Science makes you think, man. It makes you think big. And it makes you see yourself as tiny.

The Universe seems to be 98% Dark Matter and Energy—which we know nothing about.  Earth is teeming with life, 99% of it microscopic, and much of it unknown to humans [2]. The Earth is certainly several billion years old, and humans have been around only the last tick of that clock. Life has almost died out at least five times in those billions of years.

This month, Jochen Brocks and colleagues have published a rather fiddly study of biochemical traces in very old rocks [1]. The chemicals are left by squishy aquatic microlife that leaves little other fossil record.

Detecting these compounds is difficult because rocks are usually contaminated with younger chemicals (prominently including “anthropogenic petroleum products”) which swamp the faint older deposits. The researchers carefully screened out known contaminants, in order to measure the proportions of steranes and hopanes in the rocks. These are markers for eukaryotic cells, so the data indirectly indicate the predominance of bacteria in the environment.

They link these studies to current understanding of paleoclimate. They find evidence for a remarkable story. Roughly 700 million years ago was “Sturtian snowball glaciation”, an extreme ice age that froze the oceans all the way to the bottom. Before this period, eukarytes predominated, and they died back dramatically during the 100 million year ice age.

At the end of the Sturian, the abundance of bacteria increased, reaching modern abundance within a few tens of million years. Then something happened that enabled Algae to overcome the cyanobacteria, and eventually flood the world with oxygen and animals like us.

The researchers suggest that the glaciation and subsequent melting flooded the oceans with nutrients ground up by the ice cover, which eventually tipped the balance in favor of algae. They offer a possible scenario for this transition. At some point, algae evolved as a hybrid eukaryte engulfing a cyanobacteria, and thrived. This led to rapid evolution of animals that feed on algae.

If this scenario is correct then algae emerged and survived, but only came to dominate the oceans after a billion years. If so, then an episode of extreme global climate change probably led the rise of the biochemistry and ecology that we need to exist.

This study is very interesting, but far from conclusive. Even assuming the data is correct, it still isn’t clear whether the emergence of algae really triggered the evolution of animals, or how other factors were involved.[2].

Still, this is a reminder that the world we see is scarcely the only possible way things could work. It is also makes us realize just how much deep history is floating around in our own cells—we are descended from life that thrived on a radically alien Earth.

  1. Jochen J. Brocks, Amber J. M. Jarrett, Eva Sirantoine, Christian Hallmann, Yosuke Hoshino, and Tharika Liyanage, The rise of algae in Cryogenian oceans and the emergence of animals. Nature, advance online publication 08/16/online 2017.
  2. Friend, Tim, The Third Domain: The Untold Story of Archaea and the Future of Biotechnology, Washington, DC, Joseph Henry Press, 2007.
  3. Roland Pease, The algae that terraformed Earth, in BBC News – Science & Environment. 2017.


Book Review: “The Painted Queen” by Elizabeth Peters and Joan Hess

The Painted Queen by Elizabeth Peters and Joan Hess

Prolific author Barbara Mertz (under the pen name Elizabeth Peters) died in 2013, after writing dozens of charming stories about the eminent Egyptologists, the Emerson family. She left behind notes for another novel.

Joan Hess was a friend and confidante of Mertz, and was convinced to try to complete the work. The Painted Queen is the result of this posthumous collaboration.

Hess was a good choice for this task, and she did a fine job. The book is true to the Peters style, and a suitable honor to the author’s memory.

The story itself involves the discovery of the Nefertiti bust, which is now on exhibit in Berlin. The conventional history of the discovery and exfiltration of this iconic statue is confused and contested. This story reveals the hitherto unreported role of the Emerson clan in the tangled tale.

Picture of the Nefertiti bust in Neues Museum, Berlin

The rollicking tale involves Amelia and the whole gang, in Cairo and Amarna, and a legion of adversaries including German espionage, master forgers, vengeful lunatics, and The Master Criminal.

As in all the Peabody stories, there is a lot of period color (sumptuous English teas on the Nile, an all). The Emersons have a strong respect and affection for the Egyptians, which may or may not be historically plausible, but does reflect the authors’ own love of the country and its people.

