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Happy birthday, Opportunity

8.02.2014 Leave a comment

Two weeks ago Opportunity had its 10th birthday. (In case you live under a rock, Opportunity is one of the robots roving Mars.)

In my opinion, this is quite an achievement for humanity. Opportunity should probably be brought to top of the list of the Wonders of the World. Except it’s not on this world…

Imagine a ten-year old car. What are the chances of a car surviving 10 years without any service and without breaking down? Add to that desert conditions (dust) and extreme temperatures (down to -40C at night, up to +40C during the day). Although it’s travelled only 38 km on land, to be fair for the expedition, one should add the distance from Earth, which varies between 54 and 401 million km.

For ten years, nobody has cleaned its solar panels. Let’s hope Opportunity will continue its journey for several more years without sharing the fate of its twin, Spirit, which probably froze to death during one of the Martian winters…

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Categories: Universe

Three dimensions

22.04.2013 Leave a comment

How many colors do you need to color countries on a map such that no two adjacent countries have the same color? Only four.

The problem is solved by representing a map as a planar graph. The solution comes from the graph theory.

Unfortunately this is not true for non-planar graphs. Every non-planar graph can be represented in three dimensions and it is possible to connect each vertex with all the other vertices, therefore in the worst case one would need as many colors as there are vertices in order to avoid two interconnected vertices having the same color.

I suspect that this has something to do with the fact that our space is three-dimensional. Not two-dimensional and not four-dimensional. I think there must be some connection. Perhaps three dimensions are sufficient and a fourth dimension of space would be redundant? I am sure some physicist has already thought of it and wrote a nice thesis.

Categories: Universe

Brain is a simple device

14.03.2013 1 comment

The video of a live brain at work is mind-blowing. From this video we can see how signals propagate through the brain. There is a lot we know about the brain, but there is still a lot we don’t know. Here are some of the things we do know:

  • It works in primitive animals, too. It just can’t process as much data as ours.
  • Apes are not as intelligent as we are. We evolved to be more intelligent than apes. This indicates that the basic architecture of the brain is encoded in DNA.
  • Some information is encoded in the DNA as well. Many animals immediately know what to do right after they are “born”, e.g. newborn lizards know how to hunt and zebras know how to walk.
  • When we sleep, the brain sorts all the information and learns. Sleep works like a feedback loop for learning.
  • Some time ago I read somewhere, but I can’t find the link right now, that only certain patterns of information passing through the brain is valid. For example, when single neurons fire, they are ignored. When they fire randomly, they are also ignored. But when nearby neurons fire together, they fire like a wave and the wave passes through the brain – then the actual processing happens. This explains why animals are better at seeing movement than seeing static images.

These and the video of a live brain at work may lead to the conclusion that overall the brain is quite simple, in its own complexity. Processing happens when the signals are passing through the layers of neurons in the brain. Brain is also a memory device, so the passing signals may retrieve information or may store it or enforce it during learning feedback loops.

The question that bothers me is: how do we think? I suspect thoughts are output through the same routes as speech, but instead of reaching the speech apparatus (vocal cords, face) they go back to the brain as input. That would explain why we often think as if we were leading a monologue, speaking to ourselves.

The more interesting thing is how the actual thought processing happens which leads to ideas and solutions. I suspect the information is just passing through appropriate parts of the brain which process it. The information is probably routed based on its type (numbers, words, images, etc.).

So how do you think?

Categories: Universe

Daylight jetlag

12.03.2013 Leave a comment

Daylight saving is a popular topic these days. There is no proof that daylight saving really helps with anything nor that it has ever helped save energy. Yet all who live in daylight saving zones have to suffer from it.

The result of moving clocks one hour backward or forward is that most people experience a jetlag-like effect, because their rhythm has to suddenly change. So during the spring daylight saving event many people feel tired for a few days before they adjust.

Perhaps it’s time for legislators around the world to stop this madness?

Categories: Universe

The end of “Made in China”

18.01.2013 Leave a comment

We may be on the brink on the next industrial revolution. One company is trying to introduce robots in manufacturing. So far this has been the domain of cheap workforce in China. But this robot costs as much as a small car and can work without breaks for long periods of time. Some estimates suggests this robot’s cost could be as low as $1 for an hour of its work, or less.

In the coming years, these robots will get cheaper, smarter and more reliable, reducing the cost of manufacturing even more and making them usable in other areas. Soon many products will be assembled locally, so they will become cheaper not only because making them will be cheaper, but also the shipping costs will become lower.

Categories: Universe

Industrial revolutions

27.12.2012 Leave a comment

Paul Krugman discusses Bob Gordon’s essay in which Gordon describes three industrial revolutions humanity went through in the last few hundred years. Gordon suggests we’re at the end of the third industrial revolution and the fourth one is awaiting us in the coming decades. The suggested fourth industrial revolution will introduce robots in manufacturing and millions of people will lose their jobs. All the money from the lost jobs will go to the rich who will own the robots.

