Friday, May 2, 2014

"Where is everybody?" -- The Fermi Paradox

One day in 1950, conversation among a group of physicists digressed at a lunch table at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. As the discussion facetiously turned to talk of UFOs and flying saucers, renowned particle physicist and mathematician Enrico Fermi abruptly exclaimed, “Where is everybody?” Fermi’s initial intuitions regarding the suspicious lack of extraterrestrial contact have proven to be alarmingly accurate. If the Universe is teeming with life, as has been indicated by current estimates, why has no contact been initiated? As the innovation of our own race continues and technological advancement rapidly progresses, humans will find it more difficult to ignore the silence of the Universe.

Following Fermi’s unexpected consideration, researchers and observers began to formally calculate the odds that such an interaction should occur. The widely known Drake Equation, which was drafted by astronomer and astrophysicist Frank Drake in 1961, provides an approximation of the number of current contactable civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy. . The equation takes into account the average rate of star formation in the galaxy (R*), the fraction of those stars with planets (fp), the average number of planets resembling Earth (ne), the fraction of those planets that could support life (fl), the segment of that portion that supports the emergence of intelligent life (fi), the segment of those civilizations that have the ability to communicate (fc), and the lifetime of such a civilization (L) in a calculation neatly summarized as: N = R* x fp x ne x fl x fi x fc x L. While each factor is extremely variable, implying that the final result should not be considered concrete, the Drake Equation does indicate that the Universe is alarmingly inhabited. Under Drake’s original assumptions, the galaxy maintains upwards of 3,500 independent extraterrestrial civilizations; estimates involving more recent astrobiological and cosmological findings peg the count at more than double original estimations.

Only educated guesses can currently be used to explain the discrepancy between the number of active civilizations and the apparent emptiness of the Universe from Earth’s perspective. Some scientists note that the abundance of life on Earth may not be as common as the Drake Equation indicates. The Rare Earth hypothesis claims that countless elements were involved in the development of Earth’s life; rare conditions, random extinction by the Universe, or self-destructive tendencies might prevent civilizations from progressing far enough technologically to branch outward. The ideal conditions of Earth include not only its perfect distance from the Sun and its abundance of liquid water; the massive gas giant Jupiter prevents frequent and devastating asteroid collisions, plate tectonics replenish invaluable gases in the atmosphere and the Moon ensures a stable orbit. If these fortunate conditions are not met outside the Solar System, life cannot even begin to evolve. Even if ideal circumstances are met, facile and burgeoning life could quickly be eradicated by natural disaster or accidental self-destruction. If civilizations cannot progress technologically, no contact would be established.

If civilizations do exists beyond the bounds of the Solar System, physical constraints might be responsible for the blatant lack of contact; the vast nature of space, limits in transportation technology, and unfeasible time constraints might also erect barriers between distant inhabited systems. The massive size of the galaxy and the monetary and time limitations introduced as a result might simply be too substantial. Finally and most alarmingly, Earth could remain isolated intentionally; if a more advanced life form observes or manipulates the planet, extraterrestrial contact might be completely prevented. The eerily titled Zoo Hypothesis speculates that an advanced extraterrestrial life form deliberately interacts with or manipulates the developments of civilization on Earth. More intangibly, the human race could be the product of an immensely advanced computer simulation constructed by a technologically advanced life form. If either of these cases proves correct, Earth is being intentionally quarantined.

The likelihood of interacting with another civilization is unquestionably high; however, since Earth remains isolated in the Universe, scientists, observers, and amateurs are forced to speculate solutions to Fermi’s Paradox. As technology on Earth improves and we remain alone, the alarming nature of the Fermi Paradox will only increase. If Earth does prove to be the only body supporting advanced civilization in the Universe, an immense burden is placed upon the human race to survive and expand.
Laura Gunsalus


Discovered in 1930, Pluto was classified as a planet for over seventy years until the International Astronomical Union redefined the term “planet” and reclassified Pluto as a dwarf planet. The new definition was sparked by the fact that new bodies in the solar system were found that were similar to Pluto. Once Pluto was demoted, astronomers and citizens had varied reactions to the change. Even though Pluto is no longer considered one of the main planets, NASA launched their first mission to Pluto, New Horizons, in 2006.

Pluto was discovered during the search for “Planet X,” a planet further into space than Neptune that was disturbing Uranus’s orbit. The search began in 2006 by Percival Lowell and William H. Pickering. Once Lowell died in 1916, the search was put on pause until it was given to Clyde Tombaugh, a self-taught astronomer from Kansas. Tombaugh discovered Pluto by chance while looking at images of the sky taken on January 23, 1930 and January 29, 1930 and seeing if objects in the picture had moved. The discovery was officially announced on March 13, 1930 and Pluto was officially named on March 24, 1930. The name Pluto was chosen because Pluto was the god of the underworld in mythology and Pluto was thought to be dark and cold. The name was also chosen since the first two letters of “Pluto” are Percival Lowell’s initials. 

However, in more recent years, several other celestial bodies were found that made astronomers skeptical about how special Pluto was. The other bodies discovered were Ceres, Haumea, Eris, and Makemake, now all considered dwarf planets. These discoveries made the International Astronomical Union (IAU) rethink what a planet was. The original proposal suggested a Solar System that consisted of twelve planets: the original nine plus Ceres, Eris, and Charon. The IAU defined a planet as “a celestial body that (a) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (b) is in orbit around a star, and is neither a star nor a satellite of a planet.” This proposal became controversial among astronomers since it could eventually mean that they would have to classify many more objects as planets. The proposal remained controversial until the IAU meeting in August 2006.

At the 26th General Assembly for the International Astronomical Union, the main topics being debated were the issues about Pluto. In the end, two resolutions pertaining to Pluto were passed: Resolution 5A “Definition of a ‘planet’” and Resolution 6A: “Definition of Pluto-class objects.” The IAU finally defined a planet as a “celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit.” Together, these resolutions demoted Pluto to being a dwarf planet and also made Ceres, Haumea, Eris, and Makemake dwarf planets as well.

Once this decision was made, the media was filled with reactions about the new classification. Astronomers had very mixed reactions, as many believed that the new definition was unclear and not well defined. Other astronomers, however, believed that this definition was consistent with science and that it would be a definition that lasts. Some astronomers were very indifferent about the situation, believing that the outcome did not affect them one way or another. Citizens also had varying reactions. Some science teachers believed that this change was a good thing for their classrooms, since science is always changing. Other people rejected the new definition, saying that they will always believe that Pluto is a planet. Several states passed resolutions in honor of Pluto: New Mexico declaring that Pluto will always be a planet when in the New Mexican skies and both New Mexico and Illinois stating that March 13 is Pluto Planet Day. While the reactions varied, it still remains that Pluto is no longer a planet. 

NASA still wanted to explore this region of outer space, and so in January 2006, they launched New Horizons, the one-way mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. The goals of the mission are to explore and learn more about Pluto and Charon and then travel deeper into the Kuiper Belt to investigate at least one more Kuiper Belt Object. In February 2007, the spacecraft passed Jupiter and it is expected to reach Pluto in July 2015.
Emily Helfer

Importance of Astronomy

One of the major questions regarding astronomy in the modern age is its importance and relevance to society. At first glance it may appear as if astronomy is purely an informational science with no tangible use within society. However this is not the case, although astronomy may not directly affect our society in the way that fields such as engineering disciplines do, it is clear that astronomy has actually catalyzed the growth of other major fields. This overlap between astronomy and an array of other fields is the reason for why astronomy is becoming increasingly important within our society.

One example of this can be seen with astronomical inventions. For example, in many smartphones, the camera is powered by a CCD, a device originally developed for imaging of the universe. In addition, FedEx uses a programming language known as FORTH to track packages, a language originally developed for the telescope on Kitt Peak. More examples include AT&T and their use of IRAF, Image Reduction and Analysis Facility, and even Kodak film originally used by astronomers studying the sun, which is currently used by medical professionals, artists, and photographers. From these examples, it is clear that astronomy extends past the sky and into the lives of normal civilians more directly. With the integration of astronomical discoveries into these industries, it has led to powerful technology in the hands of normal citizens through enhanced imaging in smartphones and even improvements in the field of shipping and delivery. However, holistically, it can be seen that improvements in the field of astronomy has indirectly led to the improvement of multiple fields that have contributed to the growth of the modern era.

