13 unsolved scientific puzzles. Kinda.

The Times has a rather odd list of 13 Unsolved Scientific Puzzles. They’re a bit odd, and the accompanying review is even worse. Here are a few of the ‘puzzles’:

1. MOST OF THE UNIVERSE IS MISSING – We can only account for 4 per cent of the cosmos

Yep, that’s a big one. Dark matter + dark energy aren’t understood. Here’s what the other article says:

One of the great discoveries of 20th-century science was that our universe is expanding. The discovery, however, led straight to another puzzle. The puzzle is, there’s nowhere near enough matter to prevent the expanding universe from blowing apart completely into a vast, sterile infinity of lifeless interstellar dust. So how come we live in a lumpy universe, one of the lumps being the planet on which we live? There must be more matter than we can see: the famous dark matter and, to go with it, something even more mysterious – dark energy.

No – what? That’s nothing to do with anything, is it? This could be the still-lumpy phase of an expanding universe. The main problem is the acceleration itself: gravity should at least be slowing the expansion down, but it’s actually increasing. That’s dark energy, and it’s an unknown. Dark matter is the discrepancy between the mass we can see and the mass we can detect by its effect on matter. 

To date, however, there’s not a shred of evidence for either, even though teams of scientists have been looking for years. (The UK’s search “takes place 1,100m underground, in a potash mine whose tunnels reach out under the seafloor”.) The only alternative to dark matter is to tweak Newton’s most fundamental laws of physics and suggest that they don’t apply everywhere, all the time, in quite the same way. But physicists are a law-abiding bunch, and detest this idea.

No, there’s evidence for both. We can see where dark matter is, we just don’t know what it’s made from. And if it’s detectable, it must by nature be difficult to detect, so years of looking is probably necessary. Dark energy is more of an unknown quantity, but we see its effects, so something must be going on. And yes, scientists are unwilling to reject the laws of gravity (actually Einstein’s at this kind of accuracy, but whatever), since they’ve made incredibly accurate predictions up to now, and the Pioneer anomaly isn’t yet a clear-cut case of a violation of those laws.

2. THE PIONEER ANOMALY – Two spacecraft are flouting the laws of physics

Yes again. The Pioneer space probes aren’t where they should be, and it’s a bit odd.

“Nasa explicitly planned to use them as a test of Newton’s law,” explains Brooks. “The law failed the test; shouldn’t we be taking that failure seriously?”

 The article also says “decades of analysis have failed to find a straightforward reason for it”. This is what as known as taking something seriously: you try very hard to explain something unexpected, and see where that takes you. I don’t see the problem here.

4. COLD FUSION – Nuclear energy without the drama

But, despite what you might have heard, “cold fusion” never really went away. Over a 10-year period from 1989, US navy labs ran more than 200 experiments to investigate whether nuclear reactions generating more energy than they consume – supposedly only possible inside stars – can occur at room temperature. Numerous researchers have since pronounced themselves believers.

Cold fusion. Right. Not really an ‘unsolved scientific puzzle’, as there’s no evidence it exists, as far as I’m aware. And if you think the scientific establishment is deliberately ignoring a potential source of safe, clean energy that would completely transform the world, you’re bonkers.

5. LIFE – Are you more than just a bag of chemicals?

Fair enough. But wtf:

In labs across the world, people are taking the raw materials of living things and trying to put them together in a way that makes them come alive. In an effort to resolve the anomalous nature of life, the idea of scientists playing God has taken a whole new turn.

It’s almost like you’re referencing some fiction there…can’t think what. And when ‘God’ is just your word for ‘anything I don’t understand’, which it clearly is, then scientists are always going to be ‘playing God’, and it’s a silly thing to say.

6. METHANE FROM MARTIANS – NASA scientists found evidence for life on Mars. Then they changed their minds

On July 20, 1976, the Viking landers scooped up some Martian soil and mixed it with radioactive nutrients. The mission’s scientists all agreed that if radioactive methane was released from the soil, something must be eating the nutrients – and there must be life on Mars. The experiment gave a positive result, but NASA denied an official detection of Martian life. 

