Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Venus is a Hot Planet. Oh, and the Temperature at the Surface is also Pretty High

False-color image of Venus' clouds taken by the Venus Express spacecraft

 Mother of Rome, delight of Gods and men,
   Dear Venus that beneath the gliding stars
  Makest to teem the many-voyaged main
      And fruitful lands—for all of living things
        Through thee alone are evermore conceived
-Lucretius, On the Nature of Things (1st century BCE); 
translation by William Ellery Leonard

Venus. I've long argued that, of all the planets and all the worlds in our solar system outside of Earth, Venus is the most likely to have once had life. Stress the "once" there, for sure. Where Venus may have once had a biosphere, it's now a world obscured by clouds, overriding a dense atmosphere, and the surface is hotter than a pizza oven. Seriously, the surface of Venus is over 863o Fahrenheit! That's a scorcher for sure.

I'm not going to just drop a lot of facts about Venus on you (you can find such stuff on the NASA and Wikipedia pages for Venus), though I definitely recommend watching this short SciShow video on what it's like on Venus:

Venus definitely hasn't been getting the press it deserves of late. So much of our solar system exploration in the public mindset has been focused on Mars and Europa. Although I adore Mars and icy worlds like Europa are important for my graduate research, Venus is too close and too interesting for us to not get excited about that planet's history. That said, something has just popped up recently: the HAVOC (the High Altitude Venus Operational Concept) mission concept design has recent;y made its way around the interwebs. HAVOC, a concept that was developed by NASA's Space Mission Analysis Branch, is an idea of the possible future human exploration of Venus by using high-altitude balloons (thinking long-term, something like the Cloud City of Bespin but here in our own solar system). If you're into the future of human space exploration, Venus, or even the freaggin' awesome idea of exploring other worlds in balloons, then check out this video from NASA:

Pretty cool, huh?! I'd gladly volunteer to be an early explorer in a cloud city on Venus.  

But why would we want to build a cloud city on Venus? What would be the return? I recently gave a guest lecture for a friend's class at Front Range Community College. We ended the class in a large discussion about the costs and benefits of sending humans to Mars. One student highly questioned the pay-off for human exploration, especially since any reward for exploration (outside of the satisfaction of our human curiosity and urge to explore) must be long-term (i.e. technology and resource development) or seems untenable (e.g. expanding our Earth's biosphere to avoid potential full-scale extinction). I've heard these arguments before and, although I will always argue the opposite in favor of human exploration and colonization of space, we must consider the costs and benefits at all steps in our endeavors. 

Sending humans to Venus (especially building cloud cities) would obviously be expensive, but Venus is too intriguing to be left alone. Outside of the long term payoffs of exploration, like building new technologies and preparing for a future as residents of the entire solar system, I think we have a lot to learn from Venus. For instance:


  • Planets with runaway greenhouses and hostile surfaces like our Venus may be quite common in the universe, so Venus may be a good testbed for our future studies of such exoplanets.
  • Venus has a storied history in human culture and understanding. Once known as the Morning and/or Evening Star, Venus is the brightest object in our night's sky after the Sun and the Moon (barring supernovae and meteors).
  • Venus may have once been home to an alien biosphere. This is something I've been suggesting for a long time. Due to the similarities between Earth and Venus, I find it likely that Venus had the best shot in the early solar system of also forming life (far more than Mars). But, who mourns for life on Venus? This concept is not often discussed, since many people believe that any signs of such ancient Venusian are no longer remnant. Still, as the cosmobiologist, I'm intrigued by Venus and I want to see humans go there to explore. 

Venus is definitely a hot planet. But don't take my word for it: check out this music video on the "Hot Planet" from Distant Vantage Media Labs

Need some more information about our exploration of Venus? Check out this list of all of the spacecraft that we have sent to Venus.

