The Common Ancestry Problem!

Evolution is a crucial process in the realm of biology, geology, cosmology etc. However, it has been the subject of debates because of misunderstanding that stems out of misinformation. This misunderstanding is often misused against the Theory of Evolution and people who do this get away because they know that common man does not really understand what exactly is going on in evolution. In this article, I will explain Biological Evolution and the concept of Common Ancestry in simple terms so that even common man can get a framework of knowledge on the subject from where he can build up further.

image of beautiful sandy island

To understand evolution and common ancestry, we must first understand what is “genetic mutation” and “natural selection“. Hence, before we begin, let us make a few assumptions that could simplify the explanation. Imagine an island in the Pacific Ocean. Let’s say it is a sandy island with trees, bushes and plenty of insects and other small creatures etc. Also let’s assume that there is a population of a particular species of lizards living there. Let us call them “Species – A“. Now, these lizards have particular characteristics based on the environment they live in. These characteristics include skin color, body strength, agility, heat resistance and so on.

image of sandy island lizard

The genes of our lizard species never stay the same during their lifetime. Genetic mutation happens due to several factors which include exposure to chemicals such as pesticides, industrial wastes, extreme climates, radiation from outer space etc. Once mutated, the new gene might carry a positive, negative or neutral trait. New positive traits may form such as improved skin color, stronger limbs, better digestive system and the like. Negative traits may include impaired vision, unwanted skin spots, weaker limbs and so on.

Image of genetic mutation example

In order to survive, the lizards must consume food, avoid predators and reproduce successfully. Positive traits are the ones that help these lizards survive better in this particular island and negative traits are the ones that make survival difficult. Hence, lizards with positive traits such as stronger limbs have better chance to run after preys and also to avoid being eaten by predators. Further, lizards with skin color more adapted to the surrounding sandy environment also helps camouflaging while it is hunting and also while it is being hunted. Since, the lizards with positive characteristics have better chance of survival, they are more likely to mate and reproduce. When male and female lizards mate, half of the chromosomes from the female combines with half the chromosomes from the male through chance recombination. Therefore, some of the positive traits from both the father and the mother are passed on to the offspring thereby making it fit to survive in the given environment.

However, though difficult, even lizards with negative characteristics may survive by either sheer luck or by other factors such as hunting of predators by other predators etc. In such a scenario even some of the lizards with negative characteristics might also mate and pass on their negative characteristics to the next generation. If the population survives for many generations, we can find that in every generation, the number of individuals with positive traits is more than the number of individuals with negative characteristics. We also find that certain type of traits such as a particular eye color or skin color or longer limbs etc. become marked trait of this species overtime with more individuals possessing them. In short, successful variations survive and others perish and as a population of species, it is important to have more number of individuals with positive traits reproduce. Thus, individuals would choose to mate more number of times with individuals possessing positive characteristics. This sort of “arms race” for dominance which ensures “survival of the fittest” and thereby survival of the species is called natural selection.

image of pacific rocky island

Now, let us say this process of genetic mutation and natural selection goes on for a thousand generations. We now have a species that is extremely adaptive to our sandy Pacific island and different from the parent species. We will call them “Species – A1“. Let us now assume that a few individuals such as a pregnant female or group of pregnant females manage to swim across the sea and arrive at an island that is miles away from our original sandy island. They could also arrive in other ways such as when predators that carry one or more of our lizards or lizard eggs accidentally drops or leaves them on this new island.

Let us assume this is a rocky island with plenty of water, plants and trees but lesser populations of insect and small creatures compared to the original island. The lizards who are used to eating insects, earthworms etc. from the sandy island will soon find that the new island is slightly inhospitable when compared to their “motherland”. They will also find that their softer bodies are not very suitable for the rough terrains of the rocky island. However, they have sufficient water supply, plants etc. The first generation to arrive might either perish totally or return to their homeland or somehow survive eating the little number of insects they have there.

image of pacific island fishes

If they choose to survive there, very soon the same process of genetic mutation and natural selection would ensue. This time our lizards need stronger and faster bodies to chase the insects in the tough terrains. They can continue to develop stronger and faster bodies to catch insects and survive for generations or they can switch to eating alternative food sources such as plants or small fishes in the water bodies inside and around the island. If they find plant eating is a good option to survive since they are there in plenty, the subsequent generations would eventually become totally vegetarians. If they choose to eat fishes, subsequent generations would develop traits such as improved streamlined bodies suitable for swimming, agility and alacrity in catching fishes etc. They might even become amphibious in due time by developing traits that would help them survive in water for longer periods of time.

After a few generations, say a thousand generations of genetic mutations and natural selections in the new island, our original lizard species A1 would have developed into a new species of lizards that have diverted in their physical structure, eating habits etc that helps them flourish in the new island. We can now call them “Species – B”. Now, our original Species A1 did not remain the same either in the sandy island. While A1 transformed to B in the rocky island over a thousand generations, A1 was undergoing the same in the original island. Now, after another thousand generations, we have “Species – A2” in the original island. If we take lizard species A2 and B, we find several similarities as well as differences in their body, color, size, overall fitness and even sounds they make. Sandy lizards would move in zig-zag motion which is better suited for sandy environments and the rocky lizards might move faster in straight line, which is suited for rocky environments.

However, both species A2 and B have a “common ancestor“, which is the species A1. Hence, we can say that A2 and B share “common ancestry“, which is the main topic of this article. Please note that common ancestor need not always be a single person. It can be a population of individuals who share similar traits.

image of beautiful galapagos crabs

When Darwin arrived at the Galapagos Islands in the pacific, he noticed marked differences and similarities in species of iguanas, tortoises, finches and so on in the different islands in the group. It caused him to think as to whether these species are cousins to each other. And that is what led him and Alfred Russel Wallace and many other biologists to study the process in the subsequent years and establish the theory of evolution by natural selection. This theory is currently the only explanation for the complexity and diversity of living beings on our planet. This theory has survived the test of time and is qualified as a scientific theory because it passes the four criteria I described in my previous article. Today we have enormous amounts of evidence to support the theory which include fossils remains, comparative study of homologous structures, molecular evidence such as ERV (Endogenous Retrovirus) infections in the DNA etc.

These are things I wrote directly from my head based on what I have read and studied. I hope I have accomplished the task of explaining evolution in simplified terms. Please let me know your comments and suggestions if any so that I can make this article better.

Evolution – What is in it for me?

image of phylogeny tree

Evolution is the slow process of change that occur in physical, chemical, biological, geological, social, linguistic and cosmological systems and the components within those systems over time. The theory of evolution, which is the subject of this article is obviously biological evolution and its far reaching implications pertaining to human life. How the knowledge of evolution affects a person’s everyday life is something unknown to common man and something that he doesn’t bother to know. It is a fact that the reason why human species exist and flourish in various parts of the world today lies primarily in the process of evolution and the human knowledge of the same.

