Friday Four

Friday, May 17, 2013

1. Recent astronomical discoveries are challenging long-held hypotheses about how planetary systems develop.

As of this month, we've discovered 884 planets, 692 planetary systems, 132 of them with more than one planet and, strange to tell, almost none of them look like us.
Indeed, the Earth may well be a strange planet in a strange system.

2. David Pogue of The New York Times recently vistied Europe and encountered some clever uses of technology. I liked this one:
And most controversial (to Americans) of all, your room key has to be inserted by the hotel-room door to turn on power and air-conditioning.

Yes, it means that your room takes a couple of minutes to cool when you return in the summer. But it also means that you can't leave for the day with all lights and chillers blazing. (As a handy by-product, you can't misplace your room key, either.)
Pogue likes this one because it's "green", but I am no convert to environmentalism. I could see a mom-and-pop hotel or a budget chain using something like this, even without the perverse incentives of green guilt and fascistic governmental "nudging" that are at play in Europe.

Pogue also saw an elegant solution to the problem of switching planes in Helsinki.

3. Even after watching my baby daughter develop for nearly two years, I sometimes find it hard to be completely sure exactly where she is. For example, we've been playing, "I see you" at the park a lot lately. Is she really using a sentence here or are the syllables an imitative noise?

I strongly suspected the former, but got confirmation last night. We're transitioning to me being in charge of Pumpkin's going-to-bed routine ahead of our son's arrival, and I currently rest on a bed nearby while Momma Van Horn does the routine. Pumpkin piped up at one point, "I see Daddy."

4. He died some years ago, but we should all take a moment to reflect on how fortunate we are that Maurice Hillman invented the mumps-measles-rubella vaccine.
For most children, mumps was a nuisance disease, nothing worse than a painful swelling of the salivary glands. But Dr. Hilleman knew that it could sometimes leave a child deaf or otherwise permanently impaired.

He quickly dressed and drove 20 minutes to pick up proper sampling equipment from his laboratory. Returning home, he woke [his sick daughter] Jeryl Lynn long enough to swab the back of her throat and immerse the specimen in a nutrient broth. Then he drove back to store it in the laboratory freezer.
The Times goes on to note that, "Over his career, [Hillman] devised or substantially improved more than 25 vaccines, including 9 of the 14 now routinely recommended for children."

-- CAV


Anonymous said...

I've traveled extensively in Europe. The easy way around that "green" innovation is to ask for two key cards when checking in. I've used one card to keep in the slot, which keeps the A/C and lights blazing all day and the other key to enter the room.

Gus Van Horn said...

Heh! Thanks for sharing.

Realist Theorist said...

"I see you" reminded me of the short phase when my toddler called me and my wife by our Christian names and called himself "you".

All very logical, because those were the names he'd heard for those three entities!

Gus Van Horn said...

Logical, but cute!

Steve D said...

I am not surprised that astronomers are having a tough time finding planets like our Earth. Our sun, earth and moon system is probably unique in many ways, all of which speak to the tremendous environmental stability of our planet. Life, especially intelligent life may be rare in the universe; for example:

1. Sol is three quarters of the distance between the center of a rather large, stable galaxy and its edge; perhaps the most steady galactic environment possible. (Too close to the center – huge gravitational tides etc.)
2. Sol is a third generation star; second and first generation stars do not have the concentrations of heavier elements necessary to sustain life.
3. Sol is a relatively old third generation star to boot; most of the others, the younger ones would not have had as much time for life (or at least sentient life) to develop since the beginning of the universe.
4. Sol is a G-class star; which may be important for life to form and an especially powerful one at that. It is in the 97th percentile of all stars and the 100th percentile of G-class stars in terms of energy output (remember all those children’s books which stated that our sun was just an average star – it is nothing of the sort). Therefore it has an enormous goldilocks zone compared to most other stars. G class stars are right in the middle of the types of stars though, lasting a long time AND producing a long steady flow of energy.
5. Sol is a single star, not a multi-star system like most. In these cases, the environment would most likely be very unstable and hostile to life due to gravitational effects.
6. Sol is exceptionally stable although this may in a sense be a restatement of point 4.
7. There are no huge planets close to Sol, to destabilize the environment with tidal gravitational effects within the goldilocks zone.
8. The Earth is exactly the right distance from Sol for life, smack dab in the middle of the goldilocks zone (not near the edge).
9. The Earth is of optimal size; large enough to retain an atmosphere which moderates its temperature not to much gravity to crush matter.
10. The Earth has just the correct ratios of elements which life requires; nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen; radioactive element in its core to warm it etc.
11. The Earth is a double planetary system. The relatively moderate tidal effects on the earth’s oceans may have been necessary to provide the environment for life to form. Most planets only have satellites much smaller than they are.
12. Anything else?

