Space Based Solar Power – the key to a bright future?

By Adam D.A. Manning

Solar energy directly beamed to Earth’s surface from space has for over fifty years been proposed as a cheap and endless source of energy.  In more recent years, this Space Based Solar Energy (SBSP) has also been suggested as a way to tackle climate change by weaning us away from fossil fuels. Yet for all its perceived usefulness, the practical implementation of such plans is as far away now as it has ever been.

solar_panel_satelliteOriginally proposed by Dr. Peter Glaser in 1965, the concept involves satellites in orbit converting solar energy from our Sun and converting this into a form that is then transmitted down to a receiving station on the Earth’s surface below, either by microwave or laser transmission. The advantage over solar panels on Earth is that solar energy in space is effectively continuous; the weather or the day/night cycle cannot interfere. Without the barrier of the atmosphere, solar energy is more powerful as well.  SBSP seeks to directly tap the endless and enormous energy of our Sun and put it to use here on Earth.

This startling idea could provide a way to break our civilisation’s dependence on fossil fuels and to reorder the geo-political relationships derived from our petroleum based economy.  SBSP received more attention during the 1970s and in particular became associated with the studies on large-scale space habitats undertaken by Dr Gerard O’Neill.  Analysis at the time indicated that to really make an impact, the structures in space required by SBSP would have to be enormous.  Satellites with arrays of solar panels over a kilometre in diameter were outlined in the more far-sighted reports.  These issues were seized upon by critics and the concept became somewhat discredited.

sbspdemorenderIn the decades that have followed, new studies have returned to the idea. The tantalising prospect of cheap, abundant energy means interest has never entirely disappeared.  One common theme is that no fundamental breakthrough in science is required to deliver SBSP; the challenges are those of scale and cost.  As well as the huge infrastructure required, another issue is the very large number of launches from Earth that would be required and their resultant costs.  One suggestion on how to tackle this is to use materials taken from the Moon’s surface as the building blocks for the power satellites, thus cutting down on the number of launches from Earth’s high gravity well.

the-case-for-space-solar-power-coverMore recent consideration focuses on the use of new techniques and technologies to reduce the costs required in creating a viable SBSP system.  The original studies envisaged armies of workers in space being required to assemble the power satellites; modern studies note how robotics can be used instead, especially when combined with 3D printing techniques.  John C. Mankins’ book, The Case for Space Solar Power is an accessible and fascinating look at the development and current state of studies on SBSP.

Practical experiments related to SBSP have taken place, for example in Japan.  This involves the beamed transmission of energy over a distance of over fifty metres.  If SBSP is to move forward, experiments in space are needed to prove the technology involved. An example of this could be a power satellite, somewhat smaller than the eventual structure at only 50 metres in diameter, being placed in geosynchronous orbit and beaming down power to a collecting station on the surface below.

The promise of SBSP is potentially a world wide revolution in energy creation.  SBSP could offer clean, continual power at very little cost, once the enormous installation required is in place.  Freed from needing fossil fuels, our civilisation can potentially step away from additional carbon loading of the atmosphere.

Yet there are many counterpoints to be made.  Elon Musk, of Tesla and SpaceX fame, takes the view that SBSP is impractical as, in his view, by the time SBSP derived energy has been partially absorbed by the atmosphere and is received, the level is not that much different from conventional solar panels placed on Earth’s surface. The suggestion is that it would be cheaper and more efficient to obtain all the energy SBSP might provide by an appropriate number of conventional solar panels on Earth’s surface instead.

sbspdemoframeAs well as the power satellites, which would still be very large even with the application of modern techniques, the receiving stations on Earth would be huge as well.  To collect the radiation at ground level will require stations that are estimated to be, again, over one kilometre in diameter. The safety of the microwave or laser transmissions to Earth from the power satellite is also another key issue. Advocates suggest these would be at such a low level that it would be safe for birds or aircraft to fly through; opponents are not so sure.

The issue of cost is the most important factor in deciding if SBSP is viable and, as with safety, opinions are divided.  It seems that launch costs are a key here. These never did reduce as dramatically as the studies from the 1970s predicted.  The analysis must focus on whether SBSP derived electricity is cost effective compared to that from other sources, such as nuclear power stations.

The potential for answering both our ever-growing energy needs and the escalation of climate change will renew interest in SBSP. Such a huge project requires government intervention, yet it remains to be seen if democratic governments elected every semi-decade or so can implement such a substantial plan and see it all the way to fruition.  It is interesting to note that the Chinese government is studying SBSP as a possible means of tackling its pressing energy needs.  Perhaps what is needed is a race, like the Moon race of the Apollo years, to finally see SBSP leap off the drawing board and into orbit.

Posted in The Science-Minded Citizen | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Wildlife in your Neighbourhood

By Adam D.A. Manning

It’s all too easy to think of wildlife as something that lives somewhere else. Living in a built up area, we can imagines ourselves as inhabitants of an artificial, purely human environment. Yet nature is all round us all the time, no matter where we are and even in urban areas, there is often a great deal of non-human living matter, especially plant life.

It’s all too easy to take the living world around us for granted, to not even notice it and to consign nature to designated parks, zoos or far off lands.  This neglects the riches of the ecosystems lying close at hand, sometimes unheeded for years. Near where I live in England is a beautiful beach called Weston Shore that is often thought of as a simple stretch of pebble-strewn shoreline.

learning-about-sea-purslaneThrough a local community group that I belong too, we’ve been in contact with a professional ecologist called Phil Budd and he’s been kind enough to take us on guided walks along the shore.  An amble like this with Phil is a revelation. Even early on in our trip to the beach, his knowledge wakes you up to how the plants and animals in your local area form part of an ecosystem as vibrant and intricate as any tropical jungle or temperate forest.
bladderwrackOn the tide line at the shore is a common type of seaweed called bladderwrack.  This is a habitat for the imaginatively named Seaweed fly and these flies in turn are eaten by some of the birds that visit the area. Those birds in turn are eaten by birds of prey like the sparrowhawk. Similarly, a beautiful plant called sea purslane is a habitat for insects such as the lesser marsh grasshopper, which again leads to higher steps in a food chain.

sea-beetI was intrigued to learn that a number of the plants on the shore are perfectly edible (subject to washing, boiling or steaming as appropriate).  Sea purslane goes well with fish, for example, or in a salad. Another common plant on the shore is sea beet, the wild ancestor of plants such as beetroot, sugar beet and Swiss chard.  It can be eaten cooked or even raw – although none of us were brave enough to try it there and then!  Other plants found on the shore can be used in herbal teas or as remedies.  These plants have the potential to be something of a treasure trove to foragers.

