Friday, 20 February 2015

Wednesday 18 Feb 2015 - Summer's Coming!

Tonight for the first time this year I was home from work in time to go far a walk up Dunnydeer Hill before night fell. This is not a massive achievement as form the front door of my house to the top of the hill and back is a 40 minute walk at most and the climb is only 123 metres though its a great way to get some air in your lungs and on a sunny evening like this it gladdens the heart to get out and realise that Spring is taking over from Winter.
Approaching Dunnydeer Castle ; Flinder Hill is the rise on the left at similar height

The trip to the top is straightforward and at the top there is the ruin of Dunnydeer Castle a 13th century tower house (possibly the oldest in Scotland) that is built within and of the older prehistoric vitirified fort (one of several in the area which include Tap O Noth and the Mither Tap of Bennachie) in which it stands.


Flinder Hill from Dunnydeer - I suspect a 400ft Wind Turbine might be a tad noticeable!

Just 5 years ago you could see no wind Turbines from the top of this modest hill. Now, sadly there are at least 13 visible wind Turbine Sites (either multiple or single) easily visible and a planning application to put another approximately 400ft high on Hill of Flinder - itself the site of a possible prehistoric hill fort(see photo) - 400ft is the height of Dunnydeer itself above the surronding landscape so this planned eyesore will tower over this wonderful ancient Monument.

We already have some of these - at east these ones are low down


Monday, 2 February 2015

Book Review Faint Echoes, Distant Stars: The Science and Politics of Finding Life Beyond Earth by Ben Bova Pub 2005 – completed 30 January 2015

I bought this book having read a review in ‘The Economist’ however being a bit of a berk this book was not in fact the same one that had been reviewed - Doh!  Never mind.  It turns out Faint Echoes, Distant Stars: The Science and Politics of Finding Life Beyond Earth was written back in 2005 rather than 2014 so it is a little out of date – in particular with the number of extra solar planets that have been discovered since it was written – there now being more than 4 times as many as in 2005 and we now have direct evidence of much smaller extra solar planets than the ‘hot Jupiters’ that had been seen up to that date. So science has moved on since 2005, nevertheless this book is a good introduction to the subject of the search for and possibilities of finding life beyond Earth.

Bova starts with quick rattle through familiar history of how the realisation that the Earth was not the centre of the universe became accepted only relatively recently in human history.  Bruno’s execution for the heresy of pointing it out and Galileo’s forced recantation of the same assertion just a few years later are the starting points.  The book then canters through the formation of the Solar system and each of its planets and the important moons.  From here the move is made beyond the Solar System to the Comets and thence to extra solar planets which had been a new discovery as late as the 1990s before when some theories of solar system formation indicated that it was a very rare event indeed – of course this is no longer the dominant view. 

The book looks at the development and possible sources of life on Earth, though for me too much credibility is given to Hoyle’s theories of life (and diseases such as the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918) being seeded from space.  The truth is far less prosaic.  From the available evidence (and so far we have only one practical laboratory – Earth itself – it seems likely that where the conditions for life (defined as chemistry able to reproduce itself from simpler materials) to exist i.e. the 3 Pre-requisites of – Carbon; Water (or other solvent); Energy – then life will develop it seems almost inevitably.  The development from Exo-biology which sought to understand what non Earth based life might look like from a narrow base to Astro Biology  a much more multidisciplinary approach that has taken learning from the very recent the discovery on Earth of extremophile life (that capable of living in extremes of temperature or acidity or even sterility) is discussed with clarity.  The discovery of extremophiles provides a good reasons to believe that life may   exist in places previously thought to be completely inhospitable such as deep underground say on Mars or  at the bottom of deep oceans, such as under the ice of Jupiter's moon, Europa.

There is good discussion around the search that is being made for Extra-Terrestrial intelligence from the Viking missions to Mars in the 1970s to the setting up and running of SETI (both Radio and Optical SETI).  Note that there needs to be a different test applied to extra-terrestrial life and extra-terrestrial intelligence.  There are many millions of species on Earth that clearly meet the definition of life but only one that can be defined as intelligent and technologically advanced enough to actively search for life beyond our planet.  It is worth noting that in the 4.5 billion years of the Earth’s existence, mankind has been living in cities for only around 4000 yrs and has developed modern scientific methods only in the last 400 years.  We have had radio for only 100 years and, though not mentioned in the book but now being realised, the human race, to an observer is now becoming quieter as radio becomes less common and fibre-optics and cable type transmission technologies replace radio.  It is possible that a radio civilisation will in its whole lifetime tranmsit to observers for only a tiny part of that lifetime.  For me Bova’s assertion that life is as much, and as widely distributed, a part of the Universe as the stars, is a given though proving intelligent life is widespread is likely to be a much harder task.

To those who wonder why, like Fermi, if there is so intelligent life out there why have we not seen any yet there some good ripostes are including the one that I have just made that even intelligent life may or may not be technologically advanced enough to be discovered given our own technology.  The fanciful ‘they might already be among us’ discussions that are recounted are superfluous given a complete lack of evidence and for me detract from the book’s seriousness. 

A large part of the book’s premise is the effect of politics on the search for life; the book I thought I was getting would have dealt with the effect on human political systems of discovering extra-terrestrial life but as I’ve said already I didn’t get that book!  Instead the politics this book deals with is the politics of the US government with its changing spending priorities dictated by ill-informed politicians playing to an audience.  The same political processes in other country’s space programmes is not covered in any meaningful way though US withdrawal from a French programme after 2003 (remember the ‘cheese eating surrender monkey’ rhetoric) is covered and blamed on French resistance to the Iraq War.  Changing priorities in ESA are also covered.  A big miss made more notable by the time since publication, is the arrival of China and India as space nations.  

Bova is a realist regarding politicians at least in the US system:

"Politicians make their decisions for political reasons, not scientific. The first question a politician asks when faced with a decision is, ‘How will this affect my chances for re-election?’"

Political interference in NASA plans is noted as far back as the 1960s.  The removal of exploration programmes between different NASA facilities (notably between JPL in California and Ames in Iowa) is shown to be driven by the search for Savings AND Pork!  Many politicians have been scornful of ‘expensive’ space exploration and in order to promote themselves as champions of the taxpayer examples highlighted Senator Proxmire who stupidly bestowed upon SETI one of his "Golden Fleece" awards (these were given monthly to projects Proxmire viewed as self-serving and wasteful of taxpayer dollars) and Nevada Senator Richard Bryan helped to persuade Congress to cut SETI projects from NASA's budget.  Fortunately SETI has been saved by private citizens and philanthropists such as Paul Allen.  Regardless of Bova’s criticism though the US taxpayer (followed by the private sector) has funded Space science far more than any other taxpayers and I do think the US should be thanked for the huge additions to the sum of human knowledge that has come about as a result.

The book finishes with a poignant tale of the death currently being observe of a distant main sequence star.  As an analogy for The Sun this star and its planet’s death is being watched and the same fate awaits us.

In sum, this book is a little too simple if you have knowledge of the subject but nevertheless is an easy read that links its concepts well.  It is certainly dated – many many more extra solar planets have been discovered since it was written some of which are close to Earth size and within their star’s habitable zones.  Cassini has discovered liquid lakes and a gaseous atmosphere on Titan where some Astrobiologists insist the pre-requisites for life are available though liquid nitrogen replaces water as the solvent liquid.  There are new players in the exploration field notable China and India.   Private sector space flight is a reality for mucking about in low earth orbit that will allow NASA to free up spare cash for deep space robotic missions.


Titan - Saturn's Atmospheric Moon