April 02, 2011

Visualizing the earth's gravity

Images of the earth's gravity from the GOCE satellite

Gravity isn't just a good idea, it's the law. But while gravity is a relentless force here on Earth, the strength of that force varies from place to place. There are a lot of reasons for that, but it's chiefly because 1) the earth isn't a perfect sphere and 2) even if it was, the mass within the earth isn't evenly distributed.

The European Space Agency's GOCE satellite has just produced the most precise data ever on how Earth's gravity varies, and they used the data to generate several cool visualizations. The images above are three snaps of a video of the rotating earth showing the gravitational variation...the high points in yellow correspond to spots where the gravity is stronger, the low blue spots (like the one in the middle of the Pacific ocean) are places where the gravity is a bit less.

You can watch the video on the GOCE site. There's also a good article about GOCE on the BBC website.

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Comments welcome via email to comments-at-spurgeonworld.com

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February 25, 2010

Mogul migration

Photo of a mogul field by random_matt. Photo available via a Creative Commons license. Original at http://www.flickr.com/photos/random_matt/2905034454/

Every skier knows that moguls are small (and sometimes not so small) snow hills made by the cumulative action of skiers. Moguls fields form as more and more skiers turn at the same spots, each turn spraying out a bit more snow that over time grows into larger and larger hills.

But it turns out moguls don't just grow and shrink in size, they also migrate. Uphill.

Writing in Physics Today, three scientists explained that as moguls get larger, skiers are more and more likely to make turns on the downhill side of the pre-existing moguls. Each time they do they dislodge a bit of snow that lands on the uphill size of the mogul below. Thus over time the uphill side of each mogul grows, while the downhill side is abraded away.

A typical mogul moves uphill at a rate of roughly 8 centimeters a day, or about 10 meters a season.

Image by random_matt/flickr.com published under a Creative Commons license.

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February 24, 2009

Milky Way Transit Authority

Milky Way Transit Authority map

Nothing like a good map to help you get your bearings. That's true when you're in an unfamiliar city, or an unfamiliar country, so why wouldn't it also be true with an unfamiliar galaxy?

Samuel Arbesman, a postdoc at Harvard University, has just the thing to help you find your way around this vast collection of stars we call home. He's created a map of the Milky Way galaxy in the style of Harry Beck's iconic map of the London Underground. The lines correspond to the spiral arms of the Galaxy, and our own neighborhood rates a minor station (the Sol stop on the Orion line).

Arbesman has a page describing his map. You can also download a PDF of it there.

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February 09, 2009

Greatest chemistry videos

image from Kent's Video Chemical Demonstrations

Back when I was in grade school, chemistry was totally cool, even bad-ass. It still is, but you'd never know it from the wimpy live-in-fear-of-an-accident-or-terorism way that chemistry is taught these days. And don't get me started on how chemistry sets have been emasculated over the years.

The time has come for chemistry to get its mojo back, to once again convince kids that chemistry can be as cool as computers or art or anything else their schools have to offer. If you need some help, sit your kids down in front of this great collection of videos from Kent's Chemistry Page.(*) Magnesium burning inside dry ice! Gummy Bears dying in potassium chlorate! Mixing thermite and liquid nitrogen! Great stuff.

(*)I have no idea who this Mr. Kent is. I gather from his extremely old-school website, he's a high school chemistry teacher somewhere.

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December 07, 2008

Paper airplanes from space

origami space paper airplane

If all goes according to plan, early next year the wonderfully quirky world of hard-core paper airplane flyers will have set a new milestone. Next February an astronaut aboard the International Space Station will toss several paper airplanes out into the void, sending them on a multi-day journey through atmospheric re-entry and back down to the Earth's surface.

The origami-folded airplanes are made from sugar cane fiber paper that has been chemically treated to resist heat and water, and they've been tested in wind tunnels at hypersonic speeds. The planes measure about a foot long and are covered with instructions (in ten languages) of what to do if they are, against all probability, found back on the surface of the Earth.

Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, who will be stationed aboard the ISS next year, will toss the pre-folded planes either by hand or via the Station's robotic arm.

Full coverage of the planned paper airplane flight is on Pink Tentacle.

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August 17, 2008

Why is it so?

photo of Julius Sumner Miller

A friend pointed me to this wonderful quirky resource... a collection of greatest hits clips from Julius Sumner Miller's science shows from the 60s.

Miller portrayed "Professor Wonderful" for a couple of years on the Mickey Mouse Club back in the 60s, and over the next few decades he racked up an amazing collection of TV credits... demonstrating the wonders of physics on public TV in America, on the CBC in Canada, on The Steve Allen Show, on commercials, and...for 23 years... on Australian TV.

Miller was the stereotypical physics teacher...thick accent, wild hair, experiments that often had a frisson of real danger. I particularly liked the bad-ass way he would often start his show:

How do you do, ladies and gentlemen, and boys and girls? My name is Julius Sumner Miller, and physics is my business.

Australia's ABC TV network has a collection of clips from the show online (they're in Real and Windows Media format). Enjoy!

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July 05, 2008

Bionumbers

bionumbers logo

Thanks to Tim O'Reilly for pointing me to an odd and fascinating biological time waster called BioNumbers. It's a database of mathematical values related to the living world.

The best way to explain it is with some typical random values spit out by the site...

Water locked up in ice worldwide3e+7 cubic kilometer
Number of African clawed frog eggs
laid per spawning
650
Number of alveoli in human lung274 to 790 million
Length of E. coli flagella15 microns

This site is no doubt useful to biologists who sometimes have to put their finger on a number related to their work, in much the same way that a chemist sometimes really needs to know the melting point of Tungsten. But me, I just like viewing the quirky disjointed parade of values as yet another way to appreciate the extraordinary range and wonder of the living world.

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May 21, 2008

The Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments

chemistry glassware

This is a great time to be a kid interested in robots or programming or multimedia, what with Lego Mindstorms and computers and video cameras. But it's the worst of times if you're a kid interested in chemistry.

Over the past generation or so, kids chemistry sets have been emasculated and dumbed to the point of near worthlessness. There are a number of reasons for this... among them manufacturer's fear of lawsuits(*), post-9/11 paranoia about chemicals being used by terrorists, and war-on-drugs paranoia about the ingredients and equipment in chemistry sets being used by meth labs(**).

As a result, there are probably fewer kids in America getting turned on by chemistry, which means there may be fewer kids choosing chemistry as an advocation.

And this couldn't happen at a worst time. We're on the verge of a world-changing revolution in the material sciences, and we could use all of the crack chemists we can get to fuel it.

Robert Thompson to the rescue! Thompson's the author of the Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments, a new book that tells you how to set up your own chemistry lab, and then use it to perform dozens of fun and educational experiments.

The book lays out just what apparatus and chemicals you'll need, and where you can get them. (It turns out many of the chemicals that have been banned from chemistry sets are still readily available at your local hardware store). I was particularly impressed with the Guide's instructions on how to keep a lab notebook (I could have used that info when I was starting out in science).

Armed with this book, I'm looking forward to many hours with the kids, unlocking the wonders of the chemical world.

(*)So, is doing home chemistry dangerous? Sure, potentially, in the same way that cooking (another activity that every kid master) can be dangerous. Thompson's book does an excellent job teaching lab safety.

(**) Evidently, the state of Texas has made it illegal to buy an Erlenmeyer flask without a permit.

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March 23, 2008

The sounds of Saturn

sound spectrum of radio emissions from Saturn as captured by the Cassini spacecraft

Looking for the perfect sound for that sci-fi movie you've been working on? Cassini to the rescue!

My interplanetary buddy, the Cassini spacecraft, has been busy collecting data from Saturn and its moons for years(*). Way back in the late 90s Cassini recorded the electro-magnetic radiation that occurs in the polar regions of Saturn's atmosphere (similar energy causes the Northern lights here on Earth). A while back some JPL scientists converted the transmissions to audible sound, giving us a sense of what Saturn sounds like.

