November 11, 2011

The Social Media aspect of SETI

Let me guess. You are on Facebook. Or you may be on Google+. And of course, you might be on twitter as well. Why? Is there is an added sense of "existence" gained by being connected on social media platforms?

Now I have that nagging feeling that Life itself is social. If Life arises somewhere, it will attempt to interact and seek others, and it will try to interconnect.

Life is Social. This mantra goes all the way down to the very basic constituents of life itself. From cells, to DNA strands, and proteins that seem to want to snap together, curl, mingle, and interconnect. This "social" behavior seems present at all levels of emergence, it bubbles up from neurons connecting with other neurons, all the way up to an entire civilization’s yearning to detect life on other worlds.

So why haven't we made contact yet? Where are they? The answer has been staring us in the face on the first paragraph of this post. We have not found the Social Media of the Cosmos. There is no friendster, myspace, facebook or google plus for any communicating civilization to join into and interact with. We are isolated. We are on an island. We are alone. Or maybe we are just lonely.

Perhaps we should also do a Search for "Cosmic Social Media", or even better, to build one ourselves. Lately, humanity has been tweeting from space aboard the ISS, and sharing wonderful pictures of earth from above. And on a good note, NASA has been attempting to build an Interplanetary Internet, which has been known as the “Deep Space Internet”.

A galactic internet platform is hard to build unless you have a good communications medium to begin with. But what would be the best possible kind of signal for outer space? Sadly, in the vast distances involved in deep space communications, light is a limiting factor. The Electromagnetic Wave is just too slow.

How do you create an intergalactic social platform for civilizations in a universe where the speed of light limits the communication? How would advanced civilizations build their internet in space?

Sadly we haven't discovered anything from the realms of physics yet that would make a good medium for communications in the vast distances of outer space.

Perhaps our particular universe is not conducive for communicating with other advanced lifeforms because our physical laws renders the communications medium too slow. Other universes might have been luckier with their speed of light that may be faster. But not in our universe. Perhaps, each universe yields a different answer for the Fermi Paradox depending on the limits imposed upon the lifeforms asking the question.

Sure, we may find signs and biosignature of other lifeforms on other planets, but making contact with intelligent exolife would be rare.

Are we doomed to be trapped in island planets, island star systems, and ultimately "island universes"? The universe keeps expanding. Galaxies are spreading ever farther from each other. Perhaps in the far future, we would simply mingle amongst “ourselves” within our local star system--with humanoid species on Mars whose roots are from the earthkind. They'd be the migrant "humans" who eventually adapted to the properties of their homeworld. The 'aliens' will be us. And the question of other intelligent life on other star systems and exoplanets could remain with us for a very long time. Perhaps even forever.

On a positive note gleaned from the realms of fiction, imagine if we found the planet Ballybran, and extracted the ‘Black Crystal’ that makes instantaneous communication possible. Imagine if the Ansible did become a reality, and when we turned it on we heard the Cosmos alive with chatter. By then, we have joined the Social Media of the universe, and finally we are truly not alone.

November 6, 2011

Our Expanding View of the Universe

Recently, I've started collecting Data Visualizations and Infographics about Exoplanets. You may see some of them randomly displayed in the Exoplanetology homepage. I use a third party tool called Vi.sualize.Us to make it quick and easy for me to tag images and share awesome exoplanet visualizations that i come across in the web.

For my latest entry, I'd like to share this nugget of Interactive Data Visualization about our expanding view of "The Visible Universe, Then and Now".

As you marvel at the new astronomical objects we have discovered, don't forget to compare how it looked like back then in the 1950's and how little we knew about the things around our star.

Exoplanets play a big part in the recent upgrades in how we see our universe. In just a mere decade, an entire generation of humans would realize that our earth is just one among billions and gazillions of planets out there.

Take a moment to wonder how much we have learned in such a short span of time. Was there any difference at all in how we behaved as a species? More importantly, take a moment to look into yourself and see how the new knowledge of other worlds changes your way of thinking and how you now see the world.

November 1, 2011

Trees and Exoplanets

Over the last weekend, I witnessed something I've never seen before: October snow in the East Coast! Never have I seen snow this early, and what I observed was quite intriguing.

As I was driving home, I saw branches breaking and falling dangerously on the streets. Apparently, the snow were piling up on the leaves, and as they became too heavy, the branches simply snapped.

It's only then that I realized why trees evolved the capability (or adapted) to shed leaves before winter comes, to avoid losing limbs or getting uprooted. Naturally, those who fail to adapt will perish. And what I’ve witnessed is only one among many mechanisms that the tree employs to prevent damage and survive during harsh winter weather. Shedding leaves also prevents the tree from losing moisture during winter--which tends to be drier than anyone would think. Of course in the context of this post, I am only referring to Deciduous trees.

Deciduous trees have developed specific adaptations to the seasons. We all know that seasons are linked to the tilt of the earth's axis from the orbital plane, and the eccentricity (or elliptical) orbit of the planet, among other things. This makes me wonder about the kind of adaptations that trees on other planets would have, depending on the characteristics of their home planet--which would have its own unique seasons.

There isn’t much information linking trees and exoplanets (as we haven’t detected any exotrees yet!). But some say that it’s possible to detect trees on other planets. And I heard that that there could exist trees with wild foliage on weird worlds with different light conditions. For example, a planet orbiting the habitable zone of a red dwarf would harbor trees with black foliage to capture as much energy as possible from the feeble light of their sun.

We can only imagine the amazing variety of trees that could exist on other worlds, which is a reflection of the diversity of exoplanets with different properties and characteristics.


See also: Plants and Exoplanets

October 31, 2011

Happy Samhain

As I checked twitter today I saw a greeting, "Happy Samhain". I never heard of Samhain before, but it sounded so familiar. A quick look at wikipedia and i found out that Samhain is a Gaelic harvest festival held on October 31. The Modern Irish word Samhain is derived from the Old Irish samain, samuin. And hstorically, Samain or Samuin was the name of the feis or festival at the beginning of winter observed in medieval Ireland.

It only took a minute and suddenly I remembered a planet called Samhuinn in Exodyssey--an awesome book I had for several years now. I quickly grabbed the big hardbound book and opened to the last chapter. And sure enough, the local creatures on the planet, called Samhuinians, had some inspiration from halloween. As a matter of fact, several pages were devoted to what the artists called "Halloweenian Creatures". I feasted my eyes on the biological artworks and wondered about the diversity of alien lifeforms on other planets.


October 19, 2011

The Total Known Exoplanets Google Chrome Browser Extension

Just a quick note to tell you something about the first ever Google Chrome Browser Extension I ever made which is a very simple counter for the total known exoplanets. With a click of a button, you'll see how many known exoplanets humanity has discovered so far.

So if you use the Google Chrome browser a lot, and if you’re obsessed about exoplanets, why don’t you install this handy extension so you can feed your exoplanet fix? You can install it from the official extension page from Google: Total Known Exoplanets Chrome Extension.

So how does it work? Well, everytime you click on the icon, it sends me an alert, and I type the number of the latest count of known exoplanets on that tiny bubble. Simple enough, right?

You’d think i’m crazy to do that. And you’re right. That’s why I automated the process. So here’s what happens behind the scenes after your click. (Warning: technical stuff ahead.)

IMPORTANT UPDATE (July 18, 2012) !!!

After you click on the icon, the extension requests data from a pipe i made on Yahoo Pipes, called "Exoplanet Count Spy" which spews out data in JSON format (which contains the updated number of known exoplanets).

