Friday, February 22, 2013

Mapping the Brain: Live, and in Color

"Scans reveal intricate brain wiring"
Pallab Ghosh, BBC News (February 16, 2013)

"Scientists are set to release the first batch of data from a project designed to create the first map of the human brain.

"The project could help shed light on why some people are naturally scientific, musical or artistic.

(from the Human Connectome Project, via BBC News, used w/o permission)
"A side view of brain pathways, from the right. At far left is the visual cortex, connected by a large bundle, green, which connects to the frontal lobes. At centre, the vertical pathways in blue serve voluntary movement, connecting the motor areas of the brain with the spinal cord and muscles. The green path at centre is the right cingulum bundle, here seen from the side. The cerebellum, which controls coordinated movement, can be seen at bottom left." (BBC News)

"...The brain's wiring diagram is not like that of an electronic device which is fixed. It is thought that changes occur after each experience, and so each person's brain map is different - an ever changing record of who we are and what we have done.

"The HCP will be able to test the hypothesis that minds differ as connectomes differ, according to Dr Tim Behrens of Oxford University, UK.

" 'We're likely to learn a lot about human behaviour,' he told BBC News...." (Pallab Ghosh)

That, in the Lemming's considered opinion, is a massive understatement.

Studying the brain's circuits, and how they change as humans think and learn, will either confirm long-standing assumptions about how learning works: or force scientists to develop new explanations for what they've observed. Either way, we'll learn: a lot.

That, again in the Lemming's considered opinion, is a good thing. Being able to spot problems while they're still small, or letting folks know what they're likely to be good at doing, are some of what that article says we may get from this research.

On the other hand, the Lemming appreciates the knack some folks have for taking wonderful ideas and using them to hurt people. This new technology, and what'll probably be learned in the research, will probably be used to help a whole lot of folks. And, also probably, someone's going to find ways of misusing it.

Think "The Manchurian Candidate" with a dash of "The Brain That Wouldn't Die."

Who says you don't learn stuff from the movies? And that's another topic.

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Friday, February 15, 2013

Martian Hood Ornament? Water Faucet? Or Something Entirely Different?

(from NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems, used w/o permission)
"A shiny-looking Martian rock is visible in this image taken by NASA's Mars rover Curiosity's Mast Camera (Mastcam) during the mission's 173rd Martian day, or sol (Jan. 30, 2013)...."

"Mars Rock Takes Unusual Form"
Guy Webster, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, via Mission News, Mars Science Laboratory, NASA (February 11, 2013)

"On Mars, as on Earth, sometimes things can take on an unusual appearance. A case in point is a shiny-looking rock seen in a recent image from NASA's Curiosity Mars rover.

"Some casual observers might see a resemblance to a car door handle, hood ornament or some other type of metallic object. To Ronald Sletten of the University of Washington, Seattle, a collaborator on Curiosity's science team, the object is an interesting study in how wind and the natural elements cause erosion and other effects on various types of rocks...."

The shiny thing looks like an old-fashioned water faucet handle to the Lemming. It would be very cool if the rock it's on was a trap door, and the thing actually was a handle: but what Guy Webster said about it is much more likely.

On the other hand, maybe Guy Webster is part of a conspiracy by shape-shifting space-alien lizard-men, the Illuminati, and Big Oil. The Lemming doesn't think so, and that's another topic. Topics. Not necessarily in this blog:
Appealing as cosmic conspiracies and all that may be, the Lemming prefers to apply Occam's razor, and that's - you guessed it - yet another topic.

Of course, maybe that shiny thing on Mars really is the handle of a water faucet, and looks like ones here on Earth because Home Depot is a front organization for imperial space wombats who have infiltrated Hollywood and plan to control our minds with genetically modified movie theater popcorn.


Or, not.

Getting back to Mars and reality, someone put together a five-page document, with lots of photos and a little text. It shows what wind can do to rocks:
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Friday, February 8, 2013

Betelgeuse, Stellar Wind, and Exploding Eggs

"Supergiant Star Betelgeuse to Crash Into Cosmic 'Wall' "
Miriam Kramer, (January 25, 2013)

(From ESA / Herschel / PACS / L. Decin et al, via, used w/o permission.)
"In about 5,000 years, Betelgeuse is going to run straight into a line of dust (left)...."

"The red supergiant star Betelgeuse in the famed constellation Orion is on a collision course with a strange wall of interstellar dust, with the clock ticking down to a cataclysmic cosmic smashup in 5,000 years, scientists say.

"A new image of Betelgeuse by the European Space Agency's infrared Herschel space observatory, shows that the star will crash headlong into a trail of space dust while speeding through its part of the cosmos at a blistering 18.6 miles (30 kilometers) per second. That's about 66,960 mph (107,761 kph).

"Betelgeuse is a giant star that makes up the left shoulder of the Orion constellation and can easily be seen from Earth with the unaided eye by observers in the Northern Hemisphere. The star appears as a reddish-orange light above and to the left of Orion's belt...."

Betelgeuse is roughly 640 light years away: fairly close on a cosmic scale, but sufficiently distant from Earth to make the coming collision a matter for curiosity, not concern.

Astronomers have been learning quite a bit about the universe, particularly in the last century or so. That's bothered some rather tightly-wound folks, but the Lemming doesn't mind knowing that there's a whole lot of time and space. And that's another topic.

What's That?

"... The new Herschel observatory image shows Betelgeuse as a bright disk surrounded by a shield-like arc of gas as it approaches an odd bar-like wall of dust.

