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David Darling's Newsletter #33


November 17, 2005


Greetings everyone from a bright and sunny, if somewhat chilly, Dundee, Scotland.

Last week I sent the copy-edited manuscript of my latest book "Gravity's Arc" (with apologies to Thomas Pynchon) to my publisher, John Wiley & Sons. The subtitle, "The Story of Gravity from Aristotle to Einstein and Beyond", sums up what it's all about. It'll be in the shops next spring - more details as the publication date draws near. One of the subjects I talk about at length in it is gravitational waves. What's so exciting about these waves is that we may be right on the verge of detecting them for the first time. Gravity waves are expected to be given off by super-violent events in the universe, such as the explosion of stars (supernovae) and the collision of incredibly dense objects like neutron stars or black holes. Right now, most of what we know about space comes in the form of light and other forms of electromagnetic radiation (radio waves, X-rays, etc). Gravity waves will open up a whole new window about what's going on out there. And there's tremendous anticipation among scientists that this breakthrough may be just around the corner. For a taste of what's to come, check out this BBC page.

Those of us in the northern hemisphere are being treated to a great night-time spectacle at the moment – the Moon and Mars close together in the sky and both nearly at their brightest. For details of this and other current celestial delights see the BBC's Sky at Night page.

Good news for those of you who've been asking when I'm going to be setting up a new forum for discussion of all the things that I deal with in my books and on my website – life in the universe, space exploration, teleportation, and so forth. The old forum was hacked about a year ago and I decided to avoid further problems by abandoning it. So many people have written in, though, saying how much they missed it, that I've decided to revive the feature. It's currently being tested upon members of my family and should be safe to unleash upon the public some time next week. Look for a link appearing on the front page of my site. I'll also be sending out further details of this and an opportunity to win one of the first copies of my gravity book in a special newsletter very soon.

In the News

One of the most interesting news stories, for me, over the past few weeks, was about Archimedes. A bit out of date, you might think, considering that he died over 2,000 years ago. But there's always been plenty of controversy about what Archimedes, that most brilliant of Greek inventors, did and didn't do. According to legend he's supposed to have set fire to a invading fleet of Roman ships using mirrors. The main source of this story is John Zonoras who in his book "In Epitome ton Istorion", penned in about AD 12, wrote: "At last in an incredible manner he burned up the whole Roman fleet. For by tilting a kind of mirror toward the sun he concentrated the sun's beam upon it; and owing to the thickness and smoothness of the mirror he ignited the air from this beam and kindled a great flame, the whole of which he directed upon the ships that lay at anchor in the path of the fire, until he consumed them all." I must admit this sounds a bit far-fetched to me. Like most people, I've tried the old trick of setting fire to paper using a magnifying glass. But torching a ship at long range is something else altogether. Could such an ancient "death ray" really have been possible?

To test the idea for the Discovery Channel's show "Myth Busters", a team from MIT and the University of Arizona went to San Francisco Bay and tried to burn a wooden boat, moored 150 feet away, using an array of bronze reflectors. At first, they had no luck at all. When they halved the distance to 75 feet, they were able to kindle a flame but it quickly fizzled out before it could cause any damage.

Is that the end of the story? Was Archimedes' destruction of the Roman fleet nothing more than a romantic myth? Perhaps not. Shortly after posting the story on my own website, I received this message from Jerome Goodwin, Snr:
"The thing the Myth Busters forgot is that the ships of that time were made with pitch chinking (caulking ) and had sails. If you set the sail on fire the pitch in the ship will do the rest. They tried to set a modern (water logged?) boat on fire. WRONG! Try it with a cloth sail on sailboat."
I'm not sure I'd recommend this for a school science project. But Jerome's suggestion is surely worth someone's time and effort, if only to breathe new life into one of the most intriguing tales of ancient ingenuity.

Continuing with the theme of vessels and flames (and feeble links!), a number of important space missions have blasted off since the last time I wrote to you. On November 9, the European Space Agency's Venus Express successfully took off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on the first trip to our nearest planetary neighbor since NASA's Magellan back in 1989. Venus has had far less attention paid to it than has our other near-neighbor, Mars. One of the big reasons for that is the apparent lack of any biological interest in the second planet from the Sun. It's surface is hot enough to melt lead, it has a crushing atmosphere with 90 times the surface pressure of Earth's, and, as if that wasn't bad enough, it drizzles sulfuric acid. Even so, Venus is a fascinating place. For one thing, it suffers from a runaway greenhouse effect which we'd like to know more about; this kind of climatic calamity might happen here if we're not more careful about how much carbon dioxide we keep pumping into the atmosphere. Another big question mark hangs over the volcanoes of Venus. Are they still active? Magellan sent back fascinating radar images of suspiciously fresh-looking lava flows. Maybe Venus Express, which is built very much along the lines of the successful Mars Express, will shed more light. And, getting back to the subject of life, it's just possible that Venus may be of interest to astrobiologists, too. Several scientists, including Dirk Schulze-Makuch, now at Washington State University, have hypothesized that there could be aerial microbial organisms surviving on a diet of gases such as sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide in the Venusian cloud tops. More about the prospects for Venus life on this page from my on-line encyclopedia.

Europe has also just launched the third of its biggest ever version of the Ariane rocket. On November 16, an Ariane 5-ECA took off from French Guiana carrying two giant communications satellites. Meanwhile China successfully completed its second manned mission in October and is pressing on with a program that appears bent on competing with the other two manned space powers - the US and Russia. The Chinese space efforts are going to make interesting viewing over the next few years. There have been hints of a space station and a lunar program, though the official line seems to be to cautiously take things one step at a time. October also marked the end of the road for a venerable space carrier. The very last Titan rocket headed skyward from Vandenberg Air Force Base, hoisting to orbit a spy satellite for the US National reconnaissance. Titan has been a workhorse of the American space program for half a century, having launched, among many others, the manned Gemini missions back in the 1960s, the Vikings to Mars, the fabulous Voyagers to the outer solar system and beyond, and the Cassini probe to Saturn. Read about the last of the Titans here (space.com).

And finally ...

With Christmas on its way, why not consider a literary gift for that scientifically-curious relative or friend - yours truly's "Teleportation: the Impossible Leap," a life-changing, mind-expanding (well, pretty interesting) read available from all good booksellers or by clicking on the Amazon link on my home page. Please continue to e-mail me with your comments and ideas, the best of which I'll include in future newsletter.

Until next time,
Best wishes,
David Darling