Science Sunday: Black holes are really gray, and other science news

Hi friends, I took a bit of a break over the holidays, then was inundated with post-holiday work…now it’s time for some fun — and a return of Science Sunday. In this week’s round-up:

Space News


It wouldn’t be Science Sunday without my usual Mars news obsession.

In this case, it’s reports from NASA’s Curiosity rover (the big one) which has been experiencing unusually heavy wear and damage to its tracked wheels during its second year of operation.

Curiosity’s operators at JPL are trying to deal with this unexpected wear by lifting two wheels at a time and just driving on four of the six, finding less rocky ground to drive over, and so on. By point of comparison, Curiosity has only traveled about 3 miles since landing, whereas the Energizer Bunny of Mars rovers, Opportunity, has traveled over 24 miles since 2004 — and is still going strong.

The left-front wheel of NASA's Curiosity rover on Mars, showing dents and wear (photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

The left-front wheel of NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars, showing dents and wear (photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

(((sigh))) A ‘scientist’ by the name of Dr. Rhawn Joseph has sued NASA for what he alleges is a refusal to investigate an odd rock that showed up on one of Opportunity’s photographs from the Martian surface.

Dr. Joseph seems to think the rock is some kind of Mars Mushroom and has accused NASA and JPL of covering up evidence of life on the red planet.

Meanwhile, Opportunity’s ‘Principal Investigator,’ Dr. Steve Squyres, has said that they did look at the rock — including  several times with a microscope-camera — and it’s nothing but a rock.

While it’s true they’re not positive how the rock got there — whether it’s a fresh chunk of meteorite or, more likely, a rock dislodged by one of Opportunity’s wheels as it drove along — they’ve released plenty of information to indicate it really is just a rock. Dr. Joseph, on the other hand, has a reputation as more than a bit of a crank, having authored conspiracy-minded papers about alien life, the 9/11 attacks, and bizarre theory of panspermia in which not only did life on Earth originate from out there, but that somehow evolution itself is being directed intelligently and purposefully by our DNA.

A rock on Mars, most likely dislodged and flipped over by one of the Curiosity rover's wheels (photo: NASA)

A rock on Mars, most likely dislodged and flipped over by one of the Curiosity rover’s wheels (photo: NASA)

The tiny rover associated with China’s recently landed lunar probe, Yutu (Jade Rabbit) has been experiencing malfunctions recently. While the main probe itself, Chang’e, appears to be fine, last weekend Jade Rabbit began experiencing what were described as “mechanical control abnormalities” and shut down. Chinese mission controllers have presumably attempted some kind of reset and they’re hoping to reactivate the rover when the lunar night ends — which will be in about a week or so, for the rover’s location.

Blacks holes are actually gray

Stephen Hawking once again upsets the table of cosmology by theorizing that ‘black holes’ as commonly depicted in both science and science fiction, don’t actually exist as such. In particular, he’s now saying there probably is no such thing as an ‘event horizon’ — a fixed boundary at a certain distance from a gravitational singularity beyond which light cannot escape. He now thinks that the ‘horizon’ actually varies considerably based on quantum interactions between the particles inside the hole. And what this means is that although energy (light) and matter would have a difficult time escaping, eventually they would. In short, black holes viewed up close would be dark, dark gray.

Earth News

Indonesia’s volcano

Gorgeous blue sulfur flames from Indonesia’s Kawah Ijen volcano. (Sorry, can’t include photos due to copyright issues. It’s worth checking out though, over on the National Geographic website.)

Peanut allergies

Researchers at the University of Cambridge, led by Dr. Andrew Clark, believe they may have found a successful desensitization treatment for sufferers of peanut allergies. According to the linked story, as many as 15 million Americans have food allergies of some kind, and a little over 7.5% of kids under 18 can have life-threatening reactions, and for kids apparently peanut allergies are the worst and most common. The treatment is simple “oral immunotherapy” or OIT, and consists of ingesting small but increasing amounts of peanut powder over the course of months.  In the study, after six months, “84 to 91 percent of children in the trial could safely tolerate 800 mg of peanut powder or the equivalent of five peanuts.” This may not sound like much, but we’re talking about going from “anaphylactic shock if simply near someone eating peanuts” to “should just try to avoid.” That’s a huge and life-altering improvement.

Tech news

Is Google trying to become Cyberdyne and build Skynet?

They’re already building driverless cars. They’ve acquired Boston Dynamics, the company that has built some incredibly creepy four and two legged robots. And now Google has acquired DeepMind, a company involved in artificial intelligence technologies.

I’m more of a technophile than most, but I’ve always wondered, “If we ever do build an AI, how do we know for sure it’ll be benign towards humans?” (For those who think that Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics” will suffice, it’s worth remembering that even he later wrote of AIs finding ways around those laws.)

New passpword protections

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU — and my own alma mater) have come up with a new double-layer of password protection that they say is far more secure against brute force computerized attacks.

Called GOTCHA (Generating panOptic Turing Tests to Tell Computers and Humans Apart), it combines a traditional password with a colored inkblot test. The system shows you several inkblots and you’re supposed to come up with a phrase to describe each. Then, the next time you log in and enter your password, you’re shown both the blots and your phrases and told to match them again.

Apparently computers just can’t guess which blot a human might see as a butterfly or as a spatter of paint (that is until Google Skynet gets their hands on them). On the other hand, I always felt that XKCD’s approach to password strength to be far more effective and elegant — not to mention crazy-simple.

Password strength, by, Creative Commons License

Password strength, by, Creative Commons License

Finally, in closing, our treat of the day: The unbelievable — and complete — video footage of Felix Baumgartner’s record-breaking Mach 1-shattering freefall from 23 miles up on 14 October 2012. We’re not talking just video from the balloon capsule from which he made the jump, or the grainy almost impossible-to-see video from the ground.

Baumgartner was festooned with those GoPro high-def video cameras, and this is a first-person view of his experience. Enjoy.

Published professional writer and poet, Becca had a three decade career in technical writing and consulting before selling off most of her possessions in 2006 to go live at an ashram in India for 3 years. She loves literature (especially science fiction), technology and science, progressive politics, cool electronic gadgets, and perfecting Hatch green chile recipes. Fortunately for this last, Becca and her wife currently live in New Mexico. @BeccaMorn

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