Friday, July 30, 2010


If you are reading this blog I am going to assume that you know what the Large Hadron Collider (read really f-ing big particle accelerator) is. If you don't, well then let me give you the 5 sentence explanation:
The LHC is basically a tube bent into a gigantic ring, 17 miles in circumference to be exact. Lining the walls of this tube are super-cooled, super powerful magnets that use liquid helium to generate very intense magnetic fields. To run the machine you insert protons, which have a positive charge and are thus affected (pushed or pulled) by the magnetic field. The magnets are then turned on in succession, pulsed, speeding the protons to 99.999991% the speed of light (read Wicked Fast!). Two beams of protons are them smashed into each other, breaking them into their subatomic components which are then detected by house sized machines!

Okay, so now that you've got a really great picture in your head lets talk about the reason that we are doing this.
The table above is a breakdown of the most basic particles that make up our universe. The green, called quarks, can gather in multiple formations but most commonly form either neutrons or protons. Below are leptons, the most common name there is the electron, though some might have heard of neutrinos (fascinating little creatures which I will save for another post). Both quarks and leptons share a common title of fermions, i.e. they are particles of matter that have mass and are affected by forces. The column on the right is where things start to get a little spooky. Bosons, as the bar to the right of them implies, are responsible for the forces. They generate 'fields' that fermions interact with. As it stands we are missing one force, the funny thing is, its probably the most obvious force for all humans, gravity.

Now if you are still asking, well what the hell does a Higgs Boson and the LHC have to do with gravity, the answer is everything. Scientists theorize and generally agree that the Higgs Boson is the 'particle' that is responsible for giving mass to all other fermions. Here is a nice little cartoon that illustrates the point decently. Or you can watch the video below for a full blown version (I suggest doing this, awesome vid).

So what does it mean if we discover it? Gizmodo wrote an article a few days ago about this exact subject and while I like Gizmodo I have to say they missed the mark on what it could really mean. Yes if we discover the Higgs particle then we will understand gravity and scientists will be happy, but what people need to understand is what that leads to. Once we understand gravity, we will understand all the forces and particles that form and control atoms. We will know how to manipulate these forces and the particles that are affected by them. I'm sure you realize what I'm getting to...

When we find the Higgs Boson, we are putting ourselves on the path to start building atoms. Piece by piece assembling complex structures that behave in ways we can't even imagine. Think about building a chair that has it's own gravity well, you can sit on it in any orientation and it will hold you. Imagine space stations with articifial gravity on one side of the room, and zero-g on the other. Imagine creating a being by building it, atom by atom. It sounds like we are playing God...

This worries some, and I won't lie, it scares me too. This could be the beginning of the end but it could also be the end of the darkness. With great power comes great responsibility and we need to use knowledge and understanding to guide ourselves. We can illuminate the universe, light up the darkness and begin to harmonize with our surroundings, but it all starts with choice. So lets choose to cooperate, choose to seek knowledge and peace rather than hatred and war. Lets pull ourselves out of the darkness and into the dawn of a new age, where man is at one with his universe and I think we will find that the people, the planet and the universe will respond.

Light shines in the darkness...

Language, What is its purpose?

Is it a defining aspect of culture, or simply a form of communication between beings?

The obvious answer to the question is that language is a little of both. Over the past few years however I have begun to question what the future of language will be and I can't help but feel that over time, different languages will cease to exist.

Lets think about this logically: If I didn't know anything about human culture or the development of language, I would probably assume that every person on the planet would use the same sounds to communicate, we are the same species after all. Furthermore, if I was raised in an area where I spoke a language that was different than the common language, I would probably want to adopt the common form of sounds so that I could actually interact with others. This has already started happening all over the planet. In Indonesia upper class and upper middle class families have begun teaching their children only English, so they have a leg up on the rest of the students. The government is worried that their language will be lost in only a few generations and with it their culture (at least of some level). For some this is horrible, but for others like me, I welcome the day when I can travel anywhere in the world and know that I will be able to communicate with the people.

On that note I find it naive to think that once language is gone, a culture loses its roots. Language is simply a tool, like tools of the past it leaves its mark on all that it built. Humans will always remember the days of varied language and I'm sure in a few hundred years it will be a point of some laughter that many fought against a standardized form of communication.

