Single LGM seeks same

Searching for a partner-in-life is a lot like SETI, except there are a whole lot of Wow! signals.

In the first place, it’s a big universe, and there are a lot of stars out there. And it’s likely that somewhere in all that vastness, among or below those countless stars, there’s someone else who looks up at them rather like you do. So there’s hope. SETI is not a dead-end road.

But at the same time, it’s important to remember that the distances are large, and that you can expect it to take a long time to find anything. In fact, it’s difficult even to guess at how long it might be, because the factors that influence it are so variable. It could be quite a while, though, and so since we didn’t stumble across the United Federation of Planets in the first little while after we switched on the radio telescopes, there’s an important operating principle we must adopt: to accept that the search may take an indefinitely long time. We could bump into a Golden Record from Alpha Centauri next week, or we could still be looking a thousand years from now, even if we develop spectacular new technologies. It’s no reason to give up hope — as we said at the outset, it’s a big universe — but the realities of cosmic geography make the expected mean time to contact long. So we can’t depend on it.

For the forseeable future, we must accept that it’s just us here, no matter who may be just around the corner in the stellar neighborhood. We can’t hope that contact with aliens will happen soon, and give us the dose of perspective we need to get over our resource wars, our loyalty to man-made economic systems, our religious differences, or anything else we struggle with. This is our house, and it’s entirely up to us. We all live here, and nobody else is going to come save us, so we’d better get our lives in order and learn to get along. We can’t sit around waiting for the Vulcans to descend from the sky and say “You complete me.” We need to be able to live on our own in steady-state.

Which isn’t to say that we give up looking for companions in the cosmos. Continue reading

FLOAT in Physics in Canada

I spent much of my master’s degree at the Royal Military College of Canada working on ADS-B, a new system of air traffic surveillance. In particular, I was looking at how to detect aircraft transponder signals from orbit, what kind of satellite system would be needed to do that, and how to integrate that information into the air traffic management system. I’ve published on it before, but now my professor at RMC, Ron Vincent, has an article in Physics in Canada, which describes that work, particularly as an example of an effective student project that had real science and technology results. You can read it here.

Western Worlds #101 podcast now available

The first episode of Western Worlds is available in mp3 format for download from CPSX. It features my interview with Dr. Gordon Osinski about impact craters, and a follow-up discussion on the topic with the Western Worlds panel of the week.

Tune in Mondays at 10 PM EST to hear the program each week, or watch for recorded episodes. Western Worlds is also available on Twitter (and so am I, as @CosmicRaymond)

Western Worlds radio program on

Western Worlds, a new radio program about planetary science and exploration on, had its premiere tonight. Produced jointly by the Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration (CPSX) and, it will air Monday nights at 10 PM EST.

Each week will feature an interview with a researcher in planetary science and exploration — perhaps a geologist, an astrobiologist, or a robotics engineer — followed by a round-table discussion of the topics covered. I’ll be a periodic co-host, as in this first episode, where I interview Dr. Gordon Osinski, acting director of CPSX and specialist in impact cratering, about the processes of crater formation, the results of of impact event, and the methods and value of studying impact structures on Earth and other planets.

In coming weeks we’ll talk about discovering new asteroids, bringing planetary science to the public, techniques for determining the origin of meteorites, and more.

The wake of a freely flying European Starling

One of the fun things about working at a university is the continual series of lectures, presentations, and seminars about current research. Today in the Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, a paper was presented on aerodynamics, an area in which Western does a lot of work. The paper is titled A case study of unsteady wings: the wake of a freely flying European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris), by Kirchhefer et al.

It’s solid, practical research in aerodynamics:

In recent years, an increasing interest in developing unmanned aerodynamic vehicles (UAVs) has prompted research on the related aerodynamic phenomena. This branch of aerodynamics focuses on low Reynolds number wings, of a variety of shapes, moving unsteadily through a fluid.

And what better way to study such processes than on existing systems that behave similarly? So they turn to birds:

As living organisms, birds are subject to selective pressures. As such, one may assume they operate their wings in a manner that is highly efficient. Although this notion is supported by the tendency of birds, as well as many other animals, to operate in a Strouhal number range (0.2-0.4)
of robustly high efficiency (Anderson et al., 1998; Taylor et al., 2003) . . .

But they note that working with live animals ‘presents a difficulty’ or two. Not the least of which seems to be safety:

Due to the powerful laser operating within a few chord lengths of the bird’s tail, two precautions were taken to ensure the bird’s safety. Goggles made of a flexible, optically dense, polymer material were designed to protect the bird’s vision as well as reduce the potential of the lightsheet frightening the bird. After an accommodation period in a cage of fifteen minutes to half an hour, the bird would fly normally in the tunnel while wearing the goggles.

(Emphasis mine.) Somewhere in a department full of sensible, practical, mechanical engineers, there is someone whose job it is to design tiny goggles for little birds to wear in the wind tunnel. So they’re not hurt by the giant laser, of course.

This is yet another example of why universities are wonderful.

Welcome back

Welcome to After a long while as a static webpage, we’re back to periodic updates and a bit more structured look. If you can’t bear to lose the old hand-coded-from-scratch look, you can always indulge in some nostalgia, but the new updates are going to be right here.

If you’re new to the site altogether, well, hi there. There are links above for an Introduction, the FAQ, and contact details.

Check back for news. Or don’t, and just use the RSS feed. Also, I’ve got an account over on the Twits (as I understand the youngsters these days are calling it).