The Universe Is Biophilic?

According to physicist Jeremy England, the origin and evolution of life are processes driven by the fundamental laws of nature — namely the Second Law of Thermodynamics. He’s come up with a formula showing how a group of atoms, when driven by an external source of energy (like the sun) and when surrounded by a heat bath (like the ocean or atmosphere), can sometimes restructure itself as a way to dissipate increasing rates of energy. (io9)

I wonder how far of a leap it is from this kind of notion of evolution of order to the kind of order we call culture?

Scientists using European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory have detected water vapor escaping from two regions on the dwarf planet / asteroid Ceres. The question then becomes whether it is erupting from cold volcanoes or if it is subliming, with a possible answer coming in 2015 when the NASA Dawn spacecraft orbits the planet/asteroid. Water on Ceres supports “models of the solar system in which giant planets, such as Jupiter, migrated to their current positions, mixing material from the outer and inner regions of the solar system. This mixing could have moved Ceres and Vesta far from the sites where they formed. Ceres probably formed close to its current position, but accreted material from further out. … The findings also suggest that asteroids may have delivered some of the water in Earth’s oceans.”

And, strangely enough, Ceres features in James Corey’s Leviathan Wakes, which I just finished reading. Cue Twilight Zone music…

Randy Schekman Responds to His Critics

For those who don’t know who Schekman is, use the search feature, for those of you who are somewhat familiar with Schekman, here’s a link to his response to the feedback he has gotten so far: Ars Technica coverage — which appears to be taken from The Conversation.

For those who don’t want to RTFA, the four points below seem to be central to his program:

  1. Academics who serve a role in research assessment could shun all use of journal names and impact factors as a surrogate measure of quality. New practices and processes must be devised and shared so that we can rapidly move forward. My Berkeley colleague Michael Eisen has added an important point: we must speak up in appointment and funding committees when we hear others use journal names this way. Here we need peer pressure as much as we need peer review.
  2. Researchers applying for positions, funding, and tenure should avoid any mention of impact factors in their applications or CVs. Article metrics might have a role to play, but narrative explanations of research significance and accomplishments would be more helpful.
  3. Funders, universities, and other institutions should make it clear to their review committees that journal brand cannot be used as a proxy for scientific quality. If reviewers object, they should find different reviewers.
  4. Many of us serve as editors or editorial board members of journals—and we could insist that the publishers of these journals stop promoting impact factors. Instead, the journals could emphasise the other valuable services they provide to authors and readers to promote their worth to the community.

Space Science Roundup

I will, at some point, have to write some science fiction set in space, if for no other reason than it will be the only way that I will ever get into space. Clearly, watching a man walk on the moon at four years of age had a deep and lasting impact on me. (I have no other way to explain my fascination with space exploration, except perhaps my mother’s love of Star Trek.)

  • The first thing that caught my eye was the idea that how the moon was formed was not, as I had grown to believe, established. Far from it. That big impact that spewed debris into our orbit that congealed into the moon? Maybe that isn’t the way it was.
  • NASA listens to Jupiter and so can you. (At least now I want to try.) NASA even has a Radio Jove program that lets you set up your own radio astronomy station.
  • There’s some new rocket technology that might make travel in our neighborhood faster: the VASIMR plasma rocket: “VASIMR stands for Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket, which makes use of argon gas (one of the most stable gasses known to man) and a renewable source of energy found in space, radio waves in the form of light.” On Space Industry News.
  • Here at home there are vast reserves of freshwater trapped beneath the oceans. On ABC Science.
  • Finally, Space.com has coverage of scientists telling Congress that we have the technology to discover alien life. (The trick, it seems to me, would be to find intelligent life in Congress.) On Space.com.

History Repeats Insanity

At the very beginning of The Tacit Dimension, Michael Polanyi reminds his reader why he turned to philosophy:

I first met questions of philosophy when I came up against the Soviet ideology under Stalin which denied justification to the pursuit of science. I remember a conversation I had with [Nikolai] Bukharin in Moscow in 1935. Though he was heading toward his fall and execution three years later, he was still a leading theoretician of the Communist party. When I asked him about the pursuit of pure science in Soviet Russia, he said that pure science was a morbid symptom of a class society; under socialism the conception of science pursued for its own sake would disappear, for the interests of scientists would spontaneously turn to problem of the current Five-Year Plan. [3]

How ironic that modern capitalism seems to be asserting much the same thing. (And now, now it seeks to erode general education in favor of “workforce development”.)

More on Bukharin (Wikipedia).

A terrific composite of all the colors emitted by the sun from the National Optical Astronomy Observatory. Each of the fifty rows covers sixty angstroms (i.e. 0.1 nanometers) of the visible spectrum (which itself spans roughly 4000–7000 angstroms, or 400–700 nanometers), increasing in wavelength from left-to-right, bottom-to-top. Visit the NOAO’s site for more.

The Colors of the Sun

The Colors of the Sun

And if you are wondering about the nature of spectral light… (Click the link!)

Colors of the Sun

Monday Morning Links

I am reviving a blogging tradition because some days you just have lots of tabs open in your browser and it’s all interesting. Sometimes those links get shot out as individual dishes — and there are plenty of blogs that really make that their business (no names here, but you’ve encountered it) — and sometimes you get served a buffet:

  • TYWKIWDBI (pronunciation is provided) notes that “A graph of 40 years of data from the U.S. Census Bureau, shows that fewer American households are comprised of married couples with children. Now there are more men and women living alone, and other “nontraditional” arrangements. … As more Americans are opting to live alone than ever before, that now seems like an entirely unremarkable choice. But for years we’ve been building houses for that big nuclear family that’s now less common. And housing data released earlier this summer by the Census Bureau, illustrated at right, suggests that the U.S. is now a country where many people live alone in a land of 3-bedroom houses.” The two graphs accompanying the post are worth viewing.
  • Space.com reports that the evidence for water on mars is pretty overwhelming. There’s a slideshow available for those, like me, who enjoy space porn. Water! Mars! Let’s go!
  • The Octomatics Project argues that a number system based on 8 or 12 makes more sense — and those interested in the dozenal system (useful when you are trying to discuss time with a fourth grader!) should know that there is a Dozenal Society of American (really, not making that up, but I would if I were writing a novel about maths at war … say, maybe I will!). I especially like the graphic that advances a numerical notation that “looks more technical”:

Octal Number Notation

Patterns That Repeat

I remember when I first read about how many times the Fibonacci sequence is found in nature — it seems to be the most efficient way to pack things spirally — or when reading one of the introductions to network theory I began to glimpse how powerful the idea, and the pattern, of a network was. It’s not entirely clear with me what or how to think about such regular patterns in our natural, or cultural, worlds, but the tree is another of them. This image of river beds in the California Baja could just as easily be images of blood vessels to profiles of trees in winter.

River Beds in the Baja California

River Beds in the Baja California