So what is The Language? Well to be honest it is probably going to start with English. Now I say start with because in reality there will be varied dialects for tens if not hundreds of years, making some English seem like another language (have you ever heard someone speak with a thick Irish brogue?). Over time things will settle out and with the spread of technology and communication a world language will be established, it has to be.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Department of Energy Seeding the Future with "Hubs"

The United States Department of Energy has just announced a new program that they hope will allow for the development of technology and a framework for future energy infrastructure. I am particularly excited about this because they have set up 3 hubs that will be regulated until developed and then opened to the private sector to be filled out. Its very similar to building a city, come up with design goals, lay down the pipes, roads and simple rules and then let the innovators come in and fill the space. In reality they entire project is derived from the Manhattan project, lets just hope this one doesn't end in the deaths of thousands of humans.

The three hubs are:
How can we derive fuels directly from sunlight in an efficient and economical way?

How can we design, construct and retrofit commercial and residential buildings that are vastly more energy efficient than today's buildings?

How can we use modeling and simulation technologies to make significant leaps forward in nuclear reactor design and engineering?

Currently there is over $175 million in funding that is attainable but of course you have to be a big player to get in on this now (i.e. Bell Labs, a major university, etc). But for all you young entrepreneurs out there, keep an eye out and your ears peeled because this will be a very fertile playground in a few years.

Check out the link for the full press release and more info about the hubs.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Has Inception planted an idea in your mind?

Christopher Nolan's newest movie released last Friday to a combination of terrible and incredible reviews, a sign (in my opinion) that we finally have a great movie on our hands.

I'm not going to bore you with my thoughts or review of the film because that isn't how this movie made me feel. When I walked out of Inception I was excited, not only because the movie was good, but because even though it was 3 AM and I was exhausted, my mind was reeling. I will tell you right now, if you don't like thinking during/ after a movie, you might get lost in the depths of Inception. However, if you are like me and enjoy sitting with friends and discussing and dissecting the layers of a film like a delicate surgeon then you will love diving into the deep waters of the mind as it is portrayed in Inception.

As I stated, I'm not going to launch into a discussion of character depth, cinematography or plot because that isn't the point. The point of this movie is simple, an idea is the most powerful thing in the world, and an idea inside the mind is the most resilient virus. Its this idea about ideas that really got me thinking. Inception is a challenge, it asks that you probe yourself rather than the characters, that you walk outside and begin to question your own reality. Only when we question our world can we improve it.

So please go see the movie; hopefully some of you will emerge ready to challenge the world, to take hold of your life and start to make a change. Yes Inception is only a movie, its not real, but an idea, an idea can move mountains.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

AQUAPONICS, Why I'm Obsessed and Why You Should be Too

This weekend I was introduced to a method of agriculture that has blown my mind! Its called aquaponics (aquaculture + hydroponics) and is probably the most beautiful combination of modern technology and natural harmony I have ever encountered.

The basic idea is illustrated below:

Starting from the bottom, you grow fish in a fish tank, usually gold fish, tilapia or other easy to grow freshwater fish. The waste that is produced by the fish is rich in amonia, nitrates and nitrites. This waste water is pumped from the bottom of a fish tank into another tank that is filled with clay balls. As the mineral rich water flows through the clay balls they absorb the chemicals. Bacteria that grow naturally convert the amonia into nitrates and nitrites. You then plant anything into the clay balls, just like any hydroponic system. The plants absorb the water as well as the chemicals. The end result is healthy plants and clean water. The clean water is then dumped right back into the fish tank to keep the fish happy and healthy!
Here are the bullet points of amazingness:
-closed loop system that naturally sustains itself
-no soil, nutrients or watering required
-grow pretty much any plants you can think of, including fruit
-raise fish like tilapia which can be harvested and consumed after growth
-clay balls allow high density planting, much better than soil
So this weekend I will be building a beautiful aquaponic system. I'll post lots of pictures and setup instructions.

Do Plants Know the Secrets of Quantum Solar Power?

In the past few years a few articles have been written regarding some pretty fascinating discoveries. Plants use sunlight to photosynthesize, a process where they absorb energy from the photons and use it to grow. This process is complex and involves cells that sense light, filter it and other cells that then actually digest the energy. Until recently scientists believed that the filtering occured randomly and that efficiency was a byproduct of the amount of light hitting the plants. The following articles dig more deeply into this new insight, quantum photosynthesis.

