Category Archives: Science

What are animals?

Though this question seems to be trivial, but in fact it is not. And if we want to introduce animal welfare legislation, we need to establish what organisms are animals.

In modern taxonomy animals (Animalia) are known as Metazoa. Animals are multicellular eukaryotes (i.e. animal cells have a nucleus), are heterotrophic (i.e. they don’t do photosynthesis, and chemical energy in the form of organic molecules to survive), and their cells don’t have a rigid cell walls (unlike plants, fungi and bacteria).

Taxonomists have divided the animal kingdom in three main groups: Eumetazoa, Mesozoa and Parazoa. The last subkingdom consists of multicellular animals who (unlike other animals) do not have tissues or organs. Currently only sponges belong to the Parazoans. The second group, Mesozoa, contains only worm-like parasites, and its actual status is subject of scientific dispute.

The first subkingdom, Eumetazoa, is by far the most interesting one, since it contains all other animals. Eumetazoans are animals with differentiated tissues and organs. Most aminals of this group of a symmetric body to a certain degree. Since only Eumetazoans are known to have nerve systems, and hence capable of suffering, it might be an idea to restrict animal welfare legislation to Eumetazoans rather to all Metazoans.

Many people have learned at school that life is divided into four kingdoms: bacteria, fungi, plants and animals. Only this system is now outdated due to new scientific (genetic!) research. There are two superkingdoms: Prokaryotes and Eukaryotes. The former is divided into Bacteria and Archaea. The latter is divided into: Unikonta and Bikonta. The latter contains plants, algae and similar organisms. Unikonta contains amoebozoa and opisthokonts.

Opisthokonts are further divided into main groups: Holomycota (includes among others fungi) and Halozoa. The latter group is then further divided into Mesomycetoea and Filozoa. Filozoans are divided into Filasterea, Choanoflagellata and Animalia. Choanoflagellata are a group of unicellular organisms, and they are the closest relatives of animals (most recent common ancestor living about 600 million years ago).

Oxytocin: the new doping?

Scientists have discovered that, at least in mice, oxytocin plays a crucial role in muscle maintenance and that the amount of oxytocin decreases with age. Older mice have less of this hormone, and hence it takes more time for them to repair their muscles. By giving older mice a daily injection of oxytocin, their muscle repair capability was strongly improved.

Though this function of oxytocin has not been demonstrated in humans, oxytocin has been approved for clinical use in humans. If these results also apply to humans, it will be useful for elderly people who will be able to live healthier at higher age.

But since oxytocin improves muscle repair capability, there is a possibility that sportsmen will use it as doping. Since sportsmen use their muscles in a very intense manner, their muscles have a higher risk at damages. This is especially problematic during multi-day sport events as the Tour de France or the Fifa World Championship. The faster a sportsman can have his muscles repaired, the better his overall performance will be.

At this moment oxytocin is legal, and could be obtained and used easily, even if the effects on human muscles is unclear. And as long oxytocin is not listed as doping and sportsmen are not tested at this hormone, which also occurs naturally in our body (to make stuff even more difficult); sportsmen will be tempted to use oxytocin.

In vitro leather

We have discussed in vitro meat several times at this site, mainly as an animal-friendly and suitable supply of meat for space settlers. The idea of in vitro meat is simple: take some muscle cells from an animal and put that in lab culture.

Andras Forgacs has realized that you do the same thing with skin tissue, and hence culture leather in the lab without killing animals. In the video below, Forgacs explains that cultured leather has not only the same qualities as “natural” leather, but actually one would create leather of superior quality. This because one has more control on conditions in which the leather is grown.

Leather has a certain appeal, and though I don’t buy leather for ethical reasons, I like this material. So do many vegetarians and vegans, so they do much efforts to obtain accurate imitation leather (if I need to buy new shoes, I have to take a one-hour train trip to Amsterdam to buy shoes at a special vegan shoe shop).

Cultured leather would be great for those who like both animals and leather products. Further it would prevent the slightly dystopian future I described in this story I wrote two years ago about a world were cattle farming has been out phased to make room for growing energy crops.


