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Monthly Archives: February 2012

Heading off to the annual AAAS meeting

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This morning at 9 I took a shuttle to BDL airport, and I’m (finally) almost sort of about to board the first of three planes I’ll be taking to Vancouver. 


This is my first time attending an academic conference in any capacity, let alone as a writer with specific writer-ly duties, so I’m super excited. 


Expect lots of updates on my twitter, and maybe a couple of posts on here as well. If you’re also at the meeting, please say hello! I’ll be the nervous redhead. 


Lake Vostok: Totally next year’s hot vacation spot

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Last week, I wrote about the possibility of putting a permanent base on the moon. This week we’re boldly going where no man has gone before.

About 4,000 meters under a glacier, to be exact.

On Tuesday February 5th, Russian scientists announced that they had finally breached the ice sheet separating us from Lake Vostok, a subglacial lake in Antarctica. Why do we care? Because Lake Vostok has been sealed off from the rest of the world for more than 15 million years. The life we find there will be different from anything we’ve ever seen.

Whatever lives in Vostok has been evolving separately from the rest of the world for a very, very long time, and in an extreme environment at that. What will we find in the dark, cold depths of the Antarctic?

Spoiler alert: the organisms probably won't be like those things in The Abyss

Scientists have already found micro-organisms in the ice above the lake, and expect to find much more once they get a rover into the liquid water. The most exciting material to collect is the sediment at the bottom, which will have been relatively unmoved and untouched in these 15 million years.

The implications go beyond our own planet. Jupiter and Saturn both have moons (Europa and Enceladus, respectively) with deep ice crusts covering liquid water. These subglacial lakes, warmed by the planet they sit on instead of by the sun, probably have a lot in common.

Lake Vostok via satellite, which looks suspiciously like the crack in space and time

Discovered using space-based radar in the early 90’s, Vostok is actually just the largest of a network of 200 subglacial lakes in the area. It measures about the same area as Lake Ontario, but with almost three times the volume. At its warmest the water in the lake is estimated to be at -3º C. It maintains a liquid state because of the incredibly high pressure of the ice above it.

Vostok is a textbook example of an oligotrophic environment, an extreme habitat with few nutrients to support life. Researchers have found it to be supersaturated with nitrogen and oxygen, its levels over fifty times those of a normal lake. This high gas concentration is also due to the lake’s pressured environment.


This high pressure makes an already difficult drilling job all the more dangerous. The drill team already has to work only during the Antarctic summer, limiting their visits to one or two months at a time each year. Even if they’ve truly broken to the surface of the lake this time, they won’t be able to continue the mission until December of 2012, when the water is warm enough to liquify again.

And that robot will return to the surface to teach us the meaning of love. Pixar, get on this.

Some worry that the high gas content of the lake will cause a catastrophic geyser when the last layer of ice is broken. If this did occur, the unique organisms living in Vostok could be lost forever. At this time, the Russian team is optimistic, and plans to sent a robot down for samples in December.



Take my love, take my land…

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This is a piece I wrote for my senior thesis in the theme of a magazine column. Every month, a different science-fiction book/show/film/video game would be analyzed and given a letter grade for energy efficiency. The articles would occasionally relate technology/practices from the sci-fi universes with current or forthcoming technology in ours. 


Joss Whedon‘s beloved, if tragically short-lived, series about cowboy-esque space pioneers has a way of seeming pretty believable, even now, nine years after its demise. Firefly is that rare science fiction universe that is new without being unrecognizable. The featured spaceship is populated by people who lack teleportation decks and personal androids. Their technology is futuristic, but not alien, which makes Firefly the perfect show to start our list with.

love keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down

Serenity, the ship featured on the show, has an engine room that looks like it could belong to a cargo boat a little past its prime (fitting, since that’s exactly what she is…in space). Whedon started with the idea of a rough-and-tumble world on the edge of the galaxy, and he stuck with it. “I seldom come up with any cool inventions,” He said in a Q&A with fans a few years back, “Which is very good for a guy who stopped taking science when he was fifteen.”

