Sunday, November 28, 2010

Next Generation Computers

I have not reposted for some time, but this article struck a chord with my early studies in computer engineering.  It highlights the limitations of Moore's Law and explores possible technologies for producing next gen computers!  

I believe a new crop of chips replacing silicon will be invented one day, probably within the next ten years!  Mankind has always stepped up to the plate and performed in the face of a challenge.  Just look at the invention of the steam engine, the airplane, the rocket, and just how far we have come from the ENIAC in the 1940's to where we are in the evolution of computers.


Friday, October 29, 2010

Moons in the Solar System (2 of 2)

Our Moon was thought to be the only one in the solar system until Galileo discovered four celestial objects orbiting Jupiter through his telescope back in 1610. Today, we know there are many more moons in the Solar System.  Here are some that are special:

Saturn's Rings
Saturn's thirty plus rings are technically made of billions of moons.  They can be as small as a pebble and as big as a city.  The rings of Saturn were believed to have formed when comets pushed Saturn's early moons too close for comfort.  Those moons were ripped and shredded into pieces by Saturn's gravity, eventually forming rings of rocks and ice debris around the planet.

Enceladus (Saturn)
Enceladus is Saturn's sixth largest moon and is only 300 miles across.  It is one of the brightest objects in the Solar System, reflecting almost all light from the sun thanks to its ice covered surface. Saturn's gravity acts on  Enceladus' core to create active volcanic eruptions. Surprisingly the plumes are short on lava, but consist mainly of salt, ice vapours and simple organic compounds.  This makes the planet a very intriguing place for those studying astrobiology.

Titan (Saturn)
Titan is Saturn's largest moon, and the second largest in the Solar System. It has a dense atmosphere composed of nitrogen and methane.  Here in Titan, where temperatures are cold, methane exists in liquid form. When it rains liquid methane, you can expect rain drops to be twice as large as those on Earth. The overall terrain here is like that of Earth, but instead of water, you have lakes and rivers of CH 4. The abundance of methane makes Titan another interesting place to study for life.

Europa (Jupiter)
Europa is the smallest of the Galilean satellites.  It is believed to be covered by a layer of ice as its surface temperature is -200°C. Underneath the thick ice however, there is a warm ocean underneath heated by the moon's core due to Jupiter's gravity influence. Life? Maybe.

Io (Jupiter)
Io is the innermost of Jupiter's Galilean moons.  It has no visible geologic feature from space because of its ferocious geologic activities. The moon has over 400 active volcanoes and they constantly change the face of the moon. Io's active core is due to tidal frictional forces between Jupiter and the other three Galilean moons.

Triton (Neptune)
Triton is Neptune's largest moon. It is the only moon that spins opposite to the spin of its planet. As such, Triton is said to be a captured planet years ago from the outer reaches of the Solar System. The moon is in danger of being teared apart by Neptune's gravity at some point in the future.


Monday, October 11, 2010

Moons in the Solar System (1 of 2)

Moons are interesting celestial bodies.  Until recent years, they are often overlooked in favour of other astronomical objects like stars and planets.  So what really is a moon?  By definition, a moon is a natural satellite that orbits a planet.  

It is important to note that gravity plays a role in shaping a planet's moons. Too much gravity and the moon is destroyed. Too little of it and the moon floats away until is no longer a moon. In this and the next articles, we will focus on the moons in our Solar System. Let's start with the one we know best!

Earth's Moon and the Giant Impact Hypothesis

Several theories have been postulated on the formation of our moon. The Apollo mission was sent to the moon in 1969 during which rock samples were secured. These moon rocks were found to be almost identical to those of Earth's crust.  The catch however, is that the rocks were super heated. How could this be? 

The story goes that Earth was actually hit by a Mars-sized planet named Theia about 4.5 billion years ago. This was back in Earth's formative days and the orbits of the planets in the solar system were still unstable. At one point, Earth's gravity distorted Theia's orbit and it eventually collided with Earth at just under 4m/s. The impact destroyed Theia and Earth barely survived. The debris of the impact were ejected into space and gravity eventually pulled it all into the moon. 

The angle of the impact had significant implications. A head-on collision would have destroyed both planets.  A glancing blow would have only sliced off a piece of our planet.  Laboratory experiments showed that it was a 45-degree angle impact which took out a big chunk of Earth and led to cirumstances we see today.

In its current orbit, the moon is 260 000 miles from Earth.  When it first formed  however, it was only 1 500 miles from Earth.  It was the moon's gravity that slowed down Earth's rotation cycle from 6 hrs to 24 hrs. Thanks to the moon, we now have 4x more time to use in a day! 


