Nuclear Fusion—Still the energy holy grail

In its core, the Sun fuses 620 million metric tons of hydrogen each second.

Nuclear fusion is a nuclear reaction in which two atomic nuclei fuse together to form a single nucleus of smaller total mass plus energy (made from the lost mass so to speak.)

Aha! Energy, that’s what we consume in huge amounts in our lives. We’ve depended on it ever since the cave man discovered fire. Now we use it for our appliances, our comfort, our transportation, our communication, to mow our lawns, and on and on.

 

We’ve obtained energy from many sources over the life of man including nuclear fission, which is the opposite of nuclear fusion as an atom splits into smaller parts plus a very large amount of energy, The reaction is called nuclear fission and is what takes place at nuclear power plants. The unfortunate aspect of the process is dealing with radioactivity which is deadly to life.

Nuclear fusion is on the other hand completely safe, and scientists have pursued ways to make it forever. To be more precise, they can create it using extreme heat, but heat takes energy and so far it takes more energy to produce it than is produced. This problem is familiar to farmers who often spend more money on producing crops than they sell them for, but I digress.

Every once in a while, someone thinks they’ve found a way and fusion makes the news. Having not heard anything for some time, I tacitly believed they’d given up. Some used to joke that fusion is always 30 years away.

I discovered by accident that scientists have not given up on reaching the break-even point, the point where energy out is the same as energy in. Japan is calling in supercomputers to do necessary calculations.  Hooray for them. If anyone succeeds it could become a huge source of clean energy for our planet for years to come.

On the other hand, the energy from the sun comes from nuclear fusion. Maybe we should just fully harness it and put on our sunsuits and bask away.

 

 

 

 

 

 

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/crux/2016/03/23/nuclear-fusion-reactor-research/#.Wsggg4jwaM8

http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/current-and-future-generation/nuclear-fusion-power.aspx

 

Are humans extremophiles?

Tardigrade—The most extreme extremophile

One of the questions that fascinated me growing up was “Why is there anything?” In particular “Where did life come from?” It we were created by God, “where did God come from?” Now, as an adult I wonder not only where life came from, but why  there is so much life?” Go to any aquarium, any aviary, any large zoo, or to an entomology display at a large university—all those strange icky bugs—and you’ll wonder the same thing. I’ve read various numerical estimates on the number of different species of micro-organims within the human body with 10,000 as the lowest. I found. (We have more non-human cells than human cells. Most help us in various ways.)  One of my first blogs was about those on our faces. (Face mites  even look like the tardigrade above.) Even more fascinating to me is that there is life in the most extreme conditions. Critters exist in bubbling pots of sulphur and in the icy Arctic tundra. They’re labeled as extremophiles.

These environments are extreme to humans who like 70 degree Fahrenheit temperatures and moderate humidity. There are microbes in the deep deep depths of the ocean where the sun does not penetrate and the pressure is unthinkable—the setting for my novel, Lower World.  Consider the following quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson. “If there were biologists among the extremophiles, they would certainly classify themselves as normal and any life that thrived at room temperature as an extremophile.” Of course there are individual politicians and people in the media I’d classify as extremophiles, but that’s for different reasons.

A friend alerted me to an ugly microbe called a tardigrade, which is probably the most extreme among extremophiles. It can be found at the tops of mountains and in the depths of the oceans. They not only tolerate any temperature, they are radioactive proof, dehydration proof, starvation proof, and are assessed to be able to withstand cosmic disasters which could affect earth. They are destined to be the last life standing when all other life on earth has perished from a disaster.  Scientists hope that in this case, higher life forms can evolve. Microbes are the bottom of the food chain in oceans, which comprise most of Earth. (The instructor of a course on oceans believes  our planet should logically be called Ocean rather than Earth.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pi Day will be remembered as the day Steven Hawking left this earth

c = the circle’s circumference &
d = it’s diameter

Many jokes are made about pi day and eating pie. pi is an amazing irrational number. It’s defined as the ratio of a circle and its diameter once proved that the ratio is constant, ie independent of the size of the circle. I’ve mc’d math days where to entertain the audience of bright students I’ve asked how many knew 10 digits of pi. I was blown away by the number of hands. I continued until I got to 100 and two students raised their hands. I had one come to the stage for him to recite them.