Before I start with the main content of this article, I would like to describe what exactly is meant by a scientific theory. Any scientific theory must qualify the following four criteria:-

  1. It must explain an observable phenomenon and/or experimental result
  2. It must be substantiated with evidence obtained through experiments and/or observations and/or material evidence
  3. It must make testable predictions that can be verified by new observations and/or experiments and/or material evidence
  4. It must pass a rigorous peer-review process

Evolution is a theory that qualifies all the four criteria described above and provides an accurate explanation of the complexity and diversity of life on Earth. As a side note, I would also like to tell you that every scientific theory that qualifies the above four criteria still has its own realm of application. For instance, you can’t expect a scientist; no matter how gifted to explain why a sperm and egg fuse to form a zygote using the theory of gravity. That wouldn’t make sense since there are theories on sexual reproduction such as meiosis that give clear answers to questions pertaining to zygote formation. Similarly, you can’t expect someone to explain why objects fall using meiosis.

image of charles darwin

Hence, I don’t want to see comments asking, “Why doesn’t evolution explain the origin of life?” because evolution is not meant to explain it. There is another theory called abiogenesis that explains the various possibilities of origins of life on earth and possibly in other planets given the right conditions. Also I wouldn’t tolerate comments that defame Darwin and his contributions using contrived and misinformed information about his “deathbed conversion” and “rebuttal of his own theory because of missing links”. It is beyond doubt that Darwin was never converted in his deathbed and though he did accept that missing links existed, he never said that it is proof against evolution. In fact fossils of many of the missing links he postulated were later discovered and classified. Further, since 1859, the year when “On the Origin of Species” was published, there have been thousands of books written; hundreds of thousands of peer-reviewed papers published and millions of pieces of evidence amassed in support of evolution.

So, having established that evolution is a fact and the theory of evolution explains this fact, let’s move on to the main topic of this article. I will discuss some areas where knowledge of evolution affects everyday life:

Medicine

Evolution’s biggest use for humans and one of my favorites is in the field of medicine. It won’t be an exaggeration to state that we are alive because of evolutionary theory. Evolution helps us predict the outcome of antibiotic overuse in both humans and livestock and mutation of pathogens such as in the cases of avian flu, west Nile virus etc. We could study parasites such as tubercle bacillus, plasmodium etc. and how they evolve and this knowledge helped in treating resurging and resistant diseases using drug cocktails such as the ones used in the treatment of tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.

image of mosquito evolutionary disease carrier

The recent outbreak of SARS and H1N1 show how vulnerable we are to pandemics created by evolved viruses. This combined with the fact that any infected person can reach anywhere in the world in a matter of hours cause the spread of any mutated virus more easy. Hence we must be aware of evolution of pathogens. HIV, a rapidly evolving retrovirus shares common ancestry with SIV (simian immunodeficiency virus). Hence we have new avenues of research into effective treatment of AIDS. Drug cocktails for HIV patients are creating remarkable success around the world. Further, the cocktails need switching so that the virus doesn’t adapt to a particular mix at any time. Only evolution gives insights into the right combinations of antibiotics.

Scientists are in the process of improving vaccines in the light of rapid evolution and antibiotic resistance of microbes so that people can stay resistant to diseases for longer periods of time. In times of scarcity of antibiotics and chemicals extracted from plants and microbes, it is easy to find related species and look for chemicals in them. Knowledge of evolution helps in finding related species. For example, the Pacific Yew tree used to generate Taxol, the drug used to fight cancer became endangered since 4 to 6 trees must be destroyed to produce one dose of Taxol. However, scientists used the common ancestry theory to find other common trees of the same family that contain Taxol-like compounds thereby helping cancer patients and saving lives.

Environmental Conservation

Understanding evolution of a particular gene pool helps biologists manage different species and their habitats. And if unfavorable conditions are located, endangered species of plants and animals can be relocated to more favorable habitats.

Agriculture and Biotechnology

Evolution helps in knowing the ecological adaptations of various crops and livestock which in turn helps farmers and researchers to introduce these crops and livestock in new environments. In addition it helps in understanding and implementing cross breeding. Further, it helps in artificially selecting the desired characteristics in crops and livestock. In biotechnology, the evolution of genes help in splicing beneficial genes between species which in turn help in producing disease resistant crops and the like.

Human Physiology and Behavior

The theory of evolution also helps us understand disorders such as autoimmune disorder, ADD etc. Understanding genes and their evolution provide new insights into hereditary diseases. Evolution also throws light into the various factors of human behavior such as existence of aggression and compassion.

Economics and Market Dynamics

Evolution also helps in market research where researchers can find out why certain products sell better than certain others. Economics changes in market systems, barter systems, forms of currency etc. are also studied in the light of evolutionary theory these days.

There are other fields that are totally unrelated to biology where evolution finds application. For example cosmology, geology, meteorology, oceanography, linguistics, sociology, politics, economics, theology and anthropology are some of the field where evolution plays an important role. However, this evolution is not biological evolution. In cosmology and astronomy, scientists study the origin and development of celestial bodies such as black holes and the changes in orbits of these bodies. Formation of land forms and plate tectonics and continental drifts form part of geological studies. In meteorology and oceanography, we have climate change, dynamics of ice ages, El Nino, La Nina, oscillation events etc. In linguistics, researchers study origins and development of languages. Sociology and politics also make use of evolution in studying social norms, customs, political systems etc. In anthropology, we use evolution to study the development and diversification of cultures. Finally theology also makes use of evolution in studying religious practices, beliefs and rise and fall of religions.

Teaching Evolution

The advantage that evolution offers students as a practical science to study life sciences as well as other related fields is profound. It is as important as other scientific theories such as quantum mechanics which describe the world around us. Hence, it is important to be taught in schools and colleges in both breadth and depth so that students who move into fields of biotechnology, agriculture, medicine, molecular biology and even geology and paleontology etc. can benefit in their future academics and research. The fact that our contemporary society has more number of scientists and consumers of science than ever before is in itself a good reason why knowledge of evolution and its education is important. Dieting, pharmacology, cloning, global warming, you name it and evolution plays a role there. Censoring evolution from school and college syllabus hence would eventually thwart progress in the fields mentioned. Thus it is imperative that people accept evolution and teach children about the same from a young age. The why part of science such as the flight of a bird, its songs, the resemblance of children to their parents, the similarities between species, the biochemical processes of eukaryotic cells etc. makes sense only in the light of evolutionary theory.

Conclusion

Evolution is the only scientific explanation of the history of life on earth and is also the only explanation that one can give for life elsewhere. There are no alternative theories to evolution! If someone says that there is, then that alternative theory must pass the four criteria I mentioned before. Any alternative theory that does not pass those criteria is not scientific and hence has no place in the academic or research world.

Bibliography

The $9.8 Billion Debacle

You are a middle class schoolteacher from a small town in the eastern part of India. Your monthly income is a mediocre Rs. 35,000 ($700). As part of your weekly routine, you log in to your bank account on a sedate Sunday evening expecting to find a balance of not more than Rs. 10000 ($200). Imagine your bafflement then upon seeing an additional sum of $9.8 billion (Rs. 496 billion) credited into your account, an astronomical amount even by the standards of the rich.

This is exactly the predicament that Mr. Parijat Saha, a resident of the town of Balurghat in South Dinajpur district of West Bengal, found himself in on the evening of 15th January, 2012. Stupefied and flabbergasted, he immediately reported the anomaly to the guilty party – the State Bank of India (SBI). Officials at the bank were initially prevented from commenting on or discussing the issue with the media, but well placed sources said the funds were “uncleared” and couldn’t have been used by Mr. Saha.