Yahoo Pipes allows you to get hold of data in convenient JSON format from an external RSS feed source. Its JSONP capability is a very useful feature, which subverts the cross-domain barrier and allows you get data from external sites and use them.

So where does my “Exoplanet Count Spy” pipe get its data from? It grabs it from a news feed from Feed43, another great third-party service on the web that generates RSS feeds from an HTML page. Now comes the real source of data where i get the number from.

It's been a long chain of events so far only to find out that the ultimate source of data is the Exoplanet Catalog from the venerable Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia (exoplanet.eu) maintained by Jean Schneider. Many thanks to him for faithfully updating the tally of exoplanets. Without him doing it, this extension will lose it's functionality.

All those things described happen behind the scenes of the extension. But on the surface, the Total Known Exoplanets counter simply consults the exoplanet tally page from the Exoplanet Encyclopedia and shows you the result on your browser. That’s all.

I hope you find the Total Known Exoplanets extension useful!

October 7, 2011

Open Tasking: Exoplanet Data in JSON Format NEEDED

I love programming. And i'm thankful when i heard that today is Ada Lovelace Day. Ada Lovelace is known to be the World’s First Computer Programmer. I was going to do something else today but Lovelace reminded me to code instead. And so I did.

I worked on some exoplanet data today, and have a goal of creating a code-accessible database of exoplanets. But then time flies so fast. I can't do it alone, but I know I belong to a hive of coders and i'm just one node among many of the programming collective. So i'd like to tap the collective and start "Open Tasking". It's like this: i'll tell you where i'm at with this self-inflicted project, and then i'll let you know what kind of help that i need on a particular task. In return, I will share what I learned in the hopes that it will benefit others.

Basically, I am setting up a CouchDB database for Exoplanets. It will be something anyone can use and replicate for any purpose. There's a ton of sub-tasks that need to be done before it becomes a reality so i am posting this as i go along. At the moment, I need help to write a script to convert the XML format of exoplanet data into JSON format so i can import them into CouchDB.
The source data can be found here: Open Exoplanet Catalogue [ https://github.com/hannorein/open_exoplanet_catalogue/tree/master/data ] and the intended destination where the exoplanet JSON will be stored will be in here Exoplanets at Cloudant [ https://cloudant.com/futon/database.html?metapsyche%2Fexoplanets/_all_docs ].
[ If you really want to take a peek at where i'm at right now feel free to check The Exoplanet Viewer. It's really nothing at this point actually, just some preliminary code ]

I've already contacted HannoRein of the Open Exoplanet Catalogue and he said he has no plans to provide the data in JSON format. Bummer. So, right now, I am trying to write javascript code to convert XML to JSON so I can automate a batch conversion of the XML exoplanet data into JSON and then load them into my CouchDB database at cloudant. Why Javascript? So i can use it with node.JS and make streamlined process to keep up with the fast-paced exoplanet updates. So if you already had experience with the task described, and you already have a working set of code, please help me.

I've done quite some research on this and i can't find any usable code at this point. The JSON output should validate at JSONLint [ http://jsonlint.com ]. At the moment, I am using this http://extjs.org.cn/xml2json/xml2json_online.php to convert XML manually. But as I said, I need a streamlined process to keep up with the rapid pace of exoplanet data growth and updates.

Links:
Exoplanets and Open Data
Open Exoplanet Data on CouchDB

September 15, 2011

Tatooine. Pwn'd.

Today, the discovery of the first transiting circumbinary planet orbiting two stars have just been announced. Kepler-16 (AB) b or simply Kepler-16 b has been revealed.

Kepler-16 b is 216 light years away, and it orbits around two stars that are orange and red in color, both are smaller and "cooler" than our own sun. Kepler-16b orbits them far enough such that the two stars are being felt as one source of gravity. The planet is on a stable orbit, but the movement of the two stars orbiting each other makes the Habitable Zone dynamic and could vary the temperature of that zone by at least 30 degrees. This tells us to to look at the Habitable Zone not as a fixed "place" but as something dynamic. "The notion of habitable zones in a planetary system has got to change. It's a dynamic thing," says one of the scientists.

All this makes the Kepler-16 star system a wonderful laboratory that will definitely teach us more about Habitability in the future. And it will tells us the possibility of planets around other binary Star Systems like Alpha Centauri which is just 4.2 light years away.

So what is it like on that planet? Although some describe it as "Tatooine-like", Kepler-16b is actually a cold and frigid place. It's surface may actually be different than the depicted planet in Star Wars. It's a mix of gas and rock and the temperature on its surface is described as "kind of like a nippy day on Antartica" or "like a nippy day on Mars". It's just outside the Habitable Zone (but the Kepler team is looking for an exomoon around it which may turn out to be habitable). The dramatic thing is that no two sunsets on that planet are alike. Its two suns will cast shadows with hues of orange and red. Very dramatic, indeed. I think that's what makes it "Tatooine-like".

Truly, the discovery of Kepler-16b is a landmark not only in Exoplanet Science, but also in terms of Humanity's mode of imaginative thinking because it pushes the boundaries of what we once thought were not possible. It tells us to dream bigger possibilities!

Update: There have been other planets found in binary systems in the past, but Kepler-16b has been the clearest detection yet of a transiting planet orbiting a Circumbinary System. It's the first of a new class of planets (Circumbinary Planets) that will be revealed by Kepler in the coming weeks or months. [ Hint: 150 candidate circumbinary planet candidates in 750 Kepler eclipsing binaries! in the pipeline ]

Links:
Kepler-16 (Ab)
Additions to Exoplanets in Binary Star Systems

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

September 9, 2011

Worlds as Metaphor

It's been several months ago that I tweeted about how planetary or exoplanetary thinking is making its way into the human psyche. It became more apparent when a "planetary" model of organization surfaced in the design of User Interface (UI).

You know, we live in an age of data explosion. So much that you need an effective interface design to interact with data in a meaningful way. That's why this "planetary" design hit a sweet spot in organizing and representing your music collection. I remember Last.FM had some solar system visualization back then, but this working interface from Bloom rocks.

I felt compelled to write this post after I came across a more detailed exposition of how this "Worlds" interface was created. I am amazed how the representation of data about artists, albums and songs fits in place "naturally" with how nature has organized stars, planets, moons, and galaxies. It almost seems to say that music and nature are intertwined. And it is intertwined!

All this just proves that it is most elegant to use Worlds as Metaphor, not just in interfacing with machines and data, but in interacting with ideas!

Links:
Creating New Worlds
Worlds, Not Windows

September 6, 2011

Supernovae and Exoplanets: A Possible Connection?

Last week, I posted about a recent supernova in our sky called the SN 2011fe in the Big Dipper. The title of that post does not imply any connection at all between supernovae and exoplanets other than the fact that there's a couple of known planet-bearing stars which can be exogazed in the same patch of sky roughly 7 degrees in diameter.

In this post however, i'm going out on a limb to investigate a possible relationship between exoplanets and supernovae that is more direct than simply being in the same patch of sky. I'm hoping that this post would serve as a prompt and a question for astrophysicists because i'm really curious if what i'm thinking is true or not.

Today, I read from an article that some old stars (specifically White Dwarfs) may be held up by their rapid spins, and like ticking "time bombs"--the moment they slow down, they explode as supernovae. Immediately, I was reminded by an earlier finding that close-in exoplanets (commonly "Hot Jupiters") transfer angular momentum to their parent star which makes them spin faster.

