Monday, December 29, 2014

Brave new world(s)

I'll be ending the year on an introspective note. We'll start with the state of cyber-vandalism (or -terrorism, or -warfare -- people's descriptor of choice seems to vary), which, better late than never, has finally reached mainstream awareness. But there's upbeat material, too: some truly awesome physics/space/astronomy highlights. I'll conclude 2014's posts with a personal item.

The recent Sony hack, attributed by the FBI to the North Koreans, and the associated (temporary) coerced pulling by Sony Pictures of The Interview, are getting all the headlines, but the cyberwarfare peril has been evident for a while. We found out last month that the Stuxnet worm was not one of a kind: "Meet Regin, Super Spyware That's Been Attacking Computers for Years."

Regin has been out in the digital wild since at least 2008, operates much like a back-door Trojan, and has been used against governments, internet providers, telecom companies, researchers, businesses, and private individuals, says Symantec. Regin affects Windows-based computers and operates in five stages, giving the attacker a "powerful framework for mass surveillance" and offers flexibility so attackers can customize the packages embedded within the malware.

While the following is a matter of (informed) opinion rather than quantifiable fact, consider the possibility that "Threat of computer hackers has reportedly superseded terrorism."

U.S. intelligence bluntly said this now trumps terrorism as the biggest threat to the United States.

“We are all very, very vulnerable,” said Phyllis Schneck, department under secretary for cybersecurity.

Schnecks runs the Department of Homeland Security’s Cyber-Fighting Center.

Now for that promised upbeat material ...

Unless you watch the slits...
Quantum mechanics is the solid science that underlies modern electronics. And so, our cells and tablets and laptops -- their innards designed according to the mathematics of QM -- all work. But beneath the math, what does QM mean? What's physically going on? That has confounded the brightest lights in physics for a century. (Side note: if you have the chance, see my related short story, "Great Minds.")

One of the weird aspects of QM is the particle/wave duality of "things" (say, electrons) at a quantum scale. If you shoot an electron at a screen through a barrier with two slits, you observe that either (a) the electron, as a particle, goes through a particular slit or (b) the electron, as a wave, goes through both slits at once, creating an interference pattern on the screen. The outcome depends on how you observe the experiment. Eerie, no?

QM is also characterized by the Heisenberg uncertainty principle: that the more precisely you determine one property (say, position) of that electron, the less precisely you can know the value of a complementary property (in this case, the electron's momentum).

In what seems to be an astonishingly clever breakthrough, theorists recently determined that wave/particle duality and the uncertainty principle are, in fact, two ways of looking at the same phenomenon. One less weirdness is A Good Thing. For a more complete explanation, see "Quantum physics just got less complicated."

Seriously cool
Who can forget the excitement of ESA's Philae probe landing on a comet? Not Physics World. See "Comet landing named Physics World 2014 Breakthrough of the Year" (note: that article offers nine other physics highlights of 2014). Comets are time capsules from the dawn of the Solar System, and so the Rosetta mission and its Philae lander have already taught us a lot. We'll likely learn more when the comet's orbit takes Philae out of the shadows to where the sun can recharge Philae's batteries.

Around and round we go
A physics mystery not quite as longstanding as those of QM or the details of the formation of the Solar System is the nature of dark matter. We infer the presence of dark matter by its gravitational effects (for example, pointing to dark matter to explain the otherwise inexplicable observed orbits of stars about the center of mass of the galaxy). It's possible, of course, that we don't understand gravity as well as we think we do. It sure would be nice to actually detect -- not merely infer -- dark matter.

Of course, dark matter is called dark for a reason: we can't see it. More generally, it is believed that dark matter does not interact with any electromagnetic waves (of which visible light is a small subset). But perhaps particles of dark matter decay into normal matter, which can then give off EM waves. One dark-matter theory (of many) has it so -- and perhaps there is now support for that theory. See "Did a European spacecraft detect dark matter?:

Data from a European Space Agency spacecraft shows an X-ray signal that corresponds to no known element or particle, leading some scientists to believe they have finally detected dark matter.

On a much less cosmic scale -- but sure to delight -- consider that "Nanotube-based Li-ion Batteries Can Charge to Near Maximum in Two Minutes." Wouldn't that put nanotech into the mainstream?

The observatory that could
Remember when the Kepler (Sun-orbiting) observatory, a key instrument in the hunt for exoplanets, was put out of commission by a failed gyro? A clever fix -- using sunlight pressure on the spacecraft's solar panels to help keep the observatory properly oriented -- has given Kepler new life and purpose. And so, it was great to read that, "After a hardware failure, the Kepler spacecraft finds a second life — and an important new exoplanet."

For years, America's crewed space program has seemed pointless -- certainly goal-less. IMO, the recent test of the Orion capsule, an Apollo-capsule update, doesn't negate that harsh assessment. It's not like NASA has a launcher ready to take Orion to the Moon, or an asteroid, or -- where most of us have hoped Orion will ultimately go -- Mars. It's not like there's an actual plan or a budget to take astronauts anywhere but low Earth orbit (while paying the Russians $70M a pop to deliver Americans to orbit). It's not like there's been much progress on the science that would let astronauts undertake a deep-space mission, much less live off the land on Mars.

The next step?
In a bit of rare (by recent standards), creative thinking at NASA, check out this report: "NASA Study Proposes Airships, Cloud Cities for Venus Exploration: Should crewed exploration of Venus come before we try to go to Mars?" The article makes a strong case. 

When cyber-vulnerabilities get you down -- and how can they not? -- there is comfort to be found, I believe, in reflecting in just how clever we can be when set our minds to it.

Looking for more diversion? I'm finishing the year by (finally, you say) setting up a page on Facebook. As I type, my FB page is brand new -- but one has to start somewhere. I hope you'll follow me there, too.

And I suspect that'll be it for me till (one hopes, a happier) 2015!


jaguar said...

Happy new year, Sir.
As you say, although there are fear in the world, there are discoveries and inventions in it more.
I have a hope in this year.
However, Japanese media says much about economic policy and war, but does not talk much about the science and education.
It is one of fear.

Edward M. Lerner said...

And happy new year to you, too, Jaguar.

It's not only the Japanese media. In the US, science coverage is terrible -- and often focused on the negative. From reports of medical news, for example, you'd never guess that life expectancies keep rising.