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That “top-secret” spaceplane… October 18, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Science, US Politics.
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… that would be this one, would it?

Secret Space Plane

Which an article in the Guardian notes (to the amusement of some comments BTL on the article) that it…

landed Friday at an air force base on the southern California coast.

Given that secrecy perhaps it’s a surprise to learn that it is known that…

The plane spent nearly two years circling Earth on a classified mission.

And what about it’s name, that’s surely classified… or not.

Known as the X-37B, it resembles a mini space shuttle.

Well, that’s obvious from the photos… the photos that were ‘stills from video’… stolen… no, actually, ‘made available by the Vandenberg Air Force Base’.

Well that’s none too clear, the infra red photo… so there’s still some mystery about what it looks like…

…if you haven’t seen this – credited to US AIR FORCE/Reuters.


And it’s highly implausible that much more is known, isn’t it… about it’s genesis, well other than:

The X-37B program has been an orphan of sorts, bouncing since its inception in 1999 between several federal agencies, Nasa among them. It now resides under the air force’s rapid capabilities office.

Or the numbers of aerospace craft actually built or the number of missions:

The plane that landed Friday is one of two built by Boeing. This is the program’s third mission, and began in December 2012.

Or its dimensions and features…

The plane stands 9.5ft tall and is just over 29ft long, with a wingspan under 15ft. It weighs 11,000lbs and has solar panels that unfurl to charge its batteries once in orbit.

Or future plans…

The air force said it plans to launch the fourth X-37B mission from Cape Canaveral, Florida, next year.

But that’s it… except for this wiki page devoted to the X-37B and previous iterations.

Which contains photographs of this remarkably covert vehicle dating from… erm… 2010.


More seriously, worth noting that the USAF has this sort of capability during a period when due to the retirement of the space shuttle the ability of the US to launch humans into Earth orbit necessitates using Russian launchers.

And a much more intriguing series of questions relate to what it actually does, and what it is intended to do.

Of course the USAF has long had a parallel programme (or used some shuttle missions) of launches. And there have been persistent rumours on the fringes of a covert USAF manned spaceflight capability, but the existence of this makes that seem unlikely.

Science and not science. Really not science. September 13, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Crazed nonsense..., Science.
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This is fairly annoying, even by the standards of the British tabloid press. Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy notes how the Express has run a series of articles with only a tangential relation to astronomy. Tangential, as in none.

A scientist writes… August 11, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Science.

I hadn’t checked in on Dr. William Reville in the Irish Times in a while, but this column is fantastic. In many senses…

Science now believes that inert matter spontaneously sparked into life 3.8 billion years ago and evolved to produce mind. But matter cannot therefore be that “inert”, since it must intrinsically bear the potential for life.


Also, Midgley holds that natural selection alone cannot fully explain the prodigious fruitfulness of life.


Although it filters the life options that confront it, it cannot account for the intrinsic nature of these options. Therefore, life itself, and its most complex manifestation, the human mind, is far from being fully explained by science.


Watching the skies August 9, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Science, Uncategorized.

This hasn’t much to do with anything in particular. Last night I was out looking up at the sky, and very clear it was too, around 10.30 or 10.45 and saw a very bright light crossing West/East or SouthWest/NorthEast followed on exactly the same track (so to speak) by a dimmer one. It/they weren’t jets, so I’m presuming they were satellites, and if anyone can identify them all the better (and actually just found this which suggests it was indeed the International Space Station, but what was the thing behind it, something moving into position with it? – and indeed, reading further it appears that it was [ESA’s space freighter ATV Georges Lemaître] ATV-5 vehicle). A long time since I’ve seen anything so it was kind of nice.

Meanwhile somehow found this online, a map of Berlin from space last year. I wonder are the divisions the article points to quite as stark as it suggests. Anyone on the ground (again, so to speak) able to support that line or not?

Atomic Rockets June 21, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Science, Science Fiction.

…a site to lose oneself in if science and science fiction are your thing.

