Saturday, September 24, 2011

UARS and Neutrinos

Two pieces of science related news drew my attention this week.

UARS - the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite, fell to earth last night or early this morning, but space agency still don't know where it falls yet.

According to USA Today report, the satellite was used to measure ozone and chemical compounds in the ozone layer. The satellite's mission was to last 3 years, but NASA decommissioned it nearly 14 years later. The satellite ran out of fuel and died in 2005. This caused the uncontrollable reentry of the large size space debris, and some uneasiness.

I am curious about how "NASA put the chances that somebody somewhere on Earth would get hurt at 1-in-3,200". I do, however, have a more concrete understanding that the sky beyond our view is full of man-made space junk. Disaster can descend from "heaven".

The bigger news was from CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (abbreviation per french), the famed nuclear physics laboratory. CERN announced last Friday that they found out through their experiment that neutrinos runs just a little bit faster than speed of light!! This potentially can be a serious challenge to Einstein's theory of relativity.

I was very interested at the subject and read a little bit more about it.

" A neutrino is an electrically neutral, weakly interacting subatomic particle, meaning "small neutral one", it is an elementary particle that usually travels close to the speed of light. Neutrinos are similar to the more familiar electrons, with one crucial difference: neutrinos do not carry electric charge. Because neutrinos are electrically neutral, they are not affected by the electromagnetic field which act on electrons. Neutrinos are affected only by the weak sub atomic force of much shorter range than electromagnetism, and are therefore able to pass through great distances within matter without being affected by it. Neutrinos also interact gravitationally with other particles."

Since CERN announced the finding through media hoopla, it seems to me CERN is more interested in media attention than scientific discovery. They should have gone through regular peer review, let outside experts check their work.

Early AP news was "particle might travel faster than light, Einstein could be wrong". After the hoopla, the media was calmer, and now headline read "Challenging Einstein usually a losing venture"!!

Even if the observation was confirmed, it would not invalidate relativity, it would just expose its limitations. This just like Newton mechanics which was pronounced wrong by media when relativity was established. In fact Newton Mechanics is still the very theoretical foundation of our civilization; it just has limitations.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

My Tiny Backyard Garden

- by Lily

Several friends at work have their own vegetable gardens. Sometimes they bring their harvest, cucumbers, pears, or melons to share. Sometimes they bring seedlings to exchange. This year they finally convinced me to take home a purple basil and a tomato seedling.

“Not that I don’t want to have a veggie garden; I need coaching since I’ve never done it.” I warned them. Don’t worry, these are easy plants, just put them on the ground and water them, so they assured me. Well, I do have another logistic problem, space. My hubby would not sacrifice his beautiful lawn for my garden experiment. The only possible place he would allow is the southwest corner of our fenced backyard, where the dirt is mostly from dumps of construction materials - mortars and rocks and not even grass grows well there.

To help the plants, I filled the two pits I dug each with a bag of rich garden soil before I put the seedlings in. And I tried my best to remember watering the plant once a day, of course Allan helped on that end. I also used a Texan’s method of organic gardening per my friends' suggestions: I throw some veggie or fruit peels to my small garden once in a while, to enrich the soil - it is not stinking up yet.

To my delight both plants adapted to their new environment well.

The basil grew tall and wide quickly. Soon I could pick a handful to try out some basil soup. The basil bloomed in August, many shoots of tiny purple flowers. I gathered more leaves to make pesto sauce for pasta, it was quite a success. Basil is annual, right? I panicked. Don’t worry, my friend said, just collect some seeds after the flowers fall and grow some more next year. I collected some seeds. I also “banked” some pesto sauce, saved as frozen cubes that would last me awhile.

My tomato also grew tall, it seemed to thrive under the sunshine. I was forewarned that tomato tree won’t set fruit when the temperature is over 100F; but if it is kept alive then in the fall it’ll bear fruits. I kept watering it and wondered when the record summer heat would subside. One morning in August I found a tiny green fruit hanging on a branch. What a surprise, we were still in the height of summer heat. A couple of weeks later, I found a few more green balls budding. Now I had to watch out for the birds because they peck on red fruits, per my friend's warning. Well, not much I can do there. One day, one of the tomatoes started to turn red. I considered covering it with plastics, but decided against it. The red tomato hung there for almost a week. I guess the birds haven’t discovered my corner yet. So I harvested my very first tomato, small but fresh.

Now I just need a few more tomatoes to make basil tomato soup, all fresh ingredients out of my garden.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Enduring Super Hot North Texas Summer

Finally the super hot summer of 2011 at north Texas was over on labor day, dramatically - in a day's time the high dropped from 105F to 85F!

It is the hottest summer we have had and the second hottest summer in history at north Texas. This summer we had 68 days of temperature above 100F, and with a record 107F temperature for a few days. The only summer that had more 100+F days was 1980, which had 69 days.

One thing to note was that when the weather was approaching historical mark - 59 days of consecutive 100+F days in a year, local TV news stations and their weatherman/woman became giddy, and kind of wishing that we broke the record?! When the streak was broken for one day, some of them along with some foolish viewers were disappointed. Now they were wishing another 100F day to tie the record.

The prolonged heat led to many real problems.

Electricity Shortage and Waste of Solar Energy

It was so hot, air conditioning was more than an luxury, it was a must. There were several reports of people died from extreme heat, and government agencies urged residents to turn on air condition! For most people, the high temperature means that AC is on almost all day long. This in turn caused electricity shortage in the hottest days - and rolling blackout.

