Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Known Universe

Here is a short clip on the known universe from the American Museum of Natural History. Starting from Earth zooming out to the solar system, the Milky Way, all the way to the outer frontiers of space that human technology can possibly detect.... and finally back to Earth!

-PTS

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Creationist Argument on the Origin of Life

This article holds a rare strong argument on the creationist view of life.  It attempts to show us that not enough time has elapsed from the birth of the universe to allow for all the necessary trial and error in spontaneously creating and then mutating life to where we are today

Though well written, there is one fatal flaw with its primary argument.  The probability argument does not stand, because to beat it, all you need to do is to be "lucky." I will admit that in our case, we need to be really lucky. Despite the seemingly improbable odds however, it is still possible that one hits the jackpot on the first try.  Just look at the lottery, there is almost always a winner.  And we happen to be one of many lucky winners over time!

-PTS

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Book Review: The God Delusion

Back in August, I wanted to do a deep dive on the origin of life. Well, my hectic 9 - 5 delayed this exercise by four months. Anyway, I started off by reading The God Delusion, a bestseller written by the famous Richard Dawkins. This book not only defends atheism, but it goes so far as to attack the religious position. Here are some of the main principles explained:

1. The God Hypothesis - Dawkins contends that if god really created life, then who created god in the first place? He goes on to remind us that the whole problem we started with was to explain the statistical improbability on the origin of life. Thus it makes no sense to take the god position because there is the larger problem of who designed the designer. In comparison, evolution by natural selection becomes a more probable and hence preferrable theory.

2. Evolution of complex organs is possible - creationists argue that complex organs like the eye could not have evolved in a piecemeal fashion over time. This is because the eye is made of several critical parts without one will cause the entire system to fail. Dawkins counters by pointing out that the eye could actually have started out as a simple light receptor. Having a light receptor is definitely better than nothing when you are in the wild searching for meals and trying to avoid becoming someone else's meal. What came next were the functions of focus, colour, etc., each of which brought additional advantages that were perpetuated by natural selection.

3. Abundance of Goldilocks planets in the universe - Creationists claim that the conditions necessary for life to exist on Earth are so unique that it must have been the work of a supernatural god. Earth is a Goldilocks planet, because we are at just the right distance from the sun to support carbon-based life forms. But Dawkins maintains the Earth is not that special after all. Contemporary astronomical data suggest there are about 1 billion stars in our galaxy. Orbiting these stars are another 1 billion to 30 billion planets. Look farther out and it is estimated that there are close to 100 billion galaxies in our universe. Let's err on the conservative side, knock a few zeros off, and say there are just 1 billion billion planets in our universe. Suppose the rise of life from spontaneous generation of DNA material, being highly improbable, only happens on one in a billion planets. With these odds, you can still expect to find life on a billion planets throughout the universe. Given the unbelievably large playing field the universe offers, it is almost illogical not to expect life on other planets.

Though none of the above concepts are bleeding edge, Dawkins does a great job using everyday language to argue his case. If you want to learn a few things on atheism vs theism, this is a good introductory read. Make sure you get your facts right however and not just rely on this one book. As the saying goes: when one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called religion.

-PTS

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Future Evolution of Homo Sapiens

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the publishing of Darwin's On the Origin of Species. It is great that we humans have made it this far in the evolutionary journey. Where will we go from here?

Prediction 1 - Humans Cease to Evolve

One condition for evolution to occur is the isolation of a species for beneficial mutations to become norms. In today's ever-shrinking world however, it is hard to find isolated human populations. Instead, cross-breeding over geographic distances is the norm. Thus Darwin's evolution machine has clogged and will eventually come to a complete halt.

What is more, the concept of survival of the fittest is being discounted in our species. With medical advances in developed countries, almost everyone can live long enough to produce offsprings. It is not bad news to see people living longer, but don't expect to see X-men any time soon either.

Prediction 2 - Humans Continue to Evolve

A recent study suggests that due to ovulatory characteristics, shorter, slightly plumper women tend to more children than their peers. Depressing as may this sound for men, these female traits will be passed to their offsprings. Evolution is far from over in this instance. Noticeable or not, we are always looking for favourable characteristics in our mates. Traits such as intelligence, physical attractiveness, and healthy bodies are often more desirable for mate selection.

As genetic technologies advance, we can even speed up evolution. Parents can potentially engineer best of breed children, creating a dominant population class. It is indeed reasonable to expect general improvements in intelligence, physical attractiveness, and superior immune systems in our species.

