Brain Bar Budapest via blog posts

Brain Bar Budapest cover logo

An old friend of mine touched base a couple of months back, wondering if I’d like to do some writing for Brain Bar Budapest. My first question was: for Brain-what?

As freelancers tend to do, I said yes. They were looking for blog posts about the festival’s speakers – quick hits, mostly: some background, an interview, and (ideally) interesting copy.

I didn’t get to go to Brain Bar Budapest in early June, but they put on a great show, looks like. And I got to talk with (or email with), and then write a bit about, some fascinating and diverse people.

Among the posts included: writer and political analyst Virginia Postrel, on the essence and importance of glamour; the transhumanist presidential candidate Zoltan Istvan; Johns Hopkins University scientist Alex Szalay, whose work in big data (and astrophysics) is helping usher in the fourth paradigm of science; Gabriel Hallevy, a legal scholar on the potential dark side of the rise of robots; “Undercover Economist” Tim Harford; propaganda-and-science-fiction scholar Etienne Augé; Harvard machine learning PhD candidate Victoria Krakovna on the existential risk artificial intelligence may pose; Austrian ceramicist and humanity-archivist Martin Kunze; Malaysian-born entrepreneur Cheryl Yeoh; and MinecraftEdu cofounder Santeri Koivisto, among others.





What’s the use of math? – a JWST example

JWST LaGrange point map

The James Webb Space Telescope will orbit something called L2, discovered thanks to math in an era where only sheep (and a duck and a rooster) flew. (Courtesy NASA)

My 12-year-old daughter, as 12-year-old daughters do, asked me what’s the use of math. I wrote a book about space engineers. Their work is the manifestation of math. I have taken to answering with something along the lines of “math gives us the ability to model the universe and everything in it. And it keeps bridges from falling down on us.”

If we’re in a vehicle when she asks what the use of math is, I might add, “It keeps the wheels from falling off this car.” Recently, I did a story, yet unpublished, about a steel research center at the Colorado School of Mines. One of its co-founders mentioend offhand that there are 11 types of structural steel in nose of a car’s frame, all for a specific reason. He showed me this video of a 1959 Chevy Bel Air crashing head-on into a 2009 Chevy Malibu. The difference in the wreckage, to no small degree, was math.

Yesterday, reading a bit about the Hubble Space Telescope’s 25th anniversary, I came upon a great pure-math example. It has to do with the JWST, not to be confused with SxSW.

The James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble’s successor planned for launch in October 2018, will look farther into the universe’s history than Hubble or any other telescope. It will do more to figure out potentially habitable planets orbiting distant suns, too. It will do all sorts of other stuff to clarify the universe’s development and our place in it. It will cost about $9 billion. Ball Aerospace, the company I wrote about, did up the 18 gold-coated super-lightweight beryllium mirrors, which will unfold into a 21-foot primary mirror.

The JWST will rely on an infrared detector, which has to be kept super-cold. They had to find just the right spot for it in space. The mission designers chose the second Lagrange point (a.k.a. L2), about a million miles away – roughly four times the distance from Earth to the moon. They weren’t the first mission designers to have done this.

From the JWST web page about its future orbit (emphasis mine):

The L2 orbit is an elliptical orbit about the semi-stable second Lagrange point. It is one of the five solutions by the mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange in the 18th century to the three-body problem. Lagrange was searching for a stable configuration in which three bodies could orbit each other yet stay in the same position relative to each other. He found five such solutions, and they are called the five Lagrange points in honor of their discoverer.

Lagrange was a contemporary of the Montgolfier brothers. The outer limits of aerospace innovation in those days involved a sheep, a duck and a rooster in a hot air balloon. Lagrange wasn’t looking for applications, couldn’t have conceived of a space telescope. He was just doing math.

Going deep for far-out life

NAI astrobiology team mid-jump

The Borup Fiord Pass Glacier Astrobiology research team (L to R): Christopher Trivedi, Steve Grasby, Alexis Templeton, Graham Lau, and John Spear. In addition to advancing microbiology, this research team proved that humans can indeed hover. (Courtesy of John Spear).

I do some writing for the Colorado School of Mines, which is really one helluvan institution (while they do pay me to write for them, they didn’t pay me to say this).

Mines, as we in Colorado know it, is best known for… well, guess. Yes, and oil and gas expertise. But they do a ton of other stuff out on their Golden campus. One recent story I did there, published recently in Mines Magazine, had the additional benefit of harking back to one of the first science stories I ever wrote.

Marcel Marceau

Marcel Marceau

As somewhat of an aside, in about 1993, some friends of mine from Michigan, where I grew up and went to school, flew out to Vail to crash on the floor of a buddy ski-bumming and working as a lift-op. Somewhere up there, I assume in Eagle County, there was a roadside sign marking some sort of Mines infrastructure. We had never heard of the Colorado School of Mines, and one of us said, having honestly muffed the data capture, “What’s the Colorado School of Mimes?” This prompted us to laugh our asses off, U-turn, exit the vehicle and, doing our best Marcel Marceau imitations, pose with the sign. One of us covered the right-edge of the “N” in Mines for ambiguity’s sake. I would post this photo, but I believe it to be lost to history. Probably for the better.

Anyway, in 2005, John Spear was a postdoctoral researcher up at Norman Pace’s microbiology lab at CU, and I was writing a story for the Daily Camera on his discovery of hydrogen-eating bacteria in the hot pools of Yellowstone. While their insistence on a steady supply of scalding, brackish water leaves these bacteria something to be desired as pets, they represent a form of life that needs nothing more than water and a bit of rock to subsist. This has big implications  among people interested in the origins of life.

Well, a decade later nearly to the month, and now long removed from the Camera, I met with  John Spear, now a Mines professor with a thriving lab, once again. It was great, underscoring my generalization that, if you are empathetic toward the tiniest life forms, you do a pretty good job with multicellular sorts, too. He’s helping lead a very cool new NASA Astrobiology Institute project called “Rock Powered Life,” and Mines Magazine’s new editor, Laurie Schmidt, had called out of the blue to see if I’d be interested.

She beat me up a bit in the editorial process, nothing I didn’t deserve, and the lead came out like this:

In February 2005, a research team led by microbiologist John Spear set out to study geothermal ecosystems in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park. What they found astonished them: microbial communities in the boiling waters were thriving not on sulfur, as was previously believed, but on hydrogen. The findings, which were published in a cover story of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2005), provided evidence of the first hydrogen-eating microbes ever identified in an Earthly ecosystem. It may seem a minuscule advance, but it was as if an alien visitor had confirmed the existence of giraffes and could now muse about the prevalence of other possible “herbivores.”

The rest is, as previously linked, here.

Should someone from Mimes Magazine call with a story idea, I’ll certainly pretend to listen. But I doubt that the simulated reporting process would be nearly as interesting.