Daily Archives: 02/16/2005

Some Random Science Links

In case anybody is curious, I’m trying to clear my blogging slate tonight. Maybe it’s the Sudafed kicking in, but I am on a roll tonight. I got a pile of stories that accumulated during the past week, and I want to mention them before they get too stale. So bear with me while I toss up some brief, yet interesting science related links

  • Japanese researchers announced the discovery of plankton found in the depths of the Marianas Trench, just off of Guam’s coastline. The plankton survive by ingest the organic detritus that filters down to the abyssal depths, over 35,000 feet below sea level.
  • Geologists now say the mammoth earthquake that caused Decembers catastrophic tsunamis was three times stronger than originally reported. No, that doesn’t mean it was a magnitude 27.0 earthquake, the temblor was upgraded to 9.3 magnitude. After further analysis they have a theory on the propagation of the killer tsunamis as well, only one third of the slip fault experienced a rapid, powerful earthquake. The remaining two thirds of the fault affected went through a ‘slow slip’ that generated the enormously powerful waves.
  • Check out the new Turing Cluster supercomputer at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. It’s constructed out of 640 Apple Xserve G5’s. Cool.
  • Here’s a ridiculous story about how random number generators can forecast the future, or telepathy, or some other such nonsense. To say I am skeptical is an understatement. It’s like nobody wants to understand mathematics, probability or cause and effect.
  • Finally, here’s a really cool image taken by the Cassini probe in orbit around Saturn. The colors are true to life and show the pale blue atmosphere of Saturn’s northern hemisphere. The black arcs are the shadows of the diaphanous rings around Saturn. As an added bonus, mysterious Mimas passes in the foreground between the probe and the gas giant. Very cool photo. Check out the detail in the full size photo, it is simply amazing.
    Blue Saturn with Mimas

Okay, that’s it for tonight. I’m going to take some cold medicine and hit the sack.

PIA Ceases Operations

I forgot to mention this last month when the story first broke: Pacific Island Aviation, one of the regional airlines that specialized in the inter island Guam-Rota-Saipan routes, ceased operations last Wednesday. PIA announced the shutdown late last month, citing high fuel costs and the stiff competition from Freedom Air and Cape Air (dba Continental Express). I was sad to see the airline go, I flew PIA several times and always enjoyed it, especially after they became a Northwest Airlines affiliated airline and I could accrue miles flying to Tinian. Here’s the story from last week’s Marianas Variety.

Not Closing, Just Cruisin’ – PIA

by Jude O. Marfil

SAIPAN – At around 8 p.m. Wednesday, a Pacific Island Aviation plane pulled into PIA’s hanger after its final flight.

Upon hearing the whir of the plane’s propeller, PIA’s soon to be jobless employees stopped what they were doing. They cheered, waved and clapped.

After 16 years, the airline had decided to stop its operations.

“We are not closing. We are just cruising,” said in-flight supervisor Marcy C. Cepeda, one of PIA’s 60 employees. “We are here now not to say goodbye but to say thank you for the good memories we have (while) working here.”

The teary-eyed Cepeda add, “It’s been very emotional reminiscing.”

PIA’s marketing director Daisy S. Sablan said they will miss “our working together as a family.”

Sablan is among the pioneer employees of PIA when it started its operations in 1988.

Capt. Michael M. Sato said he is also sad for the CNMI because it just lost the only carrier based in Saipan.

PIA’s competitors Cape Air and Freedom Air are based on Guam.

“The people failed to realize that they just lost one of their own. This is their own airline,” said Sato, the pilot of PIA’s last flight.

PIA decided to end its operations on Saipan due to stiff competition and rising jet fuel costs.

-Marianas Variety Guam Edition, Friday Feb. 11, 2005

I think Continental and Cape Air just killed PIA with their service. Continental ceased virtually all jetliner service between Guam and Saipan and shunted travelers into the nearly hourly Cape Air flights. PIA will continue to offer charter flights from Saipan to Tinian.

Nuclear Reactors Anybody?

