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The Engineer's Notebook

The Engineer's Notebook is a shared blog for entries that don't fit into a specific CR4 blog. Topics may range from grammar to physics and could be research or or an individual's thoughts - like you'd jot down in a well-used notebook.

Moving On from Planet Earth

Posted January 07, 2015 9:17 AM by HUSH
Pathfinder Tags: Exoplanet habitability Mars Venus

Where do you want to live? Only two weeks into another New York winter, let's just say I'm ready for Florida. Or at least Florida weather, even if the humidity seems to drive people insane. But why confine your habitation choice to a country, hemisphere or even planet?

After all, a Mars colony seems to be a forgone, inevitable conclusion. Mars One plans to send four people every two years to the red planet beginning in 2024. Even if the planned advertising revenues and reality TV show make the program seem like a publicity stunt and an MIT engineering report concludes that participants will die less than 70 days into their Mars odyssey. As long as you have one billionaire ready to throw gobs of money at a technology deficiency, it will be overcome. Mars exploration has been so overplayed, NASA is now looking at opportunities to send humans to Venus (in the blimp-like crafts at right) instead.

These missions are mighty ambitious for a race that has, to greatly oversimplify, essentially driven some high-tech RC cars around from 225 million km away. And there are many other planets that would better serve as humanity's first space outpost.

Planet habitability is evaluated by several criteria. The Earth similarity index (ESI) rates a planet's size, density, gravity and temperature, with Earth having a default value of 1. Other parameters consider suitability for vegetation; how far from a star the planet is; what the planet is composed of, as well as its atmosphere; common climates; and how adaptable resources are for human use.

In consideration of these variables, there are an estimated 8.8 billion habitable, Earth-like planets orbiting Sun-like stars in our galaxy alone. So, let's hypothetically fulfill any doomsday prophecy you wish, and see what new planets might serve as the first extrasolar incarnation of human life.

KOI-4878.01

This unconfirmed planet has an ESI rating of .98, making it the most Earth-esque replica yet discovered. Despite being unconfirmed, the Kepler telescope has recorded three transits to date, and another one is expected in July 2015. It has an orbit time equivalent to 449 Earth days. Its mass, radius and mean temperatures are also incredibly similar to Earth's, and 4878.01 is almost a sure bet to be an ocean planet. All of these factors mean an incredibly high likelihood of life on the planet. Its star, KOI-4878, is 1075.2 light years away, meaning that we'll never get there in our lifetimes. But a future race with the right technology could make it Earth 2. The only questions are: does anything live there? And if it does, are we willing to become the planetary invaders if it means saving our species and threatening others?

Gliese 667 Cc (artist rendering on left)

Several other planets are more suitable for human life than this one, which has an ESI of .85, but this is the highest-rated confirmed planet to date. It's also much, much closer to home than 4878.01, at [only] 22.7 light years away. Gliese 667 Cc has an orbit that is 28.155 days long (enjoy figuring out that leap year). Gliese 667 Cc exists in a triple-star solar system and receives 90% of the light that Earth does. However, the majority of the light is infrared; in fact Gliese 667 Cc would be 80% dimmer than the Earth. Despite this, it would also be quite hot, so hot that it borders on uninhabitable. If you picked climate change as your preferred Earth doomsday scenario, Gliese 667 Cc is an unlikely pick as home number two. Several other planets might also exist in the Gliese system that can sustain humanity, but are also unconfirmed.

Tau Ceti e and Tau Ceti f

Tau Ceti e is included as it is the closest potential extrasolar real estate. At 11.9 light years away, it will likely be one of the first planets investigated for life once we initiate the search. It has an ESI of .77 and a year of 168 days. Also notable about Tau Ceti e is its size: as it has 4.3 times more mass than the Earth, and is almost twice as big overall. This makes it a 'super-Earth.' Tau Ceti e is very hot though, as it orbits its star Tau Ceti at a distance closer than Venus orbits our Sun. Surface temperatures average around 70°C, so it's unlikely to be a permanent home. Its neighbor, Tau Ceti f, is worth mentioning only because it's much colder (about -40° C) than Tau Ceti e, but a gaseous atmosphere may warm the planet enough to sustain complex life.


