A Fortnight in ‘Frisco

Well, so much for keeping a regular travel blog.  Little did I realise, but travelling half way across the world to an entirely new place, with an entirely new group of people, and entirely new kind of work, sort of knocks you backwards for a while.  It’s been a little over two weeks since I arrived in San Francisco, and I finally feel like I’ve caught up with myself.

So, a fortnight ago I set off from rainy Wales, which became rainy London, and I soaked in the padded, rolling English countryside from the train window, only too conscious that it would be the last time I’d see anything like it for the next three months.  A warm sunset with puffy clouds and contrails, like one of Marie Robinson’s paintings, was my last sight of England.

Twenty-four hours of transit was, as could be expected, near hell.  As the hours ticked by beyond our scheduled departure from Heathrow, I was conscious of my dwindling transit time in Houston, and sure enough, I have never seen an airport at quite such speed.  My impression of Houston, Texas was green – a lot more green than I had been expecting.  But no time to explore and I was straight onto my flight across the mountains to ‘Frisco.

It was dark when I arrived, but I was welcomed like a lost friend into my cosy houseshare in the centre of the City.  This Californian attitude is easy and heartfelt, and something that many places could benefit from.  Never mind the acts of blatant generosity (dinner, wine, lifts to the train station), just a smile when you arrive is enough to dispel any gloomy thoughts.

New friends in San Francisco

New friends in San Francisco. Me and my new housie Julie on my birthday.

Well, I was well looked after by my housemates, and the first weekend was spent exploring the city, getting my bearings.  I think I had been in San Francisco less than 12 hours when I saw my first naked man.  Five in fact, in the gay centre Castro, just a 15 minute walk from the house.  Just sunning themselves in the square, they brought towels to sit on, although I’m not sure whether that was for their benefit or for the benefit of succeeding patrons.

The weather has been unseasonably warm for July, I am told.  It has been mid to high 20s and clear most days in the city, although the dense marine layer of cloud blanket and fog usually rolls in around sunset, and perseveres until mid morning.  The weather here is so dramatic and dynamic, it reminds me of this heartbreakingly beautiful time lapse of clouds over the Canary Islands.  It could just as easily be here.

So once settled in San Francisco, Monday was time to start my new job. NASA here I come.  The commute was ridiculously easy, buses and trains door to door – although so few people seem to use it.  The numbers of cars are frightening.  I’m carpooling now with a postdoc in our lab, and every morning we sail down the freeway that is packed bumper to bumper with one-commuter cars.  It seems madness when the pubic transport is so efficient, but then I guess Americans sure do like their cars.  Some of them even have six wheels. Why? Beats me.

NASA Ames is a lot more homely than you might expect.  Nestled right up next to the Moffatt Airfield, the aeronautics heritage is ever-present.  The science buildings are dwarfed by vast wind tunnels and hangars, used rarely now modelling technologies are so much more efficient. I was told that the largest wind tunnel there uses as much energy as the whole of San Francisco when in operation.  Although that fact was later floored by the laser at nearby Lawrence Livermore, which in the few picoseconds of its operation uses as much energy as the whole USA.  Anyway, big machines doing big science.

Airship hangar at Moffett Field

Just an airship hangar at Moffett Field

The second most amazing thing about NASA is how friendly everyone is.  Must be California again.  The lab is made up of a couple of PIs, a few postdocs, and a seemingly endless stream of short term researchers, interns, and summer students.  Even those who are here short term are welcomed, inducted, and given free reign in the labs, permitting the kind of self-driven, self-motivated blue sky research that sets NASA apart from other universities and research institutions.  All specialisations are mixed in together.  I’ve had meetings with algologists, shared beers with geobiologists, visited the golf club with molecular biologists, and my office is sandwiched between the eminent Mars geologists that I spent my academic career referencing and respecting.   I feel so different to the talent base there, and yet so welcomed for the skills I do have.  It is a nurturing environment that I could easily get used to.

