Archive for October, 2011

The Bigger They Are…

I’m not much of a mathematician, but I’ve never been intimidated by numbers or the different ways we manipulate numbers, which is really what mathematics is all about.  I’ve just never been very good at it, and that’s a large part of why I became a biological scientist because I didn’t need much higher mathematics to understand biological organisms.  And if I did need higher stuff like calculus, or sophisticated statistical analyses, or differential equations, or whatever, I could always get someone in the Math Department to do the work for me.

But I have always been fascinated by numbers and how they interact.  Particularly large numbers.  We scientist types can wind up with some large numbers sometimes.  For example, as a virologist, I frequently would have, after various manipulations in the laboratory, a test tube full of a purified virus.  That’s right, a purified virus.  Sometimes that was a relatively benign virus like reovirus, a virus of humans that could cause disease, but rarely did, and sometimes that would be a dangerous virus like poliovirus.  I’m not talking about the vaccine poliovirus, either.  I even once had a tube of purified AIDS virus.  I kept that tube hidden away.

But what’s interesting about these viruses is that the numbers of them could reach very high levels.  We always listed the number of virus particles in terms of ‘particles per milliliter’ (or ‘particles/ml,’ to use the common abbreviation).  These suspensions of viruses were usually a milky white (except for the poliovirus) and could reach a trillion particles/ml.  That’s a 1 followed by 12 zeros.  We would write that as the number 10 with a superscript 12, but I can’t write it in this blog because WordPress doesn’t allow superscripts.  (A glaring deficiency.)  That’s only per milliliter, too, so if I had 10 ml of that suspension–and that wasn’t unusual–that would be 10 trillion particles.

But I’ve run across large numbers in more prosaic pursuits.  Take for example a deck of cards.  Fifty-two cards (excluding Jokers) can be played in many different games, some of which use all the cards, some of which don’t.  I got to thinking about that, and wondered how many different combinations of all those cards there are.  Assume you are playing a game where all 52 cards are used, like Bridge or Solitaire.  How many different hands could be dealt?  To figure that, you would calculate 52 factorial, which means 52 x 51 x 50 x 49 x 48… down to 1.  That’s because, assuming the cards are well shuffled, there are 52 possibilities for the first card, then after it is dealt, there are 51 possibilities for the second, and so on.  If you enter that into your calculator, 52, and press the factorial key, usually represented as ‘x!’ the answer comes up, 8.0658 times 10 the power 67.  That means 67 digits after the first 8.  That’s a huge number.  No wonder all those Bridge experts like Charles Goren and Omar Sharif  have had columns in the newspaper for so long.  They’re never going to run out of different hands!  That same number applies to any game where all cards are dealt, like Solitaire.

But an even bigger number I learned about came during high school many years ago.  A speaker came to our school and challenged us to write down the largest number we could think of using only three digits.  (The same digit could be used several times.)  The largest I could think of was 999.  But he did it differently.  He wrote 9 to the power of 9, and that to the power of 9.  I can’t write it here, but it’s like a column of exponents.  He said at the time that number would be bigger than all the snowflakes that have ever fallen in the history of the Earth.  Of course we pooh-poohed him.  I couldn’t be, we said.  In the history of the Earth?  No way.  And until calculators came along, I couldn’t evaluate that number.  But now I can.  I started by taking the top two nines, that is, 9 to the ninth power.  That’s 387420489.  Then I  took 9 to that power, and my calculator gave me an “Error” message.  It was too big for a simple calculator to figure.  If you want to try it, you might be able to find a website that will give you the answer.  I tried using logarithms, but I still got an “Error” because that number is so absolutely huge.  In any event, it’s no matter.  I believe now it is larger than all the snowflakes that have fallen since the beginning of the Earth.  And that’s a lot of snowflakes.

Now for an even larger number.  Anyone want to try to figure out the number of electrons in the entire universe?

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Living Around

A couple of Nova programs on PBS last night got me to thinking.  Always a dangerous concept.  But these two programs were all about the possibility of life on other planets, and in this discussion I’m including planets in our solar system as well as planets circling other stars.  The prevailing wisdom to now has been that in order for life to develop on a planet, it has to be within what’s called the “habitable zone,” (sometimes called the “Goldilocks zone”) which is a region around a star where the temperature is neither too hot nor too cold so that life, at least carbon-based life (which is what we are) can develop.  In our solar system, only Earth and Mars lie inside that zone, so the assumption has been that life could never develop on any other planet.  Mercury and Venus are way too hot (think of melting lead), and anything farther out is too cold.  At first glance that seems reasonable.

But a new concept of the development of life has taken hold in the past several years which overturns that old paradigm, and the possibility of life in our solar system has been extended to moons of the larger planets Jupiter and Saturn.  Carbon based life couldn’t exist on those two giant planets themselves because they don’t have any carbon, the gravity is crushing, and their strong magnetic fields would probably prevent life from gaining a foothold.  But each of those have a large selection of moons on which life could develop.  A good example is Io, one of Jupiter’s moons.

Io gets pushed and pulled by the tremendous attraction of Jupiter’s strong gravitational field, and over the billions of years Io has been circling the planet, it’s been heated from the inside, and the liquified interior has made its way to the surface in the form of volcanoes of molten sulfur.  Now, molten sulfur isn’t exactly compatible with life, but the important point here is that there’s heat on Io, heat that doesn’t come from the sun and heat that could conceivably power the development of life forms.  But that’s not all.

