Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Brainpower vs. computer power

So what if a computer can play a perfect game of checkers? Humans still have computers beat when it comes to science. Read about it in Friday's column.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Brain power

SETI@home harnessed the power of millions of home computers to beat out the data-crunching power of the best supercomputers. Now GalaxyZoo is trying a new twist on the "volunteer computing" model, inviting the folks at home to classify galaxies by hand through a web interface. According to the site:
The human brain is much better at recognising patterns than a computer can ever be. Any computer program we write to sort our galaxies into categories would do a reasonable job, but it would also inevitably throw out the unusual, the weird and the wonderful. To rescue these interesting systems which have a story to tell, we need you.

With a million galaxies to be classified, the team is hoping 20,000 to 30,000 volunteers will sign on. For more, see the BBC's coverage. Thanks to Karen for pointing this story out!

The analog universe

Astronomers may act cocky about time: one thousand years, ten thousand years, it's all a drop in the proverbial bucket (or a grain in the proverbial hourglass? anyway, you get the idea) when you're dealing with a universe billions of years old. But some astronomical events do happen on shorter timescales--supernovas blaze and expand, stars move across the sky--yet digital records of the sky don't go back far enough for us to be able to study these events over more than a few decades.

But a project at Harvard College Observatory may open allow astronomers to study how the sky changes on a 100-year timescale. Harvard hopes to digitize its collection of half a million photographic plates going back to the mid 1880s. Right now the plates are housed in an ostensibly earthquake-proof repository in Cambridge. Astronomers can access the collection as they would any specialized library archive--but it's an appointment-only, legwork-required sort of thing.

Digitizing the plates would not only make them easier to access and analyze--it would protect them from loss, breakage, and the lapses of bureaucratic reason that have historically put them at risk.

But the project is expensive. According a story in last week's New York Times, the Harvard astronomer heading up the digitization effort says a donor will have to come through with five or six million dollars to keep things afloat. From the Times' interview with Dr. Josh Grindlay:

“Somebody could easily put their name on this — the world’s first time-domain catalog....Do we really want to wait another hundred years to find out with modern instrumentation what the cosmic movie looks like? We’ve got this chance right here.”

Oh, and if you're wondering what exactly photographic plates are and what it would be like to do astronomy with them, check out Phil Plait's comments on the Bad Astronomy blog.

No lab for Henderson

Last month, I wrote that Colorado's Henderson Mine was a candidate site for the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory. Well, it looks like Henderson will have to stick to regular old mining for now: The National Science Foundation has announced that a closed mine in South Dakota will get the lab instead. Read about it in the Daily Camera and Nature.

Monday, July 9, 2007

The science section

The Emory radio dish got the full treatment in Friday's Visible Universe. (The newspaper column, not the blog.)

Weird life science

Back in the day, NASA astrobiologists swore to "follow the water" in their search for life elsewhere in the solar system. After all, Earth creatures, in their weird and wonderful variations, agree on little else but the need for H2O. So it made sense that water would serve as a proxy for extraterrestrial life, too.

Now a new National Research Council report is throwing a wrench in the works, calling on NASA and the NSF to take off their "terracentric" blinders and be open to the possibility that life could arise without water and in configurations lacking a carbon-based metabolism. The report, The Limits of Organic Life in Planetary Systems, was issued late last week.

From the conclusions:

The committee's investigation makes clear that life is possible in different forms from those on Earth. Different specific biomolecules may be considered highly likely in extraterrestrial life. Different architectures at the microscopic and macroscopic levels must also be considered likely.

So what are scientists supposed to do about it? How can they search for life that might take totally unfamiliar forms? The report recommends a three-pronged attack: laboratory studies that will help clarify how life got started in the first place, a thorough scouring of Earth's stranger environments (under the sea floor, in the upper atmosphere) for novel forms of life, and space missions to scan planets and moons likely to harbor the ingredients of life. Plus, Titan and Enceladus should get bumped to the front of NASA's exploration docket.

The authors write:

"Nothing would be more tragic in the American exploration of space than to encounter alien life and fail to recognize it..."

You might say tragedy of the tangible variety--to which the American space program is no stranger--trumps the abstracted tragedy of missed opportunity. But it's a good line. And, who knows? It may have already happened.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Symmetry at 25

Symmetry Magazine, the in-house publication of Fermilab and SLAC, commissioned cartoonist Roz Chast to design the cover art for their 25th issue. Those wacky particle physicists!

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Before the beginning

What happened before the Big Bang?

Cosmologists don't know. Not only that--the conventional wisdom is that they can't know, that history before the Big Bang is fundamentally inaccessible to science.

But Martin Bojowald, a physicist at Penn State, says that the "past life" of our universe may not have been totally erased. In an article in Nature Physics, Bojowald argues that loop quantum gravity can be applied to a mathematical model of the universe to yield up some--but not all--of the universe's pre-Bang backstory.

I won't pretend to actually understand the argument, but the interesting thing is that we can say anything at all about what happened before the Big Bang--even if the substance of the discussion is just an accounting of answerable and unanswerable questions.

Nature, unfortunately, is tight-fisted with its articles; you can't read them online unless you have a subscription. But you can probably pick up the article online or in print at your friendly university library. Or, try the press release.