My academic home for the summer

My academic home for the summer

And so two weeks have passed already.  I’ve set up my experiments, caught up on sleep, finished all the books I brought with me, and finally unpacked my suitcase.  I’m on first name terms with the guy at the corner shop, and the guy who drives the NASA shuttle bus, and pretty much everyone in California, or so it seems.  I’m looking forward to a profitable and fun six weeks in Frisco, with a short visit to Pasadena for AbGradCon, and then an epic road trip to take in all the sights that differ so much from the English countryside I’ve left behind.  And then, who knows.  I’ve got 2 months to think about that….



SciVoxPops: Do you think there is life elsewhere in the universe?

To kick off the SciVoxPop experiment, I wanted to pose a question that was close to my heart, and so I asked:

Do you think there is life elsewhere in the universe?.

Part of my research focuses on this subject, addressing how and where we might look to find and verify extraterrestrial life.  Overwhelmingly I find that when I tell people this, I am bombarded with questions along the lines of: So have we found life? Where is life most likely to be? What will aliens look like?  It is a great talking point and something I never get bored of talking about, so I wanted to find out what the general perception was, among those who haven’t just bought me a drink.

The response, while not overwhelming in number, was overall more positive that I would have imagined.  Out of the 19 people that sent me their responses (I’ve had a busy week and haven’t had much time to trudge the streets, but watch this space!), all but three were positive about the possibility of extraterrestrial life.  I would love to get some more responses so see if this trend is maintained, so may revisit the question in the future.

Interestingly, among those who were confident that there was life out there the reasoning was pretty vague, relying mostly on optimistic logic over the cold hard facts.  I suppose as a scientist, groundless optimism is drilled out of you early, but I was delighted to see it was alive and well and still dominant among the many.  Optimistic curiosity is, after all, what drives some of our best science.  Here are the two main arguments I was presented with.

The universe is so large, we can’t possibly be alone…

This line of thinking harks back to the earliest thoughts on astrobiology – those of Frank Drake and Enrico Fermi – who tried to quantify the amount of intelligent life in the universe at any one time.  While the Drake Equation predicted any number of communicating civilisations between one (our own) and 10,000, Fermi was concerned with the overwhelming silence of the stars.  If there is life out there, then why can’t we detect it?

Many ideas have been proposed as a solution to the Fermi Paradox, including the vast distances representing an insurmountable barrier to communication, or the concept that we are being watched but that our watchers purposefully hide themselves from us.  Whichever the ultimate solution, it would seem that the cool logic of the reasoning public errs on the optimistic side and personally, I can’t say I blame them.

We’ve just found a planet just like earth…

On 5th December 2011, NASA announced that for the first time a planet had been found orbiting well within the habitable zone of a star just like our own sun.  They painted a picture of Kepler 22b as a veritable Eden, an ocean planet with an atmosphere maintaining the world at a very pleasant 22 degrees Celsius.  While considerably larger than our own Earth (suggested ot be around the size of Nepture), it is the closest analogy to Earth that we have yet found outside our solar system.  And it is this recent finding, on top of the host of other extra-solar planets that Kepler has identified this year, which seems to be spurring on the general optimism.

Of course, merely the fact that there is another Earth-ish planet doesn’t necessarily mean that we are more likely to find life.  As a conscious species we are inherently biased toward those environments that we find comfortable.  In this case it is an equable temperature range, and oxygen-rich atmosphere, and a 24-hour day.  But there are whole host of other organisms, even on Earth, for whom our heaven would be the worst kind of hell.  Extremophilic organisms have a very different idea about what is an equable climate for life, and there is just as much chance that any potential aliens will similarly find the predominant conditions on an Earth-like planet pretty unpleasant.  That we are finding other planets around other suns is exciting, but we should be a bit broader in our ideas of what is ‘habitable’.