An interesting subplot to Phil’s description of the animals and plants were that a surprising number of them were ones that had been introduced to the area by human activities, such as the Manila Clam. Originating in Asia, this was now quite happily living on our English coasts.

We’ve had some fascinating and fun visits to the shore and we’re looking forward to more. To have such a familiar area opened up in this way is an exciting look into a new world of knowledge.  As well as finding out about similar experiences in your area, it is also possible to download apps that can help identify trees and plants and there are plenty of books and online guides on the subject as well.  The riches of the natural world are there for everyone to enjoy and to marvel at.

Posted in The Science-Minded Citizen | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A New Home on a Bright Moon

By Adam D.A. Manning

Humanity has the potential to become the agency by which life from Earth radiates out into the cosmos – the rest of the Solar System and then the stars beyond.  This is the most exciting role in the universe for us, the most optimistic future for our species.  Far from a curse to life on Earth, we would become one of the most extraordinary chapters in the story of evolution, on a level with the first of the multi-cellular organisms, the fishes crawling onto land or the birds taking to the air.

That might be the lofty, inspiring vision but in the here and now, extending business into space seems to be of interest to several very rich citizens. Billionaire Elon Musk, of Tesla and SpaceX fame, is planning a large scale settlement on the red planet, Mars. Our sister world, the Moon, has been getting some attention as well with Amazon’s Jeff Bezos talking about building a base there and Virgin’s Richard Branson setting himself the long term goal of a lunar hotel.

earth-from-lroIn his announcement about his plans for Mars, Musk listed advantages that the red planet has over our Moon.  Yet it is clear that, as both a stepping stone to further exploration of space and a destination in its own right, Luna (another name for the Moon, which I prefer) has some very practical advantages.  It is of course, much, much nearer than Mars.  The Moon is about 384,000 km (239,000 miles) distant.  At its nearest, Mars is 55 million km (34 million miles) away; that is around 143 times the distance to the Moon.  As it circles the Sun in its own orbit, Mars spends a lot of time much further from Earth than that.

This nearness and the much lesser degree of variation in that distance makes the Moon enormously easier to get to than Mars.  The last humans to walk on the Moon did so in Apollo 17 in December 1972 and so there is a lot of experience in getting out to lunar distance. In comparison, many of the robotic missions to Mars have failed to successfully reach their goal.

Lunar regolith, that is its soil, is known to contain many elements needed for space construction, life support and rocket propellant.  Its top three elements are oxygen, silicon, and iron and it’s a useful resource for exploration deeper into space. The gravity on Luna’s surface is only one sixth of Earth’s and so launching into deeper space from there requires much less energy than from Earth.  Luna makes an ideal staging post for missions into deeper space as a result.

As regolith can be a useful material in constructing structures in space, handily an efficient means exists to propel it from Luna to where it is needed. This is called a mass driver, which is essentially a large, electro-magnetically powered catapult.  The mass driver is a large loop on Luna’s surface.  Containers with a payload of regolith move round the loop at increasing speed, until the contents are fired into space and ultimately out beyond Luna’s gravity to the construction site.

This system has the potential to yield large quantities of material that can be used for building space borne facilities, including factories and much larger space habitats than the International Space Station.  It is inconceivable that launches from Earth could ever provide the same quantities due to the far greater energy required to escape Earth’s gravity compared to the Moon.  If a substantial human expansion into space is to take place, the mass driver is a key component in building the infrastructure required and is the most important reason why the development of the Moon should be a priority.

Water on the Moon will also provide a useful resource to visitors and settlers; not only for drinking and plant propagation but, after being split into hydrogen and oxygen, could help provide a breathable atmosphere and rocket fuel.  This water has been detected in particular in the polar regions and may have been deposited by comets impacting the surface.

In the further future, another element found on the surface might be of use to explorers and settlers in providing power.  To date, all practical forms of peaceful nuclear energy have been fission powered, that is releasing energy by breaking atoms apart.  A more powerful and possibly less risky form is nuclear fusion, which, like the Sun, creates energy by fusing the centres, or nuclei, of atoms together.

A lot of excitement has been caused by the use of Helium-3 in nuclear fusion power plants as it has the potential to be a very efficient process.  One drawback though is that Helium-3 is rather rare on the Earth’s surface. It turns out that it’s more common on Luna’s surface, as it has been embedded in the regolith by the solar wind over billions of years. Settlers might harvest Helium-3 from the regolith to power nuclear fusion generators that provide energy to their outpost.

apollo-16My last entry in this list of advantages is solar energy. Luna is on average the same distance from the Sun as Earth, but its atmosphere is so tenuous that it may as well be described as a vacuum. The solar energy hitting a panel on Luna would be more than that on Earth as a result. Mars on the other hand is further away from the Sun than either Earth or Luna and so the solar energy it receives is rather less.

Admittedly, Luna’s day of slightly more than 27 Earth days means that for long periods of time, a given hectare of the lunar surface will be in darkness. Solar power satellites can be placed in lunar orbit and they would transmit the power between them to where it was needed.

There are certain mountains on Luna’s surface that receive sunlight on an almost constant basis. These areas, referred to rather poetically as peaks of eternal light, would be particularly useful to settlers as they could supply virtually uninterrupted solar energy.

Luna is well placed and constituted to act as an initial resource for much greater levels of human expansion beyond Earth.  Drawing on the heroically won experience of the Apollo missions, we can learn so much from going there and developing lunar bases and ultimately settlements.  There will be invaluable lessons for further exploration deeper into space including, in time, Mars.  Human missions to the red planet will be strengthened and emboldened by this, ensuring that the long-term settlement of Mars has a much greater chance of success.

Posted in The Science-Minded Citizen | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Environmental Issue We Can All Clear Up

By Adam D.A. Manning

The Earth is doomed. We are doomed. There is nothing we can do and it is not worth even trying.

