Friday, October 31, 2003

Vegard, Birkeland, Størmer, Alfvén and Ångstrom:

I have seen the aurora borealis. And they were good. Very good.

I had been getting up during the nights to see if they were there, since kept trumpeting that they would be visible in the South. But the details said places like "Illinois," and as far as I know, that's not the South.

Then along came sunspot 10486, burping out an X17 flare to give us a G5 storm. Or, as Joel Achenbach put it in his Washington Post style section article: "when the Sun hurls, the spew is considerable." enormous that the lights were seen in Texas and Florida. Now that's the South. As I stood in amazement on my driveway, a very faint pink line formed, slowly brightened, and eventually widened out to cover most of the Northern sky. A very faint blue-green line drifted slowly westward along the veil, and faded away. These pulses of colour lasted about five minutes, with long periods of quiescence.

Here's the Defense Meteorological Satellite picture of it all:

At about 7:45 I stepped out again, and after straining to see anything to the North, I realized that the Pleiades to my right were in the middle of an intense pink cloud, and that in fact most of the display was behind me. -- i.e. the actual discharge in the auroral oval was occurring South of Washington. The whole sky above me was a dim pink. I'd bet that was the event seen in Florida.

I'm in awe because that was the first time I had seen them - even after living in Canada for many years, and having been as far North as Greenland on many flights across the Atlantic. The only things I see on those flights are noctilucent clouds - but that's another post.

The red I saw was probably an emission line from atomic oxygen at 6330 Å. The blue-green was probably from atomic nitrogen at 4236 and 4278 Å and atomic oxygen at 5577 Å (as opposed to molecular oxygen). What I do not understand is how this could have been a vertical line within the veil, since the colours are usually distributed horizontally.

Here is the best photo if have found of this colour distribution (taken in Alaska by Jan Curtis):

The upper reds are atomic oxygen above 200 miles (most of what we saw last night), the middle blue-green is the atomic nitrogen/atomic oxygen cascade between 100 and 200 miles, and if you look carefully, there is just a trace of crimson at the bottom, where molecular nitrogen below 100 miles dominates.

And now, my hunt for aurora australis begins...

There are actually also aurora caused by flares from other stars, but they are very, very faint - mostly they affect radio transmissions.

Happy Hallowe'en! (unfortunately, the solar storm will probably have passed us completely by tonight, so we can't expect another show until the Sun burps in our direction again...)

Here are two pumpkins I carved several years ago (left one from a commercial pattern, right one I made myself, based on the "Tresspasser" game.)

 Thursday, October 30, 2003

Sosigenes revisited (and refined!):

In school we learn early that February occasionally has 29 days, rather than 28. Leap years are necessary because the Earth hasn't spun an integral number of times in one year. If we ignore leap years, the calendar starts to diverge from the seasons.

In 325 A.D. The Council of Nicaea decreed that Easter should fall on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. The problem lay in trying to predict what calendar date this would actually fall on, so that the Church could prepare a universal set of timetables for celebrating the correct mass. Very quickly the Church ran into problems when the accumulated errors from non-integral days in a lunar month, non-integral lunar months in a year, and non-integral days in a year all piled up on each other.

The last time we sorted out this problem (because the calendar was different from the seasons by ten days by the 12th century), some very interesting people were involved in the mathematics and structures developed to deal with this dilemma. A good technical read is John Heilbron's The Sun in the Church: Cathedrals as Solar Observatories. (1999, Harvard Univ. Press, 392 pp.)

Well, as you know, the solution was the leap-year. And the non-leap-year leap-years (remember 2000?). And the leap-year non-leap-year leap-years... etc. etc. You get the picture. Successive approximations. A complex problem, with a complex solution.

Well of course the more closely you look at it, the more complicated the whole thing is. The problem is that the Earth's day isn't always constant, either. I talked about Earth's wobbles in a previous post, but the issue here is the length of day, or LOD.

It turns out that there are actually leap-seconds, too. Every couple of years, an extra second is snuck in to your day. Now, it's not as noticeable as that wonderful extra hour of sleep we just got, but it is just as important. The reason is that the Earth's rotation is actually slowing down due to tidal friction (which also means that the Moon is slowly getting farther away, and will eventually be lost). A constant clock would slowly gain on the actual rotation of the Earth at a rate of about 2 minutes every hundred years.

