Communion Of Dreams

You never know …

… how what you write, or say, or do, will inspire and encourage others:


Jim Downey

Cue the mad scientist laugh …

This is a really interesting idea: that fundamental thermodynamic forces lead very naturally to the the beginning and evolution of life. From the start of the article:

Why does life exist?

Popular hypotheses credit a primordial soup, a bolt of lightning and a colossal stroke of luck. But if a provocative new theory is correct, luck may have little to do with it. Instead, according to the physicist proposing the idea, the origin and subsequent evolution of life follow from the fundamental laws of nature and “should be as unsurprising as rocks rolling downhill.”

From the standpoint of physics, there is one essential difference between living things and inanimate clumps of carbon atoms: The former tend to be much better at capturing energy from their environment and dissipating that energy as heat. Jeremy England, a 31-year-old assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has derived a mathematical formula that he believes explains this capacity. The formula, based on established physics, indicates that when a group of atoms is driven by an external source of energy (like the sun or chemical fuel) and surrounded by a heat bath (like the ocean or atmosphere), it will often gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy. This could mean that under certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the key physical attribute associated with life.

It’s important to note that this is not in any way in conflict with current understanding of evolution — rather, as the article says: “England’s theory is meant to underlie, rather than replace, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, which provides a powerful description of life at the level of genes and populations.”

Take a few minutes to read the article; it’s well written and non-technical but assumes a basic scientific understanding of both evolution and thermodynamics.

And if proven true, implies that the universe should be full of biological life as a manifestation of basic physical processes.

*Very* interesting, indeed.


Jim Downey

Orange windows?
July 16, 2008, 7:17 am
Filed under: MetaFilter, MIT, Predictions, Science, tech

Currently, there are two fundamental problems with solar power:

1. Manufacturing. Photovoltaics are difficult and expensive to manufacture, with exacting quality standards. Minor imperfections can ruin the electrical circuit of a cell or even a whole panel of cells.

2. Efficiency. To get maximum efficiency from solar panels, they should be mounted so as to be optimally oriented towards the sun. Ideally, they would track the sun across the sky during the course of the day, and account for seasonal variation in the sun’s path. Such tracking mechanisms are expensive to build and maintain.

Well, researchers at MIT seem to have come up with a simple way of addressing both problems.

MIT opens new ‘window’ on solar energy

Cost effective devices expected on market soon

Imagine windows that not only provide a clear view and illuminate rooms, but also use sunlight to efficiently help power the building they are part of. MIT engineers report a new approach to harnessing the sun’s energy that could allow just that.

The work, to be reported in the July 11 issue of Science, involves the creation of a novel “solar concentrator.” “Light is collected over a large area [like a window] and gathered, or concentrated, at the edges,” explains Marc A. Baldo, leader of the work and the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Career Development Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering.

As a result, rather than covering a roof with expensive solar cells (the semiconductor devices that transform sunlight into electricity), the cells only need to be around the edges of a flat glass panel. In addition, the focused light increases the electrical power obtained from each solar cell “by a factor of over 40,” Baldo says.

(Video here.)

What they have done is to solve a basic problem with using a flat pane of glass to concentrate light around the edges of the pane, thanks to research done on lasers and LEDs. The difficulty with this approach in the past was that light energy would be ‘lost’ in passing through the glass, making such a system inefficient. But Baldo and his fellow researchers discovered that a simple application of dye or paint – they literally used orange automotive paint – on the surface of the glass did the trick. The light is absorbed by the color on the surface, then re-emitted within the pane at a particular wavelength which passes easily through the glass matrix to the edges of the pane.

This innovation is exciting for several reasons. First off, it is fairly cheap to apply such a dye to the surface of the glass, and it really doesn’t matter if there are imperfections – they’ll just disrupt the light absorption at that point, not interfere with the functioning of the photovoltaic cells. Secondly, it eliminates the need for elaborate tracking systems – any light which hits the glass is concentrated at the edges of the pane. So all you need to do is rim the edges of the glass with photovoltaic cells, and you maximize your energy gain.

A side benefit will be that the application of this technology to large buildings will generate electricity while at the same time reducing the heat load from solar radiation through windows. Say you make your windows such that they allow 25% of the light striking them to enter the building, the rest being captured for electricity generation (this can be done by controlling the amount of dye on the surface of the glass – such as is done today with tinted windows). That 25% is still plenty sufficient to help with natural illumination, but means that you won’t need to run air conditioning systems nearly as much to offset the heat load. (I just picked 25% at random – I think that the actual amount needed for illumination would be less – architects and engineers would be be able to factor this into any building’s design specs).

Of course, it could well mean that windows in our near-term future show up as being orange. Maybe I’ll need to drop such descriptions into Communion of Dreams next time I do some editing . . .

Jim Downey

(Via MeFi.)

Suits me.
July 17, 2007, 10:15 am
Filed under: BoingBoing, MIT, NASA, Predictions, Science Fiction, Space, tech

Via BoingBoing, word of a new design of space suit under development at MIT which would replace the bulky pressurized suits used for the last 40 years:

Newman’s prototype suit is a revolutionary departure from the traditional model. Instead of using gas pressurization, which exerts a force on the astronaut’s body to protect it from the vacuum of space, the suit relies on mechanical counter-pressure, which involves wrapping tight layers of material around the body. The trick is to make a suit that is skintight but stretches with the body, allowing freedom of movement.

This is exactly the kind of suit I envisioned for Communion of Dreams, something that looks more like a wetsuit than a small spacecraft. Not that that is a new idea, since it is also the kind of suit envisioned by many SF writers and movies/shows since the 60’s. It just makes sense that the tech would evolve this direction, not unlike how early deep-sea diving rigs became more sleek and user-friendly over time.

There’s another benefit to the direction that the MIT team is going with their design: it will aid in maintaining physical conditioning, which is always a problem for prolonged weightlessness. From the news release:

The suits could also help astronauts stay fit during the six-month journey to Mars. Studies have shown that astronauts lose up to 40 percent of their muscle strength in space, but the new outfits could be designed to offer varying resistance levels, allowing the astronauts to exercise against the suits during a long flight to Mars.

Images available here.

Jim Downey