Archive | July 2012

Seven Minutes of Terror

No this is not about taking your teen out to drive for the first time; the title for this week’s column is also the title of the best movie made this year. On Monday, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) will try and successfully land the Universes first chemistry lab on Mars. The Curiosity Rover started its journey to the red planet on November 26, 2011, and will endure 7 minutes of the most intense landing sequence ever known. Those of us who grew up with the Apollo missions, found that a capsule just has to hit the ocean, and the Shuttle missions were dangerous, as witnessed by the loss of two Shuttles and crew, could land as a supersonic glider. But nothing is the same on Mars.

NASA’s twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity were small rovers whose main experiment was to see if we could crash land a robot using giant air bags. They both survived the landing and started moving and broadcasting the most important images and data we have ever had on an extraterrestrial body that we didn’t land people on. They found evidence of water, of geologic activity and intriguing areas where we could look for the evidence of life. They had machinery on board to grind away a layer of rock and do analysis of the minerals beneath. But they were limited (hey remember we just wanted to crash them on the planet, everything else is a bonus) due to size. They just didn’t have the room to take larger and more complex robots along in them. Now Moore’s law states that every two years we double the number of transistors on an integrated circuit, so every new generation of rovers/robots should be better.

The biggest problem of the twin rovers was sunlight. Both were solar powered and had to shut down during the Martian winter and dust storms as well as when the weak Sun set. Curiosity will be powered by a small nuclear battery, allowing it to function without regard to the Sun or wind and can keep the experiments heated and no large “wings” of solar cells so it is more compact. This allows for more experimental modules. And they are out of this world.

Curiosity has one main job: to find evidence of past life on the Martian surface. Mars has water, and that is the main ingredient for life. Mars had a lot of water, and probably a water vapor atmosphere at one time, and Curiosity will look for evidence of that, as well as evidence for microbial life in the Martian soil. Curiosity has ten different experiments. My favorite has to do with the past holiday we had. Fireworks are evidence that electrons jump when we energize them (with black powder in the case of fireworks). Curiosity has no explosives on it (awww, I just lost all the 14 year old boys), but wait! It has a laser cannon! (They’re back) This laser can blast the surface of a rock and as the molecules vaporize, a spectrophotometer [spek-troh-foh-tom-i-ter] will read the electron emission and tell exactly what the rock is made of. It will look at things like elements necessary for life. SPONCH is the acronym I teach. It stands for sulfur, phosphorus, oxygen, nitrogen, carbon and hydrogen. The letters are also in reverse order of amounts found in life on Earth; more hydrogen than carbon etc.

It will do this with an x-ray diffraction and fluorescence scope to find out what the Martian soil is made of. It also has some cool optics. The arm contains a microscope to see the formation of minerals, evidence of water, evidence of ice and a close up of the granules. In fact it can image things smaller than the width of a human hair. Plus it can focus on items out past the arm; the arm can then look into crevasses or other structures that the cart may get stuck in (like Spirit, it fell into a crater and was lost). More importantly, it can look for evidence of microbial life, like concretions and chalk deposits and other structures made by microscopic animals.

A mast mounted high resolution visual camera will be able to film, store and analyze video of the Martian landscape. It will also help analyze the laser cannon ablation. The cannon can fire and the data can be picked up by the camera almost 3 meters away. (Take that Dr. No!)

The landing will be broadcast on Discovery channel, on line and if you have an XBox  Connect, you can down load a free Lander game. The game is out now and free for download at the Microsoft Marketplace. It requires the Xbox 360 console and Kinect controller to play.Watch the movie, play the game and eat the sandwich! But a sandwich named Curiosity might not sell too well.

Later Yall



“Look in that mirror…I see a strong confident, beautiful young lady…Oh look you’re here too!” Well Mother Gothel from Disney’s “Tangled” will never be accused of being tactful, but her observation has some merit in the strange world of quantum mechanics or QM. QM is the orphan of Albert Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity that deals with gravity of stars and planets and the speed of light. QM deals with the infinitesimal sizes of atoms and electrons. Since both are described by mathematics, you would think that they should somehow be equal, but the dirty secret of physics is the math used to describe these two phenomena can’t agree, and that’s just annoying!

The years before the Great War and a few years after, the parts of the atom were discovered; protons, neutrons and electrons were found to make up the structure of the atom. One thing found was that electrons pair up in the shells around the atom, two electrons per orbital. Think of them as two friends sharing a single bed. To get the most room, they sleep head to feet of the other. They are in exactly opposite positions and electrons pair up similarly, one spinning in a positive direction and the other negative. This is the only way to get two negatively charged particles to stay in the same “room”.

Now, in physics, and the math it uses, we are used to really good explanations, and we are dissatisfied with the often correct answer of “I don’t know”. Such an answer would be rightly rejected by an airplane engineer; every force that affects flight is known; but not so in atomic physics. In fact Werner Heisenberg told us we CAN’T know some things. We can only know the probability of something. For example, in our two friends sharing a room, we can only know they are in there, but not whose head is pointing north, only that one is and the other is pointing south. If we open the door, both get up and we lose the information of whose head is where. This caused Einstein to exclaim “God doesn’t play dice!” meaning that the Universe should have a correct answer, not just a probability, a term Einstein hated.

Einstein correctly showed that the speed of light was constant no matter what, but that time was not; it depended on the point of view of the person timing, and this is where stuff gets all tangled up, or as the movie says “Skip the drama, stay with Mama”. That is shown to be impossible, unless you have nine lives.

Entanglement is where two particles, and sometimes three, are associated with one another in such a way that they affect each other even if they are light years apart. Suppose I bought a pair of gloves from a hardware store. I lock one in a case and give it to you, and the other is locked in a case and I keep it. Now I put you on a rocket ship and have you fly to the Andromeda galaxy, 200 light years away. For argument sake we are in Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek universe so it takes one commercial break for you to get there. We both have similar clocks and at an appointed moment in time, we open our cases. Up until we open our cases, we only have a probability of which glove we have; either right or left and the probability is fifty-fifty.

In fact for that kind of odds I’d place a pretty good bet as to which glove I have. But nothing is known until we open the cases. As soon as I open the case, I know which glove you have, even though you are 200 light years away. This appears to violate Einstein’s proof that nothing can go faster than the speed of light, but it appears that we just violated that. Except we didn’t.

You see, we didn’t really exchange any information, we just destroyed the probability of what that information was; the probability is 100% which glove the other has, which is no probability at all. Erwin Schrödinger came up with a famous thought experiment of a cat in a box with an atomic decay timer controlling some cyanide gas. As long as the box is closed, we only have a probability as to if the cat is alive or dead. We don’t know until we destroy the probability and we either bury the kitty, or (hopefully) we take the cat home and tell it to stay away from physicists!

This entanglement has been observed in electrons, atoms and molecules, and we are looking for it in organisms as well. This led to Einstein’s second most known quote; “I guess God plays dice after all”.

Entangling indeed.

Later Ya’ll