Stretching Conclusions

I thoroughly enjoy reading non-fiction books. This is especially true with science books. Absorbing knowledge that as applicable to the present has given me so many “aha” moments in life, that mental rush when something clicks (the light bulb that goes on above your head).

However, when I enter a book store and head directly to the science section, this is generally what I see.

ScienceBooks.jpg

This region in bookstores is sometimes broken down into separate Nature and Science (an astronomy section in disguise) sections. I can see why these topics create so much hype; they sell us an “answer” to the questions of Who We Are and Why We Are Here. However, both really have strong caveats that disturb me in two different, yet related, ways.

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If you study biology, you learn that the human body is made up of cells (trillions). Each of these cells act as a biological machine with literally millions (possibly billions) of molecular reactions including particle detection/absorption at the cell membranes, protein translation and modification within the cytoplasm, and DNA evaluation/alterations/replication/translation in the nucleus. As an example, look up the “simple” process that your body takes to break down Glucose into ATP (a molecule designed to release instant energy when needed). And each cell is different with its unique build, chemical activities, and environmental reactions.

Even before we apply quantum physics to the model, we can not simulate or model the human body as a whole.

Note: If you thought that converting someone’s DNA sequence to understand a person’s psychology and physique/health, try reading about “epigenetics” sometime….

Unfortunately, the next best thing is statistics.

Gather a lot of people, study the differences between the individuals, crunch the numbers, and say something like “there is a 90% confidence interval that >50% of test subjects will experience a 10-20% increase in weight with >70g of sugar intake.” But to make it more understandable to the public, it’s simplified to “Sugar makes you fat.” Make the connection? [If you answered “kind of,” that sounds about right.]

And this is utilized constantly, especially in many hot topics. Health and diseases, cancer especially, and understanding its causes and treatments. Food and diets (genetically modified foods anyone?) along with their consequences. Environmental factors and projections (this wouldn’t be complete without stating global warming), if it is issue, and what can we do about it.

Biological studies are far from perfect. You can’t control people’s “genes,” and people are people (they make mistakes, subjects and scientists alike).  And psychology can be worse, where studies are done utilizing questions like, “On a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest, how would money would you share with your friends if you won the lottery?” [Like that answer is going to stay constant for the rest of your life.]

It isn’t all bad, though. Correlation did help show that smoking can result in lung deterioration and possibly death.

Just remember that there’s a few steps that are simplified to simplify things when the data goes from PhD to journal to book to audience. It could be missing a significant factor, it could be biased, it could just be a spike in noise.

For example, I’m reading “Salt Sugar Fat” by Moss, and it’s really interesting to read about various multi-million dollar advertising campaigns that “gained” a company a +0.5% increase in sales? I’ll let you think of some alternatives that could have happened.

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Astronomy and they physics of the universe!

Do you remember the time when you saw an “image” of the solar system and thought “Wow, that is where we live, and our planet is orbiting a small speckle of light located in one of its spiral arms?” It wasn’t until early college that I realized, “Wait, if it took a probe 35 years to get outside the solar system, how did we get sometime outside the galaxy to take that picture?”

Thanks to the Hubble Telescope and related satellites, we have some amazing photos of the universe. And they are beautiful, with my favorite being NASA’s images of the Small Magellanic Cloud. And then there are lots of illustrations, typically labeled”artist conceptions/renditions.” And this habit doesn’t stop at just images.

To study the universe without leaving the gravitational pull of Earth. We take A LOT of measurements and do A LOT MORE noise sifting.

For example, we can predict if a distant star has a planet by measuring a dip in its light when the planet orbits in front of the star. When Venus eclipsed the sun (shown below, thanks to MTU), there was a slight decrease in how much light hit the Earth. Not easy, bu detectable. Now do that to a star light-years away.

TransitOfVenus.jpg

Scientists try to simplify things as much as possible, such as utilizing satellites to remove twinkling effects of the stars thanks to our atmosphere. They factor in Doppler shifts (if the universe is expanding),  calculate in the effects of relativity, and isolate equipment irregularities (like Shot Noise). Even after all this effort, data plots can still look questionable with lots of overlapping Gaussian tails.