I think the sound has a wonderfully spooky storm-at-the-South-Pole quality to it, combined with just the type of static that sounds like outer space. In short, it's JUST the sound you would want to use if you were making a creepy sci-fi space horror epic.

Take a listen to the sound of Saturn. Or grab a higher quality WAV file of the sound.

There's more about how the sound was made on NASA's Cassini site.

Wouldn't it be great if movie sound artists started using the Cassini Saturn sound everywhere? If it became as widely used as the Wilhelm scream?

(*) The Cassini spacecraft was launched from Earth in 1997. After following one of the gnarliest flight paths ever devised, Cassini went into orbit around Saturn in 2004.

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March 14, 2008

Scientists create artificial traffic jams

photo of simulated traffic jam

Long time readers of this blog know that I'm a big fan of the psychological aspects of traffic. So I was delighted to learn that Japanese scientists have been doing live simulations of one of the most enigmatic traffic phenomena... the shockwave jam.

Shockwave traffic jams are patches of stop and go traffic that appear out of nowhere and seem to have no cause. Traffic engineers have been looking at shockwave jams for more than 15 years. Using computer simulations, they've worked out that the jam is started when a driver on a crowded highway slows down. That causes the following driver to tap the brakes, which causes other cars to slow down, and so on and so on.

Computer modeling is all well and good, but until now no one's ever tried to generate shockwave jams with real cars on a real road.

As you can see in this very cool YouTube video, the Japanese researchers spaced 22 cars around a circular track and started driving. Though the drivers tried their best to maintain a perfectly constant speed, they invariably sped up and slowed down by tiny amounts. Those tiny changes got amplified by the following drivers' reactions. Eventually there were times when some of the cars had to stop completely.
There's a write up of the experiment in this week's New Scientist.

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August 20, 2007

Virus hits World of Warcraft

still from World of Warcraft. Image available under Creative Commons at http://www.flickr.com/photos/jonassmith/135785143/

[Note: I originally mistakenly thought it was the plague itself that happened in the past few days. Actually, the plague happened back in 2005, it was the scientific analysis of how WoW players reacted to the plague that was new. I've corrected the post. Chris S.]

There was a devastating plague a couple of years ago, one that claimed the lives of thousands of victims. Haven't heard about it? That's because the virus happened online, in the virtual world called World of Warcraft.

The so-called "corrupted blood" virus spread rapidly and wiped out WoW players online avatars.

As disruptive as the computer virus has been, it's been a godsend for epidemiologists who study how people react to the threat of disease. For instance, according to a story about the outbreak on the BBC website, some players tried to come to the aid of infected players, while others fled WoW cities where the infection has taken hold.

Scientific American has an additional article on the outbreak.

(Image by Agent Smith/flickr.com)

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July 06, 2007

Planklantis

Image from Shuttle launch

Here's a little bit of beauty for your weekend. The space shuttles are festooned inside and out with on-board cameras. A guy in the UK named Steve Bowbrick took a compilation video of shots from camera mounted on the solid rocket boosters of the shuttle Atlantis, laid a musical soundtrack by The Electroplankton Quartet over it, and the result is a surprisingly poignant and lovely short film.

You can watch the video right here. (There's also a somewhat better quality Quicktime there for download).

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June 27, 2007

Be your own spaceship

image of re-entry suit from Popular Science magazine

Over the decades I've known him, my good friend Dr. Foo has come up with more great plot ideas than a whole Hollywood Starbucks full of script writers. More than 20 years ago he had the idea of a new extreme sport for the ultra-rich... you go into orbit on the shuttle, don a space suit, hop out for a little bit of EVA, then strap a heat shield on your feet, fire the retro-rockets strapped to your back, plunge through the atmosphere, pop your parachute, and drop softly back into your back yard.

Now dammed if someone isn't thinking about doing it for real. Or at least something close to it. An article in the new issue of Popular Science lays out current work being done in the area. One company thinks they'll be able to offer sub-orbital parachute re-entry from 60 miles up within a couple of years, and at least one JPL engineer says there's no reason you couldn't design a spacesuit and personal heat shield that would allow a human to fall back all the way from full earth orbit.

Read the full article online right here.

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May 03, 2007

Global walking speed increases

pedestrian sign. Photograph by christophe dune, flickr.com

You may not have noticed, but people are walking faster than they used to. According to recent research by British psychologist Richard Wiseman, global urban walking speed has increased by about 10% since a similar survey was conducted in the '90s.

According to the new survey, which charted walking speed in 32 cities worldwide, people in Singapore move the fastest.

You can see the full city list in this ITN article.

(Thanks Boing Boing).

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April 18, 2007

The Great Turtle Race

shot from the Great Turtle Race

Forget the basketball and hockey playoffs and the start of the baseball season. The sports event of the season is The Great Turtle Race. Eleven Leatherback Turtles on their spring migration from Costa Rica to the Galapagos Islands have been outfitted with radio transmitters, and their precise location is being tracked throughout their two week journey.

The Turtle Race website has constant updates on who's in the lead, and the British betting house partybets.com will let you put hard cash down on the winner. Expect the betting to become more volatile now that Stephen Colbert has an entry in the race (the odds right now on Colbert's turtle, named Stephanie Colburtle, are 8 to 1).

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April 12, 2007

How to Make an Object Invisible

light passing around the cloaking device

According to this article in Technology Review, we're one step closer to having invisible objects. The object in question is covered in nano-scale wires that have a negative refractive index. This can make light wrap right around the object and continue on as if the light wasn't even there.

This isn't exactly Harry Potter invisibility cloak stuff (this test only works for one frequency of visible light and you can still kind of see the object, but it's definitely a breakthrough.

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April 01, 2007

The forever clear windshield

water drops on a windshield

I continue to get little frissons of wonder every time that I read about yet another wondrous new material with some sort of amazing property. (And believe me, if you read the nanotechnology and materials science news like I do, you know that new materials are appearing practically every day).

The latest material is a polymer coating that's the holy grail for drivers...a windshield coating that make it impossible for the window to fog up AND makes it impossible for most types of dirt to stick to the window. The coating keeps water on the windshield from beading up (at the microscopic level the fog on windshields is made up of tiny water beads), while it forces oil-based substances (like many types of windshield dirt) to bead up, allowing it to be easily wiped or flushed off.

What makes this so odd is that normally water wants to bead up on glass and oil wants to form a thin even film. Here the exact opposite behavior happens. Weird and cool.

(Thanks Technology Review)

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March 27, 2007

Video game playing kids help cure cancer

cartoon from Little Gamers online comic

It's been about five months since Sony's PlayStation 3 hit the market. Since that time there have been countless virtual touchdowns scored, putts sunk, and monsters slain. But all of those PS3s have been doing something else too -- helping fight disease.

It turns out every PS3 sold has a link to download and run Folding@Home... a free computer program that allows the PlayStations to help solve extremely difficult computer problems, such as figuring out the complex ways in which protein molecules can fold and change shape. (Scientists think errors in protein folding may be behind diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's).

The Folding@Home software only runs when the PlayStation is not actually being used to play games. Every time a gamer takes a break to do homework or go to bed the PS3 works on another tiny bit of the protein problem, sending its results back to Folding@Home H.Q. at Stanford University.

Nearly 50,000 PS3s already have the software installed, and more download it every day. Collectively, all of those PS3 make one of the most powerful supercomputers on Earth.

CNN has an article
on the whole thing. The Folding@Home website has lots of cool stats, as well as links to download the software.

(Cartoon from little-gamers.com).

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March 10, 2007

New symbol for radiation danger

New radiation warning symbol

The International Atomic Energy Agency has unveiled a new graphic symbol designed to warn people that they're in the presence of dangerous radiation. The symbol, meant to supplement the ubiquitous trefoil radiation symbol that filled us all with dread and fear back in the Cold War days, will be used in situations where proceeding further could result in grave consequences. For instance, you might find the symbol inside of a food irradiation device, on the internal hatch covering the radiation source. The message being "Dude, you don't want to take this cover off". Most people will go their whole lives and never see this symbol.