"That's no big deal," you say. And I agree, where personal time is concerned. Humans can't notice changes like that. But computers can. For example, the computers that transfer your mortgage and escrow payments at the very last possible moment, in order to earn all possible interest. "Sorry, your payment was late by 1 second" is not something any bank wants to try and tell you. They know they will get an earful, so a completely standardized time is important. Especially if we want to make e-commerce work.

The surprising thing is that no one has really agreed on how to consistently do the leap-second shimmy thing. There are many brands of time out there -- by which I mean: solar, sidereal, Standard, Greenwich Mean, international atomic, GPS, Universal, and Coordinated Universal. And they all differ. Some by as much as 32 seconds. And not all of them leap at the same time. Not surprisingly, with so many to choose from, there are all kinds of problems built in to many computers because of the initial design choices.

You're damned if you do leap: the UTC leap seconds of 1994 and 1997 crashed the Soviet GLONASS navigation system. ...and you're damned if you don't: at midnight on November 27 2003, Motorola Oncore GPS receivers will skip a day, and then correct themselves within the next second, all because the best guess at the time they were designed was that we would have had another UTC leap second by now.

How to resolve this? By committee, of course! The International Telecommunications Union is studying the problem, and they might decide to throw out the leap second entirely. Just not right now, this second. They want to wait until 2022.

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 Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Viruses or virii?

On the question of the plural of the English word "virus."

<start rant>

Sigh. I can't resist any longer.... Having been sent to an old-style boarding school, I endured several years of Latin and Greek during my teen-age years.

There are some really humorous posts by grammar freaks about this issue on Slashdot, most replied to by others with accusations of being grammar-nazis. I especially liked one which talked about the 'numerative' plurals viri, virii, viriii, viriv, virv, virvi, etc.

I went back to my books, and despite some bad memories of early morning rote memorization, flashbacks of the smell of chalk and of sneering teachers twisting my ears, I found the following. Of course, it's not as simple as one would think.

Here goes:

Not every English word ending in -us forms a plural in -i, for several reasons, in order of importance (sez who?) --

  • Common English usage: campus/-uses, omnibus/-uses (already a dative plural root), rebus/-uses (already an ablative plural root)
  • Some are actually verbs in Latin: ignoramus/-uses, mandamus/-uses
  • They are from a different declension (it is the 2nd that uses -i for the plural form, but not always...):
    • From the 2nd declension: narcissus/-i, nimbus/-i, radius/-i (but common usage also has the plural -uses for these)
    • From the 3rd declension: corpus/-ora, genus/-era, opus/-era (but common usage also has the plural -uses for these)
    • From the 4th declension: apparatus/-uses, hiatus/-uses, impetus/-uses, nexus/-uses, prospectus/-uses, status/-uses

  • They were already irregular in Latin: callus/-uses, octopus/-uses, platypus/-uses, AND, DRUM ROLL PLEASE.... virus/-uses (virii is incorrect, even in Latin)
  • The English and Latin plurals actually have evolved to mean something different in English, called "split evolution": genius -> geniuses (a gathering of Einsteins) vs. genius -> genii (lots of genies from lamps)
  • It's an adjective, duh: dangerous, callous, etc. etc.

All that being said, English is not Latin. In my (gosh, apparently NSH) opinion, those who have tried to force Anglo-Saxon languages to adhere to Latin grammatical patterns have done a lot of harm to countless generations of school children. Two common examples of this shoe-horning for English are: 1) forbidding prepositions at the end of a sentence; and 2) forbidding the "split infinitive." These rules come from Latin, and do not belong in English, except in the minds of Victorian-age grammarians on a mission to prove themselves superior.

Most importantly, English is a living language, and will evolve, like it or not. An example of this today is the slowly disappearing difference between "bring" and "take" when used with "come" and "go" -- if you don't know what I'm talking about, consider yourself already evolved, and more modern than those who still cringe when they hear this "mistake."

Latin and Greek forms of plurals will eventually disappear (and should).

See also (pointed out by Brian McEwen)

And phooey to anyone pointing out grammatical errors in this message.

And now, back to your regular programming...

</end rant>

"Gee... you'd think this was a grammar blog"

 Monday, October 27, 2003

Pop quiz!