Prediction 3 - Humans Achieve Electronic Immortality

Perhaps this is a little far-fetched, but a philosophy known as transhumanism sees humans taking charge of their evolution and transcending their biological limitations via technology. This concept raises interesting possibilities such as transferring our mind to computers so that we can live forever. In the digital world, uploaded beings can travel at the speed of light, think faster, and eat nothing! Hell you can even create copies of yourself!

Prediction 4 - Humans Opens a New Era of Evolution in Off-World Colonies

Think Star Trek here. Some day, humans may colonize other planets in our spacious universe. This will create isolation among populations and allow natural selection to occur. Just don't expect much to change in a few thousand years however. After all, 30 000 years of isolation among populations in Australia and Papua New Guinea did not result in human speciation.

-PTS

Monday, November 2, 2009

Gold Coast and Brisbane Bound!

I have family in town this week. This means I will be taking a break from my 9-5 and (albeit, part time) blogging next week. A road trip to Gold Coast and Brisbane is in the cards. Of course, we are stopping along the way for some zorbing, sandboarding, and scuba diving. Can't wait to bring some adventures back into my life!

-PTS

Friday, October 30, 2009

Happy Halloween -- Zombies in the Animal Kingdom

Halloween is tomorrow, though I find it not as celebrated in Australia than in Canada. Let's not stop learning just because it is that trick or treating time of the year. To play the Halloween theme, here is an interesting post on nature's walking dead! From frozen frogs to zombie fire ants that gets their brains devoured by mother fly larvae, Mother Nature never ceases to amaze us!

-PTS

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

40 000 Generations of E. Coli Culturing

Here is an exciting experiment through 21 years and 40 000 generations of E. Coli culturing later. Amazingly, some 653 mutations had occurred by the 40 000th generation. The moral of the article is that successive mutations do generally allow organisms to become more efficient dwellers in their environment. Turns out once again that Darwin was right!

-PTS

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Ten Key SETI Moments

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, was founded fifty ago. Here are 10 notable moments that deserve honourable mention. Interesting enough, the invention of the Drake equation was noted as one of those key moments.

Of all listed candidates, my vote goes to the Arecibo Message. With our technology today, it is difficult to conceive that we will discover extraterrestrial life forms in the near future. We may as well let a technologically superior alien civilization track us down from our interstellar broadcasts.

-PTS

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Drake Equation

Ever heard of the Drake equation? Devised by Dr. Francis Drake in 1960, the equation estimates the number of extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy with which we might come into contact. The main purpose of the equation is to allow scientists to quantify the factors that determine the number of such extraterrestrial civilizations.

The Drake equation states that:

$N = R^{\ast} \times f_p \times n_e \times f_{\ell} \times f_i \times f_c \times L \!$

where:

N is the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible;

and

• R* is the average rate of star formation per year in our galaxy
• fp is the fraction of those stars that have planets
• ne is the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
• f is the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life at some point
• fi is the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life
• fc is the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
• L is the length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.
Here were the values used by Drake and his colleagues in 1961:
• R* = 10/year (10 stars formed per year, on the average over the life of the galaxy)
• fp = 0.5 (half of all stars formed will have planets)
• ne = 2 (stars with planets will have 2 planets capable of supporting life)
• f = 1 (100% of these planets will develop life)
• fi = 0.01 (1% of which will be intelligent life)
• fc = 0.01 (1% of which will be able to communicate)
• L = 10,000 years (which will last 10,000 years).
This gives N = 10 × 0.5 × 2 × 1 × 0.01 × 0.01 × 10,000 = 10.

As you can imagine, there is considerable disagreement on the chosen values for the parameters. Since it first came to being, other factors have been included to the equation. In my view, the Drake equation is merely a shot in the dark. But the effort is applaudable. After all, it has inspired researchers to pursue another equation to determine how suitable a planet is for life. What is your equation?

- PTS

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Harnessing Energy from Speed Bumps

Here is an interesting post on the use of special speed bumps to harness, convert and store energy from braking cars only to be released back to the grid. This seems like an interesting innovation that holds promise for the environment. I have always hated speed bumps with a vengeance. Next time I work the brakes on these bad boys however, I can take comfort in helping the world.

Hopefully, this will become mainstream some day.