How easy it is to feel like this! Pushed up against sheer cliffs of despair by the mass of headlines about our world’s environmental dangers, we are squeezed into a narrow ravine of thought. Only think of now and here and, whatever you do, don’t think of future times and the lives of our children, their children and those to come afterwards.  The unceasing destruction of biodiversity, the loss of natural habitats, deforestation, desertification, pollution and the most inescapable and insidious of all – climate change; no wonder we find it difficult to think of taking action.

The most serious environmental dangers challenging life on Earth, global in extent, have profound implications for humanity and the lives that we lead.  While we can take action as individuals to help, these have to be tackled at a national and international level for substantial progress to be made. Yet there is one serious environmental problem that is easy to tackle, where progress can be made right now and the results are immediately obvious.

IMG_9716This is litter – the curse of modern living; something that is so ubiquitous we often fail to consciously register it is there.  Litter is usually all round us everywhere – a seemingly inevitable by-product of the sublime efficiency of our industrial world culture.  Yet there is a growing movement, assisted and inspired by the internet’s rapacity for communication, that aims to face up to this incessancy.

This is not, by any means, to suggest that litter is a trivial and unimportant challenge.  Most obviously, litter is unsightly and spoils views and vistas that might otherwise let us soar with inspiration.  It’s difficult to let yourself go and feel at one with the beauty of nature if drink cans, chocolate bar wrappers and packets for snacks are scattered everywhere.

At a human level, a litter blight in an area has been shown to be linked to increased levels of crime. For instance, a study by Keep Britain Tidy in 2014 showed that areas with poor levels of cleanliness were associated with criminal activity and social disorder.  Conversely, places with low levels of litter, fly posting and graffiti were also those least at risk from crime.  It seems that tackling litter can lead to changes in the human environment.

IMG_6936As an environmental issue, litter can have devastating effects on wildlife.  There have been videos and photos of turtles with plastic forks and straws stuck in their noses. A dramatic case is that of Peanut, a red-eared slider turtle, who became stuck in a six-pack can binder as a youngster and grew up deformed as a result.  Not only did this affect the turtle’s internal organs, it would have also made her more vulnerable to predators as it affected her mobility.  Similar cases involve pelicans, albatrosses and other sea birds.  Recently, thirteen sperm whales that died after becoming stranded on a beach in Germany were found to have stomachs full of plastic.  Seals can become caught up in old rope, netting or fishing line and drown.

Fox cubs get their heads caught up in discarded wheel hubs and hedgehogs get their heads trapped in tins. At a smaller scale, lizards can fall into cans left discarded in habitats, never able to get out.  Gum, spat out somewhere, can end up matting an animal’s fur, making it difficult for them to move freely in forests and potentially trapping them.

Many of us will have seen videos showing remote islands, where the beaches are strewn with plastic debris from our civilisation.  Areas of the Pacific Ocean are, due to a coincidence of currents, floating assemblages of human rubbish.

Our pets can also be at danger from litter.  Cats have been caught in drink can binders as well and dogs have had their heads trapped in jars.  Animals choke on discarded balloons, sometimes the debris from mass balloon releases.

autcleanupadamThankfully, litter’s very visibility has lead to many people wanting to take action.  Groups all over the world regularly carry out litter picks and clean ups and it’s no surprise that these have become popular in recent years.

I’ve been part of a group that has for around twenty years carried out regular beach clean ups on Weston Shore in Southampton, England and can attest to how satisfying it is to get involved.    A litter pick, either solely or with the help of friends, can quickly transform an area.  The results are immediate – simply look back at where you’ve worked and see how much cleaner it is.  There are other benefits; fresh air and (possibly) sunshine, a little gentle exercise from walking around, taking in the sights, getting out in your neighbourhood and taking part in the life of your community. It can also be very sociable and a lot of fun!

elizabethandalisonLitter picking as an activity has grown in popularity in the age of social media.  It is often a very visual subject for the camera and sometimes can be rather bizarre.  Diamond (or more likely, fake diamond) studded dog collars, bits of alarm clocks, toys of all descriptions, innumerable golf balls, parts of cars, the complete range of types of clothing – all have been found on litter picks.  This makes for a good subject for instagramming, tweeting and so forth.

One group that have really picked up on this idea is Litterati. Focussed on instagram, the idea is to take a shot of litter and then tag it, #litterati.  This has become a global hit with, at last count, over 227,000 pieces of litter tagged and cleared up.  As a regular beach cleaner, my favourite tag is #brandsonthebeach.  So many of our popular brands, Coca Cola, Budweiser, Irn-Bru, Red Bull, and so forth, end up as rubbish on our beaches or in our natural places. Let’s show them how their precious products really end up.

FOWS8A similar movement is #2minutebeachclean.  The idea here is to do a little and often. A two minute clean up really can help and spreading the meme helps more get done.

To see an area you’ve cleaned up, with just a little effort, is so rewarding. It’s not just good for the planet, it’s good for you too. A wonderful friend of mine has told me how therapeutic and soothing he finds litter picking to be and I believe him. Who knows, maybe there is a similar activity in your local area?
IMG_6915With a sense of achievement from this type of activity, facing up to the greater challenges seems more reasonable.  If we can make a difference here and now, maybe making a difference with these more profound difficulties is not so impossible.  Just maybe, there is good reason to hope after all.

 

Posted in The Science-Minded Citizen | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

An Armchair Astronomer No More

By Adam D.A. Manning

The glitter of a clear night sky has always entranced us. Even in these days of extraordinary knowledge about the affairs of the cosmos, it is still easy to look up and lose yourself in its illimitable mystery and wonder.

Many of us have a fascination and thirst for knowledge about the planets, the stars, the galaxies. This great intrigue is easily inflamed by the lore to be found in books and it is exciting to get involved in practical, hands on astronomy as well. In an adventure into this more direct experience, my wife and I paid a visit one starry evening to the Toothill Observatory near Southampton in England, run by the Solent Amateur Astronomers.