Yes, I know, it was not previously announced. Stop grumbling and get out your #2 pencils. Taken from the NSF Survey of Public Attitudes Toward and Understanding of Science and Technology:

  1. All radioactivity is man-made. (True/False)
  2. Electrons are smaller than atoms. (True/False)
  3. The continents on which we live have been moving their location for millions of years and will continue to move in the future. (True/False)
  4. The earliest humans lived at the same time as the dinosaurs. (True/False)
  5. The center of the Earth is very hot. (True/False)
  6. The oxygen we breathe comes from plants. (True/False)
  7. It is the father's gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl. (True/False)
  8. Lasers work by focusing sound waves. (True/False)
  9. Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria. (True/False)
  10. The universe began with a huge explosion. (True/False)
  11. Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals. (True/False)
  12. Cigarette smoking causes lung cancer. (True/False)
  13. Radioactive milk can be made safe by boiling it. (True/False)
  14. Which travels faster: light or sound?
  15. Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?
  16. How long does it take the Earth to go around the Sun: one day, one month, or one year?

This set of questions has been used several times since 1995, and in each case about 64% of the responding adults answer 'correctly.' The gender split for correct answers is 70% male/59% female.

Of course, as a pedantic scientist, I have bones to pick with some of these questions. If you make the statements/questions scientifically correct, they become difficult, and near incomprehensible. For example, number 2, "Electrons are smaller than atoms" should be straightforward, right? Well, no. Since the way we currently understand particles is as clouds of probabilities, the statement should actually be: Electrons are usually smaller than atoms. And that is quite confusing.

Number 6 is also not quite right. What do they mean by "comes from?" As far as I know, oxygen comes from nucleogenesis in stars. Oxygen passes through plants, and for all I know, there are probably some oxygen atoms in my lungs that have never been in a plant. Not many, but some.

Number 10: well, this universe probably did, yes. But there are some very strange things coming out of microwave background studies as we get better and better resolution. Cosmology tends to go through redefinition as we develop each new generation of instrumentation.

Number 12: causality is a tricky thing. Not every cigarette smoker will develop cancer. The phrasing would be better as: "Cigarette smoking can cause cancer." And that's exactly why people choose to smoke - they assess the risks of having cancer vs. the pleasure of indulging. The arguments have focused more on "does the public have the facts to be able to correctly assess the risks."

FYI, the individual 'correct' responses and rates in aggregate were as follows: 1. 76 (False); 2. 48 (True); 3. 79 (True); 4. 53 (False); 5. 80 (True); 6. 87 (True); 7. 65 (True); 8. 45 (False); 9. 51 (False); 10. 33 (True); 11. 53 (True); 12. 94 (True); 13. 65 (False); 14. 76 (light); 15. 75 (Earth goes around the Sun); and 16. 54 (one year).

Since you have self-selected to read this blog, I expect you will have done better than the average...

Another interesting result of the comprehensive survey was that in a biotechnology section, Americans and Canadians scored higher than Europeans on questions related to genetics and genetically modified organisms. That puzzled me, and was troubling, since it indicates that opposition to GMOs is not correlated with science literacy.

If you like surveys of this type, please help out Ph.D. student Markus Schmidt with his survey on environmental risk perception at the University of Vienna's Institute of Risk Research.

 Sunday, October 26, 2003

IDS 231 Bloomsburg University:

Well, that's interesting. My blog's being cited as an example in a technical writing course at Bloomsburg University.

Perhaps as an example of turgid prose?

OK all of you folks working on Project #3... Good luck on the assignment, and I expect a link out of you! Tech Writing:  Project #3

 Friday, October 24, 2003

Dr. Sievert again...all around us:

Confluences, confluences. Today was the last flight of the Concorde, and they flew on a day where a solar mass coronal ejection was raining down on us.

I found a nice SIEVERT calculator for the radiation dose received during flights (click on the Union Jack for English...). You choose the departure and arrival cities, date and time, and what type of plane is used.

The following are temporary estimates, particularly since it's actually a pretty good solar flare going at the moment. Validated doses will be available on the SIEVERT site next month, and they will probably increase, despite the fact that a lot of jets avoided northern routes today because of the solar flare.

0.025 mSv from the last Concorde flight (3:15 elapsed) JFK to LHR, compared to
0.036 mSv from a subsonic flight (7:00 elapsed)
0.038 mSv from a business jet flight (6:00 elapsed)

Radiation exposure at flight altitudes is 100 to 300 times that at sea level, depending on the exact flight level and the solar weather.

Note that even though the rate of exposure on the Concorde was about twice as high because of the extreme altitude, the fact that the flight takes about half as long compensates. This also means that business jets have the highest rates of exposure, because they fly higher but can't reduce the exposure time enough to compare with commercial subsonic flights. Flight crews receive about 5 mSv/year from exposure.

