Saturday, May 24, 2014

It is Again That Time of the Year

Spring in Ames, Iowa (May 4, 2014)

It is again that time of the year.

"Which time?" you may ask. The moment when the tall grass of the prairie turns green? The season when the trees in the orchards bloom? The time when the fledgling leave their nest to venture into the world? Actually... no, this is really not the time I am referring to. 

The time I am going to write about is the time when classes end, and the fledging of the human-kind (undergraduate students) are leaving campus to get back to their nests (or summer jobs). This is the time we don't have to teach. This is also the time when, inevitably, I go to the supermarket and the well-meaning cashier asks if the professor can finally start his well-earned three-months-long paid vacation. Vacation, yes, because that's what most people assume university professors do after the end of the spring semester. The truth is, well, this is not really the case. First of all, university professors are not paid during the summer. That's correct, when we don't teach, we don't get paid. The way to get a salary during the summer (and somehow we are generally allowed to do so for at most two of the three summer months) is to get external funding for research. For us astronomers this means NASA or NSF (the National Science Foundation). Of this funding the university gets an a sizable cut (which in our case is as much as 50%), just for the privilege of handling the money and let us use our office and the restroom at the end of the corridor. Getting this funding is very competitive, but essential for an healthy research program, not just for our summer salary but for the whole ecosystem that lives out of our grants, including paying for our graduate students salaries and tuition (somehow they insist in eating during the summer months ;-) ).

This, is the time of the year I am referring to: far from the fabled three-months paid-vacation that many people assume we do, it is the time when we finally do research and in the process we pay the university out of our grants for the privilege of keep working, against all odds, to advance the progress of science.

Spring in Ames, Iowa (May 11, 2014)

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Disciplines of the Imagination

Las Campanas Observatory, Chile (January 6, 2006)

As +Rurousha often writes, the best part of blogs are their comments. I fully agree with this statement, and I am happy when long threads of comments populate the entries of this blog. My post about magnolias and life on extrasolar planets was especially rich with interesting discussions. One thread, initiated by +Grace Monte de Ramos, ended up mentioning astrology, and was closed by a very interesting comment by +Marj Evasco about the "disease of literalness" and the "disciplines of the imagination". It made me think for days... and finally spurred me to write a few words about astrology.

Las Campanas Observatory
For most of history, astronomy was the theoretical framework for astrology; which in turn was the practical application of astronomy. Astrology was taught in universities, where the astronomy faculty was required to make astrological predictions, as well as personal astrological charts for the university benefactors (the local princes). This was not just another chore (like serving in yet another faculty committee): it was the main raison-d'etre for these astronomy positions. The astronomers were willing partners in this activity not just because it was the source of their salary, but also because it promoted their prestige, continuing a millenarian tradition started by the priests of long extinct civilizations. Uraniborg, for example, was built with great expenses as Tycho Brahe observatory by the king of Denmark. During construction it absorbed 1% of the danish GDP, which is huge if you think that the Apollo project at its peak (in 1965) was just 0.8% of the US GDP. The reason for such an investment was for the renown astronomer to generate astral charts to guide the policy of the kingdom. Galileo himself was well known for his astrological work, and got in trouble from time to time because of the vehemence of his predictions. Doing science while simultaneously dabbling in the occult was not a unique characteristics of astronomers: chemistry has its roots in alchemy. The great Isaac Newton spent more time in his alchemic search for the philosopher's stone (to transmute base metals into gold), that he did to formulate the laws of physics. Newton was a prolific writer: he left more than 10 million words (enough for 150 full size novels). Only 20% of this corpus was about science and his activity as Master of the Mint; the larger fraction was about his heretical religious views and his work in alchemy. The extent of Newton's involvement in secret arts was such that John Maynard Keynes (the famous economist and collector of Newton's writings) opined that he was "not the first of the age or reason, but the last of the magicians".

