Thursday, March 27, 2003

Misner, Thorne, & Wheeler:

Oh yeah, and Jack Wisdom too. Science 299 5614 pp.1865-69 (10.1126/science.1081406) has an article by Wisdom on how a cyclically pulsating body could swim against space-time. Wisdom's explicit calculations involve a sort of mathematical jellyfish with three legs that change lengths and squeeze inwards in successive pulses. A relativistic inchworm.

Apparently it is possible to actually have a net translation in space simply by making cyclic changes in the shape of the object. The main problem with this is that the distance you would actually move is proportional to several things that are either really small (the size of the object and its relative movements), or are inversely proportional to things that are really big (the speed of light squared, and the distance from the body curving space-time). Wisdom calculates that a body of about a meter size, doing meter-sized cycles on the surface of the Earth would move about 10^-23 meters per cycle.

My back of the envelope thinking: assuming such an object could withstand a mechanical frequency of 200 Hz (not out of the range for high performance internal combustion engines), it would take just under 16 billion years to move its own length.

For this particular set of assumptions the amount of displacement is proportional to the mass creating the curvature and inversely proportional to the cube of one's distance from it. The trick, then, is to be really close to a black hole and start doing the shimmy. What about an extreme case, the super massive black hole at the center of our galaxy? This raises the central mass by a factor of about three trillion compared to Wisdom's Earth case. The distance change is trickier, because I fear that getting close will change some of the assumptions Wisdom made, since relativistic effects become important inside about 30 billion km from a black hole this big. Blindly I plough ahead (ignoring tidal effects on the apparatus), assume Wisdom's assumptions hold inside this distance (house of cards?) and can figure out that to equal or be greater than the translation effect on the Earth's surface, one needs to be closer than 100,000 km to the black hole. Unfortunately, this is also inside the Schwarzschild radius, or event horizon. No joy there.

Not a promising mode of locomotion in any neighbourhood, apparently.

 Wednesday, March 26, 2003

Fossey & Redmond:

I am not an optimist when it comes to the likelihood of preserving endangered species in the wild.

There is simply too much economic pressure to avoid this kind of consequence. For example, take our closest relatives, the great apes (chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans). A great deal of sympathy for them exists in many societies, but many of these species will be exterminated in less than 20 years.

Gorilla beringei beringei: 650 individuals left
Gorilla beringei graurei: in 1996 there were 17,000, but in 2003 there are only 2,500 left
Gorilla gorilla diehli: 150 individuals left
Pan paniscus: (the Bonobo chimp) 10 years or less left
Pongo abelii: (the Sumatran orang) 5 years left

Many reserchers believe that Homo sapiens has eliminated competition throughout its existence, and that other hominids like Homo neanderthalensis were wiped out by our advance. But it is also possible that we simply reabsorbed neanderthal into the ever swirling gene pool. Reabsorption is not possible in the case of the other apes - social norms and genetic distance assure that.

In the case of the gorillas, there are two main factors driving their extinction. First, the invasion of poor miners into their habitat. The miners are cutting roads and dredging mud from streams and rivers to extract coltan ore, which is used by the microprocessor industry for the current explosive growth in the cellphone and lap-top market. And the other factor? Ebola virus. It's very likely that tens of thousands of primates have died a pretty horrible death from it. And the mining roads bring the virus out to us, along with the ore.

"Talk away, monkey boy!"

 Monday, March 24, 2003

Schatz, Cumming, & Bildsten:

Put-puts in the sky. Astronomers looking in the X-ray band have been observing some very strange bursts coming from what are presumed to be binary systems with a closely bound neutron star partner.

The current explanation is that these burps of energy occur as hydrogen and helium stripped from the partner's surface settle onto the neutron star's surface, and when a sufficient amount has accumulated to give the right pressure/temperature combination, it then ignites a thermonuclear reaction to form carbon. These bursts last only fractions of a second, and radiate a large amount of energy that is visible. However, it is the next stage that is of interest: these carbon ashes in turn accumulate, and mix with much of the pre-existing material in the star, including heavier elements. Calculations indicate that a several hundred-meter thick layer can accumulate before it too meets the right conditions for this enriched carbon mixture to 'burn,' producing iron. Apparently this takes only a few tens of years, so there is a good possibility of seeing a repeat event from a previously observed neutron burst.