Compare those doses to 0.66 mSv per day on the International Space Station, and with the 0.4 mSv/year we all receive from cosmic rays. Each average medical x-ray we get is about equivalent to one transcontinental subsonic flight.

If you happen to work in one of those charming old pink granite buildings, or in an area with lots of it as bedrock, you get the equivalent of one more chest x-ray/year from the potassium 40 in it.

And in some strange homeopathic news, apparently cells exposed to low levels of radiation can repair damage from extreme exposures more efficiently than those protected from any exposure at all.

So it's a good thing, right?

 Thursday, October 23, 2003

Jeff Morales:

Previously I described Jeff's work on the National Geographic Explorer film Hornets from Hell. Well, it's showing this weekend on MSNBC-TV. Sunday at 6, Eastern (remember to set your clock back on Saturday night, kids!).

Jeff's latest film, Creepy Healers also premieres this weekend at 8 on the same bat-channel. Not wasps, but flies and maggots this time...

Can you tell it's Hallowe'en?

 Tuesday, October 21, 2003

...wherein we consider humans, homing pigeons, and a lonely chameleon:

As I drive or ride back and forth on my commute every day, I have realized that how we perceive the space through which we drive is quite different from our perception of space through which we walk.

Consider the following: when you walk from home to, for example, the park, you have a mental map much like the following:

HOME <===a=====b=====c===> PARK

It doesn't matter which direction you are going, a-b-c or c-b-a. You usually have a good sense of where you are along the whole route.

Compare this to driving, which I would map more this way:

HOME >--a---b---c---> PARK >--d---e---f---> HOME

(HOME on both ends is the same place, and the routes driven are physically the same).

While driving we are usually only looking in one direction (ahead). Even if spot 'a' corresponds to spot 'f', 'b' to 'e', and 'c' to 'd', these spots often seem like different places, because we are usually looking only in the direction of travel. I have this realization when for some reason I have to turn around in my seat, and I have the "ohhh, that's where this is" feeling when I make the mental connection that point 'a' is actually the same as point 'f'.

When we are walking, we are more likely to look around, and get a more complete picture of the space through which we are passing. Of course, there are bound to be sections of a path where we always look in the direction we are walking. That's why it's easy to get lost on some trails, and especially easy to get lost when you are off-trail.

Where's this all headed? Well, I began to think about how much this is related to our field of view, and that immediately made me wonder if creatures with 360 degree fields of view have very different mental maps, since they are always seeing both where they are going and where they have been at the same time. There are a lot of birds that have binocular vision in front and behind. Do they have a much better sense of orientation in part due to this?

What about a chameleon, with independent eyes? Does it have better or worse records for getting lost?

...mad scientist sets up homing experiment with frosted contact lenses. Drivers, pedestrians, owls, hummingbirds and one chameleon protest.

 Saturday, October 18, 2003

Foale, Kaleri, & Duque:

Soyuz TMA-3 is on its way, chasing down the ISS to deliver Expedition 8, and to change out the Soyuz.

While I was in Star City in the summer of 2000, I got the chance to sit in the TM series trainer, which was being phased out for the newer TMA, in which Sheperd, Gidzenko and Krikalev were training at the time.

The first thing I noticed was that the old landing instrument from the original Soyuz series was still present! Up there on the top right of the instrument panel you can see a little globe behind glass. The globe is probably about 10 cm across, making it about 1:1,274,200,000 scale.

The way the original crews predicted their landing zones was to peer out the window until they saw a feature they recognized, rotate the globe to that feature, and then use the Vzor periscope (the green screen in the center, between my legs, the Commander's position) to right the craft and recognize the precise moment when the craft was over the feature. The Commander then relayed this to the Navigator in the right seat, who pressed a button, releasing a mechanical clockwork spring, rotating the globe to the predicted landing site. Bzzzzt-ting!

Photo (c) Mark Wade

Now, each line on the crosshair is probably about 0.5 mm across. At this scale, that is about 640 km across. Combined with sighting errors in the periscope and the timing of button pushes, this probably means they had an CEP of over 1000 km! No wonder the Russians have such an amazing search and recovery network -- and no wonder why they couldn't find a few of the re-entering crews. In 1965 Voskhod 2 overshot by about 2000 miles, and landed in a forest in the Urals. Belyayev and Leonov had to spend the night with a circling wolf pack, and then cut down trees the next day so that the rescue helicopter could land. Sawn-off shotguns thereafter became standard issue in the survival pack. In 1976, Soyuz 23 landed in a marsh, on the edge of Lake Tengiz, in the middle of a blizzard. The search crew was surprised to find Zudov and Rozhdestvensky alive.