Alien autopsies and UFOs…

I was surprised how few people claimed to be won over by the countless videos of live ‘aliens’ and ‘UFOs’ that can be found on the internet.  Only one anonymous respondent claimed their belief of extraterrestrial life came from these dubious sources.  In all, it was encouraging for the propagation of real scientific thinking on the subject.

In terms of the negative responses, the reasoning was once again varied:

It’s bleak but true…

An attitude such as this plays into one of the more troubling solutions to the Fermi Paradox – that the reason we haven’t identified life is because we are, in fact, alone. Ultimately this is based on pure, unoptimistic facts.  We have found places where there is the potential for life, but no indication of life there yet.  Time will tell, but if we remove optimism and deal only with the evidence we have, we would seem to be alone.

We haven’t managed to make it ex nihilo…

The fact that we haven’t yet found the way life got started is indeed good evidence that our understanding of the earliest biological processes is incomplete.  And surely, if we don’t understand how, when and where life started on earth, we can’t hope to know how or where it happened elsewhere.  But does this mean there is nothing else out there?  Perhaps, if you take the current holes in our knowledge to imply a force stronger and stranger than our natural laws, with the need for unique Earthly Creator.  But perhaps it just means we don’t have all the answers yet.  It certainly wouldn’t be the first time, and our knowledge is increasing daily.

So it would seem that optimism rules the way in my small sample. For most people, we are probably not alone, and we scientists must bear the responsibility, not only of finding the objective truth, but also to live up the hopes of thousands (represented by 20). Better get to it then…

Thanks to everyone who responded to the first SciVoxPop. Watch this space for next week’s question.  It’s a topical one!

Are you ready for SciVoxPops?

It is December, and I couldn’t think of a better time to start a new project.  New Year’s resolutions are for sissies (sp?), and not only have I started my Christmas diet preemptively, I have also decided to start some of my new projects early to give them a run up before the dreaded January swamp…

So let me introduce SciVoxPops – a chance for everyone to have a say about a hot science question.

The project will not only pose these questions and relay the doubtless fascinating answers, but use these voxpops in ways they are unaccustomed to.  I’m going to analyse them.

Gist: A scientific question or issue will be posed, comments and replies will be obtained, the results will be collated, presented, and analysed.  You will find out fascinating facts as well as some diverse opinions.

What I will do: Each week, I will pose a scientific question across various social media outlets, and also to real people in the real world.  I will collate the comments, present them, and try to tease out some sense or trend which, hopefully, will throw up some surprising results. These will be presented in a weekly blog. If this trial goes well, YouTube will be conquered.

What you will do: Watch out for the question each week.  On twitter, search for the hashtag #scivoxpop. Send an honest or witty reply, then wait to find out how you fit in or out in a blog here at the end of the week.  Tell everyone you know, and send me suggestions for future SciVoxPops.

First question tomorrow (Fri 9th Dec).  Hint: it will be a subject close to my heart to get the ball rolling.

VoxPops – literally Vox populi or ‘voice of the people’, is commonly used to describe the so-called man-on-the-street interviews carried out by TV and Radio journalists.  Whilst they often provide a light relief from the professional and often cutting reporting of journalists and people trained in public speaking, they are usually left at just that.

I would like to use a large volume of these to try and tease out trends in opinion, especially about scientific questions or issues. Sometimes it will be a matter of opinion, sometimes it will be a matter of communication.  Will we find the Higgs Boson?  What is the best source of energy? How old is the Earth? Which sci-fi movie taught you most? All of these questions can be addressed and gauged by YOU, the man (or woman or undecided) on the street (or in the lab or on the internet). I can’t wait to see the results.

In fact, the ‘wisdom of crowds’ – what we use these days in croudsourcing the best kind of DVI cable to buy and other Very Important Issues – was a concept first postulated by Sir Francis Galton way back in 1907.  He published his research in the journal Nature entitled, coincidentally ‘Vox populi’.  So this is my hundred-year-old tribute to Sir Francis, in attempting to harness the ‘wisdom of crowds’, using the VoxPoppery of today.

