Friday, April 30, 2010

New Data

New observations are continuous; some disconfirm prior hypotheses--which is a net increase in knowledge--and others confirm prior hypotheses, also a net increase in knowledge. No experiment is a 'failure' if one has the wits to learn from it.

Below, a diagram from a 1985 book ("Interstellar Migration and the Human Experience) in which something was proposed that, today, is largely confirmed by new observations.

Signing, after months of back-and-forth, contract with Springer Science for my own space migration book; my coauthor and I will be guided by 'Interstellar Migration', but we'll be updating a great deal, and casting space migration in a new light; that of adaptation.

Tonight on Larry King: An interstellar evening with Steven Hawking!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


Prof. N. Chandra Wickramasinghe of Cardiff University's Astrobiology faculty claims to have discovered life of extraterrestrial origin high in the stratosphere. Some concluding comments from a recent work, below:

"7. Discussion

The first unequivocal recovery of any culturable microorganisms from 41 km in the stratosphere using modern aseptic collection protocols and molecular identification criteria must surely be deemed of historic importance. With instrumental and laboratory contamination excluded at all stages of the experiment two options remain.

Firstly, one might think that they were carried from the ground in a volcanic eruption or in an exceptional meteorological event. The other is that they arrive from space. A volcanic origin is ruled out for the simple reason that there was no volcanic eruption recorded in a two-year run-up to the balloon launch date on January 20, 2001, and for reasons already stated a settling rate at 0.18cm/s from 41 km as calculated by Colbeck would drain out particles of 3 m m radius in a matter of weeks. A similar objection applies to rare meteorological events. Assuming our collections on January 20, 2001 gave us representative stratospheric samples at 41km no process that is purely terrestrial can sustain the high densities of bacterial clusters as are implied.

The alternative extraterrestrial origin (Hoyle and Wickramasinghe, 1981, 2000), although controversial, is more attractive as an explanation of our findings. The bacterial material, cultured in the present experiment, and detected earlier through fluorescence microscopy, can be regarded as forming part of the 100 tonnes/day input of cometary material known to reach the Earth.

Critics of panspermia may argue that 3 m n radius particles get burnt through frictional heating and end up as meteors. Some fraction may do, but others would not. Survival depends of many factors such as angle of entry and mode of deposition in the very high stratosphere. Several modes of entry can be considered that permit intact injection into the stratosphere, possibly starting off as larger aggregates released from comets that disintegrate into a cascade of slow-moving smaller clumps at heights above 270km where frictional heating would be negligible. Evidence for such disintegrations have been available for many years (Bigg, 1983), and more recent studies of Brownlee paricles collected using U2 aircraft have also shown the survivability of extremely fragile organic structures (Clemett, et al, 1993)."

From: SEM Imaging of Stratospheric Particles of Non-terrestrial Origin. 2002. Max K. Wallis, Shirwan Al-Mufti, N. Chandra Wickramasinghe (CCAB), P Rajaratnam (ISRO), J V Narlikar (IUCAA). Paper delivered at the conference, Microscopy and Chemistry of Airborne Particles; Current Research at the University of West England, Bristol.

Few believe the professor at this time; DNA analysis will surely identify whether or not extraterrestrial life is being found by these methods in the stratosphere.

Extraterrestrial or not, we do know some form of life is up there, in the stratosphere, a place we barely know; we go up there in jets and then get down again as quickly as possible; we tear through it at speeds too high for contemplation or understanding; we have ripped through it for fifty years with aircraft equipped for nuclear annihilation, not for learning a single thing.

I will go up to stay up, to move slowly, to collect impressions, data, and life...maybe life of extraterrestrial origin.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Proof of Concept

Engineers have a term, 'Proof of Concept', referring to a functional model of a system; this model, however, is not-by-definition-a-reality-or-a-real-configuration, but it is a perceived solution to--if you were--a perceived problem in reality. Above, a photo of a proof of concept item I'm working on, an oral-nasal mask I have to install into the pressure-suit helmet, for a number of reasons. It works, though it's not nearly close to the actual configuration of devices as they will exist in the entire life-support system. But the assembly works--it is 'Proof of Concept'.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A New Biology for a New Century