In another outlet, astronomy has also affected fields such as medicine and energy, two fields that have also exploded in growth in the modern era and are currently considered pivotal to the continuing growth of humankind. In terms of the field of medicine, astronomers suffered a similar problem that medical professionals faced, that is, detection of increasingly faint objects. However through aperture synthesis, a process of creating a single image through multiple telescopes used by radio astronomers has led to the creation of CAT scanners and MRI’s, tools vital to finding and treating diseases. Energy-wise, applications of astronomical technology can be seen with the pursuit of creating man-made fusion through monitoring collisions, petroleum research around oil fields, and even the creation of larger solar energy panels. Overall, similar to the applications of astronomical technology in industrial fields, the integration of technology in these fields is also pivotal to the future growth of humanity due to our reliance on new forms of energy, and our need to combat rapidly evolving bacteria and viruses through medicine.

Finally, astronomy has shown vital to international collaboration among nations. It is clear that nations pride themselves on having the most efficient new technologies and race to achieve new discoveries. However more importantly, this pursuit of knowledge encourages collaboration among nations and creates a constant flow of researchers in international facilities. With expensive costs of creating new observatories, ownership usually consists of several nations. So far, all of these collaborations have been successful such as the ALMA, Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, the largest partnership in existence, the ESO, the European Southern Observatory, and even more simple partnerships such as the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope between the US and Europe. International collaboration is pivotal to the expansion of humankind since it promotes peace and mutual advancement of science and inevitably deters conflict. Although this is not a direct overlap of technology such as the previous examples it is easy to understand the importance of international collaboration and how astronomy is able to bring nations closer together.

When you consider the indirect effects of astronomy on different fields of science, it is clear as to why astronomy is important to our society in ways other than obtaining information about our Universe. Although there may be a notion that astronomy is not helpful toward society, astronomy has shown ability in propelling other fields that shape this modern age. Ranging from medicine to industry, I believe that astronomy should grow unhindered because of its dual-utility in both pure knowledge through actual data collection and its positive externality upon various fields that will continue to power the modern age.
Justin Kim


Astrology is merely based on conjectures. We cannot provide any hypothesis for it, and nor does it have falsifiability. As a result, it sometimes has been regarded less as a science, but rather as a mere belief. However, sometimes people are stunned to find out how accurate astrology can be with regard to a human’s life. In fact, the world’s first billionaire, J. P. Morgan once said, “Millionaires don’t use astrology. Billionaires do.” Before I start explain astrology, there is an astonishing fact that we must understand: Real astrology is rooted in precise mathematics and a tradition that goes back thousands of years!

Regarding the logic behind astrology, first, the horoscopes we read every day in newspapers are not anyone’s horoscopes specifically. In other words, they are garbage! They are useless and any correct predictions are no more than mere coincidences. True astrology is far more complicated. One’s astrology reading is based on one’s birth date, location, and specific time, so it is unique to every individual. A major part of astrological readings are dependent upon the position of the Sun. However, in addition to the Sun, the sign and house placements of all eight planets and the Moon must be taken into account along with how they connect and interact with each other. Therefore, an astrologer’s job is to translate the vast amount of information from one’s horoscope to human languages, which is, though contrary to what many think, much more complicated than what a fake fortune-teller does!

Secondly, astrologers are not saying that planets are somehow affecting our lives here on the Earth. In other words, astrology is not about how planets directly influence people as we think; rather, it is an explanation how our life will be based on the horoscope, the positions of the planets. In astrology, the planets are symbolic of energies that are within us, with each planet relating to a different aspect of our nature. Thus, a horoscope is more like a person’s energetic map, and different energies are what important to build a person’s personality.

In order to understand how planets in space can help explain our own life, there is an important conceptual idea that needs to be introduced. Everything in the Universe is connected and interactive with each other. Things that happen on a macro-scale—planetary movements—can be reflected on a micro-scale—one individual’s life. According to astrologer Carl Jung, this connection between things is called “synchronicity,” which he explains thus: “whatever is born or done at this particular moment of time, has the quality of this moment of time.” Consider a clock, the hands on the clock reflect the time, but they do not cause time to advance. Similarly, a horoscope, or a planet’s position, reflect one’s life, but is not the reason to cause one’s life to play out a certain way.

While astrology contains some science in it, it does not function by purely scientific methods. There has been, and will always be, a mysterious part that cannot be understood by the logical mind because one’s mind is a part of the whole. The ultimate truths cannot be explained; rather, it can only be experienced. This is also why astrology cannot be computer programmed. Two different astrologers can interpret the same horoscope completely differently. Thus one might say, how can it be useful without objective truth? That is astrology’s true beauty: it does not have an objective reality. Astrology helps explain why we experience the world in a certain way, but it does not cause the experience, so it does not have to have an ultimate truth. Various people view horoscopes and exploit them differently. It is not necessary to believe in every detail in a single horoscope explanation to be helped by it. We just need to be open-minded about astrology. Astrology really comes in handy when we need a psychological guide. Sometimes people need some kind of explanation for unexplained incidences happening in their life, and astrology would be a powerful source in this situation.
Yitian Feng


Humans have long pondered the question of how life on Earth came to be. How did the vast diversity of life we know today begin out of the atoms and molecules present on early Earth? There are a number of theories that aim to explain how this might have occurred, but one theory stands out from the rest, the idea that the seed of life came from outer space; the theory of panspermia.

How could this be possible? If humans can’t survive in outer space without an enormous amount of specialized equipment, how could primitive life? When most people think of life, they think of people, mammals, fish, insects, or plants, things that require sunlight and water for survival. Not all life fits into this category, though. Some organisms thrive in incredibly hot springs, deep-sea vents with no sunlight, and even highly acidic environments. These organisms are called extremophiles. If life can exist in such extreme conditions on Earth, maybe it could survive the harsh conditions of other planets or even a trip on an asteroid. It’s possible that life didn’t arise on Earth at all. Maybe it came from space.

Panspermia proposes that early life was ejected from other planets by collisions with asteroids, meteoroids, or comets. Life is believed to have developed billions of years ago during the period on Earth called the Late Heavy Bombardment where the planet was being impacted very frequently by asteroids and other Solar System bodies. If primitive life existed on Earth during this time, it would likely have been repeatedly sterilized by these collisions. Scientists who favor the panspermia theory use this as evidence that life must have first developed somewhere outside Earth and was then delivered to it by one of these impacts.

Another piece of evidence for the panspermia theory is the Murchison meteorite. It landed in Australia in 1969 and after being examined was shown to contain an abundance of amino acids and other organic material, material essential in forming life. Other experiments show that these amino acids are indeed capable of withstanding the pressures of an asteroid impact and that these unique conditions could have even caused them to form peptides, which form proteins, which are essential to the formation of cells.

Panspermia doesn’t have all the answers to the question of where life came from, though. It still doesn’t solve the problem of how life came to be from organic material, it just pushes that problem to another planet somewhere else in space. Even so, it’s exciting to think that maybe we aren’t the only life in the universe, even if it only exists in the form of tiny microbes. If the seeds of life are, or were at one point, shooting around space, it seems possible that they could have crashed into some planet out there quite a bit similar to Earth. Maybe that life grew and evolved to be something quite a bit similar to the beautiful array of life we have here on Earth.
Clare Isaacson

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Solar Eclipses

Solar eclipses have been documented throughout history as peculiar natural phenomena. One can easily imagine how confused and alarmed people in the past were when the Sun unexpectedly disappeared. As a line from Homer’s The Odyssey stated, “The Sun has perished out of heaven, and an evil mist has overspread the world,” with a time of doom being prophesied for Earth. Eclipses were strange happenings that greatly frightened the public.

