Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Other, Other Voyager

No, not that Voyageur.

But this one:

The Voyager 1 spacecraft is a 722-kilogram (1,592 lb) robotic space probe of the outer Solar System and beyond, launched by NASA on September 5, 1977. It still receives signals and commands from, and transmits information to Earth, currently pursuing its extended mission to locate and study the boundaries of the Solar System.
Above are the "family portrait" photos of our solar system, which Voyager is responsible for.

It is estimated that both Voyager craft have sufficient electrical power to operate their radio transmitters until at least 2025, which will be over 48 years after launch.

The Voyager, it was just announced, has crossed the terminal shock and entered the heliosheath.

Our sun gives off a stream of charged particles that form a bubble known as the heliosphere around our solar system. The solar wind travels at supersonic speed until it crosses a shockwave called the termination shock. At this point, the solar wind dramatically slows down and heats up in the heliosheath. 

Anyway, this blog post isn't really about the Voyager either. It's about the other voyager on the Voyager; the Golden Record.

Click to enlarge. Actually, that works for any picture on the blog, 9/10.

So, what is the Golden Record? Really glad you asked.

The Golden Records (actually, as far as I understand, there are three: 1 on Voyager 1, 1 on Voyager 2, and 1 is locked up somewhere safely on earth) are phonograph records which were included aboard both Voyager spacecraft, which were launched in 1977. They contain sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth, and are intended for any intelligent extraterrestrial life form, or for future humans, who may find them. The Voyager spacecraft are not heading towards any particular star, but Voyager 1 will be within 1.6 light years of the star AC+79 3888 in the Ophiuchus constellation in about 40,000 years.

The contents of the record were selected for NASA by a committee chaired by Carl Sagan of Cornell University. Dr. Sagan and his associates assembled 116 images and a variety of natural sounds, such as those made by surf, wind, and thunder, and animal sounds, including the songs of birds and whales. To this they added musical selections from different cultures and eras, spoken greetings in fifty-five languages, and printed messages from President Jimmy Carter.

The collection of images includes many photographs and diagrams both in black and white and color. The first images are of scientific interest, showing mathematical and physical quantities, the solar system and its planets, DNA, and human anatomy and reproduction. Care was taken to include not only pictures of humanity, but also some of animals, insects, plants and landscapes.

Other sounds of Earth on the record include both natural noises, such as a rainstorm and a chimpanzee, and human-created ones, such as a train and a kiss.

Pictures can be encoded into information on a record. The Voyager golden record has 116 pictures.

Some images contain indications of chemical composition. All measures used on the pictures are defined in the first few images using physical references that are likely to be consistent anywhere in the universe.

The musical selection is also varied, featuring artists such as Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, and Stravinsky and Chuck Berry.

Wasn't this a Prince album cover?

Download the entire Golden Record contents here (torrent). For a quick look, click on the following links for audio of the 55 greetings in different languages, the music from earth, the sounds from earth, and some of the photographs included.

Each image on the record took up about 12 revolutions. Of the 116 images, about 20 were in colour. Colour was achieved by recording every colour image three times in succession, one greyscale image each for the red, green and blue portions; this gave a combined colour depth of 12 bits or 4096 colours (individual image depth was 16 shades of grey, or 4 bits). Combining the three would give the original image.

The first colour image was of the solar spectrum, intended as a calibration tool so the viewer could establish colour settings for viewing the rest of the colour images. It was believed any species capable of intercepting either Voyager probe would understand a solar spectrum.


Ok, let's do some math and see where/how this thing is going...

Seriously, this thing is travelling at ~17 km/s, 61,000 km/hr, and making no headway. Really. About 534 360 000 km/year, or half a billion km/year.

Let's take the 4th closest start from us, Wolf 359. It's in the Leo constellation (remember the Leonids?) and is 7.7 light years away.

First,1 light year = ~9460528472580.8 km, or 9.4605284 × 1012 km. 

So 7.7 Light Years = 72847624638872.16 km, or 7.28476246 x 1013 km. 

To put it another way, the Voyager has travelled 17.4 billion kilometers. How many light years is that?

But, 17400000000 km = only 0.001839 Light Years.

Not even 1/2 of 1% of a light year. INSANE! One light year is 9460000000000 km (or 9.46 trillion km).

SO, to travel 7.7 light years at its current pace, it's going to have to travel for (approximately, given I've done everything right.. ) 138,160 years to get there, or, to put it in perspective,* about the length of time Homo Sapiens have been around.

*Not really.

So, a long time, but not that long I suppose, when put into an even greater perspective. 

