News for Nerds - July 29, 2011
Welcome to this week's News for Nerds! This week we find out what video games have to do with high school physics, we get the lowdown on the future of space travel, and we deliver some bad news to Doc Brown and Marty McFly. But first: turn off the lights, the party's over.
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They say there are two things that are certain in life: death and taxes. Well, Robert Ettinger begs to differ. He's long believed that even if death isn't avoidable, it may only be a temporary state. Something reversible. Something that technological innovation can overcome.
And he died this week at the age of 92.
Ettinger is best known as the man who founded the field of cryogenics -- that is, the frozen preservation of a dead body for the purpose of re-animation at some future point in time, when medical science has progressed enough to do such a thing. Since his Cryonics Institute was established in 1976, 106 people have been indefinitely stored there. That number includes Ettinger himself, as well as his mother and both his wives (awkward!).
In case you're wondering, the cost of preparing a body and storing it in a tank of liquid nitrogen at -160 degrees is $28,000. Other organizations have popped up over the years which perform similar services, but Ettinger's was the first. A company called Alcor has about the same number of people stored in Arizona. A Russian facility reportedly has 16 humans and, get this, 7 pets.
The most famous instances of cryogenics in popular culture involve one true story and one that is most likely false. Walt Disney's whereabouts have long been the subject of rumor and speculation, but most reliable accounts indicate that his remains were cremated per his wishes. Baseball great Ted Williams, on the other hand, had his head (but not his body) cryogenically preserved following his death. Not everyone in his family was on board with that decision, but that's what happened.
As for me... I'm a huge fan of cutting-edge technology, but I've made it clear that my wish is for my body to be shot into space, Spock-style. And we already have the technology for that.
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Speaking of space, news broke this week that NASA -- which just wrapped up its long and distinguished shuttle program -- will join forces with SpaceX to combine the latter's two remaining test flights in advance of an International Space Station visit.
You may recall that SpaceX is the privately-owned American space transport company founded by the enigmatic genius Elon Musk (who was himself the partial inspiration for Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark Character in the Iron Man movies). SpaceX was founded in 2002 when Musk, who co-founded online processing giant PayPal, put up $100 million of his own money to get into the private space flight business.
That investment seems to be paying off. In 2010, SpaceX became the first private company (i.e. not NASA) to successfully launch, orbit and recover a spacecraft. In less than a decade they've landed contracts which could ultimately be worth billions.
Anyway. NASA is now out of the shuttle business, but SpaceX is just getting started in that field. They won a highly sought-after contract in 2006 that charges them with delivering cargo to the ISS. The plan was to stage several test flights to prove that they were up to the task, and the first one has already been completed.
And now comes word that Musk & Co. want to combine their final two test flights into one, whereby a Dragon space capsule would be launched aboard a Falcon 9 rocket in November before rendezvousing with the ISS the following month. NASA has agreed to the revised plan and has said so publicly, but formal approval is still forthcoming.
And if you think this is all just technical space mumbo-jumbo, you just wait. Believe me when I tell you: the impact of private space transportation, including things like commercial transport and space tourism, will be one of the defining factors of the 21st century when all is said and done. You heard it here first.
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So the acceleration of commercial space travel seems like good news. But now some not-so-good news: apparently a team of scientists in Hong Kong have proved once and for all that time travel is impossible. Even, it seems, if you're armed with a tricked-out Delorean and 1.21 Gigawatts of electricity.
For those of us whose grasp of theoretical physics is not up to par with the braniacs at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, here's a layman's version of their findings. Apparently it all comes down to the ability -- or in this case, the lack thereof -- of a single photon to travel faster than the speed of light.
Einstein famously said that the speed of light was the traffic law of the universe; that nothing could travel any faster, under any circumstances. About a decade ago, some fancy experiments appeared to uncover what was thought to be 'superluminal propagation of optical pulses' -- that is, light that was faster-than-light. It turned out to be a misleading visual effect, but it nonetheless gave hope that such a thing might be possible.
Enter Professor Du Shengwang and his research team, whose groundbreaking study indeed confirms that a single photon cannot go faster than the speed of light. Put differently, Shengwang said that the study "confirms Einstein's causality; that is, an effect cannot occur before its cause."
I'm sure I won't be the first to say it, but I'll say it anyway: Great Scott! This is heavy, Doc!
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And finally, I give you a story about everybody's favorite waste of time, Angry Birds.
But first, how about a little perspective. Since first hitting the market a few years ago, the maddeningly simplistic (and maddeningly addictive) video game Angry Birds, which is most frequently played on portable devices like iPhones or iPads, has sold about 12 million copies, and has been downloaded via app stores more than 30 million times. According to the Wall Street Journal, Americans spent more than 200 million minutes playing the game last year alone.
So with that in mind, I found it interesting when I heard this week that some physics teachers around the country have started incorporating Angry Birds into their teaching curriculum. Says one Atlanta-based science teacher, "We get to ask questions just like scientists when they're trying to figure out the atmospheric composition of a planet, or the motion of a never-before-seen asteroid."
If you've never seen the game before, it's pretty simple. You use a giant slingshot to propel birds of various shapes and sizes into vulnerable structures, each of which you're trying to knock down. Each bird's trajectory is different, and it takes some skill, some strategy, and some understanding of physics to get really good at it.
It's a fun game, but it's a game with science at its core, so I like the idea of creative educators finding teachable moments that their students will relate to. Most use the game to highlight the differences between the gravitational effects of the real world, and those of a video game, where physical laws can be tweaked in order to produce a more enjoyable experience.
"If [game maker] Rovio had chosen a realistic value for the gravitational field," says another teacher, "the motion would have happened much more quickly, and the game would likely not be as fun."
Well you can say that again.
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