Sometimes I read a paper that quite literally raises my pulse rate; a paper that makes me want to run down the street, yelling its messages; a paper that verbalizes things I've felt for some time, but which I've never been able to articulate, myself. This morning, in a three-hour intellectual journey of the greatest importance to how I think about just about everything, I read such a paper:

"A New Biology for a New Century" by Carl R. Woese: Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews, June 2004, p. 173-186, Vol. 68, No. 2

Some excerpts; first, the abstract:

"Biology today is at a crossroads. The molecular paradigm, which so successfully guided the discipline throughout most of the 20th century, is no longer a reliable guide. Its vision of biology now realized, the molecular paradigm has run its course. Biology, therefore, has a choice to make, between the comfortable path of continuing to follow molecular biology's lead or the more invigorating one of seeking a new and inspiring vision of the living world, one that addresses the major problems in biology that 20th century biology, molecular biology, could not handle and, so, avoided. The former course, though highly productive, is certain to turn biology into an engineering discipline. The latter holds the promise of making biology an even more fundamental science, one that, along with physics, probes and defines the nature of reality. This is a choice between a biology that solely does society's bidding and a biology that is society's teacher."

"Science is an endless search for truth. Any representation of reality we develop can be only partial. There is no finality, sometimes no single best representation. There is only deeper understanding, more revealing and enveloping representations. Scientific advance, then, is a succession of newer representations superseding older ones, either because an older one has run its course and is no longer a reliable guide for a field or because the newer one is more powerful, encompassing, and productive than its predecessor(s)."

"A heavy price was paid for molecular biology's obsession with metaphysical reductionism. It stripped the organism from its environment; separated it from its history, from the evolutionary flow; and shredded it into parts to the extent that a sense of the whole—the whole cell, the whole multicellular organism, the biosphere—was effectively gone. Darwin saw biology as a "tangled bank" (12), with all its aspects interconnected. Our task now is to resynthesize biology; put the organism back into its environment; connect it again to its evolutionary past; and let us feel that complex flow that is organism, evolution, and environment united. The time has come for biology to enter the nonlinear world."

"In the last several decades we have seen the molecular reductionist reformulation of biology grind to a halt, its vision of the future spent, leaving us with only a gigantic whirring biotechnology machine. Biology today is little more than an engineering discipline. Thus, biology is at the point where it must choose between two paths: either continue on its current track, in which case it will become mired in the present, in application, or break free of reductionist hegemony, reintegrate itself, and press forward once more as a fundamental science. The latter course means an emphasis on holistic, "nonlinear," emergent biology—with understanding evolution and the nature of biological form as the primary, defining goals of a new biology."

"Society cannot tolerate a biology whose metaphysical base is outmoded and misleading: the society desperately needs to live in harmony with the rest of the living world, not with a biology that is a distorted and incomplete reflection of that world. Because it has been taught to accept the above hierarchy of the sciences, society today perceives biology as here to solve its problems, to change the living world. Society needs to appreciate that the real relationship between biology and the physical sciences is not hierarchical, but reciprocal: physics [is on level with] biology. Both physics and biology are primary windows on the world; they see the same gem but different facets thereof (and so inform one another). Knowing this, society will come to see that biology is here to understand the world, not primarily to change it. Biology's primary job is to teach us. In that realization lies our hope of learning to live in harmony with our planet."

This paper demands attention from anyone involved with any aspect of the life sciences!

Baffin Island Update

Text chat with Chiu, who's now en route to Baffin Island:

Chiu-Liang: Hi Cameron, I am in Ottawa now waiting for next day flight. I find out that there in Pond Inlet has coleman fuel and sell for $35/gal

me: well that is better than 50 a gallon ha ha and good, you can get fuel!

Chiu-Liang: I paid $100 at PDX overweight checkin luggage.
just like the last time. any way, I will see after I get to Iqaluit.

me: well expeditions always take verty penny I have : it is worth it howver

Chiu-Liang: Tonight I will sleep at the airport Ottawa.

me: any weather update?
Sent at 12:37 PM on Monday
Chiu-Liang: Pond Inlet is good, Iqaluit has chance of PPT. Here in Ottawa is good. I wear the sorel -40 boots walking in street to go to t he library, too hot to hot!

me: yes they arre for very cold! you'll be happy you have them when it cools down!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Voyager Updates

Half way to the North Pole Tom Smitheringale fell thorough the sea ice and spent ten minutes trying to get out. He managed, set up his tent, lit his stove and hit the ON button on his EPIRB device, which sends out an electronic shriek saying "GET ME OUT IMMEDIATELY" to any and all in range. By sheer luck, Canadian special forces were training in the area and he was picked up in a matter of hours. Photos of him at the weather station at Alert show him smiling, eating, though with some moderate frostbite to fingertips. Just a few years ago, when N Pole expeditions were much less common, that dunking would have been a death sentence. "Medics at Alert examined Tom’s frostbitten fingers and toes while the staff “scrambled to find dry clothing that would fit his 6'6 frame.”