For reference, Venus and Mars grade a .78 and .64 on the ESI scale, respectively. ESI isn't a perfect grade for habitability--many variables, perhaps ones not even quantified, effect the suitability of a planet for colonization.

Perhaps this is putting the cart in front of the ox. Until lightsails or warp drives are invented, we're stuck on this ball of mud. But one very distant day retirees may live out their golden years in the oven of Venus, instead of the stickiness of Sarasota.

2 comments; last comment on 01/09/2015
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Fun Things on the Internet - Happy New Year!

Posted December 31, 2014 9:58 AM by Chelsey H

52 Things you Thought Were True (But Really Aren't) - This was a little upsetting. Did you know that the chewy base of gum is indigestible and passes straight through? It doesn't sit in your stomach for 7 years…. I've lived a lie.

Engineers' Guide to Drinks

2014 in Numbers - Technology stories in 2014 told through some of the numbers behind them.

How to Prepare a Car for Storage - A step by step guide.

Other things to do during winter break…

20 Arduino Projects

Engineering Projects for Kids

15 Tips That Will Make You a Better Cook - Good tips to know - especially if learning to cook is a New Year's resolution!

Speaking of resolutions… 5 Easy Ways to Accomplish All of Your Goals

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Unschool In Session?

Posted December 26, 2014 12:00 AM by Hannes

The national Common Core initiative and a bevy of standardized tests have drawn an awful lot of doubting eyes toward American education. While Common Core at its heart seems a fine idea, implementation has proved troublesome in many states. Here in New York, where significant improvements in standardized test scores from September through June result in financial gain for schools, fudged scores and student manipulation spur militant reactions from both parents and teachers.

The increase in national oversight has also added fuel to the alternative education movement, particularly homeschooling and unschooling. The question remains, though: are these relatively extreme ideas viable gateways for bypassing constrictive schools or pipe-dream solutions at best?

While the public is mostly familiar with homeschooling, unschooling might be a foreign concept to many. As the term implies, unschooled kids do exactly what they please. Unschooled kids are taught by one or both parents, like homeschooling, except that unschooling focuses on life skills and a "learning to learn" approach. If a student's passion is to play video games in their room for eight hours a day for an entire year, they do just that. There is (and should be) no logical ceiling to unschooling: the idea is that an individual child knows what they need to learn and when, and that traditional schooling exhausts this curiosity through forced activities. In the case of the year-long video game binge, unschooling parents would contend that it's natural and that many wildly successful entrepreneurs went through identical periods.

Unschooling is one of the more radical approaches to bypassing a U.S. higher education system that seems to lose adherents every year. With more and more bright students coming up with million-dollar ideas and securing venture capital from their dorm rooms, college is no longer a fish-in-the-barrel on the road to financial success. Sure, unschooled kids can take the SATs and attend college on their own wits, but why would they want to reintegrate with the system their parents worked so hard to avoid?

As radical as unschooling seems, if combined with a parent knowledgeable in information seeking and evaluation it might be a superior option to traditional schooling, especially regarding STEM education. An engineer friend of mine once told me that a good engineering program doesn't teach to facts and figures but instead teaches how to think critically and analytically when facing any problem. How feasible is it to expect a traditional school, with national and state testing standards, to achieve the same?

Unschooling is about teaching kids to teach themselves, and search for information that interests them. The goal is to prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow, not the jobs of today as traditional schools do. Critics of unschooling level complaints similar to those traditionally pinned on homeschooling. Undersocialization, underskilled parents, and inherently lazy kids are frequently cited criticisms. Then again, there's a variance in defining success. Unschoolers draw on stories of brilliant, unconventional dropouts like Steve Jobs, but is every student cut out for an entrepreneurial future? Conversely, many unschooled and homeschooled kids do attend college, in which the unschool-to-school transition is difficult but not impossible.