Re-entry is still not quite predictable, when you are riding on a bolide - Bowersox, Pettit and Budarin landed 450 km short of their predicted landing area last May, and were "lost" for over two hours. We shall see if they fly again -- Scott Carpenter was permanently grounded after his 400 km overshoot in Mercury 7 in 1962...

The Soyuz TMA series have a glass cockpit, replacing a lot of the analog equipment from the TM series, as can be seen here:

Photos (c) Mark Wade

It is interesting to see and compare the Shenzou cockpit with the TM & TMA series - this photo is a grainy frame from a Chinese video, which shows a pretty fundamental difference:

Photo (c) Mark Wade

A good source for much data on space programs and vehicles is the Encyclopaedia Astronautica.

 Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Yang Liwei:

A salute to China's first man in space. As with previous forays outside the Middle Kingdom, the explorer voyages to space, finds nothing of note to compare with heaven on Earth, and returns.

I was somewhat disappointed to see there were no visible passes of the Shenzou 5 over my home this morning (and it was raining last night, so no joy there...). I make it a habit to be aware of passes by the ISS and its supply vehicles (Shuttle or Soyuz), so seeing Shenzou would have been a treat. The best places I have found for these pass forecasts are Heavens Above and (ISS over N. America only).

Unfortunately, despite the crowing by the People's Liberation Army Daily, I really doubt Yang Liwei's name will be remembered. He will become a footnote, like all spacefarers except Gagarin, Armstrong, and whoever first sets foot on Mars. All the others are simply in second place, and history is very cruel to vice-presidents. I've droned on about that before...

There has been a lot in the news about what Chinese space voyagers are to be called, since America launches astronauts and Russia launches cosmonauts. Lately the U.S. and Russia have even launched one-another's citizens, and terminological confusion results.

Perhaps English and Russian share enough linguistic roots that the Greek sounds of 'astronaut' and 'cosmonaut' are acceptable to both Russian and English ears. I agree with China (and the Fowler brothers!) that taikonaut is simply a barbarism, but I have to say my Indo-European ear has a problem with yuhangyuan, the preferred official Chinese term.

The other item in the news is the question of a new space race. One reason to doubt there will be a space race is that America and Russia have already launched, collectively, 66 foreigners from 33 countries.