After weathering an attack by three wild dogs Ripley Davenport managed to cross some difficult terrain before his sledge broke down in Mongolia; he is awaiting evacuation back to Denmark. "Unable to move, I waited in a bitterly windy and icy dark Steppe for evacuation."

Jessica Watson's solo circumnavigation is getting a little rough as she approaches home, with a torn sail and rough seas in recent days: "as I started to think things were improving the wind suddenly started gusting like crazy, laying Ella's Pink Lady right over on her side and pinning her there. While I was having some serious fun (note sarcasm!) reefing in the cockpit (double clipped on of course!), down below, water was flooding in up through the sink because of the crazy angle we were on. Normally I shut the sink seacock when the weather’s a bit bouncy. But having thought that things were quietening down, I'd only just opened it again. The water flooded right through the galley then into the bilges. But Ella’s Pink Lady's pumps soon had it out again. I'm not particularly thrilled about my soggy mess of a galley..."

In Siberia, Dimitri Kieffer and Nyurgun Efremov lost a tent, blown away in a gust, and spent a night in the open during a storm, or part of the night before they dug a snow cave. Of his partner, separated from him in the storm, Dmitri reports: "Nyurgun had chosen indeed along the way to stop and bury himself inside his sled during the night, escaping partially the purga and arriving in town around 5pm on Saturday night. I was amazed to find out that, thanks to his smaller corpulence, he was able to not only sleep but especially able to manage to boil himself some water while lying inside his sled fully zipped and cook himself a meal between his legs! Quite a feat, I must say!"

I've just helped Chiu Liang Kuo prepare some charts and a digital sound recorder for his upcoming 30-day expedition to Baffin Island. No sat phone, no EPIRB, a spear only for polar bear defense. Chiu is off on Sunday.

Step out your front door, and there's no telling what's going to happen!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Return to Earth

Dr. Etienne has landed safely in Siberia. A few comments:

On April 10 Jean-Louis Etienne touched down in Sakha in Siberia after flying alone in his rozière balloon across the Arctic Ocean for 121h and 30 minutes reported his website. According to them he covered 3130 km (1956 miles).


Everything went well with the landing, said Jean-Louis. “I had intended to go much further, but I found myself faced with a huge, thick wall of mist. I didn't want to go back up again to cross to the other side without knowing where I was going.”

He said he came straight down, but it went well. “I was expecting worse.”

“I feel very satisfied and relieved. There were after all some tricky moments during this flight.”


He compared it with land and sea expeditions. “The difference is that in the air, the slightest problem can be fatal. In the air you don't get a moment to rest. If something is not right, you can't take a break and think about what can be done. You have to analyze things very quickly and come to a rapid decision.”

He said he had some tense moments when he was flying low.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Back to the Glue

A pressure test of the suit last night (see above; I've attached a temporary pump hose to pressurize the suit without use of a SCUBA tank; I can pull this later) revealed some leaks at the neck seal -- so I'm back to gluing. The good news is that most of the neck sealing was excellent. Also installed wrist-mount pressure gauge, and have sorted out some issues with helmet overpressure venting.

I have to say it's pretty strange to have a blown-up, human-sized, golem co-occupying my living space for a few hours!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Dr. Jean-Louis Ettienne Flying Over the Arctic

A long time ago I read an interview with Dr. Etienne, in which he--seated in his spartan Paris apartment, with a board over two sawhorses for a table--indicated that he was in life going to do exactly what he felt was important, and nothing else. I read in that interview a kind of conviction that I wanted to emulate, and over the years, have, to a degree...but there is yet a large leap to make.