Also, check out this related blog post from my friend, Julia DeMarines, at Pale Blue Blog on Astrobiology Magazine.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Intelligence is Sexy: The Smackdown of Vani Hari by SciBabe

Intelligence can be ridiculously sexy. Perhaps you've heard lately about the online smackdown that Vani Hari (who calls herself the Food Babe) received by Yvette Guinevere, a.k.a. SciBabe. The smackdown started when SciBabe posted a blog in Gawker titled The "Food Babe" Blogger is Full of Shit

Vani Hari has made a living by speaking out against the supposed "toxins" in our food, but she does so in a vein of ignorance and lacking scientific literacy that has become common amongst the yuppy crowd (her followers are much the same misinformed followers as the proponents of the antivaxxer movement). In that Gawker article, SciBabe pointed out some of the fallacious bullshit that's become common fair amongst the non-GMO, organic-only, better-than-thou crowd, but, more importantly, SciBabe woke up some of the media to the fact that Vani Hari's celebrity has nothing to do with her actual credibility

Although I don't trust food corporations to make healthy decisions over profit-driven decisions, I also know that making rational decisions with what we eat and learning about what's in our food is far better than disavowing or fearing anything we don't understand. SciBabe's smackdown of Vani Hari is a solid reminder that intelligence is sexy because intelligence is awesome. Screw living in fear due to ignorance when you can live in strength through understanding.

With our age of the internet, we constantly have information at our fingertips. It seems like most of the information we come across is pretty much worthless and we need an educated and rational society of people to sift through the garbage to find the gold. The recent smackdown of Vani Hari gives me hope for the future of humanity, not because of Yvette Guinevere's sound logic and reason (again intelligence is pretty damned sexy) but rather because of the huge uptick of folks who have learned about Hari's bullshit fear-mongering.

I look forward to reading more of SciBabe's bunk-busting of pseudoscience bullshit with reason and logic. Intelligence really is sexy.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Silly online math puzzles: Here are three more for April 2015

I've been having a pretty fun time with sharing some of these puzzles that come across my Facebook feed, so here's another installment of some of the silly puzzles that have been posted by my friends and my solutions to the problems.

The puzzle above should be an easy one if you follow the order of operations. The answer should be C: 50. If you wanted to rewrite the equation to make it a little easier to understand, you could add some parentheses to make it:

7 + (7/7) + (7*7) - 7

Which can then be simplified by taking care of the division and multiplication to yield:

+ (1) + (49) - 7

or, removing parentheses:

+ 1 + 49 - 7

Which one can then easily see is equal to 50:

+ 1 + 49 - 7 = 50

Trova la Soluzione!

As I mentioned in a recent post, those bits of text people keep adding to these puzzles suggesting that they're "only for geniuses" or that only some percentage of people get them right are absolutely bogus. Anyone can get the right answer if they understand what the puzzle is looking for and are willing to spend enough time working for it. Also, it's highly unlikely for most of these problems that there has been a significant portion of the population who've been tested with these problems to be able to make statistical statements about the likelihood of finding the answer. Still, I love puzzles and math problems, so I can't help myself. Take this one, for instance:

Trova la soluzione is Italian for "find the solution". I don't speak Italian, but in these glorious days of online information accessibility, we pretty much have Star Trek's universal translator at our fingertips whenever we're online.

Were you able to figure out the answer for the problem above? It's another that's pretty easy once you figure out the operation that the problem wants you to apply to each line. In this case, the final answer should be 126. If you start by adding the numbers on the left side of each equation, you should quickly see that there's a connection between that sum and the number on the right. In the first line, 2 plus 3 gives you 5 which can be multiplied by 2 to get 10. In the second line, 8 plus 4 gives you 12 which can then be multiplied by 8 to get 96. So, it pops out pretty quickly that you have to add the two numbers on the left and then multiply that sum by the first number on the left. Pretty simple, right?

Okay, well here's a slightly different type of silly online puzzle. This one isn't built from numbers, but rather asks you to think about what you're seeing. Take a gander at this one, trova la soluzione, and then tell me what you think in the comments:

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The soundtrack for Uncharted 3 is incredible!