However, Mr. Tapan Mitra, the bank’s assistant general manager was quoted on hindustantimes.com as saying, “The amount was merely a transaction that was shown to have been made from his (Saha) account. The amount was never credited to his account. Such an occurrence is normal and usually happens because of fault of the internet service provider.” In addition, he said, “The bank internet system has various layers of firewall security to prevent such mistakes.

That is why the amount was not credited to his account, it merely appeared as a transaction and the account balance was not affected.” The bank – motto “Safe Banking with SBI” – had alerted both its regional headquarters in Calcutta and the national headquarters in Mumbai and an official probe has now been instituted in order to identify what actually went wrong and take necessary action. In the meantime, Mr. Saha withdrew the Rs. 10000 belonging to him leaving the uncleared billions for the bank to take back.

Through it all, it’s not the bank’s ineptness that’s shocking here, it’s the teacher’s honesty that’s the true news for me. While others would undertake the sorts of scams most of us can’t even begin to imagine, here’s a man who made an honest effort to return the money and take only what truly belonged to him. How many such people can you come across in India? In light of all the corruption scandals of recent times, this piece of news is like a breath of fresh air and reinforces our belief in the basic goodness of people and humanity. Hell, the guy deserves the entire $9.8 billion as a reward for his honesty. Let him keep it, I say.

Hydrogen Fuel Cells – The Future of Portables?

Image of Apple plus Hydrogen Fuel Cell

Apple recently submitted two patent applications at the US Patent and Trademark Office that could revolutionize the the already remarkable devices the computer giant is making for its users. The new innovation is using a light weight hydrogen fuel cell to power its portable devices making them usable for days or even weeks before refueling. The hydrogen fuel cell, which produces electrical energy with only water as a byproduct after reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, is one of the most environmental friendly cell ever invented.

The hydrogen fuel cells, in addition to being eco-friendly and efficient are also lighter than other batteries and can run for longer periods of time. In technical terms, the fuel cells can achieve high volumetric and gravimetric energy densities or in simple words, pack considerable amounts of energy into a small space. Apple’s patent currently lists many potential fuel cell models which includes sodium borohydride and water, sodium silicate and water and lithium hydride and water. For Apple, the design and deployment of a hydrogen fuel cell in a portable device such as a laptop or smartphone in cost effective ways is still a distant dream as there are challenges to be met.

Image of Solar Farm

The two patents filed by Apple are “Fuel Cell System to Power a Portable Computing Device” and “Fuel Cell System Coupled to a Portable Computing Device”. These two applications are successors to a previous appliction made by Apple in October. Plans were also revealed then regarding construction of a 171 acre solar farm near Maiden, N.C where they run a $1 billion Project Dolphin data center.

Though many electronics manufacturers had shown their interests in replacing their toxic chemical based batteries to hydrogen cells, it appears Apple might steal the show once again. In addition to environmental issues posed by conventional batteries, there are other political and business related issues facing electronics companies and this new method would prove useful in multifarious ways.

It is true that if the new technology is a hit, others will follow suit just as it happened with the iPhone and iPad. However, hydrogen fuel cells have issues with storage and pose more security risks. Hence, with the current designs, we can’t expect the hydrogen fuel cell powered portables to be any cheaper than the models already sold by Apple. Further, methods to refule must be considered. If a replacement of the bettery is required everytime the fuel is out, it would affect the popularity of the technology. Thus, the technology is years away from realization.

References

  1. “Apple Mulls Over Replacing Plug-In Batteries with Hydrogen Fuel Cells.” Green Packs. Dec 27, 2011. http://www.greenpacks.org/2011/12/27/apple-mulls-over-replacing-plug-in-batteries-with-hydrogen-fuel-cells/ (accessed Dec 27, 2011).
  2. “Apple plots smartphones powered by hydrogen.” The Telegraph. Dec 25, 2011. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/apple/8975382/Apple-plots-smartphones-powered-by-hydrogen.html#disqus_thread (accessed Dec 27, 2011).
  3. “Apple, GoDaddy, Adidas, Joe Cool: Intellectual Property.” Bloomberg Businessweek. Dec 27, 2011. http://www.businessweek.com/news/2011-12-27/apple-godaddy-adidas-joe-cool-intellectual-property.html (accessed Dec 27, 2011).

Preparing for GRE and TOEFL

My previous post described briefly the general procedure involved in applying for MS in US. Today I will elaborate on one the most important aspect of your application – your GRE and TOEFL scores. You should understand that to get into a reputed institution, it is a must to take these tests. There are institutions that do not require them but I would rather suggest you don’t waste your time on those since in the long run you might face difficulties.

Both GRE and TOEFL are required to be taken because of the type of abilities they test. People have often asked me why it is required to take TOEFL also even though GRE has a verbal part in addition to the quantitative. Well, my answer is simple. They test two different kinds of English. TOEFL is taken to prove that despite your mother tongue, you can still handle English fairly well. GRE Verbal on the other hand tests whether you can utilize complicated sentence structures and recognize them if seen. It also tests whether you can decipher a fairly technical document, analyze it and derive conclusions. It is a quality expected in every master’s degree aspirant in USA.

From personal experience, I feel that taking TOEFL before GRE is better. I think this will maintain the flow of your preparation. Besides taking TOEFL (which is easy) will give you a firm understanding of how to take an online computer adaptive test in a controlled environment so that you can be mentally prepared while taking GRE (which is harder.)

TOEFL

TOEFL as you know stands for Test of English as a Foreign Language. It is taken to prove your abilities to handle the language in reading, writing, listening and speaking. My advice is not to spend too much time preparing for TOEFL if you had English as a functional component of your employment or in your daily life. In my case, I had a call center experience and it was really not a big deal for me to take TOEFL.

The maximum time I spent in preparing for TOEFL was 3-4 hours. I borrowed the Kaplan TOEFL preparation guide from my friend. It had a CD inside. And I ran the CD to simulate the test in my computer. It gave me sufficient drill work and that was more than enough.

The Test

As I said, if you run the software from Kaplan or Barrons or any other syllabus, you will do just fine in the test. That’s all the training you need. Do not panic even if you get a long prose to analyze in the reading section. Just concentrate and you will find the answers to the questions given on the right side. While taking the speaking section, do not try to put an accent. Try neutralizing your accent and that’s more than enough. While speaking English, keep the jaw relaxed and speak slowly and clearly. You will get 15 seconds to prepare and 45 seconds to deliver your speech. Keep your cool and note down your points of speech in the 15 seconds you get and start speaking freely based on the points you noted.

If your functional usage is not English or you do not have sufficient fluency in the language, then you will need extra training. In those cases, workout the questions in the books and then practice using the software and you will get good results.

GRE

The Graduate Record Examination is actually quite simple when compared to other exams like GATE, JEST, JAM etc. But it is tougher than TOEFL and requires rigorous preparation. Spend sufficient time reading the theoretical part of each section. Most of the things have been covered in your high school. This is just an application of those concepts but they need to be revised nonetheless.