UPDATE: This week’s SciVoxPop is ‘Do you think there is life elsewhere in the universe?’ Answers here or on twitter, or if you’re shy email me…

Moons: Small Gods in the Darkness

Moons are Small Gods in the Darkness

There are over three hundred of them in our solar system.  Some are bigger than planets, and no two are the same.  Moons are the constant companions of our planets, and without these strange and wonderful worlds, our solar system would be a very different, chaotic, and inhospitable place.  Our moons are a host of guardian angels watching over us.  They are our small gods.

Last night, the moon rose over the UK under lunar eclipse.  Between around 9pm and 10:30pm it slowly emerged from behind the Earth’s shadow, and we (at least those who weren’t completely shrouded in cloud) were treated to one of the finest astronomical spectacles in a decade.  But far from being just a beauty in the night sky, our moon, and the moons of other planets, are fundamental features of our solar system, and without them, we would be in a lot of trouble.

Moons are guardian angels

Moons orbiting around their planets act to stabilise the orbits and rotations of those host planets.  Large moons (those with a small planet-to-moon ratio) can stop the axis of a planet’s rotation from changing too much.  Earth’s large moon limits the variation of tilt of the Earth’s rotational axis- its obliquity, to within 2 degrees.  Mars’s moon Phobos is too small to have this effect, so Mars’s obliquity varies by up to 50 degrees over thousands of years, making the planet hostile to life due to extreme seasonal changes.  If we lost our own moon, then over a long period of time, our obliquity may oscillate by the same amount or more than Mars, over geologic time.  Such changes would mean that our seasonal biomes would be seriously disrupted or destroyed, and at certain time, the combined rotation and orbit around the sun may make the Earth completely inhospitable to life.

The gravitational pull between moons and their host planets creates tides on those planets, and on themselves.  Such interactions can be seem in water (as seen on Earth due to our own moon) and in the flexible rock itself.  This flexing of the rock can create heat within the body of the moon and planet.  In the icy far reaches of space, this heat can be enough to drive volcanism (as on Io around Jupiter) or cryovolcanism (As on Enceladus around Saturn) or to melt ice to create subsurface oceans of water which may be habitable for alien life (as on Europa around Jupiter).  Without tides on Earth, fertile plains relied on by humans, and by a whole range of organisms, would not exist.  Many plants and creatures that have developed to live in a periodically wet and dry environment, would never have appeared, and species diversity would be measurably poorer.

Moons are the answers to our prayers*

            *by prayers I mean scientific questions

Study of the moons around us can offer valuable and often unexpected answers to questions of the formation of our solar system, and of the processes still operating on a planetary scale.

Looking at the sheer variety of moons has given us a number of ways to explain how all the bits of our solar system came together.  The classic model for the assembly of planets also holds for some moons.  This ‘accretion model’ predicts that after the sun formed, the remaining giant cloud of gas and dust clumped together due to gravity into grains, rocks, boulders and, eventually planets that orbited the sun.  At the same time, if smaller bodies fell into orbit around a planet, instead of the sun, they became moons.  We can see examples of this kind of moon formation in the landscapes of the Jovian moons Ganymede and Callisto.  Ganymede formed very close to Jupiter from a lot of debris, in a quick and very energy-rich process.  This energy led to the rapid segregation of ice and rock, which can be seen on its disrupted surface.  In contrast, Callisto formed much more slowly, further away from Jupiter, and there was less energy involved in its formation.  As a result, the rock and ice didn’t differentiate and its surface is smooth.  Thus, both the amount and type of material contributing to the accretion process, as well as the energy of formation, is critical in creating the variety of many of our moons.