Counter-Earths… May 24, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Science, Uncategorized.
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Here’s an oddity, some may remember the entertaining and flawed Gerry Anderson big screen excursion, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun where astronaut Ray Thinnes – and spoiler alert here – finds himself crash-landing on a planet on the far side of the sun which is a copy of Earth in every detail, bar that everything is reversed (i.e. text is ‘backwards’). It’s not great, very limited in conception but it’s sort of fun and as always there are those great Anderson models of space ships and so on. Here’s the trailer…

But here’s another twist on that idea, a TV movie that until recently I had no idea existed, called The Stranger from 1973, which is available on YouTube in its entirety. Astronaut crash lands on a planet called Terra, which is on the far side of the sun. This planet is similar enough to Earth – absurdly so, vehicle types are the same, the language is English, but has three moons and is run by a global totalitarianism called the ‘Perfect Order’. It was produced by Bing Crosby … and was clearly intended as the pilot for a ‘Fugitive’ like series, and if you watch it you’ll see why it was never picked up. Though the idea itself, absurd as it is, is sort of interesting (Land of the Giants sort of took some of the conceptual slack on that too).

Counter-Earth stories are something I like, though as can be seen here the idea doesn’t hold up once one looks at the science. The perturbations of a planet in Earth orbit on the far side of the Sun would be long evident across the solar system. Unless of course there was a highly advanced technological society there which could somehow mask… no, but that way lies madness.

Some may remember the increasingly unpleasant Gor novels which had a similar conceit, but there’s many more examples. Indeed it is perhaps time someone did a modern version, perhaps along the lines of that concealed high tech advanced civilisation in our own solar system.

And yet, while we may mock the idea of planets that were similar, or even identical, to Earth? One of the variations on parallel universe/many worlds theories is the following, which when I first read about it in Scientific American many years ago genuinely struck me as bizarre, perhaps even a bit unnerving…

Copycat regions of the universe: We now turn from the exceedingly small to the incomprehensibly large. If the universe is infinite, as many cosmologists surmise, then if you travel far enough you will eventually reach regions nearly identical to ours. That’s because if you take a finite number of elements and mix them into an infinite number of combinations, eventually chance will reproduce one of the previous arrangements. It is like playing tic-tac-toe—play enough times and you are bound to repeat yourself. Hence somewhere, by pure chance, there could be a near-parallel Earth where a nearly-identical version of you is reading this article on a parchment scroll illuminated by a glowworm.

And not just near identical, but identical

Beyond the Hubble Volume. We know with some certainty that there’s “more universe” out there beyond that boundary, though. Astronomers think space might be infinite, with “stuff” (energy, galaxies, etc.) distributed pretty much the same as it is in the observable universe. If it is, that has some seriously weird implications for what lies out there. Beyond the Hubble Volume you won’t just find more, different planets. You will eventually find every possible thing. Read that again and let it sink in. Everything. If you go far enough, you’ll find another solar system with an Earth identical in every way except that you had cereal for breakfast this morning instead of eggs. And another where you skipped breakfast. And one where you got up early and robbed a bank. In fact, cosmologists think that if you go far enough, you will find another Hubble Volume that is perfectly identical to ours. There’s another version of you out there mirroring your every action 10 to the 10^188 meters away. That may seem unlikely, but then, infinity is awfully infinite.

Just think, another European Election, another local election… Yep, great.

In orbit they’re decades behind… March 15, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Science, Technology.
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…is the thought one has reading an interview with British astronaut Tim Peake in the Observer.

Is the space station full of 90s tech?

Sort of. It’s very weird [laughs]. I used to be a military test pilot so I’m trained to be extremely critical of cockpits and ergonomics. We strive for a very high level of performance in our military aircraft. I thought the space industry would be along the same lines, but the ISS first launched in 1998. Even then, the Russians used the same blueprints as for the Mir space station, so some of it goes back even further, to the late 70s. Then a Soviet space station is attached to an American one, with European and Japanese labs attached to that … Well, it’s never going to be seamless. There’s a lot of workarounds and old technology. On the Soyuz craft, the Russians have an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy, so there are huge oxygen valves that haven’t been changed since the 60s.

Sounds a bit Doctor Who or slightly steampunk?

Yes! It’s a funny, fascinating blend of old and new. And it’ll stay that way because the ISS will be up there until 2024. New technology’s constantly going on board. We’ve got highly advanced equipment like the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, which looks for dark matter outside the space station, but an antiquated environment in other respects. There’s iPads and Google Glasses, mixed with clunky, shoebox-sized units. But it all works and that’s the beauty of it. We’ve managed to bring nations and technologies together.