Verbal

This is an analytic version of English as I explained before. You have to build your vocabulary in order to survive this test. Use both Barrons and Kaplan for your preparation. I suggest you join some coaching center since they give you additional materials to improve vocabulary such as flashcards. My favorite method is using software known as Anki. It is an amazing software that helps in improving your vocabulary using a virtual flash card system. Install Anki today and download its flashcard decks and start working out. A person with sufficient level of intelligence can get through the analogies and antonyms section. You also should practice writing the essay and arguments. If you are used to writing in simple English like me, you ought to change that. They are looking for people who can make shorter, crisper sentences with sufficiently superior vocabulary. Instead of saying, “I strongly dislike crime”, if you say, “I abhor crime”, it would have a different impact on the reader. The first paragraph of any essay is called the thesis. That is where you briefly describe what the remaining essay is all about. It must contain roughly five sentences. It is a good idea to write the thesis paragraph and summary paragraph after you write your main body. That way you will have better control on the flow of your prose and will present clarity of thought to the reader.

Quantitative

Many students spend too much time on verbal thinking that it is going to be tough and neglect quantitative. That should not happen. Allocate equal amount of time for both. You should work with two separate syllabi if you want to get through GRE quantitative. You MUST do all the problems given in all the sections of both the books. Do not leave even a single problem unsolved. Get help from your instructor if you are in a coaching center or try online to find solutions. Quantitative follows arithmetic, algebra, Euclidean geometry, coordinate geometry, probability and statistics. You don’t need to know trigonometry or calculus but if you can use them in simplifying the problems, it would be great.

Joining discussion groups is something I didn’t do myself. I did join a group but never discussed anything. You don’t actually need it. You can find solutions otherwise. You have practice software with the GRE book that gives you sufficient drill on the test scenario. Also you can try websites such as www.majortests.com and practice the questions there. Remember, this is a computer adaptive test. If you get one question right, the next question will be tougher. And if you get a question wrong, the next question will be easier. The problem is that tougher questions carry higher marks than easier ones.

It is true that you don’t have to answer all the questions to have a good score. You have to answer the questions that appear earlier better. That will ensure that you get tougher and tougher questions to answer which will get you good marks.

Drawing a diagram is a good way to tackle your quantitative problems. Unless you can visualize what exactly they are asking, there is no point in answering. You might end up calculating it wrong. In addition to Barrons and Kaplan, you can try quantitative aptitude books of other authors as well.

The Testing Center

Your choice of testing center is very important. My suggestion is to choose a center that is away from your city. May be an adjoining city would do. The reason is to have a more silent environment. Most testing centers are flooded with candidates and seeing “tensed” faces itself would wash your confidence away. In my case, I was lucky to have just two other cheerful guys for my TOEFL test.

The same thing applies to GRE testing centers as well but the number of Prometric centers that conduct GRE tests are less in number compared to TOEFL centers. So, you might not get as many choices as you would in the case of TOEFL. Nevertheless, try to get a center that doesn’t usually get much rush as much as possible.

You will be subjected to a thorough security check. You MUST carry your passport. They do not accept any other type of identification. Also carry your test confirmation receipt. You don’t basically have to carry anything else. If you do, you will be asked to lock them up in the locker outside. You have to pull out your pockets and show them that there is nothing inside. Also you will be asked to undergo a biometric scan. Keep this in mind to avoid surprises on the test day.

Do not chew chewing gum. They will be monitoring you during the test and if they have the slightest hint of you doing it, you will be asked to go out and throw it away. Also if you are a fast typist, you will be asked to slow down since the typing sound is considered a disturbance to other people.

Breaks

When you take the tests, you will be given a 10 minutes break after the first two sections. You MUST take that break. Go outside, get some fresh air. Have coffee or tea and snacks. I had an egg puff and tea. Make sure that you don’t exceed the 10 minutes time. Refreshment will help you handle the second half of the test with the same amount of confidence that you had in the first half.

Miscellaneous

A score above 1250 in GRE and 100 in TOEFL would be enough for you to get in to fairly reputed institutes. But if you can make above 1350 and 110, it would be excellent! Your test results for TOEFL will take about 15 days to reach you. GRE scores are immediately calculated after the test except for the essay type questions. You will be asked to choose the universities that you need to send the scores to. If you haven’t decided yet, just put some dummy university name for the time being and get out of the testing center. You can login to the ETS website and send the scores to your favorite universities from the convenience of your home. Mind you, it will cost you money to send scores to universities. So, if you are sure about the universities, then try mentioning them at the test center itself to avoid extra charges.

Be sure to get the details of the department before sending the scores. Sometimes the department you want might not be listed in the ETS website. In those cases, it is better to check with the department to see where you need to send the scores. Sometimes they will ask you to send it to the Graduate School without any specific department mentioned. Send the scores and inform the department of the same so that they can have a lookout.

I think I have covered all the necessary details regarding both GRE and TOEFL. If there is anything I have left out, do let me know and I will add those. Thanks for your time and all the best with your GRE and TOEFL!

MS in US – A Crude and Interesting Process!

Image of US Education

This is a very interesting topic of which the information is often garbled by misinformed people. Doing an MS in US is not child’s play. The effort involved is huge and if you do not follow the procedures well, you might end up messing the whole thing. My personal advice to anyone aspiring to do an MS or Ph.D in US would be to create a backup plan. Please understand that US is not the end of the world. There are other countries that give you the same type of education and standards. For instance you can opt for Great Britain, Europe, Canada and Australia in addition to applying  to US. I am telling you this because getting a visa to go to US for your education is a horrendous procedure and there is absolutely no guarantee that you would be successful.

I also suggest that you approach a proper overseas consultancy that offers training and guidance in all the procedures involved. A word of caution that I would like to give at this moment is that the overseas consultancy that you choose would help you with all the processes up until your admission in the university. They are totally useless in your visa interview at the American Consulate. Hence, make sure that you do you homework and make your own informed choices based on the information available online and from your friends.

The process of going to US for MS can be divided in the following steps:

  1. Program of study
  2. Institute and department
  3. GRE and TOEFL
  4. The Paperwork
  5. Visa

Let me explain each one in detail:

Image of Phd Doctorate

1. Choosing the program of study – This is very tricky for most students. They do not know as to what they really need as a branch of study. In America, it is possible to become an engineer even if your undergraduate is in medical science. I personally know someone who did his undergraduate in Agricultural Engineering and is currently doing his Ph.D in Neurobiology. So, it is definitely possible. There are many reasons why you chose a particular branch of study in your undergraduate. You might have chosen to become an engineer just because your parents wanted you to do it. Or you might have done the same because your friends chose it and you were under peer pressure. Let it be any reason, American education will fix all that and you have opportunities to change the silly mistakes that you did as an undergraduate student. Mind you, your life is not to be wasted doing things that you do not like. It is for you to realize your own goals and aspirations.

Image of Online Masters Program

2. Choosing the right institute and department – I have heard students ask, “I have 55% in my B.Tech, can I apply in MIT?” This is ridiculous. MIT, Caltech, Princeton, UCLA, Purdue, UTexas etc are beyond the reach of average students. Most people who study in these institutions have been in prestigious institutions in their undergraduate such as IIT’, NIT, BITS etc. Or they might be exceptionally good in their academics. So, do not waste your time in applying to these institutes. Grad Schools and Happy Schools Blog and sites similar to these will give you sufficient information regarding how to choose an institute that matches your taste. Something I know from personal experience is to choose the universities that have a good distance/online learning option. I am telling you this because if you do not get through the US visa process, you still have an option to study from here and then apply for visa at a later time.

