Conquering the Far Reaches of Space

Zoom Zoom

Rocket-powered McCoy

In space, nobody can hear you complain.

Regular readers of this blog know that I turn into a little kid when the subject of space comes up. I watch NASA TV all the time. And I've got a model of the space shuttle hanging in my workshop. Seems that I’m running out of space for my space.

Anyone who follows NASA launches knows that it takes years and years for probes to get to the outer planets. Chemical rockets simply aren't powerful enough and can't carry enough fuel.

But…we do have plans for ships that can go faster:

  • Closed system nuclear drive: They come in two varieties—nuclear electric rockets, which use nuclear power to power any number of different electrical thrusters, and nuclear thermal rockets, which merely heat a reactant and propel it out the back to create thrust.
  • Open system nuclear drive: Extremely straightforward. It's a big old nuclear powered rocket.
  • Bussard Ramjet: A variant on the nuclear rocket, with one main difference—it has a giant electromagnetic “scoop” projecting out of the front. The scoop funnels interstellar hydrogen into the ship, where it's then used for fuel. Hypothetically, this design could allow travel much farther than many of the other designs on the list.

McCoy Fields, astronaut

Me, practicing on my tractor for space flight.

  • Solar SailA bit of a Gordian knot-style solution to long-distance space propulsion. It's a sail in the literal sense yet doesn't actually propel itself. The sails are made out of lightweight, reflective materials like Mylar that harness the solar wind instead of sea winds. A ship with a solar sail would actually be capable of tacking and maneuvering quite effectively, but in three dimensions rather than the two of an Earthbound sailing ship. While the acceleration from this is quite low, it never stops…just keeps accelerating as long as the ship is in the solar wind. The solar sail could, potentially, even reach another solar system, then brake using that star's solar wind.
  • Laser Sail: This is where things get especially bizarre. The laser sail functions in a similar way to the solar sail but, rather than using the solar wind, this heavily armored ship instead gets its propulsion from a massive, artificial laser trained upon it.
  • Orion Ship: The most insane of our rocket ship ideas. We've been able to build this one since the 1960s but haven't…for what should be obvious reasons: it's propelled by nukes. Not a nuclear rocket. Actual nuclear bombs. The ship has a large, shielded pusher plate. A nuclear bomb is fired behind the ship and detonated. The resulting shock wave propels the ship forward. An Orion ship could reach Pluto in a matter of weeks.

With that last one, I’m imagining astronauts turning into the equivalent of bugs on a windshield on the highway. Thanks, but no. I’ll stick to creating more space in my earth-bound man cave.



Oh, Yard Ramp Guy: I’m boldly going where no man has gone before with these quotations. You?

“When you launch in a rocket, you’re not really flying that rocket. You’re just sort of hanging on."

— Astronaut Michael P. Anderson

Surrounded by Skeuomorphs

Fun with Tchotchke Design

Why do some molded plastic objects have molded plastic screw heads in them?

They're not real screws, and they serve no purpose in holding the object together. As it turns out, that's not just an aesthetic choice but something more.

They're called skeuomorphs—“derivative objects that retain ornamental design cues from structures that were necessary in the original.” These are things like fake woodgrain on a station wagon, a volume control panel on a computer that looks like an old school sound system with dials and knobs, or plastic chairs imitating wooden ones.

Ancient Greek stone architecture had small features called triglyphs and guttae that didn't serve any purpose in stone, yet had important roles when the ancient Greeks primarily worked in wood. (They were the carved ends of beams along with the pegs craftsmen used to secure them.) Also, potters mimicked expensive silver goblets using pottery and often inlaid clay pellets to resemble the rivets in the metal ones.

Though skeuomorphism has obvious applications in design, architecture, and art history, we’re seeing extensive use in the digital realms. Digital skeuomorphs are actually a fairly important design element: when you can make the user interface resemble whatever you want, it can be helpful in giving the user a point of reference.

The most prevalent digital skeuomorph is probably the shutter-click that camera phones and digital cameras make when you take a photo. In film cameras, the sound was caused by a physical function. In digital devices, the sound exists solely to let you know the photo was taken in digital ones.

Of course, not everyone supports the use of skeuomorphs in this way. Apple, for instance, has begun moving away from them entirely in favor of a more simplified, streamlined design style.

Personally, I'd rather be surrounded by skeuomorphs. I think they're charming. They can really make objects seem classy and not ostentatious. I have been accused—and rather fairly—of being resistant to change…once or twice, though. Maybe more. Not counting Maggie saying it several times a week. Or all the times my doctor's said it.

I can adjust to change if I really want to. I usually just don't want to.



Oh, Yard Ramp Guy: be the change you wish to see in, er, your yard ramps:

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.

— Rumi

Beta Testing WolframAlpha

Searching for the Optimal Search Engine

Q: What is the average weight of a panda?

A: 170-290 lbs.

The Ramp Rules WolframAlphaThere are a lot of different search engines out there, but most people never feel the need to go past Google. For the most part, I'm with them. I have discovered a few specialty search engines that I visit on a regular basis. Most of these are simply engines that search inside a specific website, usually Wikipedia. There are a couple exceptions, though. The biggest one is called WolframAlpha.

Q: How many people have the given name McCoy?

A: 1649 estimated to still be alive in the United States.

Strictly speaking, WolframAlpha isn't a search engine at all. It's a computational knowledge engine. Its creator, Stephen Wolfram, designed the engine to answer factual questions by using its curated internal database of information. This is a very different function than search engines, which provide a list of documents or web pages that might contain the answer.

Q: Motorcycle traffic in Germany?

A: 11.1 billion vehicle miles per year.