As technology advanced and research was further developed, scientists were able to extensively examine these special events. These rare episodes occur when the Moon aligns between the Sun and Earth, blocking the Sun’s light and creating a shadow on the Earth. During an eclipse, the day turns into night. In partial and annular eclipses, only part of the Sun is blocked, but in a total eclipse, the entire disk of the Sun is covered by the Moon. Although the process of a total eclipse takes about an hour, the state of totality lasts for at most seven and a half minutes. The only part of the Sun that is visible to the human eye is its corona, which is the normally unnoticed outer atmosphere that shines in the darkness. As the Sun begins to reappear, the diamond ring effect takes place, which is associated with the phenomenon of Baily’s beads. In approximately an hour, daylight is reestablished.

Total eclipses are fascinating phenomena that many people want to experience. Unfortunately, these only happen during a new Moon phase, which is when the Moon moves to the side of Earth facing the Sun. Because the Moon orbits Earth at an angle of 5 degrees relative to the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, the three spheres only align periodically. During a solar eclipse, the line of nodes, which is the intersection of the orbital planes, points to the Sun and the Moon lies on that line. Having both occur at the same time accounts for the rarity of solar eclipses. Total eclipses occur every one or two years, but because they are only visible from a small area on Earth, the chance of experiencing a total eclipse is less than once in a lifetime.

The second type of solar eclipse, the annular eclipse, occurs when the Moon’s orbit carries it too far from Earth that it cannot completely block the Sun. From Earth, this eclipse appears as a blackened circle surrounded by sunlight. Total and partial eclipses together average about two and a half occurrences per year. 

On Tuesday April 29, 2014, a partial solar eclipse took place. As the first solar eclipse of the year, it transformed the Sun into what is popularly known as, the “ring of fire.” It was classified as a non-central annular eclipse, a rare event, because the central axis of the Moon’s shadow missed Earth entirely while the shadow’s edge just barely grazed the planet. The Moon crossed the Sun’s disk at 3 in the morning in Australian time. The next eclipse that will be visible in Pittsburgh is estimated to be on October 8, 2014.
Clara Lee

Friday, April 25, 2014

Public and Private Efforts Towards a Mission to Mars

In the past decade, organizations varying from governmental institutions to private organizations have been making moves towards planning and executing a manned mission to Mars. These moves seem to be a growing trend in recent years to make space exploration a collective, worldwide effort.

One such private mission that has garnered widespread attention from the media is known as Mars One. Mars One is a private Netherlands-based non-profit organization that has put forward conceptual plans to establish a permanent human colony on Mars by 2025. The organization intends to send a 4-man mission to the Red Planet at the cost of $6 billion. Despite the outright evidence that shows the health-risks of a potential mission to Mars on human health, 200,000 people have applied to be one of several people to travel to and live on Mars as part of the Mars One mission. Out of those 200,000 people, 1058 people have been put on a “short-list” by the organization. These 200,000 applicants have acknowledged another stipulation of the trip: it is one-way. Those short-listed reflect excitement and optimism about the mission despite that fact, as can be expected. An Israeli man who was shortlisted stated that, despite that fact, the “one thought that keeps him going is ‘about humanity after people landed on the moon. How it inspired everything from science to arts to everything on Earth was deeply influenced by it. I think about what landing on Mars will do to life here.’”1

Aside from private organizations, the government of Britain has made statements demonstrating the intent to send a manned mission to Mars. According to a December 2013 article in the Telegraph, “Britain wants to help build [both] a moon base and send a manned mission to Mars within three decades,” according to Britain’s science minister David Willetts. Willetts emphasized that worldwide cooperation would both be ideal and the most effective method: “if you got the major powers – if you got the Europeans, the Americans and the Chinese working together – [this] is possible.”2 As for the Americans, specifically NASA, no plans for a government-sponsored mission have been outlined as of yet. NASA has made plans to send another rover in 2020, however. This may be because NASA has gauged the economic costs and health risks associated with a manned mission and does not wish to undertake that kind of risk. This reflects how the US is perhaps staying away from international efforts towards space exploration, but that is just speculation on my part.

The idea of making space exploration is appealing to me. In my opinion space exploration in any regard should be a collaborative effort on many fronts, rather than the plans of one nation. I believe Britain is going in the right direction with their statements and intentions. In addition, private organizations in this field are by nature international at least in some regard. As such thus it is clear that we are making moves towards making space exploration a worldwide public effort. A mission to Mars provides such a platform for this collaboration.
Nathaniel Benzaquen-Ouakrat

1Rosen, B. (2014, Jan 22). Israeli shortlisted to travel to mars for reality show. Nadav Neuman one of 1,058 finalists for 24-person colony on red planet. Jerusalem Post. Retrieved from

2Hope, Christopher. “Science Minister David Willetts: Britain can help build a moon base and send a manned mission to Mars.” 10 Dec 2013. Telegraph. Web. 24 April 2014.

Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity

Long before space travel became a reality, humans were captivated and intrigued by Mars, the Red Planet. In 2003, NASA took a big step toward learning more about Mars with the launches of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. In 2011, after Spirit became immobile and its mission ended, the Curiosity rover was launched to join Opportunity. The stated goals of the missions are: 1) determine whether life ever arose on Mars; 2) characterize the climate of Mars; 3) characterize the geology of Mars; and 4) prepare for human exploration of Mars.

While the rovers cannot search for existing life forms on Mars, they do have the ability to search for presumably life-sustaining qualities of the Red Planet, namely the presence of water. Opportunity came across several small spheres (nicknamed “blueberries”) embedded in the rock layers near the surface of Mars. After further tests, it was determined that the blueberries were predominantly made up of the mineral hematite, which generally forms near water here on Earth. Spirit made a similar discovery when it found goethite, which forms on Earth only in the presence of water. Several other discoveries were made which helped confirm that water did indeed exist on Mars at one time. While there is no way to prove that water is the only thing needed to provide a favorable living environment on Mars, its presence on the Red Planet is an encouraging sign that microbial life may have existed on the planet at one point.

The climate of Mars is also directly linked to the possibility of life existing on the planet. Liquid water cannot be found on the surface because the temperature and atmospheric pressure are too low. Part of the mission of the rovers is to examine the current climate, allowing scientists on Earth to potentially determine past and future climate patterns on the planet. Atmospheric conditions affect the amount of sunlight and heat that reaches the surface of Mars, thus affecting the living conditions for Martian organisms and/or humans in the future.

As mentioned previously, the rovers were equipped with geological tools to collect and analyze rock and mineral samples from atop and beneath the surface. NASA is particularly interested in minerals containing iron, since it oxidizes when in contact with liquid water. One question being asked was about the red colored Martian soil: is it red due to iron oxidation in a wet environment, or is it because of other rocks reacting to the Martian atmosphere? Mars’ topography is also an area of interest because parts of it clearly display different layers of sediment starting from millions of years ago. Curiosity is currently looking into the different layers to determine how the surface of Mars has evolved over time, including the elusive period when Mars transitioned from a wetter environment to the dry one it is now.

As the rovers traverse Mars, they are determining environmental, chemical, and mineral characteristics of the planet’s soil, dust, and atmosphere, likely finding potential dangers they may pose to any humans who may go to Mars. They will also identify soils and rocks as potential resources for human missions. Additionally, they will serve as test cases for future rover and human missions.

The three Mars rovers – Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity – have provided groundbreaking discoveries, mainly the detection of specific spots on the Martian surface that could have been habitable due to the presence of water in. Opportunity and Curiosity continue to perform work to help find out the history and future of Mars.
Achyuta Burra

What About the "Bang"?

The Big Bang theory was established from observations of the structure of the Universe and from theoretical considerations. Many people contributed its establishment, but the one person who first proposed the Big Bang itself was Monseigneur Lemaitre, a Belgian Roman Catholic priest, astronomer and professor of physics. Lemaitre saw that the Universe is expanding and noted that if one works backwards, the Universe must have come from one small region, the “primeval atom.” From this model arose many questions, one of them being: “Where did the Universe come from?” Many theories have attempted to explain why the Big Bang
occurred, but all none are convincing, and has left me wondering what is the truth.