The irony was that the super hot summer caused energy shortage, primarily due to air conditioning, it also provided nearly uninterrupted sunshine all summer long - and thus abundant solar energy. In essence, we use the energy in natural gas/coal (which are primary fuel for generation of electricity) to combat solar energy (actually the heat it generated). What a waste!

If we harvest solar energy, even a fraction of it, we would not have electricity shortage. But short term economy leads to many individuals reluctant to invest in solar energy, and critically government/energy industry not to invest in solar energy enough.

Solar energy is, I believe, a economically viable energy source for long term, especially for southwestern and western states where there are more than 200- 300 days of sunshine. This the area leadership and vision is needed, this is where government can play enabling role - education of public on solar energy and available equipment, incentives to use solar energy, and maybe more tax on coal/natural gas produced electricity to pay for the incentives.


If the waste of solar energy was somewhat remote to individual life, the impact of the prolonged drought we had in this summer was visible and personal.

The first concern was with the foundations of the houses because the soil in north Texas is primarily clay, which shrinks when dry, and gives away when saturated with water. I diligently kept the perimeter of my foundation moist via daily soak hose watering, water my lawn twice a week, water the trees in the yard once a week. The foundation holds up well, the trees are thriving, the lawn was OK with patches of browning.

Looking around, I saw dying trees in some yards, fractured mortars for tree/flower beds, I also noticed that some neighbors had big trees around their houses cut down - likely due to significant foundation movement.

Now we have city wide restriction on watering lawns. Temperature has been back to normal since labor day but we have not had any significant rain yet. We look forward to cloudy sky and rain, not sunshine :) at this point of time.

Air conditioner and Garage Door

The second concern was with AC and garage door.

We replaced one aging AC a few years back - the other one broke down during one hot weekend this summer. Fortunately it was only the capacitor that we had to replace.

We also had garage door malfunction during very hot summers. This summer our garage door malfunctioned again - it stuck and would not close, 30 - 40 days into the stretch of consecutive 100+F days. I lubricated rollers and shaft; it alleviated the symptom only for a day. Then I thought that it might be due to garage foundation shift - but all parts have such a visible clearance with each other - no moving parts were hindered. Eventually, recalling past repairs, we checked the gears in the motor - due to extreme heat - the solid lubricant in the gears were melted away! We fixed the garage door problem by applying solid lubricant to the Teflon gears.


For economic, environmental and personal reasons, we adjust our routines to adapt to the prolonged super hot summer.

We raised our AC thermostat a few degrees higher than previous summers, just enough to make it comfortable at home when we were in shorts. This relived the overworked AC a bit, saved hundreds kw of electricity, and maintained the monthly energy cost below the highest we had before.

Lily and I changed our Saturday morning exercise routine from jogging/running to swimming in August. we reduced the intensity and duration for our Sunday jogging.

It was so hot, we did not want to go out to watch movies. Lily came up ideas of movie night at home for the whole family. We watched "Angles and Demons" and "Mrs Doubtfire" - the last two weeks before the school started. That was the best time the family had at home this summer.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

I wonder - how seedless watermelon is grown? by Nick

Note: Last Saturday we went to supermarket to buy grocery. During the process of selecting a good seedless watermelon, Nick asked his mom how one can grow a watermelon if it has no seed - and she asked him to do an online research to find out the answers. I asked him to summarize what he found in his weekly journal . I found the outcome of his research is comprehensive and informative and so I posted it here.

A regular watermelon contains thousands of seeds. The removal of seeds is really annoying while eating watermelon. What if we could grow watermelons without seeds in it? But how could we grow such a watermelon?

The seedless variety is actually a sterile plant that results from crossing two similar watermelon plants with differing chromosomes. The diploids (2 chromosomes) and the tetraploids (4 chromosomes) mix together to form the triploid (3 chromosomes) since it has 3 chromosomes the number is odd and it is therefore unable to reproduce and so you get a seedless watermelon seed.

The seedless watermelon should be planted in warm temperatures. Experts would recommend that you germinate the watermelon inside a controlled temperature environment where you can keep the watermelon above 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Other people may suggest keeping inside just above 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the vine is 6-8 inches long you may move the watermelon outside. But the soil outside still has to be around 75 degrees Fahrenheit.

There many different types of seedless watermelon you can grow for example King’s Heart a watermelon that weighs about 14 -18 pounds and has a striped outside and a thick rind. Other types of seedless watermelon include Crimson Trio, Genesis, Summer Sweet and Tiffany.
To grow the fruit you need 4 things, land ready for growing crop, a shovel, the seedless watermelon seeds (triploids), and the regular watermelon seeds (diploids). Next to grow the fruit the seedless watermelon (called triploids) must be grown next to the regular watermelon (called diploids). The seedless watermelon is unable to pollinate by itself. Therefore, the regular watermelon helps in the pollination process for the seedless watermelon to get fruit. So dig the holes next to each other where you want to plant the watermelons. In the first hole, plant a diploid watermelon plant. In the next two holes, plant the seedless (or triploid) plant. Continue to alternate until all your plants are in the ground. Make sure to mark down the order you planted them so you can distinguish your seedless watermelon from your regular watermelon once they mature. Then in a couple of weeks the watermelons will grow and you’ll be able to eat the triploids and the diploids in the heat or you can just eat the triploids and give away or sell the rest of them.

The down side of having seedless watermelon is that it is more subject to fungal growth but the upside is that seedless watermelons have a longer shelf life because there are no seeds to break down the flesh.