May 6th, 2013
Another time-lapse sequence, this time of the US National Science Foundation's icebreaker the Nathaniel B. Palmer, traveling through the Ross Sea in Antarctica. Pink ice. Blue ice. Penguins. What more could you ask for?
April 13th, 2013
Emily Lakdawalla has posted a fascinating account, translated from the Russian original, of how a group of space enthusiasts combed images of the surface of Mars. Their aim: to find the Mars 3 lander that managed to transmit radio signals for 14 seconds back on 2 December 1971 before falling silent.
April 6th, 2013
November 8th, 2012
It's elfansafety gone mad at the BBC:
[Professor Brian Cox...], the former pop star turned particle physicist, wanted to use the Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire to listen in to the planet, Threapleton Holmes B, on his BBC2 series Stargazing Live.
"The BBC actually said, 'But you can't do that because we need to go through the regulations and health and safety and everything in case we discover a signal from an alien civilisation'.
"You mean we would discover the first hint that there is other intelligent life in the universe beyond Earth, live on air, and you're worried about the health and safety of it?
"It was incredible. They did have guidelines. Compliance."
Methinks Professor Cox might be stretching the truth just a tad here in the interests of having an amusing anecdote to relate when doing publicity work for his show.
Besides, we all know that the BBC nowadays would be more concerned about a) making sure that the aliens hadn't arranged for their fees for participating in the programme to go via some shady tax-efficient offshore company, b) checking that intercepting radio signals from a distant star couldn't possibly be classed as a form of phone hacking, and c) ensuring that the aliens were wearing a poppy while broadcasting their message.
[Via The Awl]
October 16th, 2012
September 25th, 2012
Natalie Angier on army ants and their parasites:
[Wherever...] there are army ants out on a hunting raid, peckish antbirds are almost sure to follow.
The birds are not foolish enough to try to eat them: Army ants are fiercely mandibled and militantly cohesive. Instead, they hope to skim off a percentage of the ants' labor, by snatching up any grasshoppers, beetles, spiders or small lizards that may jump to the side in a frantic attempt to elude the oncoming avalanche of predatory ants.
It's a gleeful reversal of the conventional notion of parasites as little, ticky things that plague large, poorly dressed hosts. Here the big vertebrates are the parasites, freeloading off insects a fraction of their size. [...]
Fun and frightening as the army ants are, the real stars are the birds. Angier explains that the antbirds' behaviour is in flux. Over time, as the populations of the various species of antbird fluctuate, scientists are observing how species are changing their behaviour in order to take advantage of the opportunities that open up. Fascinating stuff.
[Via The Awl]
September 11th, 2012
Suw Charman-Anderson wants to put Ada Lovelace Day on a firmer footing:
This year, it has become really clear to me that there's a lot more that I could do with Ada Lovelace Day, if only we had a bit of cash to pay for it. Since its inception, Ada Lovelace Day has been run entirely by volunteers and by partnering with organisations like the Women's Engineering Society, Association for UK Interactive Entertainment, London Games Festival and BCS Women. We have managed a huge amount through the kindness and generosity of our volunteers and partners, but there is more we could do.
I now want to create a formal charitable organisation to support women in STEM, not just on one day of the year, but all year round. Some of our goals include creating educational materials about iconic women, providing media training, and building a directory of expert speakers.
There's an Indiegogo appeal up and running if you'd like to help make this happen.
September 5th, 2012
I wonder how many science fiction writers have drafted stories where this phenomenon is a deeply meaningful, possibly even elegiac, symbol of … something or other…
While the $5.50 nylon flags are still waving on the windless orb, they are not flags of the United States of America anymore. All Moon and material experts have no doubt about it: the flags are now completely white. If you leave a flag on Earth for 43 years, it would be almost completely faded. On the Moon, with no atmospheric protection whatsoever, that process happens a lot faster. The stars and stripes disappeared from our Moon flags quite some time ago.