The group was welcoming and keen to share their knowledge of and passion for Space. They had a large telescope permanently installed and, looking through this, we were able to view Jupiter, the largest of the Sun’s planets, accompanied by four of its largest moons, those being Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. Books on astronomy are often replete with breathtaking photographs of celestial beauty, including of course the planets and moons of our solar system. Yet to see the disc of Jupiter with your own telescopically aided eye, that lovely marble colouring and the banding of the clouds, took the experience off the page and gave it a sudden, absorbing immediacy. Here was the king of the planets, and I was looking at it right now (or at least as it was rather more than thirty minutes ago, given the time that light takes to travel from Jupiter to Earth).

The four largest moons of Jupiter are collectively called the Galileans, and they sparkled and glinted as they lay in a perfect line, three on the right and one on the left of Jupiter at the time of our visit. When they were first discovered in the early seventeenth century, they helped prove that telescopes were of the greatest assistance to scientists, as they could show objects that were too far away or too small to be seen with just the eye. These moons had never been observed prior to the invention of the telescope.

Other telescopes were accessible at the observatory as well and we were able to gaze into the depths of the Pleidaes star cluster. Our visit to Toothill Observatory had been unexpectedly exciting and I was delighted when, later, a friend very kindly gave me a telescope he no longer had a use for. With this I could have my own adventures with astronomy.

Setting up the telescopeThe specific model was a Bushnell 78-9003, which appears to be quite representative of the type of telescope that can be purchased relatively inexpensively for use at home. Examining it, my first impression was of how beautiful this instrument was, the shining chrome and circular lenses arranged in a mathematical perfection. I’m not naturally a practical person by inclination, so carrying out the assembly work that was required was an enjoyable challenge.

Once completed, the telescope was put in the back garden. The next step was to aligning the Finderscope, the small tube sitting on top of the main cylinder, with the telescope. I was a little self-conscious of swinging the telescope about in the back garden, wondering if my alarmed neighbours might think I was spying on them. In the end I settled on using the top of a clothes’ line stood in a neighbour’s garden, some three houses down the road, as a target for this purpose.

Telescope1It looked large enough in the Finderscope, but when I used the low power 20mm lens in the main telescope to view it, I had a shock. The top of the post had a rubber stopper on it. In the eyepiece of the main telescope, this was so close I could see every wrinkle and crease in the stopper’s orange surface. This magnifying power was impressive! I could easily imagine how astonished the telescope’s original inventors might have been.

I was keen to get star-gazing (or at least moon-watching) and it took forever on that long summer evening for it to be sufficiently dark. Eventually I was able to step out into the dark and swivel the telescope round roughly in the direction of the full moon that shone that night.

At first there was a little light cloud near the horizon when the Moon first appeared, which rolled and whisked across the lunar circle rather dramatically. This made getting a good look rather difficult. After waiting a little longer, this cleared and the Moon climbed higher in the sky, making a viewing much easier.

Telescope2One thing I noticed immediately was that a telescope such as mine is very sensitive to the slightest touch or wobble. Whenever possible, I tried to lock it into position as much as I could to prevent this, but this proved somewhat tricky. The act of tightening the telescope’s adjustment screws could move the main eyepiece off target. Looking through the eyepiece had to be done delicately as pressing too hard could easily move the telescope the tiniest fraction, thus taking the view off the Moon.

A certain degree of patience paid off as the skills needed to keep the telescope on target whilst focussing developed. My admiration for the experienced astronomers at the observatory grew. With a little persistence, I was able to train the main telescope onto the disc of the Moon’s surface and beheld it in all its magnificent desolation (to use Buzz Aldrin’s celebrated description). The long stretches of the intense whiteness of the highlands were a skeleton around the darker, almost cyan shaded seas and with the lightest of touches I could gaze over the different quarters of our lovely sister world, the Earth’s quiet and constant companion.

The stark glow of Luna and all the intricate detail arrayed for us in its circle in the sky is a gift to the novice astronomer. I spent a lot of time pouring over the Moon and only later thought to try the higher power 4 mm lens that I had been given as well. Impatiently fitting this, I sought once more for the lunar surface but, sadly, had no luck at all. I am not sure how it was what that I could miss the Moon, given that it would be so much larger in this higher magnification. It must have been down to my inexperience.

After a frustrating twenty minutes spent in this way I yawned and suddenly noted how late it had become and how cold I was, stood in my garden at 1.30am with just shorts and a t-shirt on from the earlier balmy summer evening. Turning in for the night, I promised myself that I would continue my adventure into astronomy. In particular I am excited about learning how to find and look upon the planets and their moons. My hope is that this account of my first steps in astronomy may encourage others as well.

Posted in The Science-Minded Citizen | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Solar System In Motion

By Adam D.A. Manning

In ancient times, it used to be thought a matter of common sense that the Earth was stationary and that the planets, the stars and the Sun all moved around us. As we stand on the Earth, it seems immeasurably, or at least hugely, wide in all directions horizontally. The general perception of many was that this size alone, this weight, meant the Earth was immovable and the night sky was a sphere or even series of spheres, sometimes poetically thought of as being of perfect crystal, arrayed around our world, the centre of all things. In this geocentric model, the days are caused by the revolution of the Sun about the Earth. This conception of the universe suggests that everything is arranged for us. We are the centre of all things and what happens here and what we do is of supreme importance, the universe seems to be telling us.

The modern conception of the true arrangement of the Earth and the other elements of the Solar System dates from the Renaissance in Europe. In the mid 15th Century, Nicholas Copernicus famously set forth our modern view, that of a heliocentric system in which the Sun is at the centre of the Solar System and the Earth and the other planets revolve in orbits around the Sun. Think of the extraordinarily profound realisation that the days are caused by the rotation of the Earth and not the revolving of the Sun around us. In a few pages, the Earth has been reduced to one of several bodies circling the Sun and we are no longer at the most important and unique place in the cosmos.

jupitergalileoThis theory was elaborated upon by Johannes Kepler in the early 17th Century, who, after more careful observations, deduced the proper shape of the planetary orbits, which was that of the ellipse. An ellipse can be viewed as a circle as seen from an angle. The perfection of the cosmos was starting to shatter with the realisation that not even the orbits of the heliocentric system were purely circular as previously believed. Galileo, a few years later and using the recently invented telescope, noted four moons in orbit around Jupiter and this was further proof that the Earth was not the centre of all things.