"The curved 'shield' formations to the left of the star are actually structures shaped by Betelgeuse's solar wind - the charged particles each star emits and blows out into the galaxy, ESA officials said. But the wall of dust the star will crash into may be anything, from a filament linked to the galaxy's magnetic field to a stellar cloud. Scientists do not think the dust wall is part of the Betelgeuse star structure.

"After the first bow of solar wind hits the line of dust in 5,000 years, Betelgeuse itself should run into the bar 12,500 years after that...."

Scientists have quite a bit of time to study that whatever-it-is before the solar (stellar?) wind from Betelgeuse starts stirring it up. Based on previous experience, the Lemming suspects that folks will be surprised by what happens. Which is just as well, since if we knew everything humanity wouldn't have much use for curiosity. More topics.

Back to Betelgeuse: the star is really big, and has been running through its hydrogen at a phenomenal rate. Soon, it'll run out. Without hydrogen to keep its fusion 'fire' going, the core of Betelgeuse will start cooling down: and, more to the point, stop providing the pressure that keeps Betelgeuse from collapsing.

That's when things get interesting. As all that tonnage of star-stuff falls inward, the star's core heats up: a lot. The physics is a trifle complicated, but basically the collapsing star works like a whacking great diesel engine: fusing lighter elements into heavier elements and releasing a phenomenal amount of energy in the process. Not that diesel engines fuse nuclei together, the reactions in that case are chemical. And that's, you guessed it, another topic.

The Lemming was making a point. What was it? Diesel engines. Stellar physics. Energy. Right.

All that energy released by fusing elements together heats up the collapsing star's core. The effect is sort of like what happens when you microwave an egg: which the Lemming does not recommend. Except that instead of spattering hot egg, most of the star gets spattered into space. It's a spectacle best viewed from a safe distance: a couple dozen light years should be enough.

Unless scientists are wrong about most of stellar physics, which doesn't seem likely, Betelgeuse will explode 'soon.' That article says in about 1,000,000 years: which is 'soon,' compared to how long this universe has been around. On the other hand, Betelgeuse was shrinking faster than expected a few years ago. (June 10, 2009) Folks on Earth could be have a grandstand seat for the show 'sooner.' Again, by cosmic standards.

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Friday, February 1, 2013

Redefining Habitable Zones

" 'Habitable Zone' for Alien Planets, and Possibly Life, Redefined"
Clara Moskowitz, (January 29, 2013)

" One of the most important characteristics of an alien planet is whether or not it falls into what's called the habitable zone ­- a Goldilocks-like range of not-too-close, not-too-far distances from the parent star that might allow the planet to host life.

"Now scientists have redefined the boundaries of the habitable zone for alien planets, potentially kicking out some exoplanaets that were thought to fall within it, and maybe allowing a few that had been excluded to squeeze in...."

This isn't the final word in how far a planet needs to be from its star, for it to have an atmosphere, liquid water, and - maybe - life. It's probably a better estimate than the last one, since at that time scientists had solid information on exactly no planets outside the Solar system. Today, the count is in the hundreds. Make that thousands.

Scientists have a big enough sample now, to make a pretty good estimate for how many planets in this galaxy are about about the same size as Earth, and rocky. Unless Earth just happens to be in a very crowded corner of this galaxy, there are about 17,000,000,000 planets that are sort of like the inner four here: Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars.

Statistics, Earth, and Neighbors

If only one in four of those 17,000,000,000 planets have life, which is the local percentage: that's a whole lot of worlds with life. That's a big "if," though: and that brings the Lemming back to the revised guesstimate on where habitable zones are.

Good news, by the way: Earth is, according to the new estimate, still inside Sol's habitable zone. If it wasn't, the Lemming would wonder about how reliable this new-and-improved definition was. After all, we know there's life here on Earth.

If life got started somewhere besides Earth, and if it's close enough to 'life as we know it' for humans to recognize it as "life," and if this extraterrestrial life is close enough for humans to find in the near future: that's a lot of "ifs."

The Lemming would be excited if the Curiosity Mars rover found a wrecked spaceship that hadn't come from Earth: or a bit of plastic that couldn't have come from the rover. Even if the extraterrestrial wreck didn't have a speck of life on it, its presence would be proof that humanity had company: at one time.

But the first evidence of extraterrestrial life might be a little ecosystem supporting one-celled critters. That would be exciting, too.

The Lemming Philosophizes

The Lemming is fairly sure that the familiar 'science fiction' universe isn't what we're really living in. There's nothing wrong with telling a story about a galaxy teeming with non-human people - who all just happen to be almost exactly as smart as humans; with almost exactly the same interests, needs, and goals; and using almost exactly the same technology.

The universe could be like that, but probably isn't. If humanity was one of a few billion almost-exactly-like-human civilizations; all of which were within a few thousand years of each other in terms of technology - humanity would probably be selling souvenirs to space alien tourists.

It seems hard to remember how old the universe is. A million years ago, humans were learning how to use fire without killing themselves. But a million years is only a tiny fraction of the time that stars and planets have been spinning around this galaxy's core.

In the Lemming's opinion, when or if humanity meets other people - they won't be very much like humans. And that, again in the Lemming's opinion, is a good thing. Humans do a pretty good job of being human, there may be many other ways of being people, and we all could learn by comparing notes.

Even if there aren't any other people in this vast universe, just finding life elsewhere would let humanity learn a great deal. And this, again in the Lemming's opinion, is a good thing.

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