Monday, September 27, 2010

Life on Mars

The 9 to 5 has prevented me from hitting full throttle on my blogging endeavours the last few months.  I may finally have struck a balance between work and blogging.  Over the next few months, I am going to write a number of posts on my favourite topic: The Universe.

To start, let's look at the possibility of life on Mars.  The red planet has long been suggested as the next best rock in our Solar System to host life.  By that, I am not suggesting human-like Martians that you see on TV or the big screen (as this famous Martian image alludes). Instead it is quite likely that simple organisms might have existed back when Mars was more Earth-like. Here are some engaging arguments: 
  • Mars water-scarred terrain - the planet has vast systems of canyons.  In fact, the "Grand Canyon" of Mars is 5 times longer and 4 times deeper than the one in the U.S. These rugged terrains suggest the forces of water and glacial ice once at work. Needless to say, water is a key breeding ground and ingredient for life.  
  • Past existence of a rich atmosphere - Mars used to have a rich atmosphere which meant that it could sustain large bodies of water on the planet surface. As the atmosphere slowly disappeared however, so did the surface water. 
    • Abundance of carbon in polar ice caps - The polar ice caps on Mars contain large traces of dry ice. This means the planet also has a carbon store, the other ingredient known to all life. 
    • Mars was once geologically active - Mars' Olympus Mons is the largest  volcano in the solar system.  It is as tall as Mount Everest and as wide as Hawaii.  Although the volcano is now dead, it was once believed to be fiercely active. Why is this relevant?  A planet active in volcanic activities circulates the necessary minerals and nutrients to form life. 
    • Magnetic chains from Martian meteorites - Back in 2001, a four billion year old meteorite from Mars was found to contain microscopic magnetic crystals. The telltale crystals were arranged in long chains, which scientists concluded could only have formed by once-living organisms. Similar microbes currently exist in Earth's oceans, and the magnetic chains they produce are used for orientation relative to the planet's magnetic field. Could such microbes have existed in Mars? We know that Mars no longer has a planet wide magnetic field, but evidence from ancient rocks suggest a whole different picture billions of years ago. 
    • Discovery of methane from Mars - In 2003, large plumes of methane was discovered in the northern hemisphere of Mars. Normally, methane breaks down quickly under Martian conditions. The fact that these plumes exist in continual abundance suggests the planet is still geologically or biologically active. Some organisms release methane when digesting nutrients. Oxidation of iron however can also release methane. Indeed, the rusty crust is what gave Mars its nickname.
    The list of pro-Martian-life arguments can go on for a while. Where would life be if it were to exist on Mars? It is now widely believed that any life forms on the planet may be confined deep underneath the crust, where it is still warm enough for liquid water to exist.  After all, the ape-like figure in the image is nothing more but a pile of Martian rocks. 


    Saturday, September 4, 2010

    Earthquake in New Zealand

    New Zealand is still dear to my heart since my visit in April.  Therefore, it was shock to see in the news that a magnitude 7.4 earthquake struck Christchurch early this morning.  Miraculously, no fatalities or injuries were reported so that is great news! Hope the residents there can get back on their feet quickly and rebuild the city.


    Thursday, September 2, 2010

    Evolution in Action

    A recent study on evolution is shining the spotlight on the three-toed Australian skink. When it comes to reproducing, some skinks are foregoing egg laying by giving birth to live youngs. Apparently, lizards living in the warm lowlands of New South Wales (NSW) are literally putting all their eggs in one basket, while their colder mountain dwelling neighbours are favouring live births. Various species of reptiles were known to have made such transitions in the past.  Not often do you catch them in action however. 

    What are the pros and cons of each reproduction method? Egg laying is a less taxing feat on the mother as she does not have to carry embryos. The caveat is a tantalizingly high mortality rate.  As for live births, the fetus has a shelter for development at the expense of the mother.

    This is certainly an interesting discovery, especially when the lizards are literally living in my backyard here in NSW!


    Wednesday, August 11, 2010

    Money and Happiness

    This article attempts to portray the general belief that money cannot buy happiness.  I don't necessarily agree with the conclusion of the experiment and its validity has since been questioned.  Here is a more comprehensive article explaining how you can still enjoy the various luxuries in life that have become routines because of money. They key lies in your attitude. I agree with most of the arguments here, but we can go one step further.

    I believe if you look at Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, once materialistic desires are met in life, there are other needs you can satisfy.  For instance, sitting atop the hierarchy are self-actualization needs.  Questions like Why was I put on this Earth? How can I live to the fullest? have been begging for answers since the beginning of humanity. These are also the precise reasons that this blog was created in the first place! My message to the rich: Direct your energy to making yourselves better, and more importantly, making this world a better place to live!