In the process of finding an answer, a debate among two groups, theists and atheists, has progressively build up, with both proposing different arguments on what happened at the time of the “bang” or even before. Yet, up to now, no answer has been revealed.

Many ideas have been proposed. However, the two groups that stand out the most are: atheists, and theist. Atheists and theists have their own beliefs, and in order to prove that their beliefs are correct there must be concrete evidence that demonstrates what they propose is true.

Atheists generally rely on science to explain the natural world, but the key is that many theories lie outside the domain of scientific testability, and one cannot use the scientific method to evaluate them. Thus, one atheistic argument is presented in the book Atheism, Theism, and Big Bang Cosmology. Quentin Smith highlights two theological premises, “(1) If God exists and there is an earliest state E of the universe, then God created E. (2) If God created E, then E is ensured either to contain animate creatures or to lead to a subsequent state of the universe that contains animate creatures.” With the use of the two theological premises Smith provides 6 other premises in order to argue that God could not have created the earliest state of the universe. And with all premises together Smith comes to the conclusion that if this cosmology is true, our Universe exists without cause and without explanation, believing that the origin of our Universe does not need divine intervention.

In the other hand, theists are certain that divine intervention created the Universe. Theists believe that nothing can cause itself, and since the string of causes can’t be indefinitely long, there must be a first cause, God. As stated by William Lane Craig, “1) Whatever begins to exist has a cause of its existence. 2) The Universe began to exist. 3) Therefore, the universe has a cause of its existence.”

Moreover, what happened before and who/what initiated the Big bang is still in debate. And after thoughtful consideration, I believe that one day we will be able to gain evidence of what initiated the “bang.” But we will have to wait. Maybe years, decades, or centuries…
Dalia Dorantes

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Orion Nebula

The Orion Nebula is a stellar nursery existing in the constellation Orion, known for the two brightest stars in the sky, Betelgeuse and Rigel. The Orion Nebula, also known as M42, is a hub for star formation located 1,300 light-years from Earth in the lower half of Orion. Visually, the nebula (clouds of stellar gas and dust) is unique from all other nebulae in that all other nebulae are nearly impossible to see with the naked eye. The Orion Nebula is a splash of rolling, twisting shades of pink, purple, blue, and orange against a fading black in which bright, white stars dot the scene. The clouds of dust are actually visible. It is arguably the most beautiful visual in the night sky.

The most important part of the nebula though is the opaque Orion Molecular Cloud, which cannot normally be seen from Earth. It is an enormous, concentrated amount of very cold gas with a mass of approximately 2000 times the mass of the Sun. Due to gravity, this cloud of hydrogen and other gasses slowly collapses and forms stars. The Molecular Cloud can be seen when new stars are forms, as the light evaporates the opaque gas of the Cloud.

The aforementioned Betelgeuse and Rigel are a part of what is called the Trapezium, a collection of very bright stars that are considered stellar siblings that are roughly the same age. When all the stars in the Orion Nebula are done being born, only the Trapezium will remain.

The Orion Nebula has been described for thousands of the years, beginning with the Mayans who used the Orion Nebula as a part of their creation myth. Interestingly, the great astronomers, Ptolemy, Al Sufi, and Galileo all excluded the nebula from their writings. The first scientific recording and classification as a nebula was by the French astronomer Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc in 1610. The first published observation though was by Jesuit mathematician Johann Baptist Cysat nine years after Nicolas-Claude Fabri. Robert J. Trumpler was the first to note the Trapezium cluster. The Hubble Space Telescope first observed the Orion Nebula in 1993, and since then, Hubble Space Telescope has been studying the nebula.

The nebula will continue to be a source of awe for humans for thousands of years. The beauty and importance of the nebula in star creation makes it a point of interest that we will undoubtedly value for a very long time.
Favian Rahman

Understanding the Big Bang

In the 1920s, Edwin Hubble noticed that the velocity of a galaxy appeared to be proportional to its distance from the Earth. Its velocity is observable from a change in an image know as redshift. Even though distance may not be directly observable, it can be extrapolated. If you know the amount of light certain stars in nearby galaxies are supposed to give off, and you also know the brightness you observe from these galaxies, you can figure out the distance of the galaxy. This distance is constantly changing, because, as Georges Lemaître discovered and Hubble confirmed, the universe is constantly expanding. The rate by witch the universe is expanding is modeled by the Hubble Constant. Hubble showed indirectly that the Universe expands as time passes, and hence, that the Universe must be shrinking if you are looking into the past.

By reverse engineering this fact you can describe the beginning of the universe. You can assert that long ago the universe was immensely smaller than it now is. The Big Bang theory describes the maturation of the Universe from just after it was initially created, up until today. It has been deemed as the most well-established scientific theory regarding our Universe's development.

The Big Bang models 10-36 seconds after the Universe began. It says that at this period in time the universe was expanding extremely rapidly. For demonstration purposes, we can think of the initial state of the universe as a concentration of matter and energy in a small point. We can think of this point in a state of near singularity. The point then exploded, and all the energy and matter show throughout the entire Universe. After the ‘point’ exploded is what the Big Bang models.

This nuance of a beginning to the beginning is one that is definitely worth noting. While the Big Bang theory may say a lot about the creation of a universe, there are still many questions to be answered about what happened before 10-36 seconds. This theory does not explain how something came out of nothing. This is a question that we may continue to explore for many years.

At the beginning of the Big Bang it was extremely dense and extremely hot. Because of all of the energy in the Universe during those first few moments that matter as we know it couldn't form. But as the Universe expanded it became less dense and cooled down. In only a short few seconds, the Universe formed, and it stretched across space.

The theory also states that four basic forces arose from the Big Bang: Gravity, strong, and weak nuclear forces, and electromagnetism; before the Big Bang these forces were all part of a unified force. The mystery for scientists today is to understand how these 4 forces could have at one point have been related. In order to properly explain this idea, Scientists have proved the Grand Unified Theory. This theory relates to all of the forces besides Gravity. The theory of everything is related to all of these forces and gravity. It is currently being explored, and so far a scientific explanation is still being discovered.

The Big Bang theory has become a large source of dispute between different groups of people. Some people believe that this theory contradicts the word of God. A large amount of the reason scientists have come to accept the Big Bang theory, is that it is the theory with the most solid scientific information to back it up. Proving the theory of everything will make this theory even harder for some people to ignore. However, as I mentioned earlier, what happened before the Big Bang is still up for debate. Only tireless research over time will tell researchers what happened at the beginning of time.
Connor Moore

Dark Matter

The matter that we see is everything that is made up of atoms and molecules. However, the universe we live in is made up of more than just visible matter. In fact, visible matter only accounts for less than 5% of the mass-energy of the Universe. Matter is very easy to understand. There are five states that it can switch in and out of (being Bose-Einstein condensates, solids, liquids, gases, and plasmas), and it must take up space to be matter. On the other hand, there is the other 95% of the Universe that we still have yet to understand fully: 27% dubbed dark matter and 68% called dark energy.

Dark matter was first hypothesized to exist in the 1930s as a means to explain the uncharacteristically large velocities of galaxies in a distant cluster. Fritz Zwicky of the California Institute of Technology discovered that the galaxies should fly apart because the gravitational attraction created by visible matter isn’t enough to hold the galaxies together on its own. He thus theorized that there must be some sort of dark matter to hold them together. Scientists didn’t necessarily buy into his findings for some time. The next breakthrough for dark matter came in 1970. Vera Rubin noticed that the stars at the edges of Andromeda didn’t move more slowly than those nearer the center, as one should expect according to Newton’s laws. Like Zwicky, she pointed to something invisible that had to be causing this effect. Then in 1973, two Princeton physicists tried to put together a simulation of the Milky Way using what they already knew about the Universe. In their simulation, which did not include dark matter, the arrangement of mass particles came out all wrong. When they added a uniform source of mass, the simulation suddenly worked, thus providing further evidence of dark matter. The rest is history as scientists have been continually searching to detect dark matter.