Our ability to really understand the universe is limited our expectations. We make theories based off of other theories, with String Theory being a very popular example.

What if there’s something out there that interacts with these optical signals travelling light-years, possibly millions of them, before we can measure. Maybe the star was pulsing after all (it’s been seen before). Maybe dark matter in the galaxy has a similar effect to Doppler broadening. Physicists say they can’t make out the majority of the universe [Dark Matter = 25% and Dark Energy = 70%] So what exactly does it do?

Removing the bottom block of a Jenga stack can cause everything else above it to become unstable. And the same can be said about the stacked theories we use to give us a rendered view of our universe.

Studying the universe when we only have so little access to it can be quite stretching. We can’t warp to stars and nebulae, measure their relative velocity, take physical samples, or feel their gravitational/EM fields directly. We can only do that with the our sun and its satellites (including Earth) which could be biased .

It’s kind of like assuming that all adult men are straight, because your father is.

And my more important question – “What’s the point?”

Who really cares if we “know”about the Big Bang, up till the first one-trillionth of a second. How do we benefit about what’s beneath the ice on Titan? And the idea of asteroid mining is a economic joke.

Figure out how to create a space elevator first, and then we’ll talk.

And do we really need to send people to Mars? There’s nothing to gain except pride and possibly death (sound familiar?). Instead of spending billions of dollars, polluting our planet with rocket manufacturing and fumes, and traveling >500 days in space (the radiation exposure alone is an issue) , just drive to Death Valley. And don’t forget to NOT breathe!

None-the-less, I’m still planning on purchasing an Astronomy coffee table book in the near future.

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And after reading this, you can say “Well yeah, but this can apply to anything.” And you are exactly right.

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After-note: I was going to go a quick statistical count of book types on Amazon in the non-fiction section, but I changed my mind after realizing that Harry Potter was in the top ten most popular Engineering books….

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The microwaves in microwaves

Disclaimer: Microwaves are nowhere near micron-sized, the size of a cell, or the thickness of your hair. With an operating frequency of ~2.5GH, the wave has a “size” of ~5 inches. [You can actually observe this by heating a chocolate bar in a non-rotating microwave and measuring the distance between squishy spots. Not as cool as microwaving split grapes, but it still proves a point.] This size is the reason why you can still see your food cook through small holes without the radiation escaping; they won’t fit through the holes in the metal and just reflect back into the chamber.

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Microwave ovens heat food by exciting microwaves (a form of electromagnetic radiation) within a metal chamber. The molecules in the food, mostly water, absorb the radiation causing them to rotate and bounce into nearby particles. The resulting recoils induce particle movement and vibrations that are perceived as heat.

Note: The term “radiation” has been given a bad rap due to its relation to nuclear reactions and its “unconventional” applications. Radiation is actually an extremely broad term used to describe a lot of things. Atoms without electrons (Alpha particles), electrons without atoms (Beta particles), and electromagnetic waves (photons, including Gamma “particles”). All three can be detected at varying levels of energy and used in beneficial ways.

So what actually creates the microwaves? The most common device in ovens is the cavity magnetron, a cylindrical metal device with internal cavities that run parallel to the electron flow.  The internal air is removed to create a vacuum, so the electrons can freely flow within the chamber without bouncing into gas molecules (N2,O2, CO2, CH4, engineer body odor, etc.) for efficiency.   Additionally, magnets are placed on the magnetron to create a strong field that flows through the device (perpendicular to the cross-section shown below).

Magnetron_1

Electrons flow from negative to positive terminals in the magnetron. However, there is a vacuum in between the negative and positive terminals, requiring the electrons to escape the metal to complete the circuit. This is assisted through high voltage drive and heating the electron source (basically lots of energy!)