Image of GRE and TOEFL

3. GRE and TOEFL – These are two essential components of your graduate admission. You ought to take this no matter what. There might be institutions that do not require GRE or TOEFL scores but you might have a tough time getting through the visa interview since they ask all sorts of questions if you have not taken your GRE or TOEFL score. The GRE Subject Test is not required in 90% of the institutes but if you are wise enough, you can take that also to be on the safer side. But my advice is not to waste your time on that since there are plenty of universities in US that do not require the subject test.

Image of Paperwork

4. The paperwork involved – This part is interesting since no one realizes the amount of paperwork involved in the process. You should put in paper each and every aspect of your application process. Just as you do your online work, so should you do the paperwork. It is very important to have both online and hard copies of all your documents. Let me give a brief account of all the paperwork that you have to go through:

  • GRE and TOEFL scores –  They send you the paper format of your scores. Keep them ready. In addition, they send the paper format of the scores to the universities that you have chosen. Make sure that you send them.
  • Your SOP (Statement of Purpose) –  This is also known as Statement of Objectives. Either way, this is an important aspect of getting your admission in any institute. You should write down in paper as to why exactly you want to choose a particular college and course. You should write down your interests, what you have done so far to that field and what you will be doing after you have finished the program. This needs to be more objective than passionate. However, you can add your emotions here than there to show certain level of passion.
  • Your SOR (Statement of Research Interests) – This is for students applying for Ph.D. You should let them know why exactly are you doing a Ph.D and what exactly is your area of research interest. You don’t want to go to America or any other country without an idea in mind as to which part of which subject you want to research. The professors also look for this because they might have some project in hand an will be looking out for people who can work for them. If you can find a research problem, then even better since you can put that in your research proposal.
  • Academic resume  – This is another tricky part. You might have seen job resumes several times. This is slightly different. You can convert your job resume into an academic resume if you know where to change. Your objective should be to get admission and not to get a job. Further, you have to put your academic profile before your job profile so that the professors and the department heads can see them first.
  • Official Transcripts – I am sure almost all of you have your degree certificate, your provisional certificate and your mark sheets of your  undergraduate performance ready.  But that is not enough. You need to get something called the “official transcript”. It is created by the university you studied and can be either given in your hand or sent to your chosen American university depending on where you studied. Either way, make sure that you keep a photostat copy of your mark sheets since you have to submit them at the time of application of transcripts. If you can get it in your hand, you can send it to the US university through courier. Or you can arrange for the university to sent it. This is important because they need to understand your strong and weak points. This will particularly help you at the time of funding since the professors need to know in which area you can work and which one you cannot. It doesn’t matter if you had backlogs. No one really cares about it if your overall undergraduate score is above First Class.
  • Affidavit of Support – This is a letter from a notary or any other gazetted officer. This will show on a stamp paper that your parents or whoever is sponsoring you for the education is capable enough to support you. It is basically a legal document that can convince the university that you are not going to seek unauthorized employment in USA during or after your studies and that you intend to return to your home country after you are done with your MS program.
  • Bank statement – The universities are not actually looking for a step by step bank statement of your past 6 months’ transactions. If you can get a letter from the chief manager of your bank that you and your parents have sufficient savings in your accounts to support your studies, it is more than enough. But, you are always welcome to take your 6 months’ statement with you for your visa interview.
  • Application Receipt – This is the receipt of the application that you made to the university. I know that you get an online copy of the application receipt in your email and also that the university is well aware of your application. Nevertheless, it is important as a standard office practice. If you don’t understand what I mean, please check with your parents who have been in office and paperwork for decades. We have been brought up in computers and hence we don’t understand the value of paperwork. So, make sure that you print out your application receipt as well as application fee receipt.
  • Recommendation Letters – This is yet another important aspect of your application. Though most universities require only 2 recommendation letters, my advice is to produce 3. You can get one from your principal, one from your HOD and one from your lecturer. That will create a 3-tier effect to your application. While preparing your recommendation letter, try to limit it to just two paragraphs. Also do not use superlatives like, “he has been the best”, “she was one of the most brilliant” etc in the letter. Keep the language moderate and professional. Your faculty will anyway tell you the corrections that you need to make.
  • Photostat copy of your mark sheets, certificates, GRE and TOEFL scores  –  Despite sending your official transcript, you should also send the photostat copy of your mark sheets and your undergraduate certificates. This is for quick reference since the GRE score, TOEFL score and official transcripts reach the university at different times. They need to match them with your application ID. So having a photostat copy of these documents is worthwhile.
  • Covering letter – This is included in the package that you send to your  university. This letter will summarize all the documents that I have described above. You should mention that though you are sending the photostat copies of your mark sheets, certificates, GRE and TOEFL scores, you have sent the originals of the same separately. You should also give the list of documents included in the package that you are sending so that they can look for it if something is missing in the package or inform you about the same.
  • The package

    Image of Brown Envelope

    This is a brown paper envelope of sufficient size that can hold all your documents without bending. Instead of writing the address of your department, I suggest that you print out the recipient’s address on a paper and paste it on the envelope. This is much better than letting people decipher your handwriting. Your package must also include the photostat copy of your passport and your recent passport size photographs (3 of them). Now, try to courier it rather than using registered or speed post. Courier will help you track the shipment all the way to the university online.

    Getting your visa

    I am not going to talk much about this part. All I can say is that it is a horrendous nightmare. As mentioned in the first paragraph of this post, you should apply in multiple countries other than USA. I am not very positive about you or anyone else getting through the US visa interview process. If you do, you might be one of the lucky people who made through. Make use of information available online regarding the visa interview processes and try to get through. Create a backup plan just in case things don’t come out the way you wished them to be. Be confident and answer questions promptly. Give them a feeling that you are a genuine candidate but do not let them feel that you are desperate in going to US.

    Scholarship

    Image of Scholarship

    Please do not think that scholarship is for the most brilliant students. Even if you are an average student, you have chances of getting funded. It all depends on the availability of projects with the professor and your good luck. Every professor seeks funding from various agencies for projects related to his/her areas of expertise. He/she would certainly need people to work to get the project running. So in most cases, you can get a GRA (Graduate Research Assistantship) or a GTA (Graduate Teaching Assistantship). Again, I would like to repeat what I told in the beginning. Do not choose big shot universities. Try smaller ones since you have better chances of getting scholarships there. Also, once you have made your application, fix an appointment and try calling the professors. Talk to them and let them know your interests. Do not be surprised if you hear 99 nos and 1 yes because that 1 yes is what will get you what you want. Further, do not be picky in your research areas in the beginning. Have a general idea about things. You always can choose  your favorite subjects at later points of time.

    Miscellaneous

    The miscellaneous items that you need to learn are software skills. You ought to know programming in Matlab, Autocad, Astrogator etc in order to survive MS in any country. Especially if you are funded, you will be expected to write programs that simulate various scenarios. Also you should be good in math and data analysis. No matter how dry these subjects sound, you ought to get them in your head. Join social networking pages of the universities and connect to students who are studying or have studied in your chosen university and get to know more.

    I think I have pretty much covered everything that is required. I will devote separate, elaborate posts on each of the aspects I have mentioned in here in due time. If you have any questions or suggestions, do let me know. All the best!

Chi_b (3P) – A New Member to The Particle Zoo!

