Monday, January 30, 2012

Alien Life Watching the Signing of the Magna Carta

If the Drake Equation is correct, then there are roughly 10,000 planets or other celestial bodies that have intelligent life on them at any given time in our galaxy, the Milky Way.  So roughly, for every 1,000 light years, we should find one of these planets or moons containing intelligent life.  The light (or images) from the closest of these celestial bodies would take 1,000 years (due to the speed of light) to get here even if we are viewing via telescope.  So if we could observe spaceships leaving a planet's atmosphere, that would mean that this is what happened ... oh ... maybe 1,0000 years ago.  The possibility also exists that we could be looking at a planet with intelligent life, that currently is in their space age, but we are looking into their bronze age because the image takes so long to get here.  Mind-boggling once you start thinking about it.

It goes the other way as well.  If an aliens species were watching us at this very minute, they could be watching the signing of the Magna Carta or the rise of the Pueblo civilization. They would not see our current highly advanced societies with our satellites circling the Earth not until the light we are transmitting reaches their telescopes some 1,000 or so years from now.

With this being said, one would think that the chances of a highly advanced technical people contacting each other, with two way communication, is not very likely.  A very large window (time span) would have to be open when their respective civilizations overlapped.  A world like that one portrayed in Star Trek, which is very pleasing and dreamy, is just not going to happen.  We will never travel a short amount of time to meet alien cultures. I love that idea, it is a great plot device.  But make no mistakes, Star Trek is good television, not good science.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Tacitus and the Ancient Germans

Much of what we know of as Europe, the nations that scatter that continent's map, was formed after ancient Rome fell and during its decline.  Sometime around first or second century AD, the Roman army was over extended.  Once they started retracting their units, the locals had to learn to protect themselves.  There were some drawbacks to being under the protection of the Roman army, but one of the many benefits was that there was order and protection from foreign invasion and barbarian uprising.  Once that protection was gone, the locals took charge, sometimes anarchy ensued, new tribes were formed and new boundaries were drawn.

It was right about this time that we start hearing about the German people.  They were described as a fierce tribe of people who lived in a region with harsh weather.  They were tall, had blue eyes, reddish blond hair and sternness in their gaze. When they went into battle, entire families would accompany them and would cheer from the side lines like we do now at sporting events.  The most of what we know of these people come from the Roman scholar, senator and historian, Tacitus.  In his book, Germania, (written around 98 AD), he describes them as an isolated nation of "noble savages" that had not mixed with the Roman empire, as the Nazis would later refer to as being "pure."

Copies of the book disappeared for centuries until the 15th century. It has been called one of the most dangerous books ever written. It was used to inspire the German invasion of Turkish land in the 15th century and more recently by Heimlich Himmler of the Nazi regime as a guidebook to resurrect Germany. Hitler found it so important he sponsored raids to seize copies of text. Many of the ideas promoted about the superiority of the German came right out of its text.

It is amazing to me how a text written by an ancient Roman senator in the first century AD indirectly affected millions of people in 20th century and possibly beyond. 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Curie and the Prize

Marie Curie is the only person to receive a Nobel Prize in two distinct scientific disciplines.  In 1903 she was awarded the Prize for physics (shared it with her colleague Antoine Henri Becquerel and her husband Pierre) and in 1911 for chemistry.  She was not originally included on the prize in 1903 until her husband, Pierre, complained. He wrote: "If it is true that one is seriously thinking about me [for the Nobel Prize], I very much wish to be considered together with Madame Curie with respect to our research on radioactive bodies." The letter was written to mathematician Gösta Mittag-Leffler who was an advocate for women in science.  Neither of the Curies showed up in Stockholm for the ceremony citing illness.

In 1911, when Marie accepted the prize alone for her work in chemistry, she was a widow.  Pierre died in a fluke accident involving a horse drawn carriage.  In Paris, in a heavy rain, he was knocked over by the carriage and the wheel crushed his head.  Some think that he may have survived the crash if not for his weakened state due to exposure to radiation.

Marie Curie coined the phrase, "radioactivity" in her theory of radioactivity.  She developed techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes and discovered two elements, polonium and radium.   At the time, it wasn't known how dangerous radiation exposure was to your health.  Much of her work was done without proper protection.  Considering this, it is amazing that she lived until 1934 and died at the age of 66.  She often walked around with test tubes of radioactive isotopes in her pocket, stored then in her desk and sometime took the train with a suitcase full of radioactive material.  She died of aplastic anemia, a result of a long term exposure to radiation, which is a condition where your bone marrow no longer produces new cells anymore.  

Friday, January 6, 2012

Romanian Irony

Most of the time I am proud of my country.  The creativity, innovation and spunk of the American populace is inspiring.  But all too often I am embarrassed.  While the much of the world is rioting for human rights and a lot of other things we take for granted, what do we riot over?  We riot over a Penn State football coach being fired.  I can't wrap my head around what is going on over at Penn State.  I am a sport fan.  I have been known be fanatical over the Red Sox.  But if any member of the Red Sox (like Terry Francona, Jim Rice or even Ted Williams) had ever been fired for the covering up of pedophilia, I don't think I would be rioting.  I can't speak for all Sox fans, but I am willing to bet there wouldn't be a riot but some depression and/or denial.  I would probably even agree with the firing.  I will just have to add the Penn State riots to the long list of things I don't understand and ... move on.

I don't remember the Romanian riots in 1989.  I was a bit self-absorbed back then.  I only vaguely remember the slew of other violent revolts in Warsaw Pact countries that year, but as I read about them they seem an awful lot like the revolutions (aka the Arab Spring) in the Middle East this past year.  Since the revolutions in Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Poland and Romania lead to the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union a short time later, you really have to wonder what the long term affect of the Arab Spring will be. It is exciting when I think about it.

I don't know much about Romania out of side of what I have read in Bram Stoker's Dracula.  Castles and underfunded orphanages come to mind. In 1965, the year I was born, Nicolae Ceauşescu became the Communist dictator of Romania.  With the intention of molding the people into the model of the "New Socialist Man," he created sweeping reforms throughout the country.  One of then was one of the strictest laws ever against abortion with the intent of strengthening the Romanian population.  Not only that, but all forms of contraception were banned and women were taxed, "a celibacy tax," if there were not getting pregnant.  These laws had the desired affect in that the birthrate doubled within a year.  But the children of this generation's quality of life was much lower than just a few years earlier in every way.  The grades were lower, crime rates were higher and when they got older the job market was stretched thin. In Romania, like anywhere else, when a child is born into a family that doesn't want him/her, the results are usually not good.  The irony here is that in 1989, when Ceauşescu was overthrown and he and his wife were executed, he was done so by a mob that were made up mostly of young people.  Mobs of people in their late teens and earlier 20's were erupting in Bucharest and all the other big cities in Romania.  If not for his policies, much of these young people would never have been born.