But accretion is not the only way that a planet can get itself a moon. Neptune’s largest moon Triton is a bit of anomaly, as it is one of the only natural satellites that orbits its planet the wrong way.  Most moons orbit their planets in the same direction as the planet rotates, a legacy of the original rotation of the gas cloud.  But Triton is in retrograde – it travels clockwise, whileNeptunerotates anticlockwise.  This piece of information alone is enough to tell us that the moons formed separately.  Leading speculation is that it was an object ejected from the nearby Kuiper belt of asteroids, which subsequently became locked in orbit aroundNeptune.  So moons can be stolen, as well as home grown.

Our own moon, Luna, is an example of yet another way you can get a moon – planetary destruction.  Studies of the composition of lunar and terrestrial rocks has shown that they have very similar compositions, minus a bit of iron in the former.  The prevailing theory for such a similar composition is that our moon was in fact derived from Earth.  But how do you get a bit of Earth 300,000km out?  By hitting it.  Really hard.  So the theory goes that around 4 billion years ago, a planet the size of Mars collided with the proto-Earth, melting the outer layers of both, and spewing vast amounts of molten rock into space, which soon reformed into our own moon.  This is known, somewhat unsurprisingly, as the Giant Impact Hypothesis.  They even have a funky computer model.  The hypothesis has recently been thrown into doubt after new analysis of lunar rocks from Apollo 17 found significant quantities of water within them, which wouldn’t be expected if Luna formed by a high energy, rock melting, water vaporising impact.  Time will tell, and maybe we will find yet another way of getting ourselves a moon.

Observing the moons of other planets can not only tell us about how they got there, but also what they are doing now, and how they are responding to large scale forces in the solar system.  In particular, they show us the large scale effects of the tidal gravitational pull on rock, rather than water.  When rock of a moon is put under tensional and compressional stresses during an orbit around its planet, it generates heat, and if the forces are strong enough, the heat may be great enough to generate some truly magnificent volcanic and cryovolcanic features.

The surface of Io is smooth and, probe images have shown, constantly changing.  Episodic impacts of its surface would be expected to leave a mark in the form of craters, and the complete absence of these can only mean that the surface is new.  Near constant, large scale volcanism is responsible for resurfacing the entire moon on a very short timescale, and it is the heat generated by the tidal friction of Io with Jupiter and other nearby moons, that that drives the eruptions.

For moons which are composed of more ice than rock, which is the case for most Saturnian and Jovian satellites, the tidal friction heating melts the lower layers of ice in contact with the rocky core.  The heat driven expansion of this liquid causes a spectacular phenomenon of cryovolcanism, or ice volcanism.  Perhaps the finest example of this in all the solar system are the plumes of water ice spewing more than 300 km above the surface of the small Saturnian moon Enceladus.  These plumes are fed by isolated pickets of warmer water, and play a big part in feeding the rings of Saturn amidst which the moon sits.

By observing the surfaces of moons, we are also able to assess changes in the structure and motion of those moons.  Such observations are important for planetary protection.  If a moon of Mars suddenly destabilises from its orbit and comes flying towards the Earth, people will ask ‘why didn’t we know it was going to do that?’  Nothing so apocalyptic is going to happen in our lifetimes, or probably in the lifetime of the human race, but the orbits and rotations of moons do change, and it is important to keep tabs on that.  For instance, the most recent cracks in the surface of the ice of Europa are exactly what we would expect from the tidal stresses between that moon and Jupiter.  With increasing age, however, the cracks gradually change in their orientation, indicating that either the moons has changed in its orbit and rotation, or something else is going on.  Mathematical models show that something else is indeed going on, and in fact the surface of Europa is rotating slightly faster than its core, something that could only happen if they were separated.  What separates them?  Water, liquid water.  An ocean of liquid water exists beneath the icy crust of Europa, and that is one of the most exciting discoveries in our solar system in the last 10 years.

Moons are life givers

What I personally find most exciting about our constant lunar companions, is that their vast diversity in composition, location and characteristics provides the best opportunity we have of finding extraterrestrial life in our solar system.