Here is a list of every mission launch with a foreigner onboard. Please note this does does include Russian and American interchanges, but does not include foreigners on landing craft, or stays aboard foreign stations -- because of crew and craft rotations, those are different lists! These are launches ONLY.
  • 1978: Vladimir Remek, Czechoslovakia, Soyuz 28/Salyut 6 Intercosmos 1
  • 1978: Miroslaw Hermaszewski, Poland, Soyuz 30/Salyut 6 Intercosmos 2
  • 1978: Sigmund Jaehn, East Germany, Soyuz 31/Salyut 6 Intercosmos 3
  • 1979: Georgi Ivanov, Bulgaria, Soyuz 33/Salyut 6 Intercosmos 4
  • 1980: Bertalan Farkas, Hungary, Soyuz 36/Salyut 6 Intercosmos 5
  • 1980: Pham Tuan, Vietnam, Soyuz 37/Salyut 6 Intercosmos 6
  • 1980: Arnaldo Tamayo-Méndez, Cuba, Soyuz 38/Salyut 6 Intercosmos 7
  • 1981: Zhurderdemidiyin Gurragcha, Mongolia, Soyuz 39/Salyut 6 Intercosmos 8
  • 1981: Dmitriu Prunariu, Romania, Soyuz 40/Salyut 6 Intercosmos 9
  • 1982: Jean-Loup Chrétien, France, Soyuz T-6/Salyut 7 Intercosmos 10
  • 1984: Rakesh Sharma, India, Soyuz T-11/Salyut 7 Intercosmos 11
  • 1984: Paul Scully-Power and Marc Garneau, Canada, STS-41G
  • 1985: J.M. Baudry, France, and S.A.A. al-Saud, Saudi Arabia, STS-51G
  • 1985: R. Furrer, W. Ockels, and E. Messerschmid, West Germany, STS-61A
  • 1985: R. Neri Vela, Mexico, STS-61B
  • 1987: Mohammed al-Faris, Syria, Soyuz TM-3/Mir
  • 1988: Aleksandr Aleksandrov, Bulgaria, Soyuz TM-5/Mir
  • 1988: Abdul Mohmand, Afghanistan, Soyuz TM-6/Mir
  • 1988: Jean-Loup Chrétien, France, Soyuz TM-7/Mir (2nd flight)
  • 1990: Toyohiro Akiyama, Japan, Soyuz TM-11/Mir (1st commercial passenger)
  • 1991: Helen Sharman, United Kingdom, Soyuz TM-12/Mir
  • 1991: Toktar Aubakirov, Kazakhstan, and Franz Viehboeck, Austria, Soyuz TM-13/Mir
  • 1992: Ulf Merbold, Germany, and R. Bondar, Canada, STS-42
  • 1992: Klaus-Dietrich Flade, Germany, Soyuz TM-14/Mir
  • 1992: Michel Tognini, France, Soyuz TM-15/Mir
  • 1992: C. Nicollier, Switzerland, and F. Malerba, Italy, STS-46
  • 1992: M. Mohri, Japan, STS-47
  • 1992: S. MacLean, Canada, STS-52
  • 1993: H. Schlegel and U. Walter, Germany, STS-55
  • 1993: Jean-Paul Haignere, France, Soyuz TM-17/Mir
  • 1993: C. Nicollier, Switzerland, STS-61 (2nd flight)
  • 1994: Sergei Krikalev, Russia, STS-60 (first Russian in US program)
  • 1994: C. Naito-Mukai, Japan, STS-65
  • 1994: Ulf Merbold, Germany, Soyuz TM20/Mir (2nd flight, 1st w/ Russia)
  • 1994: Jean-François Clervoy, France, STS-66
  • 1995: V.G. Titov, Russia, STS-63
  • 1995: Norm Thagard, USA, Soyuz TM-21/Mir (1st American in Russian program)
  • 1995: Anatoli Solovyov and Nikolai Budarin, Russia, STS-71/Mir
  • 1995: Thomas Reiter, Germany, Soyuz TM-22/Mir
  • 1995: Chris Hadfield, Canada, STS-74/Mir
  • 1996: K. Wakata, Japan, STS-72
  • 1996: M. Cheli and Umberto Guidoni, Italy, and C. Nicollier (3rd flight), Switzerland, STS-75
  • 1996: Marc Garneau, Canada, STS-77 (2nd flight)
  • 1996: J.-J. Favier, France, and R. Thirsk, Canada, STS-78
  • 1996: Claudie André-Deshays, France, Soyuz TM-24/Mir
  • 1997: Reinhold Ewald, Germany, Soyuz TM-25/Mir
  • 1997: Jean-François Clervoy (2nd flight), France, and Y.V. Kondakova, Russia, STS-84/Mir
  • 1997: B.V. Tryggvason, Canada, STS-85
  • 1997: Jean-Loup Chrétien (3rd flight, 1st w/ US), France, and V.G. Titov (2nd flight), STS-86/Mir
  • 1997: T. Doi, Japan, and L. Kadenyuk, Ukraine, STS-87
  • 1998: Salizhan Sharipov, Russia, STS-89
  • 1998: Leopold Eyharts, France, Soyuz TM-27
  • 1998: D. Williams, Canada, STS-90
  • 1998: Valeri Ryumin, Russia, STS-91/Mir
  • 1998: Pedro Duque, Spain, and C. Mukai, Japan, STS-95
  • 1998: Sergei Krikalev, Russia, STS-88/ISS (2nd flight)
  • 1999: Ivan Bella, Slovakia, and Jean-Paul Haignere (2nd flight), France, Soyuz TM-29/Mir
  • 1999: J. Payette, Canada, and Valery Tokarev, Russia, STS-96/ISS
  • 1999: Michel Tognini, France, STS-93 (2nd flight, 1st w/ US)
  • 1999: Claude Nicollier (4th flight), Switzerland, and Jean-François Clervoy (3rd flight, 1st w/ US), France, STS-103
  • 2000: M. Mohri, Japan, and Gerhard Thiele, Germany, STS-99
  • 2000: Yuri Usachev, Russia, STS-101/ISS
  • 2000: Yuri Malenchenko and Boris Morukov, Russia, STS-106/ISS
  • 2000: Koichi Wakata, Japan, STS-92/ISS (2nd flight)
  • 2000: William Shepherd, USA, Soyuz TM-31/ISS
  • 2000: Marc Garneau, Canada, STS-97/ISS (3rd flight)
  • 2001: Yuri Usachev, Russia, STS-102/ISS (2nd flight)
  • 2001: Chris Hadfield (2nd flight), Canada, Umberto Guidoni (2nd flight), Italy, and Yuri Lonchakov, Russia, STS-100/ISS
  • 2001: Dennis Tito, USA, Soyuz TM-32/ISS (1st paying tourist)
  • 2001: Vladimir Dezhurov and Mikhail Tyurin, Russia, STS-105/ISS
  • 2001: Claudie Haignere (2nd flight), France, Soyuz TM-33/ISS
  • 2001: Yuri Onufrienko, Russia, STS-108/ISS
  • 2002: Roberto Vittori, Italy, and Mark Shuttleworth (2nd paying tourist), South Africa, Soyuz TM-34/ISS
  • 2002: Philippe Perrin, France, Valery Korzun and Segei Treschev, Russia, STS-111/ISS
  • 2002: Fyodor Yurchikhin, Russia, STS-112/ISS
  • 2002: Frank De Winne, Belgium, Soyuz TMA-1/ISS
  • 2002: Nikolai Budarin, Russia, STS-113/ISS
  • 2003: Ilan Ramon, Israel, STS-107
  • 2003: Ed Lu, USA, Soyuz TMA-2/ISS
  • 2003: Michael Foale, USA, and Pedro Duque, Spain, Soyuz TMA-3/ISS

