Monday, October 31, 2011


Happy Halloween! October 21-23 was the annual Ballunar Festival in Johnson Space Center, which proves that some sort of "inflation" exists. Saturday and Sunday morning the balloons were released in an impromptu race. Here they drift right by my lanai. The evening was celebrated with music and a balloon glow.

The balloons' shape disproves one tenet of cosmic inflation, that the universe is flat like the Earth. As a balloon fills with hot air, tension of the envelope pulls it into a spherical shape. In the universe, that tension is provided by gravity. The 3 dimensions that we move in can be thought of as the envelope of a 4-dimensional expanding universe. Thinkers from Pascal to Einstein and even Edgar Allan Poe have thought the universe is a sphere. The shape of a balloon is much more beautiful than flatness.


Friday, October 28, 2011

The White Room

This is the access arm used by crews to enter the Space Shuttles. It was installed 45 meters up in Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center. The first crew to board via this arm was the ill-fated Challenger mission in 1986. It was also used by STS-26 for the return to flight following Challenger. A total of 53 Shuttle missions boarded via this arm from Pad 39B.

The arm led to the White Room, a sealed area from which astronauts entered the spacecraft. The room also contained racks for helmets and equipment. Shuttle astronauts rode to the pad without their headgear, which was donned as they boarded. The White Room, access arm and rotating service structure swung away after the hatch was closed. Pad 39B hosted launches until 2006.

Atlantis (right) on Pad 39-A and Endeavour (left) on 39-B during 2009. Pad 39-B has lightning towers installed in anticipation of the Ares 1-X test. In 2009 this pad was briefly used by Endeavour as a backup for STS-125, the last Hubble Space Telescope repair flight. After STS-125 returned safely, Pad 39-B was modified for the Ares 1-X test. On October 18 the Servicing Arm and White Room arrived in Johnson Space Center, where they will be put on permanent display. Pad 39-A, where crews launched for the Moon, has been kept intact for the future.


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Red Tails

This year's Wings Over Houston Airshow October 15-16 was headlined by the red jets of the Canadian Snowbirds aerobatic team. 2-minute video zooms in on their unique 9-jet formation.

On display was this P-51 Mustang restored in the Red-Tailed paint scheme of the famous Tuskegee Airmen. Until the 1940's black Americans served in segregated military units and were not allowed to fly aircraft. WW2 brought out the best in America, and a small unit of pilots was trained in Tuskegee, Alabama. Outside the base they still faced the prejudices of the South. The Tuskegee Airmen served with great distinction in North Africa and later Europe, escorting bombers over Berlin. Bomber commanders specifically requested the Red Tails for their bravery. (During WW2 American women were trained as pilots, even fighter pilots, but were not allowed in combat.) In January 2012 will premiere RED TAILS, a big-budget big effects movie produced by George Lucas.

This P-51 Mustang was restored by the Commemorative Air Force starting in 1996. A tragic crash in 2004 necessitated the aircraft be restored again. It can be seen with RISE ABOVE, a travelling exhibit and movie theatre telling the Tuskegee Airmen story. Hopefully the Tuskegee Airmen's story can inspire future generations.

The Six RISE ABOVE Principles:

* Aim High

* Believe in Yourself

* Use Your Brain

* Never Quit

* Be Ready To Go

* Expect To Win

These are principles that even a scientist can follow.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Capitol Dome

The entrance to our hotel in Washington is in sight of the Capitol Dome. Something is universal about the spherical shape. Domes have been part of human architecture for thousands of years. The architecture of our bodies is full spherical cells. Moons, planets, stars and even raindrops form spherical shapes. Many great thinkers have thought that the Universe itself is spherical.

Blaise Pascal, one of the great mathematicians of all time, thought the Universe was spherical. "Nature is an infinite sphere of which the center is everywhere and the circumference nowhere," wrote Pascal. Edgar Allen Poe, who lived near here in Baltimore, also thought the Universe was spherical. The spherical Universe was subject of Poe's EUREKA, a prose about cosmology. Among all his great works of poetry and fiction, Poe was most proud of the little-known EUREKA.

Most prescient, Poe suggested that this spherical universe expanded from a tiny point! "From the one particle. as a center, let us suppose to be irradiated spherically--in all directions--to immeasurable but still to definite distances in the previously vacant space." 75 years later Alexander Friedmann, who was a big Poe fan, also predicted an expanding Universe.

