Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Part of Apollo-11 First Stage Recovered

Wednesday, March 20th, 2013

As far as scientific achievements go, this really does not mean much, but it falls under the catagory of “really cool,” especially if, like me, you are an Apollo program buff.

Apollo-11, like all the manned lunar missions was carried aloft on a Saturn-V rocket.   The first stage of the rocket, the S-IC was designed to be disposable.  After burning out, it was jettisoned and the next stage, the S-II took over.  By the time it cut off, the rocket was at an altitude of 67,000 meters and more than 90 kilometers down range, out to sea.   Since the stage was intended to only be used once, there was no parachute.  It simply fell from that altitude and smashed into the ocean.  Presumably, never to be seen again.

Well, that was not to be for the stage that carried Apollo-11 to the moon.   Because of the historical interest, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos took it upon himself to start a project to locate and recover the remains of that rocket stage.

Needless to say, it’s not in pristine condition.   The impact shattered the thin, lightweight structure of the stage and 40+ years under salt water did not do the remains any favors either.   Still, the thrust chambers of the rocket engines were solid enough to survive in remarkably good shape.   Although the engine bells seem to have been torn off, parts of the engines are still very recognizable, including the main turbopumps.

The mighty F-1 engine is definitely an impressive site, even broken apart!

Check out this link for a gallery of images of the recovered engines.

Modern diseases might not be so modern

Tuesday, March 12th, 2013

It is often claimed by various “alternative medicine” gurus that the diseases currently faced by humanity are largely the result of our civilization and artificial causes.   Common claims are that everything from genetically modified foods to our use of wireless devices are the reason things like cancer and heart disease exist.  (Apparently at one time, people were always in good health and thus never died, either.)

There is some, limited, truth to this, in that some diseases now have the chance to exist more often, simply because less people are killed by something else first.   Heart disease, cancer many other diseases become more common with age and therefore would not be as common in a time when many died at an earlier age, as a result of infectious disease and traumatic injury.  Other diseases exist in the population today because they can be treated, while in centuries past, they would have resulted in death.   Type 1 diabetes, for example, was once a death sentence, but can now be treated.

A few other diseases may be more common today as a result of lifestyle changes.   Yet even these diseases were not unheard of in earlier human history.   Although a sedentary lifestyle and high calorie intake is well known to be associated with heart disease, a recent study has discovered compelling evidence that atherosclerosis – the buildup of plaque in the heart, existed long before modern lifestyles.


It Had to Happen: CT’ers Go After Iodized Salt

Sunday, March 3rd, 2013

Note:  it can be spelled iodized or iodised

I suppose it was only a matter of time before it started to happen.   Conspiracy theorists and various “natural healing” groups are now moving from fluoridated water to iodized salt.   The claims are pretty similar:  That it is forced medication that takes away choice from the individual, that it is dangerous and toxic and that the goals of adding iodine have nothing to do with improving human health and everything to do with causing disease/controlling the population/reducing fertility etc etc.

Historic Background:


Understanding Sonic Booms

Saturday, February 23rd, 2013

Just because this seems to be a topic that a lot of people have misconceptions about

What a sonic boom is:

Whenever an object moves through air, it will displace some of that air.   This results in a change of pressure.   You can observe this by seeing its effects, such as leaves being dragged behind a bus or being pushed out of the way in front of it.  You can sometimes hear it, too. When something passes by, it may be accompanied with the “woosh” sound of air being moved.

When moving at subsonic speeds, the air in front of an object starts getting pushed out of the way before the object reaches it.   The pressure that builds in front of it is transmitted forward before the object reaches the air.   Thus, instead of a single pressure wave, there is a gradual increase in pressure.  However, there is a limit to how fast the air can transmit pressure changes and that limit is the speed of sound.  Sound, after all, is really just a change in air pressure.   When one molecule in the air is pushed on, it pushes the one next to it, transmitting this change.   The speed at which this occurs depends on altitude, humidity and temperature.  At sea level, it comes out to being about 340 meters per second or about 770 miles per hour.  It is lower at higher altitudes.

Chart From Physics Central

When an object, such as an aircraft, approaches the speed of sound, the waves of pressure become compressed into a smaller area.   This is because the air can not transmit the pressure change very far in front of the aircraft before it reaches that location.  As an aircraft passes about 75% of the speed of sound, this effect becomes noticeable and begins to affect the control of the aircraft.   As it comes even closer to the speed of sound, it enters what is called the “transonic region.“  Early aircraft, such as fighters during the Second World War were not designed to maintain control and stability when faced by this pile up of air pressure.  On occasion they entered the transonic region in dives and when this happened, they often lost control and crashed.