Yeah, because the results were contradictory and ambiguous. Yeesh. The atmospheric methane increases are pretty cool, though.

Ok, I need to skip a few or I’ll run out of time. Arguments over sexual reproduction and death seem somewhat misprepresented, lack of free will1 is given short shrift (rejected out of hand in the accompanying article) and the placebo effect is indeed genuinely mysterious, but then at the end there’s this:

13. HOMEOPATHY – It’s patently absurd, so why won’t it go away?

How the hell did this get in here? He says “there remains some slim evidence that homeopathy works” – and this is what, exactly? And what of the many, many double-blind trials that suggest otherwise? I would like to point out that people still worship Greek Gods. It’s ridiculous, but why won’t it go away? Maybe we should look again at Greek Gods.

The ‘puzzles’ are all taken from a book, which gives me pause – maybe the full text is more rigorous, and these quick generalisations are written by someone who doesn’t understand the issues. But Uncertain Principles perhaps has some insight: the author worked for New Scientist, and the book apparently has the typical New Scientist attitude of glorifying fringe work, making dramatic declarations on the imminent overturning of long-held theories, and paying little attention to consensus. Seems to fit with the above.

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Goodnight, Phoenix

NASA’s Pheonix lander, which touched down on Mars in late May, has stopped responding:

If you are reading this, then my mission is probably over.

This final entry is one that I asked be posted after my mission team announces they’ve lost contact with me. Today is that day and I must say good-bye, but I do it in triumph and not in grief.

In its five months it photographed water-ice on the surface of Mars, took pictures at close to atomic-level detail, and detected, three kilometres above, the first extra-terresterial snowfall. It was a cool little machine. It’s hoped Phoenix may live up to its namesake after the Martian winter, but it’s unlikely.

As I’ve said before, there’s no other place I’d rather be than here. My mission lasted five months instead of three, and I’m content knowing that I worked hard and accomplished great things during that time. My work here is done, but I leave behind a legacy of images and data.

In that sense, you haven’t heard the end of me. Scientists will be releasing findings based on my data for months, possibly years, to come and today’s children will read of my discoveries in their textbooks. Engineers will use my experience during landing and surface operations to aid in designing future robotic missions.

Well done, Phoenix. Someone’ll be along to dust you off, one day. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that 2004 rovers Spirit and Opportunity are still going.

Happy Birthday to Opportunity

Happy Birthday to Opportunity, the Mars rover which landed safely three years ago today. I was sitting in a York car park when I heard the news, and had to cheer. Despite the design aim of 90 sols (Mars days), it’s still going 1000 sols later, and has travelled 6.1 miles. Brilliant. Far from becoming decrepid in its old age, it’s actually getting smarter due to software upgrades.

OpportunitySol1036PancamL257View2 Soil closeup


Is there anything cooler than space probes?

Liquid water flowing on Mars

Generally, if somebody describes planetary activity as ‘recent’ they mean on geological timescales: a few hundred thousand years or so. So the BBC headline announcing ‘recent’ water flow on Mars perhaps sounds less impressive than when you discover it means in the last seven years. Although not conclusive, comparisons of two photographs taken seven years apart strongly suggest water flow in the intervening period. The team leader called the possibility of liquid water ‘high, but not extremely high’, although some are apparently calling it ‘a squirting gun’. It seems increasingly likely that there’s water not far under the surface, and it escapes occasionally in flash floods then immediately boils in the low atmospheric pressure. Two immediate thoughts:

  • On Earth at least, where there’s water there’s life.
  • A base on Mars just became much more feasible.

The evidence comes from a photograph taken by the Mars Global Surveyor, but unfortunately the probe was so surprised at the discovery that it promptly died. Not bad for a ten year old machine, though. The newly-arrived Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, with its amazing 1-2 meter-per-pixel resolution camera, will presumably be asked to take a closer look.

