Friday, June 27, 2008

First results from Martian soil samples

The Phoenix lander on Mars has sent back its first results on the soil chemistry, and it looks "friendly" enough to support life! No organic material (yet), mind you, but a slightly alkaline soil that's similar to what you might find in Antarctica. They say you could plant asparagus in it and have it thrive.

There's also some water content. That's more evidence to put into the column for a past wet Mars. And, of course, if we're ultimately looking for signs of life (past or present), that's one ingredient we'll certainly need.

The NYT article is here, and the AP wire story is here.

Mars was struck by Pluto-sized planet early on

Mars' known asymmetry was likely caused by a collision with a Pluto-sized planet. Scientists have known about the asymmetry for years, and the collision hypotheses has been out there since the '80s, but only now have they been able to answer some basic objections to the model.

The Earth had a similar collision with a Mars-sized planet, the debris from which coalesced into the Moon. Hmmm...I wonder why the debris from this collision produced no moon for Mars. Phobos and Deimos are captured asteroids.

Mars, Mars, Mars...

I've got three posts on Martian science coming up. The papers have been full of them this week. I say "papers," and in this case, it's websites of actual newspapers. I remember in Clark's 2010 or 2061 (I've forgotten which, but it was one of his sequels to 2001), one old lady is living in EPCOT Center (remember: it was originally designed as a living community, not just a scientific theme park), and she's described as having a newspaper clipping on her wall, from one of the last of the printed editions of the New York TImes.

Back then, I thought Clark was really stretching, because there's no way we'd want to read our newspapers hunched over a computer monitor. For that matter, I still prefer to read on paper, rather than on a screen. But the economics of the thing is catching up to it. Sigh.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

US removes last nukes from Great Britain

We've secretly taken out the last of our nuclear weapons from Britain. The US now relies more on the "southern" NATO locations (Italy and Turkey) than a northern location like Britain, according to the article.

It's the Guardian reporting this, so I should have expected the quotations and analysis to be exclusively from lefties like the Federation of American Scientists and similar groups. I just wish there'd been someone quoted to refute their attitude of knowing defense strategy better than the military does.

D.C. Gun Ban Unconstitutional

Scalia wrote the decision. Says Constitution guarantees an individual right, unconnected to service in a militia. Halleluja. I'd been getting a little ticked off with this session's decisions the last week or so.

Glenn Reynolds has more.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Diamond and oil cartels

The New York Times' John Tierney has a thought-provoking discussion of cartels, especially in diamonds and oil. I've been intrigued with the diamond market, ever since I proposed to my wife and owned a loose diamond for all of about two weeks, before they set it in the ring. It made me feel like one of the guys on an episode of Simon & Simon who'd have a bunch of loose diamonds in a velvet bag get stolen, and the Simon brothers would have to infiltrate a smuggling ring or something. Actually, I think most of the guys running around with loose diamonds in detective shows in the '80s were the bad guys. But still, it felt really cool! Wait--I'm sure there were some good guys with loose diamonds that got stolen on these shows. They usually had them in a safety deposit box. Yeah.

OK, anyway, after listening to a BBC story about de Beers and how much money in diamonds they have sitting in their building in...London?...and how the trading works in Amsterdam, and how they have the mineral rights to all the diamonds in South Africa--I became fascinated by the economic model of it all. I don't like the principle of a cartel, but it's still fascinating.

Tierney points out the precarious nature of cartels and how so many of them have failed over the years. The diamond market itself is in trouble right now, thanks to artificial diamonds that are (apparently) indistinguishable by a jeweler. I don't know that I really want to have artificial diamonds being considered equivalent to the natural ones. There's a different feel to it, a cheapness, in knowing I had an imitation, even a nearly perfect one that was physically equivalent. But that's a psychological thing.

He makes the comparison to the pearl market, now that nearly all commercial pearls are cultured. But a pearl has to be grown inside of an oyster, whether you put the sand in its gullet or the tide did it. It's still the same natural process from that point on. I can see the additional desirability of a natural pearl, but I'm not as adamant about it as I am with diamonds. But sure, the advent of pearl farms certainly meant the market saw a glut and prices came down. And diamonds are maybe close to seeing that.

Oil? Well, if we could find a cheap, large-scale way of manufacturing artificial oil... Heh, heh, heh. Right. So OPEC doesn't have to worry about that kind of competition. But there are other sources of energy, and technology can bring the prices down. I hope we'll someday see that cartel get broken. But I don't know it'll be soon.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

More Google parterships with NASA

This time, they're building an office complex at NASA's Ames Research Center. Before this, I was only aware of their co-funding of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope.

We scientists could never do anything that would hurt people!

Report on a study tracking cell-phone users' movements to see how far they move around during the day. They did this in a foreign country and encrypted the cell numbers so the subjects were anonymous. Still, it's a little worrying, thinking about who's watching where you're going. And if they can do it, who else might be? A government?

These guys were obviously harmless, but I got an eye roll out of this quotation:

"In the wrong hands the data could be misused," Hidalgo said. "But in scientists' hands you're trying to look at broad patterns.... We're not trying to do evil things. We're trying to make the world a little better."

Go read Liberal Fascism and think of that quotation again.