These 'neutron star superbursts' are quite small compared to grand cosmic events like novae or supernovae, but they reflect the same basic process - a star's matter is crushed between gravity's attraction and the out-fleeing radiation from thermonuclear processes below, which leads to thermonuclear ignition and the production of heavier elements. In the case of novae, the runaway reactions that are so violent they blow the outer layers completely off the star, but in the case of neutron stars, the combustible material runs out quickly, and all that is ejected is a strong pulse of radiation, including the X-rays we have detected here on Earth.

Because of the fact that no material is ejected, there is a lesser chance that we all have some atoms inside our bodies from this kind of process, compared to the novae-produced heavy elements. But not impossible.

Aconcagua diary, conclusion:

Part 7 of 7

March 24th: We leave the first camp. The silence is oppressive, for even the mountain has not spoken for a while. Our feet break the silence, crunching and squeaking in the snow. We look back several times towards the vertical face, which looks so distant in the bright sunshine, a picture from a postcard to others, but so much of Alberto and Robert for us. We will always remember the snow in the crannies of the cairn that we erected for the unfound bodies. We leave, saluting their lives, and what they lived for: climbing in the mountains. We also must salute the majesty of the mountain that remains completely unmoved by such a small occurrence, the death of two men. We attach so much to a mountain, but there is really only man against his own errors, his errors being interpreted as Nature's intent.

Aconcagua is left as it was. A few pitons more, and the bodies of two men. But what those men were, their lives and characters, is blown away like the snow plume. Aconcagua will be the same tomorrow. Immutable, flaunting that white plume from the very peak, where we felt such joy, but which now meant such sorrow.

-- written in Toronto, December 3, 1979

 Sunday, March 23, 2003

Aconcagua diary, continued:

Part 6 of 7

March 23rd: It is a beautiful day. The cirrus clouds are fine, and scud far above us, stretching their tails to the far horizon. We will begin to pack in the camp and move down within the half-hour.

09:00: It is terrible. We thought of it below, before starting, but on the climb it was forgotten, or never mentioned. The circumstances join, and the unthinkable occurs. The belayer is off-balance. Bundy and Vélez were partners, with Vélez belaying He was moving a wafer piton when Bundy's grip crumbled. He shouted "Falling!" and Vélez grabbed for the line in the chock to his right. His fingers just missed, and his anchors took the shock of two men falling. They held for an instant, but the temporary relief left and gave way to horror as the mother rock around the wafer crumbled and the anchors sang. We were too far away to catch a line, and could only stand with our faces against the granite, not wanting to look and see the twirling bodies, but unable to look away. They fell out from the face, and disappeared into the snow at the base. We immediately set some special lines to lean out for any signs, even though we knew there would be none after that fall. We are in a rush to get to the impact point, but now we must be even more careful than before.

Later: On our way down the face, blowing snow obliterated all traces, and we are left only with our judgement. We moved horizontally many times, and so we are unsure of the exact site. We could find no trace of them, and erected a cairn with the scattered talus where we thought they had fallen. Bundy was carrying some of our food, so we must get to the first camp to replenish our supplies. There is not much worry, for we have food for three, and are only four. But the sickening thought of their fall! We cannot erase the sight of the crumbling wafer. Nothing much is said, but we all see Aconcagua in a different light.

Later: We passed across the field, and arrived at our camp. We could not help but think that there would only be two pup tents up tonight, instead of three. The snow is annoyingly deep again, with some dangerously deep powder pockets.

It is this sort of jolt that makes one realize exactly how fragile a man's life is - a constant process of accumulating and correcting errors, with the balance liable to tip at any point. We think of those waiting for Robert and Alberto back in Santiago, who at the moment think of them as they were, and who are hoping, praying that a disaster will not occur. I cannot even begin to think of how I am going to break the news to them. We do not talk of it, but sit on our haunches, drinking coffee to keep from dropping of exhaustion, for we must prepare the camp for our departure tomorrow, doing the work of six packers. We will have to abandon some equipment here, for there is too much for the four of us.

 Saturday, March 22, 2003

Aconcagua diary, continued:

Part 5 of 7

March 22nd: The day continues clear, and the wind has dropped slightly, for the plume is smaller. We start our ascent immediately. Everybody is excited - today we conquer Aconcagua.