My daughter attends an independent school by necessity, and there are the same pros and cons as in any comparison of education systems. I both love and loathe the freedom: the school can do whatever it pleases academically (so that you'd better hope it's run by qualified individuals, not business owners), but it's also sorely lacking in quality extracurriculars like those found in publicly funded schools.* Perhaps the unschooling debate is essentially similar: a student better hope their parents know what they're doing, or they'll be left unsocialized and sorely lacking in life skills. Then again, there are some terrible public school teachers out there. And maybe parents really are the best candidates to foster their child's curiosity, whether at school, home, or both.

*Although they did host a kindergarten engineering challenge: the old "see-how-many-pennies-you-can-float-in-your-paper-boat-design" one.

Image credit: Nicholas Scalice

11 comments; last comment on 12/28/2014
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Nerdy Gifts

Posted December 13, 2014 12:00 AM by Chelsey H

Yay Christmas! Shopping for the fantastic nerd in your life? Here are some ideas to help you find that perfect thing for your favorite nerd.

1/2/3

4/5

6/7

8/9

What's been the best gift you've ever given?

8 comments; last comment on 12/16/2014
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Lifecycle of The Mayflower

Posted November 26, 2014 9:01 AM by HUSH

As has become CR4 happenstance, I am one of the last ones to post before Thanksgiving. To be honest, I'm not in the office this Wednesday and haven't been all week. Similarly, traffic is usually a little bit down, and most people are focused on a day of delicious food and televised sports. All of this equates to a holiday-themed blog post.

When puritan refugees sought new opportunities of religious freedom in the New World 394 years ago, they did so on a boat known as the Mayflower. It was an unspectacular ship and was not intended as a passenger vessel. Records between 1609-1620 have it primarily as a cargo ship hauling hemp, spices, apparel, hops, vinegar and many, many types of alcohol. Its primary owner, Captain Christopher Jones, even used the ship for whaling. The ship was about 110 feet long and 25 feet at its widest. She had a cargo tonnage of 180 tons, as well as a gun deck of 12-14 cannons. This was unusual as the ship was classified as a fluyt, a type of shallow-water cargo ship innovated by the Dutch that maximized cargo space often at the expense of armament. The Mayflower had three masts and is likely an early example of a knock-off English-built fluyt, and the gun decks added so the ship could be impressed into naval service.

Where the ship was made and when are unclear, as complete records for the ship are scarce and more than 20 other ships are the time were also named Mayflower. What is clear is that the odds of the Mayflower making the Atlantic voyage were never that good. Originally two ships were chartered to carry the pilgrims across the Atlantic, the other ship being named the Speedwell, which had departed Holland with about 50 passengers. But the Speedwell sprung multiple leaks when the two ships rendezvoused off the coast of England in the summer of 1620, and was ultimately abandoned. As a result, the Mayflower was overloaded with more than 100+ passengers and 25-35 crew members. These passengers slept on the gun deck, a 1,200-square-foot space shared with artillery and tools.

The Mayflower was also at the end of her working life. The average lifespan for an English merchant ship of the time period was 15 years, and despite not knowing her exactly build date, that ship was at least 12 years old when it first departed across the Atlantic. This ship's superstructure also proved to be a disadvantage, as it was large and flat, a more suitable configuration for coastline and river commerce. Trade winds in the north Atlantic prevail west-to-east and the additional surface area significantly slowed the ship's transit.

So what was the result of an overcrowded, over-age and too-slow ship? Remarkably only two people died en route, despite bleak living conditions, severe storms battering the ship and heavy provision rationing. Perhaps this is a testament to the spirit of the pilgrims, who for two-and-a-half months had been on the open sea.

The pilgrims were originally planning to settle in Virginia (which was at the time a whole lot closer to New York City), but reached Cape Cod in mid-November and shortly realized winter weather, rough seas and a ship in need of repair meant continuing south was impossible. It was also too late in the season to establish a settlement, so the pilgrims lived on the Mayflower and robbed natives/traded with them for food. Disease spread amongst the voyagers during this time, and by the time the pilgrims could finally establish an onshore village in March 1621, half of the original passengers and crew had died.

Captain Jones had to delay his return to England by more than a year due to the sickness. The trip home took less than a month. Once he and the Mayflower returned England, one more trading voyage to the wine coast of France was made, but Jones' health was in quick deterioration. After Jones' death in March 1622, the Mayflower sat for two years at her berth in Rotherhithe, before being sold and scrapped for timber. Some historians feel the famous 1620 voyage was the ultimate end of both Jones and his historical vessel.