Bringing these two research findings together, I therefore think that in some cases of these ticking "time-bombs" on the verge of collapse, the presence of a close-in planet can delay the parent star from going supernova. Can a planet ever affect a star in the context of a supernova?

However, the close-in exoplanet loses orbital energy and spirals inwards to its star. My wild imagination tells me that the hot jupiter will be consumed and all of its mass transferred to the parent star. Will the ill-fated exoplanet cause its star to become a supernova?
Maybe not. So let's avoid the mayhem and investigate first how to prevent a supernova with exoplanets, shall we?

Links:
Our Galaxy Might Hold Thousands of Ticking "Time Bombs"
Close-in Hot Jupiters Speed Up Rotation of Parent Star

Image Credits:
An artist's depiction of an early stage in the destruction of a "hot Jupiter" (a gas giant with a very close orbit) by its star. NASA/GSFC/Frank Reddy

UPDATES:

September 2, 2011

A Supernova and Exoplanets

If you're planning to take a peek at the M101 supernova tonight, then have a look at the chart I made to help you spot it speedily. You may need binoculars to spot other objects of interest such as a couple of exoplanetary systems in the same patch of sky, namely HAT-P-3 and HD 118203. Their magnitudes are approximately 11 and 8 respectively, so it would be quite a challenge to spot them.

At the handle of the Big Dipper, Alkaid, Mizar and M101 makes a semi-equilateral triangle (length of 7° each side). This makes it so much easier to spot them all by star-hopping.

Do not miss this supernova of our generation, named SN 2011fe, a Type Ia supernova at the Pinwheel Galaxy (Messier 101). In the next few days, it might reach at least magnitude 10 at it's peak brightness around September 12. At its brightest, it may be quite visible using good binoculars, or small telescopes on excellent conditions of the night sky.

Other Links:
The Big Dipper and Exoplanets

August 31, 2011

Worldships: A New Battlecry to Reach the Stars

Not so long ago, I posted about my observations that exoplanets and spaceships often go together in most space artworks involving interstellar ships. Today, that post clearly needs updating when I saw this blog about concept ships.

It’s also high time to mention my latest fave word: Worldships.

I first heard “Worldships” mentioned by Paul Gilster of Centauri Dreams and I instantly got hooked on it. Could it be only because it contained my first favorite word: “World”? Or could it be that it is a mashup of “Worlds” and “Starships”? Perhaps. But just how any neologism gets its appeal is the deeper concept behind it.

From what I gathered, "A worldship is self-contained and self-sufficient, carrying a crew that may number hundreds to thousands and might even contain an ocean, all directed towards an interstellar colonisation strategy. Worldships would travel to the stars with cruise velocities of around 0.5% of the speed of light, taking hundreds of years to reach the nearest stars."

The primary focus of this blog should only be about Exoplanets. But there has always been that inevitable question of how to get there--to visit these unexplored Worlds. And that’s where Spaceships come in--these wonderful vehicles of imagination that has inspired many brilliant minds to take up exciting endeavors in the Arts, Engineering and the Sciences to make the impossible possible.

But somehow it is time to move on from that ‘adolescent’ concept of the ‘Spaceship’ or from the more mature 'Starship' and take a new battlecry to reach the stars. It is time for Worldships.

The main concept that sticks in my mind about worldships is that it is a generation ship--something i’ll never set foot in my lifetime. It will take several generations of humans to build it, and several generations more to ride in it! But it's funny how i feel that its 'impossibility' during my lifetime renders its possibility in the future even more real.

As more of us adopt the concept of the Worldship--understanding that it is a long-term goal--each generation will tirelessly move forward to make it a reality in the future.

With Worldships and whatever new form Humanity takes, in due time mankind will finally reach the stars.

Links:
Concept Ships
Colonizing the Galaxy Using World Ships
Spaceships and Exoplanets

August 21, 2011

The Call of Cthulhu

Waking up at exactly 3am for no reason at all and then learning that it was H.P. Lovecraft's birthday is nothing short of a call from Cthulhu. I dug through my pile of books and read through a couple of graphic renditions on Lovecraft's work--The Haunter of the Dark (illustrated by John Coulthart), and Graphic Classics that featured several works of Lovecraft. From them I got a sense of what twisted kinds of terrifying imagery will befall the mind of anyone who reads Lovecraft.

Lovecraft's mythos includes The Great Race of Yith, and of course, Cthulhu among others.

Reflecting upon these characters with ancient and cosmic backgrounds, I can say that we don't know how many generations of suns have been before our Sol. The fact that Life sprung forth on this planet does not preclude the thought that older civilizations and lifeforms from an ancient generation of stars and worlds may have lived before us elsewhere...or nearby.

Aliens may strike great fear among many, as with how the unknown often strikes terror. Who knows what an ancient form of life will do to unsuspecting humans?

Our species is a young one, and the birth of mankind's consciousness is barely a blip in the timeline of the earth.

Humanity's collective mind is new and we are only beginning to explore new worlds. It is a time of great wonder, but who knows what terror awaits? Carl Sagan said, "We are at a crossroads in human history. Never before has there been a moment so simultaneously perilous and promising."

Apparently, HP Lovecraft has seen a glimpse of this terror deep within man's psyche.

"I have whirled with the earth at the dawning,
When the sky was a vaporous flame;
I have seen the dark universe yawning
Where the black planets roll without aim,
Where they roll in their horror unheeded, without knowledge or lustre or name."

~ H. P. Lovecraft, Nemesis

August 16, 2011

Open Exoplanet Data on CouchDB

I haven’t been able to do much coding lately. Summer has been busy and my laptop broke. There’s so much I want to do for the field of exoplanetology but i just couldn’t even start without a usable open database platform.

Anything practically useful begins with data and the truth is, we have a great amount of exoplanet data floating around already in all these exoplanet catalogs, but they’re just lying there, and not really being maximized to their full potential.

How can we enable the the wider use of exoplanet data in more useful and practical applications? It begins by providing an open access to that data and a programmatic way of accessing all that exoplanet data.

CouchDB has been my choice due to its advantage of replication and flexibility. I cannot even begin to list down all the many wonderful advantages of using couchDB for an open exoplanet data source that anyone can build upon.

Exoplanet data that is inside a couchDB database can be used and re-used via typical web standards, primarilly javascript. It spews out data in JSON format and this allows anyone to create engaging websites, games, and apps atop all that data. I am even positive that couchDB can be used for scientific analysis of a huge exoplanet data to find patterns and trends, and create dynamic visualizations from it.

There doesn’t seem to be any couchDB implementation of exoplanets yet, so I am posting this to start off the movement in this area of exoplanetology. Watch out for this space.

August 15, 2011

Rise of the Dwarf Planets

This post is a follow up to last week’s “Rise of the Planets”. I just wanted to point you to the table of Dwarf Planets listed on this page so you can marvel at how many more planets there could possibly be within our own star system. Of course, Mike Brown (the pluto killer) doesn’t consider dwarf planets as planets and that’s fine with me. But I think that dwarf planets are bona fide planets. And I am simply posting this to bring into attention the growing evidence that smaller planets are more numerous than bigger ones. And i think that this pattern can be discerned even within our own star system.

Look at how many more possible dwarf planets there are! It would be fun if we maintained a scoreboard between "local" planets and exoplanets. Indeed it might be fun to pit local planethunters versus exoplanet hunters in a friendly competition to see which one discovers the most planets!

Links:
How many dwarf planets are there in the solar system?