The new symbol was the result of five years of work that included testing in 11 different countries all around the world. But not everyone is happy with it. For instance, check out this critique by usability expert Andrew Crow from Adaptive Path.

I can't wait 'til I start seeing these stickers on skateboard decks.

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March 07, 2007

Planetary Defense Conference

PDC logo

Right now you're missing the most bad-ass conference EVER. The Planetary Defense Conference in Washington DC brings together scientists, astronauts, politicians and futurists to come up with a master-plan on how to keep an errant asteroid from smashing into Earth and bringing life as we know it to an end.

Conference attendees will be talking about how to detect oncoming asteroids, what's the best way to nudge potential planet killers into safe orbits, and what's the right way to tell all of humanity they're about to die. Now that's what I call a conference.

If you want to get in on the action, you still have time. The conference runs through Thursday.

P.S. Think this whole threat of being hit by an asteroid thing is something we don't have to worry about for a million years? You obviously don't know about 99942 Apophis.

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March 03, 2007

Born under a bad sign

bad sign chart

This is one of those things that when you hear it you go "Nah, that can't be true." But it is true... there's a connection between the month in which you were born and your chance of getting certain diseases.

For instance, being born in northern hemisphere in February, March or April increases your risk of developing schizophrenia by between 5% and 10%. People with anorexia are 13% more likely to be born from April to June. Born in the fall? You're 8% more likely to suffer from panic attacks. These findings are the ravings of some crackpots or astrology con-artist... they are well executed, peer-reviewed, statistically valid scientific analyses.

So what the hell is going on? How is this possible? Researchers think it isn't the month in which you're born that makes the difference, it's actually the month in which you were going through key aspects of fetal development. For instance, the hormone melatonin varies with the amount of sunlight and those changing levels in the mother could affect fetal brain development in a way that leads to schizophrenia decades later.

Meanwhile, people with anorexia are statistically more likely to have had an anorexic mother. Perhaps anorexic mothers have a greater chance of becoming pregnant during the warmer summer months? The thought is that that there is slightly less metabolic stress during the warmer summer months, and that might make things just easier enough for an anorexic woman to conceive and bring a pregnancy to term the following spring, right when the spike in future anorexic births occurs.

A great article on all of this appeared in New Scientist back in January, but a paid subscription is needed to see it online. But it looks like The Civic Platform blog has said "screw copyright" and posted it here.

(Thanks to John Barth for the pointer).

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February 25, 2007

Retro-future visions of space stations

artist rendering of a space colony

Here's a quick bit of beauty for your weekend. Back in the 70s, NASA commissioned paintings of what future space colonies might look like. Now they've released more than a dozen of these gorgeous paintings into the public domain. While it looks like it's going to be quite a while before we're all living in giant spinning rings gently circling the globe (hell, we still can barely get humans into low earth orbit) but when we *do* get there, it's going to look amazing.

P.S. If you like these images, you may enjoy these images I found from the dawn of the Apollo program.

(Thanks Paleo-future).

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February 22, 2007

The sound of the world

wave image by emrld_cicada/flickr.com. Available at http://www.flickr.com/photos/39682836@N00/296584004/

You can't hear it, but the Earth is constantly singing. There is a constant hum right around 10 millihertz that can be heard (with the right instruments) anywhere on Earth, 24 hours a day.

So, the obvious question is, what's making that noise? Scientists have had lots of theories (earthquakes, noise from lightning strikes, wind rushing through mountain passes). Now a couple of researchers at Columbia University in New York have sussed it out.

It turns out the sound is caused by waves hitting shorelines all around the world. As waves rush in and then flow out, there are points where crests of waves coincide. At those points the water slams down against the ocean floor. Ceaselessly repeat that process all around the world's coastlines and you'll build up sound that carries all through the Earth.

There's an article about it on the New Scientist website.

(Thanks BLDGBLOG) (Photo: emrld_cicada/flickr.com).

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February 19, 2007

Order of the Science Scouts

Some of Science Creative Quarterly's merit badge

Like lots of kids in America, I had a brief, unpleasant stint in the Boy Scouts (I don't mean I got sexually assaulted by a scoutmaster or anything, I just mean I wasn't all that into taking part in fake Indian drumming ceremonies or picking up litter at neighborhood parks, or being hazed by troop members who had a maniacal jones on to get to Eagle Scout).

But I'm completely excited about The Order Of The Science Scouts Of Exemplary Repute And Above Average Physique, a re-imagining of the Boy Scouts created by the folks at The Science Creative Quarterly blog. They've created a funny series of merit badges acknowledging specialized and arcane branches of scientific skill.

Above are some of the merit badges I've qualified for over the years. I'm particularly proud of the level II ice-cube, which means that I've frozen things in dry ice just to see what would happen; and the one in the upper right, indicating that I have laboratory experience extracting semen from more than one species.

Got a suggestion for a science merit badge? Tell Science Creative Quarterly about it.

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January 24, 2007

How to extract your own DNA

instructions on how to extract your own DNA

Looking for a quick Saturday afternoon science experiment? Why not extract your own DNA! It's suprisingly simple, just follow the instructions in this simple brouchure. Don't want to use your own epithelial cells? Some lightly blended raw onion works really well.

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January 17, 2007

Walk like a bomber

suicide bomber graphic from  davesag/flickr.com.  Creative Commons license available at http://www.flickr.com/photos/davesag/29457529/

There are two traits needed to being a suicide bomber. The first trait is to be so crazed, or devoted, or brain-washed, or whatever, to think that blowing yourself and lots of innocent bystanders up. The second trait is the ability to get yourself in the desired position without everyone yelling "Hey! That guy's got a bomb strapped to him!"

The techniques necessary to counteract the first trait is beyond the scope of this blog, but the second trait is right up the hacker's alley. To wit: what if you could tell someone was wearing a bomb just by watching them walk? Rama Chellappa, a professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Maryland is perfecting gait analysis software that can take video of someone walking, look at how the person's limbs and joints are moving, and then quickly determine that the person has unusual weight hidden on their body.

There's an article about it in Technology Review.

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January 14, 2007

Walk like a cockroach

still image from cockroach robot

One of the greatest advances in robotics occurred about twenty years ago, when a number of researchers realized it was a colossal waste of time to try making robots look and behave like humans (I'm talking to you, Asimo) and turned to the insect world for inspiration. Here are a couple of great example videos I've recently discovered at Case Western University's Biologically Inspired Robotics Laboratory:

Case Western has a robot that uses simulated cockroach antennae to figure out how to navigate. They use a split screen to show the machine moving the same way as a real-life cockroach. Here's a link to the video (Watch out! It's 29 MB).

They've also built a flying robot called MMALV (Morphing Micro Air-Land Vehicle) that lands and then scuttles across the ground. It's a technique that's common in the insect world, but amazingly difficult for a robot. Check out that video too. (This one is just over 9 MB).

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January 03, 2007

Happy perihelion

photo of the sun

Maybe it's because the solstice was just less than two weeks ago, or maybe it's because I just spent several days at a much higher latitude, or maybe because last year I took a class that covered the basics of navigating a spacecraft to other planets, but-- whatever the reason-- these days I often think about the grand whirl and motion of the Earth, Sun, Moon and planets...the giant clockwork in the sky.

Another notable event in the celestial clockwork happens this afternoon, at about 2 PM Pacific time. At that point the Earth reaches perihelion, the point where we are closest to the Sun. As you may remember from your high school science class, the Earth's orbit around the Sun isn't a perfect circle, it's a slightly squished ellipse and as a result the distance between the Earth and the Sun is constantly changing. This afternoon the distance reaches a minimum...about 147,093,600 kilometers according to the Bad Astronomy blog.

