Good, honest muck

June 7th, 2015

Just think of all the immunities the kid is building up, one handful of dirt at a time.

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Watch the ray cats

May 14th, 2014

This week's 99% Invisible podcast discussed recent efforts to figure out how to warn our great-to-the-Nth grandchildren about the risks of nuclear waste being stored at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, given the distinct possibility that language will have drifted over the course of 10,000 years to the point where a sign saying 'DANGER: Radioactive waste!' may not be understood.

The most hands-down 99pi favorite solution, though, didn't come from the WIPP brainstorm – rather, it came out of the Human Interference Task Force, a similar panel that was pulled together in 1981 for the now-defunct Yucca Mountain project. It was proposed by two philosophers, Françoise Bastide and Paolo Fabbri.

Bastide and Fabbri came to the conclusion that the most durable thing that humanity has ever made is culture: religion, folklore, belief systems. They may morph over time, but an essential message can get pulled through over millennia. They proposed that we genetically engineer a species of cat that changes color in the presence of radiation, which would be released into the wild to serve as living Geiger counters. Then, we would create folklore and write songs and tell stories about these "ray cats," the moral being that when you see these cats change colors, run far, far away.

Makes you wonder if there's some bit of puzzling animal behaviour going on all around us right now about which the folklore has failed to be passed down or got distorted. Instead of pointing and laughing at all those Animals Sucking at Jumping as it becomes clear what terrible, long-forgotten threat they were trying to warn us about?

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Beauty of Mathematics

November 10th, 2013

Beauty of Mathematics speaks for itself, preferably in full-screen mode:

For the record, I can't begin to vouch for the mathematical formulae in the left hand pane bearing any relationship to the phenomena shown in the middle and right hand panes of the video. But it's really pretty, which is way more important than accuracy any day.1

[Via swissmiss]

  1. Isn't it?

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Poor thing

October 29th, 2013

Poor cat

[Via Schlock Mercenary]

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… so they'll nuke us from orbit, just to make sure.

October 16th, 2013

Headline of the Week/Month/Year candidate, courtesy of Popular Science:

Space-Born Jellyfish Hate Life On Earth.

[Via jwz]

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Love in a cold climate

September 18th, 2013

The Wellcome Library blog tells the tale of the Common Cold Unit:

Volunteers were kept in strict isolation from the outside world and from others taking part in the trial. But as one CCU press release puts it, 'isolation is not as bad as it seems. All the flats are connected by phone so you can talk to that smashing blonde in the next flat'.

Another volunteer information sheet in the collection warns that 'chatting up other volunteers in a different flat can only be by telephone, or at a very long range outside.' Romances did bloom despite the isolation and blocked noses; on his ninth visit to the unit, one guitar-strumming volunteer wooed a neighbouring oboist by playing duets at 30 feet. Love in a cold climate.

I'm slightly surprised that nobody ever exploited such comedic gold for a sitcom. Probably made by the folks behind On the Buses or Mind Your Language or Man About the House.1

  1. I don't know why, but something about the premise just screams 'early 1970s sitcom' to me.

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Ice breaking (with added penguins)

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?

[Via MetaFilter]

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Mars 3 Nil, Mars 1

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.

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Prince Rupert's Drop

April 6th, 2013

Mystery of Prince Rupert's Drop at 130,000 fps.

[Via More Words, Deeper Hole]

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Healh & Safety: The Final Frontier

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]

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Marie Curie. Rachel Carson. Sally Ride. Grace Hopper. Rosalind Franklin. Jane Goodall.

October 16th, 2012

Posters of Six Women Who Changed Science. And The World.

Grace Hopper poster

For Ada Lovelace Day.


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Antbirds spotted

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]

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Support Ada Lovelace Day

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.

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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.

[Via LinkMachineGo!]

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Pogoing away from the power lines

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.

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Zooming in and out

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.

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'Something new and surprising every 6 to 12 months'

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. With any luck,1 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.

  1. And assuming that it doesn't end up taking a detour and coming back as Vejur.

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Big Research

October 16th, 2011

The distribution of Nobel prizes by country1 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.2 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.3

[Via Flowing Data]

  1. Which means the country hosting the researchers at the time of their award, rather than the nationality of the recipients.
  2. At least for the science awards: the Literature and Peace awards are much more widely distributed, and I'd imagine that the career path of the recipients of those awards isn't much like that of the scientists and economists who gave the US the huge lead it holds in the chart.
  3. It'd all be something of a generalisation of course, with lots of room for individual decisions to have been skewed by factors beyond the issue of where research could best be carried out, but still potentially instructive.

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Everybody Lies

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.1

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]

  1. For bonus points, by that time smartphone suppliers will be under a legal obligation to make their devices pass on their GPS coordinates whenever they try to talk to a mobile phone base station, so as to make it easier for the police to distinguish between those situated inside the park and those 50 yards outside, just passing by. What do you mean 'It's no business of the government where I'm standing'? If you've got nothing to hide then you've got nothing to worry about, have you? Well, have you?

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Charles Proteus Steinmetz

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 $1.
Knowing where to make mark $9,999.

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.1 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 son2 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.3

  1. He was the sort of person whose name gets bandied about in not-so-good science fiction stories where a character rattles off a list of historic geniuses which just happens to mostly consist of people the audience have heard of even though the story is set hundreds of years in the future: "You'll be remembered alongside Galileo, Newton, Steinmetz, Feynman, Spock of Vulcan …", that sort of thing.
  2. And long-serving laboratory assistant.
  3. Ideally, one guest starring David Bowie as Nikola Tesla, reprising his role from The Prestige.

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