Einstein realized that if the Universe contained enough mass, gravity would bend it into a sphere of four dimensions. He also realized that gravity would also cause the sphere to collapse, unless it were already expanding. Einstein then added a repulsive "cosmological constant" to prevent collapse. Later, when Edwin Hubble's observations showed that the Universe was expanding, Einstein considered the CC his greatest blunder.

Today it is fashionable for cosmologists to say that our Universe is flat, like the Earth. If you question cosmologists, they will first ignore you but then admit that on the large scale it must be spherical. If the Universe expanded from a tiny point, it is topologically impossible for it to be flat. The exponential expansion called inflation would have expanded the sphere so much that it would appear flat to our observations. On the largest scales, the Universe must still be spherical.

The beauty of the Capitol dome reminds us that the spherical shape is universal. Applied to the Universe, great thinkers like Pascal, Einstein and Poe considered our Space/Time to be spherical. Edgar Allen Poe made amazing predictions like an expanding universe. Einstein first proposed a cosmological constant, then considered it a great blunder. Though it is fashionable to say the universe is flat, fashions change with time.

We finish the meeting with a banquet at the Rayburn Senate Office building, close to the Capitol. As the spherical Sun disappears behind the curve of a spherical Earth, we are reminded how universal the sphere is.

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Saturday, October 22, 2011


The National air and Space Museum on the Washington Mall is a huge building, so big that a Skylab Space Station occupies just one corner. Even this structure can not contain the whole collection, so the larger aircraft are displayed at the Stephen F. Udvar Hazy center near Dulles Field. In the last post we saw the test vehicle Enterprise in a place of honour for Space Shuttles. The B-29 Enola Gay gives some idea of the scale of this building.

Even in this bigger space, the Concorde SST is a tight fit. From a high catwalk, it is difficult to get the whole plane in one shot. In its heyday Concorde regularly carried passengers at cruise speed of Mach 2. It could not travel faster, due to the effects of heat on an aluminum airframe. The cancelled Boeing SST would have been even bigger, 90 meters long. Planned to be built of lighter heat-resistant titanium, America's SST would have cruised at Mach 3. What would airports look like if these giants had survived?

Sustained flight at Mach 3 had been proven practical in the 1960's by this aircraft. Fitting for a plane that travelled to the edge of Space, the SR-71 Blackbird has a choice location in front of the entrance to the Space Hall.

Enterprise is not the only historic object in the Space Hall. The Astronaut Quarantine Facility housed the Apollo 11 crew on their return to an aircraft carrier. Prior to their mission, no fresh samples had ever been returned from the Moon. Scientists were not completely sure that the Moon was lifeless, and there was some fear of an ANDROMEDA STRAIN contagion. After the first Apollo missions and their samples had returned, the science community finally concluded that there were no Moon bogs.

In another corner is the miniature Mothership from CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. Like our Space Station, it appears to be assembled from cylindrical modules. Something is universal about the circular shape. We can only imagine what sort of propulsion systems would drive a craft like this to the stars. Hopefully the Smithsonian will someday display a real starship.

My photo of Enterprise headlines the new Carnival of Space!

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Tuesday, October 18, 2011


The Udvar-Hazy center of the National Air and Space Museum, close to Dulles Airport, is home to the test vehicle Enterprise. During the 1970's Enterprise was drop-tested from a 747 as preparation for the Shuttle program. Last week, in The Latest from NASM, we saw the original Starship Enterprise miniature on display by the Washington Mall. The name Enterprise was the result of a letter-writing campaign by thousands of STAR TREK fans. At the end of the Shuttle journey, we can think about the future.

Presently this room is slated to be taken over by the Shuttle Discovery. Enterprise would then be transferred to the Intrepid Air Space museum in New York City. The Intrepid is just a 4.5 hour drive from Washington, and the choice leaves the middle of the US without a Shuttle. Space Center Houston and the Air Force Museum in Dayton, who were not awarded Shuttles, are quite unhappy with the choice. Sadly, even on Earth there are not enough Shuttles to go around.

Beneath Enterprise's port wing is a small display case with early Shuttle concepts. Originally the system was envisioned as being fully reusable. A winged first stage would glide back to Earth after each launch, to be refueled and used again. The configuration finally built, with solid rocket boosters and an expendable tank, was less expensive to develop but had much higher operating costs. As this system was being built, NASA envisioned 50 flights per year. Such a flight rate proved to be impractical. The dream of a fully reusable Space Transportation System has still not been realized.