-PTS

Saturday, August 8, 2009

A Prelude to the Origin of Life on Earth

I was looking to do a deep dive into the origin of life on Earth, a topic that has always intrigued me. Two main schools of thoughts today generally revolve around creationism or abiogenisis. Before engaging in serious research however, I came across this interesting post.

Scientists theorize that Earth's oceans may have been 'delivered' by comets during massive collisions. It was comets and not asteroids because of specific amounts of iridium found in Greenland's rocks. In case you are wondering, here are the common differences between comets and asteroids:
1. Comets display comas and tails due to sublimation of water and ejection of dust particles from solar radiation.
2. Comets have more eliptical orbits than asteroids around the sun.
3. Comets may become asteroids when they run out of watery particles.
This article is exciting because it opens up a whole new perspective on the origin of life. It is commonly believed that life first formed in bodies of water. Is it possible that comets 'delivered' life along with oceans to Earth?

-PTS

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Finally, Something Good from Global Warming

The words global warming are often frowned upon. Amid the negative press, can this article help turn the tide? Scientists claim that climatic changes due to global warming has seen increased rainfall in parts of the Sahara Desert. More islands of green are beginning to show, especially in the southern borders. In time, these areas can be reclaimed for agricultural activities.

So why the phenomenon? One theory suggests warmer air being able to hold more moisture, which in turn creates more precipitation. However, it is too early to cast your vote. There are other competing climate models that predict decreased rainfall, pointing the finger at global warming. The split is virtually a dead heat.

-PTS

Thursday, July 23, 2009

SaaS is Green

I usually keep my day job within the 9 to 5, but couldn't help thinking about a recent advertising campaign from a Software as a Service (SaaS) company with which I am intimately familiar. NetSuite has claimed that a company going SaaS will save an average $10 300 USD per year in energy bills. These savings result from removed server and ventiliation costs. With over 6 000 customers, total savings are$61 million per year. This is equivalent to 595 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) annually, or nearly 423 000 metric tons of carbon dioxide, or 1 million barrels of oil, or the average electricity consumption of 56 000 homes a year.

For the sake of the environment, wouldn't you turn off your servers and let NetSuite host your business? For me, it takes a little more than those numbers alone. However, I commend the company for shrewd advertising! Perhaps future green energy subsidies in the US will tip the scale. Regardless, this is a very interesting topic given my vested interest in the industry!

-PTS

Monday, July 13, 2009

Profanity for Pain Relief?

Thanks to this recent study, now we all have an excuse to swear! According to the findings, cursing not only is an expression of agony, but also a means to pain relief. I must admit my reservations about the experimental results. In a race to see who could keep their hands in uncomfortably cold water, subjects were allowed to mutter an expletive of their choice or use a neutral word. IMHO, the free use of profanity in the experiment -- as opposed to any social situation -- could have created intrigue or amusement in the swearing subjects, which in turn swayed the results in thier favour.

However, I did like Steven Pinker's theory that "swearing taps into the defensive reflex in which an animal that is suddenly injured or confined erupts in a furious struggle, accompanied by an angry vocalization, to startle or intimidate an attacker."

What's the verdict? Cursing is good for you if you mean it with vengeance. Don't over do it though, as the soothing effects will wear out if swearing becomes a routine lacking in emotion.

- PTS

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Whale Watching Gone Wrong

Let me be the first one to tell you that relocating for work is not for everyone. The amount of time and effort required is unbelievable, as you can judge from my lengthy lay-off on this blog. Now that my wife and I are ready to explore Sydney, we took to the sea in whale watching. It turned out that whale watching like relocation, is also not for everyone, especially those with weak stomaches.

I ended up seeing a whale tail for three seconds, but paid the price with three bags of vomit to go with four hours of seasick nausea. In my defense, I have never been sick at the sea. This time was different though as practically everyone else had at least a bag-full in his hand. Fortunately, the tour operator offered us a 50% refund and a free second trip. I suppose many people had complained after the ill-fated voyage. Missing out on humpbacks and blues the first time around, I am determined to sign up for round 2. As for my wife? Suffice to say she will never set foot on a whale watching boat again. Before my next "suicide mission" however, I did some research to ensure I will be prepared:

What is it, really?

In simplest terms, seasickness is a form of motion sickness.

Cause

When our eyes, inner ears, muscles, and joints simultaneously send mixed signals to confuse our brain. The clash of sensory information is passed along to the area postrema, which also controls vomiting. As for my case at sea, my eye saw the static horizon and the stationary interior of the boat while my inner ear and body felt the rolling of the waves.

