Ruh-roh. Remember the news last month about the detection of gravitational waves would have allowed scientists to see all the way back to the Big Bang? Well, that result may be in jeopardy. The problem? Dust on the lens. Well, not on the lens exactly:
An imprint left on ancient cosmic light that was attributed to ripples in spacetime -- and hailed by some as the discovery of the century -- may have been caused by ashes from an exploding star.
In the most extreme scenario, the finding could suggest that what looked like a groundbreaking result was only a false alarm. Another possibility is that the stellar ashes could help bring the result in line with other cosmic observations. We should know which it is later this year, when researchers report new results from the European Space Agency's Planck satellite.
You may also remember the video of physicist Andrei Linde being told about the result, which seemed to confirm a theory that had been his life's work. I don't think I want to see the video of Linde being told of this stellar ashes business. Although Linde is more than aware that this is how science works...you have to go where observation takes you. (via @daveg)
The US Navy is working on technology to convert seawater into fuel to power unmodified combustion engines. They recently tested the fuel (successfully!) in a replica P-51 and hope to make it commerically viable.
Navy researchers at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), Materials Science and Technology Division, demonstrated proof-of-concept of novel NRL technologies developed for the recovery of carbon dioxide (CO2) and hydrogen (H2) from seawater and conversion to a liquid hydrocarbon fuel.
Fueled by a liquid hydrocarbon -- a component of NRL's novel gas-to-liquid (GTL) process that uses CO2 and H2 as feedstock -- the research team demonstrated sustained flight of a radio-controlled (RC) P-51 replica of the legendary Red Tail Squadron, powered by an off-the-shelf (OTS) and unmodified two-stroke internal combustion engine.
Using an innovative and proprietary NRL electrolytic cation exchange module (E-CEM), both dissolved and bound CO2 are removed from seawater at 92 percent efficiency by re-equilibrating carbonate and bicarbonate to CO2 and simultaneously producing H2. The gases are then converted to liquid hydrocarbons by a metal catalyst in a reactor system.
"In close collaboration with the Office of Naval Research P38 Naval Reserve program, NRL has developed a game-changing technology for extracting, simultaneously, CO2 and H2 from seawater," said Dr. Heather Willauer, NRL research chemist. "This is the first time technology of this nature has been demonstrated with the potential for transition, from the laboratory, to full-scale commercial implementation."
After many days of analysis by scientists and internet sleuths alike, it's likely that the thing pictured whizzing by the skydiver in this video is not a meteorite but a plain old rock that got packed in with his parachute. Phil Plait reports:
I actually became convinced last night, when BA Tweep Helge Bjorkhaug sent me a link to a slowed-down version of the video. Immediately before the rock flies past, I saw a second piece of debris just to the right of the skydiver's parachute strap. It was in several frames, and clearly real.
So yeah, bummer, not a meteorite. But as Plait notes, that's how science works.
That's how you get to the truth, folks. Open inquiry, honest investigation, and acceptance of the line of evidence no matter where it leads.
Researchers at Stanford have observed that foraging harvester ants act like TCP/IP packets, so much so that they're calling the ants' behavior "the anternet".
Transmission Control Protocol, or TCP, is an algorithm that manages data congestion on the Internet, and as such was integral in allowing the early web to scale up from a few dozen nodes to the billions in use today. Here's how it works: As a source, A, transfers a file to a destination, B, the file is broken into numbered packets. When B receives each packet, it sends an acknowledgment, or an ack, to A, that the packet arrived.
This feedback loop allows TCP to run congestion avoidance: If acks return at a slower rate than the data was sent out, that indicates that there is little bandwidth available, and the source throttles data transmission down accordingly. If acks return quickly, the source boosts its transmission speed. The process determines how much bandwidth is available and throttles data transmission accordingly.
It turns out that harvester ants (Pogonomyrmex barbatus) behave nearly the same way when searching for food. Gordon has found that the rate at which harvester ants -- which forage for seeds as individuals -- leave the nest to search for food corresponds to food availability.
A forager won't return to the nest until it finds food. If seeds are plentiful, foragers return faster, and more ants leave the nest to forage. If, however, ants begin returning empty handed, the search is slowed, and perhaps called off.