When the moving body, such as an aircraft, reaches the speed of sound, the pressure change can no longer be transmitted ahead of the aircraft at all.  Now it is moving as fast or faster than the gas molecules can be pushed out of the way.   There is no longer a pile-up of pressure waves, but instead, they all merge into one pressure wave, which travels with the aircraft.   The air goes from uncompressed to fully compressed almost instantaneously, as the aircraft passes.

In fact, there are two pressure waves, one from the front of the aircraft and one from the rear.   Depending on the design, there may be other, smaller waves generated by points in the aircraft.   These pressure waves are the sonic boom.   They are close enough together that the double wave may only be perceived as a single boom.


Iranian “Space Monkey” May Have Been Faked

Saturday, February 2nd, 2013

Last week, Iran announced that they had launched a monkey into outer space and returned it safely to the earth.   They claimed that this was a major milestone in Iranian aerospace technology and paved the way for human space launches.

The stunt was stupid, pointless and proved nothing.  For one thing, the rocket barely went into space at all.   The payload did not make it to orbit or even achieve an altitude sufficient for orbit.   It was a simple up-down ballistic flight.  The rocket reportedly reached an altitude of 75 statute miles.  That’s hardly a major technical achievement.   The Germans were launching missiles to similar altitudes back during World War II and any reasonably sized short range ballistic missile can reach such altitudes.   Just point a scud missile straight up and fire it to maximum altitude and this is what you get.

Putting a monkey in the nose-cone of a short range missile is also not very impressive.  It has no real scientific value, either.  Back in the 1950′s, when the US was sending monkeys and chimps into space, and the Soviet Union was sending dogs and guinea pigs, it was not known if mammals could survive he stresses of launch and extended periods of weightlessness.   Of course, it’s now known that they can and that humans can indeed function in space, so there’s little knowledge to be gained from sending a monkey into space for a few minutes.

It’s not a huge technical feat either.  A ballistic flight to those altitudes will not result in a huge amount of reentry heating or stress on the payload.  There’s no need for precise de-orbiting burns or control of where it lands (since it will invariably land in the general vicinity of the launch).   The only thing needed to assure the monkey makes it back alive is a capsule that is air tight and parachute system to deploy as it falls back to earth.

Yet simple and unimpressive as putting a monkey on a scud may be, numerous media reports have begun to question whether Iran is being honest about what happened.   For one thing, while video of the rocket launch was quickly publicized, there has been no video provided of the recovery of the monkey.   That seems strange, since recovering the payload and showing that the monkey is fine would be every bit as important as launching the rocket.

Additionally, the images shown of the post-mission monkey look considerably different than the photos of the monkey before launch.   The most obvious difference is that the monkey purported to have been  launched on the rocket has a mole above its right eye while the monkey shown after the launch has no such mole.   Beyond this, the facial features seem slightly different, the fur distribution is not the same and the color is also noticeably different, although this could be the result of camera and lighting conditions.

Since this discrepancy has come to light, Iranian officials have responded by stating that the photos do indeed show two different animals, but that this was simply a mistake in their release.  One of the monkeys is the actual monkey that was launched into space while the other was an archive photo of one of the other monkeys that was part of the program.   Iran has stated that they had five candidate monkeys ready for the flight.

It’s possible that this is the case, but there is still some reason to question the validity of this claim.   The post-launch monkey is clearly the one that Iran has claimed was on the rocket, as pictures of the monkey being shown to dignitaries and presented publicly have been shown.   Yet no pictures of that monkey seem to have been published before the launch.   The pre-launch monkey (the one with the mole) appears in numerous pictures including those of the monkey strapped into a harness for launch.   It’s possible that this was just part of the testing and training protocol, but it’s still a bit strange that many pictures of the same monkey could be mistakenly released.

If the photos were indeed faked, with a stand-in monkey intentionally used for post-launch photographs, then the most likely explanation is that the monkey did not survive the trip.   It’s entirely possible that the parachute recovery system on the capsule malfunctioned or that the capsule failed to separate from the rocket.  It is also possible that the capsule either lacked sufficient breathing air to keep the monkey alive or was not recovered before the supply of fresh air was depleted.

Such problems are not uncommon and indeed the United States lost six monkeys during rocket tests in the late 1940′s before one finally survived the trip.   One monkey died due to lack of oxygen in the capsule.  One died when the V-2 rocket exploded and another three died as a result of parachute malfunctions.   Finally, in 1951, a monkey was launched on a US rocket and made it back alive.  In 1959, the US suffered a high profile loss when a monkey named Gordo died, again, due to a parachute malfunction.  Yet another monkey died when an Atlas rocket exploded.