We don’t really find out what exactly is getting poured into Serenity’s engine on a regular basis, but we do know what kind of engine she has: A fuel cell. If that sounds familiar, it’s because they already exist.

In the most basic terms, a fuel cell consists of an anode (a negative side) a cathode (a positive side) and an electrolyte (a substance that can conduct electricity) between the two. In general terms, hydrogen atoms enter a fuel cell at the anode. Here, a chemical reaction strips away their electrons, which leaves the hydrogen atoms positively charged. The lost electrons, which carry a negative charge, provide the current that produces work. The electrolyte only allows the positive hydrogen ions through, forcing the electrons through the attached electrical circuit. On the other side (the cathode), the electrons, positive ions, and outside oxygen combine to form water, which drains out of the fuel cell. With a constant source of oxygen and hydrogen, a fuel cell will produce electrical energy with only water as a waste product.  

Should’a used Duracell

Here’s a tidbit for diehard Browncoats: Fuel cells differ from batteries in that they can only produce electricity as long as they have a constant source of fuel. They can’t store what they produce. Remember “Out of Gas”? In this harrowing episode, a piece of Serenity’s engine breaks. Not a rare occurrence, but for once in the series the mechanic can’t fix it with duct tape and moxie. Captain Mal Reynolds has to send his crew out in shuttles and hope they find help before everyone runs out of power and air. If Serenity is running on a fuel cell, it would make perfect sense that engine trouble would kill the ship’s systems dead within a few hours. Unless they were dragging along some kind of battery, the crew wouldn’t have any way to save up power.

Hydrogen fuel cells are available in cars now, but they only have about 20% efficiency, and prices for the technology are still pretty high. Fuel cells using fuel like diesel can have up to 40% efficiency, but their waste products aren’t as neat and tidy as hydrogen cells.

As for the rest of Firefly’s energy use, it seems to be pretty efficient. In the universe of the show, the known galaxy is divided

Earth-That-Was is long gone. Gorram fossil fuels.

between “core planets”, members of the bureaucratic Alliance (a sort of conglomeration between the US and the People’s Republic of China, except with lasers) clustered together, and border or rim planets. The core planets have a suggestion of extremely advanced technology and seem to be free of pollution. Conversely, the border planets are so poor that they have to be conservative, basically living like spaghetti-western cowboys and pioneers. People live off blocks of compressed protein powder and ride horses, so it’s probably safe to say that their energy consumption is pretty low.

What we see in the Border and Rim planets is a great example of forced localization. When resources dwindle (on account of Earth-That-Was getting “used up”), people have to find new resources or just use less of what they’ve already got. One of the easiest ways to accomplish the latter is to downsize, and not just on the individual or household level. By building smaller communities and making work, play, and home very close together, people can redesign modern civilization to allow foot (or horse) travel instead of cars and planes. Space travel exists in Firefly, but most Border planet children have never used it. They live in small, simple communities that can sustain themselves through farming. We’re a long way off from being able to terraform a cluster of solar systems to our liking, but the basic system of Firefly, a few rich cities using alternative energy and many small communities living on small quantities of what we already have, isn’t an unlikely future.

Grade: A-

Republicans in space

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The man with a plan

Sometimes politicians just make it way, way too easy. Newt Gingrich set himself up for a whole lot of ridicule on January 25th, when he promised a crowd of supporters in Florida a permanent moon base by the end of his second term as president.

The not-so-aptly-named Newton went on to imply that this base could become “the 51st state” and gave this reasoning for the project:

We will have commercial near-Earth activities that include science, tourism, and manufacturing, and are designed to create a robust industry precisely on the model of the development of the airlines in the 1930s, because it is in our interest to acquire so much experience in space that we clearly have a capacity that the Chinese and the Russians will never come anywhere close to matching.

Because everybody knows we’ve got to beat those Reds.

Still, an idea this grandiose deserves a moment of consideration. After all, American science programs have been lacking in a big way since the end of the original Space Race. NASA is basically dead, so all suggestions for getting us back on track are more than welcome by the scientific community.