August 10, 2011

Rise of the Planets

Three new Dwarf Planets were recently discovered in the outer reaches of our solar system. News like this is simply music to my ears. It doubles the fun of an equally growing list of exoplanets! I love Planets and there's simply no other joy than seeing the list of Planets within our solar system grow more and more. In the coming years Dwarf Planets will become the largest contributor to our local tally of Planets.

But wait! Did I just say Planets? Yes, I consider Dwarf Planets as bona fide Planets. I do not subscribe to the third criterion of the "official" definition that planets must clear their orbit of other objects. I think I'd rather stop at the Hydrostatic Equilibrium part.

I can already hear the shouts and sneer from the interwebz, “You’re wrong! You're so damn wrong!” Yes, I know. I’ve already explored that avenue. And specially after watching this talk, You Have No Idea How Wrong You Are, I can argue no further.

I’m wrong. I’m biased. And I confess, I simply want more Planets in our own star system. Guilty as charged. The more the merrier, I shout it all over the rooftops.

Or maybe I just prefer the Linnaean taxonomy wherein objects are classified into large groups which may then be subdivided further--such that if it was applied to Astronomical objects, Dwarf Planets would still fall into the "Phylum" Planet. But then again, No. Astronomy is not Biology. So that’s that. I'm wrong and leave it all behind for now to move on to the cool part of why I even began writing this post.

What do Dwarf Planets have to do with Exoplanets? Well, there’s growing evidence that smaller planets are more common in the galaxy. At the moment, the findings range only between Jupiter-sized planets and rocky Earth-sized planets (because we haven't even found exoplanets the size of Earth yet!) There are more smaller planets than there are gas giants. As Geoff Marcy says, "There are some Jupiters, there are some Saturns. But there are far more of the smaller and smaller planets going down to about two Earth diameters."

I'm inclined to think that this pattern extends to sub-earth-sized planets all the way down to the smallest gravitationally rounded objects orbiting stars. When you think about it, it makes sense. There are more sand grains than pebbles, more pebbles than boulders. So as the years go by, this fact will be confirmed even within our local star system. More Dwarf Planets will be found, heralding the inevitable rise of the Planets.

Links:
You Have No Idea How Wrong You Are
List of Gravitationally Rounded Objects
3 Dwarf Planets Discovered
Smaller Planets More Common

August 1, 2011

So Close To Earth

I have noticed recently that several films had placed entire planets so dangerously close to Earth.

In Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the Decepticons attempted to teleport their home planet Cybertron right next to Earth!

Then there’s Melancholia, an upcoming movie that seems to have a planet set to collide with Earth.

Another Earth has the most poignant scene of them all, with a mirror earth (that includes a matching mirror moon) spanning a huge portion of the sky visible in breathtaking detail.

Let me tell you this. Never have I known a bunch of movies released almost simultaneously that has put entire planets so near to earth. Correct me if i’m wrong, but perhaps the last movie ever made about another planet getting this close to earth was in The Fifth Element released in 1997. But further than that, When Worlds Collide was in 1951. But now, in an era when we are at the brink of finding another earth (or earth-like planet), films suddenly turn up with ideas that puts alien planets so poetically close to Earth.

Could it have been that these films influenced by the numerous discoveries of exoplanets that we hear about in the news almost every month? Perhaps. But there are deeper questions to ask.

Are these a reflection of humanity’s deep yearning to understand what all these new worlds mean to us? Does the quest to find another earth reflect humanity’s longing to understand the meaning of our existence by discovering similar worlds with life like our own?

There is no doubt about it. The impact of exoplanet discoveries is now becoming more and more apparent in our culture. These films simply serve as a signal that the impact of other worlds is now here upon us. And with it comes the question that needs to be asked of ourselves: How does the existence of gazillions of worlds that even outnumber the stars change the way you see the Cosmos?

July 14, 2011

Monsters and Exoplanets

The other day, I chanced upon some illustrations of monsters from the 16th Century via Ulisse Aldrovandi’s History of Monsters (Monstrorum historia). I noticed that these "monsters" were often a mix of land, air, and sea creatures (hybrids), and that the monster characteristics are attuned to the properties of planet earth, of course. But the point is this: As residents of earthworld, humanity has only known the usual land, air and sea environments as we evolved consciousness. And as such, these characteristic environments reflected in the kinds of creatures and monsters that our primal minds conjured from our imagination.

Now, what if the human psyche gets imbued with knowledge of new worlds? And what if we've come to learn of new types of planets, not just the usual terrestrial mix of land and sea that we’ve come to know of?

How will knowledge of new worlds create new mythical creatures from mankind's deepest imagination? Will a new mythos emerge from a new form of exoplanetary consciousness? Do we need to occupy a new planet in order to actually create new myths and legends specific to that planet?

I'm on the lookout for new archetypes of "monsters" that must come out from this era of exoplanets. Sure, it's all just aliens, aliens, aliens. I'm sick and tired of aliens. But although i'm a big fan of Science fiction, I realize that something new should come out from a new level of consciousness brought about by the fact that our planet Earth is just one among an infinite variety of worlds. Can our new generation of imaginative writers create new mythic creatures a la the Lovecraftian Cthulhu or The Great Race of Yith but with a unique exoplanetary twist?

What types of monsters will the modern man come up aside from the cliche of invading aliens, alien-human hybrids, disguised aliens, superhero aliens, artificially-intelligent aliens, and so on? Or are these alien-monster archetypes prevalent in popular culture the final set of otherworldly monsters that our minds can ever come up with? Are they all we can ever have?

Let me know if you have some leads regarding this inquiry. You can reply to me via twitter, or simply comment on this post.

Links:

July 7, 2011

The Logarithmic Map of the Universe
[ stars with known exoplanets highlighted ]

Just a quick post to highlight the presence of markers for the known exoplanets within this "Logarithmic Map of the Universe". The stars with known exoplanets are in the middle part of the strip. [ click the links below to access other resolutions of the map ]

In a quick glance, this map gives an idea about how far away our currently known exoplanets are, compared with other objects in the known universe.

For example, you can see that OGLE 2003-BLG-235 is the farthest from earth, and the one closest to the center of the Milky Way compared with other known exoplanet-hosting stars.

The logarithmic property of the map is best understood by taking note of the labels on the left side of the map, where the units increase from kilometers, to AU, to parsec, to kiloparsec, all the way to megaparsec--from the bottom-up of the long strip of map, to denote the distances when you look up the sky as you stand on the surface of the earth.

Links:
Logarithmic Maps of the Universe
Going Up? (Starts with a Bang)

June 24, 2011

On Gravity and Bones: Planetary Effects upon Humans on Other Worlds

Here's a follow up to my streak of posts that bring into focus some planetary insights gained from the gaming world.

I noticed that the physique of the protagonist Marcus Fenix is burly and juggernaut-thick. The same is true for the other characters of Gears of War. The sizes of their thighs is as big as huge logs.

Now why is that so? Allow me to propose my own hypothesis. The planet they're standing on must be slightly more massive than earth. The 26-hour day of planet Sera is another clue. Sera could be a super-earth! And we all know that bigger and more massive planets exert more gravity, which means more weight bearing down on its inhabitants. And being heavier means you need bigger bones and powerful muscles to support your weight and stand upright. Thus, you need bigger limbs on Planet Sera. This could probably explain why their nemesis, the Locust Hordes (presumed to be the indigenous natives on that planet) also come with grossly huge legs and wide arms.