If Iran did indeed fail to recover the monkey, it seems perfectly in line with the general culture of the Iranian government to try to cover up the loss.  Iran is not prone to admitting failure, even when there is strong evidence to indicate so.   Failing at such a basic and relatively easy technical feat would certainly be an embarrassment.

On the other hand, if there was a genuine photo mixup and Iran manage to launch a monkey on a rocket, it really does not prove anything.   This kind of achievement might be groundbreaking in the 1940′s, but today it’s nothing more than a stunt and not a very impressive one either.  Iran had already claimed to have launched rats, worms and turtles into space on a similar rocket.  Launching a monkey is no more of an accomplishment.   In fact, it could just have easily been a brick.

Liquid Air for Energy Storage? No, it’s not a joke

Monday, January 7th, 2013

Thought that compressed air energy storage was ridiculously inefficient?   Well, it looks like they’ve managed to best it with a new concept in energy storage:  liquid air.

Yes, liquid air, as in cryonic liquid air.  In other words, this is a combination of liquid nitrogen, liquid oxygen and little bit of liquid argon.

Via Discovery News:

Frozen Air ‘Battery’ Stores Wind Turbine Energy

Liquid air, which can be frozen, stored and warmed later, could work better than batteries or fuel cells to store energy from wind turbines or other renewables.

The technology was originally developed by Peter Dearman, a garage inventor in Hertfordshire, U.K., to power vehicles. For the past several years, U.K. tech firm Highview Power Storage has been working to transfer Dearman’s innovation to a system that can store energy for power grids.

Dearman’s idea works like this: electricity generated by wind farms at night is used to chill air to -310 Farenheit — its cryogenic state — turning it into a liquid. The liquid air is then stored in a giant vacuum flask until it time to be used again. This is done at night when demand for electricity is low and the energy from wind would otherwise go wasted

When demand increases during the day, the air can be warmed to ambient temperature. As it vaporizes, it drives a turbine to produce electricity, according to the BBC’s Roger Harrabin.

In July, Highview Power Storage signed a commercial agreement with a German firm to develop “frozen air” plants in Sub-Saharan and South Africa. And it now has a pilot facility near a traditional gas-powered plant outside London. That way it takes advantage of the plant’s waste heat to warm the liquid air, making the entire process more efficient and less costly. Company officials say their energy-storage system is best designed to help smooth out the peaks and valleys of energy production that often occur with wind, solar and other renewable energy project.

And the video…

Liquifying air is a common industrial process.  It is most often used as the first step in certain types of air separation techniques.   Partial liquification of air can be used as the first step for the separation of nitrogen and oxygen, followed by additional liquification to separate out argon, or it can be used to produce liquid air which is then boiled in a series of distillation columns.    Occasionally, air is liquified and used in its mixed state as an ultra-low temperature refrigerant.


The Strange And Tragic Story of Albert Einstein’s Brain

Sunday, January 6th, 2013

There has been a lot of sensationalize about exactly what happened to Albert Einstein’s brain after he died.  The TV Show Dark Matters ran a show a year ago called “Stealing Einstein’s Brain,” which suggests that the brain was stolen after Einstein’s death.   That’s not entirely true.   However, it’s certainly true that the brain of Einstein has not been has not been treated with the level of care and accountability that it should have been.   The true story is, in fact, quite strange.

Here I try to present the facts without any morbid sensationalizing.

What Really Happened:

In the early 1950′s, Albert Einstein resided in Princeton, New Jersey.  By this time, an aging Einstein had lived to see himself become an icon and a living legend.  This was not something that he was always comfortable with.   Einstein contributed relatively little to science in his later years, but his accomplishments had rocketed him to a level of fame previously unknown to theoretical physicists.  He was temperamental about the press and often became tired of being interviewed and photographed.  In 1951, on Einstein’s 71st birthday, after being photographed several times by press photographers, he attempted to ruin a UPI photographer’s image by sticking out his tongue – inadvertently creating one of the 20th centuries most iconic images.

Preferring to be modest about his achievements and never becoming entirely comfortable with his level of fame, Albert Einstein did not wish that any monuments be built in his honor.  Knowing that his grave site would surely become a place of pilgrimage, he asked not to be buried but to be cremated and have his ashes scattered.