O’Neill Cilinders

The first two videos are uploaded by CentripetalWorlds. Both feature O’Neill cylinders, video one appears to show, the construction of an O’Neill cylinder.

Two rotating O’Neill cylinders (warning: annoying sound, please mute volume).

A different but related design, the Kalpana One:

The Kalpana One is an interesting design, and quite suitable for the first generation of space settlements (O’Neill cylinders have been considered as a second generation space habitat since they were designed).

For a technical discussion of O’Neill cylinders, by no one less than O’Neill himself, see here.

Exterior view of a double cylinder colony

Robots and prostitution

Earlier we discussed the problems associated with prostitution (e.g. human traffic among others) on this site. We also proposed a system to solve some of these problems. In this post another “solution”: robot prostitutes.

In his book Love & Sex With Robots David Levy explores “the evolution of human-robot relationships”, more precisely romantic human-robot relationships. With having to summarize Levy’s book, he presents an argument why it is inevitable that people will have sex with robots, and that some people will even go so far as that they will “marry” their sex robot.

Not surprisingly Levy went on to discuss why people (men and women) visit prostitutes. He notes the similarity between paying a prostitute and either purchasing or renting [by the hour or the day] a sex robot.

For robot prostitution no significant technological breakthroughs are required, after all there are currently highly realistic sex dolls. Further animatronics is also well-developed, as is seen in these videos:

The main benefit of sex robots is that they cannot suffer, and hence they can be programmed to “like” being a prostitute. Therefore exploitation of [robot] sex workers will not be an issue. Maybe it will be an idea to ban human prostitution all together, and keep only robot prostitution legal.

Quantum teleportation and space settlements

Dutch scientists have succeeded in transmitting information through quantum teleportation, and thereby they proved that Einstein was wrong on this issue.

The essence of quantum teleportation is that information is transferred from A to B, without passing through the intermediate space be it through fibers or radio waves. And because the information does not traverse space, it cannot be intercepted, hence quantum teleportation would allow a totally secure connection. The only thing you need to set up a secure channel, is to create a pair of entangled particles.

Besides complete confidentiality, quantum teleportation has another advantage. Radio waves can interfere with each other, causing loss of date and fibers can be broken. Neither of this will happen with quantum teleportation. Also unlike with radio-communication a person using QT cannot be detected by a third party. This is interesting for military operations in space.

Two space settlements can securely communicate with each other if they have each one of half of an entangled pair. And by having multiple pairs, one could construct a secure communication network between several space settlements. But there is one big warning to be made: secured communication is only guaranteed between two parties, once a party has received the information it would be able to intercept the information at that point. So if you send information from A to C through B by QT, you still need to take measures to secure B.

Water management in Space Settlements

Humans need water to survive, and hence a reliable water supply is essential for Space Settlements. Fortunately Near Earth Objects consist for a substantial part of water. However human and industrial consumption of water produces waste water. Though we could “dump” this into space and replace it with fresh water from NEOs, that would be quite inefficient, and it also limites the growth of Space Settlements in the long run. Consequently we need to recycle water in Space habitats.

Basically we need a closed loop in which waste water is turned back into drinkable water. Hence a reliable and preferably cheap method of water purification is essential for the successful humanization of space.

A potentially promising method seems to be found. According to this article in the Science Daily, graphene is an excellent water filter. Not only is this method fast, it is also not energy intensive, and scientists hope to be able to turn seawater into freshwater just by using a hand pump with this graphene filter in the near future.

Nowadays graphene can be produced easily, and it is an allotrope of carbon, an element very abundantly in Near Earth Asteroids.

On a side note, we could wonder whether graphene filters can be used for extracting uranium from seawater. Though the concentration of uranium in seawater is low, the total amount of uranium in the oceans far exceed to total known reserves on land. But due to the concentration of uranium in seawater many scientists believe, extraction from seawater will be impracticable, at least with current market prices.

According to the Science Daily article, graphene filters can accurately distinguish between  difference in atomic seizes. This would be important if we want to filter out uranium atoms from seawater.

Probably we would need two filters: one the filter out atoms and molecules larger than uranium, and a second filter which on let smaller atoms and molecules through. Consequently the uranium atoms will get trapped between the two filters, and with each cycle the concentration of uranium will increase.

If this procedure will be feasible, then most countries will be able to become self-sufficient in their uranium supply. Currently only a few countries dominate the world market.

Interstellar space and resources

In reference to our recent post on generation ships, a commenter addressed an important issue: the amount of resources in interstellar space. Most people will probably know that the Solar System contains enormous amounts of resources. But it’s a common perception that space between stellar systems is very empty.

Emptiness is space is, of course, a very relative concept. A cubic meter of average interstellar space does contain much less matter than the best human made matter. This is mainly due to the very large distances between material objects in outer space.

But an important question is where does interstellar space start, or more accurately what are the boundaries of our Solar System? Unfortunately this is not a question with a definite answer. Basically there are two “popular” ideas of what constitutes the boundary of our Solar System: the heliopause and the Oort cloud.

When last summer it was announced that the Voyager 1 had “left” our Solar System, scientist referred to the fact that this space probe that crossed the heliopause. But what is the heliopause? The heliopause is the outer-boundary of the heliosphere, which turns us to the question what is the heliosphere?

Consider this analogy: if you let water flow from your tap into the sink, you will notice there is a kind of “gap” in the layer of water at the bottom of the sink. A similar thing happens with the Sun. The Sun emits constantly all kind of stuff, the so-called Solar winds. We can compare the Sun with your tap, and the Solar winds with the water flowing out of the tap. But just in case of your tap, the Solar wind will ultimately encounter a “thick” medium, and this medium is called the heliosphere. The inner-boundary, where the Solar wind is slowed down, is known as the termination shock. But after a certain distance this thick medium will end, which creates an outer-boundary for the heliosphere: the heliopause.

Because the Solar winds are effectively terminated at the heliopause, many scientists see this mark as the boundary of our Solar System.

The heliopause is located at approximately 119 astronomical units or AU (1 AU is equal to the average distance between the Sun and the Earth) from the Sun. In comparison the orbit of Pluto is located between 30 and 49 AU. Pluto is now considered to be a member of the so-called Kuiper belt, a collection of Trans-Neptunian Objects orbiting the Sun at between 30 and 50 AU form the Sun. Hence the heliopause seems to be a fair choice for the boundary of the Solar system.

But the gravitational field of the Sun has a reach far beyond the heliopause. The orbit of Sedna around the Sun has an estimated perihelion of 76 AU and a perihelion of 943 AU, and hence is large part of Sedna’s orbit is well beyond the heliopause. In fact the Sun’s gravity is in no way affected by the existence of the heliopause. Actually if there were no other stars in the universe, the Sun’s gravity would reach to infinity, though it would still decrease according to an inverse square law.

Astronomers hypothesize that there is a cloud around the Sun, at around 50,000 to 100,000 AU distance, which referred to as the Oort cloud. The Oort cloud is believed to house trillions of objects large than 1 kilometer. All these objects are orbiting the Sun, but what would be the largest possible distance of an orbit around the Sun?

Since the nearest star is roughly the size of the Sun, and is located at about four light years away, the point at which both stars exert an equal gravity is located at about 2 light-years or 125,000 AU. If other star systems have also Oort clouds, those clouds might overlap each other. Consequently a group of Space Settlers which is moving outwards in small increments might enter another star system even without notice.

But even beyond those Oort clouds interstellar space is far from empty. Astronomers speculate that the number of rogue planets, i.e. planets who do not orbit any start but directly around the center of the galaxy, is twice to 100,000 times greater than the numbers of stars in our galaxy. Though the closest known rogue planet is located at about 100 light-years away, there is no particular reason to assume such planet could not be found closer to our Solar System. Only because rogue planets do not radiate much light, they are hard to detect.

For interstellar colonists such a rogue planet might be an attractive place to settle. Enough resources for hundred or even thousands of years, and while the rogue planet continues its way through the galaxy the might came close the another star system. At that point they could make a jump to that star system, if they would wish so.

Though interstellar space is far from empty, we should nevertheless realize that interstellar travel and colonization is an endeavor for the far future and it will probably not happen in this century, maybe not even during the next thousand years. Instead current plans for space colonization should focus on our own Solar System.