Thursday, June 30, 2016

Are There Aliens in our Future?

Avi Loeb, who's one of the most creative people in my field, posted a paper yesterday exploring the likelihood of life in the universe as a function of time. He and his two collaborators argue that life is far more likely to arise in the distant future of the universe than it is today. Why?

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Elements Nobody Talks About: Xenon

The inert gasses (helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon, radon) are the elements you never hear much about. Sure, we worry about radon gas, and helium gets a good workout in balloons, but when was the last time somebody mentioned krypton at a cocktail party? (Come to think of it, when was the last time you actually attended a cocktail party?) The inert gasses are the lazy elements -- they just lie around all day in the hammock and never do anything. If I were an element, I would want to be be an inert gas.

And that applies especially to xenon. Until recently, if you'd asked me about the main uses of xenon, I would have said it was useful primarily in Scrabble. But within the last couple of years, xenon has become one of the most important elements in cosmology.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Robert Heinlein and Intellectual Fads

I just finished the first volume of William Patterson's massive two-volume biography, Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with his Century. It suffers a bit from the curse of too much information; e.g., "Shortly after selling his second story to Astounding, Heinlein feasted on a breakfast of bacon and scrambled eggs. The bacon was crispy, but the eggs were too runny. There was no toast." OK, I just made that up, but you get the picture. I'm being a bit unfair, as the most interesting thing about this book is the detailed picture it paints of pre-WW2 American society, especially Heinlein's life at the Naval Academy and his early career in the U.S. Navy. Like many science fiction readers, I had always thought of Heinlein as a writer with a brief and unimportant stint in the Navy. But Heinlein had planned on a life-long naval career before being forced to retire for health reasons -- I am sure that in a parallel universe somewhere he led the Pacific Fleet to victory against the Japanese.

Patterson also highlights another striking aspect of Heinlein's life -- his tendency to fall for many of the more unusual intellectual fads of his day. While he often presented himself as a hard-bitten empiricist, Heinlein latched onto some of the most bizarre variations of socialism in the 1930s, and he was a big fan of general semantics. What's that? You've never heard of general semantics? But it was all the rage -- or at least it was 80 years ago. Promulgated by "Count" Korzybski, it promoted "non-Aristotelian logic." As far as I can see, its major contribution to Western thought was its use as a basis for A.E. van Vogt's novel, The World of Null-A.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

New Element Named After Tennessee

I couldn't let the day pass without noting that the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, which certifies the names of newly-discovered elements, has recommended that element 117 bear the name of "tennessine,"  in honor of the joint discovery of this element through work at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the University of Tennessee, and the efforts of two of my colleagues here at Vanderbilt.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Graduation Season

I journeyed up to the "Garden State" for my oldest son's college graduation this past week. (I've always assumed that New Jersey's nickname was some sort of obscure joke):

The Garden State. Really???
In the course of sending my children through college I have come to this deep revelation, which I will now share with you:

Mothers cry when their children go off to college.
Fathers cry when they can no longer claim their children on their income taxes.