Did you know that the discovery of a way to make ammonia was the single most important reason for the world’s population explosion from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 7 billion today? Or that polythene, the world’s most common plastic, was accidentally invented twice?
The chances are you didn’t, as chemistry tends to get overlooked compared to the other sciences. Not a single chemist made it into Science magazine’s Top 50 Science stars on Twitter. Chemistry news just don’t get the same coverage as the physics projects, even when the project was all about landing a chemistry lab on a comet.
So the Royal Society of Chemistry decided to look into what people really think of chemistry, chemists and chemicals. It turns out most people just don’t have a good idea of what it is chemists do, or how chemistry contributes to the modern world.
This is a real shame, because the world as we know it wouldn’t exist without chemistry. Here’s my top five chemistry inventions that make the world you live in.
A minor fracas between astronomers and robo-lawnmowers has been making headlines, which sounds painfully futuristic. At issue, whether the maker of Roomba can let its autonomous mower operate on restricted radio frequencies that telescopes use to observe the cosmos.
And the whole thing is futuristic in another, more subtle way, as well. Robot lawnmowers are just one of the many coming gadgets that will be incorporated into the Internet of Things, a wireless network in which even our everyday appliances will participate. And it’s that future that has astronomers on edge.
A Web of Nouns
The trouble began because iRobot doesn’t want its customers to have to do any physical labor — not cutting the grass and definitely not digging the trenches for the underground wires that most autonomous lawn mowers use to sense the edge of their domain. iRobot applied to the FCC to be allowed to use wireless broadcasters instead, at radio frequencies between 6240 and 6740 MHz. Problematically, though, space-based methanol also broadcasts radio waves at those frequencies. Methanol traces star formation and tells us about the evolution of our galaxy, which (taken to its extreme) tells us how we got here. To protect that band, the FCC says “all practicable steps shall be taken to protect the radio astronomy service from harmful interference.” And within that band, it prohibits “fixed outdoor infrastructure.” The National Radio Astronomy Observatory says iRobot’s guiding beacons violate that prohibition and insist the mower-bot stay 55 miles away from its telescopes. iRobot says nuh-uh, “there is little risk of interference,” and 12 miles is sufficient.
If one brand’s wireless landscape-eater can cause such a stir, just imagine what could happen when our world is full of self-adjusting, internet-connected devices all communicating wirelessly with each other and with the Web. They will all need to use the radio “spectrum,” but how they’ll split it up — and share it with astronomers, other industries, and the government — when more devices need a slice of the pie remains to be seen.
Smart thermostats can already make your house the temperature you want while monitoring the outdoor weather. Bluetooth beacons help you find your keys. Sensors monitor inventory and alert vending machine owners that Fruitopia is sold out. This is the Internet of Things, and it’s coming. “There are no spectrum bottlenecks for dedicated Internet of Things systems yet,” Kevin Ashton, co-founder and former executive director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Auto-ID Center, told Bloomberg BNA, “but we are seeing Wi-Fi services get maxed out, as there are only so many channels you can cram into the available spectrum.”
Splitting up the Spectrum
The Internet of Things requires wireless devices. A Nest would look stupid with an Ethernet cable snaking out of its circumference. If your wearable glucose monitor had to be plugged into a router to work, you’d never get far from home. Each device operates at a specific radio frequency. In the US, the FCC controls who gets to use which frequencies. In some bands, anyone can transmit radio waves, as long as they stay below a certain power (most Internet of Things things operate here). Other bands require a license, which the government sells to organizations at (surely riveting) auctions. And, finally, some bands are reserved for radio astronomy. Check out this graphic to see how it’s parceled out:
The radio astronomy bands, however, only cover a tiny portion of the spectrum, while radio astronomers are interested in almost all of it. So while the Internet of Things may color within the lines of its own little boxes (which seems dubious if iRobot is a harbinger), objects in space have no such compunctions. They will continue to send out radio waves that have the same frequency as your video-chat dog-treat dispenser. And the signal from your dog’s sockeye-salmon biscuit video could completely swamp a signal that’s been traveling valiantly across space for billions of years. But as the spectrum gets more crowded, we’re more likely to see changes and challenges to its allocation — just like with iRobot — that bleed toward protected bands.