In about 40,000 years both craft should coast to within 1.7 light-years (Voyager 1) or 1.1 light-years (Voyager 2) of AC+79 3888, a fourth magnitude star. Voyager 2 should pass a similar distance from another star (AC -24 2833-183) 100,000 years later in Sagittarius, and about 375,000 years after that, Voyager 1 will pass within 1.5 light-years of AM +21 652 in the constellation of Taurus.

The records on board were meant to survive for a billion years (constructed of gold-plated copper and is encased in aluminum), in the hope that some day, against enormous odds, they might cross paths with an alien civilization.

There is also an ultra-pure sample of the isotope uranium-238 electroplated on the record's cover. Uranium-238 has a half-life of 4.51 billion years. It is possible that a civilization that encounters the record will be able to use the ratio of remaining uranium to daughter elements to determine the age of the record.


Ok, so, back to the actual record.
The record cover.

Each record is encased in a protective aluminum jacket, together with a cartridge and a needle to play them. The cover of the record is pretty impressive. It is the key to using and understanding the information. The cover of the Golden Records tells:
  • How to play the record
  • How to get images from the record
  • Where our solar system is, mapped from several known pulsars
  • The length of 1 second

And an explanation of the cover diagrams:

For the sake of space, more good explanation here:


OK, one last, and great piece of information on the Golden Record.

Carl Sagan was put in charge of this phenomenal project. Of course, Sagan had a lot of help, including the creative director of the project, Ann Druyan.

"It was a chance to tell something of what life on Earth was like to beings of perhaps 1,000 million years from now," Druyan says. "If that didn't raise goose bumps, then you'd have to be made out of wood."

For Druyan, though, the summer of 1977 and the Voyager project carry a deeply personal meaning, too. It was during the Voyager project that she and Sagan fell in love.

After searching endlessly for a piece of Chinese music to put on the record, Druyan had finally found a 2,500-year-old song called "Flowing Stream." In her excitement, she called Sagan and left a message at his hotel. At that point, Druyan and Sagan had been professional acquaintances and friends, but nothing more. But an hour later, when Sagan called back, something happened. By the end of that call, Druyan and Sagan were engaged to be married.

Ann Druyan and Carl Sagan circa 1977.

"We both hung up the phone, and I just screamed out loud," says Druyan, "It was this great eureka moment. It was like a scientific discovery." The first of the Voyager project's two spacecraft launched on Aug. 20, 1977. Druyan and Sagan announced their engagement two days later. They married in 1981, and were together until Sagan's death in December 1996.

But the evidence of their love has taken on a life of its own. Not long after that serendipitous phone call, Druyan had an idea for the record: They could measure the electrical impulses of a human brain and nervous system, turn it into sound, and put it on the record. Then maybe, 1,000 million years from now, some alien civilization might be able to turn that data back into thoughts.

So, just a few days after she and Sagan declared their love for each other, Druyan went to Bellevue Hospital in New York City and meditated while the sounds of her brain and body were recorded. According to Druyan, part of what she was thinking during that meditation was about "the wonder of love, of being in love."

How awesome is that.

Remember Matt Wilson? He's the dude from the sleep post who hooked up rat brains to neural signal monitors. Matt has gotten so good at decoding the neuronal signatures that he can now just listen to the brainwaves, and without looking at the rats, he knows what they're doing. So yeah, it definitely is possible to interpret actions, and most likely feelings, from firing neurotransmitters. And, awesomely, travelling through space, the sounds of a human body newly in love recorded, that feeling of love recorded, and to be potentially interpreted by some other species a billion years from now, long after we're gone. So fucking cool.


Anyway, there are a bunch of used hardcopies; hardbacks, paperbacks, CD-ROM versions, etc, of The Golden Record books available (see here), and they would, ahem, make a great Christmas gift.



Voyager and its record appear in the episode entitled "Parasites Lost" of the animated television series Futurama. Turanga Leela scrapes the spacecraft off her ship's windshield while stopped at a galactic "truck stop".

In a Saturday Night Live segment, Steve Martin announced that the first message from extraterrestrials was being received. Once decoded, the message stated, "Send more Chuck Berry."

Who is Edward Albee?

There is, what I consider, a pretty good interview in Vice with Edward Albee. Reading it and not fully knowing who he is (and still obviously not really knowing), I still pulled some good nuggets out of it; it was a good read.

But, I thought it might be interesting to get to know him a bit beyond Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Edward F. Albee was born in Virginia on March 12th 1928, adopted by Reed and Frances Albee. His father was part owner of the Keith-Albee vaudeville circuit.* Edward was raised in luxury, in the family's Larchmont mansion, also occupied by Mrs. Albee's mother to whom he became very attached. Grandma Cotter, to whom he dedicated his 1960 play The Sandbox, left him a trust fund that enabled him to strike out on his own.

*The origin of the term "vaudeville" is obscure, but is often explained as being derived from the expression voix de ville, or "voice of the city." Another plausible etymology finds origins in the French Vau de Vire, a valley in Normandy noted for its style of satirical songs with topical themes. The term vaudeville, referring specifically to North American variety entertainment, came into common usage after 1871 with the formation of Sargent's Great Vaudeville Company of Louisville, Kentucky. It had little, if anything, to do with the Com├ędie en vaudeville of the French theatre.

In May 1928, a controlling portion of stock Keith-Albee vaudeville circuit was sold to Joseph P. Kennedy (President Kennedy's father) from whom it was purchased in October by the (RCA) as part of the deal that created the Radio Corporation of Americamajor motion picture studio Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO Radio Pictures). After the establishment of RKO, motion pictures became the primary focus of entertainment at the former KAO theaters. Vaudeville survived only as an interlude for feature films.

Albee's first job was writing continuity dialogue for radio station WNYC. After leaving his parents' home to settle in Greenwich Village he spend years holding a variety of jobs -- including three years as a Western Union messenger. They supplemented his trust and were chosen because they were dead ends and would not interfere with his primary vocation: writing.

On his thirtieth birthday in 1958, he quit his job with Western Union and wrote The Zoo Story* in three weeks. Albee's first and major "hit" was Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? which opened at Broadway's Billy Rose Theater on October 3, 1963, starring Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill as the battling George and Martha. It ran for 664 performances and was made into a popular film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (download movie torrent here). Albee nabbed three Pulitzers, for A Delicate Balance in 1966, Seascape in 1975 and Three Tall Women in 1991. This last seemed to restore his popularity with New York critics and audiences who had been treating him like the unwelcome guests in plays like A Delicate Balance.
Trademarks Of Albee's Plays
Albee can be classified with theatrical experimenters whose work jumped the boundaries of American drama. His style embraces existentialism, abusurdism as well as the metaphysical. His plays tend to puzzle. While not easy "night out" fare they are also full of satirically witty and sharp dialogue. The Albee audience consists of those who value being challenged and appreciate theater that, if it existed, would fit into the School of Anti-Complacency. His failures at the box office are as well known as his critical successes. As described by the playwright himself his plays are" an examination of the American Scene, an attack on the substitution of artificial for real values in our society, a condemnation of complacency, cruelty, and emasculation and vacuity, a stand against the fiction that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy-keen."

Anyway, read the short interview with him here. Nothing profound, just curious. Basically, it's always good, I think, to listen to old interesting people when they talk about their lives.



*The Zoo Story: I fully realize this wikipedia summary below is both a crude and silly way to go about things, but what the hell; I wanted to understand the following cartoon.

This one-act play concerns two characters, Peter and Jerry. Peter is a middle-class publishing executive with a wife, two daughters, two cats and two parakeets who lives in ignorance of the world outside his settled life. Jerry is an isolated and disheartened man who lives in a boarding house and is very troubled. These men meet on a park bench in New York City's Central Park. Jerry is desperate to have a meaningful conversation with another human being. He intrudes on Peter’s peaceful state by interrogating him and forcing him to listen to stories from his life, including "THE STORY OF JERRY AND THE DOG", and the reason behind his visit to the zoo. The action is linear, unfolding in front of the audience in “real time”. The elements of ironic humor and unrelenting dramatic suspense are brought to a climax when Jerry brings his victim down to his own savage level.

The catalyst for the shocking ending transpires when Peter announces, "I really must be going home;..." Jerry, in response, begins to tickle Peter. Peter giggles, laughs and agrees to listen to Jerry finish telling "what happened at the zoo." At the same time Jerry begins pushing Peter off the bench. Peter decides to fight for his territory on the bench and becomes angry. Unexpectedly, Jerry pulls a knife on Peter, and then drops it as initiative for Peter to grab. When Peter holds the knife defensively, Jerry charges him and impales himself on the knife. Bleeding on the park bench, Jerry finishes his zoo story by bringing it into the immediate present, "Could I have planned all this. No... no, I couldn't have. But I think I did." Horrified, Peter runs away from Jerry whose dying words, "", are a combination of scornful mimicry and supplication.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Possible HIV cure?

Doctors who carried out a stem cell transplant on an HIV-infected man with leukaemia in 2007 say they now believe the man to have been cured of HIV infection as a result of the treatment, which introduced stem cells which happened to be resistant to HIV infection.

The man received bone marrow from a donor who had natural resistance to HIV infection; this was due to a genetic profile which led to the CCR5 co-receptor being absent from his cells. The most common variety of HIV uses CCR5 as its ‘docking station’, attaching to it in order to enter and infect CD4 cells, and people with this mutation are almost completely protected against infection.

Doctors chose stem cells from an individual who had an unusual genetic profile: a mutation inherited from both parents that resulted in CD4 cells that lacked the CCR5 receptor. This mutation, called CCR5 delta 32 homozygosity, is present in less than 1% of Caucasians in northern and western Europe, and is associated with a reduced risk of becoming infected with HIV.

This is because all new infecting viruses need to use the CCR5 receptor on CD4 cells when infecting an immune system cell of the CD4 type.

Before the stem cell transplant the patient received chemotherapy treatment that destroyed most immune cells and total body irradiation, and also received immunosuppressive drugs to prevent rejection of the stem cells. One of the challenges for any approach to curing HIV infection is long-lived immune system cells, which need to be cleared before a patient can be cured.

The repopulation of CD4 cells was accompanied by the complete disappearance of host CD4 cells, and after two years the patient had the CD4 count of a healthy adult of the same age.

In the case of the Berlin patient CCR5-bearing macrophages could not be detected after 38 months, suggesting that chemotherapy had destroyed these longer-lived cells, and that they had also been replaced by donor cells.


The `Berlin patient`, Timothy Ray Brown, a US citizen who lives in Berlin, was interviewed this week by German news magazine Stern.

His course of treatment for leukaemia was gruelling and lengthy. Brown suffered two relapses and underwent two stem cell transplants, as well as a serious neurological disorder that flared up when he seemed to be on the road to recovery.

The neurological problem led to temporary blindness and memory problems. Brown is still undergoing physiotherapy to help restore his coordination and gait, as well as speech therapy.

Friends have noticed a personality change too: he is much more blunt, possibly a disinhibition that is related to the neurological problems.

On being asked if it would have been better to live with HIV than to have beaten it in this way he says “Perhaps. Perhaps it would have been better, but I don’t ask those sorts of questions anymore.”

If a cure has been achieved in this patient, it points the way towards attempts to develop a cure for HIV infection through genetically engineered stem cells.

Scientists were sufficiently intrigued by the Berlin patient that they met in Berlin in 2009 to discuss how they could coordinate efforts to identify CCR5-delta32 homozygous donors and expand the supply of stem cells from these donors, for example through sampling blood cells from the umbilical cord of babies born to mothers who are homozygous for CCR5-delta32, in order to eventually facilitate stem-cell therapy.


More CCR5 info.

People with two copies of the CCR5 delta32 gene (inherited from both parents) are virtually immune to HIV infection. This occurs in about 1% of Caucasian people.

One copy of CCR5-delta32 seems to give some protection against infection, and makes the disease less severe if infection occurs. This is more common, it is found in up to 20% of Caucasians.

Should everyone be tested for this mutation? Not necessarily. It would be dangerous to assume you are completely safe from infection if you have the CCR5-delta32 mutation.

It's not an airtight guarantee of never getting AIDS. Some unusual types of HIV can use other proteins for entering cells. Rarely, there have been people who have two mutant CCR5 genes who have died from AIDS.

Also, CCR5 is not the whole story of immunity to HIV infection. Some resistant people have been found who have two perfectly normal copies of CCR5. So other genes also contribute to slowing down HIV infection, and scientists are busy trying to identify them.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


For I am an engine and I'm holding on
The world is all bending and breaking from me
For sweetness alone who flew out through the window
And landed back home in a garden of green

You're riding alone in the back of a steamer
And steaming yourself in the warm shower spray
And water rolls on off the round captain's belly
Who's talking to tigers from his cafeteria tray

And sweet babies cry for the cool taste of milking
That milky delight that invited us all
And if there's a taste in this life more inviting
Then wake up your windows and watch as those sweet babies crawl away

Jeff Mangum plays to 75 in NYC last Saturday night.

Elephant 6 collective in Toronto Friday March 18th:

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Pilot Pietraszek

My cousin Justyna flying from Yellowknife - Inuvik - Whitehorse last week (nevermind the date thing on the photos.. ).  Apparently they flew C-130 Hercules in minus 29 degree weather.

This is amazing Justyna. Crazy amazing. I'm really proud of you.

The Gorey update

Here's the list for what went for what.

Most expensive coat?

Six grand for this one:

However, you could have taken this one home for around $1600 USD.
Anyway, check out the list... a few things ended up going unsold, including a few prints and first editions.

Just the illustrations here...

Anyway, cool shit, but what a weird dude.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Would YOU like to own a vintage Edward Gorey fur coat??!!

This Thursday, December 9th
Bloomsbury Auctions
6 WEST 48th st.


14 fur coats owned and worn by Edward Gorey.

Hide your Kids! Hide your Wife!

All proceeds go to charity (The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust and the Edward Gorey House).

Thanks Anna!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Arsenic life? NASA is a joke.

It's starting to look like the arsenic life forms was a hoax/very bad science.

Long story short? The NASA team had a hypothesis and tried to prove it rather than try to find out what actually happened.

1) They improperly cleaned the DNA (or, not at all) before analyzing it. It's like me taking a bath in epsom salts, not showering down after, and then claiming that magnesium sulphate has entered my DNA.

"The Methods describes a standard ethanol precipitation with no washing (and no column purification which would have included washing), so I think some arsenate could easily have been carried over with the DNA, especially if it is not very soluble in 70% ethanol.  Would this arsenate have left the DNA during the gel purification?  Maybe not - the methods don't say that the DNA was purified away from the agarose gel matrix before being analyzed.  This step is certainly standard, but if it was omitted then any contaminating arsenic might have been carried over into the elemental analysis." (link)

2) Further, instead of actually looking at the DNA to make sure, they just analyze my entire body and tell me that because there is such a high concentration of magnesium sulphate attached to me, my DNA must be made of magnesium sulphate. There is a way (mass spectroscopy) to read the DNA directly... but not for NASA!

3) ok, so they did try to at least separate the DNA from the rest of the cell (not clean it, mind you). This process is called phenol-chloroform extraction, and it's apparently a fairly straight forward lab technique. Only one problem; it involves water.

The long standing and well known issue with Arsenic DNA backbones is that arsenic bonds are very unstable, and too unstable to sustain life. So when exposed to water, these bonds break up within minutes (they have a half-life of ten minutes in water). The NASA theory goes that the cell had developed protein machinery to overcome this half-life problem through protection or at least a constant repair mechanism. The problem of course arises when you separate the protein machinery from the arsenic DNA backbone; it should break-up. However, it didn't. The DNA was extracted from the phenol-chloroform process (submerged in water and chemicals) after an hour or so still in long strands! This kinda plainly shows that the DNA did not contain arsenic, and in fact was probably/most likely still made with phosphorus. 

4) Apparently this "depleted" phosphorus environment was not so "depleted". The second article below crunches the numbers and shows that there is actually more than enough phosphorus in the final substrate dilution for regular DNA to form.

For these bacteria to be able to form arsenic DNA strands, evolution tells us that there would have to be a selective pressure, or a reason why for the switch from the dependable phosphorus to the arsenic. Just because there is a lot of arsenic around in Lake Mono, doesn't mean that there is not enough phosphorus to form DNA. And in fact, that's the case. There is enough phosphorus in Lake Mono to form regular DNA strands.

The "depleted" phosphate solution provided to the bacteria by the experimenters had concentration of 3 micro molar phosphate. Is that a lot, or a little? Well, the Sargasso Sea has a phosphorus concentration that is 300 times less than the substrate phosphorus concentration provided by the NASA experimenters, and even there, the bacteria still use phosphorus in their DNA (they do succumb to the phosphorus pressures somewhat by removing phosphorus from their lipids, but keep it in their DNA...). So, with no evolutionary pressure, what made the experimenters think that they would take something that was admittedly abundant and incorporate it into their DNA? That's ridiculous.

That's like me saying I'm going to suddenly start incorporating lots of poo into my daily diet, because, ya know, there's a lot of it available!

Fucking NASA. I'm no rocket scientist, but looking for more funding by increasing the public perception that life on other planets is now "easier" to find? Uhhh... this is so frustrating. This is a joke, and will ultimately come back to bite them. Just. horrible. science. Embarrassing. NASA is a joke.

Re: arsenate hydrolysis, improper cleaning techniques without controls, no direct evidence (no mass spectrometer DNA sequencing done)  --

Re: more improper techniques, amount of available phosphate in solid numbers --


Sunday, December 5, 2010

I've got a lot, a lot of time for this man.

Yeah, no posts in a while; fair enough. Just exam time, and I feel like I'm in the consuming mode at the moment, not really in a producing one... 

I've got a few posts lined up (15 at last count) and will get them up starting Thursday and Friday, after the exams that count have passed. Until then, start catching up on your Feynman.