If you don't wish to spend your time reading, here is a brief synopsis.
In quantum mechanics there is one simple principle about light, wave-particle duality. This principle supposes that light acts as both a particle and a wave, and that wave has a probablility associated with it, in other words, they particle has a certain probability of being observed in a certain location. When I say observed, I actually mean observed, for a certain scientist, Heisenberg came up with a theory that backs Richard Feynman's theories about light. When we observe a particle its probability function condenses to 1 path, thus we see light moving in a fixed trajectory, as if it is a particle.

So if you have lost things a bit here let me try to bring it all back. Plants do something amazing, when a photon hits the receptor cells, instead of condensing into a single particle, it is able to pass through as a wave, the plant then picks the optimal path of the particle to achieve the best energy absorption. Once the path is picked, the other possible paths decay and the photon is absorbed by the cell that can retain the most energy.

If you are still confused here is the super simple, plants are extremely efficient at collecting light. So efficient in fact that quantum physicists aren't really sure how they do it. Unlocking this mystery might allow us to create ultra efficient solar panels, and possibly new ways of transferring information using light.


Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Did BP Predict its own downfall?

In the 1970s, BP decided to endorse a board game which was focused on offshore drilling. It was a strategic game which was made difficult by including various hazards, like rigs blowing up and massive clean up operations. As Gizmodo puts it, this would be funny if it wasn't real.

The game was discontinued years ago, maybe that's why this spill is such a problem, perhaps some engineers from the 70s hid the solution in the game! So if you have this game sitting around your attic send it in and maybe you can help stop the current engineers find the solution.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Fuel for Thoughts: Engineered Food

Not many years ago the idea of engineering the genes of food to produce plants that were resistant to pesticides and that didn't go bad as quickly was work of science fiction. Today companies spend millions to develop "super seeds". Monsanto is the largest seller of soy seeds on the planet. They were able to achieve this level of success because they designed, engineered and patented a soy plant that is resistant to pesticides. This was a huge accomplishment and something for our entire species to be proud of, the problem is that it's not about the seed anymore, it's about wealth and power. Monsanto controls the growers by forcing them to use their seeds and preventing them from trying to reuse seeds. It's a total monopoly that's basically overlooked by both the citizens and the FDA. The industries of corn, chicken and beef are all in similar situations. They are artificially inflated with subsidies and they produce food that is terrible nutritionally. The problem is, these industries provide our country with the food that we need to live. So the question is, how do we improve this. How can we make better food at reasonable prices?
Well I think we will find that we are on that track already (sort of), what we need is regulation and competition. And by competition I mean real competition from legitimate business that has the ability to instigate change
In the future I imagine that most foods will come from plants and animals that have been genetically engineered. It will be sustainable food that can be grown and raised in a variety of climates with a variety of diets. Some fear the idea that their food was conceived in a test tube, I say I love the idea. It means clean food that we can tailor to our bodies. The has been a lot of talk recently because a company named AquaBounty Technologies is close to getting FDA approval on their genetically engineered salmon ("AquaBounty is developing advanced-hybrid salmon, trout, and tilapia designed to grow faster than traditional fish"). If the FDA approves this, it will mark the first time that a genetically engineered animal is being sold for food. Some day I think we might even move away from raising animals and just grow the meat only. That's when things really become easy, instead of needing all the energy to grow a full cow or fish (bones, organs, skin, limbs (fins), and meat) we can just grow a steak or fillet (meat). I don't know who wouldn't want that, it's efficiency is immediately apparent. Not to mention the meat would be of incredible quality.

So the real question is, who is going to step up and start competing with Monsanto, Tyson, National Beef and the corn industry? Who is going to challenge the status quo? Who is going to help make McDonalds change their ways and influence a global shift in awareness about what we use to fuel our thoughts?
We all are! The only way to change things is with support of lots of people. I challenge you to go out and educate that way, when the time comes for a group of people to make a change in the industry we will have the backing that is needed.
So share the wealth and spread the knowledge. Remember that light shines in the darkness. We are all in this together after all... :)