Many of us will have a picture of the layout of the Solar System as a series of concentric circles of increasing size, with the Sun at the centre. The normal view is of a static, disc shape, as if the orbits are the grooves in an LP record (if you can remember what that was!) and the Sun is the hole in the centre. This is generally adequate when thinking purely in terms of being within the Solar System but our Sun and its attendant planets and their moons are part of an immensely bigger structure; the Milky Way Galaxy.

Far from this static model, the Sun is orbiting the centre of our galaxy at great speed and taking the Solar System with it. Although it takes an enormous period of time, roughly 225 million years or so, to carry out one orbit of the centre of the galaxy, the distance involved is so huge that it is doing this at an enormous speed of 230 kilometres per second. So, the picture then is of the planets orbiting the Sun as the Sun itself is hurtling around its orbit. As a result, the static picture of the Solar System as a disc is only partially correct; the disc itself is moving as well.

An interesting thought experiment is to imagine the track or trail of the planets as they circle the Sun whilst the Sun moves ever onward. Taking up this challenge, I decided to try to model this on my computer with a 3-D graphic package.

This became a fascinating project and the first step was to get some good data on the size of the planet’s orbits. In this day and age of the Internet and wikipedia this was a moment’s work. As soon as I started this, one of the key features of the arrangement of the Solar System became apparent. The four inner planets, Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars, all have evenly spaced orbits. If you try to keep them visible at the same time, the four outer planets of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune are much more widely spread out. Trying to view the whole Solar System means that the four inner planets’ orbits are very small, barely discernable ellipses close to the Sun. That is why astronomers often talk about the inner Solar System, in which we reside, and contrast this with the more far-flung outer Solar System.

Another feature of trying to display the Solar System in this way is that the planets, even the large gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn, are tiny compared to the size of their orbits. If you really were to draw the planets at the same scale as their orbits and fit it all on one computer screen, it would be very difficult to see them. You might see the Sun as a bright pixel in the centre and fleetingly you might glimpse the gas giants, but that would be it. To aid the viewer, you have to have a different scale for the size of the planets compared to their orbits.

As I worked on this, I was eventually able to simulate the orbits of all eight planets as they revolved around the Sun, as the Sun in turn moved forward through the galaxy. I kept it simple in a number of ways. Firstly, each planet’s orbit is inclined at a slight angle that is different for each planet. In other words, each of the orbits are in a different plane compared to the others, that all intersect (roughly) about the Sun. By and large however, the inclination of the orbits is relatively small so I ignored this point. It would be difficult to notice this on my simulation in any event. In addition, as noted above, the orbit of each planet is not a true circle but is an ellipse. In practise however, they are near enough to a circle to make little difference at the scale of my simulation and again it would be difficult to notice this point.

The exception to these points is Mercury. The angle of Mercury’s orbit is a little larger than the other planets and is also a more pronounced ellipse. I decided to not take this any further though as Mercury’s orbit is very small compared to the other planets, especially the outer ones, so that again it would be difficult to notice this.

Another interesting point about the orbits of the planets is that we generally think of them as being centred on the Sun. An ellipse has in fact what you might think of as two “centres” and these are called focal points or focuses. One of the focuses of the Earth’s orbit, for instance, is within the Sun. But it is not, as might be thought, in the exact centre of the Sun. Instead, when a planet orbits a star, they both orbit the centre of mass of the two of them. As an example of this principle, imagine two planets of the exact same mass and density and so forth orbiting each other. They would orbit around the centre of mass between the two of them.

With the Earth and the Sun the situation is a little different. The Sun is so hugely massive compared to the Earth that one of the focal points of the orbit is within the Sun itself, albeit not actually at the Sun’s exact centre. The same holds true for all the other planets apart from Jupiter. Jupiter is so massive that the focal point of its orbit is just beyond the Sun’s surface. As a result, the Sun orbits this point and so if you studied the Sun very carefully, you would notice it revolving around a point just beyond its outer edge.

This “wobble” is one of the ways astronomers use to determine if other stars have planets orbiting them. If they are suitable massive compared to their star, they may also pull the star around in a similarly tight orbit.

This effect was so small that I felt there was no need to include it in my simulation as again it would be very difficult to see this on a scale that involved the orbits of all the Solar System’s planets.

After running it, the simulation produced some beautiful spiral shapes as the planets orbited the Sun as the Sun itself orbited the centre of the galaxy. Of course, my simulation had to run at a much higher speed than the real Solar System. After all, it takes a whole year for the Earth to orbit the Sun and at that speed, the little sphere on my screen representing the Earth on my screen would move slower than the hour hand of a clock! So, in the end I settled for each minute of my simulation representing roughly twenty years of real time.

One final point was the angle of the Solar System as it proceeds in its orbit around the centre of the galaxy. It was tempting to assume that it was horizontal or vertical compared to this movement, but in fact it is tilted at sixty degrees to the direction of its movement around the centre of the galaxy. This means that some of the planets may be ahead of the Sun in its orbit whilst the others are behind it. As the planets’ orbits progress, these relative positions switch around. Think of somebody with an umbrella in the rain who has to angle the umbrella slightly forward to account for the wind as they walk and you get the picture.

Watching the simulation was quite entrancing. The intertwining spirals (or helixes as they should be called) were a manifestation of nature’s uplifting beauty. I soon realised that I had in fact missed one further point. In creating my simulation, I had simply assigned a value to the speed of the Sun’s orbit around the galaxy’s centre that was convenient and seem to make for an interesting result. I had not actually considered what this ought to be.

By entering the correct value of the speed of the Sun’s orbit, I realised that the Sun, along with the rest of the Solar System including the Earth, were orbiting the centre of the galaxy at a rate far greater than the speed of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun. For instance, in a year the Earth will travel roughly one billion kilometres as it revolves around the Sun. In the same time however, it will have travelled around seven billion kilometres as the Solar System orbits the galaxy’s centre.

This changed the look of the simulation rather markedly. Although the helix shapes are still there, they are much more elongated. In fact, the overall impression now is that the track of the movement of the planets are long streamers or tails stretching out around the Sun. This was an unexpected result and added an element of discovery into what had already been a fascinating and absorbing project.

To make the simulation more sophisticated, the points referred to above would have to be added in. In addition, at the scale shown in my animations, the movement of the Sun is as near to a straight line as makes no difference. Yet for it to be accurate this ought to be taken into account.