Other moons of the two largest planets in our solar system are warm, not from tidal heating, but from internal heat left over from when they were formed.  Like the molten core of Earth.  Europa, another moon of Jupiter, is covered with ice, and liquid water may exist down below that ice.  Liquid water.  Warm, liquid water.  A perfect breeding ground for living organisms.

But our solar system has only four planets on or near which life could exist.  Billions of stars exist in our galaxy, and the chance that the same or similar conditions exist on planets around them is virtually a guaranteed proposition.  Life exists out there right now, though that doesn’t mean it’s nearby nor that it has visited us here.  (Little green men?  Put your press release away.)  But somewhere there’s life, in one form or another.  All we have to do is find it.  With the requirements for life expanded away from the old habitable zone, that just increases the chance.  Anyone want to take a trip to the nearest star?

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The Light at the End of the Tunnel

Well, the end is near.  At least the end of the writing phase of my first novel, The Anthanian Imperative–Blue.  If you’re new to this blog, I’ve been working on this science fiction novel for a long time (never mind how long, but the number of years has two digits).  I think I’m in position to begin querying agents, and I’ve drawn up a list of several already.  I’ve talked to a lot of people about my novel and passed it in front of a well-known editor who made some important and valuable comments that led me to cut over 30,000 words.  It still weighs in at slightly over 120,000 words, and that’s a bit much, but that’s the smallest it’s ever been.  (Carrie, you will be pleased.)  So far, so good.

If you’ve followed my blogs for a while now, you know that I’ve been debating whether to go the traditional route for publication or take a chance and self-publish using one of the many routes available now.  My decision has been to try the traditional route first.  I like the idea of having an agent and, later, an editor take a look at the book and give me some feedback as to how it might hold up in the real world.  Also, the publisher is responsible for the cover art and typesetting, and all the other small things that go to putting out a book, things I don’t have any experience in, and things you have to do by yourself if you self-publish.  Personally, I think the book will do okay in the world of publishers and agents, but I don’t really know.  In any event, we’ll find out.  If everybody pans it, perhaps I’ll publish it on Smashwords or some other equally simple site, and let the chips fall where they may.

Another reason I’ve decided to try the traditional route comes from a conversation I had at the last science fiction convention here in Albuquerque this past August.  That was Bubonicon 43.  I happened to mention to a well-known author of many science fiction books that I was writing a novel and hadn’t decided how to publish, and his suggestion was to try the traditional route first, self-publish later.  He didn’t elaborate on that comment and I didn’t explore it further, and it should be remembered that he’s published all his books the traditional way, so his opinion is somewhat slanted.  Yet, at the same time, his suggestion set well with me, a veritable unknown in the world of science fiction.

So, wish me luck.  I’m still working on some things in the front of the manuscript, including the Table of Contents and another few pages on the pronunciation of some of the terms I use to identify my fictional characters.  But next week, query letters will go out.  (Cue the drum roll, trumpets, fanfare, roll credits.)

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A euphemism is a substituting of a mild or inoffensive word or phrase for one that’s unpleasant or offensive.  Two weeks ago, a friend of mine commented on one of my blogs (“African and American?” of 9/18/2011) in which I questioned the use of the phrase (moniker, epithet?) “African-American”.  She had some interesting comments about terms we use, mostly in a political sense.  I’m not a politician nor do I want to get into a political discussion, but I have always wondered about some of the terms we use to refer to ourselves, and “African-American” was one of those terms.  So many of those terms seem exaggerated.

For example, in the US, races are differentiated by two terms thrown around like rice at a wedding.  Caucasians are referred to as “white,” regardless of the real color of their skin, which can be anything from albino (which is really a pinkish white), to very dark brown.  Those of the Negro race are referred to as “black,” again regardless of their skin color which can be any of various shades of brown.  An American Indian (that is to say, Indians whose heritage is in the Indian nations of the United States) is termed “red,” and persons from China are considered “yellow.”  Where did we get these colors?  There’s some brown and some white in the skin color of every human on this planet, so I can see the general use of those terms, but they’ve gotten out of hand and are so often used to justify racism.  “Red” and “yellow” I don’t get at all.  They sound more insulting than descriptive.

In a similar vein, what about “Redskins”?  That’s the equivalent of the “n” word for a “black” person.  Don’t the people in Washington, DC get the message?  You’d think a sports team in our nation’s capital, where political correctness is a way of life, would understand how offensive that name is.  “Indians” isn’t so bad; it’s more descriptive than insulting, but still, I wonder.

Then there’s the term “American.”  Where did we get that?  An American is now defined as someone from the United States of America, and in many countries that’s offensive, too.  But “America” is a much larger area than that one country.  The term includes two continents and one rather circuitous land mass that connects the two.  There’s North America, Central America, and South America, so an “American,” in the most basic use of the term, is someone from any one of those areas.  But we don’t use it that way.  Consider, if you’re from Canada, you’re Canadian.  If you’re from Mexico, you’re Mexican.  If you’re from Bolivia, you’re Bolivian.  (Note how the last vowel is dropped and the suffix “-ian” is added.)  But if you’re from the United States, there isn’t any good equivalent term.  Would we be referred to as “United Statesian?”  That’s no good.  Or, “United States of American?”  Don’t be ridiculous.  Perhaps that’s why we adopted “American” because there isn’t anything else.  (That’s conjecture, not justification.)

This just goes to show how terms and designations can change, getting away from their original meaning, taking on context that can be far from what we first used them for.  Be careful how you use them.  An innocent term can be an insult anymore.

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