Symptoms

• Generally feeling unwell and weak
• Nausea
• Dizziness
• Hyperventilating
• Slight sweating leading to clammy skin
• Excessive production of saliva
• Losing colour in the face or turning red
• Vomiting

Why Vomit?

No one knows for sure. One theory suggests that the vomiting response is caused by the brain’s futile attempt to rid the body of a perceived poison. Laboratory animals whose labyrinths (fluid-filled canals in the inner ears) are surgically removed are less likely to vomit when they ingest poison. Beware of excessive vomitting, as it can lead to dehydration, exhaustion and a dangerous drop in blood pressure.

How to prevent/soothe seasickness

• Get plenty of rest prior to the trip. Physical well being helps prevent seasickness.
• Choose seats with the smoothest ride: usually centre of a boat and avoid going under deck.
• Stay busy and keep your mind occupied. These are perhaps the best ways to avoid seasickness.
• Get some fresh air and look into the distant horizon.
• Lie down and avoid turning your head to swirl the fluids in the Labyrinths.
• Take deep breaths and drink fluids periodically.
• When on deck, face forward (rather than to the side).
• Try an anti-seasickness wristband, which sends electrical currents to the median nerve in your wrist. Apparently, the wrist has an acupuncture point that prevents nausea and vomiting.
• Take medication prior to the trip.

Medication

Medications are preventive, not curative. They either calm the nerves of the inner ear or soothe the brain’s vomiting centre. However, most motion sickness pills are only effective if they are taken before you feel sick. Take them 30 - 60 minutes before a trip to allow adequate absorption. Motion sickness pills often can induce drowsiness as a side effect.

Conclusion

Seasickness can strike anyone at any time. By taking the proper precautions however, you need not fret about going out to the beautiful sea. I know I won't!

- PTS

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Relocating to Down Under

I have agreed to a job in Australia starting May. No, it's not the coveted dream caretaker gig in the Great Barrier Reefs. Instead, I will be going to Sydney, which is not a bad choice. Regardless, this means I will be extremely busy over the next few months. Time to start packing....

-PTS

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Behind an Extraordinary Memory

By now, most of you should know that I am a die-hard fan of Scientific American. Here is yet another interesting article about extraordinary minds. The interviewee, Daniel Tammet, is special in his own right. He is a mildy autistic linguist who can recite the first 22 514 decimal places of the mathematical constant Pi.

Here are a few takeaways from the interview:
• Visualization improves memory. Instead of treating numbers as boring static strings, view them in dynamic, multi-dimensional shapes and forms. This technique also works beautifully with learning vocabularies.
• Clustering also improves memory. If you break a series of numbers into smaller chunks (of 3 or 4), your brain can better handle them. This is why telephone numbers are hyphenated.
• Creativity further improves memory! When you throw in creative imagery to the above formulas, your memory becomes super-charged. In fact, the more exaggerating the imagery, the better the results. In Daniel's words, he used to "dance with" numbers in Pi.
I actually read about these techniques in my teenage years, albeit with much skeptism. I did give it a try eventually on reciting my personal goals. Yeah, laugh all you want. Reminding myself of my personal goals every morning has become a habit of mine. Indeed, one of my goals is to live every day as if it was my last. So I imagine myself lying in a coffin, which grows larger and larger until it becomes an arena. This leads beautifully into my next goal, which is to think Big.

Well, I just gave away my memory secret. What's yours?

-PTS

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Book Review: A Brief History of Time

One of my favourite books is A Brief History of Time, written by Stephen Hawking. This book is famous like its author. Its wonder lies in the fact that the forefront of physics is portrayed in laymen's terms. Thus the theories behind quantum mechanics, relativity, black holes, time travel, and wormholes can all be comprehended by the average person. Every time I pick up this paperback, I feel humbled by the grandeur of our mysterious universe. Needless to say, the origin of the universe may just provide a clue to the birth of life. Of all the theories described in the book, I was most intrigued by Einstein's special theory of relativity.

Before the dawn of the 20th Century, the Michelson-Morley experiment was conducted to substantiate the existence of a substance called "ether." Instead, it created a shock wave for the entire scientific community. Throughout the next twenty years, numerous futile attempts were made to explain the surprising results of the experiment. In the end, it was Einstein's special theory of relativity that came to the rescue.

