Friday, November 29, 2013

The ISS: One of humanity's great engineering triumphs

Photo NASA, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The international space station is one of humanity's great engineering triumphs. But now NASA has to face a difficult question: what is it for? | The Washington Post:

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The Washington Post has an excellent series of free long form articles on its site about the various current US space programs, looking at the prospects for the public and private sectors, as well as the Post-Apollo Era in general. My favorite is the piece that examines the history and possible near future of the International Space Station, and the all the important operational lessons the station's international consortium has learned about long-duration human spaceflight from building and operating it.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The natural world versus the human world

"In the real world, Jason had found, there was no such thing as a narrative. Reality was made up of never-ending cycles...Out of obscure beginnings life went on growing into infinity; conclusions, as essential as they are to all plot, are an invention."

~Peter H√łeg, Tales of the Night

The natural world does not lend itself to storytelling. Physics and chemistry are alien and counter-intuitive realms, difficult for most of humanity to comprehend. The worlds of biology and ecology lack heroic narratives, being largely a timeline of unceasing struggle without climax or denouement - the actors fading in and fading out in waves of branching speciation, adaptation, and absorption or utter extinction.

Ironically enough, even the story of humanity itself is hardly the stuff of epics. When confronted with actual History as captured in period documents and artifacts, filmmakers and novelists around the world almost always resort to a drastic shearing and pruning: cutting away major events, deleting important players, and compressing years and drawn out decision points to days or minutes in order to come up with something dramatic that theater-going audiences will watch and book-buying individuals will read cover to cover.

Even the real time narratives of the present can have little to do with reality. Individuals and whole societies have ridden ideological narratives down in flames to destruction or devastation, unable to let go of the stories of who and what they saw themselves as being, until a blood-drenched threshold of loss was exceeded. Many of these events were all the more tragic because the destructive narrative was often only one of several tribal or national narratives that somewhere along the way had picked up an ugly critical mass.

Or maybe a sad and constricting inertia better describes the phenomenon. Political narratives woven into group identity have caused individuals to disregard the findings of science, the potential lessons of recent defeats, and to abandon critical analysis of the lives of those who have gone through similar situations before them.

Yet when it's all said and done, we human beings - products of the natural world that we are - are very much intuitive creators and gatherers of narrative. It seems to be a characteristic of us around the world. Even many of the themes we use globally are similar, though the variations are local and many. Heroism, nobility, revenge, redemption, wish fulfillment, the enforcement of cultural norms as aspects of the universe in the form of divinities or divine laws.

Tragedy earned, and tragedy unearned.

In many respects, an education in the sciences or engineering, and the cultivation of professionalism in almost any field, are attempts to overcome to limitations of narrative. A drive to stop filling in gaps in knowledge with assumptions drawn from the form and structure of our native cultures' stories and our personal narratives, and to embrace a more empirical view of the world. A view that often runs roughshod over those comfortable stories.

There are probably good reasons why the natural world instilled this love of narrative in our brains. The pre-conscious pathways and signal-processing modules in our brains appear to fuse the streams of disjointed sensory information and the memories they evoke into a coherent story for our consciousnesses to make decisions within. And given how emotions are the primary evaluation system that we use to quickly judge and prioritize the importance of events, our narratives are by necessity heavily driven by feelings.

via Big Think.

Narratives also offer a schema for the brain's chronologically organized autobiographical memory subsystem to help impart structure to the unceasing flows of data moving through our brains, and to do so in a way that lets us comprehend ourselves both as individuals and as members of the societies. This also helps us to notice linear causes and effects observable only over long durations, and to capture and store durable individual and cultural recollections of them.

In that sense both group and individual narratives are likely flawed but necessary tools. Which makes me wonder what a species whose memories and personal narratives were organized on the basis of space rather than linear time would be like. Our semantic memory subsystem, the one that holds and recalls abstract information independent of the situation in which it was learned, may well have evolved from a spatially organized system of memory concerned with recalling positive and negative stimuli.*

*Yes, I'm working on a story that incorporates the idea. Brain stuff and its cultural manifestations are an enduring personal obsession.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Neruon components perform computations

Smart neurons: Single neuronal dendrites can perform computations:

'via Blog this'

Imagine if all the on/off bits of your computer that represent binary states could perform calculations on their own. Or if multiple sections of each switch could. In a sense, that's what the neurons of your brain are capable of. Information processing takes place not only in the exchange of data between neurons, but within their components as well.

Which isn't all that surprising. We've known for a while that there's a fair amount of chemical computation taking place at the level of bio-active proteins both within and outside of neurons in the brain. Data is sent to surrounding white matter tissue, where it creates signal bearing cascades of chemical reactions, some of which feed back into the matter and neurons there.

There's a lot going on in between your ears, from the level of chromosomes and computing RNA loops up to the firing of individual neurons and entire networks and maps of them, and then all the way back down in scale again. Over and over and over in a rising and falling weave that references both the external world of the environment and the internal space of the body's needs as it tries to push us towards the ever elusive and interlinked modes of chemical, thermal, and emotional homeostasis.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Wired Magazine: Building toward a volcanic caldera event in South America?

Image Courtesy of NASA and the US / Japanese ASTER Science Team

A Caldera in the Making?: The Curious Story of Laguna del Maule - Wired Science:

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This swelling volcanic basin is the most, um, well promising candidate we know of for a large caldera-forming event. Lots of small, dribbling eruptions of rhoylite from what looks like a large magma source not far below the surface. It also has an apparent uplift of 30 meters in over the last century, which would put the sedate rises and falls of the Yellowstone plateau to shame if true. What's missing from the potential super volcano eruption scenario? The kind of outgassing associated with the gas-rich magma that generates truly violent and colossal Plinian ash eruptions. What does it mean? No one knows for certain. There's still a lot for us to learn when it comes to the largest classes of volcanic events.

What's fascinating about this for me, is the pre-eruption similarities between Laguana del Maule and the Long Valley Caldera in Eastern California. The latter is the one super volcano I've seen in person, having driven through it several times as a child and twenty-something. It's an interesting landscape with many indications of cataclysmic geologic violence, if you know how to read those signs. Searing ash winds that welded themselves into lateral waves and descending columns of solid stone, and bisected hills and mountains that were partially devoured when the vast caldera floor collapsed several kilometers after a days-long ash discharge that buried much of what is now the Southwestern United States.