I wake up scheming


When you’re a jet…

Ever since the seventies, astrophysicists have had evidence for the existence of blazars: black holes heavier than a million suns that spew superhot plasma jets into intergalactic space at up to 99.9% the speed of light, not caring what star systems they disrupt or how many human lives they incinerate.  And every time I look up at the stars I promise myself that someday I’ll be able to wield that kind of power.

What’s frustrating is that – until recently – nobody has done anything to take those astrophysical jets and put them in the hands of the common man (that is, me) who needs them for a very important project.  No, I’m not trying to take over the earth here, but some days, taking over the earth just seems like too petty a project.  My whole life I’ve been dying to blow up a planet, just one measly planet.  Or a couple planets.  Or maybe a star.  And finally, science is taking steps towards making that possible.

That’s right; after decades of patient thumb-twiddling, I might finally be able to get to work wreaking havoc on the cosmos, if some research being conducted by the Bellan Plasma Group at the California Institute of Technology is as promising as it seems.

The group, led by Paul Bellan, has shown that plasma jets like the ones created by blazars can be simulated in the laboratory in a highly reproducible way.  The group pumped ionized gases through a strong magnetic field and watched (with power-hungry zeal, I presume) as a set of magnetic flux tubes self-coalesced to form a single beam of plasma.  The jet organizes itself based on its own magnetic forces, which suggests that anything that spews plasma into a vacuum can create the kind of superhot plasma jet produced by a blazar.  The kind of plasma jet that I would need in order to incinerate Jupiter.

As usual, the science leaves me several steps short of accomplishing anything useful. So far, Bellan’s group has only created plasma jets that move at 0.01% the speed of light for less than a meter.  Far short of the jets I need even for small-scale planetary annihilation.  But the implications are clear: start thinking about which planets you want in the solar system and which ones you’re willing to say goodbye to.

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Life is plastic, it’s fantastic!
March 22, 2010, 3:37 pm
Filed under: eco-villainy | Tags: , , , , , , ,

I try not to get jealous.  I really do, the emotion isn’t becoming on me.  Vengeful, brashly destructive, callous to the suffering of the puny masses – those emotions I’m comfortable with.  But I don’t like being jealous.

That being said, I’m letting myself get a little bit jealous of Miriam Goldstein, chief scientist on the Scripps Environmental Accumulation of Plastic Expedition (SEAPLEX). She and her team of sailor/scientists piled onto the vessel New Horizon last August and ambled through one of the most awe-inspiring sites that the world’s oceans have to offer: the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch.

© Doug Lee.

You’ve got to understand; this Texas-sized (or maybe USA-sized?) oceanic dump is basically the Great Pyramid at Giza for people who are trying to destroy the world.  I’ve spent my whole professional life working on a handful of brilliant yet underfunded doomsday devices only to find out that, without anyone even trying, this giant mess of trash is accumulating in the middle of the ocean and threatening our very existence – talk about awe-inspiring!  Even if it’s not what it’s cracked up to be, I’m sure that a trip to the GPOGP could give me some ideas.

A word about this patch.  The Northern Pacific Ocean contains one of the world’s five major ocean gyres, a relatively stationary patch of sea that forms as a result of enormous rotating currents caused by the Coriolis Effect (which is held falsely responsible for choosing the direction in which a toilet flushes).  Currents in the Northern Pacific Ocean create a vortex that pushes surface waters out to sea, carrying floating debris with them.  At the center of the vortex, those waters sink, but the debris remains, and collects, and builds up over 40 or 50 years until we have a giant patch of plastic floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and threatening local ecosystems over an area whose massive size we’re still trying to calculate.

Until the SEAPLEX expedition, news anchors and reporters had assumed that the mess was a big old floating island made of garbage that you could walk on if you wanted to (which I do).  What Goldstein’s team found was a soup of “confetti-like” pieces of plastic floating near the surface and stretching across 1,700 miles of ocean, which explains why the patch can’t be measured from space.  And why I can’t build a mansion on it.

So far, the results of the expedition haven’t been analyzed to the point where the researchers know anything conclusive about exactly how soon the GPOGP is going to destroy marine ecosystems and topple the delicate balance of life as we know it.  They’ve found chunks of plastic in the stomachs of some deep-sea fish underneath the patch, and there are suggestions that the toxins in the plastic could seep into the fishes and the food chain, and begin to poison humans.  But that’s all conjecture at this point.

I’m crossing my fingers.  If this garbage patch pans out and does end up destroying the earth, that means I don’t have to help out with that boring Large Hadron Collider doomsday project, which my heart is totally not into.



Mine ice have seen the glory

© D Sharon Pruitt

Anybody who has ever made a wish on the first snowflake of a childhood winter has probably dreamed of someday being able to freeze their enemies using a high-powered laser.  And that day is now a little closer, thanks to some arresting new research from the laboratory of Mansoor Sheik-Bahae of the University of New Mexico (published in the January 2010 issue of the Journal of Nature-Photonics).

Sheik-Bahae’s team has figured out how to cool a crystal down to 155 Kelvin (-180°F), which is more than 50 Kelvin colder than a solid has ever been cooled with a laser.  And it’s actually the coldest that any solid-state device has been able to get; thermoelectric cooling generally quits around 170 Kelvin.

What’s their secret?  Anti-Stokes fluorescence.  Most fluorescent materials demonstrate Stokes fluorescence, absorbing radiation at one wavelength and emitting radiation with a longer wavelength and less energy.  In anti-Stokes fluorescence, a material absorbs radiation and re-emits it at a shorter wavelength with higher energy, drawing the extra energy from the heat of the system.  If you keep exciting a material like this, its heat gets turned into light, and the material gets colder.  Then, once the material is frozen (assuming it is the door on a bank vault), you can crack through it with a hammer and make off with millions of dollars in canvas bags with money signs on them.

The problem, though, is that there aren’t too many materials that display anti-stokes fluorescence.  Ytterbium-doped yttrium lithium fluoride, the crystal used by Sheik-Bahae’s lab, is one of them.  That’s about it.  So it would be almost impossible to use laser cooling on anything practical, like a team of mystery-solving teenagers and their pesky mutt.  Unless, of course, the pesky mutt was made of ytterbium-doped yttrium lithium fluoride crystals.  But alas, I can only dream.

Sheik-Bahae can dream too: he believes that with more careful crystal preparation, purer laser light, and a little elbow grease, he can reach temperatures as low as 10K.  And I’d like to trust him.  After all, every step counts when you’re trying to develop a freeze ray.