09.15.06

X-Prize

Posted in science, sloan piggybacking, space at 12:49 am by wingerz

xprize

His name is Peter Diamandis and he is passionate about civilian space travel. He founded the X Prize competition, which culminated in last October’s well-publicized SpaceShipOne flight. Tonight he spoke at the MIT 100K Competition kickoff, and I tagged along with Jen.

The X Prize featured a $10 million purse. It was modeled after the prize that Charles Lindbergh won when he flew across the Atlantic. Turns out that this type of incentive, paired with ambitious but reachable goals, is a great way to move innovation along in certain areas. It also breaks psychological barriers for people; the hope is that space travel will take off (har) as aviation did after the first trans-atlantic flight.

Peter is leading several incredibly interesting projects now – X Prizes in other areas of science, zero-gravity flight, and the Rocket Racing League. His passion is so strong and genuine, and it is a pleasure to hear him speak. His guiding principles: If something can go wrong, fix it; if someone offers you two choices, take both; don’t take no for an answer. To illustrate his persistence: his plans for zero-gravity flight are over a decade old because it took 11 1/2 years of on-and-off discussions with FAA lawyers to agree that this was a safe thing to do. Once they were approved, they found out that they couldn’t purchase commercial aircraft, so they ended up converting weeknight-flight 727 cargo planes to weekend and daytime zero-gravity chambers.

Also, be sure to check out the Rocket Racing League. The standard rockets burn a combination of liquid oxygen and kerosene, producing a beautiful flame. Each racer has enough fuel for about 4 minutes of 1500-lb thrust, and it’s up to them to decide when to use it in racing around a virtual aerial track. The grand scheme is to have video game players at home racing alongside real racers (since they are all equipped with GPS sensors), and the best virtual player will get to compete alongside racing league finalists in a virtual cockpit. The videos look incredibly cool.

I find it so inspiring is that this guy set out to change space travel and actually did it. And I look forward to future space travel developments that result from his vision.

06.18.06

Darwin at the AMNH

Posted in evolution, history, science at 5:52 am by wingerz

Yesterday Jen and I went to the Darwin exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History. It was very well done, featuring some of his personal correspondences, notesbooks, and collected specimens, as well as live tortoises and an iguana. Some interesting tidbits:

  • Darwin loved to collect beetles. On one occasion he found himself in a situation where he wanted to catch three beetles but only had two hands – he popped one into his mouth, where it prompty sprayed him with something disgusting.
  • Darwin compiled a list of pros and cons for marriage. Among the pros: “better than a dog anyhow.” The worst con: a “terrible loss of time.”
  • Darwin’s father wanted him to become a doctor and was opposed to him traveling on the HMS Beagle. Fortunately, he wrote: “”If you can find any man of common sense who advises you to go, I will give my consent.” Darwin found this man in his uncle and future father-in-law.
  • My favorite notebook entry of his simply states “I think” at the top and a tree of related species below. To me it was quite amazing to see this. It’s quite easy to take this idea for granted now (well, not in some states, I suppose), but this really drives home the point that a profound thinker had to figure all of this out and capture it in his notebook.
  • Darwin sat on his ideas for about 20 years, until Alfred Russel Wallace had come to the same conclusions. The exhibit included some of the letters that were sent between the two scientists – Wallace conveyed an incredible amount of respect for the depth of Darwin’s work and seemed to be quite grateful with the end result: both papers would be published simultaneously.
  • Darwin also loved orchids and did many experiments to see how orchids had adapted to the insects that helped them with pollination (and vice versa). He found one orchid in Madagascar in 1862 that would have depended on an insect with a foot-long probiscis. No such insect was found until 60 years later.

It’s great that the museum put a lot of the text (straight from the exhibits) online. Google Image Search for the “I think” image led me straight to the Darwin Exhibit website. I’ve been meaning to read The Origin of Species for a while; now I feel sufficiently inspired to pick it up.