Also, in the early 1950′s, Yeshiva University was planning the creation of a new school of medicine.  The school was to focus on the most advanced areas of medical science and provide world class training to students of any ethnic background.  It was decided to name the school in honor of Albert Einstein, a humanitarian, scientist and ethnic jew.  Einstein initially declined the honor, pointing out that he was a physicist and knew nothing of medicine.  Dr. Harry Zimmerman was appointed to be the first director of the school.  He approached Einstein and persuaded him to allow the school to be founded in his name.   This, of course, became the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Dr. Zimmerman became well acquainted with Albert Einstein as a result of the founding of the college.  Zimmerman’s background was in neuropathology, a field which was making enormous strides in the 1950′s.   Aware of Einstein’s intention to be cremated, Dr. Zimmerman asked whether he would allow for his brain to be examined after his death.  Zimmerman cited the great interest in Einstein’s mind and abilities and the need to avoid losing an opertunity to examine a potentially unique human subject.   Einstein, who was always a supporter of scientific endeavor, agreed to this, but stipulated that it only be for the purposes of scientific study.

After Einstein’s death, his permission to have his brain removed and examined would be clouded in controversy.  Einstein had not given formal permission in his will, but a number of witnesses would testify that he had approved the use of his body for scientific purposes.  Shortly after his death, when his family was notified of the intention to remove and study his brain, his son, Hans Einstein, granted permission as long as it was only for valid research, published in scientific journals and in no way sensationalized.  Other members of Einstein’s family later denied any permission was ever given.

The best evidence available would seem to indicate that Einstein was indeed agreeable to the use of his brain for scientific purposes, but he certainly would not have agreed to the extent of what would actually happen to his mortal remains.


As 12.21.12 Dawns, There is Some Reason For Concern

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

December 21, 2012 has arived already for much of the world.  As of this post, it is already afternoon on the 21 of December in Australia, and the date is now dawning across Europe.

As most know, this is the day that much todo has been made of due to reports that it was the last day listed on the Mayan Calendar.  To some, this equated to a prediction of the end of the world.   Of course, if you actually look at the beliefs of the Mayans, that’s not what it would mean, and even if it did, there’s no reason to think that the ancient civilization would have some magical insight into the future.  There are no indications that anything is actually going to happen to the earth or humanity on this day.

So, why then, should this cause any concern?

December 21, 2012 is certainly not the first day which is predicted to be doomsday and it won’t be the last.  However, it has gotten much more media coverage and more than most and has a greater number of serious followers than most such predicted events.

Doomsday cults and predictions have been around for at least centuries.  In each case, the predictions have failed to materialize, leading to some extreme disipointments.  In a few notable cases, some of the followers were so convinced that the world was about to end, they had abandoned their belongs, left jobs and otherwise destroyed their lives in the expectations of the end of days.  While there are few reports of that happening in preparation  for December 21, 2012, there are many who have invested a great deal in shelters and survival equipment in the hope of making it through the fall of human civilization.   (Of course, they can always use that stuff for the next predicted end of the world.)

Yet there is still some danger in these widespread beliefs.  Those who have bought into the idea that the coming day marks some great disaster or even the end of the world may simply wait for it to happen and then react with great disappointment when they wake up on the 22nd and realize they didn’t buy any Christmas presents or pay their bills for the month.  However, for the more extreme, and especially those who may have been followers of cults or movements centered around the prediction that the world is about to end, there is a danger of more extreme reactions.

Although rare, some doomsday predictions have resulted in mass suicide or violence. In 1995, members of the the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo cult came to believe that the end of the world was upon them and that their leader, a reincarnation of Jesus Christ, was preparing to save the sinners of the world, but that in order for this to happen, a great war, which had been foretold, must begin. Their convoluted beliefs motivated them to release sarin nerve gas on the Tokyo Subway, injuring hundreds and killing thirteen and injuring hundreds.

Suicides have been more common. Members of the French Cult, the Order of the Solar Temple, were part of a handful of high profile mass suicides in the 1990′s. In 1997, 39 members of the group Heaven’s Gate committed suicide, believing that an alien spacecraft, following the Comet Hale-Bopp was arriving to deliver their souls from earth. (It is unclear whether they believed this was directly related to the end of the world, although apparently they expected that would occur in the relatively near future.)

I certainly do not wish to raise the alarm and nobody should be overly concerned of major acts of terrorism – such actions can happen anytime, anyway.  In all likelihood the day will pass without any major incidents.   However, if you happen to have a friend or family member who is very deeply involved in cult-like practices or is just prone to taking these things very seriously, it might be a good idea to check up on them.

Do our nuclear weapons work?