The interesting part about dark matter is that we are more confident about what it is not, than what it is. To start, it is not found in the form of stars and planets that we see. Second, it is not made in the form of dark clouds produced by normal matter. Scientists have been able to confirm this because through sending radiation into these clouds, we should be able to detect the dark matter, and we have not as of yet. Dark matter is also different from antimatter, since if it were comprised of antimatter, it would decay away and disappear over the age of the Universe. The most common prediction for what dark matter is is that it is a WIMP (Weakly Interacting Massive Particle). WIMPs interact through a weak nuclear force in combination with gravity. WIMPs would prove as a viable explanation to solving the problem with identifying dark matter because they rarely interact with visible matter and cannot be detected through electromagnetic observations.

The future of dark matter research is very exciting. The hope is that dark matter can be discovered in the coming years, which would unlock a lot about the history of our Universe, and help explain how it all interacts.
Tyler Wellener

Habitability of Mars

Terraforming, literally “Earth-shaping,” is the process by which the atmosphere, temperature, surface topography or ecology of a planet is modified to resemble Earth’s biosphere. Mars is the main hypothetical target of terraforming. The goal of terraforming is to make another planet habitable for Earth life, and the ethics of such have always been a subject of much debate. The possibility for terraforming Mars depends on how habitable the planet is now. If it is less habitable, terraforming will not only be difficult, but also expensive, reducing the probability of terraforming. The habitability of Mars will be explored, in order to determine whether or not a debate over terraforming is even currently relevant, as the less habitable Mars is, the more extensive technology would be needed, and the further away the possibility of terraforming is.

At first glance through a telescope, Mars seems like it is very much a potentially habitable planet – there are clouds, polar icecaps and an axial tilt – all of which imply seasons.

These so-called seasons and calendar are very similar to the Earth’s, only Mars’ days are thirty-seven minutes longer than our own. Though the seasons are longer because a Martian year is two Earth years, the axial tilt and day length on Mars are similar to Earth’s values. In the late nineteenth century, astronomers also noticed a “wave of darkening.” What was described was a seasonal coloring of the planet, something that also happens on a global scale.

In 1877, the Italian astronomer Giovannni Schiaparelli looked at Mars through his telescope, and found that Mars had a series of trenches, which he decided to call canali, the Italian word for “channels.” Funnily enough, people like Percival Lowell interpreted that has canals, which are artificial structures, thinking that he was implying that there were Martians out there that had dug the trenches at some point.

Unfortunately, the seasonal coloring has been attributed to seasonal dust storms; there is no plant life on Mars. Although Schiaparelli’s canali do not exist, there are smaller erosional features that could have possibly be formed by the flow of liquid water in the relatively recent past. Additionally, the channels that were discovered by Schiaparelli, were not built by Martians, which would have demonstrated that there is life on Mars; however, if these channels were formed by flowing water, though likely sporadically and in the past as appears it appears to be, then this would suggest that there were life sources available at one point in Mars’ history.

Unfortunately, with better technology and equipment, has come the definitive knowledge that there was no existing Martian life, but there are some advantages to having better equipment. The telescopes that showed that there was no life on Mars, also supported the observation of widespread seasonal color changes. This also means that while it is highly unlikely that Mars ever had civilizations, there was at least harboring plant life. However, this implication has been contradicted by scientists that have concluded that Mars’ atmosphere is dangerously thin, containing a large amount of carbon dioxide and also lacks observable oxygen or water vapor. Though some life may have still been able to exist without that, Mars’ lack of observable oxygen or water vapor in its atmosphere definitely make it uninhabitable for humans, and a poor choice for terraforming. However, if humans came up with the technology to alter the atmosphere of Mars and withstand the planet’s harsh conditions, Mars could be terraformed into being habitable.

Overall, one can conclude that Mars is currently uninhabitable for humans, as well as any other life. Though Mars may have had life many years ago, there is no clear evidence to definitely prove that. Conversely, should humans come up with advanced enough technology, terraforming of Mars could make it habitable for humans.
Charlotte Townsend

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Ethics of Terraforming

As we enter a new phase in human history whose defining element could be space exploration, there are many issues that could become points of scientific debate. For example, one major point of contention as we become increasingly proficient in space travel could be the ethicality of terraforming, or altering a planet or moon in order to make it habitable to humans. The points of debate here are completely conditional on the existence or absence of life on that planet or moon. Particularly, should we terraform a planet that contains life if the process of terraforming could harm or even eradicate those indigenous life forms? The answer for me is quite simply no. I don’t think it is morally acceptable to go into the habitat of another life form and completely alter that habitat, and in turn kill off that life form, just because it could benefit us. People may say that small unintelligent life forms on other planets are intrinsically less valuable than humans, so therefore it is within our rights as superior beings to take over their world. The same people would most likely say that destroying those life forms truly isn’t a big deal because they aren’t as important as humans. I would call those people “species racists”. Just because a species seems to be inferior and inconsequential compared to humans doesn’t mean that we are superior to that species and can do whatever we want to them. White slave traders were convinced that Africans were an inferior race and that justified enforced servitude, and oh how wrong they turned out to be. I wouldn’t want to see humans return to repeat that history in the form of terraforming.

That being said, the more important question is whether or not we would actually terraform if we knew it could harm other life forms. I really do believe that we wouldn’t. I think that as humans we feel a guilt over what we have done to our own planet which would stop us from destroying another life form. We all know that our species has developed civilization in such a way that we now have an uncontrollable and irreversible pattern of poisoning of destroying our own earth. We destroy our own forests to expand our domain, destroying ecosystems and driving entire species into extinction in the process. We are seeing and hearing the effects of this habit of ours every day, and it bothers us. We know we are terrible to our world, and we wish we could change it, but we can’t. Because of this guilt, I do believe that we would refrain from terraforming if it threatened the existence of another life form. This hypothesis, however, is conditional on the threat to human existence. If the human species is in danger of becoming extinct, then all bets are off. Because our will to survive as individuals and as a species is so strong, we would absolutely destroy another life form if it was a situation of life or death for us. Let’s hope it never comes to that.
Tristan Lockwood

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Ancient Aliens

In one of my prior blog posts I attempted to answer the question of whether alien life exists, and posited that it is very likely that it does indeed exist. Although humans have yet to find any of this alien life, our numerous international space agencies are trying their best to search for alien life by sending out space crafts to take detect and characterize planets close to our solar system. It really seems like we are hoping to find alien life in the future. However, what is there to say that aliens have not visited the Earth in the past, without our knowledge? Through examining ancient artifacts and locations, we may find evidence to support the fact that aliens may have indeed visited us in the past.

First, it is important to note what the current theory by experts in the field of ancient aliens actually is. Ancient alien theorists believe that very intelligent extraterrestrials visited planet Earth at some point in the past, and shared their knowledge of engineering and science with early civilizations, which in effect changed the course of human history. This theory resulted from the long-held belief that alien life could possibly exist on other planets, as well as noting that if humans could visit other planets, it should be possible for other life forms to visit our home planet, Earth. To provide evidence for their theories, these ancient alien theorists lean towards examining texts (often religious ones), paintings or other art forms, as well as architectural phenomena.

A picture taken of a portion of the
Nazca Lines.
One example of this exquisite architecture is the Nazca Lines. These geoglyphs (large designs, often artificially formed on the ground) are located in Peru, and stretch over 50 miles. Geoglyphs have been created many times in the past, but the Nazca Lines were so large that you would need to be in the air to actually be able to see the patterns they form, which included sketches of animals, birds, and humans, some of which were over 600 feet across. Because these designs could not be admired unless the viewer was airborne, archaeologists and scientists were both confused. The Nazca people lived in the area between 300 B.C. and 800 A.D., and there is no evidence that these people possessed any machines that could fly. This is further supported by noting that the first recorded human flight was in 1903, by Wilbur and Orville Wright. Ancient alien theorists suggest that these drawings on the ground were created to serve as landing zones and runways for alien spacecrafts.

A drawing of a vimana.
We can also pull evidence for the visitation of ancient aliens from Indian and Hebrew texts. In the Sanskrit epics of India, there are references towards flying machines, which were dubbed “vimanas.” As stated prior, there is no evidence of humans being able to pilot flying machines before the last century, and these epics were written over 2000 years ago. This suggests that these vimanas were piloted by astronauts from other planets, who were likely ancient aliens. In the Hebrew bible, the book of Ezekiel alludes to a prophet’s vision of a flying machine with fire, smoke, and loud noise. The design of the vehicle is described in a similar manner as to the spaceships of today, and so ancient alien theorists believe that this is merely a description of an early encounter between humans and alien astronauts.

Ancient alien theorists use eccentric artifacts and archaeological wonders such as these to provide evidence to support the existence of ancient aliens. There are even arguments suggesting that one of the pharaohs of Egypt was a descendant of an alien because of the size of his skull. If you are further interested in the subject of ancient aliens, you should watch the History channel TV show, Ancient Aliens, or take a look at the book, Chariots of the Gods, by Erich von Däniken, who is considered by many to be the father of ancient alien theory.

For more information, see here and here.
Arjun Manimaran

Saturday, April 5, 2014

A Mission to Mars

The topic of exploring other planets has been of great interest both to myself and to astronomers and scholars since the ability to observe them was achieved. When John F. Kennedy made a statement to students at Rice and the American populace on September 12, 1962 that “We choose to go to the moon,” Kennedy effectively promised to the American people that while the space-race was indeed in full effect, that human achievement would not cease until we put a man on the moon. 7 years later in 1969, with the moon landing brought on by Apollo 11, that promise was fulfilled. Now, humans have a new goal – to reach and put a man on the more “habitable” entity in our system – the planet Mars.

However, the question remains: how would humans survive on Mars? What systems would be put in place to ensure some sort of longevity both of the mission and the crew involved? What can we gain from this mission? This article will seek to answer some of these questions.

In order to survive on Mars, the crew would need to integrate several safety systems to the mission. On a log scale, exposure to interplanetary space would give 13-25 rems (unit of radiation) per year. As one article stated, “interplanetary astronauts would absorb more radiation in a single year than radiation workers are supposed to receive in a lifetime, and a large number would develop cancer and other illnesses.” Not to mention, “solar flares and Earth’s Van Allen radiation belts can kill outright but are easier to avoid.” Thus, the mission to Mars already poses many risks for the spacefaring astronauts. Whether or not we are willing to take that risk would, it would seem, depend on those willing to take the trip. The atmosphere on Mars is a “scrawny […] 10 grams per square centimeter”; thus, in order to shield the astronauts from the dangers of radiation, the base on Mars would likely need to be shielded by several meters of rock and soil, making the entire expedition all the more difficult, which may hinder the implementation of the Mars mission but may also provide for higher longevity of the mission since the base would become permanent and be shielded from the environment.

While the aforementioned drawback is obviously an important concern, the benefits of the mission should also be established. More research can be executed in Mars’ environment. In addition, digging into Mars’ surface may prove fruitful—there may be more under the Martian regolith than we think we know. However, should we find certain microbiology native to Mars, we might forward contaminate the area since the mission would be bringing microbes from Earth to Mars which is against COSPAR and NASA policies which is another drawback to consider.

Scholars have argued both the merits and drawbacks of a Mars mission. Yes, it is expensive; yes, it may not prove to be fruitful. But for the sake of human achievement, a Mars mission—such as Mars One—that would put a man on Mars may prove to be one of humanity’s greatest achievements of the decade. However, as was discussed, such a mission poses a great risk to human life.
Nathaniel Benzaquen-Ouakrat

NASA: Is It Necessary?

Since 1958, NASA has received money annually to help accomplish its vision: to reach for new heights and reveal the unknown so as to benefit all of humankind.

Today, NASA’s budget is under the spotlight, as many people question if the money given to NASA is money well spent. Many people argue that it is a “ridiculous” amount of money that is given to NASA and believe it could be better used to alleviate problems here on Earth. For instance, an acquaintance said, “What is Mars going to do? It is a great discovery, but what does it matter? We should spend that money on education.” But is it really a “ridiculous” amount of money? $18 billion might sound like a lot of money, but by recognizing that the US annual budget is around $3 trillion, which means that NASA’s budget only takes 0.6% of US spending budget. Therefore, the next question is: is that money going to waste?

However, before you answer the question, have you thought about the importance of space exploration? The number of jobs NASA creates? The opportunity NASA creates for talented people to obtain useful information for humankind? Before looking into these questions, I too believed that the budget that was given to NASA every year was “ridiculous.” I was naïve. I thought that space exploration was unnecessary. I did not realize that NASA provides jobs to numerous of people. I did not realize that NASA’s projects offer useful information to mankind and expands our horizons more than anything else.

First, I learned that space exploration is necessary. Think about it. If we don’t take the chance in explore our universe, we will never know what is out there in the universe. What are our limits? Just like Columbus and Lewis and Clark, we should continue to take risks and discover our universe, just like they risked their lives to find the paths that took our species to every continent of the globe.

Second, according to NASA, the agency has ten field centers and seven test and research facilities locate in several states around the country. Thus, more than 18,000 people work for NASA, from astronauts to engineers to secretaries to writers. I personally never thought that NASA could employ more than 18,000 people.

Lastly, after reading an article that discusses 10 NASA inventions that we use every day, my opinion about NASA changed completely. Did you know that Water Filters were invented because astronauts needed a way to cleanse water they take up into space? NASA technology has contributed to many items used in everyday life, from invisible braces to shoe insoles. It’s insane!

NASA is responsible for science and technology related to air and space, yet NASA’s research impacts our lives, as the information obtain can make life better for people all over the world. Therefore, I believe that NASA is necessary and that the money given to NASA is money well spent; as NASA not only provides valuable technology to humankind, but it also explores what I believe is the final frontier, space.
Dalia Dorantes

Friday, April 4, 2014

Before the Big Bang

Human beings are always curious about the origin of everything: Where did we come from? Where did our Earth come from? Where did our Universe come from? For centuries, many scientists have done research trying to answer these questions, and they have successfully found some plausible explanations for them. Regarding the beginning of our Universe, today we recognize the Big Bang theory as the prevailing model for the evolution of the Universe. According to the Big Bang Theory, because observations have shown that our Universe is expanding, if we work backwards, the Universe would shrink to an extremely hot, dense point, called a singularity, where all modern physics laws would fail. However, the Big Bang Theory does not cover the “very beginning.” So if we assume the Big Bang Theory is correct, what happened before “the bang”?

Some theories that attempt to explain why the big bang occurred include string cosmology, the ekpyrotic Universe model, the cyclic Universe model, the black hole theory, etc. All these theories are, unfortunately, unsatisfactory. After all, we certainly have no evidence for what might have happened before the Big Bang took place. However, there is one theory that I would like to discuss in the following paragraphs—the Hawking-Turok Instanton Theory.

This theory is actually a combination of two separate lines of research. In one, James Hartle and Stephen Hawking proposed a theory based the idea that the Universe did not have a boundary; in the other, Neil Turok worked with Martin Bucher and Alfred Goldhaber in creating an inflationary, open Universe theory. Eventually, they combined the two theories to create the Hawking-Turok Instanton Theory. In essence, Hawking and Turok believe that the Universe began from nothingness! Our open, inflationary Universe was formed from an “instanton”—a theoretical particle combining space and time. Consider a small, dimpled spherical volume that looks like
a pea but is one trillion times smaller. Space and time are mixed in this pea so that its bottom half is like the round-off tip of an upside-down cone. On a space-time diagram, this pea lies at the bottom of a well; space is defined away from the axis and time along the axis, but as stated space and time mix inside the pea. However, if the Hawking-Turok Instanton Theory is true, what caused the existence of instanton in the first place? Based on the theory, there existed nothing before the instanton. The instanton was the beginning of everything! It was the instanton that produced the Big Bang and our open, inflationary Universe.