In addition, the orbit of the Solar System around the galaxy’s centre is not a flat a plane. It oscillates gently up and down, roughly four times during one orbit. A further simulation could show this as well to make the picture more complete, although again this motion is so enormous that at the scale shown in my simulations it is unlikely that you will be able to see this.

I had learned a great deal from this project. As with the movement from a geocentric to a heliocentric model of the Solar System, the incomprehensible expanse of space and our world’s minute dimensions in comparison are the impressions one is left with. Our precious, beautiful planet is a tiny, living pin point in the enormity of the dark and we are so lucky enough to briefly exist on this shore of the cosmos.

A vlog that contains the animations I created as part of this project is set out below – please do take a view!

videotitlej

Posted in The Science-Minded Citizen | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Lab Assistant to My Eight Year Old Daughter

By Adam D.A. Manning

My eight year old daughter Elizabeth and I have been having a lot of fun recently carrying out all sorts of experiments with a junior chemistry set. It’s already been quite an adventure into science and not only have we learned a lot but we’ve also had some wonderful Daddy and daughter time together, working our way through the introductory lessons set out in the booklet provided with our home laboratory. 

labassistant3The set we bought was chosen after a bit of research as there are a number available. In the end, I purchased the set that had the biggest range of chemicals as many of them required you to buy a lot of additional supplies. Elizabeth was so excited when the set arrived. We even had our own unboxing ceremony and marvelled at all the equipment provided; the test tubes, the spirit burner, the funnel and so on.

labassistant1We quickly set to work arranging our own laboratory at home. The initial experiments concentrated on dissolving various chemicals in water. We were soon carefully dispensing small samples of the compounds with the measuring spoon and delicately depositing them into test tubes and noting the results. Even these straightforward exercises into chemistry were interesting and much more involving as practical activities compared to learning from a textbook. Stepping it up with the use of the spirit burner added extra excitement and the feeling that you really were “doing science”. Who knew methylated spirits came in such a beautiful colour! (I know it’s a dye, but it’s such a lovely violet.)

As well as the fun and the special time spent in the company of my daughter, an interesting facet to me has been the idea of her learning about a subject in a way that is entirely unconnected to school and the formal education system. There are no deadlines, no tests and no homework – just fun. I am thrilled that she is gaining knowledge and experience during our family time. The idea that as she grows up, these times will form part of her memories and help create our own distinctive life as a family also delights me as a father.

labassistant2Elizabeth is learning a lot of science of course. For instance, she now knows that sodium chloride is of course salt, that heating solutions speeds up the dissolving process and that sugar crystals are yummy. Almost as useful are the practical skills involving a certain manual dexterity – the pouring, holding and measuring. One of the themes of the booklet with our set is predicting (or at least imagining) what the results of any particular experiment might be beforehand and this is a valuable exercise in itself. Not only is it part of the learning process; this experience I’ve found brings you right into the world of your child as you share the way they think about what is happening.

I must admit I have my own personal reasons for getting involved with chemistry in this way. When I was growing up, I always wanted a set and was jealous of some neighbouring children who were given one. We only dabbled with it in an unstructured way but a chemistry set has always seemed an intriguing novelty to me as a result. My own interest has helped maintain Elizabeth’s interest. She is, like most eight year olds, easily distracted and I certainly have no intention of rigorously requiring her to pay constant attention. If I carry on, at some point shortly afterwards I know she will suddenly become fascinated again when colourful chemicals are bubbling at the bottom of a test tube, or a large seed crystal is being suspended in a jar of solution.

labassistant4As we progress through the experiments, we’ve talked about further science adventures with sets involving physics and electronics and even a computer kit. Both of us are learning so much and I’ve loved how “doing science” has become a happy time for us as father and daughter.

Posted in The Science-Minded Citizen | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Climate is Changing!

By LadyJulBug

Earth partially submerged in water, with sun corona in background

credit: https://pixabay.com/en/earth-globe-water-fire-flame-1023859/

Scientists are in consensus:

Climate change is real. Humans are the cause.

For those of us who understand the scientific research and are inclined to accept the scientific consensus, this statement is obvious.

We get it. We’ve accepted it. Climate change is real. We are the cause.

However, this issue must go beyond just understanding and accepting reality.

Do we really feel it?

Time is running out for many species on this planet, including bees, which are vital for keeping our ecosystems cycling. If the bees go, we all go.

We have to begin to take this issue personally. We have to see it in ways that move us to join in collective action; in ways that bring hundreds of millions of Americans out into the streets, demanding that our leaders take comprehensive, tangible steps to reduce our impact on the environment. For Americans to rise up in protest, we will each have to start feeling climate reality with a sense of dire urgency.

For me, this sense of urgency came through seeing the problem not only on a scientific level, but on a human level. By endeavoring to fully understand our social connections to the environment, I discovered that it’s the indigenous communities all over this planet who have often been on the frontline, propelling serious issues into the mainstream consciousness.

In America, it’s our Natives who have fought hardest, becoming the most devoted activists. Environmental desecration impacts their communities at higher rates, often more drastically, than it does for the general population.

A few years ago, a chemical spill in West Virginia left thousands of AAIWV members without clean water for over a week. While the Appalachian American Indians of West Virginia is the intertribal group representing many people who are closest to my heart, the harm caused by environmental destruction permeates throughout Indian Country. It impacts the health of every Native community, from the Gold King Mine Spill impacting the Navajo, to the Oak Flat Copper Mine fight of the Apache, to the Dakota Access Pipeline threatening the Sioux, to the melting away of ice and culture faced the Iñupiat Eskimo peoples of Alaska.

I’ve come to understand how the plights of our tribes are erased in the general discourse surrounding environmental issues. Sacred lands are regularly threatened by the exploits of mega corporations, while treaties continue to go dishonored, and discussions concerning climate and the environment are labeled “liberal” concerns by the mainstream media. In conversations amongst the general population concerning the Keystone Pipeline, the issue seems to have just appeared in the mainstream, with little acknowledgement given to the Sioux activists who fought for years before finally propelling it there.