High schoolers often achieve their ten minutes of fame by discovering more digits of pi. What is most amazing is that pi appears in so many different formulas seemingly unrelated to circles. A colleague of mine once received a call about the exact value of pi. He said to  two places it’s 3.14, then the fellow asked but what is it exactly. 3.14159 is exact enough for more purposes. Not good enough. He couldn’t convince the caller the digits didn’t end. I’m so ornery, I would have begun making up digits until he hung up or got it.

The Indiana House in 1897 passed a law that declared pi was 3.2. The Senate evidently heard the country’s outcry and stopped it.

 

It seems fitting that Stephen Hawking be remembered as one of the greatest physicists of all time and appropriate that the day he left us be well marked. I saw him recently on Star Talk, and loved his insight on life. (My clever daughter said he gave us a Hole new light on the passage of time.)

 

 

Save the plankton!

Save the whales? Sure. Save the turtles? Ditto. But if we don’t save the plankton, all ocean species will be  history. Both zooplankton (tiny animals) and phytoplankton (tiny plants) are at the base of the food chain. Not only ocean species, but life on earth including humans depend on phytolankton. We may be able to remove fish from our diet but we can’t breathe without oxygen. One half of our oxygen is produced by the oceans’ phytoplankton.

So why does phytoplankton require saving? It is threatened by the warming of the climate; decline has been correlated with warmer temperatures. The ocean absorbs much of our excess heat, which is good news and bad news.

It is conjectured that the reason that warmer temperatures are harmful to phytoplankton is that like all plants, they require nutrients. Nutrients are much more plentiful at great depths because as animals and plants die they sink. Places where a process called upwelling occurs, the mixing of ocean layers brings nutrients to the top layer where phytoplankton reside. However, since the heat is absorbed in the top layer making the layer lighter, the difference in density between the top layer and lower layes is too great to allow mixing and the phytoplankgon starve.

 

Fortunately, the decline is slow, but must be addressed before it’s too late. I’m ordering a custom-made T-shirt. In fact I ran out and had it made at my local maill as you can see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dark Ages or Black Holes for Science? The Good the Bad and the Ugly

When told someone has good news/bad news for me, I ask for the bad first, so here goes.

Bad News: 1. A mission nearly 20 years in the making was intended to seek an answer to the most burning, baffling question in astronomy. The answer has the potential to predict the fate of the universe. It is now in danger of being cancelled.
2. Trump budget seeks huge cuts to disease prevention and medical research. 

Ugly News: 1.   Household products make surprisingly large contributions to air pollution.
2. Current administration has targeted 67 environmental protections for cancellation.
33 Protections have been overturned including  inclusion of green house gas emissions in environmental reviews, anti-dumping law for coal companies, decisions on oil pipelines crossing US farms, off-shore and Arctic Refuge drilling ban, and the list continues.
24 Rollbacks are in progress including Paris climate agreement, clean power plan, auto efficiency standards, limits on toxic discharge and emission standards for power plants,
10 proposals are in limbo including emission limits on new oil & gas wells, regulation of hazardous chemicals, protections for groundwater, tributaries, and wetlands.

I do not see protection of the earth as a political issue. We are all living on the same earth and will suffer equally from its damage. .

Good News (At last): 1. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch will start getting smaller later this year. 
I am excited about this. I wrote a blog about this Netherlands  company conducting a proof of concept about a way to herd the plastic into a smaller area in order to scoop it up. Now, it’s about to become a reality.

 

2. Major corporations are getting on board with renewable energy. They are finding the lower costs attractive.
3. Peru is poised to protect millions of acres of forest land. Huge forests are the lungs and the medicine chest of our planet. They provide oxygen and medicine from an innumerable species of plants. Animals often have an immunity to particular diseases which with research may provide potential health benefits for humans.
This is in addition to a donation by Kristine and Douglas Tomkins (of Northface and Esprit) of over 1,000,000 acres in Chile matched by the Chilean government with 9,000,000 more acres establishing a huge park system. See the fabulous pictures of the area in Patagonia. 
4.  Our youth are angry about the state of the world and their voices will be heard. They are our future as well as their own. The only thing that will counter the corrupting influence of big money is for people to get informed and vote. I’m looking to them to help turn things around.
5. After banning plastic bags, California is going after  plastic straws.  Not only does plastic debris harm humans by way of pervading our oceans and air by leaching into the environment for human consumption, scientists are becoming concerned about the use of plastic from which we eat and drink. Even paper cups have a plastic coating on the inside. After attending a writers conference in San Francisco, where waste baskets filled quickly with plastic cups used once to drink water, as of today I am carrying my own drinking containers in my car for meetings and coffee shops. I’ve been trying to refuse straws in my drinks for some time, and recently was asked if I wanted one in a bar in Alameda! We have a ways to go, but my state is leading the way.