Radio Waves … from Space
Astronomers use radio telescopes like those in Green Bank, WV; Socorro, NM; Jodrell Bank, England; Arecibo, Puerto Rico; and Parkes, Australia to detect the radio waves coming from space. Although cosmic radio waves come from powerful sources like black holes, pulsars, and natural lasers, they have traveled a long way before hitting earthly antennas. Radio waves, like visible light, appear dimmer the farther you are from the source. If you are 1 light-year from a pulsar, and then you step back to 2 light-years, the radio waves will become four times dimmer. Step back 4 light-years, and the waves are 16 times dimmer. By the time radio waves get here, they’re way less than shadows of their former selves. A single cell phone placed on the Moon, for instance, would show up more powerfully in radio waves than almost anything else in the sky.
So when you put a cell phone right next to a telescope, or even miles away, it easily drowns out the pipsqueaks coming from space. Imagine trying to see a flashlight that someone was holding in front of the Sun (hint: rhetorical).
To protect their ability to do radio astronomy without the intrusion of your smartphone, astronomers put their telescopes in remote locations, preferably valleys surrounded by mountains that absorb radio waves trying to trespass from outside. But in a world full of radio-emitting devices, being away from population centers isn’t good enough. Any population is a problem — and not just because of the obvious suspects, like cell phones. Nearly any electronic device emits radio waves (proof? Turn on a portable radio, tune to an empty AM station, and hold it up to your refrigerator/fluorescent light/digital camera/oscillating fan).
Some observatories politely ask people to turn off their cell phones, as if this were the beginning of a movie and not the fate of our understanding of the universe. But others, like Green Bank, have established “radio-quiet zones,” where lots of normal things are against the law. For 13,000 square miles around the observatory — a region that includes parts of Virginia and Maryland as well as West Virginia — broadcasters have to fill out special paperwork to make sure the telescope can’t “see” their transmitters. If it can? Permit denied. So for an hour or so radius around Green Bank, you can’t get cell phone service, no matter how high you hold your iPhone in the air. “Keeping cell service out of the immediate vicinity hinders the utility of lots of gadgets which would potentially transmit on multiple bands, not just their link to the cellular service,” says Green Bank’s Carla Beaudet, the observatory’s radio-frequency interference engineer. “The National Radio Quiet Zone offers protection to Green Bank both directly and indirectly.”
In a smaller, 10-mile radius around the observatory, the rules are stricter: no Wi-Fi, no microwaves, no cordless phones, no wireless game controllers, no Bluetooth transfers. It’s an enforceable law, and NRAO has a truck that can track down rogue radio waves. Employees have knocked on doors to find shorted electric blankets, malfunctioning electric fences, contraband Wi-Fi routers, and once (at least according to legend) was plagued by the radio tracking collars on fast-moving squirrels.
Green Bank has the most well-known and oldest quiet zone, which was established in 1958 (not in small part because the government’s communications station Sugar Grove is just down the valley). But Australia, South Africa, and Chile — home to the next generation of radio telescopes — have or soon will have their own versions. “Geospatial exclusion areas like the National Radio Quiet Zone can go a long distance (pun intended) towards protecting specific radio astronomy facilities,” says Beaudet, “particularly if there is additional protection from terrain obstacles” (such as mountains).
But many telescopes — such as Arecibo — have only terrain obstacles, and no official protection. Soon, they may only be sensitive enough within the officially protected radio astronomy bands — and that’s only if corporations play by existing rules. “The extent to which the Internet of Things will be a threat to radio astronomy will depend upon whether the regulatory standards can be upheld in the face of the massive onslaught of lawyers funded by the private sector,” says Beaudet. “If the regulatory standards are upheld rather than modified every time somebody needs more spectrum, there will still be small windows of spectrum in which astronomers can observe.”