The Sun's distance doesn't vary all of that much over the year, only about 1.5%, so you don't really notice it. If you have precise instruments you can measure the change in the Sun's size in the sky, and you can record slight differences in the Sun's effect on tides, but that's about it. Oh, we also get a bit (about 6%) more energy from the Sun right now than when the Sun is at its' greatest distance, but you don't really notice that either. (It's the Earth's tilt, not changes in the distance to the Sun, that makes the seasons).

Happy perihelion!

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January 02, 2007

Help pick public TV's next science show

image from Wired Science

PBS wants a new prime-time science show, and they're asking the public to help pick it. Over the next three weeks public TV stations across America will air demo episodes of three contenders. Based on audience reaction (both the TV audience and visitors to the shows' websites), PBS will green-light one of the series for regular production.

The trial kicks off this Wednesday night with Wired Science, a fast-paced eclectic show based on Wired Magazine (Full Disclosure: I did a bit of writing for the Wired Science website).

The following Wednesday it's Science Investigators... a team of researchers look into mysteries such as the global drop in frog populations and the physics of the knuckle-ball. The trial finishes up with 22nd Century, a series devoted to speculation about the future of technology.

Don't want to wait for TV? All three shows are available right now for online viewing, and are available as video podcasts. Full details on the PBS website.

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December 28, 2006

Evolution is too true!

photo of a brown anole

Meet the latest enemy of creationists, Mister Anolis sagrei, otherwise known as the Black Anole. This week's issue of New Scientist has a report on how these little critters are further proof (not that any further proof is needed) that evolution is really real. According to the report, when a new larger lizard species was introduced on the islands where the Black Anoles live, the Black Anoles quickly evolved longer legs, which let them run away more quickly.

Here's a link to the article.

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December 22, 2006

Want to win $50,000? And save the world?

artist rendering of Apophis

OK, here's the deal. On April 13, 2029, an asteroid the size of a football stadium is going to pass close by the Earth. Really close. Close enough that you'll actually be able to see the thing whizz by with the naked eye, an event that's never happened before in recorded history. The asteroid, known as 99942 Apophis, won't hit the Earth that day, but passing so close to the Earth will alter the asteroid's orbit and there's a tiny (one in several thousand) chance its orbit will be altered in just the exactly wrong way, so that when Apophis comes back seven years later it will smash into the Earth, with horrendous consequences.

The reason we're not completely sure if Apophis will miss us or not on that second pass is because we don't know its orbital course accurately enough. We need a more precise way to monitor its position and direction of travel. And that's where the $50,000 comes in.

The Planetary Society(*) is sponsoring a design contest to see who can come up with the best way to put a radio beacon, radar reflector, or other tracking device onto the asteroid. A device like that could be hugely important...the sooner we know for sure that Apophis is on a collision course, the more time we have to figure out a way to nudge the object out of the way.

Now, just to be clear, the Planetary Society folks aren't overly concerned about Apophis per se, but they feel it would be a good idea to know how to track any future near-Earth asteroid, and the contest is a great way to jump-start creative thinking about the problem.

The Planetary Society is conducting this competition in cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA), NASA, and other agencies. It's open to anyone...individuals, private groups, companies, universities, etc.

Want to take a crack at maybe saving the world? Here are the full rules. You have to declare your intention to compete by March 1st, proposals are due by August 31.

(*) I'm a proud member of, and contributer to, the Planetary Society.

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December 19, 2006

Relative size of some planets and stars

still from the size of planets and stars video

Douglas Adams said it best...

Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly hugely mindboggingly big it is. I mean you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space.

But yet, we do try to get our heads around how big space is. We fail of course -- the distances are too vast and the magnitudes of scale are too large for our brains to really deal with(*). The best we can hope for our some clever little snippets of knowledge(**) and the occasional brilliant visual aid. Charles and Ray Eames short film The Powers of Ten is still the best example, but I'm also mighty impressed with a short film I just saw on Google Video.

The 90 second film shows the relative size of several of the planets, and then, as the camera pulls out you start getting a sense of the relative size of different stars, and how that compares to even the largest planet.

Watch the video here.

(*) In this video from the 2005 TED Conference, biologist Richard Dawkins explains how the human mind evolved only to understand the "middle-sized" world we can observe.

(**) For instance, to remind myself of the size of Saturn I remember that it's about 10 times further away from the Sun than we are, and that the rings fit neatly in the distance between the Earth and the Moon.

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December 09, 2006

Data for the people!

some typical swivel data

There's nothing I like more than a good stiff trend analysis or histogram, so I'm very excited about a new web application called Swivel. Swivel wants to do for data what Flickr has done for images...it lets you upload your data, tag it, share it with friends or the world and, best of all, display it and analyze it. Here are just a few of the bits of infoporn that people have already created...

Temperature vs. solar radiation in Cupertino, CA

Wine consumption vs. violent crime

Bush approval ratings vs. Microsoft stock closing price

The site is in beta (or, as they call it, Preview) so it's not always as fast as it should be right now. But never mind! This is going to be an amazing resource, one that could change how everyday people deal with the world of data.

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December 01, 2006

We know why apples are red

apple photo by PPDIGITAL/flickr.com

After a five year search, scientists in Australia have located the gene that controls the red color of apples. Apples get their red color from chemical compounds called Anthocyanins, and the researchers have figured out which gene controls the amount of Anthocyanin produced.

Produce industry folks are hoping this discovery will lead to new and more popular varieties of apple. Me, I hope they extract that gene and start putting it into all sorts of other fruits and vegetables. I could really use a watermelon that is red on both the inside and outside.

There are a number of science websites reporting the discovery, but it's more fun to read about it at Food-USA navigator!

(Apple photo by PPDIGITAL/flickr)

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November 28, 2006

The coolest night school class in the solar system

artist rendering of the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn

If you happen to live in the Southern California, you have the opportunity to take the single coolest continuing ed class in the solar system, the Art Center College of Design's Basics of Interplanetary Flight.

JPL engineer Dave Doody, whose day job is being in charge of communicating with the Cassini spacecraft, teaches the class. (I don't care how cool your job is, talking to a spaceship that's orbiting Saturn is cooler). Doody walks you through what it actually takes to design, build, and fly a spacecraft to another planet. I took the course last year, and it was a total blast! (And don't worry, the class is for general audiences, no need to be a science or math major).

The class is being put on my the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA, and begins January 18th. Full details here.

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November 17, 2006

The amazinng multi-colored solar system

planetary image from USGS

A little bit of beauty for your weekend. This image looks like an abstract mosaic, maybe a Peter Max print, but it's actually a serious bit of science. It's a geologic map of the Southern hemisphere of Mars, with the different colors representing the different rock types.

This image is just one of a series of renderings of the planets by the USGS Astrogeology Research Program. Their website has high resolution images of several planets and satellites. They are drop-dead gorgeous, with dazzling colors and amazing patterns.

Don't want to download the large-format inches right away? The Pruned blog has a collection of the images online.

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November 06, 2006

Ontario considers default organ donation

organ donation diagram

Many of the biggest advances in public health are the result of government legislation. For instance the 1906 creation of the Food and Drug Administration vastly reduced the flood of useless or actually harmful substances being passed off as medicines. And laws mandating vaccination of children before they could attend school has saved untold thousands of lives. (Don't believe me? Next time you meet a centigenarian, ask them about the childhood friends they lost to Typhus. Or diphtheria. Or yellow fever. Or polio.)

Now the Canadian provence of Ontario is considering legislation that would be another milestone in public health, one that would establish a "presumed consent" organ donation system. In other words, all adults in Ontario would be considered organ donors unless they specifically opt out of the program. This is the exact opposite of the current system in Canada and the U.S., where you have to specifically agree to be an organ donor. Because of that, a huge number of organs go unused after death, and a too many people die waiting for a donated organ that could save their life.