Magellan Telescope
The fact that the founding fathers of science practiced what we would now call magic and superstition should not be seen as the original sin of science; it is rather an evidence of its strength. Newton, Galileo, Tycho were men of their times. During their lives there were no factual reasons to believe that the ideas of alchemy, or astrology, were unfounded. Their greatness was in transcending the supersticious foundations of the culture in which they lived to lay down the foundations for the scientific method, a revolutionary evidence-based approach to the physical world. The scientific method was what made ultimately possible to separate myths from reality, something that only came to fruition with the Age of Enlightenment. Astrology turned out to be unfounded: the only two celestial bodies that can possibly have a physical action on Earth are the Sun and the Moon (tides). Furthermore, the whole technical framework for astrology (constellations and geocentric cosmology) have long been proven to be an illusion. The irony in all this is that it was Tycho's superior data for the position of Mars that were crucial to ultimately disproved his own geocentric view . The same fate befell on Alchemy: it is not possible to convert iron into gold with chemical means, although the feat is possible, at great costs, with nuclear reactions. The irony here is that Newton started the science that showed how his main life efforts were in vain. Science is a self-healing process: ideas that are falsified by experiments are ultimately rejected, and replaced by new paradigms that can better explain and agree with the data. Science is a purely empirical endeavor.

Yet, I agree that science is also a discipline of the imagination. It is a way to abstract the stark reality of the physical world and give it a life, meaning and aesthetic value in the realm of the mind. It is an instrument to appropriate the elegance of the universe and describe it in mathematical form. It is a way of transcending the imperfections of the human nature and aspire to the divinity of the cosmos. This is why many scientists that are not religious in traditional terms still have a sense of sacred (e.g. Einstein secular religion). Astrology is no science, and it has no basis in the physical world. Still, it can be a fascinating discipline of the imagination. Astrology and the esoteric world are precious windows on the human mind. Like myth making, or religion. They tells us about the strategies devised by our minds to cope with their existential problems, and come to term with their mortality.

Furthermore, reading the horoscopes after the Sunday comics is fun. As long as, of course, they are not taken literally and considered as a factor for deciding government policy. ;-)

Las Campanas, Chile (January 6, 2006)

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Who Comes Before the Companies

Soudan Underground Laboratory, Minnesota (Jun 7, 2004)

Mayli's uncle is a successful businessman. He had always been interested into what Mayli does, but never had the chance to understand the details of her research. A few years ago, however, he happened to be in Minnesota, where one of Mayli's experiments is located, and she invited him for a tour of the lab. The MINOS experiment consists of a huge detector capturing neutrinos coming from Fermilab, 450 miles away. The detector is at the bottom of an iron mine seven hundred meters below the surface, where the detector is shielded by dense layers of rocks from cosmic rays and other natural radiation. As they were driving to the lab, Mayli's uncle had a pressing question: always seeking new investment opportunities he wanted to know which companies had built the experiment. He was puzzled by Mayli's answer, that there were, in fact, no companies: the whole thing was designed and custom-built by a large collaboration of physicists and engineers. When they finally entered the huge cavern where the 5,400 ton detector stands, like a giant ship in a bottle, he widened his eyes and said: "I understand now how it works, you guys come before the companies"!

The Soudan Mine shaft
I get asked similar questions all the time. Not because the people I met in the street want to know where to invest their money, but rather because of the diffuse perception that taxpayer money spent on science is a luxury that we cannot afford in a difficult budgetary environment. Nothing could be farther from the truth. It is precisely in perilous and uncertain times that we need science to challenge our thinking, and push the boundaries of the possible. 

Take NASA, the much maligned "government-bloated, pork-driven agency", a billions-dollar sink of hard earned taxpayer money. Well, the annual NASA budget is just 0.5% of the total US federal budget, far less than other government expenditures such as military expenses. Contrary to the public perception, this money is not burned in rocket fuel, but invested in technological development, supporting a high-tech industry ecosystem that would have never existed without the challenges of space travel. The CCD detector in your digital camera was not invented at NASA, but the cameraphone you would be carrying around if it wasn't for a miniaturization program sponsored by NASA would not fit in our pocket, or in your car, for that matter. The need for producing ever lighter and smaller devices that could be fit into a rocket spurred the whole industry of integrated miniaturized electronics, an industry that is now worth $150 billions/year. The whole cost of sending human to the Moon was less than $100 billion over the entire Apollo program. And this is just an example. The real yield of NASA, and scientific research in general, is the training and inspiration of the technological backbone of our society, without which the postwar economic boom would have not existed.