Below, some words from the Doctor regarding his recent attempt to fly a Roziere balloon from Scandinavia to Alaska (it hasn't worked out that way--he is about to land in Siberia!):

"... was really given a battering in the snow storm. For 14hours I low altitude...there were upcurrents and then columns of sinking air, which meant that the balloon rose very high up and then suddenly fell just as violently...the solar panels...smashed against the gondola. It was quite spectacular and exhausting."

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Performance Indicator Panel

Cockpit instrumentation is normally divided into two broad categories: control panels house switches, levers and other actuators used to control the aircraft, whereas performance indicators tell the pilot what the aircraft is doing (not a bad thing to remember if you ever have to land a plane in an emergency: in the dizzying dozens of dials, what are you looking at? Control or performance indicators? Start there and you may actually make it!).

In balloons, three performance indicators are most important: vertical speed, indicating how quickly one is ascending or descending; altitude, indicating the distance from the balloon to the ground; and temperature, usually that of the gas inside the balloon but also sometimes of the ambient atmosphere outside the balloon.

I've just built a prototype of my main performance indicators panel. Why this is a long, vertical panel I'll go into later; for the moment I'm just showing the construction process (after months of researching and buying the various instruments).

First, opening holes in the wooden panel to admit the main indicators. A simple wooden panel is strong and light:

Second, after the main panel was painted black (the less visual clutter, the better), applying a largely matte-black foam slab to insulate instrumentation, a bit, from vibration:

Third, using machine bolts to attach the various instruments:

Fourth, most indicators locked in:

Fifth, all instruments locked in:

From the top:

1. OAT Indicator (Outside Air Temperature): later, this will be paired with a BGT (Balloon Gas Temperature). The relationship between ambient (atmospheric) and balloon gas temperature is important for a number of reasons.

2. VSI (Vertical Speed Indicator): indicates the rate of climb or descent in hundreds and thousands of feet per minute.

3. ALT (Altimeter): indicates the distance (in feet, here) between balloon and ground; this is entirely based on atmospheric pressure, and the altimeter has to be properly adjusted before flight (and, preferably, before landing, with information radioed up from the ground, before landing). This altimeter is good to 25,000 feet.

3a. PRESS 1 (pressure gauge), the white dial mounted on the left margin of the panel: this is a simple vacuum pressure gauge, indicating ambient atmospheric pressure in mmHG, a useful check on altimeters (3) and (4).

4. ALT (Altimeter 2): also indicates the distance, in feet, from balloon to ground, but this altimeter is rated to 50,000 feet and 'takes over' after ALT (3) (see above).

5. CLOCK. This is simply a timepiece; it is rated for military aircraft and designed to withstand al variety of temperatures, pressures, and shocks.

To the right, a snake-neck lamp is attached to illuminate the indicators in the dark. This is a back-up for a general illumination system I will build in later.

In the final photo I'm wearing a pressure glove with a pressure-restraint coverall; a third, fireproof overglove will cover these; here I'm just getting a feel for how the glove interacts with the indicator panel. No detail may be overlooked.

Vertical space between instruments is left open for a number of indicator lights I'll be installing later.

Note that while I have an electronic VSI/Altimeter (which weighs 1/10th of the panel I've built above, and I carry strapped to my thigh during paraglider flights) the panel I've built above is entirely composed of instruments that are (a) independently operated (failure of one does not mean failure of another) and (b) require no power. I'll carry the electronic system as well, but I don't want to be knocked out by a simple power failure; also, the LED displays of electronic devices, in my experience, fail (go black, or blank) at -30F to -40F, temperatures I can expect at high altitudes; so I'm sticking with simple, independent, robust, non-powered devices as my main flight performance indicators.

Friday, April 2, 2010

A14 Diluter Demand Pressure Breathing Regulator

The main breathing gas supply regulator has arrived; though assembled in 1953-1954, it arrived in-the-case, brand new, with a shelf life indicated "INDEFINITE." Glider pilots often purchase these surplus items for high-altitude sailplane flights, and the units check out to be very robust and reliable. These regulators admit breathing gas to the pilot on inhalation. In principle much like a SCUBA regulator, this device, rated to 48,000 feet pressure altitude, will be installed in-line between my breathing gas supply tanks and my pressure helmet. A second, identical unit will serve as a backup, and a third (used) is in the mail to me as a study model which I'll take apart and inspect in order to learn precisely how it functions, what components are most likely to malfunction, and the results of such malfunctions. Three images: first, opening the sealed container, and two images of the regulator itself.