If this legislation passes it could be a real sea change event, leading to similar laws throughout Canada and even in the U.S.

There's a brief article about the legislation in the Bodyhack section of wired.com, and a longer article in the Canadian Press.

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November 02, 2006

Images from the dawn of the Apollo program

early artist rendering of the lunar module

Each month at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA, just down the road from where I live, there's a huge flea market. Last month I made a major score...twenty large glass slides from the dawn of the manned space program.

The slides (back then there was no Microsoft PowerPoint of course, talks were often accompanied by slides) appear to be from a presentation outlining how the U.S. could get a man on the moon. The best I can tell, the slides are from 1962 or 1963, just a year or two after President Kennedy set the goal of getting to the moon by the end of the decade.

There's some great stuff here, if I do say so myself...artist illustrations of what landing on the moon might look like, models of the lunar module prototypes, and some great weird graphs of the rise in transportation speeds and weapon destructiveness over the centuries.

I've put the slides up on flickr. Enjoy!

P.S. If you happen to be a NASA historian, I'd love it if you could shed any light on this little bit of science history.

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October 13, 2006

Another astonishing Cassini image

Saturn image from the Cassini spacecraft

A wonderful bit o'beauty for your weekend. The Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn created this astonishing, beautiful photo of the ringed planet. The image is actually more than 160 individual images stitched together. There are full details about the photo, and large resolution versions, on the NASA/JPL website.

(Thanks BoingBoing)

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October 10, 2006

Happy Powers of Ten Day!

still image from The Powers of Ten film

Today, the tenth day of the tenth month, holds special importance for both fans of science and of the brilliant 20th century designers Charles and Ray Eames (I fall into both categories). It's Powers of Ten Day, a holiday inspired by The Eames' mind-blowing 1977 short film of the same name.

The film starts with a couple enjoying a picnic in a Chicago park. The camera, looking down from above, begins pulling out and up until it reaches the edge of the visible universe. Then is zooms back in until the view ends up inside the nucleus of a single atom in the hand of one of the picnickers.

In addition to being the single greatest tracking shot in the history of cinema, the film gives you a wonderfully clear insight into the vast size of the cosmos. I don't know a single scientist or artist who hasn't been inspired and/or stunned by this film.

Today and for the rest of the month, the powersof10.com website has the film available for free on-line viewing(*). By all means take nine minutes out of your day to watch!

If you want more info on the impact of "The Powers of Ten", check out the appreciation of it I did for the public radio arts program Studio360.

(*) Email registration requested.



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October 05, 2006

How to sneeze video

still images from the Why Don't We Do It In Our Sleeves? video

With the fall cold and flu season upon us, public health officials are busy trying to teach us how to fight the spread of airborne viruses. The latest weapon in their arsenal... this wonderfully wacky viral video short from a doctor in Maine titled "Why Don't We Do It In Our Sleeves?" Learn why sneezing unto your arm instead of into your hands is not just healthy, it'll make you romantically irresistible. You can see it on the video's official website or on Google Video.

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October 02, 2006

Lights out in Reykjavik

photo of aurora in Iceland by blue eyes/flickr.com

Reykjavik, Iceland is a city that's got its' priorities straight. Last Thursday night, street lights all over the city were turned off to make it easier for the residents to gaze up at the night sky. The lights out was organized as a way to kick off a big film festival in Reykjavik. Thousands of people went outside to gaze at the heavens, many of them listening to a live narration of the night sky being broadcast on the national radio network. Lisa Simpson would approve.

In case you were wondering, the Reykjavik police report absolutely no problems or crime caused by the outage.

[Photo of an Icelandic aurora by blue eyes/flickr.com]

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September 14, 2006

The Royal Society puts their 340 years of publications online

close up of Royal Society report from Benjamin Franklin

If you're a history of science junkie (or if you just like looking at cool old stuff) this is great news. For the rest of the year, England's Royal Society is offering their archives -- all 340 years of it -- on line for free viewing. This is an unbelievable collection of stuff. Among the highlights:

Benjamin Franklin's report on his experiments with electricity.

Francis Crick and James Watson describe the double helix structure of DNA.

Alexander Fleming's discovery of pennicillin.

After the New Year, the archives will still be available, but at a cost (between 8 and 25 pounds (U.K.) per article). Hopefully, the good press the Royal Society is getting from the free trial will persuade them to make the free offer permanent.

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September 11, 2006

Do bike helmets increase your chances of being hit by a car?

photo by Hey Paul/flickr.com. Original at http://www.flickr.com/photos/heypaul/2027460/

Ian Walker, who studies traffic psychology at the University of Bath in the U.K., has just released a fascinating new study that shows that if you wear a helmet overtaking cars pass by you more closely than if you're not wearing a helmet. Walker equipped himself with an ultrasonic distance device, hopped on his bike, and recorded how close more than 2,500 vehicles were when they passed him on the streets and roads of Salisbury and Bristol. His conclusion...wear a helmet and the average car passes you at a distance of 1.33 meters (4 feet, 4 inches). Don't wear a helmet and cars give you three inches more room when they pass. Walker theorizes that wearing a helmet indicates to the driver that you are a more experienced cyclist, and are therefore less likely to make sudden turns or otherwise behave unpredictably. (Of course, that may not be true at all, since inexperienced cyclists are particularly urged to wear helmets).

There's an article about the study in today's Daily Mail newspaper.

P.S. Don't let this study trick you into doing something stupid. Of course you should always wear a helmet when cycling. There are lots of other ways to have a bike accident than by being swiped by an overtaking car.

[photo by Hey Paul/flickr.com]

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August 30, 2006

Hey! Something just crashed into the moon!

artist rendering of the SMART-1 spacecraft

Don't get your hopes up, don't get all over-excited and blame me if this whole thing is a bust, but there's a chance you may see something crash into the moon this Saturday night.

The SMART-1 spacecraft has been orbiting the moon since 2004, making lunar observations and testing a new ion-drive propulsion system. Now the spacecraft has used up its fuel supply, so the controllers at the European Space Agency are letting SMART-1 drop down and plow into the lunar surface.

So, how do you see the impact? ESA scientists predict that SMART-1 will plow a shallow crater 3-10 meters wide and 1 meter deep into the Lake of Excellence at 10:41 pm PDT September 2, 2006 (01:41 pm EDT, or 05:41 UT September 3). Impact should occur at the lunar coordinates of 36.44 degrees South and 46.25 degrees West. To those of us who don't deal with lunar longitude and latitude on a daily basis (you know who you are), this translates to the lower left corner of the moon, just inside of the dark part. You can try to see the impact with the naked eye, but using binoculars or even a cheap telescope will vastly improve your chances of seeing something cool. The impact may appear to be a quick flash of an explosion, or a diffuse white glow (caused by lunar dust that gets tossed up and illuminated by sunlight).

That impact time is the current best guess of the navigators at the ESA. But since the spacecraft is falling down to the moon at a very shallow angle (picture a airplane coming in for a landing, as opposed to a rock falling from the sky), and since we don't have perfect topographic maps of the moon, it's possible that the SMART-1 could clip a hill and crash several hours earlier, or that the valley is deeper than expected and SMART-1 could crash a bit later than the predicted time. (The SMART-1 website will be updated with the latest crash predictions as the event gets closer).

The Planetary Society website has a good write-up on the SMART-1 crash.

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August 26, 2006

Pluto fights back

Honk if Pluto is still a planet bumper sticker

It's been three days since The International Astronomical Union ruled that Pluto is no longer a planet (BBC story on the ruling) and as you might expect there's been a groundswell of protest about the ruling.

I'm mentioned in an Associated Press story about products available online in the wake of the Pluto ruling. As a result, my "Honk if Pluto is still a planet" bumper stickers are selling like hotcakes. If you want to pick one up (only four bucks, all proceeds donated to The Planetary Society), you can order one here.