This may not rank at the top of Peters’ works (I will never forget “The Last Camel Died at Noon (1991)), but it was satisfactory.  It was a bit sad to read, knowing that this is really the last we will hear of Amelia and her remarkable family.

Joan Hess deserves credit for doing a proper job, and giving us a fitting tribute to a favorite author and some characters we will miss.

  1. Elizabeth Peters and Joan Hess, The Painted Queen, New York, HarperCollins, 2017.


Sunday Book Reviews

Happy Anniversary Voyager I and II

Forty years in space and billions of kms out, and still going!  Over half a light-day out, and heading for the stars.

As they say, “The Interstellar Mission”.

A few years ago, I asked a friend of mine, who was and is ON ONE OF THE VOYAGER SCIENCE TEAMS (we are not worthy! we are not worthy!), what’s up with the Voyagers?

He told me that the signal is getting weaker, but antennas are getting a lot better—so they still get a trickle of data back.

The don’t make ‘em like they used to!

Well done all.


Space Saturday

Grand Finale And A New Target

In the next weeks Cassini enters its final 5 orbits, swooping lower and lower, flying inside the rings of Saturn, until the final plunge on September 15, the “Grand Finale”.

At the same time, the New Horizons probe screamed past Pluto two years ago, but it has no brakes so it is still going out into the Kuiper Belt, which is cold, far away, and gigantic. The probe is still alive, though slumbering.   But with luck, it will wake up in 2019 and take some pix of Kuiper Belt object (KBO) 2014 MU69. This will be up close images 6 billion KM from home.

You can tell this is a long way out, because New Horizons is now half way between Pluto and the second stop on the itinerary.  This second leg is four years to complete.

This cunning plan got even more interesting this week, with reports from an occultation study in July that suggests that 2014 MU68 is not a ball. It may be an odd shaped blob or even two objects close together.

Whatever MUey-69 looks like, New Horizons may be able to get a good look.   Cool.

  1. Cassini Science Communications Team. The Grand Finale Toolkit 2017,
  2. Bill Keeter. New Horizons’ Next Target Just Got a Lot More Interesting. 2017,



Space Saturday

PS.  Yet more names for bands:

Final Five Orbits
Kuiper Belt & Braces
A Belt of Kuiper
The Grand Finale Toolkit

Is “Cute” Enough for a Robot?

In the great rush to create home robots, it seems that 1,000 flowers are blooming. Many different robots are being tried, combining the basic core of features with different appearances and artificial personalities.

One of this year’s models is ‘Kuri’, which is designed to be simple and cute. It understands speech commands, but “speaks robot”—not synthesized speech, but “cute” beeps and buzzes.

As far as I can tell, it does nothing that a computer or tablet or Alexa can’t do, except in a “friendly”, autonomously mobile package.

It seems that Kuri wanders around your house with its cute face and twin HD cameras. These can live stream over the Internet, to “be your eyes when you’re” away. Kiri also has microphones, of course, to capture sounds and conversations. Kuri will “investigate” unusual sounds. It has speakers, so you can play music, and yell at your baby sister.

This little guy is supposed to “bring joy to your house”. As far as I can tell, the main feature of Kuri is “cuteness”. Is this enough?

Well maybe.

Unfortunately, Kuri has gone way off the rails with a new feature, “autonomous video”.

Basically, as Kuri wanders around mapping your house, listening to you, and generally being cute, it will record videos.

The results of this snooping are sent to you (or at least to whoever controls Kiri), where you can select ones that you like. Supposedly, Kiri uses this feedback to learn what you like, and thereby to construct a please selfie video of your house.

Who doesn’t want that?

Well, me, obviously.  But, who asked for this feature, anyway???

I have no idea why I would ever want “daily dose of short “life at home’ videos”.  I mean, if there is any place I don’t need to visit virtually, it’s the place that I live physically.

But if I did want it, I don’t want an Internet connected device streaming video out of my house to the Internet. And I really don’t want an “autonomous” camera wandering around unpredictably recording my private life.

It’s Alexa on wheels. Eeek.

“Turn it off” doesn’t even begin to cover it.

I’ll add a couple of other points that Kuri brings to mind.