This is where ElectroMAGnetIC interaction (EMagic) converts electron flow into radiation. The electrons do want to make a straight beeline towards to exterior (+) of the magnetron, but the magnetic field tugs at the electrons sideways [the Lorentz Force]. As the electron changes direction, that magnetic tug constantly pulls it sideways resulting a circular path until it finally hits the exterior (see below). A lot of electrons undergo this, resulting in an “electron cloud” of energy.

Magnetron_2

Passing by the cavities, the electrons interact with the electrons that are currently in the exterior (electron drain) in the cavities, transferring energy to them causing them to “vibrate.” Unlike mechanical vibrations in a bell, the electrons flow and give off electromagnetic radiation.  The size of the cavities in the magnetron, specifically the cavity’s circumference,  is designed to excite the microwaves of the specific frequency for maximum water absorption (~2.5 GHz).

Most magnetrons are >50% efficient, at least in terms of (power out)/(power in). While this value doesn’t look too impressive, it’s actually really good based on the EMagic involved. In comparison, look at how solar panels work and how they can have a hard time even achieving >20% efficiency.

The radiation emitted also has quite a bit of noise, but is still acceptable for basic food applications. Just don’t expect cavity magnetrons to be utilized in radar to detect and characterize incoming (possibly enemy) aircraft.

Finally, the created radiation then leaves the magnetron, passes through a “window,” and bounces around the metallic chamber where you put your food. The window can be a variety of materials, including plastic and cardboard (I’ve seen both). It usually is opaque to us because it acts optically different when viewed with light (visible EM radiation, 350-700 nm). However, the material is transparent to microwaves, acting as a window (Assuming it’s not covered in wet spaghetti sauce. Keep your microwave clean before the mold gets to it!)

A lot more does happen, but this simplified explanation is a good start. It’s like an ice-breaker when meeting new people;  an exciting conversation can lead to a new friend. [Insert your own connection here, my readers….]

Time & Money

Imagine this. You approach Intel with the latest devices (usually it’s devices)  in cutting-edge technology that significantly reduce the cost required to create the new Intel i7 (when did Intel steal Apples iXXX labeling scheme? *Shrugs*) ? The catch is that this multi-million dollar machine can only make one chip a day! Will they buy the device from you?

Probably. Out of sheer curiosity they will purchase it, reverse engineer it and learn what edge you have against them to improve it to the point that they can have their own patent on the technology (another topic). But they won’t use it in their manufacturing line.

If you think about how many computer chips there are per person, the market has to make so many a day (probably millions) to keep up. To keep up with demand, a company like Intel will create multiple fabrication lines for chip costs. They would prefer their current equipment in contrast to yours, since theirs create >100 chips an hour. Also, these assembly lines (cleaning baths, oxide ovens, doping chambers, lithography, etching, dicing) all require power, maintenance, and surveillance/monitoring. Thus, Intel would like a balance between machine counts and chips/machine. Once again, mass manufacturing is king.

A company has to balance chips/machine and machine counts to meet that demand. If they don’t build enough, they lose possible profit by not selling enough. If they construct too many, then that company wasted a lot of money on “shiny” equipment that is not needed (and they probably can’t sell it back either).

And it’s more complicated once a technology’s timeline (birth, growth, plateau, and death) is taken into consideration. The current production lines just won’t cut it 20 years from now when I’m in the market to buy the i42 for my next personal supercomputer that will solve all my mid-life crises!

So when I say “Time and Money,” I actually mean “MONEY!”

 

Noise & Limits

In any environment, technology is typically restricted by these two factors.

Furthermore, both values can be divided into two levels. The first is what is physically possible; what we can achieve with the tools and machines available. We could make drill bits and needle points a few atoms wide, but the process and required expenditures [Time & Money – Another blog waiting to happen] to achieve such heights can be astronomical.

That is where commercially-feasible values come in. Products have to be designed with cost in mind, because inventions are “dead in the water” if no one is willing to purchase them.

Thus, noticeable changes in consumer products usually do not happen right after a form of technology is invented. Rather, it is the perfection of its mass manufacturing (dozens of products per hour) that allow a purchase to be marketable. While physical limits are pushed by scientists in the lab, process engineers are constantly playing “catch up” with commercial limits.

