Past and Present Space Milestones
CHAPTER 32 - The Moon and Beyond
Two obituaries caught my attention recently. One, in the New York Times,marked the death of Ian Ross, while the other obit, in the Spring 2013 edition of The Electrochemical Society publication Interface, concerned the passing of Vladimir Sergeevich Bogatsky. Ian Ross, an Englishman, got his PhD in electrical engineering from Cambridge in 1952 and both he and I joined Bell Labs in that year. (We also shared birth years, being born within a few months of each other, he in Southport, England, I in Denver, Colorado.) At Bell Labs, we both attended meetings peopled by such scientific luminaries as future Nobel Prize winners William Shockley and Walter Brattain, inventors of the transistor. I would attend these meetings more or less as an awed spectator while Ross was an active participant in the technical discussions on transistors and high level physics way over my head. Ross would later become president of Bell Labs but an intermediate post he held was managing director of Bellcomm, an entity formed to assist in the Apollo moon landing program. One of Bellcomm's tasks was to assure the Apollo program that the moon's surface was not a pile of dust that a spacecraft would sink into on landing.
It's well known that what initially spurred the United States into accelerating our space program, the creation of NASA and aiming for the moon was the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik in October of 1957. Enter Vladimir Bogatsky, who, after receiving his PhD in electrochemistry in 1947 from Moscow State University, soon joined the All Union Institute of Power Sources. There, he and his collaborators were credited with supplying Sputnik with its power sources. All that Sputnik did essentially was broadcast a beep-beep-beep sound but that sound captured the world's attention and Sputnik generated the feeling that the USSR was capable of launching missiles that could hit the United States. Bogatsky and his coworkers worked on powering other Soviet satellites. He also supervised the Russian lithium battery program.
After he retired, Bogatsky moved to the United States and I got a chance to meet him and his wife when he spent some time visiting Professor Alvin Salkind's group at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. I was also spending my retirement years in Salkind's group and welcomed the chance to practice my rudimentary Russian with Bogatsky. He was a very pleasant chap and I wish I had had more time to learn about his life in the USSR.
In reading the article about him in the ECS Interface, I was surprised to learn that Bogatsky was born in Switzerland in 1920 and moved to Moscow in 1938. So, we have Ian Ross, born in England and moving to the United States to join Bell Labs and being appointed to manage Bellcomm in 1964. In 1965, another immigrant to Bell Labs made news which would spur other types of space endeavors, one of which made headlines this past month. Arno Penzias was born in Munich, Germany in 1933 and at the age of 6 was moved to Great Britain as part of the Kindertransport in which some 10,000 Jewish children were evacuated to Britain from Europe prior to the start of World War II. Fortunately, his family managed to flee Nazi Germany for the U.S. and Penzias joined them in New York, getting his PhD from Columbia University.
At Bell Labs in 1965, Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation left over from the Big Bang, a key discovery that confirmed that our universe did indeed start in the Big Bang. They later shared the Nobel Prize for their discovery. Since then a number of space missions, notably the WMAP and COBE missions, were launched to study in detail the cosmic background radiation. While the overall pattern of the radiation is remarkably smooth, these missions detected very small fluctuations in the intensities of the background radiation. These very tiny fluctuations were extremely important for us. They gave rise to stars, galaxies and without them, we would not exist!
Now, in a March 20 press release, NASA announced the results of measurements by the European Space Agency Planck space mission, in which NASA/Jet Propulsion Lab, Canadian and European scientists all play a role. Planck is a mission launched in 2009 that enables more sensitive and precise measurements at a wider range of frequencies than earlier space missions. What Planck gives is a more detailed picture of the cosmic background radiation that permits more precise calculations of some pretty fundamental properties of our universe. (Actually, our editor of StocksandNews, Brian Trumbore, took note of the Planck results in his Week in Review column of a couple weeks ago.) For example, we now know the universe is 13.8 billion years old, around a hundred million years older than previously calculated. The universe is still made up mostly of the mysterious dark energy, but not as much - down from 71.4% to 68.3%. The equally mysterious dark matter in our universe is up to 26.8 from 24 %. "Ordinary" matter, the only stuff familiar to most of us mortals, is up to 4.9 from 4.6%. Our universe is also expanding somewhat more slowly than previously thought.
What amazes me most about all this is that these fluctuations in temperature of the cosmic background radiation arose in just the tiniest fraction of a second after the Big Bang, when "inflation" occurred. As the NASA press release says, "in less time than it takes to blink an eye, the universe blew up by 100 trillion trillion times in size." I certainly don't understand the "quantum" origins of the fluctuations but they formed the seeds for all the zillions of stars and galaxies that populate our universe.
Equally amazing to me is that the human brain, or at least some human brains, have developed to such a state that we actually now know what happened in the initial seconds and hours of the origin of our universe. All well and good, but longtime readers will know that I still delight in writing about instances of intelligent thought in other animals ranging from chimpanzees and elephants to birds and octopuses. A few days ago, Brian Trumbore called my attention to an article titled "The Brains of the Animal Kingdom" by Frans de Waal in the March 22 Wall Street Journal. (I've mentioned de Waal's work a couple of times before, for example, in my column of 3/17/2004.) The main theme of the article was that, in testing animal intelligence (and their compassion for fellow members of their species), we have to enter the world in which they live.
One example de Waal cited was a long held belief that elephants could not use tools. In past studies an elephant would be offered a long stick to try to retrieve some food placed beyond the elephant's reach. Our primate cousins would use the stick to get the food, but not the elephants. Well, enter the elephant's world. It uses its trunk to sniff and touch food and uses its trunk as a guide to where it's going. Pick up a stick and its nasal passages are blocked. Why pick up a stick?
So, if you're a smart researcher, design an experiment to fit the elephant's world. Preston Foerder and Diana Reiss of Hunter College showed de Waal what happened if they hung fruit high up on a branch out of reach of Kandula, the elephant. Now give Kandula some sticks and a hefty box. Wouldn't you know? The elephant pays no attention to the sticks but kicks the box in a straight line until it's under the branch, steps up on the box with his front legs and snares the fruit with his trunk. Who said the elephant can't use tools? The Wall Street Journal article has other interesting examples of posing the right questions in testing animal intelligence.
Well, now I must test my own intelligence by tending to my wife's needs, namely testing my ability to drop very expensive eye drops into her eye on which she just had cataract surgery this morning.
Next column, hopefully, will be posted on or about May 1.
Allen F. Bortrum