In a way it’s no surprise. The Soviet/Russian approach of tried and trusted tech makes a lot of sense. Indeed one could argue that the reappraisal of what is near enough 1950s/60s technology by the United States in the aftermath of the end of the Shuttle programme is not dissimilar. Lobbing capsules into orbit is a far cry from the idea of a reusable space plane. Sure, it didn’t work out that way, but if feels like a retreat.

But there’s another point here. I’d not realised the ISS was going to be decommissioned in 2024. But even there we see different approaches as evidenced here. The Russians hope to reuse elements of the ISS as the core of future stations.

And this, from last year, is sobering:

NASA’s efforts to develop capabilities for both commercial cargo and crew currently only have the ISS as a destination. When the ISS is finally splashed into the Pacific, there will be no destination and no market for Dragon, Dream Chaser, Cygnus, and CST-100 if no replacement is developed. If the replacement is another government-owned and -developed station, the growth potential for commercial cargo and crew will be limited. If commercial stations can be successful, commercial financing opportunities of space based businesses will have the potential for more rapid growth.

In other words there’s the chance that an international station won’t be in orbit post-2024. Whether the much-vaunted commercial space sector can take up the slack seems to be a very open question. And meanwhile some states are taking a – perhaps – longer term view.

Dark skies…over Southwest Kerry February 1, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Astronomy, Science.

Some good news for sky watchers…

A 700sq km area in southwest Kerry is expected to be named an international “dark sky reserve”, securing the highest designation for the exceptional quality of its night sky.

It will be the first region in Ireland to receive such an award and – if it achieves “gold-tier” reserve status – the first region in the northern hemisphere to get this designation, spawning hopes for an astro-tourism spin-off.

More on brain scans and the differences, or not, between men and women… December 5, 2013

Posted by guestposter in Science.

Many thanks to ivorthorne for writing this in response to the post here on the most recent report on brainscans and supposed “hard-wiring” of distinctiveness between women and men.

I’d second the recommendation on the thread above to read the Satel and Lilienfeld book.

Neuroscience can be useful. It typically offers a descriptive analysis. The problem is that it is often used improperly i.e. people use it as though it offered a causal analysis. I could talk about the good and the bad at length, but for the purposes of this site, I think the most useful thing I could do is post a quote from Nicholas Torneke:

“Many modern cognitive theories or information processing theories use neurobiology in their explanatory models and see different brain structures and activity taking place with them as causes of behaviour. Although seemingly more scientific, this is much the same as the assumptions underlying hypothetical structures like schemas. And even though brain structures are obviously available for contact in time and space, the basic, pragmatic objection remains: Brain structures, or what occurs in them, are not external to the behaviour they are said to cause. They are, in fact, a part of the same beahviour. If I lift my hand, events are taking place in my arm, my shoulder, my aorta, my brain and more. But all of these phenomena are a part of my action of lifting my hand. In behaviour analysis, behaviour is defined as an action performed by the organism as a whole, and a part of the action cannot explain the action in its entirety. The behaviour of ‘lifting my hand’ is an action performed by me as an entire organism and what takes place in my brain cannot suffice as the cause of my action, and more than what happens in my arm, my shoulder or my aorta. All of these are contributing elements and therefore are parts of the action. And in the behaviour analytic approach, the cause of the act cannot be a component of the action itself; causes must be sough in events the precede and/or follow the action. They are to be found in the action’s context.”

Torneke would be a modern behaviourist who follows in the footsteps of B.F. Skinner (who CLR readers might be interested to know, was something of an anarchist). Skinner and the radical behaviourists focused on causal explanations. Skinner thought that scientific accounts of psychology should focus on natural selection (species), cultural selection (culture) and selection by consequences (individual).

Reading the Independent article, I’m reminded of brain imaging research into pianists and taxi drivers. Both of these groups are found to have had neurological differences from their non-taxi driver and non-pianist peers. Would anybody seriously claim that they are “hardwired” to be taxi drivers or pianists?