 

 

 

Do plants have minds of their own?

Pleased to meetcha!

Recently, scientists have  discovered plants can be sedated. A sedated Venus flytrap won’t snap shut on its prey. It lies as relaxed as a stoner at a rock star concert. Once the sedative wears off, the flytrap is back to normal. Similarly plants whose flowers open in the morning and close up at night fail to follow the pattern once sedated.

 

Many years ago I read a fascinating article citing a scientific study that suggested that some plants can distinguish between their sibling plants—seeded by the same mother plant— and unrelated plants or plants of a different kind. In the case of unrelated plants, a plant will grow more and longer roots in search of water and nutrients, but in the case of sibling plants they were less greedy as if sharing the resources. The scientists attributed their ability to know their kin by their sensitivity to chemical cues.

We’ve all heard of people who claim that talking to their plants helps them grow. Scientists generally dismiss the idea, but there is one experiment that supports the idea that plants react to sound. Seven greenhouses were set up with recordings. In two, constant negative speech blared and in another two, positive speech. One was blessed with classical music, one cursed with heavy metal, and the last was left in peaceful silence.

The plants in the silent greenhouse grew the least, the ones hearing speech grew equally well and better than the ones ignored. The next best growth happened in the classical music greenhouse, but best of all were the plants with heavy metal. Hmm, it seems the louder or busier the sound, the better they grow. No claims were made about this single study.

Think about these interesting observations about plants. One could almost argue that there’s some consciousness going on. There are neuroscientists who claim human free will is an illusion. We are controlled by our structure and our chemicals. If that were true, this recent study hypothesizes plants are not so different from us.

We’ve all seen plants, which grow in the direction of the sun in our own houses. Do you think they think they are making a choice?

Sedating plants 
Plants share with siblings
Does talking to plants help them grow?

 

Whip up human muscles from your “Hi Janes”

Hi Janes

 

This article is not about exchanging flabby underarms for toned muscled ones. It’s about a scientist’s research into making muscle cells from skin cells. Biological engineer from Duke University, Nenad Bursac, has been trying to make muscles from “scratch” for purposes of finding cures for muscular disorders. At first he could only enable a glob of muscle cells to multiply. However not many volunteers are willing to give away muscle cells nor would you want to use them from someone with muscle problems. Skin cells are much more available.

So Bursac and his team sought and found a way to transform skin cells into functioning human muscle.

They can derive  pluripotent stem cells from skin cells  i.e. ones able to morph into any kind of cell in the body including muscle cells. What surprises me is that this is evidently the hard part. I would have thought it more difficult to collect these cells and make them function as a muscle. Muscles need to be able to contract and release.

The researchers use a gel made of fibrin, stuff that helps your blood clot as a cylindrical scaffold, which gives the cells a surface on which to align and complete their transformation into unified bundles of muscle fiber.

To verify that the fibers could function not just in culture but in live tissue, Bursac’s team transplanted their muscle bundles into adult mice. Then amazingly implanted small, glass windows  in the mice’s backs to watch the tissues not only survive but integrate with the rodent’s natural muscles. The vision of this amuses me. Evidently, the mice didn’t mind.

Bursac hypothesizes these skin-grown muscles will be capable of self-repair after exercise or injury.

Their discovery method will make it easier than ever for researchers to study muscle and muscle-based therapies, Stem cells capable of becoming any kind of cell are amazing enough. Now we can make such cells from ordinary skin. Mind blowing!

https://www.wired.com/story/scientists-figure-out-how-to-make-muscles-from-scratch/