So why are scientists still guffawing at Gingrich’s proposal? It’s not because we have no reason to build a moon base. NASA has actually published 181 reasons to do just that. If nothing else, a base on the moon could be our best way to get astronauts to Mars successfully.

That doesn’t mean that a colony, let alone a state of 13,000 US citizens, is feasible now or in the new future. Ray Villard at Discovery made a couple good points. First of all, getting 13,000 Americans to relocate to the moon in this economic climate? We can’t even get 13,000 Americans to buy new condos in Brooklyn. Secondly, do we really need a 51st state that ranges from about 220,000 to 250,000 miles away from the rest of us at any given time? Americans have a bad track record with the whole idea of shipping off to colonies far from the Motherland.

Probably the only way to fund this

We just don’t have the money for it. Private sector space exploration is coming, but space tourism is going to focus on much shorter trips for the foreseeable future. Unless Bill Gates and ten of his richest friends decide they want to set up permanent summer homes on the moon, there isn’t enough money to make it happen.

All this aside, there is actually a treaty against us up and claiming that we own the moon. Even if the first moon base is “American” in origin, we won’t be able to claim the satellite’s resources as our own, and we definitely won’t be able to declare it a state without some serious hubbub from our fellow space-faring nations.

We have the technology, and we have plenty of scientists who would totally geek out over the prospect of working on a moon base. It will happen eventually, but chances are it’s going to take awhile…and the USA probably won’t be the country in charge of the project.

Check out a version of this story at my school paper, The Llama Ledger 

A little love for the Cephalopods

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Today I read “Deep Intellect: Inside the Mind of the Octopus” by Sy Montgomery for what I am not ashamed to admit was probably the fifth time. As I sat in the library, silently weeping and wishing for a tentacled hug, I began to think of my own favorite Cephalopod.

Personally, I’m a fan of the Cuttlefish.

I think it was those W-shaped pupils that won me over first. Don’t mistake my meaning, I love octopuses, but their floppy mantles really freak me out. I said it quite eloquently this morning: “They look like aliens with giant brains, except if then the skull sometimes went like…*flop* and just kinda…splooshed.”

Don't be fooled. It wants in your brain.

Without further ado, reasons why everyone should have an affinity for the members of Phylum Mollusca, particularly those that are also members of Class Cephalopoda. Actually, I’m really talking about Subclass Coleoidea. That’s where it’s at.

  • Cuttlefish are distinguishable from other squishy tentacled things because of their cuttlebone, a hard structure made of aragonite (crystalized calcium carbonite) that controls buoyancy. The anatomy that controls gas flow is called a “siphuncle”, which is surely the best word you’ve come across today.

The Doctor is actually one heart short of perfect

  • They have three hearts, the better to love you with. Two hearts (one each) pump blue-green blood to the gills, and one last heart covers the rest of the body. Their blood uses hemocyanin instead of hemoglobin to carry oxygen (copper vs iron, hence the blue color) so the hearts have to pump faster to get enough oxygen around.
  • Cephalopod eyes are the most advanced of all invertebrates. They have a camera-type eye (image projected by a lens onto a retina) like we do but it evolved independently. This is one of the coolest examples of convergent evolution. To summarize, the idea was such a good one that multiple branches of the animal kingdom got to it without any help from each other. Bam. Cuttlefish and their brethren don’t see color, but they can detect the polarization of light.

Constant vigilance!

  • Oh yeah: Their eyes also lack the blindspot that we’ve all got, and it’s generally accepted that Cuttlefish start using their eyes while still in their eggs.


  • “Sepia” ink is named for the Cuttlefish (genus Sepia) because the Ancient Greeks loved them some Cuttle-juice. Luckily, it’s manufactured now.
  • Cuttlefish can change their color at will to communicate with each other and hide themselves from predator detection. It’s pretty trippy.

    These are not the cuttlefish you're looking for...

  • Last but not least, these guys are crazy intelligent. Cephalopods actively hunt their food, even going after prey as tricky as crabs. Their tentacles have incredible dexterity, enabling them to open jars and otherwise mess with your business at will.

In conclusion, this is a Sub-class of awesome.