Image of Large Hadron Collider

Since restarting operations in 2009, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) situated in the Franco-Swiss border has made its first confirmed observation of a new particle. Titled Chi_b (3P) by physicists from UK, who worked on the ATLAS experiment, this particle could help scientists understand the fundamental forces better.

The result is however still unpublished but is available in Arxiv pre-print server for reference. As explained before, the LHC is exploring some of the greatest questions in theoretical physics by creating the conditions of our early universe through proton-proton collisions.

Prof. Roger Jones who works at the ATLAS detector explained that the Chi_b (3P) is an excited state or rather a heavier variant of the Chi particle, which was discovered about 25 years ago. Physicists James Walder said that though scientists had predicted Chi-b (3P)’s existence then, it was never seen until now.

Image of LHC Tunnel

Just like the Higgs and photon, Chi_b (3P) is a boson, which means that it will carry some force and obey Bose-Einstein statistics. However, it is unlike Higgs in that it has an internal structure composed of relatively heavy particles viz. beauty quark (also known as bottom quark) and its antiquark, explains Prof. Jones. The quarks that build protons, neutrons and other hadrons come in six flavors viz. up, down, strange, charm, top and bottom. An interesting aspect of this finding is what it tells us about the strong nuclear force (carried by gluons) that binds both the quarks together.

The measurements made in this machine tests theoretical calculations of the forces and discoveries of new particles such as Chi_b (3P), takes us closer to achieving a fuller understanding of the structure of our universe and cementing our views about how it is held together.

This particle’s discovery is particularly important since once we better understand the strong force, we could explain the thing happening in the background of the collisions where we are currently looking for the Higgs. According to Prof. Paul Newman of the University of Birmingham, this marks the first time a new particle has been discovered in the LHC and that it is proof that the machine ran successfully in 2011. Andy Chisholm, a PhD student at Birmingham, who worked on the analysis team, added that the analysis of billions of these particle collisions is fascinating because of the potentially interesting things buried in the data. They were lucky this time since they looked at the right place in the mess at the right time.

Image of CERN Scientist

The LHC is expected to fill the gaps that exist in the Standard Model of Particle physics thereby opening horizons in new physics. The main aim for which the machine was built is to find the elusive Higgs boson; which, if exists could give satisfactory explanation of why matter has mass. That discovery could also throw more light on the workings of gravity, especially in the realm of unified field theories.

The machine, which resides inside a 27 km ring-shaped tunnel, 175 meters below the ground fires streams of protons on opposite directions every day and produce billions of collisions. The beams are controlled by magnets and the carnage of the collisions that happen are recorded using detectors. It was only 10 days ago when scientists at CERN announced that they are pretty close to finding the Higgs boson and Chi_b (3P) could be a step closer to this goal.

References:

  1. Amos, J. “LHC reports discovery of its first new particle.” BBC News – Science & Environment. Dec 22, 2011. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-16301908 (accessed Dec 23, 2011).
  2. Brown, M. “Large Hadron Collider discovers a new particle: the Chi-b(3P).” Wired.co.uk. Dec 22, 2011. http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2011-12/22/lhcs-first-new-particle (accessed Dec 23, 2011).
  3. Collaboration, The ATLAS. “Observation of a New Chi_b State in Radiative Transitions to Gamma (1S) and Gamma(2S) at ATLAS.” arxiv.org. Dec 21, 2011. http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/arxiv/pdf/1112/1112.5154v1.pdf (accessed Dec 23, 2011).
  4. “Large Hadron Collider finds new variant of particle.” Dawn.com. Dec 23, 2011. http://www.dawn.com/2011/12/23/large-hadron-collider-finds-new-variant-of-particle.html (accessed Dec 23, 2011).

UND Space Studies Distance Learning Part – I

The University of North Dakota has an excellent masters degree program in space called Space Studies, which was started in 1987. What makes the program so special is its interdisciplinary nature and the willingness to admit students from practically any undergraduate background. The program encompasses engineering, physical sciences, biological sciences, policy and business related aspects of space. As a student of the Department of Space Studies at UND, I feel that this fantastic program must get people’s attention.

To quote my professor, for most people, space means just rockets, astronauts, and pretty Hubble pictures. No one sees the broad view where there are multiple subjects involved making the field very intricate and fascinating. Right from equipment manufacture to complicated life support systems to space policy making, space is a field where all the cutting edge technology, science and politics comes into picture.

UND graduate, Brian White has written an excellent blog regarding the Space Studies masters at UND as well as ISU. Hence, I am not going to cover that part. You can also get more information about the program from the official department website. What I plan to do in Part – I of this series is to discuss one of the three required courses in Space Studies masters called SpSt 501 – Survey of Space Studies – 1 and my experience so far as a distance student studying it. This is an introductory course that lets students know what space studies is all about and what they can expect from the remaining semesters. It is co-taught by all the faculty members of the program and hence gives the students an introduction to the subjects taught by each faculty and their individual research areas.

As any person fascinated by space like me, there will be lot of questions in mind such as to which branch of space studies one needs to specialize and so on. For instance, some students like astrophysics while some others like commercial space and yet there are some who like spacecraft design and space biology. After 501, students start to rethink their interesting areas. I have heard students talk about specializing in fields that they never thought they would specialize when they started the program.

What appears to be very fascinating might not be the field where our original talent lies. SpSt 501 gives us the opportunity and wide perspective to think and choose our area of specialization as we advance in the program. I am a distance student of this program living in India and it has given me an amazing experience studying online. UND Team has invested sufficient amount of time and money in order to give the distance students as close to a campus experience as possible with high quality videos and power point presentations.

Prerequisites

There are no specific prerequisites for this course since students from practically any background with descent GRE and TOEFL scores can join the program. I think this is the most exciting aspect of this program. It doesn’t matter whether we have a physics degree or aerospace engineering degree in our undergraduate study. What matters is having an intense desire to make contributions to the field of space. And that I think is the prerequisite for this course. But from experience of this course, I have a few suggestions. It is good to revise your basic economics, biology and mathematics that you learned in school and college. Keep an overall outlook about the various aspects of space in the current space age and past. You should know the basics like what a light year or an astronomical unit means among other things. You should be familiar with the concepts of biological, geological and cosmological evolution. As far as mathematics is concerned, if you are familiar with trigonometry, logarithms and exponential series, you should do just fine. Knowledge of calculus is appreciated but not applied too much in this particular course.

Enrollment

Every student will be given access to the Campus Connection portal. This is where he/she can register for the course. Once registered, the student can request permission to access the course in the Learning Management System of the department. This is the one stop location where most of the activities take place. The lectures, power points, course syllabus, grade book and assignments are managed here. You can either download the lecture or the presentation or watch it online. Interested people can also buy some of the lectures from Amazon before enrolling to get a better understanding of the course.

Progress

Lectures are uploaded every week within two days after the class takes place. Since distance students cannot attend the classes, their attendance is counted by the chat sessions they attend with the concerned faculty and other distance students. The chat session for the distance students happen a week after the original classes were conducted. So, technically, distance students finish the course a week after the campus students do it. For 501, there are 3 chat sessions per week and we can choose any one of them depending on our convenience. The exams are also called assignments. So do not confuse. They are conducted online and you can see your grades almost immediately unless there are subjective questions.

