Friday, August 28, 2015

Brief Hiatus

Me standing by some cool rocks on my favorite secret beach in California

Hi all!

I must apologize for not having any recent posts. I've been working on squaring away some things in my research and public engagement endeavors. I should be back to posting between one and three times each week in the very near future.

Until then, here are some quotes from other people that may make you ponder your own place in life and the universe:

Believe those who are seeking the truth; doubt those who find it. 
~André Gide

Only that in you which is me can hear what I'm saying. 
~Baba Ram Dass

Before enlightenment — chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment — chop wood, carry water. 
~Zen Buddhist Proverb

Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple. 
~Dr Seuss

You can find some more thought-provoking quotes here.


Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Beyond Our Solar System's Plutonian Shore: Whither Pluto After New Horizons?

An artist's conception of New Horizons passing Pluto and its satellites (NASA)
It has definitely been a big year for one little world in our solar system. 

The flyby of Pluto by the New Horizons spacecraft on July 14th of this year has spawned renewed interests in the king of the Kuiper Belt, lord of the dwarf planets

From reigniting the discussions over Pluto's designation as a dwarf planet to revealing that the surface of Pluto holds geological mysteries for us to explore, New Horizons has been an amazing success. As the spacecraft continues on its mission and leaves Pluto behind, many of us wonder what might come next for the 17th largest object in our solar system.

This image has probably been the widest shared image from the New Horizons mission thus far (NASA)

Pluto has long fascinated many of us. Since the accidental discovery of Pluto by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930 (he was definitely looking for a planet, but it's very lucky he actually found Pluto) and its being named for the god of the underworld in Roman mythology by an eleven year-old girl, Pluto has made many of us wonder about what lies beyond the planets in our solar system and has inspired storytellers of all sorts to question what remote regions of star systems might be like. 

H.P. Lovecraft included Pluto in his fictional mythologies of the "ancient evil ones", it's believed by many that Disney named their famous cartoon dog after Pluto, Doctor Who visited Pluto in a fictional future, and in the Mass Effect video-game universe Charon, Pluto's largest moon, is the locale where an alien device for faster-than-light travel is discovered. In fact, there have been a large number of science fiction stories that have included mention of Pluto. Part of the allure of Pluto for storytelling has been the uncertainty about what kind of world it is.

We've often talked about Pluto as being a frozen world touched only by the dimmest light from the Sun; a little, icy ball enshrouded in mystery. But, thanks to the New Horizons mission, we now know so much more about Pluto: we know that there are icy mountains on Pluto that rise as high as 3.5 km above the surface, there are variations in the composition of surface ices (most notably causing the "heart" on Pluto; see above image), and that the moons of Pluto have their own surprises in store.

Also, it's great to know that scientists from the New Horizons team have been naming the features on Pluto after various science fiction and fantasy stories as well as from the history of exploration. There are the Cthulhu Regio, Vader Crater, Sputnik Planum, Viking Terra, and Uhuru and Spock Craters, just to name a few. 

Some of the surface features of Pluto
New Horizons' mission is continuing on now that the spacecraft has screamed past Pluto. The current plan for New Horizons is to try to fly by some other Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) before continuing on and away. Much like the Pioneer 10 and 11 and Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft, New Horizons will continue sailing away from us, leaving our solar system behind in the decades and centuries to come. It will have long-since lost the capability of communicating with us or even operating, but maybe thousands or millions of years from now it will bump into some alien spacecraft and present a mystery to whoever finds it.

I used to think that New Horizons was going fast enough to overtake Voyager 1 at some point in the near future, but it turns out that New Horizons will never catch up with Voyager 1. This means that Voyager 1 will continue to be the furthest stretch of humanity in the universe for quite some time to come.

"Goodbye Pluto!" A look back from New Horizons (NASA)

Now that New Horizons has left the Plutonian system, a lot of people have wondered what else lies in store for Pluto?

Of course, there's the still the debate as to whether or not Pluto should be called a planet. You may know that Pluto is currently classified as a dwarf planet due to a vote amongst the International Astronomical Union (IAU) back in 2006. This decision caused a lot of public backlash, mostly for sentimental reasons. A lot of people felt like Pluto had always been a planet in their lifetimes so it should stay that way (of course, that's not how science works). There are certainly some good scientific reasons to call Pluto a planet, but, as many people point out, if we call Pluto a planet, then there are a lot of other worlds in the solar system that we'll have to call planets as well. These other worlds are also currently known as dwarf planets, and include the likes of Makemake and Eris (it was really the discovery of Eris that became the impetus for reclassifying Pluto). 