Of course, in this post I particularly want to highlight the fact that a creature's physique is directly influenced by its home planet’s gravity, among other things. In contrast, a planet that has a lesser surface gravity than earth might produce animals that are taller and skinnier compared to earthlings.

So, if we ever start sending humans to settle on Mars, I’m sure that the second or third generation of marsian-humans who are born there will grow to be taller and less massive than their predecessors. While the first pioneering batch would probably suffer muscle degeneration and bone loss due to the fact that the surface gravity of Mars is only 38% of Earth's gravity. You'd feel approximately three times lighter on Mars! If you were 100 lbs on earth, you'd weigh only 38 lbs on Mars. So unless earthborn human colonists strap on weights and exercise a lot to counteract the effects of Mars’ feebler gravity, humans in its present form won’t stand a chance colonizing another world.

No, don't consider that last statement as a discouragement. Consider that as an incentive and a planetary challenge for us to find new ways to be human.

Humans on other worlds.

Links:
What if Earth Were Twice as Big?
Planet Sera (on Freebase)
Planet Sera (On Gears of War Wiki)

June 23, 2011

Exoplanetary Worms

As your emissary, I have gone to great lengths to bring you exographical discoveries from alien worlds. I even went to war just so I could report about exobiological creatures that I will encounter on my otherworldly adventures.

Of course, in my terms, “otherworldy” include the virtual realms of gaming. So today, I bring you exoworms from Gears of War! But first, here's some background info.

Recently on Earth, a species of extremophilic nematode worms (named Halicephalobus mephisto, after Mephistopheles, a nickname for the Devil) were discovered deep below the South African mines. It's the first multicellular organism to be found at such depths. The discovery challenged the assumption that deep subsurface ecosystems cannot support multi-cellular lifeforms because everyone assumed that underground environments several miles deep are too hostile because of the pressure, hot temperatures, and lack of oxygen and space.

Now scientists are saying that it may have implications in the search for life on other planets. And I couldn’t agree more! Especially when this discovery comes at the perfect time when I was slogging through the Gears of War series (on a tight deadline to prepare myself for the final installment to its trilogy).

That’s why after hearing the news of the 'devil' worms, I was distracted when I encountered the rockworms and riftworms in Gears of War. In the game's backstory set on an earth-like planet Sera, these riftworms were used by the nemesis Locust Horde to burrow directly underneath the cities of human colonies to sink them. Then I liked that these rockworms eat some bioluminiscent substance--which was subtly incorporated in the gameplay.

Suddenly, I began to think that exoplanetary worms aren’t so far-fetched anymore, especially when I remember the fact that the ancient animals here on earth were giants compared to their sizes now. (Ancient ants used to be the size of a hummingbird!)

In that regard, I would advise future human colonists to check deep underground before setting up their colonies on other planets.

That's all for now. Frag out!

Links:
Deep-Earth devil worms

June 13, 2011

The Titan Mines of Dead Space, and Science within Videogames

Last week, I had the utmost pleasure of viewing Saturn from several astronomer's powerful telescopes along the sidewalks of Highline Park in NYC, thanks to the members of Amateur Astronomer's Association (AAA). As I peered through the eyepiece of one of the refracting telescopes aimed at Saturn, I gasped at the tiny point of light near the the left tip of the inclined rings of Saturn. It was Titan.

There's something magical about getting a glimpse of a faraway place with your own eyes, especially when one has immersed within the virtual representation of that place. Right then and there, I knew that I had to post something about Titan and what i think of videogames as it intersects with reality.

The setting of the first Dead Space was inside a planetcracker mining ship called the Ishimura orbiting around an exoplanet named Aegis VII. But on its second release, the setting is on Sprawl, a city on a shard of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.

The reasons for not going exoplanetary was explained in-game which I happened to capture during my foray into its narrative.

"Shockpoint drives were in their infancy, so extrasolar mining was out of the question--and the dangers of planetcracking were still unknown."

Despite being dismayed at DeadSpace2 being less than interstellar, it didn’t stop me from playing this wonderfully horrific game. In heart-thumping fashion I’ve finished its single-player campaign twice and reached Level 60 in multiplayer mode inspite of my horrible k/d ratio. (Note: i don't care about k/d ratio)

Apparently, in Dead Space 2’s multiplayer mode, there is a map called “Titan Mines” so it always reminds me of one of the most exotic worlds in our solar system.

Titan has liquid methane on its surface, with a nitrogen atmosphere sprinkled with some ethane clouds and nitrogen-rich organic smog. However, none of these things were depicted in the game. The reason is that in the story, Titan has been dismembered into shards of rock by the planetcracker mining ship. So most of the action happens inside a tightly-controlled environment of the Sprawl.

The cold, freezing temperatures on Titan makes me wonder how the necromorphs would survive, until I remembered that the Titan Mines map setting is an underground mine. So silly me (again) the environment is tightly-controlled. Too bad for the science behind it--there isn't much. This is my complaint about Dead Space.

I wish more videogames would employ more science behind their settings. Mass Effect has done a great part in mixing ample astrophysics into their story, but we need more games to engage people in indirect learning. As technology becomes more and more powerful, and games strive to immerse gamers even more--the initiative to model reality will make Science an integral part of the gaming world.

Links:
Titan-like Exoplanets
Are there more Titans than Earths in the Milky Way?
Titan: Callisto with the weather
Sailing the Titan Seas
Aegis VII on Freebase

What it means to be "outside" our solar system

What started innocently enough as a single tweet (or retweet) led me to investigate further what is considered as being "outside" our solar system. Being "exo", so to speak.

So I wrote about it in a different process which employed a story-like way of presenting it. I tried storify and I found the process quite pleasing. It somehow aids the process of writing in a different way. It looks like I might utilize storify more in the future. I hope you'll enjoy the result of my quick investigation via twitter and storify which is embedded below.

June 8, 2011

Videogames and Exoplanets

So you've heard that planets are more numerous than stars? That discovery is mind-blowing by itself, but even more fascinating is how that exogasmic discovery was made. Dig deep into the technology behind Gravitational Microlensing and you’ll find out something playfully interesting; A graphics card originally intended for videogames was used to discover the rogue planets!

A member of the astrophysics team named Joe Ling has turned his love of computer games into a way of discovering the wandering planets in our galaxy. He took a $400 gaming graphics card and wired it into the team's computer, which sped up the process known as microlensing modelling.

Without the gaming card it would take hundreds of computers and cost thousands of dollars; and it would take one month to process on a normal desktop computer. But with the graphics processing unit inside the gaming card it only takes six hours.

Gaming not only inspires imagination and creativity, it's also a source of technological marvels as it constantly strives for deeper levels of immersion. No wonder I've been rekindling the joy of immersing myself into the virtual worlds of videogames even more. And I often find myself reflecting and realizing that there is no difference between "virtual" and "real". The intersection of Videogames and Exoplanet Science is just one proof of that metaphysical fact.



Links:
Planets Outnumber Stars
Intersection of Videogames and Exoplanet Science
Videogames: A Path to Reflection and Self-enlightenment (Kill Screen)

Planets Outnumber Stars

The idea that galaxies are littered with wandering planets is truly exogasmic. For quite some time I’ve been wondering whether planets outnumber the stars. Then the answer came which truly blew my mind away.

Evidence has been revealed that rogue planets--unbound exoplanets that do not orbit any star--are so numerous that they outnumber the stars!