5:45: I sit on a pyramid of snow and rock. A pyramid 22,800 feet tall. We have made it! A non-oxygen assisted ascent, with a team of six. A great achievement. We are all sitting in a circle on the summit, facing outwards, looking at six different worlds. No one is saying much, but there is a definite twinkle in everyone's eyes. We sit for a while, but we know we must soon return the way we have come, to face a different kind of climb - the climb down.

18:00: We have made it further down than we climbed yesterday. We are better climbers now, as Aconcagua has added our names to those who know its top. We sleep now.

I lie in the warmth. The warmth that is generated by the feeling of victory. I have defeated the summit. All that remains is the descent. But the descent cannot be ignored, for it is just as difficult, if not more difficult than the ascent. On ascent, there is a different type of goal than simply that of security; there is also zeal. The descent is often treated lightly, and it would be easier if our heads were near our feet, to more clearly see what one was trusting, as rocks tended to give way at the most awkward moments. I drifted into a deep sleep, regaining some of the sleep I had lost during the storm. I dreamt that all the snow had melted, and that there was a sticky slush all around in which it was very difficult to walk. Alberto Vélez shook me from the dream, and light streamed in the tent. The 23rd had begun.

 Friday, March 21, 2003

Aconcagua diary, continued:

Part 4 of 7

March 21st: This morning we hurriedly scaled the ledge and made it to the plateau. The snow is very deep from the storm. We passed through the plateau, and decided not to leave a camp, but press on.

10:00: We have reached the arrête. It is a relief to walk on rock, for the snow was extremely tiring. Now we must walk along the knife-edge to the summit. Simple, so simple.

14:00: A late lunch. Our spirits are up, for the snow here has mostly been blown away. We are all feeling well, and have no problems. Michael still has not run out of film, and is now recording pictorially the day to day progress of Peter's beard. Hernán keeps complaining that the toilet seats are cold here. I wonder how much heaters would cost in these parts.

15:00: A stiff wind has picked up, but the air remained clear. The sights are beautiful, for now we can see our target, a great boost to the morale of our team. We can also see other mountains all around, most with their peaks below us. We shall continue until five o'clock.

18:00: Cold dinner. Cold air here. The wind continues to blow, but the only snow comes from the plumes torn from the fields. The summit itself is sporting a plume that caught the last rays of the day. Symbolic, I thought. Was it a taunt? We will pack in for the night, and reach the summit tomorrow.

 Thursday, March 20, 2003

Aconcagua diary, continued:

Part 3 of 7

March 20th: Robert woke me with some steaming coffee. At first I thought I was back in Santiago, but the silence soon told me we were still on Aconcagua. We start the vertical face today. It should be steady going, and we should be on top within the day.

We can see the cloud tops, and as the sun rose, we were blessed with a magnificent view, for the cloud tops caught the orange glow, and all around, as though there was a sea of fire surrounding us, wisps of flame leapt up out of the dark blue mass below. Michael must have used a lot of film, for I could hear him exclaiming each time he shot a frame.

Later: The clouds seem to be rising, and the glare is beginning to get serious. We packed the camp in, readying it for our stay here on our descent. We couldn't take all our equipment up this face. As I write, perched on a ledge, suspended by two chocks, I can see the green dots far away that are our packages, wrapped in tarps. They will get much smaller as we ascend.

This was the real part of the climb: the search for hand-holds, the jamming of the chocks, and the ring of the pitons as they wedged into the cracks in the rock. The knowledge that a slip could cause an awful scare, and the hope that your belayer was well fastened: this was all part of the challenge of the mountain.

The mountain was an inanimate object, but we insisted on giving it a personality. The frustration when we reached a dead end, and had to back-track. These all occurred during the day, but climbers can never accustom themselves to the yell "Falling!" which causes such a rush of adrenaline. Several times we slipped, but the anchors held firm, and we only suffered jolts as we were stopped in mid-air, suspended like spiders on their silk, with no idea of how far there was to fall. This was difficult - more difficult than we had anticipated, and as the day wore on, we lagged farther and farther behind our estimates. We decided to split up into teams of three. Or rather one team of three seeking a possible ascent route, and the other team seeking a parallel path. If one team came to a dead end, they crossed to the ongoing climb, and the first team again searched out a parallel path. In this way, we were able to speed our pace, but the fading light was not helping. The clouds had risen up the mountain, and a fog had again closed in, and the strong sunlight's warmth faded to a cold damp grey glare. The weather was known to be very changeable, but we continued to climb.