The remains of Mayflower were reputedly used to build a farmhouse and barn in Rotherhither which draws a significant tourist crowd today.

Resources

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mayflower

4 comments; last comment on 11/27/2014
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Skyney is Coming, No Really (Technological Singularity)

Posted November 19, 2014 11:25 AM by HUSH

Last spring I was on vacation in Florida and took the hour drive from the beach into Orlando to visit Universal Studios. Many people elect for one of Disney's many, many family-oriented theme parks, but with no kids, and a severe affection for roller coasters and thrill rides, Universal Studios was my choice.

After spending, oh, I don't know, about $450 for a single-day pass for two people (seriously), I was entreated to a theme park full of movie-oriented attractions and rides representing today's most popular entertainment brands. Harry Potter. Shrek. Transformers. Despicable Me. Men in Black. Marvel Comics. The Simpsons. It was an all-out onslaught of merchandise and marketing. (If you're still with me, I promise, this is getting somewhere.)

Yet a few less-popular brands still exist in the park. Twister has its own ride. Beetlejuice has a show. I expected these fading brands to be replaced by more popular ones. I even attended a 3D live show of Terminator 2, complete with a Schwarzenegger imposter on a motorcycle, animatronic Terminators and mid-1990s 3D technology. It was obviously a let-down considering how developed 3D technology has become in the 20 years since the release of T2, and it was no surprise that the theater was less than a quarter-full during my showing.

So why does Terminator 2 3-D: Battle Across Time still stand as an attraction today? There are dozens of more profitable replacement options for an overage, unpopular attraction with a fading brand. Could it be that this live interpretation of humanity's battle versus Skynet is powerful reminder that the technological singularity is inevitable? Or is this blogger just grasping at straws while trying to segue into a post about such a topic?

It's definitely the latter, but at least hear me out.

You might remember the name Alan Horn--he is best known one of the lead developers of IBM's Watson, the supercomputer that appeared on Jeopardy! and is now used to assess treatments for lung cancer. Horn recently argued that whether humans want it to or not, technology will develop to a point where it begins to develop itself. It will be a cascading series of machines building machines, and it will make humans obsolete in every way, an event known as the technological singularity. Not only will humanity's thought processes be dwarfed by artificial superintelligence, but humanity's convictions on art and morality will be challenged in the name of optimization and efficiency. This will essentially make humans useless, but significant resources will still be spent on keeping us all alive, while humans contribute immense waste and pollution. This would be the point where the T-100s arrive and begin eradicating humanity. Many point out that an uncontrolled technological ascent has no reason to view humans as helpful or friendly. It wouldn't be actively malicious, but it would sometimes compete for the same resources, and would not be interested in furthering humanity's goals. Perhaps the best way of aligning our goals would be transhumanism, the concept of blending human physiology with bioengineering developments to create superhumans.

Futurologists have attempted to predict exactly when the singularity will occur. The median seems to be 2045, but the consensus is that it would definitely happen by 2100. This is based on the rate at which computational capacities compound, heavily influenced by Moore's law. Several things could slow down the rate of growth, such as software bottlenecks. Software has different development timescales than hardware, and even a superintelligent machine that is writing code would be playing catch-up to more advanced hardware. Also, according to other experts, eventually hardware reaches an upper threshold in computational speed--a threshold that would be reached in due time even with humans building machines.

Even if slowed, the singularity appears inevitable. For it to not occur, the Singularity University believes that intelligence augmentation needs to fail on six different impeding innovations: bioengineering, genetic engineering, nootropic drugs, AI assistants, brain-computer interfaces, and brain uploading. Even the success of one of these will lead to a singularity. It's so unavoidable, that Stephen Hawking believes superintelligence needs to be planned for today, because it could lead to lead to "technology outsmarting financial markets, out-inventing human researchers, out-manipulating human leaders, and developing weapons we cannot even understand."

Should we be worried about becoming obsolete ourselves, or is the concern of a technological singularity the stuff of science fiction?

15 comments; last comment on 11/21/2014
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