expect that it will. If so, we're in for a treat as the rover begins its prime mission, exploring the interior of Gale Crater in detail and looking for signs that the conditions might once have been suitable for life.

27 April 2012

SpaceX takes another step

SpaceX plans to send its Dragon spacecraft to dock with the space station, perhaps as soon as Monday 7th May. If successful this will be a major step forward for the comapny.

Dragon at the ISS (artist's impression)I've been following the development of SpaceX's launcher and spacecraft hardware with great interest. On Monday 7th May, unless there's a further schedule change, the privately owned company will make its first attempt to fly a Dragon spacecraft to dock at the International Space Station (ISS).

The launcher - Falcon 9 has flown only twice so far, both launches were successful. On its first flight the rocket carried a dummy Dragon to orbit. On the second flight a fully functioning Dragon was orbited and made a successful splashdown and recovery off the Californian coast.

Two successes out of two attempts is a great performance, but tells us almost nothing about levels of reliability. A third success would boost confidence, a failure would be a serious setback.

Falcon 9 (and the smaller Falcon 1) both have commercial orders booked for the satellite launch business. In the case of Falcon 9 those bookings alrready represent a considerable part of the worldwide launch business. If the launcher continues to fly successfully it will quickly become proven as flight frequency ratchets up. At least four further launches are planned in 2012, both for freight delivery to ISS and for commercial customers.

The spacecraft - Dragon has flown once before, this time it needs to repeat the success, navigate to the ISS, and automatically fly to within a few metres of the station. If it manages this, the station's remote manipulator arm will dock it to one of the modules and the ISS astronauts will open it, unload the cargo, and load Dragon with experimental material for return to Earth.

Finally, SpaceX will fly the craft back to splashdown in the Pacific and the capsule and its cargo will be recovered.

A difficult mission - We shouldn't underestimate the difficulties faced by SpaceX. The mission is complex and much of it goes further than the company has ever gone before. It will not be suprising if the mission fails in some or all of its objectives. Nevertheless I think the chances of success are quite good, and I wish SpaceX well with the mission.

What next? - If the flight is a success, NASA has a contract with SpaceX for further cargo flights to the ISS. This would involve two or more flights annually for several years. As mentioned above, there are also contracts with other companies and organisations to fly a variety of other spacecraft. Furthermore, SpaceX is offering commercial Dragon flights (DragonLab) for science and technology payloads for return to Earth.

Expect to see a new version of Dragon for crewed NASA flights to the ISS (or indeed for other organisations). SpaceX is already well along in developing the necessary hardware for this.

And there is a much larger launcher in the pipeline too, Falcon Heavy. This is scheduled for its first test flight later this year, though it may slip to 2013.

For more on SpaceX and their plans see their Google+ page.

31 March 2012

Conquering the fear of failure

The paralysing fear of failure is the biggest block to action. You belong to the King, don't let fear stop you from doing the King's work!

DARPA HeadquartersHere's a great TED Talk by Regina Dugan. She asks, 'What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?' Her talk draws on her experience at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in the USA.

It's worth posing the question again, in bigger letters.

What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?

Regina Dugan points out that fear of failure is what prevents people from trying what seems impossible. She is right. But as a follower of Jesus I should know that I cannot fail providing I'm obedient to him.

When I am afraid, am I afraid of appearing foolish, of pain, of death, of letting others down, or just of lack of faith? Or am I simply afraid of failure?

John writes, 'Perfect love drives out fear' (1 John 4:15-18). So we can do all things in Christ who strengthens us (Philippians 4:13).

With life in Christ in mind, here are a few more quotes from the TED Talk. In some places I have replaced 'scientists and engineers' with [followers of Jesus].
  • [Followers of Jesus] change the world.
  • [Followers of Jesus] defy the impossible and refuse to fear failure.
  • When you remove the fear of failure, impossible things suddenly become possible.
  • The fear of failure constrains you, it keeps [you] from attempting great things.
  • Testing [is] an appropriate part of achieving something great.
  • To fly faster and further we have to believe in impossible things and refuse to fear failure.
  • You can't learn to fly unless you fly.
  • Failure is part of creating new and amazing things
Are you fearless? Are you a hero? Will you defy the impossible? Are you willing to be unafraid of failure? Are you as fearless as a little child? Do you believe in impossible things? Were you born to change the world? What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail? Will you help others believe?

These are the things Jesus did. These are the things the disciples did. Will you?

14 March 2012

Mike Morrell on evolution

Can we discuss and debate any topic with grace and love and without fighting with one another? If not, does it matter? Here are some thoughts about that in connection with evolution.