It is generally accepted that life as we know it needs a liquid in order to get started and keep going.  On Earth, that liquid is water, and liquid water is a precious commodity in the solar system.  It can only exist at the surface of a planet within narrow zone at a specific distance away from the sun – the habitable zone.  Too close, and the water boils away, too far and it is frozen solid into ice.  Outside this habitable zone, finding life as we know it has been considered extremely unlikely owing to the lack of water.  But all is not lost. The habitable zone is not the last call for our terrestrial life. There are two more ways that we can make liquid for our spa-loving beasties, and moons have it all.

Firstly, while liquid water may not exist on the surfaces of bodies in the solar system, it may be maintained beneath the surface.  The heat generated by the tidal friction between moons and their giant host planets like Jupiter and Saturn is enough to melt lower layers of ice into sub-surface ocean, as in Europa and Enceladus (see above) and possibly Ganymede.  Contact between these extensive oceans and a warm rocky core would also provide minerals and nutrients needed for the maintenance of life, and occasional cracking of the overlying ice will provide access to rare gaseous elements and oxidisers in the thin atmospheres.  Europa is usually considered the main target for our next step in the search for extraterrestrial life, and amino acids, the building blocks of life, have been detected in the icy plumes of Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

But liquid water is not the only way.  Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, has a strange and intricate landscape of ice that has been shaped by weather.  Weather that is entirely methane and ethane, rather than water.  Methane clouds, methane rain, methane rivers and methane lakes.  Because of its lower freezing point, methane can exist as a liquid on the surface of Titan, and this liquid may be all that an extraterrestrial life form needs.  The metabolism of such a life form would have to be radically different to the metabolisms of Earth-based life – having to make its food from methane and nitrogen, instead of water and carbon dioxide, but scientists are still optimistic.  Titan is up there on the list for ET-hunters.

Moons are awesome, I hope this little essay has helped convince.  They are the hottest topic in solar system research, and in astrobiology at the moment, and I hope the love and passion and attention that they receive in the future will continue to contribute to the escalating bank of knowledge and marvelous discoveries.  At the very least, there will be another lunar eclipse in a couple of years.  Maybe the weather will be good this time.

The Next Generation of Science Media: Termites, Saplings and Sense-makers.

The following was written for the ABSW features website, and was incorporated into a large piece with contributions from other young journalists, including the very clever chaps at BlueSci Magazine (the Cambridge Science Magazine).  The feature can be found here
On May 11th, Jesus College, Cambridge played host to an intimate conference, ‘The Next Generation of Science Media’, welcoming participants from a wide range of companies, and disciplines with science and science communication.  The conference encouraged discussion between all participants and made for a fascinating intensive day of discussion between some of the country’s leading science journalists and many others.

The day began with a session led by John Naughton of the Open University and the Observer, and by Lou Woodley from Nature Publishing group.  The session theme was ‘Science Journalism in the Era of New Media: Opportunities and Challenges’, and it served as an excellent introduction to topics of discussion that were revisited throughout the day.  The ‘new media’ is characterised by the open and individual opportunities created by the internet, as opposed to mainstream print media dominated by large news organisations. The traditional view of science journalists as ‘gate-keepers of science’  must be modified, Naughton said, as ‘they stand at the gate, but there are no longer any fences.’  He added, ‘Science journalists are now curators, guides, navigators and sense-makers.’ Science journalism was metaphorically compared to a densely interconnected ecosystem, with different types of communicators and journalists working together to ‘add value’ to news stories which break more quickly and easily than ever before.  This metaphor was expanded to explain a host of phenomena in new media, including the replacement of the ‘elephants and dinosaurs’ of large mainstream media organisations, by the ‘acid-shooting termites’ that dominate the expansive blogosphere today.  The spread of internet communities was compared with an ecological catastrophe that can wipe out a rainforest ecosystem, and replace it with new populations of saplings (new ideas and approaches to science communication), which must be given time and space to grow and develop, to show their full potential.  Naughton concluded by saying that ‘science writer’ is no longer an accurate term, and in the era of the new media, journalists are should be true ‘multimedia practitioners.’