The reboot of Cosmos has been solid but not spectacular so far, but the second episode contains as solid and clear an explanation of evolution as I've ever seen.
Even if evolution clashes with your world view, this is worth watching if only to understand what you're aligned against (per Bret Victor's advice). The third episode airs on Fox tonight and is about the creation of the scientific method.
Update: Many people have asked what Kuo is saying to Linde on the doorstep. Let's start with "5 sigma". The statistical measure of standard deviation (represented by the Greek letter sigma) is an indication of how sure scientists are of their results. (It has a more technical meaning than that, but we're not taking a statistics course here.) A "5 sigma" level of standard deviation indicates 99.99994% certainty of the result...or a 0.00006% chance of a statistical fluctuation. That's a 1 in 3.5 million chance. This is the standard particle physicists use for declaring the discovery of a new particle.
The "point-2" is a bit more difficult to explain. Sean Carroll definesr as "the ratio of gravitational waves to density perturbations" as measured by the BICEP2 experiment, the telescope used to make these measurements. What BICEP2 found was an r value of 0.2:
According to the theory of Inflation, the Universe underwent a violent and rapid expansion at only 10^-35 seconds after the Big Bang, making the horizon size much larger, and allowing the space to become flat. Confirmation of Inflation would be an amazing feat in observational Cosmology. Inflation during the first moments of time produced a Cosmic Gravitational-Wave Background (CGB), which in turn imprinted a faint but unique signature in the polarization of the CMB. Since gravitational waves are by nature tensor fluctuations, the polarization signature that the CGB stamps onto the CMB has a curl component (called "B-mode" polarization). In contrast, scalar density fluctuations at the surface of last scattering only contribute a curl-free (or "E-mode") polarization component to the CMB which was first detected by the DASI experiment at the South Pole.
The big deal with BICEP2 is the ability to accurately detect the B-mode polarization for the first time. r is the ratio between these two different types of polarization, E-mode & B-mode. Any result for r > 0 indicates the presence of B-mode polarization, which, according to the theory, was caused by gravitational waves at the time of inflation. So, that's basically what Kuo is on about.
We didn't do any re-takes. The goal was for it to be a really natural thing. We did ask him to tell us what he was feeling and what the research means. But what you see in the video is just very off-the-cuff and raw. Part of it was, we went there not even knowing if we'd be able to use or keep anything that we did. It was just as likely that he would have been emotional in a way that he didn't want us to share, or that his wife didn't. So we went into it with no guarantee-we knew we'd be able to shoot, but didn't know if we'd be able use it. So we're thankful that they agreed to let us do that.
Finally a viral video that's genuine and not staged or reality TV'd.
Reaching back across 13.8 billion years to the first sliver of cosmic time with telescopes at the South Pole, a team of astronomers led by John M. Kovac of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics detected ripples in the fabric of space-time -- so-called gravitational waves -- the signature of a universe being wrenched violently apart when it was roughly a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second old. They are the long-sought smoking-gun evidence of inflation, proof, Dr. Kovac and his colleagues say, that Dr. Guth was correct.
Inflation has been the workhorse of cosmology for 35 years, though many, including Dr. Guth, wondered whether it could ever be proved.
If corroborated, Dr. Kovac's work will stand as a landmark in science comparable to the recent discovery of dark energy pushing the universe apart, or of the Big Bang itself. It would open vast realms of time and space and energy to science and speculation.
Confirming inflation would mean that the universe we see, extending 14 billion light-years in space with its hundreds of billions of galaxies, is only an infinitesimal patch in a larger cosmos whose extent, architecture and fate are unknowable. Moreover, beyond our own universe there might be an endless number of other universes bubbling into frothy eternity, like a pot of pasta water boiling over.
If the results are confirmed, Guth will undoubtably win the Nobel in Physics for this soon. Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy has more on the discovery.
Update:This video of Chao-Lin Kuo (one of the principle investigators on this experiment) telling physicist Andrei Linde (a leading inflation theorist) about the result is just outstanding.
As I've sifted through the letters submitted to What If every week, I've occasionally set aside particularly neat questions that I wanted to spend a little more time on. This book features my answers to those questions, along with revised and updated versions of some of my favorite articles from the site. (I'm also including my personal list of the weirdest questions people have submitted.)