The best coverage, as ever, comes from Bad Astronomy.

Percival Lowell

Today is Percival Lowell‘s birthday, and Google have both changed their logo and created Google Mars. I had a poster of that same relief map on my wall during the Beagle and Rover landings a couple of years ago. There are pins showing the locations of Spirit and Opportunity, too.

Percival Lowell was an interesting guy. After Schiaparelli claimed to have discovered calani – translated into english as ‘canals’ but more accurately ‘channels’ – on the surface of Mars Lowell pushed for them as evidence of intelligent life on the planet, creating detailed maps, and even a globe, of their distribution.

Lowell’s theories were challenged as more powerful telescopes became available. Unfortunately, maps drawn by different astronomers failed to match, and many failed to see the canali at all. No less than the great (but ever so slightly crazy) Alfred Wallace debunked the claims. It was eventually demonstrated that they were an optical illusion.

Lowell spent much of the latter part of his life searching for Planet X, a world he predicted based upon variations from gravitational theory in the orbits of Uranus and Neptune. He never found anything, but Pluto was discovered 14 years after his death.

It’s ironic that both of Lowell’s major interests turned out to have merit, although his reasoning was flawed in both cases. Mars does indeed have a system of water channels, although not created by any intelligent beings and not visible from Earth-based telescopes. Pluto is not in fact Planet X, as the problems with Uranus and Neptune’s orbits were to do with incorrect values for their masses being used in the equations. Pluto is too small to affect the major planets to any detectable extent.

Lowell also did much for the promotion of astronomy, however, and it seems likely that he instigated much study of Mars. Although the idea of water on the planet was very unlikely, some questions remained until probes visited the planet in the 1960s. He is also credited with inspiring the search which lead to the discovery of Pluto, and he founded the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, which is still in use today.

Astronomical Data Retrieval

Tomorrow at 0900GMT NASA’s Stardust probe will, hopefully, drift slowly to ground on the salt flats of Utah, carrying with it a sample from Comet P/Wild 2. This sample was collected as the comet passed by at 6km/sec, or 6 times faster than a rifle bullet, and contains particles which should help considerably in the understanding of both comets and the formation of the solar system. The last time a probe like this returned the results weren’t so good. Solar wind atoms were recovered from the Genesis probe, however, so it wasn’t a total loss. The NASA team say they’ve tested the Stardust systems as best they can, but all they can do now is wait. Unlike Genesis, this probe is to land on the surface rather than requiring entertaining helicopter-based mid-air snatches. The probe’s current position can be seen here.

Assuming everything goes to plan, the sample returned will contain both samples from the comet as well as particles from the space around it. The latter will be in extremely small quantities, and due to the size being smaller than a grain of salt will be extremely difficult to find. It’s estimated that over 30,000 man hours will be needed to find these grains, but instead of employing ‘a small army of microscopists’ to analyse over 1.5 million images they’re turning to the internet community. Much like seti@home, volunteers can download a small program then analyse data as it’s released by NASA. Space.com says:

According to the Stardust@home plan, if two out of four volunteers claim to find a dust track the corresponding image will be sent to 100 more volunteers for verification. Should at least one-fifth of those reviewers affirm the find, the image will be kicked up to a team of UC Berkeley undergraduates trained to spot aerogel dust tracks.

Must sign up for that. Using this technique it’s anticipated that the project should be completed by the end of the year.

While we’re talking about all things astronomical, isn’t it fantastic that the Mars Rovers are still going, one martian and two terran years after landing? They were only meant to survive six months or so, but have coped through two martian winters, in the process finding conclusive evidence of a once-liquid surface, as well as vast amounts of geological data, the first dust devil ever seen on another planet, a martian eclipse, a a meteorite and even a bunny. Opportunity has driven just over 4 miles, while Spirit’s at 3.75. Amazing!