Description

As mentioned, 501 is a broad based introductory course. It is not an elective but a required course and carries 3 graduate credits. It is advised that you take this course at the first opportunity you get. The following will give you a brief idea about what this course actually comprises of. Please note that this might change depending on several factors associated with the university. There are 7 modules that we need to study in order to complete 501 as shown below:

1. Introductions

This module introduces you to all the remaining modules and each faculty associated with those modules. A brief overview of the course syllabus takes place. In addition, a separate class on writing methods is also conducted since all students have to write and submit papers to journals for the rest of their academic and research career. It is a very important module and I learned a lot from it.

2. Space History & Policy

Space Studies is just as policy oriented as its technical areas. This is important since we need to understand the real politics that goes behind the scenes of every space mission or research conducted. We should know from where the money comes and how it is regulated. For those of us who wish to try our hands in space entrepreneurship, policy is a must. This module introduces us to the general space arena and space history. Further, it teaches us space policy and law along with military space. So, by the end of this module, our perspective starts to change and that is a good thing.

3. Orbital Mechanics and Space Mission Design

This is really an interesting module and I must say my favorite. This is where I am focusing my current research and is a very smooth and straightforward module. It teaches introductory orbital mechanics and trajectory related calculations. The fundamental equations in rocket science and their applications are taught. Rockets, launch vehicles, payload and spacecraft design are the other subjects dealt in this module. The module ends with the analysis and design of space missions, which reminded me of my software engineering classes. It is basically a space replica of the same. Overall, this is where the technology part of space studies begins. My personal advice is to get this module engraved in your mind since you are going to use the concepts you learn here for the rest of your life if you work in this field.

4. Planetary and Space Science

This is yet another interesting module. Those who want to move onto astronomy and astrophysics, astrobiology or earth science should know all the concepts taught in this module. It covers lunar and solar system science, the planet mars, asteroids, meteorites and comets, extraterrestrial life, observational astronomy and earth science and global change. I think these topics are self explanatory.

5. Space Life Sciences

I just loved this module. It opened up yet another door in my mind through which ideas can pass. In this module, space suits, psychological aspects of adaptation to space and the history and policy of human spaceflight are taught. I never thought I would become interested in space life support systems before I studied this module. As I mentioned before, our interests will eventually change as we move through the program until we find what exactly is it that we want to do in space.

6. Satellite Applications

For information technology graduates like me, this module is very closely related to the things we learned during our undergraduate program. Hence, it is relatively easy to grasp the details. The topics covered are communication satellites and remote sensing.

7. Space Economics, Business, and Management

It is again policy related. It speaks about international space where all other countries that have space programs other than US and Russia are introduced. More topics on NASA and its current position in US space arena is also taught in addition to going to deep into the government and industry aspects of space economics and management.

By now, you might have got an idea about what SpSt 501 is all about and how it can benefit you during your entire Space Studies program and beyond. The semester has ended and I can say for sure that I am fully satisfied with the course curriculum. A few final words before I close this topic:

  1. If you are a distance student, make sure that you have plenty of time to invest. If you are working and studying, you are going to be on a rough ride especially if you have joined a research team of some sort.
  2. Being a distance student, you are advised to take only one course per semester. This means that you will take about 3-4 years to complete the required 33 credits of graduate work. My personal advice is – DO NOT take more than one course per semester since 1 itself is too much work. If you are very clever, you can manage 2 but NEVER 3!
  3. Do not think that just because the exams are open book type, you don’t need to study. You have to work really hard since the exams are timed and the more time you spend referring materials, the lesser you will get to answer the questions. So, study really well before attempting the exams.
  4. If you are an overseas distance student, you won’t be funded. Hence, please make sure that you have sufficient sources of funding if you plan to take the courses overseas.

You don’t have to rush yourself to complete the 33 credits within 2 years like the regular students. Remember, in academics, it is not always the first person to finish first who wins. It is the person who finishes well. With this maxim, I am concluding this post.  I wish you all the best in your Space Studies program!

Earth’s Twins Found! – Yet Another Exoplanet Milestone!

Image of Habitable Zone

There are three fundamental ingredients that a planet must have if LAKI (Life As we Know It) should exist on it and they are organic molecules, sufficient energy for these molecules to react and liquid water as a medium for these reactions. Though it sounds simple, only planets with very close resemblance to Earth in all aspects might harbor these three ingredients. The planets closer to their start are too hot for liquid water and the ones farther are too cold. Similarly the ones too large are gaseous and the ones too small cannot have an atmosphere. That is where finding Earth-like planets become very important.

Liquid water is the main component of the primordial soup where organic molecules react and form complex self replicating structures like our DNA which eventually lead to formation of LAKI. There is of course a remote possibility of formation of exotic life forms in planets with extreme conditions like the extremophiles we observe in certain areas on Earth but generally we are on the lookout for planets where normal life forms like our own can exist and flourish. This is in the light of possible colonization of future worlds by humans.

Image of Kepler Space Telescope

After years of hunting, astronomers have finally detected, the first Earth-sized exoplanets orbiting a star quite similar to our Sun, located 950 light years from Earth thereby taking exoplanet research to the next level. These two planets are among five orbiting the G-type parent star Kepler-20. Entitled “Earth-Twins”, they are by far the most important exoplanets discovered. Scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Dr. François Fressin led the research and according to him, this marks the dawn of an exciting new era of planetary discovery.

NASA’s Kepler space telescope used the transit method to detect these planets in which it notices tiny dips in the parent star apparent brightness when planets passed in front of it. The scientists then use ground based observatories to confirm that they have found a planet by measuring the minute wobbles of the parent star’s position caused by gravitational tugs from its planets.

Image of Planets size comparison

The larger of the two planets named Kepler 20f, is 1.03 times the size of Earth while Kepler 20e is slightly smaller with 0.87 times the radius of Earth and orbits closer to its parent star. Their masses are 3 times and 1.7 times the mass of Earth respectively. Their orbital periods are 6.1 Earth days for 20e and 19.6 Earth days for 20f at distances of days at a distance of 7.6 million kilometers and 16.6 million kilometers respectively. These sizes are gravitationally good enough to form rocky interiors. According to Dr. Fressin’s team, the planets have Earth-like compositions consisting of a third of iron core with a silicate mantle. The outer planet, Kepler 20f might have a thicker, water vapor atmosphere according to Dr. Fressin.

Due to their current close proximity to their parent star, both planets could be too hot to support life. 20e is at 760 degrees Celsius while 20f is at 430 degrees Celsius. Dr. Fressin noted that in the past, they may have had favorable conditions similar to Earth before they drifted closer to their star. The reason he says is that the rocky materials required to form the planets this close to the star is scarce. Hence, they could have been formed farther out and later migrated in. Another curious aspect of the system is that the rocky planets alternate between their gaseous sisters unlike our solar system where terrestrial planets are inside and gas giants are out.

Though we have discovered over 700 exoplanets since 1996, this particular discovery is important since this is the first time we received positive confirmation that Earth sized and smaller planets exist outside our solar system. It also is a demonstration of the capability of the Kepler Space Telescope in detecting small planets located at extreme distances. Since its launch in 2009, Kepler alone has discovered 28 definite planets and 2,326 planet candidates. Of these, all are larger than Earth except 20e and 20f.