As we heard from Elon Musk in Washington, SpaceX is planning a fully Reusable booster. His concept is different, with wingless unmanned boosters automatically returning to land vertically. Elon claims that the fully reusable concept could reduce launch costs a hundredfold. We can wish him the best of luck.

We are able to economically travel to Washington DC because of reusable aircraft. Most of the denizens of the Air and Space Museum, from the Wright Brothers' plane, were designed to be used repeatedly. The Starship Enterprise of the future is, like a Navy ship, fully reusable. The Enterprise design that sits in Udvar-Hazy is the result of many compromises. An economical fully reusable Space Transportation System is still in the future.

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Friday, October 14, 2011

Darkness Can Not Drive Out Darkness

Another Nobel Prize Winner: This Sunday, October 16, Washington's Martin Luther King Memorial will be dedicated. The ceremony would have happened earlier, but the surprise earthquake in September caused postponement. Even the US Eastern seaboard is vulnerable to earthquakes and tsunamis. Because of the delay, we visitors to DC have been able to preview the monument. Behind a 30-foot King statue is a marble wall filled with his quotes. One of King's bits of wisdom could apply to physicists puzzling about "dark energies."

"Darkness can not drive out darkness, only light can do that."

The answer to apparent acceleration of the universe has not been found in hypothetical "dark" energies. Such speculations are rejected by the public and will harm the reputation of physicists. Redshifts of distant objects are roughly proportional to recession velocity divided by the speed of light, v/c. The non-linear redshifts of Type Ia supernovae, which just won its discoverers their own Nobel, is more plausibly due not to v accelerating, but to c slowing down. The answer to the mystery is not in the dark, but in light.

In 2009 the Nobel Peace Prize committee inexplicably rewarded a man with no record of peace, leading to much ridicule. This year's award goes to Liberia's President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee from Liberia, and Tawakkol Karman from Yemen. All three women have faced and continue to face formidable opposition. Karman, the first Arab woman to win the Prize, has been detained and harassed by mobs with clubs. Women who face such challenges deserve the Nobel Prize.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Higher Authority

Here is someone who has revolutionized science, was selfless in pursuit of the truth, overcame skepticism and outright prejudice, while maintaining a child's wonder about the universe. Rather than just learn equations from a book, this scientist thought up new equations! The statue of Albert Einstein sits in front of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington.

The sculptor, Robert Berks, gave Einstein a notebook with three of his famous equations.


The most famous Einstein equation, equating energy with mass. It was published as a quick addendum to one of his 1905 papers. Einstein published 4 revolutionary papers in a short time. The world took years to realize their significance. Today E=mc^2 is ubiquitous, even to those who don't understand what it means.

eV = h $\nu$ - A

The photoelectric effect, which Einstein explained using quantum mechanics. This probably got the attention of Annalen der Physik editor Max Planck, one of the founders of quantum mechanics. There was no system of "peer review" in 1905; publication of papers was solely the decision of editors like Planck. If not for Planck, Einstein might have waited indefinitely to be published. Einstein's solution to the photoelectric effect was the official reason for his 1921 Nobel Prize, for even in 1921 Relativity was controversial.


The Einstein equation for gravitation, part of his General Theory of Relativity published in 1915. General Relativity predicted that gravity is actually a curvature of Space/Time. Einstein tried to apply this curvature to the entire universe, imagining it as a sphere of four dimensions rather than 3. We move in the 3-D surface of the sphere. Photons travel like satellites in orbit around the sphere with velocity c.

Einstein realized that the gravity which causes Space to be curved into a sphere would also cause it to collapse, unless it were expanding. Einstein could have predicted an expanding universe, which would have been one of history's great scientific predictions. Certainly the prediction would have been ridiculed at first. 15 years later Edwin Hubble's observations would show that the universe was indeed expanding.

To support his spherical Space/Time, Einstein added a repulsive "cosmological constant" to the equation. When Hubble showed that the universe was expanding, Einstein removed the constant. Later Einstein would call the CC his greatest blunder. Recently it has been fashionable to add the repulsive constant again. So far, Einstein has still not been convinced. His notebook shows that there is no cosmological constant.

