May 312011

Neither I nor anyone else alive today would likely see the end of such a mission, but… the possibility that I might live long enough to see just the launch of humanity’s first interstellar space mission is simply awe-inspiring.

Of course it’s highly unlikely that it will happen. Mediocrity and politics will see to it that it won’t. But then… Apollo happened, didn’t it? Sometimes, miracles do occur.


 Posted by at 3:45 pm
May 312011

One of the biggest challenges in our research of the Pioneer Anomaly was the recovery of old mission data. It is purely by chance that most of the mission data could be recovered; documents were saved from the dumpster, data was read from deteriorating tapes, old formats were reconstructed using fragmented information. If only there had been a dedicated effort to save all raw mission data, our job would have been much easier.

This is why I am reading it with alarm that there are currently no plans to save all the raw data from the Tevatron. This is really inexcusable. So what if the data are 20 petabytes? In this day and age, even that is not excessive… a petabyte is just over 300 3 TB hard drives, which are the highest capacity drives currently no the market. If I can afford to have more than 0.03 petabytes of storage here in my home office, surely the US Government can find a way to fund the purchase and maintenance of a data storage facility with a few thousand hard drives, in order to preserve knowledge that American taxpayers payed many millions of dollars to build in the first place.

 Posted by at 3:37 pm
May 232011

And then, there were only four. Cats, that is… our oldest cat, Tarka, our last 20th century cat and the last cat that actually knew our first cat, is no longer with us.

We adopted Tarka over 11 years ago, during the winter of 1999-2000. Shortly thereafter, she settled in a cardboard box that was already a few sizes too small for her. We still have that box.

Good bye.

 Posted by at 11:04 pm
May 222011

Here’s an interesting argument explaining why the decision to dilute CBC Radio 2 could be strategically devastating for the CBC: the supporters they lost were not only vocal in their opposition to the changes, but also the most fierce defenders of continuing government support and funding for the CBC. No offense to rapper “Buck 65” but I seriously doubt that his listeners would write to their MPs when the CBC’s funding is threatened… certainly not with the same ferocity as listeners of Jurgen Gothe’s unforgettable Disc Drive did while that program was still on the air.

When public institutions hire executives from the private sector, they must keep this in mind. The much coveted younger demographic may not be what public institutions need to go after… as they are not necessarily the ones most likely to vote.


 Posted by at 6:33 pm
May 162011

Here’s one good reason to quit your day job: spend a year or so lugging a set of six astrophotography cameras across two continents, to take some 37,000 exposures of the night sky and stitch them together into an amazing all-sky picture called The Photopic Sky Survey. The scientific value of this picture may be negligible, but it is beautiful to look at, and I am sorely tempted to buy a high-quality print to hang somewhere on my wall. It is one of those pictures that give a true sensation of depth: you can see how nearby stars slowly dissolve into a diffuse, milky background, you can see how dust lanes obscure the Milky Way behind, you can see how the light of distant galaxies filters through. I wonder how a picture like this would have influenced The Great Debate.

 Posted by at 12:49 pm
May 152011

The concept of a modern general staff includes planning for every foreseeable contingency: thus, when something untoward happens, all general staff officers need to do is to take the appropriate planning folder off a shelf, dust it off, quickly check it to make sure it is not unduly dated, and then put the plan into practice.

What I didn’t know is that in the 21st century, such planning extended all the way to include the contingency of a runaway bride.

 Posted by at 1:37 pm
May 072011

Tarka is our oldest cat and she is not doing very well. Her kidneys are failing.

The day before yesterday, her appetite suddenly vanished, and she became lethargic, urinating outside the litter box. I became rather worried, so yesterday I took her to the vet, who determined that in addition to the ailing kidneys, she may also be suffering from hyperthyroidism. They took a blood sample (we’re still waiting for the results), gave her some fluids, and some new medication, and sent her home.

What can you do? In an ailing organism, as one subsystem after another begins to fail, they struggle to keep up and compensate for the failures of one another. It’s like the ever narrowing flight envelope of a high altitude airplane; if you’re a little faster, the airplane breaks apart, if you’re a little slower, it falls out of the sky, and the difference between the two velocities becomes more marginal the higher the airplane flies. (This, combined with a faulty airspeed indicator, may have been one of the causes of the Air France tragedy two years ago.) So how do we keep Tarka flying true for at least a while longer?

I don’t know… yesterday, after I got her back home, she was doing better, eating more than the day before. But today, she hasn’t eaten anything yet and she’s even more lethargic. Is it time to get seriously worried yet? Another visit to the vet may accomplish little beyond exposing her to yet more stress.

 Posted by at 2:23 pm
May 032011

So they got only 40% of the vote, but Stephen Harper’s conservatives won that much coveted majority in Parliament. I might see it as a strong argument in favor of an improved voting system with runoff elections, if I didn’t know any better; if I didn’t know that representative democracy is always unfair, regardless of the voting system used.

(Case in question: if we had runoff elections in Canada, how many Liberal voters, in ridings where their candidates came in third, would have voted Conservative instead of choosing, say, a former Communist? OK, well, in that particular riding the Communist actually won but chances are that many Liberal votes would have gone to the Conservatives in a Conservative-NDP runoff.)

Then again, a system of runoff elections might make it easier for smaller parties to exist. Right now, there are calls for the Liberals to fold into the NDP. Is that really a good thing? Yet the same thing happened on the right not too many years ago, ending up with a more ideological, more right-wing, but ultimately stronger Conservative party.

Grumble, this gives me a headache. I’ll stick to physics instead. As to Harper, I’m glad he likes cats.


 Posted by at 10:59 am
May 022011

Here’s a new reason to celebrate May 1: it appears that Osama bin Laden was killed today. (I was wrong, by the way; I was pretty sure that he was killed years ago.) Congratulations are in order to all those who participated in whatever military and intelligence magic it took to make this happen.

 Posted by at 3:53 am
May 012011

It has been nearly two years since the catastrophic loss of an Air France airliner over the Atlantic. Our only information about the possible cause of the crash came from automated radio messages as the airplane’s flight data recorder has never been found… until now, that is. Astonishingly, after the empty (!) housing of the flight data recorder was located a few days ago, it appears now that its contents, namely its memory module, was also found in good condition.

My first thought was that if we’re capable of finding an item smaller than a briefcase under a couple of miles of ocean in an area larger than most countries, we truly own this planet. And now, perhaps, we’ll find out once and for all what happened to that poor airplane and the over 200 souls on board.

My initial guess was lightning (the possibility is real that a lightning strike could do significantly more damage to a carbon composite airplane than an all metal airframe) but that was before I learned about a possible failure of the airspeed indicator. At high altitude, this can be a problem: if the speed is too low, the airplane stalls, if it is too high, the airplane is overstressed, and the higher the altitude, the smaller the difference between these two speeds, and the more important it is to have an accurate airspeed reading.

 Posted by at 8:52 pm