I personally tend to be on the fence about calling Pluto a planet. It most certainly shouldn't be classified along with the terrestrial worlds, like Venus and Earth, and definitely doesn't fit with the gas giants, like Jupiter and Uranus. Yet, the word planet hails from the Greek for "wandering star" (aster planetes) and that original concept could be fit to just about any body in the solar system. Also, to change the classification of Pluto required finding a definition of "planet" that fit the other eight large worlds, but would cut out Pluto and other dwarf planets and moons. That's what led the IAU to come up with their three requirements for a "planethood":

1. A planet is in orbit around the Sun

2. A planet has sufficient mass to assume hydrostatic equilibrium (a nearly round shape)

3. A planet has cleared its orbital neighborhood

The first part takes care of moons that orbit around other bodies, but also fails to include exoplanets (which do not orbit our Sun!). The second part makes a planet anything that is massive enough to draw itself roughly into a spherical shape, which fits with the planets and the dwarf planets, but leaves out many of the smaller asteroids and some moons. Finally, the third part is where they got Pluto. Pluto is a member of the Kuiper Belt and has not "cleared its neighborhood" of other bodies. Pluto is also weird in a lot of other ways (for instance, it's orbital plane is nothing close to that of the eight planets in the solar system), but there are many of us who still love Pluto, regardless of what it's called. 

It seems to many of us that what we choose to call Pluto should be based on science. There are several other dwarf planets and smaller bodies that were once considered planets (including Vesta, Juno, Ceres, and Pallas), so the idea that Pluto should be a planet because it was once a planet makes little to no sense. If we make Pluto a planet, then that means we have many other planets as well (which is not necessarily a problem, but does bother some people). Of course, there is also the potential that we could abandon "planet" as a scientific word and find something else, leaving the word "planet" to be something of a public matter. I suppose the debate over Pluto's status will continue on. How long that debate will last and what its outcomes will be, who knows...

As for what comes next for Pluto: there are no current missions in the works that will visit Pluto. We've learned a lot from New Horizons and will continue learning more as the data stream in over the next 15 months. However, although we'll have gained a lot more knowledge about Pluto, there will surely be many more mysteries to ponder. I would love to see a future where we could afford to send missions to the outer solar system more often, but, for now, we have to hope that there might be another mission to Pluto within our lifetimes.

If you'd like to know more about Pluto and the New Horizons mission, the video below has a lot of great information. It was released before the New Horizons flyby, but still serves as a fantastic resource for interested people:

Also, if you'd like to know more about the New Horizons flyby of Pluto, posted a Complete Coverage article for following the news as it was coming up online.

An image from New Horizons shows a mountain range of ice on Pluto (NASA)

As I close out this post, I leave these questions for you: 

-What comes next for Pluto? 

-Would you like to see another mission to Pluto? A lander this time, maybe? 

-Where do you stand on Pluto's status as a dwarf planet? 

-Finally, if you could name some of the new features on Pluto after science fiction and fantasy or famous exploration stories, which names would you choose and why?

This image shows what appear to be swirling ices of different compositions on Pluto (NASA)

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Dune, 50 Years On

Illustration by Robert Ball
It's now been 50 years since Frank Herbert's science fiction masterpiece was first published (Dune was published on August 1st of 1965). Dune has always been one of my favorite science fiction reads. Herbert's take on planetary ecology, religious mysticism, and the potential for human mind expansion unleashed my young mind to the possibilities for the future of our species. 

I loved the idea of the spice drug, Melange, which could expand human consciousness, allowing some humans to change altogether in physical and mental form and use their mental powers to transport spacecraft faster than light through warped space. The spice also allowed the protagonist, Paul Atreides (Muad'Dib), to access a new plane of mental power and take on the role of religious leader of the known universe. As Herbert later said of Paul Atreides and the Dune story, "I am showing you the superhero syndrome and your own participation in it". I've wondered ever since reading Dune if we would one day see a world where an elite few can use some form of technology or chemistry to propel themselves to a superhuman status (would such people try to rule the rest of us as gods?).

Admittedly, I've never read the sequels to the Dune stories that were written by Frank Herbert's son, Brian Herbert, and Kevin J. Anderson. I've heard good and bad about their additions to the Dune universe. I'm sure at some point I'll get around to them, but for now I like to bask in the glory of the Dune universe that I envisioned after reading Frank Herbert's original work.

Fans of Dune and the sequels are usually also fans of the 1984 film, which was written and directed by David Lynch. It was a decent take on the original story, though the novel had so much political and religious complexity to it that I think the film came up a bit short in delivering the real depth of the Dune story to the audience. In fact, the film Dune was probably one of my favorite movies when I was a kid. 

Michael Warren, a fan of the 1984 film adaptation of Dune, has put together an extended version of the film which is most definitely worth the watch. He recently made an HD remastered version of this film "Dune: The Complete Saga" (the film is available for download by clicking on the link). This new version was mentioned to me by Michael Warren himself (see the comments below). Of his edits in putting this film together he says, "It is far better in terms of video and audio and I managed to find a place for a couple of more narrations from Princess Irulan to help clarify and expand on the story and details. I also utilized more of my editing skills to improve certain transitions and integrations to run far more smoothly and effectively." Get it while it's hot, people!

In the early 2000s the SyFy network (then called the Sci-Fi Channel) released a miniseries version of Dune, Frank Herbert's Dune, as well as a sequel, Frank Herbert's Children of Dune, based on the two novels that follow Dune. I've heard a lot of complaints from Dune fans about these miniseries, but I found them to be far more accurate portrayals of the original novels than the 1984 film. Indeed, with the greater amount of time to work on character and story development, I think the miniseries came closest to what Frank Herbert had envisioned in his stories. 