Like may contemporary robots, Kuri does some simple psychological tricks to indicate that he (apparently Kuri is male) is listening. It looks up, it looks ‘happy’, it makes ‘eye contact’ (more or less). This is “cute” in the same way as a pet may be “cute”, and for the same reason—you are projecting human personality onto a non-human actor.

This is probably good marketing, but there is some weird psychology going on here, especially if kids are involved.

First of all:  No, Kuri doesn’t actually like you. It isn’t capable of feelings of any kind.

The head and eye gestures raise the interesting question of whether people will tend to mirror these inhuman movements in the same way that they tend to mirror other people as they interact. And will children develop weird behavioral patterns from living with a household robot?  Who knows.

Then there is Kuri’s gaze.

It is becoming common to put camera’s behind features that look like human eyes. Kuri has a very abstract, but unmistakably analog to a human head and face, and the eyes are where the cameras are. This is a physical analogy to human senses, but has a sort of perverse twist to it. While a person or a dog sees you with their eyes, a robot is usually recording and streaming with its eyes. This mismatch means that you may unconsciously overlook the invasiveness of those robot eyes (which are really web cams), or perhaps edge toward paranoia about other people’s eyes (which are not web cams).

These “uncanny” confusions are hardly unique to Kuri, though the “cuter” the robot the more powerful the psychological illusions.

Is “cute” a good thing for a robot to be? I’m not so sure.

  1. Alyssa Pagano, Kuri Robot Brings Autonomous Video to a Home Near You, in IEEE Spectrum -Automation. 2017.


Robot Wednesday Friday

Up, Up, and Away! Cryptocurrency Optimism Files High

Shaking off an endless stream of frauds, thefts, arrests, and convictions; ignoring warnings and regulatory stop signs; and even blowing through the minor glitch of a catastrophic and fatal fatal fork of Bitcoin; the cryptocurrenty community cruises to new heights of techno-optimism.

Even supposedly rational capitalists seem to be carried away.

For examplet, NVIDIA corporation is have another good year, driven by the sales of GPUs. (All alums of Illinois are proud to see how important these descendants of the much laughed at Illiac IV have become.)

Jen-Hsun Huang, the CEO of NVIDIA, recently expressed glowing optimism that GPUs will continue to grow not only for graphics but also for cryptography and cryptocurrency mining.

It’s hard to say what fraction of the $1.9 billion income is attributed to cryptocurrency, though the total amount of Bitcoin mined in a year is less than $200 million. No matter how you slice it, cryptocurrency alone cannot really support a billion dollar hardware industry.

Nevertheless, these results do show that, while cryptocurrency may not be benefitting the world or disrupting money quite yet, it certainly is sucking down computing resources and the requisite electricity to run them.

Overall, the huge GPU industry is sustained by completely imaginary and economically inexplicable activities—such as video games, digital television (including porn), and, evidently, the scratch-off lottery of cryptocurrency mining.

NVIDIA’s Jen-Hsun Huang believes that cryptocurrency and blockchain are “here to stay” and will continue to be an important market for GPUs.  I have to wonder about this prediction. It’s far from clear that the current exuberance is rational, and with the catastrophic forking and reforking of Bitcoin, one wonders when the bottom will drop out.

We also should note that much of the market for cryptocurrency equipment is driven by and dark markets. These folks may remain a robust consumer base for NVIDIA, but it’s hard to see that as a great thing for the world.

Even more important, as quantum computing comes online in the next decade, GPUs will no longer be the top of the line. QC will be overwhelmingly faster, and GPUs will be next to useless for cryptography or cryptocurrency. That means that even if cryptography and cryptocurrency continue to grow, they will no longer be using GPUs, and certainly will not pay premium prices for them.

On another front, the Blockstream company has literally left the planet, with the launch of the first of many satellites designed to make Bitcoin available everywhere. The stated use case is Africa and other places with poor Internet access. In particular, you can’t run a full node (let along a mining operation) without significant network bandwidth, so Bitcoin isn’t fully available in many places.

I think the idea of this scheme is to provide a dedicated satellite network that connects Bitcoin nodes into the global net with relatively low cost ground equipment. This base station would be pretty much dedicated to Bitcoin, and connected to nothing except other Bitcoin nodes.