Friday, November 23rd, 2012

The answer, it turns out is “probably” or “we’re pretty sure they do.” or “Almost for sure, most of them should.”

That’s right.  We’re not entirely sure, and as time goes on we’re becoming less sure.   That’s because we don’t test them and haven’t done so for two decades.

How it was and how we got here:

A nuclear weapon is a very complex piece of engineering and physics.  There are many parts that have to work properly for the weapon to actually detonate.   The core must implode in a manner that results in the correct final geometry.  It must undergo fission before it is blown apart, sometimes requiring additional neutrons be provided by a pulsed neutron generator or by boosting with a small amount of fusion.  In hydrogen bombs, energy from the primary must be channeled into the secondary and produce fusion.   The time tolerances involved are less than nanoseconds.

For this reason, nuclear weapon designs were initially always tested at full scale, in prototype devices that would then become production weapons.  The first tests were conducted in the atmosphere.  Hundreds of such tests, some of multiple megatons were conducted by the United States and Soviet Union in the 1940′s, 1950′s and 1960′s.   These tests had multiple purposes.  In addition to validating the viability of the weapons designs, they were used to better understand the physics involved, with data collected to help guide future weapons design.  Tests were also used to determine the effects of weapons on structures, aiding in the design of nuclear-resistant structures, communications systems and weapons platforms.

In 1963 the United States and Soviet Union signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty.  The treaty ended the testing of nuclear devices in the atmosphere, underwater or outer space by the signing parties.  After 1963, all US and Soviet tests would take place underground, in shafts designed to completely contain the explosions and prevent any fallout from entering the atmosphere.    For the most part, this was successful, although there were occasional minor leaks and at least one major breach of containment due to an unmapped fissure in 1970.  France and China continued to conduct atmospheric testing, having not been party to the 1963 treaty.  The last atmospheric nuclear test was conducted by China in 1980.  Since that time, all tests have been underground.

By the late 1960′s, the superpowers had generally ended the practice of testing nuclear weapons at their full yield.   Having acquired a much better understanding of the physics and engineering behind nuclear weapons, it was no longer considered necessary to test the secondary stages of nuclear weapons at their full yield.   Testing the fission primaries, with either no secondary component, or a greatly reduced secondary yield provided ample data on the reliability of the weapon design.

The only exception to this was the rare circumstance where a new type of weapon was developed, with a vastly different design than previous weapons.  The 1971 Cannikin test was one example of a high yield weapon tested underground. At five megatons, the exceptional yield of the test device required extreme measures be taken to contain the blast. The test was conducted at the bottom of a 1.8 kilometer deep shaft, drilled through solid rock on a remote island off the coast of Alaska. The weapon tested was the W71, a highly unique warhead designed for the Spartan anti-ballistic missile system. The new warhead was designed to produce an extremely high x-ray and neutron flux and to operate in the extreme environment of outer space, possibly being subjected to radiation from other nuclear explosions. Given these special design criteria, it was determined that a full scale test of the system was necessary.

In 1974, the US and Soviet Union signed the Threshold Test Ban Treaty, limiting nuclear tests to a maximum of 150 kilotons. By the time the treaty was signed, it was no longer necessary to test weapons at their full design yield, so the treaty was largely symbolic. Since larger tests require more complex and extensive containment measures, and because they were no longer necessary, both countries had generally abandoned large tests by that time. Although other nuclear powers were not party to the treaty, by the 1970′s, full yield weapons testing was no longer necessary for established nuclear powers.

The United States and Soviet Union continued to conduct nuclear tests, mostly with yields of a few kilotons, throughout the 1980′s. France, China and the UK also conducted nuclear tests through the 1980s and into the early 1990′s.

The End of Nuclear Tests (for established nuclear powers):


Ten Revelations From Running For Congress

Sunday, October 14th, 2012

I have to say that running for office was by far one of the most educational experiences and important life events I’ve ever had.   One of the most important things I learned is that most of what I learned in civics and political science class is bullshit.  It’s a much more gritty system, often run through networking and knowing the right people more than procedure.  It’s a fascinating system too.  It can be dirty and difficult, but there are also a lot of good, dedicated people who are really involved in politics for the right reasons.  Sadly, there might not be enough of them, but they do exist.

It’s a perfect example of something that you can never really understand completely by reading about.  It must be experienced and you have to become part of it to really get it.  Just the same, I’ll try to relate, as best as I can, some of the biggest lessons and revelations.

I realize many readers are international, and these really apply directly to politics as it exists in the United States, but I am sure that many of these principles hold true elsewhere as well.

Here are some of the things I learned: