All posts for the month September, 2012

Nemesis by Isaac Asimov was an enjoyable tale about how a small self-contained settlement leaves the Solar System to orbit another star. The story has two timelines that alternate, one in the present and another from fifteen years ago that slowly approaches the present. The intersection is well done and I enjoyed the story for the most part. However, there are a few scientific things that bugged me, so inside of doing a review I’m going to deal with the science concepts discussed in the book from a present day perspective.

General Information:

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The biggest issue I had with the story was the name. As soon as I saw the title was Nemesis, I immediately jumped to the Nemisis theory which posits that there exists a rogue star which enters into our solar system at a set interval. Knowing that it’s rumoured to take millions of years per orbit, that it would have to be more massive than Jupiter to sustain nuclear fusion (and thus make it a star), and that the closest star is roughly 4.3 light years away, it all seemed rather unlikely. Why? First, Nemisis would have to be on a highly elliptical orbit, passing inside our solar system at its closest point yet be very far away otherwise to maintain its million year orbit. Next, it would have to stay gravitationally bound in order to have this periodic orbit. Third, it would need to go unnoticed to the point that present day astronomy has not detected it.

Asimov drops almost all of these problems by the wayside. It’s named Nemesis because it’s found to be closer than Alpha Centauri, not because it’s going to destroy Earth. It’s discovery still bothers me though. This is a star that’s two light years away from us, yet no one has measured it’s parallax before. The first successful stellar parallax measurement was in 1838 of a star more than 10 light years away. Granted, the star is hidden behind a dust cloud which dims the already dim star further which might make it so that people overlooked it, but it’s so close that people would have had to see it’s annual parallax movement. Did they mistake it for an asteroid? Maybe, but then they would have seen it return to its original position at the end of the year, removing that possibility. No matter how you look at it, we should have seen it before now.

I  have to praise Asimov for some things though. Nemesis does not orbit our Sun but instead is haphazardly moving through the Milky Way and will just happen to intersect our solar system this one time. In making the name and purpose of Nemesis work he’s done two things right, though I still dislike that no one discovered the star for so long.

Midpoint Discussion:

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What about the solar system that Asimov describes? As we’ve studied solar systems besides our own, we continue to find more and more with large gas giants orbiting closer than Earth orbits the Sun, which is in sharp contrast to our own solar system. This is partly due to selection bias (it’s easier to detect large planets than small ones), but it still shows a predominance for large, close planets due to the sheer number of them.

Further, moons will become tidally locked with planets, just like our moon is tidally locked with Earth, and planets will become tidally locked with their stars, just like Mercury is tidally locked with the Sun. The orbital period of roughly one Earth day is also in line with our solar system, as Jupiter has at least four moons that orbit it in less than a day. However, Jupiter’s largest moon is only 40% as wide as Earth, unlike Erythro which is larger than Earth. Besides this last point, everything else has a president and seems plausible.

The last point to touch on is how habitable the planet would be. Earth varies by roughly 5 million km over its entire orbit, and the larger temperature variation we feel is not from distance but from our axial tilt which cause the seasons. Nemesis is dimmer than the Sun so Erythro cannot vary as much in it’s orbit, but because it has no axial tilt then this isn’t much of an issue. It seems quite plausible that Erythro would be habitable and stay that way.

Final Thoughts:

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This brings us to hyper-assistance. First off, I have no great issue with exceeding the speed of light. There have been a lot of discussions over the years as to how it might be possible, and there are some theories that look similar to Star Trek’s Warp Drive. I also like how the first version of hyper-assistance requires that your overall trip not exceed the speed of light while the final version allows you to forgo this restriction.

Hyperspace is a little stranger. It’s quite possible that hyperspace has different laws than normal space and that they didn’t know of these rules when they first set to work. Perhaps even the first tests didn’t show them, and there was no obvious proof until the first human flight. But then why did Chao-Li Wu find something that everyone else missed for over a year? It’s just like how Einstein discovered relativity because he was annoyed by a lack of explanation of various phenomena; Wu may also have been bothered by the lack of a path in hyperspace, causing him to develop his own theory that better explained all of hyperspace theory, just like Einstein better described gravity.

Now should hyperspace have negative gravity? Maybe. Here I think Asimov is drawing on antimatter. One idea behind antimatter is that it’s negative energy travelling backwards in time, like matter is positive energy travelling forwards in time. In order to make antimatter work we have to flip two things to negative, and the same idea is applied to hyperspace.

And that’s it! Overall the science is within reasonable bounds, though the time it took to discover Nemesis still bothers me. Now that I’ve gotten all that off my chest, I can go read something else.

On April 12, 1961 Russia made history by sending Yuri Gagarin into space in Vostok 1, having him orbit the Earth once, and then successfully land back on Earth. At least that was the official story at the time. In reality, he parachuted from his capsule at a height of 7 km above the Earth, successfully landing ten minutes after the capsule automatically touched down. Since most skydiving happens in the 1-1.5 km range, this jump is noteworthy in itself. Yet while this is a remarkable feat of parachuting and deception (the truth about the flight was hidden for many years), the world record is more than 4 times higher and was set eight months earlier.

In the 1950s, the United States Air Force was developing more advanced jet engines and the beginnings of the Space Race were afoot. Not wanting to lose astronauts or test pilots due to malfunctions, they sought to find a safe way for them to escape and return to Earth. This lead to the creation of Project Excelsior in 1958, lead by Captain Joseph W. Kittinger Jr. as test director. Under this project, Mr. Francis Beaupre designed a parachuting system that would first stabilize descent and then slow it, all being automatically deployed at the appropriate heights. With a general lack of funding, the tests would take place out of a balloon gondola like the one pictured above, the words “This is the highest step in the world” written on the plaque.

On November 16, 1959 Captain Kittinger ascended to just over 22 km and got ready to jump. His seat contained water bottles encased in styrofoam as a cheap way to maintain his body temperature during the ascent, but they froze on the way up and expanded, holding his instrumentation kit to the seat. It took him eleven seconds to get up and during this time he accidentally triggered the timer for the stabilization chute, before he even left the gondola. When he began to descend it deployed after 2.5 seconds after he left instead of the intended 16, accidentally wrapping the main parachute around his neck in the process. He started to spin uncontrollably and eventually lost consciousness. Unable to do anything he plummeted toward Earth and at 1.8 km his reserve shoot successfully deployed, saving Kittinger’s life.

The second jump was less than a month later on December 11, 1959. The main purpose was to work out the kinks found in the first jump, such as repositioning the water bottles and adding in safeguards to prevent another accidental start of the timer. Captain Kittinger bailed from the gondola at just under 22 km and landed without incident twelve minutes and thirty-two seconds later. This data was used to set up a third jump from more than 30 km.

The third and final jump happened on August 16, 1960 from a height of 31.3 km. It took one hour and forty-three minutes for the ascent. Once he left the gondola, he quickly fell back to Earth (footage can be seen here, set to “Dayvan Cowboy” by Boards of Canada). It took only four minutes and thirty-six seconds to plummet 26 km with only his stabilization chute deployed; it would take another nine minutes and nine seconds before he travelled the last 5.3 km with his main parachute deployed. This remains the only human space jump from more than 30 km.

Today’s Tangent: Joseph Kittinger isn’t finished setting records though. In 2005, Red Bull created Red Bull Stratos, a project designed to break Kittinger’s record from 1960 by going to 36.5 km. It wasn’t until 2008 that Kittinger joined as an advisor, and since then the test pilot, Felix Baumgartner, has made several test runs up to 29.5 km. They’re scheduled to meet their goal in the first half of October 2012.

When it comes to survival of the fittest, humans have effectively stepped out of the food chain and have the technology to dine on anything. We’re able to take down any predator and have the science to combat almost any disease, making us effectively safe from any external threat. But when it comes to trying to keep our species alive, our biggest biological threat might not come from another species, but from a battle of the sexes. There’s some evidence that men might go extinct.

Gender in humans is based on our X and Y chromosomes; women have two X chromosomes while men have one X and one Y. This Y chromosome is critical in men because it controls all the male aspects required for reproduction: the development of testicles and sperm, and it can only be given by a father to his sons. Without the Y chromosome to carry this genetic information, our species would lose its male population, and with it the ability to reproduce. Unfortunately, some scientists think that could happen due to many causes, such as high mutation rate, inefficient selection, and genetic drift.

Going back about 300 million years, the X and Y chromosomes each had the same number of genes at 1438. Today the Y chromosome has only 45 (you can see their size difference in the picture above, courtesy of Exit Mundi). If we model this as two points on a line, the Y chromosome will lose its last gene in roughly 10 million years. It could even happen faster given that the Y chromosome doesn’t always select the best and “fittest” specimen to continue. In fact, roughly 1 in 2000 men will be rendered infertile by defects in the Y chromosome. Why is this troubling? The only way for a man to get their Y chromosome is from their father, meaning that all of those men with defective Y chromosomes didn’t inherit it – they became infertile during their lifetime.

Of course, it might not be as bad as once thought. By looking at the divergence of chimpanzees and humans which occurred roughly 6 million years ago, scientists have found that the Y chromosome lost none of its genes during that time, meaning that it must have lost them before and slowed its loss to a stand still by now. Going back further to when humans and chimpanzees diverged from rhesus macaque 25 millions years ago, we find that only one gene was lost over that time. While all this means it’s not a gradual decay, it still raises the question: what happened to Y in the first place, and can it happen again?

Today’s Tangent: When it comes to Adalia bipunctata, a.k.a. the two-spotted ladybug, some populations are heavily female dominated, outnumbering males 4:1. But it isn’t because of genetic mutations: here bacteria actually kill off males when they’re in eggs. Why? Since the bacteria can only exist in the female reproductive cells (it’s too big to live in the male’s sperm), it would die in a male without being passed onto the offspring. Instead, it kills the male eggs so that the females have more food, giving them a better chance of survival and thus allowing the bacteria to infect the next generation.


As it stands today, Canada only has 5 bills being issued: $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100. In the past though there were a lot more, not only because the $1 and $2 bills were replaced with coins. But to tell this story, we have to start before Canada was even a country, back at the War of 1812.

The first money printed in Canada that were denominated in dollars were Army Bills, made to help finance the war effort during the War of 1812. The public was distrustful of paper money at the time, but when the British Government redeemed the money at its face value, the public began to trust the currency and not just precious metals. This lead to more paper money being produced by banks throughout the 1821 to confederation in 1867. Due to each bank being able to produce money, a wide variety of bills were created including $1, $2, $3, $4, $5, $10, $20, $25, $40, $50, $100, $500, and $1000.

In 1867, confederation occurred and the Dominion of Canada was created, spurring the design for one currency across the nation. The Province of Canada was the most prolific issuer of paper money before confederation, so its currency became the national currency. In 1870, the first Dominion of Canada bills were issued in 25¢ (nicknamed the shinplaster and seen above), $1, $2, $500, and $1000 denominations, with $50 and $100 notes being added in 1872. With the bulk of the currency in $1 and $2 bills, a $4 denomination was added in 1882 followed by the $5 bill in 1912. The 25¢ bill was last issued in 1923.

During this time period, individual banks still issued their own currency. The Bank Act of 1871 prohibited the issuing of anything less than $4 from these banks and raised this to $5 in 1880. This left all the lower denominations to the Dominion of Canada to print, which is why there was such demand for their $1 and $2 bills. To not be completely removed from this market, other banks started printing unusual denominations such as the $6 and $7 bills from Molsons Bank in 1871. These bills, when combined with the $5 they were already printing, would allow people to pay $2 by giving $7 and receiving $5 change (and similarly $1 with the $6 bill).

In 1934, the Bank of Canada was founded and began issuing $1, $2, $5, $10, $20, $25, $50, $100, $500, and $1000 bills in 1935. After ten years, the Bank of Canada became the only bank that could issue money, which is unchanged to this day. Unique to this first run of bills was the purple $25 in honour of King George V’s Silver Jubilee and the $500 bill (only 46 of which are still unaccounted for). Unfortunately, all of these bank notes were printed separately in both English and French and changes in legislation in 1937 required that the bills be bilingual, prompting a new series of bank notes to be printed.

From 1938 to 1979 there were two more series of notes issued, one in 1954 and the other from 1969 to 1979. These bills had the same denominations as the 1937 series but the artwork changed and old bills were taken out of circulation as they started to wear out. It wasn’t until the Birds of Canada series was issued in 1986 that the $1 bill was not updated to the new look, followed by the $1 coin being minted on June 30, 1987 and then $1 bill being withdrawn from circulation exactly two years later.

In 1996, the $2 bill was removed from circulation and replaced with the toonie, a $2 coin. It wasn’t until 2000 that the $1000 bill was retired, mainly due its use in money laundering and organized crime. This meant that when the Canadian Journey series was issued from 2001-2006 it only contained five notes: $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100. As of 2011, the Frontier Series began being issued which involved Canada’s transition from paper bills to polymer. The series is planned to finish by the end of 2013.

Today’s Tangent: Think the largest denomination in Canada is only $1000? Think again. In 2007, the Canadian Mint issued a 100 kg gold coin with a face value of $1,000,000; the world’s first million dollar coin. At 99999 pure gold, it’s worth more than five million dollars and so far five investors have bought one.

I picked up The Stars, Like Dust by Isaac Asimov on a whim, as it was one of the few Asimov books the library had at the moment and I needed something to read. I didn’t realize it was an adventure/mystery set in space, nor that it was written as well as it was. The mystery had multiple layers (as all good tales must) and had a very intriguing plot along the way. It wasn’t until I researched the book afterwards that I realized it was the earliest book in the Galactic Empire trilogy and the second one written (which means I have two more books to read).

I’d recommend trying to solve the mystery as you’re reading because it doesn’t involve any complex science and it’s well thought out enough that it’s a worthy challenge. The characters all have different motives, there’s more than just one mystery at work, and it all comes together beautifully by the end. Overall, I’d give it a 9 out of 10, earning high marks in plot, characters, world building, and mystery but losing a little bit from how the characters interacted and a slightly off-beat end (I’ll cover more of that later). It left me wanting more, so I’m eagerly diving into the rest of the trilogy.

General Information:

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I loved how the first chapter was written, as it quickly grabbed my attention, gave me a small but deadly mystery, only to launch into a cosmic battle full of assassination and a plan to overthrow galactic rule. Biron is saved by Jonti, told of the imminent danger, and sent away for safety. Throughout all of this we get pieces of how there’s another layer to what’s going on, something about a way to escape the tyrannical rein of the (gasp) Tyranni, and that Jonti is planning something big though his motives are unclear. Further, we find out that a member of the Tyranni, Simok Aratap, is aware of most of what’s going on which adds an element of danger. Interestingly, Biron makes it through his trip unscathed and follows Jonti’s plan when he reaches Rhodia, where we quickly learn about the three main players on the planet and each of their plans.

These first 80 pages are all so tied up in different people, assassination attempts, multiple plans, and a huge conspiracy that I sympathized with Biron as I was tossed into the middle of it just like him. Despite this, he still has his wits about him and quickly sees why he was moved on the ship, and that there’s something important about his watch. We’re given a lot to hear and play with, all delivered at a quick pace and while there isn’t as much plot development as I’d like, we do get a sense of how controlled everything is (though by Jonti or Aratap we don’t know). Then on reaching Rhodia, three more people enter the fray, all with their own plans, thus complicating the whole endeavour. Who killed the Rancher of Widemos? Who is really controlling the situation? What was Biron looking for? And most of all, what’s the next move?

The entirety of this first third is well delivered, though I did feel a little overwhelmed at this point. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it, but I quickly lost sight of all the different things going on and how they fit together, mainly because I was so eager to read more. I’d highly suggest pausing for a moment and reflecting on everything you’ve discovered so far because this mystery can withstand scrutiny. Every time something seems a little off, there is a reason for it and it will be answered in this book, so take your time. We’re already a third done, and though we have yet to solve any of the mysteries, answers will start coming soon.

Midpoint Discussion:

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The titles of all of these chapters are beautifully tongue-in-cheek. Each time you think the story will go one way, the title says otherwise without giving too much away, and you’re left to enjoy how “An Overlord’s Trousers” are securely fastened. Then there’s the matter of how Gilbert has been listening in on the Tyranni, how Aratap seems to be in control, and how Jonti still sounds like he has most everything planned. Having the three groups working against each other, yet wondering if they are or not, is thrilling. Then we’re told of a resistance planet that no one knows about, and things get really crazy.

It’s at this point we hit the halfway mark of the book and it starts to fall back in on itself. We see how Biron’s father starts fits into the resistance, meet a powerful leader of a planet who turns out to be Jonti in disguise, and then hear about Rizzett who is the only named assistant to Jonti. And then it starts to unravel, as so much snaps apart and falls into place. It was only here after Biron’s revelation about Jonti that I really started to savour the story. The rebellion world was at hand and everyone should go so that the meeting would be a success. Finally, we get the murder of the Rancher of Widemos tossed at Artemisia’s feet and we’re left with a lot of drama and a new plot line to follow into the final third.

Final Thoughts:

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And what a conclusion it is! Not only are we given the answer to a mystery we didn’t know existed, but we learn just how much the Autarch had planned and that Biron had again outsmarted everyone else. At least for a time. Quickly they get surrounded on the planet and Aratap comes out victorious, revealing how Gilbert is really delusional for the most part and yet still knows about the rebellion world that no one has yet found. With one planet left, he even sabotages everything to protect the world, only to be stopped by Biron. It’s here again that you should pause and try to piece everything together before reading on, for there’s another brilliant reveal coming up.

With that mystery solved, we turn to the paper Biron was searching for, and here I will announce the final twist: it’s the US Constitution. In essence, the Tyranni can be overthrown by a properly organized democracy, and the US as envisioned by its founders is the perfect way to doing so. There’s some truth in that as the settlers escaped the rule of the monarchy, but the Constitution served as a way to unite the states after the war had been fought, not a call to arms to overthrow the empire that held them.

Despite my feelings about the ending, I’m still very excited about the next book in the series as I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Time to exit the nebula; onto the rebellion world!

In 1976, Harry McGurk and his research assistant John MacDonald were researching how infants perceive speech as they develop. Some of their experiments involved separating visual and auditory stimuli and seeing how the children learned, such as playing the video of a mother speaking in one area and having the audio play in another. In this same vein they took two phonemes, “ba” and “ga”, and then merged the audio of “ba” with the video of “ga”. And just like a mad science experiment gone wrong, they created a third sound: “da”.

At first McGurk and MacDonald thought there was some audio error at play or technical mixup, but further testing confirmed that they discovered something new. Listening to the audio alone lead the person to hear “ba”, but watching the video with the wrong audio made them hear “da”. This phenomenon is called the McGurk Effect and you can see and hear it in this BBC2 video, pictured above. To really appreciate the effect though, watch this video and then replay it with your eyes closed.

What’s going on? In order to perceive speech, our minds merge both auditory and visual information, overlaying them in an effort to decipher words. When “ba” and “ga” are merged we hear the middle sound of “da”, or as in the BBC2 video, “ba” and “va” become “fa”. Interestingly, people in Japan experience a weaker McGurk Effect than English speakers because the former don’t look at each other as often during conversation. Similarly, people who watch dubbed movies are less susceptible to the McGurk Effect because they’ve trained their brains to dissociate audio and video speech processing. This indicates that the effect is learned instead of something we’re born with.

Today’s Tangent: The McGurk Effect is something that can’t be easily overcome; even those who have researched it for years and understand how it works are still affected by it. In contrast, many optical illusions can be easily flipped between by knowing that there are two options, such as Ruben’s Vase (a vase with two faces surrounding it). More interesting is the Spinning Dancer as the silhouette is seen spinning clockwise twice as often as counter-clockwise, though the animation never changes. The reason? There’s a slight vertical angle and more people imagine looking down at the dancer instead of looking up. In fact, the original animation was taken at a slightly downward angle, making clockwise the true rotation.