I have to wonder what use such a node would be to anyone, especially if the ‘last kilometer’ is marginal. I also have to wonder how this could possibly be financially viable. Space programs are obscenely expensive, so this doesn’t seem like the path to low cost connectivity on its face. We’ll see.

I will note that the general scenario would be that with this inexpensive ground station, “you could be transacting globally with bitcoin”. “Transaction globally” means “moving money offshore”, which is probably of interest to some people in Africa, but may or may not be a positive for the local economy and society. Again, we’ll see.

  1. Alyssa Hertig, Blockstream Is Using Satellites to Beam Bitcoin Down to Earth Coindesk.August 15 2017,
  2. Stan Higgins, Nvidia CEO: Cryptocurrencies Are ‘Here to Stay’ Coindesk.August 11 2017,


Cryptocurrenty Thursday

NASA Investigating Clockwork Rover Technology

NASA has the coolest projects!

With a long-term mission to visit and measure everywhere in the Solar System, NASA has not ticked off the easy stuff—Earth orbit, Moon, Mars, orbiting all the Planets.

There are plenty of places we really want to visit, but haven’t been able to. Cold places like the ice moons. And really hot places like the Sun  and the surface of Venus.

In the case of Venus,several spacecraft have orbited and are orbiting, and a handful of probes have reached the surface–just barely. The surface is hot, over 400 degrees C, and the pressure is a crushing 90 atmospheres. Most electronics simply don’t work at these temperatures. And it’s very cloudy, so solar power is minimal.  And so on.

In short, conventional engineering has little chance. To date, the record time to failure is 2 hours, set by a heroically insulated Vernera 13 probe in 1982. Building such extreme systems is hard and very expensive.

There is no way to make a rover to explore Venus. What’s to be done?

A NASA design group is exploring ways to build a rover that uses mechanical parts—clockwork—instead of electronics and computers. This is called “Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments (AREE)”.

When I saw their animation of some initial concepts, I immediately recognized that this is a Strandbeestand indeed they did invite Theo Jansen to JPL for some advice. (Evidently, Jansen’s advice was to get rid of the legs.)

Alternative locomotive ideas include wheels and tank treads.

But moving around is the least of the problems. How do you collect data?

In an interview with Evan Ackerman, they report several intriguing ideas under development.

First of all, mechanical calculation and number storage should be doable. And rough forms of obstacle avoidance are well known, too. (Toy cars navigate around furniture by bumping and backing up, no?.)

Image: Jonathan Sauder/NASA/JPL-Caltech Obstacle avoidance is another simple mechanical system that uses a bumper, reverse gearing, and a cam to back the rover up a bit after it hits something, and then reset the bumper and the gearing afterwards to continue on. During normal forward motion, power is transferred from the input shaft through the gears on the right hand side of the diagram and onto the output shaft. The remaining gears will spin but not transmit power. When the rover contacts an obstacle, the reverse gearing is engaged by the synchronizer, thus having the opposite effect. After the cam makes a full revolution it will push the bumper back to its forward position. A similar cam can be used to turn the wheels of the rover at the end of the reverse portion of the drive.

But if you had some data, how would you return data to Earth (i.e., to an orbital relay)? One possibility would be some kind of hard copy (e.g., etched into a metal disk), which is then lifted with a balloon and potentially pick up be a high altitude UAV. That sounds cool, but pretty iffy.

Another idea is to do semaphore code with radar reflectors. The orbiter beams radar and the rover reflects back on-off signals are certain wavelengths. This might have a bandwidth of a few bits per second (one way). That’s not much, but it’s a lot more than zero bps!   Pretty cool.

They are also trying to develop some kinds of sensors that will work under these conditions. This is difficult and it might be an area where small amounts of exotic high temperature electronics might be used.

This is such a cool design project!

I’m not sure how these ideas will pan out, but this work

is also important for changing the conversation on exploring Venus. Today, long duration in-situ mobile access on Venus has not been considered a realistic option. AREE demonstrates how such a system can be achieved today by cleverly utilizing current technology and enhanced by the technology of tomorrow.”

  1. Evan Ackerman, JPL’s Design for a Clockwork Rover to Explore Venus, in IEEE Spectrum – Automation. 2017.
  2. Jonathan Sauder. Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments (AREE). 2017,



Robot Wednesday

A personal blog.

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