Gus Van Horn said...

Points mostly well-taken, but at least regarding (7), I think a major point of the article is that people generally did not think large planets typically appeared so close stars.

Steve D said...

I agree. I certainly wasn't intending to comment on how the picture of ‘normal’ solar system evolution has changed over time. Most of the points I mentioned are other items which have been known for a while and should have clued astronomers in to the fact that life, particularly intelligent life might not be as common as once was thought. In fact it could be very rare.

However, whenever I bring this subject up to people, it meets a great deal of resistance as if the idea that we MUST be average and that intelligent life must be common is somehow set in their minds. Children’s books continue to insist that our sun is an average star, based on the fact that an equal number of star classes exist hotter and cooler than G but ignore the fact that all of the classes hotter than the sun together make up only 3% of the stars, and that our sun is one of the very hottest in its class.

What interests me more than the idea itself, is the resistance to it. Yet fifty years of scanning the sky has netted us nothing. Though the absence of evidence cannot be taken as evidence of absence, it’s an intriguing result none the less.

BTW, number 12 in my list is; life seemed to develop very quickly on the earth, but remained solely prokaryotic for a vey long time. It took over a billion years for eukaryotes to appear, two billion years for multi cellular life, more than 3 billion years for them to become common and four billion years for intelligent life.

If the length of time it took intelligent life to develop on earth is any indication (and of course generalizing with a sample size of 1 is dangerous), it is at least possible humans might be one of the first.

Gus Van Horn said...

The first or the only.

Snedcat said...

Steve D writes, "What interests me more than the idea itself, is the resistance to it." Good point. Part of it, I think, is the simple point that if the origin of life is a natural thing, then similar starting points should give similar results, right? And there's no reason to think Earth is that special. But as you point out, maybe it is in crucial ways--of which not all were obviously so that many years ago.

But part of it is a reaction against theologically based ideas of the divine specialness of mankind, and part a desire for other intelligences to chat with, and part, I think, the fact that the physical sciences don't devote much attention to historical contingency: uniformity of causes yield uniformity of results, which has important consequences for the methodology of the physical / exact sciences. But the historical sciences focus on explaining historical uniqueness, and that brings in a different focus and set of methodologies.

As seen, for example, in the view common among physical science types that a book like Guns, Germs, and Steel is more scientific and thus truly explanatory than history proper because it lays bare supposed universal constraints on human societies--but to a historian that means such approaches explain absolutely nothing historically: you can't model or explain variables with constants. Such constraints, if valid, are of course essential for understanding human actors; but history consists of explaining the unique acts of unique actors, all different from each other despite being subject to the same broad natural constraints. And somewhat the same considerations hold for evolutionary history.

Snedcat said...

That is to say, the physical sciences focus on similarities and regularities, the historical sciences on salient differences. (But we of course can only determine which differences are salient after we know something of the regularities involved. This is perhaps another factor for scientism in historical explanations.)

And this is important in the whole question of evolutionary history because not only are we still working out the regularities involved, but since in the matter of biogenesis we have a sample size of 1 there's little scope for historical analysis by comparing and contrasting the effects of salient differences, and so the physical science focus on regularity is the only real contender; and the supposition of regularity = generality naturally follows.

Gus Van Horn said...

"[P]art of it is a reaction against theologically based ideas of the divine specialness of mankind..."

I suspect something similar of a tendency I have observed among young scientists of favoring (or at least paying lip service to) determinism: the only proponents of free will that most of them know of are religious mystics.

But even if intelligent life were (or could be) common in the universe, it has to arise somewhere first, and until it arises elsewhere, the first is the only.

Steve D said...

'the first is the only'
Of course that has to be true; it is inarguable. The first will always be the first, no matter what. Only in a universe unbounded by time would that not be true.
I think the fundamental reason many young scientists favor determinism is the same reason they rebel against ‘the special Earth’ or ‘catastrophic history’ theories. It is why for the last four hundred years, the scientific consensus has moved steadily towards the idea that we DO NOT hold a special place in the cosmos.
This brings me to the point I was alluding to in the previous post but was a bit hesitant to blurt out – believing that we are the only or the first, though it may be merely a matter of fact, stinks of pride, which according to the ancients and moderns alike is the deadliest of all sins.
How horrible it must be for them; when and if the understanding dawns that there might indeed be something special about us humans.

Gus Van Horn said...

We already are special, in the sense of possessing a rational faculty. It is interesting what counts as special to determinists and others who can't abide by man being special.