Using the method called Gravitational Microlensing, it has been estimated that 400 billion rogue planets roam the Milky Way. Take note, the estimate does not include all the exoplanets that are hosted by stars, and does not even count rocky exoworlds that are less massive than Jupiter. And remember that this comes after the fact that red dwarf stars were found to be more numerous than previously thought. Add them all and you've got gazillions of exoplanets in the cosmos!

Do you remember when Carl Sagan mentioned that the stars outnumber the grains of sand on all the beaches in the world? Well, perhaps we need a new metaphor that includes not just the beach but the desert as well. Because planets outnumber all the grains of sand on Earth!

Links:
Rogue Planets (Centauri Dreams)
Milky Way Harbors Billiions of Orphaned Planets (AstroBob)
Unbound or Distant Planetary Mass Population Detected by Gravitational Microlensing (arXiv)

June 6, 2011

The Immer and the Out: A Review of Embassytown

Humans breathing off gasses from aeoli. Animals as sources of energy. Zelles that perspire electricity. Living biorigged tools and weapons. Beasts that defecate fuel. A town in the middle of an alien city. Welcome to the world of Embassytown.

On another world, comes a living city that straddles between the immer and the out. And from it comes a bagful of new words: biorigging, terretech, shiftparents, floaking, miab, autom, immer, sopor, augmen, exot, trunc, curio, biopolis, citynaut.

Never have I seen so many chopped words in a single novel (such as ‘autom’ which my brain tries to complete as ‘automata’) and never have I seen so many new ones invented from cropped words.

Clearly, China Miéville had so much fun treating words like lego. Names weren't spared of this cut-half practice. After seeing so many names of characters being chopped into two constituents, I ended up doing the same thing to my name. I imagined each syllable as coming from each of the two hemispheres of my brain.

I swear I had no previous knowledge of Embassytown when I posted my inquiry about Exonoology. It was a few days later after I read that review by Ursula K. Le Guin that my ears, or fanwings, perked up. I suspected Embassytown had something to do with Xenoology.

Many science fiction stories may give you some pause as to how otherworldly beings think. But Embassytown explores the alien mind, their nuos, in relation to language and the symbols that come with it.

I remember my previous encounter with speculative biology such as that which I think comes from Alastair Reynolds; an alien reads by looking at two sets of symbols simultaneously from two different eyes. The information from each eye is merged by the alien mind to comprehend what was written.

We humans do the same thing for stereoscopic vision to perceive depth. But Mieville’s Embassytown takes it further in the domain of language. The Arieken 'words' are meant to be spoken simultaneously in a method called cut+half. Represented as fractions of words instead of numbers.

The alien hosts' communicative physiology is where the story started to build upon the conceptual level that connects Language with how the Ariekies perceive the world.

Simile was used to highlight the fact that metaphor influences how we think. To the aliens, simile is an actual living human that they need to reference in order to speak/think. That's where the protagonist's role comes in, Avice Benner Cho, an immerser-human.

Another class of humans are called the Ambassadors, the intermediary for communicating with the Arieken hosts. The ambassadors remind me of the conjoined twins who share brains. Each sibling can 'hear' or perceive the thoughts of the other, which makes me wonder whether their physiology can allow the to fuse into one consciousness, one mind, if they wanted to.

And the Ariekene hosts' Language is spoken from two vocal holes simultaneously (imagine talking and farting at the same time). Language for the Ariekei was both speech and thought. Truth. Hence they cannot lie.

Embassytown is cognitively engaging and it is a pure win as a soft scifi novel, and perhaps as an interstitial one, too. However, it could've been better. I longed for Mieville to describe more of the planet Areike, or more worlds from out of the immer for that matter.

At times, Mieville's writing has become difficult to read. I had to squint and re-read some passages twice. I had the feeling that Mieville himself was speaking Ariekan language (or got influenced by it).

Nevertheless, the novel is worth reading as it is very rich with metaphors and subliminal underpinnings. For a moment, I could glimpse conceptual references with the Bible (and the mode of reading it), starting with a character named EzRa. In short, if you enjoy thinking deep into concepts, then by all means, read this novel.

All in all, I love the novel's immer and the out, to which I can relate because Exoplanetology is all about the "out" and being immersed in the immer of otherworldliness. As such, Embassytown is a great work from an author who is now beginning to explore the science and the fiction of new worlds.

May 3, 2011

To Never Come Back

As a young boy, I cried whenever my balloon slipped out of my hands. With arms outstretched, and in tears, I hopelessly watched my balloon disappear into the clouds, wishing it would come back to me.

But now I was amazed when I saw my son intentionally let go of his balloons one by one, overjoyed by each launch. He giggles in joy as he watches them fly ever higher. And then he stands in silence as they fly out of sight in the blue expanse of the sky, imagining all the places it would go.

This striking contrast of attitude between two young boys a whole generation apart has dug up the concept of Interstellar Cyclers which I have read some time ago.

Interstellar Cyclers are starships that travel around in wide circles, lightyears in diameter, spanning multiple stars, that eventually comes back to their starting point for another round trip. This idea was fueled by the contention that "accelerating a starship, only to decelerate it again, is pure lunacy" as Karl Schroeder puts it in his essay. Thus he proposed what he unambiguously called 'Schroeder Cyclers', a starship that is "initially accelerated from the Earth or a colony star to some percentage of lightspeed, and then eventually serve as a way-station for travellers, who embark and disembark at star systems it passes along its route."

I was interested in the idea at first (which is a good idea in its own right), but later realized that I personally would prefer that the whole thing rather not go back. After I witnessed the scene of my little boy staring at his balloon disappearing into the clouds--the idea of accelerating a starship only to come back at its starting point became unthinkable. I realized that it was more evocative to see a starship leave, and know outright that it will never come back. It would go in a straight line, using all it's energy to accelerate ever faster, further, and farther into the great unknown.

It can, and will, still serve as a way-station, after accomplishing its cargo drop-off missions during flybys near other star systems. Among other things, it will also serve as a Subluminal Research Lab, but ultimately it will become a relic to be visited by future generations who would have, by then, developed more advanced technology to catch up with it, upgrade and maintain it, and then overtake it to continue the process of pushing the boundaries of space exploration.

That, to me is a true 'generation starship', a symbol of that spirit of exploration that will endlessly inspire the next generation to continue pushing onwards to the edge of the great unknown.

Links:
A New Kind of Starship
Cyclers: Transportation Network Among the Stars

May 2, 2011

Exoplanets, Extremophiles and other Kinds of Minds

Just a few days after I wrote a highly-speculative post outlining the relationship of lifeforms and planets, and the intriguing link between what other kinds of minds are possible for specific characteristics of planets--along comes these findings of bacteria that feel at home with hypergravity.

In the experiment, researchers spun E. coli and other bacteria in an ultacentrifuge and revved it up to its fastest speed, amounting up to something like 400,000 Gs. The bacteria not only lived through the "hypergravity" experience, they even reproduced.

So, on planetary scales, I can say that these bacteria can survive on the surface of a white dwarf with the same spherical size as earth but with the mass equivalent to the sun. The gravitational force on its surface is somewhere around 300,000 G.

So if I was beamed down (a la Star Trek) onto the surface of a cool white dwarf, upon materializing I would immmediately be crushed into a pancake-shaped goo. But some of the bacteria inhabiting my body will still survive the crushing gravity! And if some other conditions permitted (let's be generous by adding oxygen into the atmosphere, aside from temperate other imaginings), they will feed on my jello'ed body and who knows what will evolve from that mass of goo? Let’s settle on “flat” beings for now, by virtue of the flattening gravity of a white dwarf.