So far the most significant discovery in planet hunting, also made by Dr. Fressin’s team was a planet named Kepler 22b, 2.4 times the size of Earth, located within the habitable zone (the region of space around a star that is neither too cold nor too hot) of its parent star, which implies the planet could harbor liquid water and probably life. According to Dr. Fressin the discovery of Kepler 20f and 20e is the latest most significant of all planet discoveries.

This discovery will cause planetary scientists to revise their existing theories on planet formation. Other planets in the system are Kepler 20b, 20c, and 20d with diameters of 24,000 km, 40,000 km, and 35,000 km respectively with orbital periods of 3.7, 10.9, and 77.6 Earth days. Kepler-20d, weighs roughly 20 times Earth’s mass, while 20c and 20b weigh 16.1 and 8.7 times Earth.

We live in an era where it is impossible to say whether we are alone in the universe or not. The telescope is currently scanning 150,000 stars and one of the greatest dreams of planet hunters is to discover and Earth sized planet residing in the habitable zone of its star. That would be marked one of the greatest discoveries in all history where we know that an exact replica of our planet exists that could possibly support life. It is only a matter of time before this “holy grail” in exoplanet research is found.

Bibliography

  1. Ghosh, P. “First Earth-sized planets spotted.” BBC News – Science & Environment. Dec 20, 2011. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-16268950 (accessed Dec 21, 2011).
  2. Moskowitz, C. “Found! 2 Earth-Size Alien Planets, the Smallest Exoplanets Yet.” Space. Dec 20, 2011. http://www.space.com/13990-2-earth-size-alien-planets-kepler-smallest-worlds.html (accessed Dec 21, 2011).
  3. Wolchover, N. “Could There Be Life on the New Earth-Size Planets?” Life’s Little Mysteries. Dec 20, 2011. http://www.lifeslittlemysteries.com/life-earth-size-planets-2256/ (accessed Dec 21, 2011).

Extraterrestrial Resources and Humans – Can Space Resources Save Our Civilization?

Abstract

Image of Biosphere

Current global resource utilization depends on a closely-knit economy, society and environment. However, effective limits exist on the biosphere’s capability to absorb pollutants while providing resources and services (Adams). This paper describes why in the light of issues in sustainability of Earth’s resources and growing human population it is imperative to expand utilization to extraterrestrial resources to save our civilization.

The Necessity

Image of Global Power Consumption

Challenges to resource sustainability arise from a combination of population increase in developing nations and unsustainable consumption in their developed counterparts (Cohen). Estimated global population might peak at 2070 with 9 to 10 billion people, and gradually decrease to 8.4 billion by 2100 (Lutz).

The average power consumption in developed nations is ~ 2 kW per person whereas in the rest of the world, it is ~0.3kW per person. The total production of power globally is ~1.9 billion kW. Based on (Lutz), if the population reaches 10 billion people by 2070, and if the living standards of the world approach current western standards, 20 billion kW would be required. This argument leads to the following possibilities:

  1. Much of the world might remain in lower living standards or
  2. New sources of energy could be discovered

Research in planetary and asteroid geology, spectral and photometric analysis have proposed many celestial bodies as objects harboring useful resources with nearly 50% of them containing volatile substances such as clays, hydrated salts and hydrocarbons (Sonter). The following are some examples of in-situ resources:

  1. Volatiles from comet core, C-type asteroids and Phobos or Deimos
  2. Metals from C-type and M-type asteroids, Moon and Mars
  3. Platinum group metals (PGMs) from C-type asteroids
  4. Energy through abundant sunlight
  5. LOX and LH2 from lunar polar ice, lunar regolith, and C-type asteroids
  6. CH4/O2 propellant and inert gases from Martian atmosphere
  7. 3He from the Moon and atmospheres of outer planets
  8. Water and oxygen from Lunar poles, Mars and C-type asteroids

For Apollo-like missions, a limited use of local planetary resources on Moon and asteroids for rocket propellant manufacture would suffice. However, for a permanent, expanding, and self-sustaining extra-terrestrial colony, clever usage of planetary resources is necessary.

The Benefits

The cost of space activities reduce dramatically with offsets in carrying propellants from Earth’s surface to LEO and beyond (Cutler). Thus, commercial mining opportunities in space could provide low cost alternatives as resources on Earth become depleted or unusable.

The following are some of the possible profitable uses of space resources:

  1. Earth orbital operations architectures
  2. Solar power satellites or lunar power systems to beam energy to Earth
  3. Space industrialization for products manufactured in space for people on Earth
  4. Human outposts using silicon solar cells and radiation shielding
  5. Water and precious metals like Pt, Pd and Ir metals for use on Earth, space, life support
  6. 4He from the lunar surface for fusion energy
  7. Propellant production for return trips to Earth

The Challenges

There are economic and technical requirements that a celestial body must satisfy to qualify as a potential ore-body in a mining engineering context (Sonter):

  1. Sufficient spectral data confirming presence of required resources
  2. Orbital parameters that give reasonable accessibility and mission duration
  3. Feasible mining, processing and retrieval concepts
  4. A positive economic Net Present Value

Scientists and mining experts are currently conducting research and analysis on planetary extraction methods based on the above-mentioned considerations. However, this type of resource utilization is still not operational because:

  1. The cost is exorbitant in transporting items into space (about $4400 to $6600 per kilogram). Hence, bases on Moon, Mars, asteroids etc. should procure their necessities like water, oxygen and fuel from in situ resources (Zaburunov).
  2. Even if mission crew finds these items in situ, extraction is still an issue.

Image of ISRU

Different processes involved in mining of extra terrestrial resources offer different levels of complexity:

  1. Martian propellant production requires pumping CO2, splitting it to retain the O2 and producing CH4 (Zubrin)
  2. Lunar polar water for return trips and space propellant depots require excavating cold trap regolith, extracting water thermally and electrolysis, and liquefaction to produce propellant (Alexander)
  3. Photovoltaic cells produced from lunar materials require Si extraction from lunar regolith, recovering reagents, and manufacture of arrays (Freundlich)

The need for a market in any type of development and management of resources is very important. The potential short term and mid term markets of space resources, include:

  1. Propellant for Mars sample return missions
  2. Propellant for LEO missions such as Orbital Express
  3. Energy and propellant for human lunar and Martian activities

The long-term markets of space resources include:

  • Energy for Earth through solar power and 3He fusion
  • Raw material to support lunar and Mars outposts
  • Support for space industrialization and space tourism
  • Counter Arguments

    Contrary to using space resources, recycle existing resources is easier to accomplish and comparatively cheap. However, considering issues like runaway greenhouse effect, population growth, self-sufficiency and long-term human presence (Stancati) in space, it is better to colonize space and utilize space resources. In addition, repeated missions to same ore-bodies (Sonter) predict requirements of higher internal rate of return with heavy discounts on sale receipts and “off-optimum” characteristics compared to the first mission or to a different target. Finally, mine operator’s interest in refurbishing or upgrading equipment and non-competitiveness of return missions from trajectory synodic considerations counteract the idea.

    Conclusion

    Earth’s resources being finite as a closed system, energy and materials from outer space being clean and available for millions of years, the solution to the growing human population and resource and energy crisis is utilizing space resources to meet the demands. Space resources have the potential to ensure survival and good living standards for human species and as these resources become more available with better technology, the value of space economy will improve (Komerath).

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