The order of countries having citizens in space is therefore:

  1. USSR
  2. USA
  3. Czechoslovakia
  4. Poland
  5. East Germany
  6. Bulgaria
  7. Hungary
  8. Vietnam
  9. Cuba
  10. Mongolia
  11. Romania
  12. France
  13. India
  14. Canada
  15. Saudi Arabia
  16. West Germany
  17. Mexico
  18. Syria
  19. Afghanistan
  20. Japan
  21. United Kingdom
  22. Kazakhstan
  23. Austria
  24. Russia
  25. Germany
  26. Switzerland
  27. Italy
  28. Ukraine
  29. Spain
  30. Slovakia
  31. South Africa
  32. Belgium
  33. Israel, and
  34. China

So China is the 34th country into space, and that is why many do not think this is such a great achievement. But the real achievement is that China did not depend, as these other countries did, on the infrastructure of either the USA or the USSR/Russia to launch a citizen.

But did they? Isn't Shenzou simply a souped-up Soyuz? That's another post.

 Wednesday, October 08, 2003

Curie, Becquerel, Roentgen, Sievert, Grey:

Recent news of a mercury contamination incident at a local school reminded me of several incidents where radioactive materials were circulating in communities unaware of the dangers.

The worst of these has to be the 1987 Brazilian cesium-137 contamination case in Goainia. A piece of medical equipment in an abandoned building was torn open by two men scavenging for scrap metal, and the 4000 Curie Cs-137 source was removed and opened. They marveled at the glow, and proceeded to extract, separate and distribute the material to people in their neighbourhood. People rubbed it on their bodies in order to sparkle. People carried it in their pockets for luck. Two hundred forty four people were later found to be contaminated, and over a dozen probably died from the exposure. (source)

Then again, some people know the details what they are doing, but are a little young to comprehend the wider implications, like David Hahn. David was a Michigan boy scout trying to earn an Atomic Energy merit badge by building a functioning breeder reactor with the americium, radium, and thorium from commonly available items. The shed he worked in and most of his backyard is now buried in Utah after his amazingly productive makeshift lab was declared a Superfund cleanup site. You might not completely understand what your children are up to, but always be sure you know roughly what they are doing, like building a nuclear pile whose radioactivity can be detected five houses away. (Ken Silverstein's article in Harper's Magazine.)

A third incident I remember hearing about is probably a myth, since I could not find any trace of it, even on RADSAFE, which is about as authoritative a source as I could find. As I remember it, some Federal facility (LANL?) purchased a set of lawn furniture for an outdoor cafeteria remodeling project, and when it arrived, it set off the radiation detectors designed to keep radioactive materials from going out the gate. The source was traced to some medical equipment that was mistakenly smelted in a batch of scrap metal, thereby contaminating a large amount of recycled metal. If the federal facility had not purchased this particular batch of furniture, it was unlikely that this contamination would have been found.