In the future, telescopes outside quiet zones may detect so much blah-blah-blah from our devices that they won’t catch the whispered conversation from space. But the people who live in those quiet zones won’t be able to fully inhabit the modern world. Their dogs will have to eat treats all alone. Their home heating systems will be woefully inefficient. They’ll never buy an app. (Note: Some want it that way and move to places like Green Bank because it’s electromagnetically old-school. )
If we live in a hyperconnected wireless world, which we already do, we learn less about the universe than we would if radio telescopes were the only technology in operation (at least until we can build a radio telescope on the Moon). But we’re not going to stop making smart devices and linking them together, nor should we. We will have to find a way to manage and balance those interests. Not every iRobot will get what it wants. Not every pulsar will be discovered. Conversations like the one between the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and iRobot are just beginning. Go get yourself some popcorn. You won’t believe what happens next.
When Paul Coleman summits Mauna Kea, the dormant volcano in Hawai’i that rises 13,796 feet above the Pacific, he is struck by two things. First there are the colossal observatories, whose domes gleam in the sunlight by day and glimpse the farthest reaches of the universe by night. Second, there is the red dusted mountain itself, which in his religion is the home of the gods.
But Coleman, an astronomer at the University of Hawai’i and a native Hawaiian, may be one of the few people on Mauna Kea who can fully appreciate this dichotomy. Today, the sacred mountain has become a battleground between astronomers, Hawaiians and environmentalists. The issue is that astronomers have placed 13 telescopes at its summit and now wish to build one more: The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), which will be the largest and most powerful yet.
The telescope’s opponents argue that not only is the volcano sacred ground, it’s environmentally fragile land and also ceded land, meaning that it should be used for the benefit of native people. While the operators of the new telescope have held many conversations with Native Hawaiians, conducted a thorough environmental impact statement and proposed paying $1 million yearly for the land plus another $2 million yearly to support local education programs, the protestors say it’s not enough.
“Mauna Kea is our temple,” said Kealoha Pisciotta, one of a half-dozen plaintiffs suing to stop the project. “It’s not a question that we’re against astronomy. We’re just for Mauna Kea.”
But for astronomers like Coleman, the colossal telescope is also a temple. With a mirror nearly three times larger than any other on Earth, it will see deeper into the universe than any other ground-based telescope. And built with phenomenal optics in such a pristine location, it will produce sharper pictures than even the Hubble Space Telescope.
Astronomers have found evidence of a giant void that could be the largest known structure in the universe. The “supervoid” solves a controversial cosmic puzzle: it explains the origin of a large and anomalously cold region of the sky. However, future observations are needed to confirm the discovery and determine whether the void is unique.
The so-called cold spot can be seen in maps of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), which is the radiation left over from the birth of the universe. It was first discovered by NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) in 2004 and confirmed by ESA’s Planck Satellite. For more than a decade, astronomers have failed to explain its existence. But there has been no shortage of suggestions, with unproven and controversial theories being put forward including imprints of parallel universes, called the multiverse theory, and exotic physics in the early universe.
Now an international team of astronomers led by Istvan Szapudi of the Institute for Astronomy at The University of Hawaii at Manoa have found evidence for one of the theories: a supervoid, in which the density of galaxies is much lower than usual in the known universe.
It is 50 years since humans first encountered space – not Sputnik’s first orbit, nor Yuri Gagarin’s first spaceflight, but the first time a crew member stepped out from their spacecraft’s relative protection and immersed themselves in the cold, hostile emptiness of the vacuum.
On March 18, 1965, 30-year-old Russian cosmonaut Alexey Leonov completed a 12-minute spacewalk. This feat, and that of Gagarin and Sputnik before, was just one of the many achievements of the Soviet space program in the early years of the space race.
Leonov and others who followed him wore specially designed space suits, were tethered and later had helpful gadgets to move them around. Without the tether astronauts would have floated into empty space, with nothing to slow or change direction in frictionless space, with no rescue possible and only an inevitable death as their oxygen supply ran out. If this sounds daunting, imagine being the first ever to have faced this.
Only recently have we started to develop robotic equipment versatile and sensitive enough to carry out the complex tasks requiring fine motor skills taken for granted in any lab on Earth. Before then, astronauts had to walk in space and use these tools to repair satellites – such as the Hubble space telescope, which has given us the incredible science and images for the past 25 years. Spacewalks helped ensure we could walk on the moon, take samples and set up experiments.