While recovering from a recent sinus infection, I decided to play the game Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, the third installment in the Uncharted series. This series of video games follows the adventures of treasure-hunter Nathan Drake as he journeys across the world in search of fantastical treasures, fighting mercenaries and pirates and working his way through booby traps in old tombs and lost cities. Something about that "Indiana Jones" kind of archeological adventure has always been exciting for me, so it's not surprising that I enjoy the Uncharted games. 

One thing about this game that I found definitely worth sharing is the soundtrack. The score for this game is amazing and, as I've discovered, is really good for studying. Composed by Greg Edmonson (who also composed the Firefly soundtrack!), the songs are an eclectic mix of worldly tunes that range from slow and somber to fast-paced and riveting. If you're into instrumental music, then you should definitely check out this soundtrack:

Friday, April 3, 2015

Best Bud in Boulder and some Theme Remixes by Eclectic Method

I've been away from blogging here for a little while. The past couple of weeks have been pretty crazy. I had to crunch hard to get a lot of research and classwork done before my best friend, Nick, came to visit from Pennsylvania. He and I've been buds since we were 12. This was the first time he's traveled to the western parts of the country. Needless to say we hiked hard and had a fantastic time.

Here are a couple pictures of Nick on his trip to Colorado:
My best friend, Nick, on top of Bear Peak in Boulder, Colorado - March 2015

Nick pointing out the black diamond (most difficult) snowshoe trail marker as we embark on the most technical route at Brainard Lake in the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area

Theme Remixes

Since I don't have a lot of time to write right now, I thought I'd share some interesting electronic video mashups I found recently. Although it's not exactly the kind of electronic that I would normally listen to, I like how Eclectic Method took the lines and theme songs from some of our favorite films and television shows and remixed them in fun ways.

Check out the remixes for Cosmos, Interstellar and 2001: A Space Odyssey here on A Cosmobiologist's Dream:

Cosmos Jam

Interstellar Rap


Saturday, March 21, 2015

New Horizons, Pluto, and Yuggoth: Is the fastest spacecraft ever launched set to awaken The Abominable Ones?

A digital speculation from Daily Galaxy of what Pluto might look like 
The New Horizons spacecraft is set to make its closest approach to Pluto this summer! Pluto has been the center of discussion and debate in the last decade due to it's reassignment to the new classification as a dwarf planet in 2006. Beside my excitement for the New Horizons mission and all of the awesome imagery and data that are soon to come from Pluto, a little part of me revels in the fantasy of New Horizons waking up an ancient evil race of beings coming from that distant world, which they call Yuggoth, as imagined by the great horror writer H.P. Lovecraft.

A visualization by John L. Cherevka (skullbeast on DeviantArt) of what a Mi-go may look like, based on The Whisperer in Darkness (1931)

Home of the Mi-go and target of New Horizons

H.P. Lovecraft's blend of mystical horror and sci-fi horror from the early 1900s is still regarded as some of the best writing of the 20th century in the horror genre. It's a tragedy that Lovecraft never knew the impact his writing would have; he died in poverty, having only ever published his stories in pulp magazines. Lovecraft's stories often involved mysticism and mythology. He created a universe of ancient evil beings, including the famed Cthulhu Mythos. Of Lovecraft's work the great horror writer Stephen King has said, "I think it is beyond doubt that H. P. Lovecraft has yet to be surpassed as the twentieth century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale." (American Heritage, 1995)

Lovecraft introduced the term Yuggoth within the Cthulhu Mythos in his collection of sonnets, Fungi from Yuggoth, though the first elaboration about the planet of Yuggoth and the creatures known as Mi-go were first depicted in his short story The Whisperer in Darkness. Written in September of 1930, this story appears to have been partially inspired by the discovery of Pluto by Clyde Tombaugh in February of that same year. In that story, we learn that the Mi-go are a race of alien creatures from Yuggoth, a distant world at the end of our solar system. The Mi-go are large, pink, crustacean-like fungi who can transport themselves through space to travel between worlds. These beings appear to be evil to humans who encounter them, though we're never fully informed of their intentions within Lovecraft's work.

