A Look Forward and A Look Back

I can’t express how much I am enjoying my position as Lead AI and Encounter Designer at Hangar 13. We are doing some really exciting work that is utilizing many of the latest advancements in AI and I am looking for even more ways to include them in our designs.

“In general, games pose interesting and complex problems for the implementation of intelligent agents and are a popular domain in the study of artificial intelligence. In fact, games have been at the center of some of the most well-known achievements in artificial intelligence. From classical board games such as chess, checkers, backgammon and Go, to video games such as Dota 2 and StarCraft II, artificial intelligence research has devised computer programs that can play at the level of a human master and even at a human world champion level. Planning and learning, two well-known and successful paradigms of artificial intelligence, have greatly contributed to these achievements. Although representing distinct approaches, planning and learning try to solve similar problems and share some similarities. They can even complement each other. This has led to research on methodologies to combine the strengths of both approaches to derive better solutions.” A Survey of Planning and Learning in Games (2020)

While I can’t discuss our current project while it is still in development, I can say that I’ve been documenting the process and am excited to share it when we can.

Until then, here’s a photo from back when I presented the research we were doing in the astrophysics laboratory at the University of Alabama. I’ve often talked about the work I did in the astrophysics lab but I’ve never written it down before so I thought I’d share all about that experience!

Ben Retan presenting research on "The Formation of an Interstellar Dust Analog"

The results were an extension of the experiments done by my professor that were published in Laboratory Investigation of the Contribution of Complex Aromatic/Aliphatic Polycyclic Hybrid Molecular Structures to Interstellar Ultraviolet Extinction and Infrared Emission (2000) and they focused on “The Formation of an Interstellar Dust Analog”

Interstellar dust, also called cosmic dust or extraterrestrial dust, exists in space and is expulsed by a star when it reaches the point in it life cycle that the strength is great enough to send it not just to the nearby planets (such as in the zodiacal cloud) or around the planets (such as in a planetary ring) but out of the planetary nebulae. But why are they so important?

“Our Laboratory Astrophysics projects, focusing on the hydrocarbon portion of interstellar dust, indicate the naphthalene molecule is the basis for formation of more complex dust material.  These experiments help interpret observations with telescopes, including those utilized in space.  By subjecting our laboratory versions of soot-like interstellar molecules, that can form at the end of a star’s life, to high temperature water we have found that they are transformed into the kind of organic matter found in meteorites known as carbonaceous chondrites.  This suggests that the mineral bodies, tens of kilometers across and called planetesimals, that were formed at the beginning of the Solar System, were cosmic pressure-cooker “crockpots”.  Meteorites originate from asteroids, which are leftover planetesimals from that period in that they never became part of a planet like Earth or Mars!” – T.J. Wdowiak

So with that as a starting point, we set out to continue research using Naphthalene to try to recreate an analog. Using the plasma reactor was the only time I’ve been able to work with the 4th state of matter in a zero pressure environment and while it takes a long time to prepare for an experiment (days or even weeks), performing the experiment and getting go analyze the results was exciting and fun!

Graphical schematic of the plasma reactor fabricated for surface... |  Download Scientific Diagram
Diagram depicting an typical setup for a plasma reactor. Ours was slightly different and had cold traps filled with Liquid Nitrogen to help clean the gas input (C) of any impurities.

Plasmas — states of matter consisting of collections of electrically neutral atoms, molecules, and partially or fully ionized particles — make up more than 90 percent of the observable universe and underpin several high-tech manufacturing industries.

Familiar forms of plasma include the sun, stars, lightning, neon signs, television screen displays, semiconductor processing, welder’s torches and rocket exhaust.

yogesh vohra 2013
The University of Alabama at Birmingham received a $20M grant to further plasma research in 2017 which will translate into the development of new technologies with potential for commercialization for aerospace, manufacturing, medicine, agriculture and food safety.

We started with different element compounds and pumped gasses through them that were charged by an extremely high voltage power supply turning the gas into the a plasma that flowed through a tube containing different chemical structures.

This is not the actual reactor we used but is the closest I could find to demonstrate the appearance of the device. (Art piece by Pierre Jean Tardiveau from the film The Art of Plasma)

The experiments involve the processing of a volatile PAH molecule in the plasma reactor with H, He, N, or O. The product is then harvested for infrared, visible, mid-ultraviolet,
and vacuum ultraviolet (VUV) spectroscopy, and for further processing protocols.

Afterwards, we compared a spectrograph from the reactor product to that of IRAS 05341 + 0852 (a young planetary nebula) IRAS 05341+0852 : an evolved star with unique 3 mu.m emission features.

“The near-to-mid infrared energy distribution of IRAS 05341 + 0852

Infrared spectroscopy is initially done on material dispersed in KBr (1 mg per 100 mg), which is then pressed into an infrared-transparent disk using a hydraulic ram. The measurements are made relative to a pressed KBr reference. The plasma product material can also be evaporated under vacuum to form a film on an infrared-transparent or ultraviolet-transparent substrate.

The plasma reactor transformation of naphthalene totally into something else is evident from the striking difference in the spectra.

Pan-spectral studies of both cosmic and laboratory produced materials are essential for the elucidation of the molecular structure of circumstellar and interstellar dust. When followed by powerful analytical techniques such as mass spectroscopy, laboratory experiments, because reagents are prescribed and energetic conditions invoked, permit the bridging of the gap between spectroscopic observations and theory.

Highly hydrogenated polycyclic molecule didecahydronaphthotetrahydrocoronene

However, while it is possible to produce conditions such as the energetic environments of plasmas, the spatial dimensions and temporal scales of the cosmic situation preclude true simulations in the laboratory that would result in the production of true analogs. What is possible in the laboratory is a demonstration of the general nature of plausible complex molecular outcomes and perhaps the pathways by which they might occur.

About Ben Retan

I'm a designer/developer/musician and my life revolves around music and technology. I spend most of my time playing guitar, working on games, or recording music. In what little free time I have outside of that, I like to act and sing whenever I get the chance.
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