    Saturday, July 3, 2010

    Wikipedia Submission Pending...

    I am sure most of us have used Wikipedia, but have you ever made a contribution to it?  I have edited articles in the past, but am looking to break new ground this time by submitting a new topic. This one is short and sweet, and hopefully will be accepted by the Wiki committee. Stay tuned...


    Tuesday, June 22, 2010

    Stephen Hawking Visits Waterloo

    Stephen Hawking is spending a few weeks in Waterloo, Canada.  He even gave a presentation of his research to invited guests near the University of Waterloo, where I attended school.  I am sure he wowed the audience with his lecture.  I would certainly be impressed by someone of his stature!


    Tuesday, May 11, 2010

    Hagglunds - The Antarctic Ride

    When visiting International Antarctic Centre in New Zealand, I came across the Hagglund.  It was the designated land vehicle for exploration of the ice-covered continent. I was impressed by the joy ride that they offered at the centre and did a little more research upon returning.

    What is a Hagglund?

    Hagglunds are all terrain vehicles (ATV) that are used for special navigation purposes. They are often utilized in unusual or hazardous terrains. Their uses are widespread, ranging from military load carriers, emergency medical services, firefighting, territorial exploration, wilderness search and rescue. It can also operate in extreme weather conditions like those in Antarctica.  


    Hagglunds consist of two track-driven cars with fibreglass reinforced bodies, coupled to each other by an articulated steering joint. It can traverse across a wide range of terrains including paved roads, muddy swamps, snow- or ice-covered fields, mountainous slopes, and bodies of water (semi-submersed). The front car houses the engine, transmission gearboxes, in addition to the steering and braking systems. It also carries the driver and up to 3 passengers. The rear car serves a variety of purposes, usually in the carrying capacity. This usually includes additional passengers, firefighting equipment, emergency life support equipment, and more.

    A Video is Worth a Million Words

    If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video is worth a million.  Check out the Hagglund ride for yourself (courtesy of tourist NZPappito): 


    Friday, April 30, 2010

    Walking on Glaciers

    New Zealand was a joy to visit as it offers many scenic natural wonders!  In fact, much of its beauty seem to have something to do with glaciers.  For one, the scenic Milford Sound and its surrounding cousins in South Island were carved by glaciers long ago. As you travel northwards from the sounds, you will be met by two actual glaciers in Fox and Franz Josef.  We joined a walking tour on Franz Josef, the bigger of the two brothers.  The tour was an intriguing experience and I decided to do some research upon returning.

    What Are Glaciers? 

    Glaciers are perennial masses of ice that moves over land. They form when precipitation accumulates faster than it disappears on the surface of a terrain (a.k.a. ablation). As layers of ice and snow build upon each other, the granular ice at the bottom fuses to form firn. 

    Glacial Types
    • Alpine glaciers - form on mountain slopes.  Those that form on valleys are called valley glaciers. Franz Josef is an alpine glacier.
    • Ice sheets - are ice that cover entire land masses, like the ones in Greenland and Antarctica. 
    • Tidewater glaciers - are glaciers that terminate in the sea.  The ice chunks that break free into the sea are called icebergs.
    Glacial Structure
    • The origin of a glacier is called glacier head.
    • The end (bottom) of a glacier is called terminus
    • Accumulation zone: this region experiences a net gain in glacial mass.
    • Ablation zone: this region experiences a net loss in glacial mass.
    • Equilibrium line: this region separates the accumulation and ablation zones. The net gain in mass is equal to the net loss. 
    Glacial Movement

    Glaciers move downslope due to gravity.  Picture ice sliding over the terrain, lubricated by a layer of water.  This layer of water is primarily is formed from friction between ice and rock, but can also be attributed to geothermal heat contributing from the Earth's interior.  The top layers of the glacier move faster than the bottom layers, often resulting in crevasses and cracks on the surface. Glacier speeds vary depending on the glacier and slope of the mountain. They range from 10cm to 30m a day. Glaciers sometimes experience surges due to failures of the underlying rocks and will move a lot quicker than usual. 

    Glaciers also undergo cycles of advances and retreats.  Franz Josef is currently in the advance phase, although it had retreated over several kilometres between 1940 - 80. 

    Glacial Geology

    As glaciers move across an area, it absorbs rocks and sediments either through plucking or abrasion. Plucking is the softening and uplifting of rocks due to sub-glacial water seeping into cracks and then expanding during freezing. Abrasion is caused when the ice and its rock fragments slide across the terrain, essentially sandpapering the surface below. This often produces rock flour, fine rock particles that can suspend in water. 