Building the knowledge required to walk in space, and the robotic equipment to later help astronauts, also led toward the establishing of the US Skylab and Russian Mir orbital space labs, and their successor in the International Space Station (ISS).
The Cassini mission that has investigated Saturn since 2004 has revealed much about the giant planet and its many moons. Perhaps most tantalizing is the discovery that the moon Enceladus is the source of strong geysers ejecting plumes of water and ice.
A new study of Cassini data published in Nature by Hsiang-Wen Hsu and colleagues reveals these plumes are laced with grains of sand. This indicates that hydrothermal activity may be at work in Enceladus’ sub-surface ocean, and propels this tiny moon into the extremely exclusive club of locations that could harbor life.
The club’s only current member is Earth, of course – although it’s very possible that Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, is, like Enceladus, also a candidate. What they have in common is that they host liquid oceans of salty water that exists in contact with a rocky, silicate seabed from which the oceans can absorb complex minerals and elements.
The NASA spacecraft Dawn has spent more than seven years traveling across the solar system to intercept the asteroid Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres. Now in orbit around Ceres, the probe has returned the first images and data from these distant objects.
But inside Dawn itself is another first – the spacecraft is the first exploratory space mission to use an electrically-powered ion engine rather than conventional rockets.
Such ion engines will propel the next generation of spacecraft.
We all know and love the moon. We’re so assured that we only have one that we don’t even give it a specific name. It is the brightest object in the night sky, and amateur astronomers take great delight in mapping its craters and seas. To date, it is the only other heavenly body with human footprints.
What you might not know is that the moon is not the Earth’s only natural satellite. As recently as 1997, we discovered that another body, 3753 Cruithne, is what’s called a quasi-orbital satellite of Earth. This simply means that Cruithne doesn’t loop around the Earth in a nice ellipse in the same way as the moon, or indeed the artificial satellites we loft into orbit. Instead, Cruithne scuttles around the inner solar system in what’s called a “horseshoe” orbit.
[Keep up with the latest news on New Horizons here]
Ceres is the largest object in the asteroid belt, and NASA’s Dawn spacecraft will arrive there on March 6.
Pluto is the largest object in the Kuiper belt, and NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will arrive there on July 15.
These two events will make 2015 an exciting year for solar system exploration and discovery. But there is much more to this story than mere science. I expect 2015 will be the year when general consensus, built upon our new knowledge of these two objects, will return Pluto and add Ceres to our family of solar system planets.
The efforts of a very small clique of Pluto-haters within the International Astronomical Union (IAU) plutoed Pluto in 2006. Of the approximately 10,000 internationally registered members of the IAU in 2006, only 237 voted in favor of the resolution redefining Pluto as a “dwarf planet” while 157 voted against; the other 9,500 members were not present at the closing session of the IAU General Assembly in Prague at which the vote to demote Pluto was taken. Yet Pluto’s official planetary status was snatched away.
Ceres and Pluto are both spheroidal objects, like Mercury, Earth, Jupiter and Saturn. That’s part of the agreed upon definition of a planet. They both orbit a star, the Sun, like Venus, Mars, Uranus and Neptune. That’s also part of the widely accepted definition of a planet.
I have always been in awe of the night sky, trying to comprehend the vastness of space and the countless wonders it contains. But I have always felt a certain dissatisfaction with only being able to see it at a distance.
One day I imagine that humanity will be able to visit other planets in the solar system, and venture even further to other stars, but this has always seemed very far away. That’s the reason why I applied for the Mars One mission, aimed at starting a human colony on Mars – it seemed like a real opportunity to get closer to the rest of the night sky, to give me a chance to be a part of taking humanity into the stars.
Mars is, in a way, the perfect stepping stone into the rest of the universe. Despite its inhospitable conditions, it has a day-night cycle only 39 minutes longer than on Earth. Unlike the moon, it is resource-rich, and has a soil and atmosphere rich in water and nitrogen respectively. Mars does not suffer from the sweltering heat and toxic atmosphere found on Venus, closer to the sun from Earth, but still receives enough light from the sun to enable the generation of solar power.