More importantly, a tremendous value of the Hawking-Turok Instanton Theory is that it combines quantum physics with what we observe, although many questions still remain unanswered. And after all, the Hawking-Turok Instanton Theory is just one possible explanation amongst many others. We ought to keep researching and working on discovering the truth behind the creation of our Universe.
Yitian Feng

Mars One

Since the rise of science fiction, people have always dreamed of humans visiting and even living on Mars. In 2011, a plan was set in motion to make this dream a reality. Rather than being a venture of NASA or the European Space Agency, the mission is the private project of a Dutch non-profit organization called Mars One.

Mars One has a plan in place to put humans on Mars in 2025, following an intense selection and training process that lasts several years. The initial application process yielded over 200,000 applications, from which 1000 people were selected for an interview. Only four of these people will be selected for the final mission. In 2015, the four mission participants will begin their rigorous training, which includes technical, geological, medical, psychological, agricultural and simulation components. Since the astronauts will not be returning to Earth, it is imperative that they learn every possible detail regarding their future lives.

Prior to the human launch, Mars One will send a rover to find an ideal spot to inhabit Mars, followed by six “cargo missions” (two living units, two life support systems, and two supply units). The initial crew of four will be followed every two years by four more colonists until the Mars settlement reaches a population of twenty.

The cost of the initial four-person mission alone is $6 billion, and each additional mission will cost another $4 billion. The Mars One team, led by Bas Lansdorp, is using an innovative but risky model to finance the missions. In addition to any private donations the organization receives, Mars One plans on gaining revenue through selling broadcast rights to the Mars landing and a reality TV show documenting the crew’s life on the Red Planet.

So what is to be gained from this groundbreaking, but costly, mission? Obviously, putting people on Mars would be a watershed moment in human history. As Lansdorp puts it, “I believe that it will truly change the outlook of our entire species. If humanity can send humans to Mars, is there anything that we cannot do? And if on Mars we do find life — that would change our entire perspective on the universe.” Lansdorp also believes that the privatization of space travel is a good thing, since it can potentially unite people across the world without the need for collaboration between various governments. More practically, findings on Mars may inspire further research and developments in energy, health, and sustainability, among many other areas.

While this is undoubtedly one of the most ambitious ventures ever, questions still remain about how feasible the project actually is. The technological components certainly seem to be in good hands — Mars One has hired contractors from the top of their respective fields, such as Lockheed Martin, Paragon Space Development Corporation, SpaceX, Surrey Satellite Technology, Uwingu and Kristian von Bengtson. Where the potential problem lies, in my opinion, is in the most volatile component — the astronauts themselves. No matter how much isolated training they endure, I don’t think anything can quite simulate the permanent isolation and desolation that comes with living on another planet for the rest of their lives. On the other hand, it is entirely possible that the crewmembers will realize that they are leading the way for the rest of the human population and, as the Mars One website says, “the human spirit will continue to persevere, to even thrive in this challenging environment.”

Mars One is still in the infancy stage of development, so it remains to be seen whether the mission will actually happen. For now, we can only watch with curiosity and imagine the possibilities.
Achyuta Burra

Are There No Black Holes?

Stephen Hawking’s declaration that “there are no black holes,” captured many a headline on January 22, 2014, as the implication of there being no black holes would be quite controversial. However, Hawking’s paper that includes this declaration is definitely being exploited by the media, as his new paper is actually just modifying the definition of black holes. In order to understand why Hawking’s statement is such news taken out of context, and what he is really suggesting about black holes, we must first understand black holes and the controversy surrounding them.

A black hole is “a place in space where gravity pulls so much that even light can not get out. The gravity is so strong because matter has been squeezed into a tiny space.” Based on this definition, black holes break two fundamental laws of physics – Einstein’s law of general relativity and quantum mechanics.

Einstein came up with his theory of special relativity in 1905, determining that the speed of light in a vacuum was independent of the motion of all observers, because the laws of physics are the same for all non-accelerating observers. This was a new way of looking at, and offered new perceptions of, time and space. Einstein generalized special relativity and Newton’s law of universal gravity in 1916, and called it general relativity, which provided a unified description of gravity as a geometric property of space and time.

However, not all of nature follows the laws of general relativity. In the early twentieth century, scientists thought that the basic laws of physics should apply to every aspect of nature; however this was challenged when they began probing nature’s smallest scales. Scientists found that light waves, atoms, and electrons did not follow these laws. Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein began studying particles to understand physics at small scales, and discovered how peculiar it was. What arose from their studies were the laws of quantum mechanics, as named after the work of Max Planck.

Because the laws of quantum mechanics fill the gaps of physics that cannot be explained by Einstein’s theory of general relativity, it makes sense that the two theories are quite conflicting. Since the two theories are conflicting, there are discrepancies in how the two theories explain black holes. General relativity explains black holes as objects with a gravitational pull powerful enough that anything that crosses the event horizon will fall in and be forever trapped and eventually crushed, unable to escape. However, in quantum mechanics, the particles and matter that have fallen into a black hole have to be conserved somewhere.

Now that it has been established how controversial black holes are, Stephen Hawking’s statement that “there are no black holes,” should be revisited. In the 1970s, Hawking published a paper on black holes, and in it he proposed that black holes were losing mass and eventually would vanish. Black holes lose their mass by slowly radiating away light, a featureless glow called Hawking radiation. This means that whatever falls into a black hole will vanish with it, contradicting quantum mechanics, and causing issues in the scientific world.

What Hawking is now currently arguing, is that instead of an event horizon, there is something he is calling an “apparent horizon,” in which matter and energy are temporarily suspended, then released. If this were to be true, it would change how we look at black holes. The absence of event horizons would mean that there are not black holes, however only “in the sense of regimes from which light can’t escape to infinity,” as Hawking described in his most recent paper. In his paper, Hawking states “there is no such thing as black holes,” because he then goes on to describe a modification in the definition of a black hole, meaning, black holes still exist, but perhaps are slightly different than from how we originally conceived them.
Charlotte Townshend

Monday, March 31, 2014

Becoming a NASA Astronaut

Do you want to be a NASA Astronaut? I know I do. Have you wondered if you have what it takes? Wonder no longer! Through this essay I’m going to solve all of these mysteries.

So what is an astronaut? The term astronaut comes from the words ‘space’ and ‘sailor’. NASA calls humans that travel on space mission’s astronauts. In a way they can be thought of as "space sailors". The astronauts have different roles in the spacecraft. The categories the astronauts are organized into are commander, pilot, mission specialist, or payload specialist. In order to become an astronaut you must also be a US citizen.

Commander astronauts are important in the Space Shuttle and International Space Stations. During the flight, the commander is responsible for the vehicle, crew, mission success, and safety of flight. In order to become a Commander you must have certain requisites. You must have a bachelor's degree from an accredited institution in engineering, biological science, physical science, or mathematics. In order to be accepted you must have a very impressive resume, because becoming a commander is the most competitive of all the positions in the space craft. In addition you must have experience in a jet aircraft.

In addition to having mental capabilities, you must be able to pass a NASA space physical! This test is designed to be similar to a military physical. You must be around 5' 3" at the least, with proper vision and good blood pressure.

Personally I was expecting a more grueling process physically but it shows it is more important to have mental capacity.

Secondly, the mission specialist astronauts work with the commander and need to manage the systems, crew activity planning, consumables usage, and experiment/payload operations. They perform the tasks that the commanders tell them to. They are also responsible for bigger picture mission aims as well. For example they take care of the activities they need to perform on the shuttle, the food, other consumables, and conduct mission objectives. In order to prepare, they must learn of all aspects of operational characteristics, mission requirements and objectives. Mission specialists will perform extravehicular activities, and typically conduct any experiments or remedial tasks.

In order to be capable for a position as a mission specialist you must have the following (from the NASA website):

1. Bachelor's degree from an accredited institution in engineering, biological science, physical science, or mathematics. Degree must be followed by at least three years of related, progressively responsible, professional experience. An advanced degree is desirable and may be substituted for part or all of the experience requirement (master's degree = 1 year of experience, doctoral degree = 3 years of experience). Quality of academic preparation is important.