A remarkable consequence of relativity is that it revolutionized our ideas of space and time. Before Einstein's heydays, Newtonian physics indicated that space was not absolute, meaning different observers of a moving object may conclude differently about the distance it travelled. However, time was always assumed to be absolute, i.e., different observers would always agree on the time it took an object to traverse through space. Einstein took Newton's theories and took a step back. He claimed that if one lets go of the idea of absolute time, then we need not "invent" the idea of ether. Nor would we be troubled by the Michelson-Morley experiment. The notion of absolute time, however, is so deeply engraved in our minds that even today, it is difficult to discard.

Einstein went on to come up with unconventional predictions of how objects behave when they approach the speed of light. These imaginary experiments came to be known as Einstein's paradoxes. Perhaps the most famous one is the twins paradox: A twin steps on a spaceship and travels at the speed of light for 20 years according to his watch. When he returns to Earth, he will find that much more time has indeed elapsed during his absence and his twin brother is now 100 years older than him. You might find it hard to accept this outcome. That is why it is called a paradox in the first place. However, this is not so difficult any more if you think of time being relative.

Einstein's brilliance in my opinion, lies not in his discovery of relativity, but the manner in which he did it. In order to reach his conclusions, he took a step back from well known physics principles. Instead of taking for granted the firmly-entrenched view that time was absolute, he chose to doubt it. In the end, he took a completely opposite stance. As a result, every road block baffling the scientific world then was instantly removed.

Einstein's work prompted me to wonder whether we can always take our assumptions for granted. Sometimes, moving a step backwards and re-evaluating popular opinion is not a bad idea. Of course, to his credit, Einstein also applied immense creativity and ingenuity to secure the fantastic success that he enjoyed. Nonetheless, I will keep this lesson in mind on my quest for knowledge.

-PTS

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Is Death Imaginable?

I recently came across another interesting article from Scientific American. It explores why people of all cultures, education levels, trades and religions acknowledge an afterlife, even though they believe on many levels that the mind ceases to exist upon death. Here are some possible reasons:

1. When we are alive, our mind creates the "illusion" that life continues after death. Why? Hopefully, this helps deter us from being overly afraid of death, to the extent that we can lead our normal lives without constant worry.

2. It's impossible for the human brain to comprehend "non-existence". According to philosopher Shaun Nichols, "When I try to imagine my own non-existence I have to imagine that I perceive or know about my non-existence. No wonder there's an obstacle!" Sounds like Descartes' "I think, therefore I am" argument.

3. From Mr. Darwin's perspective, there is no evolutionary value in having the ability to distinguish psychological death from physical death. In the wilderness, it is simply enough to know that a biologically dead lion will not suddenly spring to life and make you its meal.  Studies have shown that humans are very good at distinguishing what is alive from dead, even when we are just children. However, there is scarcely a need to develop a comprehension of mental death.

4. Finally, there is the concept of person permanence: just because we can't see someone does not mean he ceases to exist. This truism is exactly what hinders our ability to imagine death. We can't simply switch off person-permanence thinking when someone we know dies. This is especially true for those who are closest to us, as we frequently picture them engaging in various activites when out of sight.

I think the reasons above are quite compelling. They present various interesting perspectives at analyzing the question at hand. What do you think?

-PTS

Friday, January 16, 2009

Using Math to Explain Evolution

One question that has always intrigued me is how did life originate on Earth? In fact, will be spending quite a bit of time on this topic as the blog develops.

Here is a great article by Scientific American on using mathematics to simulate the dynamic forces of evolution. The idea is to create mathematical formulas that can describe the simplest of chemical systems which evolve over time. I am no geek -- or so I would like to think -- but the article does make one appreciate the beauty of mathematics.

- PTS

Sunday, January 4, 2009

My Vision

Enslaved to the daily routines of putting bread on the table, one cannot help but sometimes wonder whether there is a higher purpose to life. Dissatisfied with the status quo, I have created this blog with this goal in mind:

To understand the purpose of life, so I can live to the fullest.

In order to succeed however, I will need to arm myself with knowledge. With each piece of new found insight, my goal is to gain a better appreciation of life in turn. My focus on the origins of the universe and life as we know it will take centre stage in this blog. After all, knowing the what and the how often leads to the why. Of course, I will be side-tracked by various interesting scientific posts from time to time. Regardless, this is going to be a fun-filled experience!

-PTS