March 20th, continued: We have been forced to stop by a freezing rain. The rock face glistens in an eerie light, which seems to come from no particular direction, but pervades all.

Later: The weather is worsening as snow is starting to be whipped around by rising winds. We are about 200 feet below the plateau, but those 200 feet could take one hundred years in this weather. We have decided to strap in on a ledge.

Well, we aren't on the plateau. We are a few hundred feet from it. But the winds stop us from trying, as we would be lifted off the face like aerofoils, to dangle in the wind and possibly injured by swinging to and fro against the rock.

I am strapped into one of the most uncomfortable-looking beds known: a sleeping bag in a nylon cover, looking like a shoe with enormous laces as all the lines hold me onto the rock face. No matter what my nightmares, I hope to be restrained from tumbling off into the snow and darkness. My nose alone is exposed to the rarefied air, by by body heat keeps my nose from freezing solid. These are the nights one wishes sleep would come quickly. A cold nose, over-tired body, and a hyper-active mind are frustrating. I cannot sleep for the thoughts that race through my mind. Finally I slip away. Morning breaks, and there is a clarity not seen before. The sea of clouds has gone, and the Pacific Ocean itself is visible as a thin blue band, far to the West.

 Wednesday, March 19, 2003

...with the mostest:

A friend of mine was invited to a dinner at the State Department tonight for a Presidential awards ceremony recognizing excellence in teaching.

"Timing is everything," he said. I asked if there was going to be a widescreen TV, and if he was going to wear a Kevlar cummerbund. His wife declined, and will remain at home, installing plastic over all the windows in their basement.

I was pleased to see that the Academy, bless their bleeding hearts, consented to have their awards ceremony interrupted should there be any important world developments. What? Developments more important than awarding each other Oscars? Please. The NBA, on the other hand, is taking the hard-nosed business decision of switching contracts to cable, where interruptions by things like, say, war, will be less intrusive.

Can't we just airdrop Bruce Willis? I just know he would defeat entire armies single-handedly.

 Tuesday, March 18, 2003

Aconcagua diary, continued:

Part 2 of 7

Saturday, March 18th: Today we began the ascent. We left Uspeche at seven, after a small but satisfying breakfast. All equipment OK. Velez and Feld are carrying rations, Bundy and Ulloa the spare ropes. We will operate on a rotation-type system, distributing loads. Peter has decided to solve his problem by growing a beard. The roads away from Uspeche are muddy.

13:00 Lunch. Canned chicked done on the Primus. My compliments to the chef. All sorts of mosses and lichens about, but none of the colour that was seen below. We are approaching the arrete from the North-West, so the actual summit will remain hidden from us until we reach the first peak of the arrete itself, which we hope to do by the 20th. More later. We hope to make good ground, for the weather seems good.

Standing at nearly twenty-three thousand feet, Aconcagua is the highest mountain in the Americas. Three thousand feet higher than Denali, in the longest mountain chain in the world - the Andes. Aconcagua stands in Argentina, a few miles from the border with Chile, but it is much closer to Chilean cities of any size than to the nearest large Argentine cities, Mendoza and Buenos Aires, miles to the East. It was for this reason that we had come from Santiago on the Chilean side, and chosen to go through the customs at Uspallata rather than to get billed a lot more for shipping through B.A. This was one of more difficult climbs, for mountains are not necessarily rated simply by their height, but by the ease or difficulty in attaining the summit. Aconcagua did happen to be a rather high mountain, and a difficult one, but we could not think of that now. We were on our way. Up.

March 18th, continued: At around three we passed the passive snow line. Strange shapes, mushroom-like, about six inches tall, were everywhere, giving a fairy tale atmosphere to the already strange surroundings. These snow mushrooms were the product of different rocks, as each rock held a different amount of heat, and melted the snow differently. Or so Hernan says. He (Ulloa) also pointed out some strange rodents in the distance. I forget the name he used, but he did say no one knows what they eat. I suggested rock. They'd never run out. There's plenty all around - strange to see no green.

By five even the lichens had started to disappear, and we passed up into the eternal snow. About a foot deep, this snow might have been here for years. The only sounds are the winds, the trudging of our feet, and the voices of the mountains themselves: the incessant adjusting of the snow mantles, an eerie creaking and groaning, and the occasional thunder as a hanging glacier lets a fragment fall. We can see two enormous glacier faces from our path, and Peter estimates they are at least five hundred yards thick. They seem to be in slow motion, as a piece will tumble interminably before it crashes, the sound reaching us seconds later.

