Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Question Your World: Can we live on another planet?

Somewhere around 4.5 billion years ago a gigantic ball of mass started to take shape and would eventually become where we all live.  So, the notion of a planet that can harbor life is not a strange one - after all, we happen to live on one.  Are there any other places that are similar? Can we live on another planet?

For the past 200,000 years or so humanity has been here on Earth.  In that time we've figured out how to use fire, harvest crops, change water streams, develop communities, embrace technology and learn about what happens beyond our tiny little cosmic stage.  Not bad for a new species!  Regardless, one thing we have yet to do is gain tactile proof of life existing anywhere else in the universe.

In order to search for life in other parts of the universe one needs to have a basic set of requirements. For example, the functionality of everything we know here on Earth can be traced back to our sun, so to look for other similar situations we must look at other stars (suns).  Well, we also know that the Earth is both rocky and has water.  Those are two more qualifications needed to search for similar conditions.  There's also the matter of temperature.  For example, Mercury is very hot, too hot to hold any life as we know it.  Similarly the moons of Pluto are far too cold for our taste.  Thus the position of the planet relative to its host star is a big deal as well.

Also, keep in mind, looking for planets is no easy task, the stars they orbit are so far away that we only see them as little dots of light in the night sky.  Scientists have tried various methods such as the wobble or transit methods to hone in on and fine tune their understanding of such faint and distant worlds. However, this incredibly complicated process has shown some remarkable data.  For example, in recent years we've gathered enough data to say that there's a really good chance that planets outnumber the stars in our universe.  NASA's official exoplanet list grows all the time and we're up to over 8.8 billion potentially trip-worthy planets in our Milky Way galaxy alone.  Regardless, it takes a lot of factors in just the right balance to allow for comparable conditions to our home here on Earth.

Our Earth is a good size, one that can use its gravitational pull to keep our atmosphere.  Aside from that, our distance from the sun allows for tolerable temperatures and the existence of liquid water.  Those two are very important aspects of planet-hunting.  As of now we're the only place in the known universe to be this size and this distance from our host star.  Well, we were the only place...

Recently, scientists used data from the Kepler Space Telescope and announced the first ever exoplanet discovered to be a similar size and a safe relative distance from their host star.  Kepler 186f is one of 5 planets that orbits its red dwarf star.  How far is it? About 500 light years from here - bring a book, it's a long trip.

So, we may not be able to go visit this place anytime soon, but this discovery is very important as it highlights the possibility of another life-harboring situation out there.  It has taken us around 200,000 years to get from the first time we opened our eyes to today where we can learn about the vast distant reaches of the cosmos.  The work that lays ahead for future generations could yield some remarkable findings on our universe, its creation and perhaps even a better understanding of who or what we are in the grand scheme of things.

Kepler 186f now joins the billions of other exoplanets discovered, but stands out with the distinction that it's the first exoplanet that meets a lot of the special qualifications needed to hold the most mysterious part of our universe, life.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

A Mysterious Gene Shift in Ancient Europe?!?!

For about 200,000 years humanity has been making its way from Africa to just about every corner of this planet. The study of our past helps explain the evolution of life here on Earth. We’ve put a lot of time and effort into digging through the past and have constructed the time line of our story, all the while continually making new discoveries. So, what happens when we make a new discovery that totally contradicts what we've learned? 
Our earliest ancestors started off in Africa and since then had ample opportunities to spread across the planet over thousands of years. After decades of research scientists have been able to conclude that humans moved from Africa to the Middle East and Turkey, then some moved from there to central Europe and become the ancestors of modern day Europeans. Recently, however, that theory has been shaking in its bones. Results from a recent excavation seem to challenge the previously established theory of the European’s real origins. 
Until a few weeks ago it was thought that the older human fossils (dating back 7,500 years) told a very clear story about the migration from Africa to Europe. The established idea proposes that once agriculture was introduced as a tool, humans were able to take this new process and out live the hunter gatherers around the world. A flow from Africa to the Middle East to Europe seemed to make sense considering the data that was available. However, new data in the form of more recent fossils seem to have scientists scratching their heads. 
These newly studied fossils date back about 4,500 years and indicate a mysterious gene shift that has scientists baffled. Mitochondrial DNA from the two specimens are vastly different and pose a few questions on the origins of Europeans. Who were these people? Did the real ancestors to the Europeans perhaps travel up from the Iberian Peninsula? Did the people living in central Europe evacuate 4,500 years ago due to crop failures from a quick change in climate? Was this a pre-historic war that we have yet to find other proof for?  Regardless of what happened the point is we just don’t know and the mystery of life continues to be an interesting study. 
Even though we don’t know what the answer is, the good news is the system of science still works. Sometimes while we try to get details and answers to a question we end up asking different questions that begin a whole new branch of information. The doors are opened up on this topic and now the next generation of researchers and scientists will have their chance to answer this question. 
The answers could range from the most obvious to the bizarre. Anyone from the most seasoned archeologist to contributors for popular TV shows now have their chance to look into this amazing and fascinating mystery.

