Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Wild and wacky, redux

Technology is a fascinating thing, as some recent articles remind me.

DNA does the splits
Case in point: "Bioengineers Make DNA Into a Living Flash Drive." That's handy when you want to provide on-board storage to your biotech products. More than compact memory stands between us and nanobots -- but memory is one of the challenges. Alas, there's a bit of scaling up to be done ... as the prototype encodes only a single bit.

Still in a medical-nanotech vein (yes, pun intended), "Nanoparticle Completely Eradicates Hepatitis C Virus." If a nanoparticle can be designed for that virus, why not others? I'm game for a cure for the common cold.

Still thinking small, "Transistor Made Using a Single Atom May Help Beat Moore’s Law." Like the living flash memory, this was only a proof of concept, alas.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Clearing the decks

While (quasi-dyslexically) clearing my desk. That is to say, I have a new PC arriving in a day or so. Seems like a good time to clear out my backlog of astro-centric news items.

In "The *big* picture (part 2)," I noted the recent find of a lake on Titan. Had I waited a bit, I could have reported an entire ocean. See "Saturn moon Titan may harbor ocean below surface." A most interesting world, Titan.

Wonder when an asteroid might rain down on your head? You're not alone. See "The B612 Foundation Announces The First Privately Funded Deep Space Mission." 

And if you think B612 is an obscure vitamin ... add The Little Prince to your to-read list. From Wikipedia:
The novella is both the most read and most translated book in the French language, and was voted the best book of the 20th century in France. Translated into more than 250 languages and dialects, selling over a million copies per year with sales totaling over 200 million copies worldwide, it has become one of the best-selling books ever published.
Meanwhile, it turns out Pluto has yet another companion. See "It's not lunacy: Not-a-planet Pluto boasts 5 moons." The newly discovered body's exact size remains uncertain, but it's no more than fifteen miles across. I find it inspiring that such a tiny rock can be spotted from billions of miles away.

And on the topic of small things far away, see "New Planet Found, Smaller Than Earth, Orbiting Distant Star." (That said, I have a quibble about the headline. Although all stars -- including our sun -- are distant by earthly standards, as stars go this one is a neighbor at a mere thirty-three light-years.) And to be clear, this newfound world wasn't seen per se; it was merely detectable as a slight stellar dimming as the exoplanet passed between star and Earth.

And moving from astronomy to astrobiology ...

Tuesday, July 17, 2012


Undertaking to write a novel is a major commitment -- of time, effort, and self. It's no wonder that to first see one's novel in print (or publicly available electrons) is a rush. I believe that's true no matter how often one has gone through the process.

As is the case today, with Energized. This is my dozenth novel -- and to see it released is as satisfying as my first time.

Maybe that's because, at least in hindsight, this novel was inevitable. The cover alone tells you this is a book involving near-Earth space. I'm a physicist and computer scientist. Before I graduated to full-time writing, I spent thirty years at high tech companies, seven of those as a NASA contractor. I've flown the space-shuttle simulator (and respect the heck out of anyone who could fly the real thing -- it had the aerodynamic properties of a brick). I've toured the space-station simulator and a comsat factory, and watched a space-shuttle launch. I just wish that, like the hero of Energized, I had had the opportunity to visit -- again, reference the nearby cover -- a solar power satellite on location.

So what is this novel about? I’m glad you asked.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Higgs (of course)

The week's hot news (beyond the literal heat in this part of the world) is the discovery of a "Higgs Boson-like particle" by two research teams at CERN. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was built for Higgs hunting more than for any other purpose.

A Higgs (in theory) falls apart
I've mentioned the hunt for the Higgs Boson on many occasions (IIRC, back to "Thanksgiving appetizers" where I put a Higgs discovery on my 2009 holiday wish list).

Most regular readers of this blog will already have read and seen many of the reports. (If you've been at the beach, sans iPad, beating the heat, here are a couple. From Slate, via physicist Lawrence Krauss, "A Quantum Leap: The discovery of the Higgs boson particle puts our understanding of nature on a new firm footing." And from The Wall Street Journal, "How to Be Sure You've Found a Higgs Boson.")

These are two of the more careful, thoughtful pieces I've seen. Krauss is in the minority even to hint at the sad fact this discovery could have come much sooner -- and been a triumph of American science -- if Congress hadn't killed off the Superconducting Super Collider in 1993.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Solar power: come rain or come night

With the Rio+20 eco/enviro summit newly ended, this seems like an appropriate time to post about solar power.

A solar garden
Some would have it that solar energy can meet a large fraction of the world's energy requirements. The International Energy Agency, in fact, would have it that "Solar power could produce 25% of global electricity by 2050." (Not to be outdone, Greenpeace claims "Wind Power Can Produce One Third of World's Electricity by 2050." Wind power is, of course, merely another way to leverage solar energy.)

Of course the wind doesn't always blow, or the sun shine. The more we come to depend on intermittent power sources like these, the more we will also need to store power for later use (if part of the time we can generate a surplus). Logical sites for solar farms (deserts) and wind farms (on open plains and high hills; off the coasts) may be remote from where power is needed -- say, Minneapolis in the winter. Read the preceding as: lots of new infrastructure (with attendant costs) for power generation, power storage, and long-range power distribution. A more subtle point is that a power grid reliant upon many intermittent supplies will also need improvements to maintain stability while generators and storage sites ramp up and down, come on and offline.

And land ... lots of land. Energy sprawl, some call it. Wind and sunlight are diffuse sources of energy.