A remote Alaskan town is considering an offer from Toshiba for a free small scale nuclear reactor. The town Galena currently barges in expensive diesel fuel to power the village, which carries a considerable risk of a fuel spill on the rough Yukon River. Galena pays three times the national average for electricity, and the offer of cheap, reliable nuclear power could cut the town’s power bill from 28 ¢/kwh to less than 10 ¢/kwh.

Toshiba is offering the town one of their new 4S (Super Safe, Small & Simple) sodium cooled nuclear reactors. There are no control rods to sustain the nuclear chain reaction, the reactor uses reflector panels around the core. If the reflector are removed the density of neutrons drops below the level needed to sustain fission. The reactor uses liquid sodium to cool the reactor and create steam to drive the generators instead of water. The 4S generator can produce 10

Galena looked at other options but decided coal was too dirty and solar was not feasible at the extreme latitude of Galena. It sounds like an interesting test case. Obviously Toshiba hopes this will spark other isolated towns to consider nuclear power in the future. The 10 megawatt reactor would be the first nuclear power plant approved and constructed in the United States since the early 80’s.

I am certain that some environmental groups are protesting this action. But I think the time has come to face up to it; only nuclear power offers a chance for humanity to escape the ravages of global warming. Civilization isn’t in any danger of running out of fossil fuels in the near future, the real crisis is that the world is running out of capacity to absorb the damage we are doing to it. Even with the Kyoto Protocol now in effect, it is too late to stop global warming, the best we can hope for is to minimize the damage it causes in the coming decades. The originator of the Gaia hypothesis, James Lovelock, endorsed nuclear power last year, saying it offered the best hope for curbing global warming.

While it took humans until this past century to harness the power of the atom, natural nuclear reactors once existed in the earth’s crust during the formative stages of our planet. Scientists researching a ‘georeactor’ found in Togo in 1972 discovered that the nuclear reaction was controlled by river water trickling into rich uranium ore deposits. The water acted like control rods in a modern reactor, stabilizing the reaction and releasing tremendous amounts of heat. Once the water boiled away, the chain reaction fizzled out until more water seeped into the ore. The reactor worked like clockwork, every couple of hours it would ignite for exactly 30 minutes before cutting off. And it lasted like that for 120 million years.

Neal Stephenson Interviewed

Here’s a good interview from Reason Magazine with one of my favorite science fiction authors, Neal Stephenson. I am currently reading Quicksilver, so Stephenson’s thoughts on the Enlightenment and the emergence of the industrial revolution are particularly apt right now. The interview touches on some of his earlier work, like Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, and how these visions of the future represent the apotheosis of libertarian ideals. But the gist of the interview is how Stephenson became interested in the Age of Enlightenment and the rise of the modern state. The role of science cannot be underestimated during this period, and Stephenson tears into it with vigor. His sentiments regarding the current climate towards science is equally perceptive:

It is quite obvious to me that the U.S. is turning away from all of this (science and engineering). It has been the case for quite a while that the cultural left distrusted geeks and their works; the depiction of technical sorts in popular culture has been overwhelmingly negative for at least a generation now. More recently, the cultural right has apparently decided that it doesn’t care for some of what scientists have to say. So the technical class is caught in a pincer between these two wings of the so-called culture war. Of course the broad mass of people don’t belong to one wing or the other. But science is all about diligence, hard sustained work over long stretches of time, sweating the details, and abstract thinking, none of which is really being fostered by mainstream culture.

We’ll see how well I do with Stephenson’s magnum opus, the Baroque Cycle. Each of the three books are about 900 pages long, so reading them will be all about diligence and sustained hard work over a long stretch of time.


I can’t believe this. A week ago I was sidelined with a classic case of the flu: nausea, vomiting, body aches, ague and a general lethargy. It was over in a couple days and by the end of the week I was feeling fine.

Yesterday I started sneezing. And sneezing. And sneezing. Last night my throat was sore. Woke up this morning and my head was stuffed, my nose drippy and I am still sneezing. Yes, I have a head cold.

So, what’s going on? Am I still sick from last week, or is this a new and different virus running amok in my system. I don’t really know, and
medical science doesn’t really know either.

Ah choo!