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August 24, 2006

The Planet Pluto: 1930 - 2006

Honk if Pluto is still a planet bumper sticker

Well, it's official. The International Astronomical Union has ruled that Pluto is not a planet. They rejected an alternative proposal that would have kept Pluto in the planet club and added several more bodies. (Here's a BBC story on the whole thing).

I'm of two minds about all of this. One the one hand, I like it that there are now standardized rigorous criteria for planet classification...this is SCIENCE after all. But on the other hand, I like the fact that human classification schemes are messy and inconsistent. (For instance, I love the fact that the length of the month is so variable, and that different cultures start their weeks on different days).

But if you're outraged by this decision, assuage your anger by picking up one (or more) of the "Honk if Pluto is still a planet" bumper stickers I just made. All proceeds donated to The Planetary Society.

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August 19, 2006

Reason #2,432 that Iceland kicks ass

section of New Scientist chart showing acceptance of evolution in different countries

If you know me, you know that I'm a rabid fan of Iceland...the landscape, the location, the people, the music and art scene, the bar scene, the whole vibe of the place. I don't need any further reasons to think Iceland is totally happening. But new reasons keep popping up anyway. The latest is a study by Jon Miller of Michigan State University showing that Iceland leads the way when it comes to the percentage of people who believe we evolved from other forms of animal life. Miller and his colleagues quizzed people in 32 European countries plus Japan and the U.S. Nearly 85% of people in Iceland accepted the scientific explanation of human evolution. Shockingly, only 40% of American in human evolution. Only Turkey had a lower score.

According to Miller and his team, the low number for the U.S. is due to high percentage of fundamentalist Christians in this country. Happily, Iceland is not burdened with that nonsense.

There's a write-up of Miller's study in this week's New Scientist. magazine. The study itself is published in the August 11 issue of Science.

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New species discovered on eBay

photo of seashell

No one really has a clue when it comes to how may species there are in the world... some estimates put the number as high as 100 million. Since scientists have only identified about 1.5 million, it's not surprising that new species turn up in on places, even on eBay.

As reported in New Scientist (and picked up by BoingBoing) a new species off sea urchin has shown up for auction on eBay. Collectors didn't recognize the species in any of their books, so they called on Simon Coppard at the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature in London. He realized that the urchin was a new species. It's been given the name d Coelopleurus exquisitus.

My favorite species discovery has to be the time that ant expert Edward O. Wilson discovered a new species of ant living in the potted plant in the office of the head of the World Wildlife Fund.

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August 16, 2006

Voyager sets another distance record

image of Voyager I spacecraft

I don't think I own a single piece of machinery that's continued to run...without repair...for 29 years. But NASA's got one -- the Voyager I spacecraft. Voyager was launched back in 1977 and it's been heading further and further and FURTHER from Earth ever since.

It's long been the furthest man-made object from Earth, but today Voyager sets another record when it reaches a distance of 100 astronomical units (AU) from Earth. An AU is the distance from the Earth to the Sun (about 93 million miles) so that means that Voyager is now more than nine BILLION miles from Earth...so far that the Sun just looks like another star...so far that it takes nearly 14 hours for its signal to reach the Earth.

The Planetary Society's website has a nice little write-up of this extraordinary technical achievement.

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August 14, 2006

Dead planet walking

photo of pluto

Tomorrow is the opening session for the General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union. This meeting is the event for the astronomical community, but this time there's a great deal of lay interest in the Assembly. That's because the IAU is also in charge of the official classification of celestial objects, and this time they're going to decide whether or not Pluto gets to stay a planet.

There are strong arguments for stripping Pluto of its planet status... it's tiny (our moon is bigger than Pluto, so are six moons orbiting other planets) and its orbit isn't very planet-like ( the orbit is severely tilted, more closely matching the orbits of some other Kuiper belt objects than those of the planets). A further blow to Pluto's status happened last year when CalTech's Michael Brown discovered another Kupier Belt object even bigger than Pluto. That object is still awaiting official name designation from the IAU, when Brown first discovered it, he called it "Xena". If Pluto is a planet, shouldn't Xena be one too?

On the other hand, there's a lot to be said for tradition and history, and we've had nine planets since Pluto was discovered back in 1930. And lots of school kids are taking the issue seriously, with letter writing campaigns to local science museums. Finally, who says we have to have consistent designations? Lots of scientific classification schemes are messy and inconsistent (You ever try to learn geologic periods? Or cloud types?).

A third possibility is to toss out the whole urinary "planet" thing, and replace it with a three-tier classification...gas giant planets like Saturn and Jupiter, rocky planets like Earth and Venus, and "mini-planets" like Pluto and Xena. That could raise the number of planets in our solar system from about two dozen to more than 50, depending on the minimum size cutoff.

Whatever happens, there's one thing for sure... the solar system is a much more interesting and varied place than you learned back in grade school.

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Houston vs. the bats

photo of bats by Linus Gelber, flickr.com

As reported in today's Los Angeles Times, the people of Houston have declared war on bats. This past spring a 16-year-old Houston boy died from rabies he contracted from a mexican free-tailed bat that flew into his bedroom. This has triggered a bit of a bat hunting frenzy in Houston, with people stomping them, gassing them, whacking them wiht baseball bats. The rabies control lab in Houston has been hit with hundreds of dead bats, brought in by paranoid residents convinced that they've just fought a lethal animal to the death.

Health officials in Houston have pointed out that less than one half of one percent of the bats in Houston have rabies, and that the Houston case is the only rabies death in the entire country this year. That doesn't seem to matter.

Right now the total number of bats killed is quite small, but there's ample president for public opinion toward an animal switching. If the whole "bats are evil" thing really takes off, there could be a significant reduction in the bat population in the region. Given that these bats each eat 2/3 of their weight in mosquitos every night, I hope the people of Houston won't mind lots more cases of West Nile disease.

(Bat photo by Linus Gelber/flickr.com)

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August 09, 2006

Fallen Astronaut

photo of Fallen Astronaut

Over at The Kircher Society website I was reminded of one of the less well-known events in the manned space program, the placement of Fallen Astronaut.

In July 1971, the crew of Apollo 15 placed on the surface of the Moon a three inch tall metal sculpture of an astronaut, accompanied by a small aluminum sign bearing the names of the 14 astronauts and cosmonauts who had died up to that point in space or in training for space. (*)

Fallen Astronaut was the work of Belgian artist Paul Van Hoeydonck, and it's been labeled as "the only work of art on the Moon". I don't think I buy that, I think the Moon is covered with art... there's the iconic American flag, there's the austere abstract sculptures of the base stages of the lunar modules, hell you could argue that making the first human footprint in the dust of the Moon is one of the greatest works of conceptual art in history.

But Fallen Astronaut may just be the smallest memorial art ever created. I certainly can't think of any other memorial that's only three inches tall. And yet somehow the tiny size strikes me as exactly right. Space is a huge place, and we humans are such a tiny part of it, it seems completely appropriate that this memorial is a tiny thing placed at a tiny spot on a minor planetoid.

You can see a blow-up of the NASA image of Fallen Astronaut here.

(*) The number of astronauts and cosmonauts who have died for the cause of space flight has now risen to 28, due to the Challenger and Columbia disasters.

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August 04, 2006

Does a parasite shape your country's personality?

Toxoplasma gondii parasites. Photo by Ke Hu and John Murray

When it comes to biology, there is nothing...and I mean NOTHING...weirder than parasitology. The latest proof comes from researcher Kevin D. Lafferty, at UC Santa Barbara. According to Lafferty's paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, some of the cliché differences between cultures ("You French are so neurotic!"You Japanese work so much." "You Americans are so loud and impolite.") may be partially caused by the parasitic protozoa Toxoplasma gondIii.