Alternatively, this is just another attempt by NASA to drum up support for another series of moonshots:
Mr President, we can't let the next passing alien invasion fleet think we've surrendered. We must go back and plant a pristine flag at Tranquility, oh, every decade or so.
August 20th, 2012
Advice from How to Spot a Psychopath, a.k.a. The Ministry of Safer Walks:
A reader writes:
I have heard on the [construction worksite] that if a power line falls, or someone drives a crane into power lines [...] you should move away from the danger site by taking tiny little steps, or even jumps with your feet together. [...]
Is the pogo away from the power line thing just another way to make people look stupid? Doesn't the electricity get grounded into the… ground?
Oddly enough, this is actually good advice. It may not be necessary in a particular situation, but better to look a bit of a dick and survive than stride away in manly fashion and die. [...]
The details as to why hopping it is silly-looking but safe are fascinating.
March 12th, 2012
The Scale of the Universe Interactive: think of it as a Flash version of Powers of Ten, crossed with a Total Perspective Vortex.
December 7th, 2011
Emily Lakdawalla reports from the 2011 Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union:
Voyager 1 is very close to the heliopause. Last year at this time, the Voyager team reported that the outward-directed speed of the solar wind had dropped nearly to zero. With this observation and a mental model of the way the boundary between the solar wind and the interstellar medium should work, they formed a hypothesis: we are near the heliopause, and the direction of the energetic particles that Voyager 1 can measure should be shifting from the outward and east-west directed flow to a north-south one, the direction of the interstellar medium. So the simple experiment that the scientists needed to do to test their hypothesis was to measure the north-south flow of energetic particles. They predicted that they should be seeing increased north-south flow, matching the interstellar medium.
There are three cool aspects to what happened next.
- In order to perform the experiment the scientists would have to get Voyager 1 to change orientation – something it last managed 21 years ago. Not only did Voyager 1 pull this off, but it did so four times so that they could check their findings.
- The scientists found that their eminently plausible hypothesis was completely unsupported by the evidence Voyager produced. Cue much scratching of heads, and the formulation of a new hypothesis.
- With any luck, Voyager still will be around to test that hypothesis in due course.
Given that Voyager 1 was launched in 1977 and is still producing worthwhile scientific data thirty-plus years on, it must be the most cost-effective satellite in the history of space exploration.
October 16th, 2011
The distribution of Nobel prizes by country and year.
Whilst I understand the author's reasons for charting the host country of the winners, it'd be instructive to be able to overlay that data with further data sets showing the country of origin of the winners and the country they were in when they did the initial work that won them the award. Not so much to try to get some credit for academics who went to the USA in search of funding and facilities, but rather to see to what extent there's a pattern of people making discoveries/coming up with new theories early in their career then moving to the US to exploit/elaborate upon their initial insight. The question this chart doesn't answer is whether the winners had to go to the US in order to make their breakthroughs, or whether it was making their initial breakthrough that brought them to the attention of the big US institutions.
[Via Flowing Data]
September 13th, 2011
The Curious Science of Counting a Crowd.
Give us another half decade or so of smartphone market penetration and this'll be a solved problem, at least in the 'developed' world. The police will just grab copies of the logs from the mobile phone masts adjacent to the meeting site and count up the number of different devices that tried to access them during the course of the demo/rally/parade.
OK, so strictly speaking they'll be counting mobile phones rather than people, but I bet it'll still produce a count well within the 10% margin of error researchers currently hope to achieve using statistical methods.
[Via The Morning News]
August 16th, 2011
Mathematician and electrical engineer Charles Proteus Steinmetz, also known as The Wizard of Schenectady, knew his worth:
[Henry] Ford, whose electrical engineers couldn't solve some problems they were having with a gigantic generator, called Steinmetz in to the plant. Upon arriving, Steinmetz rejected all assistance and asked only for a notebook, pencil and cot. [...] Steinmetz listened to the generator and scribbled computations on the notepad for two straight days and nights. On the second night, he asked for a ladder, climbed up the generator and made a chalk mark on its side. Then he told Ford's skeptical engineers to remove a plate at the mark and replace sixteen windings from the field coil. They did, and the generator performed to perfection.