Let’s talk about both a little bit more in detail.

Limits:

How weak of a signal can your phone detect and process? What is the maximum rate graphics cards can refresh your computer monitor? How cold can your freezer get to and maintain?  What depth can a submarine obtain before “folding under pressure?”

Limits are also a blurred line. Pushing device limits usually have detrimental effects besides the simple works/fails scenario. Product lifetimes are strongly affected based on how far its limits are stretched. A smaller product will work, but under the right conditions [I know I’ve been through my fair share of tiny drill bits]. A computer chip can overclock (push its limit) until it reaches a certain temperature and shuts down before the accumulated heat permanently alters its clock speed.

Noise:

While many forms are audible, most manufacturing noise is indiscernible. Noise comes in many forms, each having to be dealt with separately. Take the simple “motor-to-hammer” device shown below. Many sources of noise can be “filtered” out, as in surge protectors and voltage regulators in external power.  Others have to be actively monitored and corrected for in-time, utilizing position sensors to read hammer location/orientation to execute error correction maneuvers.

MachineNoise

 

The level of noise control ($$$) utilized in technology is a business decision that reflects the product quality and targeted audience. And that is the difference between the earphones given out on the airplane (free) and brand-name, high-fidelity headphones (>$100) manufactured for the audiophiles at heart.

That is where industrial specialties including “quality engineering” and “six sigma” come into play. Noise is carefully studied not just to improve product quality but to also maintain consistency. A company doesn’t want to manufacture a gear where only 60% of them fit. They want >99.99% of their products to be functional. It reduces disposal, eliminates product filtering, and keeps your customers happy.

Technology Transparency (an intro)

From a scientist’s standpoint, enlightenment isn’t a disassociation from your world but rather a full understanding of it. This includes both knowing the physical sciences in our universe and how we apply them for our benefit, even if it is only temporary.

BrokenProjector

For example, everyone knows that the “internet” is what accelerated worldwide communication speeds at an exponential rate. When asked what physically makes up the internet connections between computers and servers, many will throw out the term Ethernet cables and others will talk briefly about 3G wireless. What many don’t see (or even know) is that the majority of internet communication is transmitted using highly-controlled laser pulses over fiber optic cables.

Furthermore, many are bewildered when they are told of the existence of submarine communication lines, a half-dozen of optical fibers (size comparable to hair thickness) coated in protective layers the diameter of your fist (or larger) to ensure that your data is safe from salt water corrosion, ocean floor earthquakes, and sharks.

Yes, sharks.  If their teeth don’t fracture the thin glass-based optical fibers, the gouges can significantly decrease the cable’s durability and lifetime. [Did you Google it by now? Good. I know I did when I first heard about it!]

So how does one fabricate kilometers of pure optical fiber? How much precision is necessary? How are they coated for protection and in what order? What additional devices are embedded? How does it cope with its environment? What do the laser sources look like and how are they controlled? And since “money makes the world go round,” how is all of this made into an economically feasible technology?

When a scientist-at-heart ponders about his high-tech environment, she brings up and pursues to answer such questions similar to those listed above. And as a result, these habits assist in her though processes to make well-educated decisions in both her professional and personal life.

Pursuing science in my education wasn’t about “getting a job,” but a part of my journey in becoming closer to scientific enlightenment. I enjoyed my engineering courses and still pursue non-fiction literature as a hobby. But it’s another thing to spread this knowledge and even build a similar urge to understand in those around me. This blog will be another step in that direction.

Many of my future blogs will be about various technological advances in the world and why they are important. While historical facts (who and when) are important, major emphasis will be placed on the description (what),  manufacturing (how), purpose (why), and applicability (where) of blogged scientific achievements.

Other topics of interest will also include:

  • Underlying engineering processes and understanding
  • Extrapolating current technological trends
  • Brainstorming possible technologies
  • Discussing public trends in science education
  • Opinions on current tech events
  • Demonstrate political and commercial struggles
  • Scientific illustrations and comics