Toxoplasma often infects cats and other mammals, including humans. In humans, infection may cause some mild flu-like symptoms (often it causes no symptoms at all), but in small mammals like mice and rats it can cause significant behavioral changes. For instance, infected rats lose their fear of cats, making them easy prey (and thereby allowing the parasite to spread to the cat). There's long been speculation that Toxoplasmosis infection can also alter the brains of humans. For instance, people with Toxoplasma tend to be more self-doubting and insecure.

What Lafferty's done is to look at the rate of Toxoplasma infection in different countries (4% in Korea, 67% in Brazil) and compare it with psychologist's measures of traits like risk-adversion in different countries. And it turns out there is significant correlation.

Want to read more about the study? Seed Magazine writer Carl Zimmer has a great write-up on the study on his blog. By the way, Zimmer's book, Parasite Rex is a great introduction to parasites and their world.

(Toxoplasma photo by Ke Hu and John Murray)

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July 27, 2006

Jupiter's colliding storms

NASA photo of the storms of Jupiter

For more than 300 years (ever since we've had telescopes) we've been watching an unimaginably huge storm on the surface of Jupiter. Known as the Great Red Spot, it's an anti-cyclonic storm as much as three times the size of the entire earth.

It now looks like the second biggest storm on Jupiter (lovingly known as "Red Spot Jr."), may merge into the Great Red Spot, as early as in the next few days. NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day had a great image of the storms earlier this week.

This has no practical effect on us here on Earth of course, but if it happens it'll make for some kick-ass time-lapse videos.

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July 20, 2006

Spore in BusinessWeek

screen shot from Spore

The countdown to Spore, Will Wright's astonishing new video game, is in full swing. The release date may be as much as a full year away (no official release date has been given, but various statements put it anywhere from fall 2006 to June 2007), but whenever it appears, the consensus is that you've never seen anything like it. The current issue of BusinessWeek magazine has an article about the game and what it's like to play it...

In many ways, the next phase – creature design – will be the core element of the game. And we were able to dive into the editor, design a creature, and send it out into the wild. The Creature Editor is astonishingly easy to use and powerful. You start by picking a backbone, which you can stretch by pulling the ends, and deform by grabbing and pulling (Maxis calls it a metaball). It comes with a standard thickness of flesh around it, which again, you can adjust, creating a body which could resemble your favorite animal or something never before seen in nature.

I can't wait.

P.S. Last month Spore creator Will Wright and musician Brian Eno shared a stage for one of the mind-expanding Long Now Seminars. They had a wonderful discussion about the nature and process of creativity. The audio of their discussion is available.

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July 18, 2006

Scientists embrace the Thagomizer

thumbnail of Gary Larson's thagomizer cartoon

You ever wonder what that thing with all of the pointy spikes on the end of a Stegosaurus is called? Paleontologists needed to come up with an agreed upon term for it, and (as reported in New Scientist), it looks like they adopted thagomizer, in honor of a cartoon that Gary Larson drew back in 1982. In the cartoon a caveman is giving a lecture on the Stegosaurus, saying...

"Now this end is called the thagomizer, after the late Thag Simmons."

You can see the cartoon on Wikipedia.

There's no official governing body for dinosaur anatomical nomenclature (the way there is for, say, the names of newly discovered moons), but the term thagomizer is being used in journal articles, in dinosaur reference books, and (coolest of all) on the sign next to the Smithsonian Institution's stegosaur fossil display.

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July 15, 2006

New thoughts on the causes of obesity

photo of obesity and food billboards, taken by ktheory, flickr.com

There's a very interesting article about obesity on slate.com. Sydney Spiesel, who's a professor of pediatrics at Yale and who's been looking at some recent scientific papers on the subject, explains why the simple "you eat too much and exercise too little" view may be missing some other significant factors:

Not enough sleep -- Inadequate sleep may change the levels of two hormones that induce feelings of hunger.

Heating and air conditioning -- Hot sleeping temperatures depress appetite, cold sleeping temperatures cause the body to burn more calories during sleep.

Chemical contamination -- There's growing evidence that a number of chemical pollutants in the environment mimic the behavior of female hormones, which can stimulate the body to accumulate fat.

But I thought the most interesting part of the article comes at the end, where Spiesel talks about a study by T.J. Wilken et al in Nature that examines attempts to get some obese schoolkids to lose weight. It turns out that increasing physical activity almost never helps these kids...they seem to have an amazing (and only semi-conscious or unconscious) ability to adjust their total amount of activity throughout the week. Make them go to gym class an hour a day, and they'll end up expending less energy the rest of the day.

This all may leave parents of an obese kid bit depressed, but then Spiesel talks about one thing that he has seen work in his patients...positive self image:

...adolescents who lose weight are more likely to have acquired a positive sense of themselves, because they've had some academic or athletic success, or some other notable accomplishment. Sometimes they have embarked on a successful romantic relationship. And often parents and other adults in their life focus on their strengths rather than harping on weight and appearance.

The article is a fine bit 'o science writing, worth reading. (The billboard photo is by ktheory on flickr.com)

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July 13, 2006

Visual analysis of the World Cup final

world cup field

Looking for a way to remember the final World Cup game between France and Italy? Check out this visualization of the match by the Austrian company FAS.research. It shows the passes from every player to those three team-mates he passes to most frequently. Arrow thickness equals the number of passes, the size of each player's circle indicates the influence (flowbetweenness) of a player.

The full-size image (available here) is 3565x3513 pixels. Perfect size for your cubicle wall. (Thanks Visual Complexity).

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July 08, 2006

Chance picks Hollywood's blockbusters

A few days ago there was an article in the Los Angeles Times that is every Hollywood producer's worst fear laid bare. The article, by physicist and mathematician Leonard Mlodinow, shows how much the success or failure of movies depends on chance and chance alone. As Mlodinow points out, this is bad news indeed for Hollywood execs:

That no one can know whether a film will hit or miss has been an uncomfortable suspicion in Hollywood at least since novelist and screenwriter William Goldman enunciated it in his classic 1983 book "Adventures in the Screen Trade." If Goldman is right and a future film's performance is unpredictable, then there is no way studio executives or producers, despite all their swagger, can have a better track record at choosing projects than an ape throwing darts at a dartboard.

That's a bold statement, but these days it is hardly conjecture: With each passing year the unpredictability of film revenue is supported by more and more academic research.

Mlodinow's article is a great, layman-friendly explaination of how random chance works, how some producers can be hot while others have flop after flop without talent having anything to do with it, and why after a studio head gets canned the studio will usually do better no matter who takes over. This is one of the best general readership pieces I've seen on probability in everyday life in a long time. Here's a link to the article.

P.S. Book publisher Tim O'Reilly has also been talking about this article on his O'Reilly Radar blog. He doesn't buy into all of Mlodinow's arguments, feeling that positive word of mouth plays a very important role in a film's success or failure. (But of course, since you can't predict word of mouth it becomes just another random element).

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June 28, 2006

Tonight in LA: What Is It Like To Be A Spider?

photo of spider attacking TV image

Jumping spiders have one of the most advanced vision systems in the whole animal world...they see better than any other invertabrate and better than many mammals. For example, the photo above is of a jumping spider recognizing and attacking a cartoon spider on TV...a feat beyond the ability of any other invertabrate. How do they pull this all off with a brain that consists of just a few thousand neurons? Spider expert Dr Simon Pollard lays out how a spider sees the world tonight at 7:30 at the Telic Arts Exchange gallery. His talk is part of the Insect Trilogy of talks, put on by the wonderful Institute for Figuring.

Here's more info about the talk.

The Telic Arts Exchange is located at 975 Chung King Road, in the heart of the Chinatown section of Los Angeles.
Here's a map.

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Asteroid hunting telescope gets ready to save us all

telescope

This new telescope designed to spot potentially dangerous asteroids has taken its first test images. When it is upgraded with the world's largest camera in 2007, it will be able to find space rocks as small as a few hundred metres wide. Four of these 'scopes will be built in Hawaii. When they're all on line (in 2010) they'll scan the entire visible sky three times every month. There's a good news article about the telescopes in New Scientist magazine.