In my opinion bunching various inventions together into distinct industrial revolutions is too broad of a generalization. Certain inventions did influence quality of our lives, such as hygiene, tap water or vaccines. Other inventions changed the way we travel, such as steam engine or jet engine. But all of the minor “revolutions” overlapped and we can’t just draw a straight line between them.

The suggested future, the one which is coming very fast, in which robots will take over manufacturing, is not that dark at all. Major manufacturers in the US are already planning bringing manufacturing back to the States by creating factories full of robots, which are cheaper even than the proverbial Chinese worker. More and more people will be losing their jobs, but an economy in which everything is dirt cheap but nobody has money to buy it is not going to be sustainable. Eventually tax and social laws will change, even in the US – although it’s hard to imagine for most Americans, the US will have to be come more like Europe – and taxes on manufactured products will increase while income taxes will decrease. In fact people will be paid money just for living in a country or state and the money will come from taxes on manufacturing.

In my previous post I contemplated the future of humanity. There is still a lot of inventions on the way before we get there. The inventions which we can already predict include:

  • Robots – used more and more at factories, stores and eventually in homes.
  • 3D printers – everybody will be able to download plans from the Internet and make their own goods at home.
  • Nanotechnology – from health through manufacturing through new kinds of materials, etc. – it will improve every aspect of our lives.
  • Brain engineering – will help us transcend our biological bodies and become interstellar beings.

There is probably a lot more of exciting and significant inventions awaiting us, of which we can’t even think yet, just like the Internet surprised everybody and was not broadly predicted.

Categories: Universe

Dwarf galaxies

15.12.2012 1 comment

I recently read that our humongous Galaxy was probably small in the beginning, but in time it accumulated stars by colliding with other galaxies. This conclusion was drawn from the fact that the outskirts of our Galaxy are composed of very old stars, which have the same composition as stars in dwarf galaxies. Our Galaxy is surrounded by lots of dwarf galaxies, we’ve just started discovering them. There’s at least 30 bright dwarf galaxies in our neighborhood which we already know and many dim ones are probably lurking in our vicinity. These dwarf galaxies contain very old stars, judging by their composition – these stars are very poor in chemical elements heavier than lithium, so they must originate from times when there was very little heavier elements in the Universe, or none at all. It turns out that the stars in the outskirts of our galaxy carry similar spectral signature.

From this I drew two conclusions.

Where to search for life

First of all there is very little sense in looking for life in dwarf galaxies or in the outskirts of our Galaxy, or any other behemoth. The areas which are poor in heavier elements are likely to have low probability in harboring life, because of the deficiency of the needed chemical elements. So the best place to start the search for other life forms is in the richer areas of big galaxies such as ours, or the Andromeda Galaxy which we are going to collide with in a few billion years.

This reasoning may be flawed. I am yet undereducated in the topic of how stars are forming. My guess is that the light gas contracts easier than heavier elements, which instead form clumps around the forming star and turn into planets after a few million years after they sweep all the dust in their orbits.

On the other hand I suspect that the more adventurous places of space are better for evolution. Our spiral Galaxy is thought to be moving its “top” side forward and our star is oscillating between the “bottom” and the “top” in cycles of around 70-90 million years. Whenever our solar system is near the “top”, it is exposed to the influence of the intergalactic medium. This probably induces recurring cataclysmic events, such as the big extinction event 65 million years ago. After every such event the conditions on our planet change significantly and wake up the evolution. Let’s put it this way: the dinosaurs dominated on Earth for about 135 million years and didn’t accomplish much. We, mammals, accomplished much more in only 65 million years after we’ve been given a chance after some rock leveled the evolution’s playing field. Similar cataclysmic events may have triggered the plants and animals moving out of the water to conquer the land and who knows what else.

If you look at the dwarf galaxies, they are dull. They have survived probably 10 or more billion years and remember the times when the Universe was poor in elements needed for life. If they were off to an adventure, they would have already merged with some big galaxy or became one on their own. No, they are small and full of old stars.

I am not claiming that there can’t be any life in these areas where old stars live, but the odds for life are much better in the rich parts of big galaxies.

Locality

The other conclusion I drew from the article is that all we have in our Galaxy and the surrounding galaxies has always been here. In the beginning when our area of the Universe formed it was filled with gas. The gas contracted into lots of small galaxies. These galaxies started merging. Two of them started consuming others and became behemoths – our Galaxy and the Andromeda Galaxy. The rest remained small and is probably slowly rotating around the center of our local cluster, which lies in the middle between the two behemoths. I suspect that all the material in our local cluster is the same as it was in the beginning. There was no or little exchange of material with other clusters. We could consider Andromeda as well as all our local dwarfs our siblings.

Not that it matters, the composition of stars in other clusters probably follows very similar patterns. We will eventually start exploring these too and know more about them. But I suspect the only way for galaxy clusters to exchange material is through civilizations capable of intergalactic travel.

Categories: Universe