Now, “flat” beings with 2.5-dimensional brains wouldn’t evolve much cognitive capacity compared with other brains whose neurons utilize the 3 dimensions of space to connect and communicate with other neurons. Each of our brain’s neurons has an average of 7,000 synaptic connections with other neurons. Clearly, a flat-brained creature on a white dwarf would have a disadvantage over it’s counterparts from earth. But not so if it’s neurons are utilizing wi-fi! Yes, its still highly speculative but there’s been a study outlining the possibility of some bacteria-signaling via radio frequency. If this biomechanism works on another planet, the 7,000 synaptic "wired" connections of a human brain would pale in comparison with a creature whose 'neurons' work in wireless mode to process information collectively with other neurons. What kind of thoughts would it have?

Now, these two possible characteristics of microbial life--hypergravity survival and radio wave communications--that I've mentioned in this post are completely unrelated. I’ve simply fused them in a hypothetical scenario in a playful attempt to mash-up planetary characteristics with extreme-life biomechanisms to speculate on expanding the possibilities of life on other worlds. Rev up your imagination and try it yourself. It's actually fun!

With all the new findings on extremophiles, which comes at a perfect timing with new exoplanet discoveries, we are opening up a lot of incredible possibilities for the mind to speculate about life in other parts of the universe.

Links:
Alien Bacteria can Breed in Extreme Hypergravity
Electromagnetic Signals from Bacterial DNA (PDF)
From Planets To Consciousness: Other Kinds of Minds

April 21, 2011

Mergerburst

I love words that come from Astrophysics. A new one I learned today is "mergerburst". For that cinematic feel, make sure you pronounce it with an evil tone and a malevolent face, because a mergerburst is a highly-destructive event on a planetary scale.

This post is specifically about a BD-Planet mergerburst, the destruction of a planet by a brown dwarf (BD). When a massive planet approaches a brown dwarf, the poor planet will be tidally destroyed or shredded as it "merges" with a much-denser brown dwarf. The mayhem will form a luminous accretion disk around the brown dwarf that will stay for around a few days, which should be observable, distinct, and identifiable from other mergerbursts such as Star−Planet Mergerbursts, and Planet−Planet Mergerbursts.

Factoid: The existence of Brown dwarfs (BD) were predicted in 1963, and was termed as "black dwarfs" back then.

Links:
MERGERBURST TRANSIENTS OF BROWN DWARFS WITH EXOPLANETS (PDF)

The Earth was an Exoplanet

Did you know that the earth can be considered as an exoplanet? Well, that is if you look back in time (and space), in the distant past of the early earth, billions of years ago. During that time, our planet would not resemble anything close to our present day earth.

However, imagining how the earth was a few hundred millions of years ago may give us good insights in studying the habitability of exoplanets as well. And that is exactly what the Planetary Habitability Lab at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo has done with their latest visualization, the Visible Paleo-Earth project.

Headed by Prof. Abel Méndez, the Visible Paleo-Earth project is a true-color visualization of the evolution of the Earth’s surface from paleo-climates to the present day. Using paleogeography and paleoclimate reconstructions combined with NASA satellite imagery, the team generated a global visual appearance of Earth in the last 750 million years, around the late Cambrian Period.

Now sit back and take a trip to the distant past by visiting The Planetary Habitability Lab as they present this project on Earth Day, April 22, 2011.

From Planets To Consciousness: Other Kinds of Minds

Alien Brain?
How does a planet influence the characteristics of its inhabiting lifeforms? Have you ever wondered how birds manage to navigate and reach their destination across thousands of miles? There's growing evidence that birds can "see" Earth's magnetic field and utilize it to find their way around. And bats do it too. In addition to their echolocation abilities, bats also use earth's magnetic field for orientation.

I am convinced that for each planetary property, there is a corresponding animal adaptation that utilizes that feature for survival. The planet's characteristics have a direct bearing on the evolution of the lifeforms inhabiting it.

And since we mentioned bats, the philosophical question "What's it like to be a bat?" is inescapable. How does it feel like to sense "magnetism'? Surely, additional sensations would affect the animal's perception of it's world. How would other additional sensations affect your thoughts? Can you imagine how it would be like if you could see in other wavelengths of light such as UV? Can you imagine how bees see the world?

If the dominant species with extra senses on another planet were to evolve a higher level of consciousness, what kind of mind will it have? What kinds of brains are possible on specific exoplanets? Could some animals here on Earth give us a glimpse of other "kinds of minds"?

Aside from magnetism, what other planetary properties (gravity, atmospheric density and pressure, temperature, etc) can lifeforms link their adaptations in order to survive? The amazing variety of extremophiles gives us ample room to speculate on this subject. If given a chance to evolve, what kinds of consciousness will extremophiles develop? Is a "hive mind" just one archetype among many types of consciousness?

This post can serve as a introductory teaser to the relationship between planets and consciousness. In addition to exploring speculations on what kinds of life are possible elsewhere, I would also explore what "kinds of minds" are possible on exoplanets. And I would tag it "Exonoology" (The Study of Alien Minds) perhaps as a branch of philosophy in the context of other worlds, or Exophilosophy.

Links:
Birds can see Earth's Magnetic Fields
Bats respond to Magnetic Fields
Magnetic fields influence the sleep–wake cycle of animals

March 12, 2011

Miracle


Just before we head out to the night, let's look a bit into the unknown, for that's where the incredible lurks. Yes, I am paraphrasing a famous quote of Carl Sagan that somewhere, something incredible is waiting...well, you know the rest.

More often than not, the things incredible are unseen--as is the case with more than five hundred exoplanets we have catalogued so far. We infer their existence by detecting their gravitational effects upon their host stars, and by sensing the minute dips of starlight reaching our telescopes.

Exoplanet discoveries are a daily dose of the incredible. These fascinating worlds were unknown just a mere fifteen years ago. But now we live in an incredible moment in history where we can point at the stars and say there’s a planet there, and there.

Yet all these discoveries can shake us to the core, and render us gasping for meaning even more. How do we make sense of all of it? So what?! So what, if there are billions of other worlds out there? So what, if other planets are teeming with life? Worlds and the prospect of exolife can blow our minds, but only up to a certain extent. Only for while, we bask in the knowledge that took humanity thousands of years to uncover, and then at the end of the day, life goes on as usual. We have a busy life to live. And life goes on...

...but sadly, life ends, in different ways, in different places. We are ephemeral partakers in the great churning of the earth.

For a few moments in our lives, we all get a taste of the awe and wonder of what has been revealed during our time, and afterwards we get that feeling of insignificance over our brief stay on this planet. Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, a 16th century writer who wrote about the plurality of worlds, echoes that sentiment, "Behold a universe so immense that I'm lost in it. I no longer know where I am. I am just nothing at all."

Tonight, as you bask in the full torrent of human life, reflect on the Moment. And then give a hug to someone when you can, while you can.

I’d like to set a tone with pages from a soulful graphic novel, Daytripper. And i'll end this post with this thought: The Miracle is Everything, with you, here and now altogether.


March 3, 2011

The Exoscope

We are visual creatures. We want to understand things from the context of a larger view. And that is true with all the exoplanets we have known so far. How can you relate with these amazing orbs in a more direct way? When you look up in the night sky, where are the exoplanets?

{Drum roll}...The Exoscope.

The Exoscope is a web-based tool to enable you to see the locations of exoplanets in the sky. It's a tool for Exogazing, the activity of spotting stars with known exoplanets.