Oh and there is one other potential answer to this mystery....

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Voyager 1 is finally about to leave the solar system!

Our lovely and comfortable home here on Earth is a long ways away from the end of our solar system. Don’t forget, there’s a lot of space in space.  Here on Earth concepts of boundaries involve rivers, lakes, mountains, human imposed borders, and so on.  However, this is not how the limits of our solar system are established.  There is no one thing at one point that defines the end, but there is definitely an end and it’s really far from here.

About 13 billion miles from home and well past all the other planets is an area known as the heliopause.  This is the part of space where the solar winds, over a significant distance, slow down and are eventually stopped by the interstellar medium.  Meaning this is as far as the impact of our sun can reach.  This area is also the extent of our solar system, where the sun’s influence is gradually overcome by the stellar wind of particles from other stars.

The heliopause is so far away that we are only now getting real time data from the outskirts of our solar system courtesy of the Voyager 1 spacecraft.   Traveling at a speed of nearly one million miles a day (912,000 miles per day to be exact) for the last thirty-five years, the Voyager 1 is finally approaching the heliopause.  This cosmic explorer will become the first human made object to leave our solar system and remarkably, it still works!

The Voyager spacecrafts were launched in 1977 to gather more data on our solar system and then to continue to travel beyond the heliopause into the vastness of space.  So, when will Voyager 1 reach another stellar system?  Well, not for a while.  In 40,000 years our then-power depleted spacecraft will be about 1.4 light years (8.23 TRILLION miles) away from its closest star.  The spacecraft have been loaded with plenty of analog data should they end up finding their way into the hands (or whatever appendages) of other beings way out there. 

So, even at that amazing speed it will take a long time (huge understatement) for it to reach another stellar system.  After all it took nearly thirty-five years just to approach the edge of our own cosmic neighborhood.  Don’t forget, there’s a lot of space in space.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

New Music and Your Brain!

Why do we like the music we like?

Think about all the music you've ever listened to.  Everything from Beethoven's 5th to "Call Me Maybe" are processed through the brain, but what about them allows the brain to say yay or nay?  

So, why do we like the tunes we like?  Well, there's no complete answer just yet, but scientists are exploring more and more about our brain and discovering some pretty neat stuff.  

First we must understand that music is indeed comprised of a lot of sound vibrations.  So, before we answer the question about why we like music we must understand that what we are really answering is why certain series of sounds feel better than others.  To answer this question we must dive deep into the human mind.  The brain is comprised of lots of compartments and relays.  One of those compartments is called the auditory cortex, this is the part that stores all the sounds you've heard in your whole life.  Remember those screeching tires, ice cream truck song, hammers hitting nails, the soundtrack to Lord of The Rings…and so on.  All of those sounds are cataloged by the auditory cortex including all the songs and patterns of sound that you've heard in your entire life.  Each person's auditory cortex is totally unique. 

In a recent experiment conducted by the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital, the brain was studied to see how the auditory cortex communicates with the accumbens nucleus.   This is the part of the brain that shows signs of reward and pleasure.  In this study they noticed that the accumbens lights up when it hears new music after the song has been filtered through the auditory cortex.  Wait a minute…isn't the auditory cortex different for different people?  Yes, it sure is.  That's why different people like different music.  One possibility is that all the sounds you've ever heard in your life will dictate and determine the desire to hear similar sounds in the shape of new music.  