Of course, once we spot a space object about to smash into earth what we do about it is a completely different matter. Astronaut Rusty Schweickart gave a great talk on just that subject a couple of years ago (Did you know there is a substantial percentage of the population that wants an asteroid to hit the earth? Yow!). It was one of the many mind-expanding talks presented by the Long Now Foundation. There's audio of the talk on their seminar archive page (it's down near the bottom).

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June 26, 2006

Lightning hot spots

map of global lightning hot spots

You think lightning never strikes twice in the same spot? Don't try telling that to residents of the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. That part of the earth gets more lightning strikes per year than anywhere else, according to the NASA Lightning & Atmospheric Research Center. The geology.com blog pointed me at this website, which has an insane amount of data about lightning flashes, thanks to some satellites that spend all of their time looking down at the earth, watching for telltale lightning flashes. geology.com also has a larger version of the global lightning map.

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Al Gore takes on Bender

image of Al Gore and Bender

Hopefully by now you've all seen An Inconvenient Truth, the film version of Al Gore's presentation about the terrible consequences of global warming. (If not, get to it).

If the film has left you in need of a little levity, check out this great trailer made by Rough Draft Studios, the folks who draw Futurama.

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June 23, 2006

Measles at World Cup

OK, so it's not as catchy a title as Snakes on a Plane, but New Scientist Magazine reports that Measles has broken out in the North Rhine-Westphalia region of Germany, which has three cities hosting World Cup games. It'll be interesting to see if all of the international travel to and from that region leads to a quicker spread to other countries, particularily in the Western Hemisphere. Six of the eight World Cup teams from the Western Hemisphere -- Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico, the US and Trinidad and Tobago -- are playing games in the affected area.

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May 04, 2006

Mount St. Helens grows 'fin'

USGS photo of fin forming in Mt. Saint Helens

Mount St. Helens continues to be showing all sorts of crazy cool volcanic activity. Right now, there's a fin-shaped slab of rock the size of a football field rising vertically inside of the crater. The slab rises about four or five feet a day. The slab's been holding steady at about a hundred meters tall, since the top tends to crumble away at about the same rate that it rises.

The overall lava dome within the caldera has been pushing outward at a rate of about a meter a day.

The local TV station website has more images of the fin. The US Forest Service has a live webcam trained on Mt. Saint Helens.

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April 29, 2006

Starlings understand basic grammar

photo of singing starling

For a bird vocalization geek like myself, this is big news...

Scientists at the University of California in San Diego have demonstrated that European Starlings understand simple grammar. As described on the CBC website...

European starlings were trained to tell the difference between a regular "sentence" of birdsong and one with a clause embedded in it.

The findings by psychologist Timothy Gentner of the University of California at San Diego challenge a finding by linguist Noam Chomsky.

Chomsky theorized humans are unique in the animal world in their ability to use recursive grammar – that is, inserting an explanatory clause such as this one – in sentences.

Gentner's team showed starlings could recognize a recursive type of grammar involving warbles and rattles instead of words.

This is the first time a species other than humans have been shown to possess this ability. The paper is published in this week's edition of Nature.

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April 23, 2006

The Cartoon Laws of Physics

Wile E. Coyote.

You know all of this of course, but it's always good to see it written down in one place... The Cartoon Laws of Physics.

Cartoon Law 3

Any body passing through solid matter will leave a perforation conforming to its perimeter.

Also called the silhouette of passage, this phenomenon is the speciality of victims of directed-pressure explosions and of reckless cowards who are so eager to escape that they exit directly through the wall of a house, leaving a cookie-cutout-perfect hole. The threat of skunks or matrimony often catalyzes this reaction.

The full set of laws is online at Digital Digressions.

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April 17, 2006

Happy Apollo 13 "Failure is not an option" Day

Mission Control in Houston after the safe return of Apollo 13

Today is the 36th anniversary of the day the crew of Apollo 13 made it safely back to Earth. As fictionalized in the movie "Apollo 13", this is one of the all-time great bits of hacking...bringing a crippled spacecraft a quarter of a million miles back to Earth. The NASA website has a number of cool photos of the mission. The photo above is of the celebration in Mission Control after the safe recovery of the Apollo 13 astronauts. (That's Gene Kranz, the head of mission control, smoking the cigar). Here are some other faves:

Mission Control during the final 24 hours of the Apollo 13 flight
Mission Control during the final 24 hours of the Apollo 13 mission.

Photo of the damaged Apollo 13 Service Module
Photo of the damaged Apollo 13 Service Module.

Apollo 13 astronaut John L. Swigert holds the jury-rigged lithium hydroxide scrubber used to remove excess carbon dioxide from the damaged Apollo 13 spacecraft.
Astronaut John L. Swigert holds the jury-rigged lithium hydroxide scrubber used to remove excess carbon dioxide from the damaged Apollo 13 spacecraft.

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March 30, 2006

Wanted: Aircraft designers for Mars

drawing of UAV

How's this for a challange? Design a reliable, ultra light-weight robotic flying machine. And as a kicker...it needs to work on Mars.

The European Space Agency is kicking off a student competition, looking for the most practical and innovative Martian Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) designs. If you're a European aerospace student, check out the contest website.

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March 28, 2006

Cassini spacecraft continues to kick all kinds of ass

Cassini image of Janus, Titan, and the rings of Saturn

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter may be getting all of the press this month, but the Cassini probe waaaay out there at Saturn continues to send back astonishingly cool photos. This one shows Saturn's moon Janus in front of the rings and Titan beyond – Saturn itself is beyond the picture to the right.

[Link to larger version]

[Cassini home page]

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March 23, 2006

Google tech talks available online

At the Google headquarters campus in Mountain View, Calirnia (known by everyone who works there as the "'Googleplex") there's a regular series of "tech Talks"...presentations by Google staffers and guests on a wide variety of subjects.

Google is making videos of the Tech Talks available via the Google Video website. Many of the talks focus on the types of high-end search and intenet technology that are Google's bread and butter ("Internet Advertising and the Generalized Second Price Auction" is a typical subject) but there are also lots of more far-ranging talks. My favorite: geologist Monika Kress' account of her summer spent scouring the plains of Antarctica looking for meteorites.

To see the currently available talks, just go to http://video.google.com/videosearch?q=techtalks

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March 18, 2006

Mark Morford's thoughts on Kiwa hirsuta

SF Chronicle writer Mark Morford recently had a wonderful column about Kiwa hirsuta, that just-discoverd weird and wonderful deep-sea crustacean...

photo of crab species Kiwa hirsuta

In it Morford talks about the long march of knowledge...how we are constantly learning, sure, but (more poignantly) also constantly forgetting:

Knowledge, we have to realize, is not fixed in stone. It is transitory and ephemeral and exists only so long as we pump it with meaning. It is merely part of the mad vaporous wheel of existence, an ongoing cycle of discovering and forgetting, of lurching forward and then stumbling back and standing up again and taking everything we think we know and packing it into a little puffy snowball and hurling it at the head of the Future in the hopes that the Future will turn around and unbutton its liquid trench coat and show us something surprising. Or maybe just laugh and return fire. It's pretty much all we can do.

I thought it was a wonderful bit of writing. Check it out.

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Is there a better way to learn math?

A guy named Steve Yegge has an interesting rant against the way that math is taught. He proposes an alternative way to re-learn all of that math that you learned in college and then forgot:

I think the best way to start learning math is to spend 15 to 30 minutes a day surfing in Wikipedia. It's filled with articles about thousands of little branches of mathematics. You start with pretty much any article that seems interesting (e.g. String theory, say, or the Fourier transform, or Tensors, anything that strikes your fancy. Start reading. If there's something you don't understand, click the link and read about it. Do this recursively until you get bored or tired.

OK, what the hell, I can scam 15 minutes somewhere each day. Off to start re-learning matricies...

Link to Steve Yegge's article

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