Physics experiments, and the same can be said of other fields of scientific enquiry, are designed to constantly extend our horizon. You want to measure the next digit, trying to find the subtle flaw in your current pet theory, find the crack in our view of the Universe so that new worlds and new ideas can progress our understanding of Nature. It ain't easy and requires technological innovations that are well beyond the standards of industry. When you design your next experiment, you don't refer to the available technology: you bet on the future technology that will develop ten years from now. Science is the pathfinder of progress, experimenting new techniques, seeking new solutions beyond what is currently possible. Most of these experiments will inevitably fail, but the hallmark of research is being capable of learning from these failures, so that the one-in-a-million success will have the chance of revolutionizing the world.

Pure science may appear to be concerned with phenomena far removed with everyday life. Still it pushes the envelope of today's technology, setting the stage for the companies of tomorrow and the development of our future.

Soudan Mine, Minnesota (June 6, 2013)

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Magnolias from other Worlds

Magnolia flowers, Ames, IA (May 4, 2014)

More than two weeks without blogging, that's the longest stretch since I restarted this blog almost one year ago. Sometimes life gets in the way: I had to give a presentation at a meeting in Baltimore (that was last week) and it took me two weeks non-stop work to prepare the talk. Before I left Ames it was still winter, the weird out-of-season Iowan version where it is warm one day and freezing the next. Now that I am back, spring finally arrived in full force. The magnolia in front of my house is peaking, and this post is a perfect excuse to show some of the flowers that survived last week rains.

Magnolia core
The trip, and the non-stop maddening work, were worth it though: this was one of the most interesting meetings I have ever attended. The meeting was about habitable worlds across time and space and the participants were equally divided among astronomers, geologists, climate scientists and biologists. Our task was to discuss what we really know about habitable planets outside Earth, and what we need to understand to search for more planets that could host living organisms right now. The fact is, this is not an easy task. Just defining what is alive and what is inanimate matter is not a trivial effort (the best definition I heard is that "it is alive if it can die"). If I look at the magnolia flower on the left, I instinctively know it is alive. But life comes in different forms, and recognizing it may be not so easy. One speaker talked about her expeditions in Antarctica to study a brine subglacial lake that has been isolated from the surface for millions of years. You would expect that whatever was trapped into the lake when the continent froze would have died by now. Not so fast: she found lots of little bugs thriving in the salty frozen water tens of meters below the surface. Well, thriving is maybe too strong a word: to survive in such a resource deprived environment the little buggers had to slow their metabolism to a death-defying point. Each of this bacteria, on average, reproduce only once every 120 years! Slow bloomers, they are.

Magnolia petals
Earth is completely shaped by life. Even the air we breathe was made by life. Oxygen is too reactive to survive as a free gas in a planetary atmosphere: a planet left to its own devices would rapidly lose all its oxygen as everything will rapidly rust, and Earth would become as red as Mars. The original atmosphere of our planet was rich in CO2, with no O2 whatsoever. Then the bugs arrived, the first wave of them, the cyanobacteria that figured out how to use sunlight to eat CO2 and breath out oxygen. They were tireless; they produced so much oxygen that they completely inverted the ratio between CO2 and O2. This was the Great Oxygenation Event (GOE) without which we would be very small and blue (you need an oxygen metabolism to sustain complex life). But bacteria didn't stop at the GOE, they changed not just the air we breathe, but also the rocks we walk. There are 5,000 minerals on this world, and 2/3 of them would not be here if it wasn't for the presence of bacteria. Some of these minerals are the actual shells of little bugs that died and formed immense carbon-rich layers at the bottom of the oceans. Most other minerals would not have ever formed in absence of an oxygen-rich atmosphere. We literally walk and breath on a planet shaped by life.

So where does this leave us if we want to search for life on other worlds? We can precisely count on the power of life to change its own environment. We can look for the signatures of life that distinguish a world from its dead counterpart, a living breathing oxygen rich atmosphere from a dead CO2 one. A world with rocks born out of living organisms instead of dead volcanic stones. We may not find an alien magnolia in the world next door, but sooner or later we will see the incontrovertible chemical signs that there are other worlds in the stable disequilibrium that would not be possible without the wondrous action of living matter. Other Gaias are out there, waiting to meet us across the aeons of time and space.

Magnolia flowers, Ames, IA (May 4, 2014)