Your stored and cataloged audio experiences could have a lot to do with how you process your opinions on the new sounds you are hearing.  Pattern recognition and predictions of where the songs go are powerful processes that the brain computes as you hear the new songs coming into your ear for the first time!

The big question now, after more research how will this impact our lives?  Well,  this could be considered the ultimate targeted marketing plan or the ultimate musical survey.  We'll find out as time passes! 

Yet another insight into your complex and unique brain! 

Monday, April 22, 2013

Wecycle Project!

Tired of opening bottles the old fashioned way?

Say goodbye to busted teeth and those awkward stares from strangers by making your own recycled bike chain bottle opener!!

For this project you'll need an old bike chain, a bike chain cutter, a bike chain link set, and your favorite tasty bottled beverage!

Step 1: Get an old bike chain (be sure to clean it very well by using the right cleaners and let it soak for a few hours!!)

Step 2: Grab a chain cutting tool (if you don't have one go to your friendly neighborhood bike shop, they should have a few laying around!)

Step 3: Cut 12-16 links off your bike chain

Step 4: Admire your handiwork...very well done, good job you!

Step 5: Get your bike chain links

Step 6: Connect the two ends of the bike chain with your link

Step 7: Place on the bottle and pop-that-top!

Step 8: Enjoy your tasty bottled beverage!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

What came first the chicken or the egg?

Science is the process by which we can ask and answer questions about our natural world.  Everything from your most routine activities all the way to the quest for our universe’s origins are fair game for the field of science!  So, let's put science to the test and answer an age-old question: What came first the chicken or the egg?

So without the egg there would be no chicken, right?  However, at the same time without the chicken would there be an egg?  Well, actually, yes there would be.   This is the story about the long and detailed process of evolution. Eggs are used by any species that sexually reproduces.  So to trace back the history of eggs we must look back at some of the earliest species that sexually reproduced.

First of all, some of the earliest eggs date all the way back to early sponges, literally hundreds of millions of years ago.   After millions upon millions of years of natural selection on mutations and variations an early avian species was produced, we’ll call this a “proto-bird”.  This early bird laid eggs that would, again after generation upon generation of natural selection, turn into a wide variety of bird species.

One of those bird species was what we could call a “proto-chicken”, meaning it was some variation of what we know as a chicken, but not exactly what we have available on Earth today.  Well, that “proto-chicken” laid eggs and eventually the species started to morph and change slowly due to natural selection and voila, an egg was laid that would hatch and give birth to what we now know as a chicken.  The egg allowed for the chicken to be born.

Now, why that chicken crossed the road is a whole different story all together...

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A skyscraper made out of wood?!?

There are currently over seven billion humans on this planet.  As this population grows we'll need more and more homes for all these people.  With limited resources and a constant watch over our impact on the environment, a big question gets brought up frequently for future of residential construction…can we make housing more eco-friendly? 

As access to resources and the growing population enter a new era in the housing conversation, so will the creative minds in the engineering and architecture industries.  Sometimes these new issues require some old fashioned thinking.  That's exactly what Canadian architect Michael Green had in mind when he set out to design and build a 30 story skyscraper made out of wood.  Wait a minute, doesn't wood catch on fire?  Won't this be a big safety issue?  Well, wood does catch on fire, but throughout history various cultures have used wood as a means of shelter and clearly most of these individuals were able to survive.  With that said, Michael Green and his crew have built in several fire prevention techniques into the blue prints ranging from sprinkler systems to fire traps.  The remarkable part about the building is not its safety features, its something totally different. 

Generally making a large building like this would involve concrete construction.  The current process by which we put up buildings actually releases thousands of pounds of green house gases into the atmosphere.  This is where the wooden skyscraper stands apart!  The wood used for this construction spends its entire life soaking in green house gases where as the process of making concrete construction adds to our global climate issues.  This building is eco-friendly by simply using materials that don't add to the greenhouse gas emissions! 

For those worried about rotting wood and other natural issues that would make this building's longevity a concern, no worries, there are many wooden structures around the world that are thousands of years old.  In fact there is a pagoda in China that stands over 500 feet tall and has been up for over eight centuries now!  

Will these eco-friendly designs catch on?  Architects like Michael Green are knocking on wood and hoping they will!