Mike Morrell on evolutionMike Morrell's post 'Evolution & the Two Trees in the Garden' is thought provoking. It's a long post and it covers a range of topics, but I want to draw particular attention to his thoughts on evolution.

There is no doubt (in my mind) that it is important for those of us who follow Yahshua to be honest in our opinions and to allow one another to have different views.

For myself I can say that as a scientist and a biologist I cannot dismiss evolution. It happened and continues to happen today, of that I am absolutely sure. Evolution explains the range of plants and animals and other forms of life in the world today and also in the past.

Yet, along with that certainty, it is essential that I allow others to hold other views. We should not fall out over evolution, neither should we fall out over doctrine, or any of the other thousands of things that may come between us.

Why not? The simple fact that these things 'may come between us' is reason enough. Jesus calls us to be one. It is important to have right knowledge and understanding, but it is far more important that our differences do not divide us. We can talk about them but we should not fight over them. We are not called to think alike, we are called to love one another. You are entitled to hold that evolution is an error, you are free to say so, you are free to say why you think so. I promise not to bite your head off. I promise to accept you even though I may not accept your opinion.

Mike Morrell may have stirred up heated discussion by writing as he did. I may have stirred up more by writing this piece. Discussion is fine but there is danger in the heat. So I have a special plea to make.

If you comment on this article or on Mike's please do so in gentleness and in love. Thank you.

10 March 2012

The Earth at night

Seeing the Earth from a new perspective is always worthwhile. If you are interested in astronomy and spaceflight you may have seen this before, but if not you might be astonished at the beauty and sheer excitement of these moving images. Most of them show the Earth at night.

The Earth by nightI've been unable to find time to blog recently, but I hope to get back to it again soon. Meanwhile here's a treat for the senses, a series of time-lapse videos from the International Space Station (ISS) set to music.

You will see yellow city lights at night, blue-white lightning flashes, beautiful green aurorae and more. It is just glorious and gives a real sense of the Earth's pulse. It seems as though the planet itself is alive! This material comes courtesy of NASA via the APOD website.

Chances are, you have never seen the Earth in this way before. Enjoy it and marvel at the beauty, colour, and sheer dynamism of the planet you live upon.

21 February 2012

Greening the city

This article considers ways of improving the city or town environment. There are some big projects here, growing trees and plants in the heart of our urban world. But there are also ways forward for smaller groups to run projects for themselves, right where they live.

Built to support a vertical forestCities already have parks, private gardens, urban farms, landscaped roadside verges and large buildings with atria containing tropical plants, but what else can we do to bring greenery into the city? There are some surprisingly innovative ideas out there.

Milan's 'Bosco verticale' project is currently under construction and will consist of two residential towers supporting ornamental woodland and shrubbery.

New York's Highline converted railway line has become a much-loved green space for walking and relaxing right in the heart of the city. It was inspired by an earlier project in Paris, the 'Promenade Plantée'.

In London, an old building has found a new use as a vertical garden.

Verge gardens get a write up in Australia, these use small urban spaces and are managed by the local people.

There's lots of scope for individual and group action. Contact your local town council. Form a local community project. There are some good ideas in Groundwork's toolbox document. On the whole group action may be best, you can plan together, work on the planting and maintenance together, enjoy the space together, eat together, become a real community in the process of creating a cared-for green space in your environment. What could be better?

10 January 2012

Great design and usability

Good design combines clean looks with smooth and intuitive usability. The best devices are the result of a great deal of thought and planning effort, the iPhone for example more or less rewrote the rules for mobile phones. Here are some more great ideas.

The WVIL concept cameraThis is the WVIL concept camera (pronounced 'weevil' apparently). It's a very cool idea, separating the lens assembly with integral 31-megapixel CCD and the wireless 'viewfinder'.

Rather than explain it, just go to the website and look at the WVIL video, that makes it very clear.

While you're there, take a look at some of the other ideas. I particularly like the SWYP printer.

There's something about ideas that are just 'right'. Artefact (the company behind WVIL and SWYP) have taken artifacts (everyday objects) and seriously thought about how we use them. They're not the only people doing this, however.

Several years ago Donna and I needed a new set of bathroom scales, we decided to spend a bit more on the new ones and chose one from Withings. It seems they now offer a baby monitor and a blood pressure system as well. Their stuff is similarly well-designed and they are not a concept company, this is real stuff you can buy - today.

And another company, Nest, have similarly redesigned and re-engineered the room thermostat. Very nicely done.

Then of course there's the Eglu - really good if you're a chicken...


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