Of Yuggoth, Lovecraft wrote "Yuggoth... is a strange dark orb at the very rim of our solar system... There are mighty cities on Yuggoth—great tiers of terraced towers built of black stone... The sun shines there no brighter than a star, but the beings need no light. They have other subtler senses, and put no windows in their great houses and temples... The black rivers of pitch that flow under those mysterious cyclopean bridges—things built by some elder race extinct and forgotten before the beings came to Yuggoth from the ultimate voids—ought to be enough to make any man a Dante or Poe if he can keep sane long enough to tell what he has seen..."

Allicorn on Bandcamp offers a full recording of Fungi from Yuggoth as read by Paul MacLean.

Lovecraft was likely thinking of Pluto when he wrote his stories of the Mi-go and their world Yuggoth. Although complete works of fiction, it's still fun to fantasize about the possibility for some unthinkable and horrible discoveries to occur when New Horizons passes by Pluto in July of this year (the fly-by is scheduled for 15 July 2015). Will we discover that Pluto is more similar to the 8 planets of our solar system than it appears, or will we confirm that Pluto has far more in common with the Kuiper Belt Objects of the outer solar system? Or, rather, will we discover that Pluto is really the home to a hideous race of alien creatures with potentially evil intentions?

The blog Lovecraftian Science posits this question with regard to what New Horizons may find when it reaches Yuggoth this year:

"Will it find oceans of semi-frozen methane slowly vaporizing into interstellar space while the stars continue to shine?  Or will it find… 'black streets where abominable blasphemies moved among hideous gardens of those greyish nodding fungi and vast black windowless towers?' – from Ramsey Campbell’s The Tower of Yuggoth."

Of course, there's not a great reason to think that we'll discover alien life on Pluto, especially intelligent alien life, but it's still fun to let our minds wonder about the possibilities for alien life out there. Much as Lovecraft imagined races of alien beings with a completely different moral structure than our own, I like to imagine sometimes that our contact with intelligent alien life lies just around the corner with our continued exploration of space. Maybe there are alien races out there right now who have heard the radio signals we've broadcasted into space. Perhaps there's an alien race that have been watching our solar system to see when we advance enough to control the light that leaves our star system. There are so many possibilities when it comes to what we may find in our exploration of life in the universe. It makes me giddy sometimes just to think about it.

With a closing thought, perhaps we shouldn't call Pluto by the name Yuggoth. Perhaps we could do some justice to the memory of H.P. Lovecraft by using that name in a different way. Lovecraft's stories were motivated by his interests in science as well as mysticism. Perhaps, one great way to reflect on Lovecraft's stories of Yuggoth and the Mi-go is to use these names for future discoveries of astronomical objects. Indeed, the Italian astronomer Albino Carbognani suggested on the blog Urania in 2012 that if we discover another dwarf planet beyond Pluto, that we should consider calling it Yuggoth in honor of Lovecraft. That would be a great way to honor Lovecraft and to have a little fun with a name for a newly discovered object in our solar system. 

I'll surely be writing a lot more in the coming months with regard to the New Horizons mission, and if strange alien fungi creatures decide to attack our spacecraft, you'll definitely be able to read about it here on A Cosmobiologist's Dream!