    Glacial moraines are formed by the deposition of material usually  exposed after a glacial retreat.  They often appear as mounds of till, a pile of mixed rocks, gravel and boulders.  Terminal moraines are formed at the foot of a glacier. Lateral moraines are formed on the sides of a glacier. 

    After glacial passage, V-shaped valleys usually become U-shaped.  Besides widening and deepening, glacial erosion also smooths the terrain, leaving a relatively flat bottom. 


    Wednesday, April 7, 2010

    New Zealand Trip Ahead

    Life is taking a hectic spin these days as the 9 to 5 is creeping past the 5!  Needless to say, part time blogging has taken a suffering.  It's not all bad, however.  I have a vacation coming up in New Zealand in two weeks.  Besides breathtaking sceneries, New Zealand's South Island is internationally renowned for its adrenalin inducing activities, such as jet boating, bungy jumping, sky diving, and the list goes on.  I have my eyes set on a few choices to get the juices flowing. To top it off, I will also squeeze in a glacier hike and may be a LOTR tour. The good news is we will be living out of a camper van so we have great flexibility on the itinerary; the bad news is we only have 8 days to do everything my wife and I wanted.  Time to plan it all out!


    Friday, March 12, 2010

    Meaning of Life and the Second Law of Thermodynamics

    I know I am supposed to start a project on the origin of the universe.  But I came across this interesting perspective on the meaning of life. The article claims that life is nature's way of releasing locked free energy in CO2, in order to adhere to the second law of thermodynamics (entropy increases).  If this really is the case, then our mere existence already fulfills the purpose of life.  Whatever else we achieve in life is simply extra!    I refuse to subscribe to this theory because this puts me in the same class as a cockroach, except that I burn more energy and have a bigger contribution to entropy. Woohoo! However, it does raise a point in that the Earth we live on seems to be a intelligent system with its constituent organisms all serving a common purpose.  What will the next article say?  That all creatures are interconnected in a giant neural network like on Pandora?


    Friday, February 26, 2010

    Life These Days

    The 9 to 5 has lately taken centre stage in my life. I find it hard to muster the energy to pick up a book at night, not to mention getting the creative juices flowing in writing a post.  This week my job has taken me to Adelaide. Despite eating well, the 9 to 5 has become the 8 to 10.  I am back in town now, but my PADI open water dive course is about to start. Is it really necessary to have ten hours of e-learning before the first class? Life right now is busy but exciting! It will be just perfect if I can find more time to blog.


    Monday, February 8, 2010

    What's Next?

    I would like to start a research project on.... What? I don't know yet, but here are some topics worth exploring:

    1. Origin of the universe
    2. Origin of life
    3. Rise of consciousness
    4. Purpose of life

    These are difficult questions, some would even say impossible to answer.  Well, this is exactly why I want to dig a little deeper. Why go for low hanging fruits if the ones at the top are sweeter? Enough said. Let's get started! 


    Sunday, January 31, 2010

    Book Review: The World Without Us

    The World Without UsAnother great read called The World Without Us, this time on a best seller by Alan Weisman. This is a book that hypothesizes what would happen to Earth if mankind disappears overnight. It does not attempt to explain why and how humans can suddenly vanish.  Instead it tries to portray how cities and other man-made artifacts will collapse, in addition to how other lifeforms will adapt.  To illustrate its points, this piece utilizes vivid examples like the crumbling of New York City -- think Will Smith racing the red Camaro through a run-down and overgrown Times Square in I Am Legend.  This publication has also inspired various TV series like Life After People on the History Channel.  

    Here are some interesting points:

    1.  Our houses, built of the usual suspects (wood, clay, bricks), will fall easily to nature.  Their biggest enemy is water that seeps through the smallest cracks, thaws and freezes over time.  Although most roofs are waterproof, water can always find a way to rust and loosen the nails that hold the shingles together. Once inside our habitats, it will quickly wreak havoc by molding walls, wooden floors and other furniture. 

    2.  New York City will rot from underneath.  It all starts with the extensive subway network which had effectively punched winding holes throughout the city foundation.  These lines will flood within days as water pumps malfunction, causing the sewers above them to also overflow. The flooding weakens the soil structures, causing roads to cave in and pavements to crack.  As water attacks from beneath, rain water will amplify the results from above.  More importantly, it has an accomplice in plants. Plant life will find a way into these cracks and their roots in turn will "break more ground." The combined effects of these forces will eventually tumble the skyscrapers in Manhattan, one at a time. 