Henry Ford was thrilled until he got an invoice from General Electric in the amount of $10,000. Ford acknowledged Steinmetz's success but balked at the figure. He asked for an itemized bill.
Steinmetz [...] responded personally to Ford's request with the following:
|Making chalk mark on generator
|Knowing where to make mark
Ford paid the bill.
Prior to reading the Smithsonian Magazine profile I've linked to above I'd heard of Steinmetz, but only insofar as I knew he was a renowned genius: I had no idea of the reasons for his fame. I turns out that Steinmetz had quite a life, from arriving in the US as a 23 year-old Polish immigrant in 1888 to passing away at the age of 58, famous for his amazing inventions, and contented as grandfather/wizard-in-residence to the children of his adopted son Joseph Hayden.
Next time Peter Dinklage takes a break between filming seasons of A Game of Thrones, someone needs to sign him up for a Steinmetz biopic.
July 13th, 2011
The case of the disappearing teaspoons: longitudinal cohort study of the displacement of teaspoons in an Australian research institute…
In January 2004 the authors found their tearoom bereft of teaspoons. Although a flunky [...] was rapidly dispatched to purchase a new batch, these replacements in turn disappeared within a few months. Exasperated by our consequent inability to stir in our sugar and to accurately dispense instant coffee, we decided to respond in time honoured epidemiologists' fashion and measure the phenomenon. [...]
June 18th, 2011
7 TV scientists that even real scientists approve of, as chosen by Phil 'Bad Astronomer' Plait.
Not a bad list at all, except that I would have dropped Rajesh Koothrappali in favour of his friend and sometime colleague Sheldon Cooper, and I have strong doubts about including the Doctor: I'd add Professor Bernard Quatermass in his place.
April 21st, 2011
The Chemistry of Creme Eggs, or, I've Never Seen a Creme Egg Catch Fire Before.
[Via Pop Loser]
April 17th, 2011
In 1962, Michel Siffre had an idea:
In 1962, you were just twenty-three years old. What made you decide to live underground in complete isolation for sixty-three days?
You have to understand, I was a geologist by training. In 1961, we discovered an underground glacier in the Alps, about seventy kilometers from Nice. At first, my idea was to prepare a geological expedition, and to spend about fifteen days underground studying the glacier, but a couple of months later, I said to myself, "Well, fifteen days is not enough. I shall see nothing." So, I decided to stay two months. And then this idea came to me – this idea that became the idea of my life. I decided to live like an animal, without a watch, in the dark, without knowing the time.
Instead of studying caves, you ended up studying time.
Yes, I invented a simple scientific protocol. I put a team at the entrance of the cave. I decided I would call them when I woke up, when I ate, and just before I went to sleep. My team didn't have the right to call me, so that I wouldn't have any idea what time it was on the outside. Without knowing it, I had created the field of human chronobiology. [...]
March 19th, 2011
Ian Lyon (quoted by Emily Lakdawalla) on checking the Hayabusa probe's sample chambers:
When the sample chambers were opened they looked clean and empty. There was nothing visible larger than one millimeter in size, but fortunately on closer inspection, some smaller grains were observed. The team tried to pick out the grains with a quartz glass probe but this wasn't too successful at picking up the small particles. They then tried scraping a Teflon spatula across some of the chamber surface and fortunately on subsequent inspection in an SEM, found a number of grains stuck to the edge of the spatula. These grains had to be picked from the Teflon spatula and distinguished and separated from a large number of similarly sized aluminium-rich particles that were also present, a result of the scraping of the aluminium sample chamber surface.
Finally, somewhat in desperation one suspects, they turned the chamber upside down and held it over a quartz disk and hit the back of the chamber 20 times with the handle of a large screwdriver!
Sometimes, brute force and ignorance really is the only option.