Even if the above is a myth, there is so much international commerce that recycling practices will probably provide future examples of importing hot items. In November 2000, the Carrefour supermarket chain was advised that a series of Chinese-manufactured watch bracelets was contaminated with cobalt-60, and they had to recall the product. This was only detected because an employee of the French Tricastin nuclear facility had purchased the watch, and set off detectors at the plant. (NRPB statement, the original OPRI (IRSN) statement seems to be inaccessible).

Similar incidents have occurred lately around the Iraqi nuclear research center at Al-Tuwaitha, where looters removed all kinds of containers full of radioactive materials. The contents (like yellowcake) were simply dumped, and the containers were used for foodstuffs. The impact of this widespread exposure to some fairly high levels of radiation will not be felt for some time, and of course much of the damage is psychological.

Now I'm starting to itch. Where's my Geiger counter? And why can't nuclear science sort out its units?


Added June 8, 2009: Radioactive Cheese Grater:

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 Monday, October 06, 2003

Alex Chiu:

Science is just so damned confusing. The following have led to hilarious situations as I tried to explain them in different contexts (kindergarten through high school):

  • Hot air rises, right? So why does it get colder as you increase in altitude, and then why is space really hot?
  • Radiation can cause cancer. Why is radiation used to treat cancer?
  • Sunshine is healthy for you. Why is going to the beach bad?
  • Ozone is bad for you. Ozone protects us from UV.
  • In space you are weightless. Things in orbit are 'falling' around the Earth

OK, and in my one California-related post for today, I always fondly remember the surfer-dude radio DJ I heard while living in Pasadena that was totally bummed out because he had just learned that the most natural thing possible, the Sun, was actually a nuclear reactor. Oof. "Ban the Sun!"

"Actually, it's made of wood. Nope, coal. Hmmm... what else burns, and how much of it do you need to create that big a fire?" and that's how they figured out, a very long time ago, that something very strange was going on up there...

 Friday, October 03, 2003

Ooooo-no, Ono:

Another one of those moments that ties together several past themes...

The other day I met Jeff Morales, who is a staff producer and cinematographer in the Natural History Unit at the National Geographic's Television & Film unit. Boy, some people get the plum jobs...

Jeff got to spend five months in the mountains near Nagano, Japan, living with several hundred Giant Japanese Hornets, Yellow Hornets, and several thousand honey bees. And when I say "living with" I really mean living with. As in the same house.

He was there, on assignment, to make a movie about these creatures. The Olympus camera company helped him create the specialized equipment necessary to film in these conditions: endoscopes, super high speed cameras, etc. (Olympus PURSUIT January 2003 Feature Article, WinMP clip, RealPlayer clip)

National Geographic ran a story last year about the movie, and it was premiered around Hallowe'en, and apparently it will be on again near Hallowe'en this year on MSNBC-TV. Look for "Hornets From Hell."

Drawing from his childhood interest in Godzilla, Mothra, and such-like movies, Jeff had great fun making the documentary in a horror flick style. The three nominations and the actual Emmy award the film won for Music & Sound Design are well-deserved.

His first encounter with the creature was great - he simply heard an amazingly low and loud hum, and suddenly there it was, hovering in front of his face, audibly clicking its enormous mandibles at him. The thing was about three inches in wingspan, and about two inches long. Think of a bright yellow, stinging, flying insect about as big as your entire thumb, from wrist to nail. Quite intimidating, to say the least.

Jeff mentioned that although no-one on the film crew was stung by a giant hornet, they had many yellow-jacket stings, and countless bee stings. His co-cinematographer friend Alastair MacEwen apparently swallowed several bees, much to the amusement of the crew. Amusing, because in comparison, the giant, Vespa mandarinia japonica, has a quarter-inch stinger, and can inject enough venom to actually destroy tissue. Jeff did have one land on his lip, and he completely froze as his crew scattered, knocking over lights and leaving equipment dropped all over the floor. But apparently she soon lost interest, and moved on.

The local culture in Honshu has developed some interesting cultural notes from living with these creatures. People make living sculptures out of hornets nests - predictably some are in the shape of Fujiyama, but most unpredictably, there is one in the shape of the Space Shuttle. And, in my entomophagy blog category, they eat the creatures. Fried adults, or raw larvae as hornet sashimi. Jeff liked the adults, but reports the larvae are an "acquired taste."

And you thought Red Bull was cool - there's a hornet amino acid sports drink, VAAM.

The heck with keeping tigers and alligators in my house and other pets that are "wild ferocious, fierce, dangerous or naturally inclined to do harm" (like carry you offstage by the throat). I'll stick with my carpet mites, thank you.