Of course, there are many of us who lament that Alejandro Jodorowsky's attempt to make a film version of Dune in the 1970s never panned out. Some people have thought of this film as possibly being the greatest science fiction film that was never made. In 2013, a documentary was made that looks back at what Jodorowsky's Dune might have been.

It's now been 50 years since Frank Herbert first gave the Dune story to the world. The original novel has sold millions of copies and the sequels and film adaptations have inspired generations of sci-fi fans to wonder about what could happen if a person was given powers that made them appear as something supernatural. I think I'll read Dune again, in honor of five decades of this fantastic story.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The "Not Planets" World

The image below was created by Kristoffer Åberg (Örebro Astronomi) and shows a map of the Earth with country borders which is overlain with the land areas of the largest worlds in our solar system that are not planets. Check it out:

Monday, August 3, 2015

Meditation with Didgeridoo and Singing Bowls

Two instruments that I've found to have the best ambience for my meditations are the didgeridoo and the singing bowl. Two instruments, both with deep ancestral symbolism for two specific human cultures (Aboriginal Australian for the didgeridoo and ancient Tibetan for the singing bowl), that produce sounds that seem to evoke thoughts of the universe, of the Earth, of our biosphere, and of the depths of our human existence. 

If any of you are like me and enjoy these instruments when you're looking to entertain specific thoughts, to take a mental journey somewhere else, or even just to focus on the here and now and let your thoughts pass by, then you might enjoy the two videos below that mix the didgeridoo and singing bowls together (the first is really short, the second is pretty long):

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Sulfur X-Ray Spectroscopy at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource

The Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource at dusk (credit: SSRL/SLAC)
My lab mates and I are once again back at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL), a synchrotron particle accelerator in Menlo Park, California. We're here to conduct some x-ray microprobe mapping and x-ray absorption spectroscopy on samples from our various research projects (and to sleep very little while working all day and night, but that's just how we roll at synchrotrons). I've been to three synchrotrons so far in my life: the Swiss Light Source (SLS) at the Paul Scherrer Institut near Villagen, Switzerland; the Canadian Light Source (CLS) in Saskatoon, Canada; and, of course, here at SSRL.

SSRL is a particle accelerator where a storage ring (the rough shape of which you can see in the image above) holds electrons that are traveling at close to the speed of light. Synchrotrons are awesome laboratories full of a wide array of instruments that make use of the infrared, visible, ultraviolet, and, especially, x-ray radiation produced when these relativistic electrons spin around the ring. Each of the individual experimental stations at synchrotrons are called Beamlines (BLs). Four of us from our lab group, the Templeton Geomicrobiology Lab, are working on three of these beamlines here at SSRL this weekend. Two of our beamlines are made for x-ray microprobe mapping and microscale x-ray spectroscopy while the other beamline is designed for bulk x-ray absorption spectroscopy.

I wrote a post entitled "Sulfur X-Ray Microprobe and XAS at SSRL: A First Look Into My Beamline Science" back in 2013 where I first introduced some of the work that I've done here at SSRL for my graduate research. That's back when Beamline 14-3 at SSRL was first getting up and running. I'm now conducting more of that work on BL 14-3 (actually, this may be the last time I come to SSRL, at least as a graduate student).

BL 14-3 is an x-ray microprobe beamline. An x-ray microprobe is based on the concept that each element can absorb x-rays of a very specific energy. When the x-rays are absorbed, one thing that can happen is the emission of light. With the sulfur x-ray microprobe on BL 14-3, I'm scanning across polished surfaces of material that I collected at Borup Fiord Pass last summer. The x-ray microprobe can tell me how much sulfur is present in an area that I've mapped this way. Here's an image showing a rough map that I just collected:

The image on the left is a reflected light micrograph (a microscope image) of one of my samples. The inset is a tricolored map image showing where sulfide (red/orange), elemental sulfur (green/yellow), and sulfate (blue) can all be spatially resolved in this sample. Pretty awesome!

Once I've mapped the sample, I can conduct x-ray absorption spectroscopy on the most interesting spots in the sample. This will allow me to figure out not only what kinds of sulfur are in my sample, but also how those types of sulfur are distributed throughout the material. Fantastical!

Of course, being that I'm at a synchrotron, I imagine this has not been my best writing. There's this thing about synchrotron work, where many of us will be working most of the day and night and taking our sleep in little bouts when we can get it. The time we get on synchrotrons is always limited and we like to make the most of it, so we end up driving ourselves into a bit of zombie mode toward the end of our time at these facilities (especially for those of us who caffeinate heavily while here).

I'm very hopeful for the data I'm collecting this weekend. These data, along with the rest of my work from this summer, should drive my research into its last leg as I look toward the last year or so of my graduate work. Using sulfur x-ray micropobe mapping and x-ray spectroscopy here at SSRL should give me some of the key pieces of data that will help me to build my dissertation.