While this undeniably has a direct impact on Native communities across America and around the world, every poor community in our country has felt the wrath of our society’s carelessness towards the environment. Flint’s lead crisis is a recent, well known tribute to this phenomenon. Climate change and environmental destruction has long been a shared plight of the poor, as extraction of resources has historically set it’s sights on the wealth buried within their communities. Due to fracking, this impact is now being felt by many middle-class communities. Scientists predict that this “innovative” practice will manifest in an increase of earthquakes throughout the United States.

The incident in West Virginia, where the native population amounts to less than 0.3% of the population, drew my attention to the communities all across Appalachia. The environmental destruction from coal mining has left many local populations with shortened life-spans, and many individuals suffering from severe disabilities. Proposals to end the dismal impact of this industry leave many communities impoverished, as alternative industries fail to replace the local economies. For Alleghany County, located on the boarder of West Virginia and Virginia in the Allegheny Mountains, a paper-mill industry pollutes the local river. Fumes from MeadWestvacos production can be smelled over 15 miles away in the early morning.

People throughout Appalachia are not blissfully unaware of the environmental and health impacts of these industries. On the contrary, the pollution they cause is a regular part of conversations throughout the region. However, these industries provide their communities with a necessary source of employment, putting the people who live within them in a precarious situation. When politicians in Kentucky run on platforms that promise to bring coal-mining jobs back to these communities, they often win without the support of these local populations, as many people throughout the region have become disillusioned and disassociated with national politics.

The economics in areas like the Pine Ridge Reservation, where the majority of people live on less than $3,000 a year (in near 3rd world conditions), have left many in the local populations plagued with depression and drug addiction. The same is true in many places throughout Appalachia, as heroine has become an epidemic in Eastern Kentucky. This reality is felt by many Americans, as 1 in 4 children now live in poverty, and efforts to alleviate their situation are often misdirected, focusing solely on improving education.

Worse? Federal programs and funds targeting the poor are being used as tools to create division among the diverse populations of those in poverty, who are most directly effected by environmental destruction and simplistic efforts aimed at it’s prevention. This pits us all in competition with each other, fueling prejudices.

Seeing this issue on this human level, especially from an Indigenous perspective, has given me a new understanding of my own connection to and reliance on the Earth, as that interaction is a basic foundation among many native cultures. This viewpoint effects not just on how I see the impact of climate change, but on how I recognize my connections to the lives of others and the direct connection that we all have to the environment. This human perspective has painted a more colorful picture in my mind, allowing me to see how our institutions and social systems work in sync to maintain a deadly, destructive cycle.

Science can help us understand how this is happening, and it can even offer us many specific reasons why…but only to an extent. Science can tell us that carbon emissions from fossil fuels are causing a phenomenon of global warming, and that this is melting our ice-caps. It can provide specific data that can be used to make predictions. It can tell us if limiting ourselves to a specific temperature increase will be helpful or harmful (1.5℃ is too much). It has a significant use for proving that this is our reality.

However, as Naomi Klein details in her book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate, science (and technology) alone will not save us from our own self-destruction. Science can’t help us fully understand the human side of this issue.

I have come to the conclusion that any solutions for combating climate change must be complex, as the systems which created this problem are complex, and as humanity itself is complex. It must simultaneously address historically created social issues like poverty, prejudice of all varieties, educational inequality, war, and every injustice that plagues our society.

This can make the problem seem insurmountable, because climate change essentially becomes a blanket cause for every other injustice we face.

However, I prefer to see it as an opportunity.

Achieving this common realization can be the spark we need to make this issue personal. It can create the feeling of urgency that will bring hundreds of millions of us, united by a common understanding and a common cause, out into the streets to protest for substantial climate action.

What issue do you care most about? What moves you to action? Gender equality? Police brutality? Religious freedom? Something else? Can you see how it contributes to or is effected by climate change?

More importantly, can you articulate it to others in a way that creates a sense of urgency, moving them to take action?

Posted in The Science-Minded Citizen | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Saturated in Science: Memories of a Part Time Course in a Full Time Life

birlinggap By Adam D.A. Manning

On a cliff top near Brighton, England over a decade ago, bewildered that even an everyday plant like grass had a scientific name, it struck me. Whilst not a professional scientist, I could feel the longing, the burning thirst that is the passion that a scientist must feel.  The wanting to know, to discover, to learn; this was far from the logical, emotionless feeling I had expected. Science is a passion, not a cold, dry world of learning by rote but an exhilarating dive into an endless ocean of new thoughts and feelings.

A long time ago, in that long lost era before Facebook, I took part in an introductory course on science with the Open University. I was going to fit this part time studying in around my full time career and family life as a newly married man.  I had always enjoyed science as a child but my career aspirations took me to other places.  This was a chance to learn more and see what would unfold in the process.  In the UK, the Open University (OU) has for a number of decades been providing courses on all sorts of subjects for people who cannot attend a University full time. I was familiar with the OU from having tried to understand some of their programmes on TV but this would for me be a new adventure, so I was intrigued to see how it would go.

To my delight the textbooks and the materials provided by the OU were vibrant and colourful works which made me very excited about the subjects we would be studying.  The course covered the whole spectrum of science. My first observation was how detailed and thorough each section was.  Those of us who are not scientists by profession often indulge our curiosity with books of varying sizes. These are often “coffee table books” which can take a somewhat sensationalist slant on the subject.  It soon became clear that the course was going to study matters much more comprehensively than these populist tomes. The advantage of this was that the less every day aspects of science, say quantum physics, could be rooted more firmly in a solid foundation of knowledge.

As well as the colourful textbooks, we were supplied with all manner of equipment and props. This included a special lens to diffract light, various mineral and crystal samples and even plaster cast mock fossils.  Throughout the course we were instinthelabructed on carrying out experiments and observations at home and I have a distinct memory of setting up a homemade spectrograph on the dinner table.  Some of the course used material on a CD ROM, especially intensely studying an area of woodland and analysing the data from observations from the site and there were also the TV programmes which are a famous part of OU culture.

The course lasted for most of the year and there were times when it was a lot of work, especially when an assignment was due. Some days I would come in from having a hard day at the office to stay up till late studying for my course. One night, I was reading about the Earth Moon system in astronomy and ended up seeing the midnight moon out of the lounge window. We worked mostly at a distance by post but there were regular meet ups in Southampton where a tutor could help us with any specific problems.  Science uses the language of mathematics and this was a challenge some of the time but mastering the maths that was needed was satisfying.