Perhaps the Mi-go are not just fungi, but are fun guys (The Fun Guy from Yuggoth by DrewArt on Deviant Art)

Note: I'm personally amongst those who don't think that Pluto should be equally classified with the terrestrial or jovian planets, though I also think the current IAU definition of "planet" is pretty unfulfilling. I think most of the people who argue that Pluto should still be considered a planet do so out of sentimentality more than anything else, although there are good arguments for just accepting Pluto as a planet and then counting all the other dwarf planets as planets as well (though we would probably end up with over 100 planets that way). What do you think about Pluto's status as a dwarf planet? Feel free to leave a comment about your stance on Pluto, planet or not.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Leviathan: a short from Ruairi Robinson on hunting for flying alien behemoths

Concept art for Leviathan by Jim Murray (based on creature by Jordu Schell)  

I came across a Kotaku post today that introduced me to a short film just released by Ruairi Robinson (known for his sci-fi short films, but also for directing The Last Days on Mars). The film, called "The Leviathan" is a teaser/pitch from Robinson for an idea about humans hunting large alien creatures which fly through the atmosphere of some alien world.

The film begins with the lines: "By the early 22nd century mankind had colonized many worlds. Faster than light travel was made possible by harvesting exotic matter from the eggs of the largest species mankind has ever seen. Those that take part in the hunt are mostly involuntary labor." Okay, that sounds intriguing enough. The film is just under 4 minutes in length. Give it a watch and see what you think:

Pretty cool, huh? Definitely looks like it could become a pretty sweet film, yet there are definitely some aspects of the film that I would have done differently. 

For instance, it doesn't make any sense to have a guy standing on the deck of that airship. It kind of reminded me of the scene from Deadspace 2 where Isaac Clark and Ellie have to use a mining drill to carve their way through the rock to the government sector of Titan Station. In that scene, Isaac has to stand on the deck of the drill to kill off necromorphs that are trying to board. It was a fun way to setup the game, but it doesn't really make all that much sense for a film. 

I have read some comments that the airships shouldn't have just one guy with a harpoon gun on the front. Even though the airships in the film beg the question of why not just try building bigger ships with better firepower, it's kind of fun to have one little harpoon gun on the end of a ship that may or may not be destroyed by the large creatures. I think that kind of makes it fun.

I had to wonder why they didn't give the Leviathan larger wings/fins. Since it appears to float well in that atmosphere we can make the logical conclusions that the atmosphere is probably very dense (could even be a gas giant world) and that the leviathan itself is probably not very dense (it's far easier to float when you're full of gas). Still, it seems like such a large creature would have larger fins (but maybe I'm thinking too Earth-centrically about it). For that matter, we're left wondering why they're going after the Leviathan when it's the creature's eggs that are the valuable resource. Perhaps the creatures store the eggs internally until they are ready to be born into the atmosphere or perhaps the creature guards the eggs and the humans choose to hunt the Leviathan first: there are a lot of ways to take such a story.

There are always plenty of things that some of us would do differently in making a film a writing a story, but Robinson's Leviathan looks like it could be a promising story of future resource exploration while harkening back to a time where we ventured on the seas to hunt some of the most beautiful creatures that had ever come to be on our planet (which obliterated many whale populations; driving many close to extinction). Whaling in space... for space whales. Interesting idea.

Jack Reickel's Space Whale
Space Whales

Space Whales are a trope that have been used and reused many times, and, although Robinson's Leviathan isn't exactly a space whale (it appears to live in an atmosphere), many people are making the connection between previous space whale stories and Robinson's teaser. For instance, in the episode Möbius Dick of the cartoon show Futurama, the crew of Planet Express take on a 4-dimensional space whale that looks very similar to Robinson's Leviathan (see the image below). There have been space whales like the Star Whale in Dr. Who, the Acanti in the Uncanny X-Men, and the Whaladons from the Star Wars universe. The idea of large, whale-like creatures has been around for decades in science fiction. Will we ever discover creatures like the Leviathan living on other worlds? I sure hope so.

The White Space Whale in Futurama

Update (24 March 2015):

I just came across an article in Popular Mechanics announcing that Simon Kinberg and Neil Blomkamp have decided to support The Leviathan and help bring this idea to feature-length. Here's a little more about this announcement from The Verge.