If people don’t believe that people are genetically hardwired to become pianists or taxi-drivers, why are they so quick to accept that men and women are “hard-wired” to become masculine or feminine. Studies indicate that people are far more likely to support psychological theories when they correspond to their beliefs. When people are confronted with research that goes against their beliefs, they tend to believe that these beliefs are not something that can be validly studied.

Of course, it would be equally ridiculous to suggest that men and women are constructed without any input from their genetic inheritance. Some of the ridiculous reactions to evolutionary psychology illustrate this. However, it is important to note that adaptations related to psychological characteristics, typically come in the form of dispositions or preparedness to learn certain behaviours, They are not reflexes or fixed action patterns.

One example of the brain ‘neuroplasticity’ can be found in the case of autism. Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder. It is generally agreed that there is a strong genetic component. It is typically described as a life-long condition. That said, a study published last year showed that many of those who received the Early Start Denver Model behavioural intervention demonstrated increases in IQ, social skills and normalised brain functioning in comparison to a control group. That is to say, that they presented with an atypically functioning brain (as measured by EEG) for certain measured activities and after treatment they presented with a typical brain activity. This showed that even in a condition regarded as chronic and global and with a population who find it difficult to learn, brain activity changes in response to environmental alterations.

Anyway, I’ve gone on longer than I’d hoped to, but the last thing I’d like to add is a link to a 2008 study. It shows why articles like the Independent’s are so influential.


People are more likely to believe the same argument when the argument is presented alongside a brain image than when it is not.

For some good advice on how to deal with neuro-bunk, try this Guardian article instead:


Pianist brains:


Taxi Drivers:


The Torneke quote comes from here:

Learning RFT: An Introduction to Relational Frame Theory and Its Clinical Application

Learning RFT: An Introduction to Relational Frame Theory and Its Clinical Application

Buy from Amazon

More info on the EDSM study:


Scale October 26, 2013

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Astronomy, Science, Uncategorized.

It’s odd, it’s only in the last few months that I realised just how small the Moon is in relation to the Earth. Sure, I knew it was smaller, but I hadn’t thought about that fact in any detail probably in decades. If you asked me how much smaller I’d probably have guestimated somewhere about somewhere less than an half and greater than a third the size diameter (see comments) of the Earth. But no, the Moon is considerably smaller than that again.

How much? Well, look at these images here, about or a little less than a quarter the diameter.



And that’s interesting because recently looking at the Shadow of the Moon documentary, and this is probably what unconsciously sparked my thoughts in this direction, it seemed to me that the journey from the Command Module to the surface of the Moon seemed quite short. Very short. And it probably was, even accounting for editing, because the Moon has a surface area about that of Asia. Indeed look again at the image above and you’ll see that set up against the Earth (let’s not try that experiment for real – eh, folks?) it would be about as ‘high’, as Africa.

But that sparks a further thought. How far away is it? Well, the easy answer is that it’s … of course it is. But let’s think about that in more human terms of scale. Here’s the ever excellent Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog and a post on just this matter.
If the Earth is the size of a basket ball and the Moon a tennis ball, and the ratio is more or less spot on, more rather than less I hasten to add, then the Moon would be 24 feet away! That’s quite a distance. There’s a bunch of videos on YouTube that show what other planets would look like if they were orbiting the Earth at the same distance as the Moon. I can’t say how accurate they are, some are probably there or thereabouts.

But as Plait says:

I’m sometimes asked what’s the one thing I wish people would understand better about the Universe. My answer is always the same: scale. We humans have a miserable sense of just how big space is, and I’ve spent a lot of time over the years working out ways to express it better.


Space is big. Very, very big.

And using the same scale Plait makes a very thought provoking point. How far away is the nearest star from Earth?

It would be — to scale, mind you — 800,000 km (480,000 miles) away: twice as far as the real Moon is from the real Earth!

I’ve been thinking a lot about the prospects for human interstellar travel, and I’m moving to a position where I wonder if sheer scale is just too great a challenge, at least for the foreseeable future. Humans are notoriously bad at future planning, and there’s no proof that our artefacts can survive the sort of time spans required. Add those together and the lack of viable technologies and the future looks… isolated.

Charles Stross deals with this issue here… and funnily enough Robert Silverberg in the current edition of Asimov’s raises the point in a slightly different context.


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