    3.  While modern man-made structures quickly falter without human maintenance, the structures that will last the longest are surprisingly, the ones that have stood for thousands of years.  These include the pyramids of Egypt and the Stonehenge of England.  Other man-made evidence that will survive the test of time include radioactive materials, bronze statues, plastics, and Mount Rushmore. 

    4.  Wildlife will also find a way back into cities and towns as domesticated pets fall prey to the lack of human care. They are the first to go as their food supplies dwindle. Wild animals from nearby countryside will take over and flourish. So does infestation of wild plant species as they outgrow the locals. Over time, cities will be concealed by massive vegetation growth.  A study of the Mayan civilization is provides a clear illustration.  Before their discovery, various Mayan towns including their massive pyramids were well concealed by heavy vegetation in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. The point being nature will flourish where there is no human presence. The case study used in the book was the Korean DMZ. 

    5.  The author also hypothesized that mega faunas will one day return because evolutionary pressures to outrun human hunters no longer exist. As the theory goes: mega faunas like the woolly mammoths were easy targets for early hunters. By bringing down these big animals, our ancestors guaranteed themselves ample food supplies, clothing and weaponry resources.  With such advantages, the sure-fire extinction of mega faunas was inevitable. Without humans however, wild animals can afford to evolve into giants again!

    Overall, this book is an entertaining read.  The thought experiments were very visual and easy to extrapolate.  I would recommend this non-fiction for some good bedtime reading.


    Wednesday, January 13, 2010

    Battle at Kruger

    Here is an amazing footage taken by a tourist a few years ago at Kruger National Park in South Africa. A lion pride startled a buffalo herd, attacked and grabbed a calf near shore, only to be surprised by a sneaky crocodile. A tug of war then ensued and the lions claimed victory over the croc. However, the victors soon found themselves losers as the buffalo herd returned, fought off the lions and rescued the calf! 

    A whole show was produced by Nat Geo Wild based on this short film!  Here are some key points from the experts in the show:

    1. Had the leading buffalo stood its ground, the lions might not have charged because the buffalo had numbers.  By turning and running, the herd immediately became prey.

    2. The lions were well positioned nonetheless and attacked from three angles.

    3. The lions tried to kill the calf by suffocating it. One lion bit its trachea, another its nostrils, but they did not get the job done.

    4. The 600-pound croc battled against four 300-pound lions. Numbers won in this case.

    5. The calf's cry prompted the buffalo herd to return. Numbers once again prevailed.

    6. If you pay close attention, there was one brave buffalo (far right) that fought off two lions by itself.  It chased off one and threw another five feet in the air with its deadly horns.

    This is nature at its best, and all caught on tape by an amateur!


    Thursday, January 7, 2010

    Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex

    Happy New Year! This is my first post in 2010, after a brief hiatus celebrating year end festivities. Apart from watching the magnificent NYE fireworks in Sydney, I managed to do some sightseeing in Canberra and stumbled into the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC). This place was a godsend as I have always had a deep obsession in astronomy.

    The CDSCC is part of NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN) and only one of three facilities around the world. The other two are in Goldstone, California and Madrid, Spain. There are four giant radio antennas in this complex.  Each are referred to by a "Deep Space Station" or DSS number. These "dishes" are enormous. The largest one, DSS-43, is 70m in diameter, and is a whopping 23 stories tall when standing on one end. It is the biggest of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. Owing to high security, i.e. fences,  I could not get a close-up shot to do its monstrous size justice.

    Operating 24/7, the antennas provide two-way communication with unmanned spacecrafts and space telescopes exploring the planets, moons, comets and other stellar objects throughout the solar system. Think of them as the central post office between various mission sites on Earth and the spacecrafts in orbit. Mission scientists on Earth route packets of data, such as course correction commands and software updates to these antennas for upload. Received data include vehicle health and position, plus images and data collected by science instruments aboard the vehicles. These antennas are ultra sensitive. Transfer ranges can be up to billions of kilometres from Earth. In fact, they can detect signals 20 billion times weaker than a watch battery. Go figure!

    Within the complex, there is a small visitor centre that is free to the public. In there, you can find information on past space exploration missions and interesting facts about the planets in our solar system. The crown jewel exhibit is a moon rock sample, extracted during the Apollo 11 mission.  Carbon dating puts this rock at over 3.5 billion years old.

    This place is a must-see if you are into astronomy and space exploration. I found the half hour drive from downtown Canberra relaxing and scenic as well. Have you been there before? And what did you think of it?