The Comet of the Century?

Will ISON be the “comet of the century?”

My own doctoral work on small bodies of the solar system made me realize long ago that we’ve been “cheated” in a sense. On average, most human generations have had a chance to enjoy — or more often be scared half to death by — a truly impressive comet. Of course there’s no such thing as being “overdue.”  After many fizzles and false alarms — from Kohoutek to Hale-Bopp — it’s wise to take new forecasts with a gain of salt. Still…

Comet-gettyv1… make a note that December 2013 is likely to be the best month to see Comet ISON. Assuming it has survived its exceptionally close pass near the sun intact, the comet will be visible both in the evening sky after sunset and in the morning sky before sunrise. There is real potential, if it is sturdy enough.

Whether or not Ison lives up to its promise, there is another potential cometary extravaganza coming up. Rather than merely putting on a sky show for Earthbound observers, this one is expected to brush right alongside Mars!“NASA researchers had given Comet C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring) a 1-in-8,000 chance of striking the Red Planet in October 2014, but revised calculations now put the possibility of an impact at just 1 in 120,000.”

Picture that. A comet blazing past the red planet closer than our moon orbits Earth. Possibly much closer. Oh, sure, there probably won’t be a direct impact. (Though isn’t there a part of you that wishes for a huge bang? And possibly the melting of vast swathes of permafrost? A preliminary test of terraforming methods?) Okay, that likely won’t happen…

… but what these blithe, statistical reassurances leave out is the fact that comets are filthy things! They spew out volcanos of dust and gases (that’s what makes the gaudy tails.) And therein lies a problem.  Because we have important space assets orbiting Mars!  The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Odyssey spacecraft are crucial to our current science programs, surveying both surface and atmospheric features, while helping NASA to keep tabs on the Curiosity and Opportunity mobile labs, down below.

heartofthecometSo far, I have not heard a single worried peep out of JPL, but I expect they are working hard to figure out if those satellites will survive… and if they do, how to turn their eyes toward a super show.

== Death-free meat? ==

Even without sky-harbingers, we persevere! Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, has funded a 250,000-euro ($330,000) project to jump start an ancient dream of science fiction – illustrated in the fiction of Frederik Pohl, in particular – and one that might help save the planet… vat-grown meat. Acting in part because of his concern for animal welfare, Brin expressed high hopes for the technology. ”We’re trying to create the first cultured beef hamburger. From there I’m optimistic we can really scale by leaps and bounds,” he said on a video.

Two volunteers who participated in the first public frying of hamburger grown in a lab said Monday that it had the texture of meat but was short of flavor because of the lack of fat. But this could be controlled by letting some of the stem cells develop into fat cells. Crucially, the testers said the burger has the “look, feel and taste like the real thing.”

This technology, along with others like algafarming that sops in excess industrail CO2 and farm fertilizer runoff and crop plants that fix their own nitrogen, could make a huge difference to humanity’s nutritional, ecological and karmic burdens, especially if the number of kilos of grain needed for a kilo of quality meat can be kept small, then our ecological (and karmic) burdens may ease a bit, just in time. (Raising animals for the table takes up about 70 percent of all agricultural land, and much  is turning into desert.) We need this.  Attaguy, Sergey.

== More space wonders! ==

CosmographyLocalUniverseCosmography of the Local Universe, a film by Hélène Courtois is the best video display of our cosmos and our exact position in it to date. Fascinating and beautiful.  A universe before our eyes, that our ancestors never imagined.

While we’re on the subject, here is an interesting case: the now-standard proposal that we are surrounded by “dark matter” is based largely on measurements of the dispersion of velocities of stars, clusters and small galaxies in orbit around larger galaxies. The added gravitational pull of dark matter would explain the higher velocities seen… but some iconoclast physicists in Israel have offered an alternative suggesting a slight non-linearity in Newtonian gravitation at very low force levels.  Why am I touting this? Because it is a perfect case of a “crackpot” – non-paradigm – theory that is given respectful treatment by mainstream physics. A counter example to the other crackpots we all know, who proclaim that their favorite alternative hypothesis is being crushed by lemming-like uniformity in all the ivory towers. Sorry fellows. Scientists are open to unusual ideas.  They just expect you to follow some of the regular rhythms and procedures that have worked so spectacularly well at sifting wheat from mountains of chaff. Approaching them with wrathful paranoia does not help.

Veddy eenterestink! By encouraging Google Glass users to behave and work like virtual ants, a new game called Swarm! is showing the tremendous potential for augmented reality to bring crowdsourcing to the next level — if not to humanity itself.  Hearkens to my smart mobs in Existence!

Paperscape interactive map of scientific research papersA map of the scientific universe: 865,000 research papers from the arXiv database color-coded by topic, centered around a core of high-energy physics.

== Quick Science Blips! ==

Elon’s new hyper loop train. Details at last! 

Eeep. Exposure to light at night, especially the blue wavelengths of computer screens, tablets and smart phones appears to be correlated with depression.

Asteroid mining? Right and wrong reasons to invest.

Exhaled breath is a unique fingerprint.  Unique to each person. And you expect to evade this?

Graphene reveals new, revolutionary properties on a monthly basis.  Some of them appear to be stunning.

Hidden camera records journey of package through postal system.

 == More interesting science miscellany ==

AliensPromo2ALIEN ENCOUNTERS on SCI (the Science Channel) was a fun, somewhat light “first contact scenario” show, augmented by Tru-Science interviews — including some choice Brin-blather!   And now, by popular demand, they have been given the okay for another season… wherein I suspect I’ll blather more…

A Fox News columnist (of all people!) lists six reasons why the Keystone XL Pipeline would be a disaster for the United States and not in the nation’s interest. Given that the alternative would be to use the oil in North America (reducing prices) instead of exporting it, exactly why are lower middle class tea-partiers screeching to help moguls do this?

Shades of uplift: Changing the world one dog at a time?  In Existence my suggestion was to enlist the Helmsley Foundation, to which Leona left gobs of cash “for dogs.”  How about applying some of that to making dogs smarter?

A muscle pill? A pharmaceutical that could make us all look like Mr. Universe? Yipe! You try it first, okay? (In fact, I’ve been quoted many times saying that we’ll know the future has finally arrived when everyone wears spandex!)

As for them comets… well… keep watching the skies!  And let’s keep heading out there…

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