Exoscope is actually a spin of the awesome Chromoscope. The ability to change and blend the background to different wavelengths gives that dramatic feeling, and that is why I love Chromoscope so much!

The excellent developer, Stuart Lowe (@astronomyblog) and others did all the work to bring you that awesome goodness of chromoscope. I simply imported an exoplanet KML file, and the chromoscope engine did all the rest of putting the markers for the locations of the stars with known exoplanets.

Really, I didn’t do much. I just downloaded the chromoscope application (which is freely available) and added two lines of code to import the exoplanet KML and show the constellations by default. And that was it!

The hard work is actually up ahead. And that is how to always keep the exoplanet KML file updated.

I need help and ideas on how to generate the exoplanet KML file from the most updated source of exoplanet data, The Exoplanet Encyclopaedia. Also, I need some script to generate KML files from a CouchDB couchapp. So, if anyone can give leads on that regard, please ping me. For now, some info i can provide for whoever wants to take up the challenge is this: The developer of the most excellent exoplanet app for the iPhone/iPad (@exoplanetapp) has provided a digestible format of Jean Schneider’s exoplanet data, via The Open Exoplanet Catalogue. So, all I need is for someone to generate JSON data in addition to the XML files. I seriously need JSON so I can import them into my CouchDB exoplanet database app (which is also another work in progress).

Other tasks on the pipeline for this mini-project are:
1) How to center the field of view (FOV) on the exoplanet via a link from other sources (such as The Exoplanet Seeker). I like how WikiSky does it so i hope to implement the same thing.
2) How to host the image files into my own Amazon S3 account to ease the burden from Chromoscope.
3) How to add other stunning backgrounds
4) Cosmetic styling, and UX improvement for each exoplanet popup window (and how to pipe in data dynamically)

That’s it for now. I Hope that even while it’s still in progress, you’ll enjoy the stunning exoplanet landscape from The Exoscope!

Links:
Chromoscope
The Exoscope
Exogazing
The Open Exoplanet Catalogue
Exoplanet Encyclopedia

March 2, 2011

What To Do on an Interstellar Voyage: Subluminal Science

No doubt about it. Exoplanets have boosted humanity’s interest in interstellar travel. New discoveries got everyone thinking which exoplanets are good targets for the maiden voyage of the first exonauts.

Recently, DARPA and NASA set up a 100-Year Starship study. And the Tau Zero Foundation has renewed their efforts to carry us to the stars.

These initiatives are great. But now we need something to augment with these lofty plans. Even this early, we need to outline projects that future spacefarers must do during their maiden voyage. Let’s write up a ‘to do’ list to keep them busy. Because nobody wants to be nagged with “Are we there, yet?” especially on an interstellar journey.

That list would be huge, but it's narrowed down because of the unique characteristic of that starship--it’s traveling at a fraction of the speed of light! And that is how I got into thinking what science research I would do if I were on that starship.

I dub it “Subluminal Science”, a field of study which simply deals with the effects of relativistic speeds, whose experiments can only be done aboard an interstellar vessel traveling at some fraction of the speed of light. Subluminal, pertains to that step below Superluminal, or faster-than-light (FTL). Since matter cannot reach the speed of light, we’ll just explore subluminal for now. (if we upgraded to an Alcubierre drive instead, then we’d be doing Superluminal research. But that’s for another story)

The universe will ‘seem’ different from the vantage point of a moving or accelerating observer. And that makes it worthy of some curious thought. What do things look like when you're moving at even a small fraction, 0.1c of the speed of light? Can you imagine if we brought a portable version of the LHC on our subluminal starship? What manner of atom-smashing is possible with that scenario?

I know. Asking these questions is very silly. Such is the sacrifice i must bear to urge all of us to do some Gendanken experiments. What research are you going to do if you were given a chance to ride on that starship?

Here are some more prompts to give you an idea. Let me count the ways...

Let Theoretical physicists start thinking about physics at subluminal velocities. Would it be easier to detect gravitational waves if you were moving subluminally?

Let Neuroscientists start making predictions about the effects of subluminal speeds on cognition. I mean, really, what is the speed of thought?

Let Information Engineers start designing protocols for communicating with starships traveling at some fraction of the speed of light. What is the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) of WiFi aboard that ship, anyways?

Let Cosmologists gauge the expansion of the universe. Would riding on the 100-Year Starship allow a more accurate measurement of the expansion of the universe? Would you be able to finally detect Dark Matter from that ship?

Let Quantum Physicists theorize how Quantum Computers would behave at subluminal speeds. Does entanglement still hold true when one of the pair is travelling at subluminal speeds?

Let Astronomers start dreaming up techniques that can be accomplished only when your telescope is moving so fast. Yes, you can still do planet-hunting from a moving platform, but how? Parallax methods? One thing is for sure: You’ll find new planets (and refine data on those previously known) from a different vantage point which would not have been possible solely from earth.

Oh the possibilities are endless! But you get the point, right? Those are just starter ideas behind the idea of Subluminal Science research. It can and must be applied to an unmanned probe too, for starters.

Don’t wait for DARPA or NASA. Don’t wait for Tau Zero or BIS to finish building that interstellar ship. Don’t wait for that day when your great great grandchildren zooms to Gliese and then realizes, “Hey, this trip is boring! What are we supposed to do now?”

Go ahead and write up that idea now. What experiments would you like your great grandkids to do on that starship? Let’s plan ahead to make that interstellar journey an exciting trip for our exoplanetary descendants!

February 25, 2011

Tunnels Between the Stars

In an issue of Green Lantern Corps, entitled "Recharge" from way back in 2006, a nemesis called "The Spider Guild" sneaked to the home planet of the Green Lantern Corps by passing through a wormhole connecting the stars. These tunnels between the stars are called "The Subspace Web". By entering another star (or blackhole) from a different sector of the universe, the 'spiders' traversed through subspace web and then emerged directly from within Oa's sun and attacked the Green Lantern's base "from out of the light".



It's all Science Fiction, so far. Right?

Now for the Science part.

A recent study suggests that wormholes might exist between distant stars. However, it's not easy to detect if a star could harbor some passageway hidden deep within its center. But the scientists are saying that they could be distinguishable from normal stars (or even from normal neutron stars). And it's because these wormholes are not empty tunnels, rather they contain a perfect fluid that flows back and forth between the two stars, giving them a detectable signature via their pulsations.

Wait. It's still Science Fiction!

Nope. Actually, real scientists and astrophysicists are saying this. See for yourself on their ArXiv paper. And take note: Kepler has detected a lot of pulsating stars in their Asteroseismological studies. Yes, Kepler also deals with Asteroseismology--the science that involves probing the interiors of stars and quantifying their global properties, such as radius and age, through observations of normal modes of oscillation. So, ya never know! Our good ol' Kepler might discover some wormhole-bearing stars! Heh!



Now back to the fiction. To cut a long story short, by sheer teamwork, inspired by a massive recital of their green lantern oath (in brightest day, in blackest night...blah...blah), the Green Lantern Corps managed to push back the invading marauders back into the star--including the star itself! Their own sun got pushed into the wormhole-tunnel from the outside-in and was destroyed along with the Spider Guild's nest. So now, in that episode, the green lantern's planet Oa has actually become a starless planet, a rogue planet!

And there you have it, folks. Just a brief excursion in the world of scifi on a friday night! Happy Friday!

Links:
A Star Harbouring a Wormhole at its Center (PDF)
Stars Could Have Wormholes At Their Cores (Tech. Review)
the possibility of wormholes between stars (Physorg)