Friday, June 21, 2013

Asteroids, NASA, Congress, and Quarks

Congress may decide that learning to catch asteroids isn't important. Maybe they're right, this year.

Whatever the lot we've got for leadership decide, I hope somebody keeps working on ways to meet and move asteroids.
  1. Four Quarks
  2. Asteroids: Getting Ready, or Not

The Jor-El Lesson

Sooner or later, ignoring flying mountains would result in a sort of Jor-El and the Kryptonain Science Council scenario.

That's because the Solar System isn't a particularly tidy place. Every few tens of millions of years a really big chunk of rock slides out of the sky and rearranges Earth's climate.

A century ago, we didn't have the technology to do anything about incoming rocks. Today we have some very good ideas for moving asteroids: but could decide to do nothing.

It looks like it took two asteroid impacts, plus massive volcanic eruptions, to kill off the dinosaurs: but even 'century' meteors can be troublesome.

Atomic Toothbrushes and Giant Mutant Frogs

Enthusiasm over electricity and magnetism had run its course in the early 20th century. Later, I remember when the word "atomic," followed by the name of some everyday bit of technology, was part of an imagined rosy future.

(From the New York City Bar Association, used w/o permission)

More recently, when optimism went out of fashion, movie makers provided us with titles like "The Swarm" and "Hell Comes to Frogtown."

I'm cautiously optimistic about the coming decades, centuries, and millennia. Not that we'll get some utopian world like "Things to Come:" but I suspect that "Mad Max" isn't a particularly accurate look at coming attractions, either.

Sure, sometimes we use knowledge to do bad things. But we can use the same knowledge to do good. Studying this astounding universe is okay, since "...the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God...." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 159)

1. Four Quarks

(Institute of High Energy Physics (IHEP), Beijing, via
"The Beijing Spectrometer Experiment (BESIII) found evidence of a new particle that may contain four quarks. The same particle was independently found at the Belle experiment in Japan, with both projects publishing their results June 17, 2013...."
"New 'Charmed' Particle Represents Rare State of Matter"
Clara Moskowitz, LiveScience (June 19, 2013)

"A new type of particle may have shown up independently at two particle accelerators, physicists say. The particle, made of four quarks (the ingredients of protons and neutrons), appears to represent a state of matter previously unknown.

"Signs of the particle were sighted at the Belle experiment in Japan and the Beijing Spectrometer Experiment (BESIII) in China. Scientists can't be sure what the particle is made of, or if it's even a single particle at all - there's a chance it could be two particles, each made of a pair of quarks, bound together. But nothing like it has been seen before, and the discovery offers the hope of clarifying the strange nature of quarks.

" 'It helps us understand how matter's put together, and it helps us understand this underlying theory of quark interactions,' said Leo Piilonen, a physicist at Virginia Tech and a spokesperson for the Belle collaboration...."
I could complain about 'foreigners' discovering a new subatomic particle: or pair of particles. Another option would be ranting about Congress spending tax dollars on 'useless' research; or bewailing the supposed evils of nuclear power, Big Oil, and whatever other bogeyman is in vogue.

None of those options seem sensible.

It's possible that learning more about quark interactions and other small-scale details won't have any practical applications. Or maybe a mad scientist will build a four-quark bomb and destroy the world.

But let's remember that another line of research in theoretical physics made it possible for us to harness nuclear energy. We don't have atomic tooth brushes, and probably never will: but we're not dealing with giant mutant frogs either.

I think we have more to learn about using nuclear energy safely, but I'm not afraid of the new technology.

Our distant ancestors learned how to use fire without setting themselves ablaze. We are learning that shutting down a reactor's cooling system is a bad idea, and that reactors and tidal waves don't mix well. I've been over this before:

2. Asteroids: Getting Ready, or Not

"Congress Considers Nixing NASA Asteroid Mission"
Dan Leone, Space News, (June 18, 2013)

"A draft authorization bill from the House Science space subcommittee would cap NASA spending at about $16.87 billion for the next two years, prohibit a proposed asteroid retrieval mission, overhaul the agency's management structure and raise the spending cap for Commercial Crew activities while increasing congressional oversight of the program.

"The bill, as Republican lawmakers have been hinting during House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearings all year, also aims to steer the nation's human spaceflight program back to the moon and provide more money for robotic exploration of the solar system at the expense of NASA's Earth observation program.

"These and other changes were detailed in a copy of the bill, the NASA Authorization Act of 2013, obtained by SpaceNews on June 14. The bill holds NASA to spending levels established by the Budget Control Act of 2011, rather than assuming that Congress and the White House will eliminate sequestration's across-the-board spending cuts any time soon...."
I'll say it again. This is not a 'political' blog. I'm not 'political,' in the sense that I see one party as Satan incarnate; while assuming that 'my side' can do no wrong.

The Republican version of the NASA Authorization Act may be sensible, or not.

If America's national government cuts tax-funded tracking of asteroids, I'm fairly confident that astronomers around the world will keep mapping Earth's immediate neighborhood.

If a mountain is headed our way, there's a pretty good chance that somebody will spot it well before it hits. Maybe someone will have worked out ways to retrieve and move asteroids by then. Or maybe not.

If not, cutting a few bucks from the federal budget may not be a good idea.

Granted, impacts like the one that happened when dinosaurs died out are quite rare. But even small bits of stuff falling from the sky can be trouble. I've posted about that before, too. (February 20, 2013)

(Reuters//Yevgeni Yemeldinov, used w/o permission)
"Workers repair damage caused after a meteorite passed above the Urals city of Chelyabinsk February 15, 2013." (Reuters)

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I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

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