WolframAlpha can perform arithmetic, trigonometry, algebra, and numerous other mathematical functions. It contains population estimates from around the globe. It records weather data from the past in the database. And so this computational knowledge engine can use all of this information, along with its countless volumes of other information, to calculate the answers to a huge number of questions.

Q: Melting point of teflon?

A: 327 degrees Celsius. (620.6 degrees Fahrenheit)

Not to say that Wolfram Alpha is perfect. Its databases don't contain anywhere close to even a significant percentage of human knowledge. It doesn't know the average speed of a turtle, for instance, so you couldn't use it to figure out how long it would take one to cross the United States.

Thinking 'bout things.

My own computational knowledge engine.

A fun Twitter account I ran into the other day is dedicated entirely to sharing odd questions that Wolfram Alpha can't answer. My personal favorites:

  • “Hectares of cotton crops needed to make a superhero cape for every land mammal.”
  • “Total work done against gravity to make a cupcake rise while baking it, in calories?”
  • “Most common English misspelling that changes the word's Scrabble score by more than 4?”

And knowledge crawls onward…

Q: Anchorage, Alaska weather on 7/7/07?

A: Overcast, 54 to 61 degrees Fahrenheit, wind 0 to 7 mph.

Q: Most frequently erupting volcano?

A: Stromboli, in Italy.

Q: 20 gallons of gloss paint?

A: 14,000 square feet, assuming it has a spreading capacity of 690 square feet per gallon.

Q: How long did the Paleoproterozoic Era last?

A: 900 million years.

Q: x+y=10, x-y=4

A: x=7, y=3

Q: What's the temperature of the solar wind?

A: 31,000 Kelvin.



So, Yard Ramp Guywhat do you know today?

“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.

— Albert Einstein

Health Through Horseshoe Crabs

The Value of Blue Blood

The Ramp Rules Horshoe Crabs

Nobility don't literally have blue blood, but horseshoe crabs do, and it's worth quite a bit of money—up to $15,000 per quart.

Horseshoe crabs are ancient critters. We actually consider them living fossils, in that they appear in the fossil record some 450 million years ago.

Though they're called crabs and look like crustaceans, they actually aren't; they're more closely related to spiders. Some species grow to around two feet long. They crawl around on shallow ocean bottoms in sandy and muddy areas, looking for worms and mollusks to eat. They've also been known to eat crustaceans and small fish.

Their blood is a deep, rich blue color due to the presence of hemocyanin—a chemical similar to hemoglobin that carries oxygen through the blood but uses copper instead of iron (which is what makes our blood red). Hemocyanin is somewhat more effective at carrying oxygen in cold, oxygen poor environments than hemoglobin, though hemoglobin is more effective overall.

What really makes the blue blood of horseshoe crabs valuable is how it reacts to disease.

I'm feeling a bit crabby myself.

I'm feeling a bit crabby myself.

Certain cells—called amoebocytes—in the horseshoe crab's immune system are extremely sensitive to bacteria and react by clotting around the infection in an inescapable lump. Pharmaceutical companies burst the cells to harvest coagulogen, the chemical that lets the cells do their thing.

The coagulogen can then be used to detect bacterial contamination in any substance that might come into contact with blood, even at levels as low as one part per trillion. This test has become the absolute standard: every single drug used in the country is required to be tested this way.

This isn't necessarily good for the crabs, though, and the species has also spent quite a bit of time being used as fertilizer and as bait. Over time, this has damaged the population quite a bit.

Though most of the crabs survive the bleeding process, some 15% die and others are rendered too lethargic to mate. All of which is pretty problematic, since they're harvested during mating season.

Scientists are working on an artificial replacement for coagulogen, but that might not help the crabs too much. When science perfects the artificial coagulogen, we’re likely to use our horseshoe crabs as bait.

The Rodney Dangerfield of anthropoids, they just don’t get any respect.



Oh, Yard Ramp Guy, replace “cranky” with “crabby,” and I still claim a blog-specific quotation here:

“I'm cranky.

— Larry David

Scanning for Radiation

Or: Careful with that Shipwreck

McCoy Fields, steel

What do Geiger counters, medical scanners, aeronautical sensors, space sensors, and photon detectors have in common?

If you said that they're all sensors of one sort or another, you're obviously correct. If you said that they're all sensors for detecting radiation, you're even more correct.

In fact, you can list many different traits that they all have in common. They all fit pretty easily into a few categories.

The reason I asked, though, is due to one very specific and shared quirk: they're all largely built out of salvaged shipwrecks.

Each of these devices requires high levels of sensitivity, meaning that they can't be radioactively contaminated themselves—not even a little bit.

Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of steel we’ve produced worldwide since the Trinity nuclear bomb test (in 1945; the first time humans detonated a nuclear weapon) is contaminated with higher-than-normal levels of radionuclides (radioactive particles) such as Cobalt-60.

McCoy Fields, man of steel

This has been McCoy Fields, man of steel.

This occurs because both the Bessemer process, converting molten pig iron into steel, and the modern BOS steel-making process involve atmospheric gas, with little bits of radioactive particulate drawn in from the atmosphere and planted in the steel.

Though the amount of radioactive materials in the air has dropped drastically since 1963, when nations enacted the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, radiation still lingers in steel. And we keep recycling our old radioactive steel as scrap metal.

Because of all this, devices that require low levels of radioactive contamination—like our sensors and scanners—can’t use modern steel. Which means that we must use steel produced before the Trinity test.

The best sources of this? Sunken ships—most notably, the scuttled German WWI battleships at Scapa Flow in Scotland.



Oh, Yard Ramp GuyI might just sink your battleship with this one:

“A person without a sense of humor is like a wagon without springs. It’s jolted by every pebble on the road.

— Henry Ward Beecher