We can learn a lot from Einstein. The very formulation of original equations is proof of his unusual mind. Finding equations that made testable predictions made Einstein even more special. We learn that even Nobel Prize winners make blunders. The inclusion of a cosmological constant also hides another prediction, that the speed of light c is not always constant.

NEXT: We visit another Nobel Prize Winner.

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Sunday, October 09, 2011

Latest from NASM

Saturday and Sunday we had a few Washington hours for another pilgrimage to the National Air and Space Museum. One week later, Saturday October 8, the entire museum was shut down due to protesters. Why would anyone want to protest this place? This is what the protest was allegedly about, a display of military drone aircraft. How many people travelled thousands of miles to have their museum plans disrupted? We suspect that the demonstrators were unhappy with US policy. There is plenty to be angry about, but such protests belong at the White House.

A room devoted to the Wright Brothers' achievements. NASM is Washington's most popular attraction, a place devoted to our universal fascination with flight. The aircraft and displays here are beyond priceless. Among them are Russian spacecraft and Axis warplanes from WW2. The machines are fascinating, regardless of the policies they were tools of.

This is not a mockup, but a spaceworthy Skylab 2 built to be flown after Skylab 1. Though it makes a fascinating exhibit, what a waste to be not flown in Space. Could we make a similar mistake again? Some say that the Space Shuttle orbiters have many useful flights left, and should not yet be put in museums.

The USS Enterprise from the classic STAR TREK series is presently in the basement of the souvenir shop, among the bargain items. The Enterprise Space Shuttle test vehicle is at the NASM Udvar-Hazy museum near Dulles airport. Space will always be central to humanity's dreams for the future.

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Saturday, October 08, 2011

Serenity vs. Censorship

The TV show FIREFLY and its feature film SERENITY told of a motley crew of rebels fighting an oppressive regime. For real censorship we needed to look no further than University of Wisconsin in Stout. The trouble began after Theatre Professor James Miller put this poster on his door. Campus police threatened Miller with charges of disorderly conduct, and reported him to a "threat assessment team." Professor Miller than put up another poster that read "WARNING: FASCISM" that led to more trouble.

As word of the outrage spread via bloggers, a national outcry came to include actors Nathan Fillion and Adam Baldwin from the show. Finally the university police and their threat assessment team backed down. The university will now stage workshops on a forgotten item called the First Amendment. A college should be a place of free expression, but instead they reinforce uniformity of thought. Hooray for the Browncoats!

First they came for the Serenity fans, and I said nothing because they are a minority. Then they came for the Star Trek fans, claiming that Trekkies were attacking Star Wars fans. I said nothing because I don't watch Star Trek. Then they came for all science fiction fans, and I said nothing. Finally they came for me, and there was no one left.

Friday, October 07, 2011


The way to Washington has a detour to Austin, Capitol of Texas. Austin is also well known for its lively music and arts scene. Near 6th Street you can see the home of author O. Henry. In late August Austin hosted the Armadillo Con science fiction convention. The weekend of September 24-25 6th Street was cordoned off for the Pecan Street Festival, full of live entertainment. That same week Austin hosted the joint annual meeting of the National Society of Hispanic Physicists (NSHP) and National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP). All things change with time, and the growing size of this meeting is a sign of positive change.

At Thursday's dinner the speaker was physicist Stephen Weinberg. As many respected scientists do today, he railed about the mystery of an "accelerating" universe. He lamented cancellation of the Superconducting Supercollider in the 1990's and in the same breath condemned the International Space Station. With all due respect to Dr. Weinberg, experiments on the Moon and ISS may end up solving his "dark" mystery. The answer to the accelerating puzzle may not be in dark, but in light.

Weinberg's textbook on Relativity, which nearly every graduate student must study, takes great liberties with Einstein theory. He completely omits the i factor for time, which is a key to considering Space/Time as one entity. Weinberg completely ignores the possibilities in c, the speed of light. In his book he repeats an absurdity: h = c =1. The Planck value and c are definitely not equal to 1, and this may have led a generation of physicists down a dark path. If c were constant, the only way to explain supernova redshifts is by conjuring "dark" energies.

On Friday night we heard from Astronaut Pier Sellers, who devoted much of his career to assembling ISS. He brought some more NASA video showing Space missions. As astronauts tend to be, Pier was upbeat about space stations and the future. The scientific output from ISS is just beginning. We would happily share a spacecraft with Pier.