By six it was dark, and we stopped to set up camp. A thick fog enveloped the area, and the lamps projected shadows of giants as we walked around. We just had dinner, also hot. We plan to be asleep by nine o'clock. The ground is hard, and pegging the pup tents proved vigorous.

The first day had gone well. We had covered our estimated distance, as well as made up some for the next day. As I lay on my cot, I could hear the mountain shift. The sound went on regardless, day or night, winter or summer. Even now, before the cold started, there was this continual shifting of snow masses that gave the mountains their strange reverberations. We were warm in our down bags, while outside the air skidded by, below freezing. Comforting. I had to be careful to channel my thoughts away from those of isolation, and the urge to wake up Robert subsided as I thought of the day to come. Tomorrow held a particularly hard leg, the climbing of a rock face, several hundred feet high, up to an easy plateau, gently sloping again until the rocks jutted skywards. Tomorrow we would ascend this face, and camp on the plateau above.

 Monday, March 17, 2003

Aconcagua: Diary of a Mountain

Earlier this year I mentioned that I would post a short story I wrote in 1977 about climbing Aconcagua. This is fiction written by a 14 year old. I will post this each day as if they were entries in a log.

Part 1 of 7

Friday, March 17, 1972 Today I begin the log. The log of the climb of Aconcagua. We are waiting for our equipment to arrive from Santiago. All of us - Bundy, Feld, Lyford, Velez, and Ulloa, plus myself - arrived yesterday.

We stand looking at all that rock we are going to climb I have no need to answer the question "why?" It is answered from within.

LATER (within a few hours): We received our equipment, but Peter (Lyford) didn't have his claim tickets. Spent a half-hour arguing with the customs clerk, who demanded to see every paper Peter had been officially given. The red tape is thick here! We finally left with Peter's packages, only to find that they had been neatly tampered with. He only lost some toothpaste and his electric razor.

Aconcagua stood in silence. All that was heard was the slow stirring of the leaves as the wind blew over the fields around the town. I stood in the field, gazing up at the jagged arrete that formed the backbone of the mountain. The wind was dry, and I had to blink, not only to stop the constant dryness, but to shut out the bright glare, something I was not quite used to. Uspeche, the base town, was at an altitude of 9,000 feet. That altitude could be felt, not only in the temperature, but in the extra breathing it took to do any work. Within a few days, we were going to be well over twice as high. Aconcagua was twenty-two thousand eight hundred feet high. We had a lot of foot work to go.

 Tuesday, March 04, 2003

Kelvin, Celsius, Reaumur, Rankine, Fahrenheit:

The weather forecast on the radio this morning made me think about a conflict between accepted international standards and common sense.

The radio stream went something like this:

"Today's high temperature will be 40, with continuing rain. Presently, scattered showers, with 45 degrees."

Hey! Last I checked, 45 is higher than 40! And this is exactly the problem - the way the World Meteorological Organization decided to define daily high temperatures apparently makes this stupidity possible. As far as I understand it, the problem is caused by the fact that the meteorological day does not start at midnight, but at noon. This must cause some interesting data-base dating problems...

Ah-so, grasshopper. Now go try and use that excuse when you hand in your weather project a few hours late...

 Monday, March 03, 2003

Eli Lilly:

During a visit to the doctor's office the other day, I was intrigued by a bottle of liquid soap (yes, yes, it doesn't take much...).

The bottle had some sort of logo on it, and the name of some chemical. Let's say it was panaceatidine. Hmm. Interesting. Maybe it's an antibacterial in the soap? So I wash my hands with the product, and then proceed to read the fine print: "This bottle does not contain panaceatidine."

My only conclusion is that the bottle itself is being used as an advertisement for a completely different, pharmaceutical product. That's scary. Are they going to start advertising for Altoids on bottles of Excedrin? This could get pretty confusing.

Nothing that a few good lawsuits couldn't sort out though. I have great confidence in the lawyers, who will make sure we are safe, and they are employed.

 Saturday, March 01, 2003

Lodging in the tropics:

Several of my colleagues are at a meeting in Hanoi. Now that Vietnam has opened up to private enterprise, I was amazed to see that Hilton has a hotel there.

Hmm. Even without a name change...