For one glorious week in the summer, we took part in a residential course at Sussex University, staying in the halls of residence.  This really was time travelling; slipping back a decade to student days. The other students on the course were great classmates and we got stuck in carrying out experiments in the lab, poring over microscopes, dissecting tiny plant samples or studying radioactive decay – while being careful not to stand too near the radioactive source!

As well as lab work, we even had a field trip to a nearby beach and cliff top at Birling Gap near Brighton, on a beautiful summer day. We studied the geology and biology of the local area and even had time for a picnic. It was a wonderful experience and by Friday, after the end of course disco, I was rather sad it was all over.

Such a course obviously entails a huge amount of material to work through and you learn so much from taking part.  There were some particular revelations that have stayed with me ever since.  The periodic table is much more than an aid to memory in learning the elements.  When we studied the formation of atoms and molecules, it became clear that the relevant number and arrangement of atoms or molecules radically alters how they interact with other atoms and molecules around them. So, the world around us is built at the smallest scale on differences in the numbers of these parts. The periodic table is based on this information and far from just a convenient means to tabulate this data, tells us so much about how the cosmos is formed and behaves. At the time this felt like a breathtaking revelation; seeing the world in a whole new way.

Our look at quantum physics highlighted the strange and wondrous interior of the atom.  At this level, nature doesn’t operate in accordance with our expectations from every day life.  Learning about this, it was easy to develop an almost awe like admiration for the scientists who have built up such understanding and insight.

There was so much to learn on the course and I hope at some point to do further, more advanced courses.  Fortunately, in this time of our global, digital culture such courses are readily available. I would always recommend the Open University, which now has free, online courses available called Open Learn, but there are alternative sources and in particular edX is very popular. They have an online learning experience, using videos for lectures, and I find them to be very enjoyable.

Science isn’t only for professional scientists at the cutting edge of research; those of us who are curious and passionate can gain so much from taking part as well. So if you are curious, my advice is to dive in and learn more!

Posted in The Science-Minded Citizen | Leave a comment

Living a Good Life

By LadyJulBug

LiveAGreaterGoodEveryone wants to be happy.
Everyone wants to live a good life.

I don’t think those are over-generalizing assumptions about our species.

The path towards achieving these goals looks different for each person.

For me, it looks like education and science.

A few years ago, I was taking a course on Diversity in Education as part of my professional education minor requirements. In this class we had an assignment to research and present on a topic related to the course material. I chose to focus on bullying. In my research, I discovered that there are three types of people who participate in bully situations: the bully, the victim, and the bystander. I discovered that the bystanders play the most important role. They either fuel the situation by remaining neutral or by joining in, or they can be a force for good and intervene. I wondered: how do we get them to speak up? In my research, I discovered that there are two factors in play when a person decides to speak up during a situation like this. They need to care about the victim, and they need to feel like if they speak up it will help. Getting people to feel empowered enough to speak up is the easy part. Making them care about the person they’re standing up for is much more difficult. This requires empathy. So, I started researching empathy. I wanted to know how to instill this quality in others.

In my research, I discovered much more than I ever expected to learn.
I discovered the secrets to living a happy life.

I found The Greater Good Science Center from Berkeley, where they explore the “Science of a Meaningful Life.” When I came across their website, I was shocked to find that there’s a wealth of information and research on the best qualities humanity possesses: kindness, altruism, forgiveness, gratitude, mindfulness, compassion, and empathy. When I started reading this information, it spoke to me in a way I understand.

Seeing it in research somehow made the necessity for these qualities more important to me. I think before this, I knew these were qualities I valued and tried to embody. Yet, somehow I didn’t always put so much emphasis on them. I was mostly kind. I could be compassionate sometimes. Too often I failed to show gratitude, but I tried to be altruistic. Forgiveness wasn’t always something I strived for. Empathy was something I extended to many people, but too often not towards everyone. Something about understanding the science behind all of these good qualities made me want to focus on them in every situation, to be better at them.

Soon after I discovered this treasure, I found out that they were trying to start up a website dedicated to translating this research into something useful: how to apply it to ourselves, to put it into action. So, I donated to the cause. A month later, the “Greater Good in Action” website was launched. Here, you can find a wealth of activities to help develop and promote these good qualities in yourself and others.

One of the sections I particularly found useful was an activity for promoting empathy in others called “Putting a Human Face to Suffering.”

It goes like this:

TIME REQUIRED
How long it takes you to do this practice will vary depending on which strategy you choose, but make it a goal to follow one of these strategies at least once a month.

HOW TO DO IT
To inspire others (or yourself) to give time or resources to a cause, try at least one of the following strategies. However, avoid explicitly telling others that you are using these strategies to get them to give more—research suggests that can backfire.

1      When researching a problem in news reports or other sources, look for profiles of specific individuals.

2      Use photographs and video footage—not just individuals’ names—in your appeal to make the problem more vivid and emotionally moving.

3      Use descriptive language and identifiable details that allow people to imagine themselves in a specific victim’s shoes, rather than abstract language that presents facts and statistics.

4      Don’t feature the stories of too many individuals; research suggests it’s easier to foster an emotional connection to a single person in need than to multiple people.

5      When possible, try to make direct contact with victims. For example, if you are a teacher, consider bringing in a speaker—in person or via a video call— who can share a first-hand story with your students (assuming you can’t visit the disaster site with a relief organization, which would be even more effective).

As a teacher who’s interested in making our society a more beautiful place to live, science has provided me with the knowledge I need to help me effectively instill empathy in my students.

More incredibly, science has provided me with the knowledge I need to help my friends and family, as well as myself, develop these good human qualities that can ultimately improve the world around me. As a person with a naturalistic worldview, these science based practices excite me, because this is what I understand. It’s what speaks to me. I can look at the research, comprehend what it means, and apply it in a meaningful way. I have the deeper understanding that I naturally crave.

Here is a tool that can help not just myself, but others understand how to most effectively apply them to our lives, and to understand the research behind what we’re doing.

I share these in the hopes that we can use them to our benefit.
I share these in the hopes that we can use them to the benefit of our society.

Posted in Luster | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment