Daily Archives: March 29, 2011

Has Fukushima Daiichi Reactor 2 Core Melted Down?

It is said that it is physically impossible for the nuclear material in any of the Fukushima reactors to melt through the containment vessels. Despite a rumor of a crack in one of the vessels, nuclear power experts have maintained that it is impossible that there could be such a crack. Nonetheless, a US based GE-connected nuclear engineered who has ties to the Fukushima facility has boldly asserted that he thinks that the core in reactor 2 has “melted through the bottom of the pressure vessel … and at least some of it is down on the floor of the drywell.”

Richard Lahey was head of safety research for this kind of reactor for GE at the time that they installed the units at Fukushima. He has told his analysis to The Guardian. You can read it here.

NHK news service has not mentioned this, nor has the International Atomic Energy Agency. This is utterly unconfirmed and probably not true. It is, after all, impossible.

But if it is true, this places the situation at Fukushima on the high side of the TMI tickmark on the scale of badosity. The core at Three Mile island got all messed up but it did not breach its containment.

Interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson

i-bd4f6318fa3193df56e94ad49fb8772d-neilParaphernalia-thumb-245x289-63243.jpgI am going to interview Neil deGrasse Tyson this coming Sunday on Minnesota Atheist Talk. Details of the timing and how you can listen to the interview live can be found here. Unlike my recent interview with PZ Myers, in which I literally asked him the very questions you posted on my blog, I’ve got a handful of topics I’d like to bring up with the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium and widely read author. However, I will be happy and honored to pick one or two (or three) questions among those you may post below. So go ahead and suggest a question or two.

Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries

Yes, yes, I know … Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries by Neil deGrasse Tyson did not just come out, and it is not part of any current news story, so I’m not supposed to mention it in a blog post, because blog posts are only about things that happened during the last forty-five minutes or so. But what did happen in the last few minutes is that I finished reading it, and I’m recommending it to you.

It is said that Neil deGrasse Tyson is a modern day Carl Sagan … an astronomer who is superb at communicating science to the masses. That is sort of true but not exactly. Sagan and Tyson actually practice in different subfields of astronomy (rather pedantic of me to point out) and Tyson’s style is different. Aside from being a bit edgier, I find Tyson to be more like Asimov in his discussion of stuff about the universe. I’m reminded, when reading Death by Black Hole, of the Intelligent Man’s Guide to the Universe. Which, I admit, I read when it came out, so it has been a few years…

Death by Black Hole is a fairly comprehensive review of the main issues in modern astrophysics. In particular, Tyson focuses on how we know things, and how the how part sometimes interferes with, or at least makes more difficult, the dissemination of that knowledge. He points out, for instance, that to explain the details of one of the most interesting fairly recent finds in astro-science … the nature and composition of interstellar gas clouds … one needs to explain spectroscopy. Explaining spectroscopy, or any other fairly technical methodology, is often a deal-killer when it comes to getting people excited about something. I had this problem the other night when I had to explain to a bunch of people how optically stimulated luminescence worked in order to say something interesting about the recent pre-Clovis archaeological find in Texas. Fortunately, I was able to relate the esoteric dating technique to baseball and glow-in-the-dark plastic Virgin Marys, so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

Death (the book) is a collection of previously written essays edited slightly to account for natural redundancies and cross references.

The best part about the book is simply Neil deGrasse Tyson’s approach to explaining things that can be hard to explain. He also interjects the extra enthusiasm one gets when an author is speaking about pet peeves, about things like how the sun is depicted in art and how certain science is depicted in certain movies. The book is NOT about death by black holes. That is only one of the many topics covered. There are, it turns out, a whole bunch of other ways to die. He covers all the important ones.

If you haven’t read it, then read it. The Kindle edition is less than 9 bucks.


This is the picture of Vesta, which is an object in our solar system:


That’s the picture that Wikipedia uses as of this writing, and it was taken by the Hubble. The key thing to note is that Vesta, which lies in the asteroid belt and has been thought of as a big asteroid, is very globular like a planet. This is unusual for an asteroid.

This is a picture of Vesta as conceptualized by NASA scientists. It is a model, not a photograph.


Model of Vesta This image shows a model of the protoplanet Vesta, using scientists’ best guess to date of what the surface of the protoplanet might look like. It was created as part of an exercise for NASA’s Dawn mission involving mission planners at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and science team members at the Planetary Science Institute in Tuscon, Ariz. Other resolutions, desktop images here. Click the image to embiggen.

The images incorporate the best data on dimples and bulges of the protoplanet Vesta from ground-based telescopes and NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. The cratering and small-scale surface variations are computer-generated, based on the patterns seen on the Earth’s moon, an inner solar system object with a surface appearance that may be similar to Vesta.

Vesta makes up about 9% of the entire asteroid belt. In fact, if you take the largest handful of objects in the asteroid belt, Ceres (that’s the largest), Vesta, Pallas and 10 Hygiea, you’ve got half of the mass of the entire thing, according to the most current estimates. This sort of thing makes one wonder if some or all of these objects should be thought of as something other than asteroids. And this is a question that has been raised in relation to NASA’s Dawn project.

“I don’t think Vesta should be called an asteroid,” said Tom McCord, a Dawn co-investigator based at the Bear Fight Institute, Winthrop, Wash. “Not only is Vesta so much larger, but it’s an evolved object, unlike most things we call asteroids.”

The layered structure of Vesta (core, mantle and crust) is the key trait that makes Vesta more like planets such as Earth, Venus and Mars than the other asteroids, McCord said. Like the planets, Vesta had sufficient radioactive material inside when it coalesced, releasing heat that melted rock and enabled lighter layers to float to the outside. Scientists call this process differentiation.

McCord and colleagues were the first to discover that Vesta was likely differentiated when special detectors on their telescopes in 1972 picked up the signature of basalt. That meant that the body had to have melted at one time.

Special sensors. I gotta get one of those.

Anyway, this July, the Dawn Space Robot will approach Vesta and spend about a year in the vicinity. We’ll see how close that model is, and hopefully, Wikipedia can get a better portrait of the protoplanet/minorplanet/asteroid!

More details on the project are here.

Lester Park Stromatolites

Some years ago, I was asked by a friend to accompany him on a visit to a site in Saratoga Springs, New York, where we were to witness the activities of a gen-u-wine geomancer. I had never heard of a geomancer before. If you don’t know what one is, be happy. If you do, you have my sympathies. The thing is, this geomancer wanted to geomance (I just verbed his noun) with these rocks in or near a place called Lester Park. Now, if you’ve heard of Lester Park you may be thinking you know which rocks this guy wanted to commune with, but you are probably wrong. Lester park has some of the most famous rocks in the world, and then it’s got these other rocks. The other rocks are geologically interesting. They are small formations, ranging from the size of a van to the size of a cottage sticking up out of an otherwise flattish landscape. It appears that the parent rock of the area, which I take to be some kind of schist or otherwise highly metamorphosed stuff, had some force act on it to cause vertical parts to be slightly more resistant to erosion and thus stick up above the other rock. Personally, I think it might be diagenesis concentrated along joints or fissures of some kind, where hot gasses were allowed to mingle with rock under great pressure, deep below the surface of the earth in the depth of time. The geomancer thought it was energy flux lines passing through the earth and linking these rocks to Buddhist Temples in Asia. I came to my conclusion using the old fashioned scientific technique of guessing. He came to his conclusion using a bent coat hanger.

Anyway, not far from this spot, in Lester Park, one finds this rock:

Continue reading Lester Park Stromatolites