2. Ability to pass a NASA space physical, which is similar to a military or civilian flight physical and includes the following specific standards:

Distance visual acuity: 20/200 or better uncorrected, correctable to 20/20, each eye.

Blood pressure: 140/90 measured in a sitting position.

3. Height between 58.5 and 76 inches.

The final astronaut position is the payload specialist. A payload specialist is someone who is not a classically trained astronaut but has specialized onboard duties. To draw from an example from class, in the movie Armageddon, the employees of the drilling company would be considered payload specialists. They are put into the crew if activities that involve unique requirements are involved, however typically payload specialists are not frequently included and first priority always goes to mission specialist with the skill set they are looking for. Because payload specialists are not part of the typical Astronaut Program, there are far less formal requirements for them. However, they still must pass certain physical requirements.

Becoming an astronaut is something that is extremely selective; however, if you are committed to your studies and keep your eyes on the prize, you can do it! Finally, with regards to my astronaut dream, it is still alive!
Connor Moore

Friday, March 28, 2014

Kardashev Scale & Conquering the Universe

As humans, we often lose sight of how insignificant we are in the grand scope of things. Out of the millions upon millions of galaxies, we only live in one, and inside of that galaxy, we inhabit only one solar system, and even further, one planet. We merely represent a single point on the infinite space-time continuum. But that is about to change, says the MarsOne Space Exploration Company. Their goal is to successfully land humans on Mars so that we can begin to inhabit it. Dubbed “the next giant leap for mankind”, the first mission will be launched in 2018. While this is still incredibly insignificant in the big picture, this would be a very monumental step in populating and inhabiting the universe, if that is the ultimate goal going forward.

However monumental of a step this turns out to be, we are still a type 0 civilization according to the Kardeshev Scale, which is “a method of measuring a civilization’s level of technological advancement, based on the amount of energy a civilization is able to utilize”. The more energy a civilization can utilize from various sources, thus produces a proportionally higher level of civilization, going from level 0 to 3.

In further detail, a type one civilization ranking is given to one that is able to harness all of the energy from the nearest neighboring star, and in turn meeting all of their society’s energy needs. To put this in perspective, if we as humans wanted to attain this energy standard, we would need to boost our energy production by 100,000 times. In addition to having this much energy, we would have the power to control all natural forces, including volcanoes, earthquakes, and the weather.

A type two civilization would not only have the capabilities of a type one civilization under the assumption that they could harness all of the power from the nearest star, but they would also be able to now control the star. If humans lived long enough to reach this status, we would have reached a level of invincibility. Nothing known to science could wipe out a type two civilization. A moon-sized object hurtling towards the Earth would not even pose a threat. Humans of this age would have more than enough resources to obliterate this threatening object. Humans could vaporize it, move the Earth out of the way, or move a planet such as Jupiter in front of us to block it from hitting us.

Lastly, a type three civilization would encompass a race that had the ability to travel across the galaxy with an ultimate knowledge of everything that has to do with energy. The species that have attained this rank would go on to populate and colonize star after star.

Kardashev did not believe that it was practically possible to become any type of civilization after a rank of three. Yet for theoretical reasons, other scientists laid the groundwork for a type four and type five civilization. A type four civilization is one that could harness the energy of the entire universe. And a type five civilization is that of one where the people had god-like powers, able to manipulate and control the universe however they please.

As a type 0 civilization, it only underscores how immature and insignificant of a society we are. However, companies looking to pursue similar endeavors like the MarsOne initiative have us on the right track for advancing us as a society.
Tyler Wellener

Computer Simulated Reality

What if reality was just a simulation? Humans have always tried to attribute different reasons as to why and how our universe exists. In the beginning, we had the concept of God, a supernatural being who created everything. Although the majority of the world still believes this, the Big Bang Theory has risen as well. But where did this big bang come from? Could it be that the bang was simply the start of a long computer simulation that a highly developed race created?

Let us look at our own progress as humans. 200 years ago, we did not have industry. 20 years ago, we did not have cell phones. The rate at which computers are improving, in 50 years we could have computers a million times as powerful as the ones we have today. Clearly technology is progressing, and it seems exponentially. In Stephen Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science, he shows that every field of knowledge and every aspect of life can be broken down computationally. If life can eventually be broken down to 1’s and 0’s, at some point, is it not conceivable that with the processing power we will eventually achieve, we could create a program of a person who thinks and has feelings just like we do? And if that is possible, could we not create more people like that, and then environments for them to interact with? In fact, we are already simulating universes: The Odyssey Supercomputer at Harvard University can recreate 14 billion years of galaxies forming and changing.

Now, what if we do somehow get to the point we can create these simulations of people who believe they are real? That would put our own existence in question. If we can do that, then it is very possible that we are also simply a computer simulation created by an advanced race. But that group of beings could also being living in a simulation, which leads to the question of who created the first simulation. That cannot be proven as of now, which leads us back to square one. Maybe it is a god.

Another interesting question that arises is if our creators are humans like us. Maybe we are just like our creators biologically. Or perhaps our creators are some sort of alien from a far away galaxy. Let us assume that our creators’ race is the XYZ race. They must have created their own race in their computer simulation, but regardless of that, to create us, they must have met us in their own lifetimes. Furthermore, if they created their own race, the XYZ race exists somewhere in our simulated universe. With the assumption that our creators are not humans or simulated humans, we will likely meet other forms of life before we create simulated universes ourselves.

The idea of living in a simulated universe could be very troubling for many. If our universe is not truly reality, then what is the point of life? However, regardless of how our universe came to be and why, our sense of reality is relative to us. We live our lives in this universe without knowing anything better. In this sense, ignorance is bliss. Our universe is real relative to our experiences, so there is no use in frustration due to a belief in a simulated reality.
Favian Rahman

Extraterrestrial Exterminators

One great aspect of the human race is that we are, in general, naturally curious beings. This curiosity is apparent in discussions of space not only today, but also seemingly as far back into our history as written records allow us to look. We have always been intrigued by the seemingly endless possibilities that lie in space, especially the possibility of extraterrestrial life. As we develop technology that makes space travel increasingly possible, the purely philosophical debates of extraterrestrial existence have taken on aspects of possibility and practicality. So the question becomes, if we are capable of seeking out extraterrestrial life, should we?

This is a very tough question to answer, as there are innumerable arguments both for and against this type of space exploration. I recognize that the traditional oppositions to space exploration (cost and danger among others) are valid and require answering to. However, my main concern with seeking out extraterrestrial life right now is that I simply don’t believe that the human race is ready for contact with another species. I hold this view based purely on historical events as well as the current state of world affairs. As a species, we seem to be physically incapable of getting along with each other. This fact is apparent in our endless history of war, genocide, and simple lack of harmony in our interpersonal as well as international relationships. People like to believe that humans nowadays are more advanced and mature than our ancestors. I disagree. How is a species that only 70 years ago attempted to completely exterminate an “inferior” community of people in any way mature? The answer is that we are not. Because of this lack of maturity I don’t believe that we are ready to be in contact with extraterrestrial beings. If we cannot even get along amongst ourselves, there is no way that we can be expected to get along with a completely alien species. Who is to say that, if this extraterrestrial species is considered to be “inferior” to us, we will not become the exterminators in the interest of our own personal benefit?

Despite my extreme pessimism about the current state of the human race, I do remain highly optimistic about the future. I strongly believe that the day will come when our race will become enlightened and our violent ways will all but come to an end. When that day comes, we will be ready for extraterrestrial contact, and I hope that that contact will be achieved. However, I don’t see that day of enlightenment coming any time soon. Despite my earlier rant on our current immaturity, I do believe that we should be engaging in space exploration. Even though we are only just now scratching the surface of space travel, what we do now will set the fundamental foundations for all future space travel. By setting these foundations, our species will hopefully have the technology and capability of contacting extraterrestrials when that day of enlightenment comes. We need to act as the brave trailblazers that set out into an unknown frontier now so that future generations will be able to more thoroughly explore space. My only hope is that by the time that our technology is advanced enough to come into contact with extraterrestrials, that we are mature enough as a species to handle that contact.
Tristan Lockwood