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Thursday, October 06, 2011

The Whole Pie

The year's Nobel Prize for Physics is divided like a pie among three males who will receive 50, 25 and 25 percent of the loot. However the Chemistry Prize has rightly been awarded to one person, Dr. Daniel Schechtman. He discovered quasicrystals, a new form of crystalline matter in 1982. Dr. Schechtman, 70, has waited 29 years for his prize.

At one time scientists thought that crystals only formed in repeating patterns. The quasicrystals found by Schechtman formed mathematical patterns that never repeated. Their electrons would form in patterns of 10, a symnetry never seen before. Viewed from other directions, the crystals would exhibit fivefold symnetry. Such formations were counter to everything known to science.

Dr. Schechtman's results faced great challenges in being accepted. At first Schechtman was handed a crystallography textbook and told to reread it. Later Schechtman was asked to leave his research group. After being rejected by one journal, Schechtman's paper was published two years later by Physical Review Letters. No less a figure than Linus Pauling, who already had a Nobel Prize, denounced Schechtman. Finally 3 other scientists were convinced enough to confirm Schechtman's discovery.

Dr. Daniel Schechtman discovered a new form of crystal that had been completely overlooked by other scientists. Quasicrystals formed in patterns that were thought to be impossible. At first Schechtman was not believed, and had difficulty even being published. Few scientists believed him at first. Finally, nearly 30 years later, Schechtman has received his prize.


Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Did Beatniks Find Sputnik?

Today October 4 is 54th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite. Sunday I found a replica of Sputnik hanging in the main hall of Washington's National Air and Space Museum. The replica hangs alongside the original Spaceship One and X-1. The place of honour is well-deserved, for Sputnik was the first step into Space. The effects of Sputnik on human society are too numerous to mention.

On Broadway in San Francisco's North Beach is the Beat Museum. The museum, slightly smaller than NASM, is devoted to the Beat Generation poets and writers like Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. In the 1950's they gathered nearby at City Lights Bookstore and Cafe Vesuvio to counter American culture. In 1958 legendary San Francisco columnist Herb Caen coined the term Beatnik in response to Sputnik. Among its books and artifacts, the Beat Museum also displays a replica of Sputnik. Another fascinating story has that the Beatniks has located remains of Sputnik!

Sputnik was presumed to have burned up on reentry around January 4, 1958. The exact date and location are unknown, for missile tracking systems as we know them had not been completed at the time. In November 2006 a man wandered into the Beat Museum with a strange story. Pieces of Sputnik had fallen in America.

The trail led to Southern California resident Bob Morgan. He was 8 years old early in the morning of December 8, 1957 when a strange glow appeared near an oak tree. Investigating, Bob Morgan and his family found some glowing plastic pieces that appeared to have fallen from the sky. In 1957, man-made parts falling from Space could mean just one thing--Sputnik.

The Morgan family contacted the military through a local radio station. They handed the parts over to some representatives of the government, hoping for a promised 50,000 dollar reward. The reward never appeared, but the Thomas family recovered most of the parts weeks later. The military seemed to forget about the incident and the reward.

In the ensuing years, Bob Thomas attempted to ascertain exactly what the parts were. Fortunately Soviet magazines published diagrams of Sputnik to compare with the parts. The diameter of one tube does neatly correspond to Sputnik's interior, and the tubes do resemble parts pictured within Sputnik. The only instrument within Sputnik was a radio transmitter, but it also contained a cooling system for the extreme temperatures of Space. Plastic tubing could have formed part of the cooling system. No official investigation has ever been made as to the origin of these mysterious parts. Nevertheless, Sputnik parts falling to America make a fascination tale.

Dear Astronomer hosts the new Carnival of Space!


Eyes On the Nobel Prize

Despite evidence to the contrary, the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics will be shared by 3 scientists who claimed to have discovered an "accelerating universe." They found evidence for acceleration in redshifts of distant Type Ia supernovae. Somehow science seems to have overlooked what a child might ask: what if the universe isn't accelerating but light slows down?

Next they want a Space-based experiment, once called JDEM but now called WFIRST. Such a mission could not launch until at least 7 years after the James Webb Space Telescope, 2025 at the earliest. The cost of WFIRST would be more than 1000 Nobel Prizes. Long before WFIRST or anything like it launches, there will be evidence that light slows. With all the alternatives to an accelerating universe, this prize might be premature.


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