Archives for category: Science


For my culminating post, I want to reflect on how my perspective on space and the future of astronomy has changed over the course of Astronomy 201. Firstly, everything I learned in this course, from gravity and planetary formation to stars and habitable zones, has given me a fundamental and scientifically realistic understanding of space and our galaxy. I think we all grow up with some part of us pondering the dark vastness of space, and how it relates to the human condition. This class allowed me to take those essential, soulful curiosities and put them into concrete terms. As much as this concreteness has solidified my understanding of mankind’s astronomical world, I still view the universe as an inescapable enigma.


Thinking about the future of astronomy for this post brings me to an interesting understanding of astronomy’s immediate importance for our civilization. I think that having a sense of the physical processes that shape our universe, and being aware of our surroundings in space (including potential dangers and possible benefits), are absolutely essential knowledge for the continuance and well being of our peoples.  For example, the ability to detect and avoid collisions with interstellar objects in an Armageddon-type scenario is no longer the sole product of Hollywood’s special effects. Although these types of events are rare, I am grateful that astronomy and technology have made us less helpless in the realm of space. More realistic, however, is our potential need for resources on other planets, or even colonization off of Earth. This point leads me to the more biological concept of Malthusian catastrophe and the idea that Earth, despite our best technological efforts, cannot indefinitely support our exponentially growing population. Although there are many ways we could lessen population strain on our planet (our negative environmental impact could arguably be included as strain), it is difficult to argue that such changes can or will be effectively pursued by Earth’s population before catastrophic occurrence. I strongly believe that astronomy is one of the few sciences that might be able to save us from catastrophe, and it may be the most promising.

The US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) based in Boulder, Colorado, has been taking images of our planet for 34 years, documenting climate changes and ice levels across the planet. Data from the past five years show ice levels to be lower than any previously document years. Changes in climate and ice levels for the year 2012 entirely surpassed expectations and thoroughly shocked many scientists and climatologists.

On August 26th, 2012, the NSIDC recorded record-breaking ice-melt levels. The ice had dropped to 4.1 million square kilometers in the Arctic. This ice covered 70,000 square kilometers less and occurred two weeks earlier than the previous record low in 2007. According to a report released by the NSIDC on September 9th, that figure dropped by another 14% to around 3.52 million square kilometers, evidence of a rapidly increasing melt rate. Some scientists agree that the observed drop in sea-ice coverage suggests that the Arctic could be seasonally ice-free as early as 2030 [1].

For scientists, Arctic ice is a fundamental indicator of climate change because of its sensitivity to warmth and the key role it plays in amplifying climate change. Water under the ice pack (known as the halocline) could be warming due to climate warming and ice melt. The warming could, in turn, melt sea-ice and the carbon-rich permafrost beneath costal waters, releasing large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere [2]. The release of long-stored greenhouse gases would likely contribute to a cascading effect of global warmth, trapping more heat from the sun, melting more ice, and thickening the atmosphere.

This scenario of melting ice and increasing warmth is frighteningly similar to the runaway greenhouse effect responsible for Venus’s (Earth’s “sister” planet) climate. On Earth, large amounts of carbon are trapped in ice, water, in the oceans and in materials such as surface minerals. On Venus, there is no water to dissolve and trap carbon, so it exists gaseously free in an atmosphere made up of 96% carbon dioxide. Climate warmth on Earth could potentially release a lot of its trapped carbon into gaseous carbon dioxide, contributing heavily to the greenhouse effect on Earth. In essence, climate warmth and ice melt will bring us closer to the atmospheric composition of Venus, which is often equated to hell.

– How will the little kids of the future ever believe in the wonder of Christmas, Santa Clause or claymation without an ice-covered North or South Pole?… & what about Mr. Snow Miser?


On July 5, 2012, the world’s largest laser fired a record shattering shot that generated more power than the entire United States does at any given moment. The laser, located in Livermore, California, is housed in a building the size of three football fields dubbed the National Ignition Facility (photo above). The NIF laser is an extraordinary machine of precision. Each experimental shot requires the coordination of 60,000 control points including motorized mirrors and lenses, sensors, amplifiers, cameras and more, ultimately targeting a point about the size of a pencil eraser. 192 beams of optically amplified, electromagnetic radiation-emitting light, that all fire within a few trillionths of a second, combine to produce 500 terawatts of peak power and 1.85 megajoules of ultraviolet laser light.


Funded by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the NIF’s primary mission is to provide a better understanding of the physics behind nuclear reactions. However, this remarkable technology is also helping to conquer the physical barriers of scientific observation. The laser can generate temperatures of more than 100 million degrees and pressures more than 100 billion times Earth’s atmosphere. These conditions can potentially simulate the extreme states of matter found in the cores of planets, stars and other celestial objects, giving astronomers and physicist an unprecedented view of stellar mechanics. One hopeful goal for the NIF laser is to develop an understanding of fusion ignition, the point at which nuclear fusion (the process by which stars burn) becomes self-sustaining. Achieving laboratory fusion ignition would theoretically allow scientists to provide abundant and sustainable clean energy through nuclear fusion by converting mass into incredible amounts of energy. Experts still speculate on the timeline of such achievements, noting the technical challenges of putting star stuff in a container.

For more images and videos of the NIF laser, including a fascinating Ted Talk by Dr. Ed Moses, click the second photo above!

Moore's Law & The Cosmic Calendar

Carl Sagan’s Cosmic Calendar is an insightful concept that provides essential perspective for the development of the universe. The universe itself is apparently organic, and as a natural entity it seemingly evolves over time. By packing roughly 14 billion years of existence into a relative calendar of one Earthly year, Sagan enables people to grasp something as boundless as the evolution of the universe on a tangible and relatable scale. What is possibly most impactful about the Cosmic Calendar perspective is the notion that humans arrived on Earth as recently as December 30th. So, if one year represents the entire existence of our universe, all that humans have known and accomplished occurred in a period of about two days. If it took the Milky Way Galaxy four months to form, another three months for our solar system to form, and one day to go from the extinction of dinosaurs to the beginning of the human age, it seems like the universe exponentially evolves.

In his 2005 book, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, Ray Kurzweil presents an alternative model of the Cosmic Calendar that consists of 6 Epochs, arranged according to the evolution of information:
Epoch 1 – Physics and chemistry (information in atomic structures)
Epoch 2 – Biology (information in DNA)
Epoch 3 – Brains (information in neural patterns)
Epoch 4 – Technology (information in hardware and software designs)
Epoch 5 – Integrated Technology and Human Intelligence (human biology integrated with human technology)
Epoch 6 – Universal Awakening (patterns of matter and energy in the universe)

Kurzweil theorizes that we are entering Epoch 5 and approaching what he calls a “technological singularity,” the point when non-biological intelligence matches the power and subtle capabilities of the brain. Kurzweil’s work is supported by Moore’s Law (Figure above), which shows the exponential growth of complexity for semiconductor circuits (computer chips). According to current mathematical models, some believe a technological singularity will happen by 2045. The potential for integrating technology into biological systems was born in science fiction and is slowly becoming a reality. In fact, professor Kevin Warwick in England is a cybernetics professor and pioneer. In his book, I Cyborg, you can read about his experiments with cybernetic technology in his own body. Although these ideas are outlandish and almost uncomfortable to think about, it is becoming necessary to consider technology as a factor in our cosmic evolution. In a few decades, it may even be that December 31st on the Cosmic Calendar represents a new age of bio-technological humans.