Last year (spoilers!), CERN confirmed the discovery of the Higgs boson. Physicist-turned-filmmaker Mark Levinson has made a film about the search for the so-called God Particle. Particle Fever follows a group of scientists through the process of discovery and the construction of the mega-machine that discovered the Higgs, the Large Hadron Collider. Here's a trailer:
The heath hen was once so plentiful in New England that servants bargained with employers not to be served heath hen for food more than two or three days a week. Due to over-hunting, the heath hen went extinct in 1932. But recently, a film of the bird made circa 1918 was discovered and digitized. The Boston Globe has a short clip of the film.
"I had heard about this film through various channels off and on through the years. It had gotten to the point where it was almost apocryphal in my mind" said Petersen, director of the Massachusetts Important Bird Areas program for Mass Audubon. "Nobody knew where it was, nobody had ever seen it, but I was aware it existed. It was like the holy grail."
No one seems to quite remember the date, but some years ago two canisters containing brittle, aging film that was at risk of spontaneous combustion were found stored at the state's Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. Aging tape with the words "heath hen" was its only label. One canister was sent off to the Smithsonian Institution, recalled Ellie Horwitz, who discovered the film sometime in the middle of her 34-year tenure at the agency. The other canister presented a dilemma because the film was in such terrible condition it might disintegrate.
"It was iffy whether the film could be viewed. And if it could be viewed, chances were we could view it one time, and the question is what are you going to do in that one time," said Horwitz, who retired in 2011. "We had one shot at it; we thought the thing to do was to digitize it."
Ok quiet down, we're going to science right now. (That's right, I verbed "science".) If you take a long chain of beads, put them in a jar, and then throw one end of the bead chain out, the rest of the beads will follow *and* this bead fountain will magically rise up into the air over the lip of the glass.
As the guy's face in the video shows, this is deeply perplexing. For an explanation, slow motion video, and a demonstration of a preposterously high chain fountain, check this video from the NY Times out:
The fountain, said Dr. Biggins, which he had never seen before the video, was "surprisingly complicated." The chain was moving faster than gravity would account for, and they realized that something had to be pushing the chain up from the container in which it was held.
A key to understanding the phenomenon, Dr. Biggins said, is that mathematically, a chain can be thought of as a series of connected rods.
When you pick up one end of a rod, he said, two things happen. One end goes up, and the other end goes down, or tries to. But if the downward force is stopped by the pile of chain beneath it, there is a kind of kickback, and the rod, or link, is pushed upward. That is what makes the chain rise.
A group of marine biologists that has been recently studying mesopelagic fish ("fish that live between 100 and 1000m below the surface") believes that 95% of fish biomass is unknown to humans. Marine dark matter. The problem lies with how fish have traditionally been counted and the enhanced visual and pressure senses of these fish.
He says most mesopelagic species tend to feed near the surface at night, and move to deeper layers in the daytime to avoid birds.
They have large eyes to see in the dim light, and also enhanced pressure-sensitivity.
"They are able to detect nets from at least five metres and avoid them," he says.
"Because the fish are very skilled at avoiding nets, every previous attempt to quantify them in terms of biomass that fishing nets have delivered are very low estimates.
"So instead of different nets what we used were acoustics... sonar and echo sounders."
A not-so-difficult prediction to make is that humans will find a way to catch these wary creatures, we'll eat most of them, and then we'll be back to where we are now: the world's oceans running low on fish. (via @daveg)
Raffi Khatchadourian's long piece on the construction of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is at once fascinating (for science reasons) and depressing (for political/bureaucratic reasons). Fusion reactors hold incredible promise:
But if it is truly possible to bottle up a star, and to do so economically, the technology could solve the world's energy problems for the next thirty million years, and help save the planet from environmental catastrophe. Hydrogen, a primordial element, is the most abundant atom in the universe, a potential fuel that poses little risk of scarcity. Eventually, physicists hope, commercial reactors modelled on iter will be built, too-generating terawatts of power with no carbon, virtually no pollution, and scant radioactive waste. The reactor would run on no more than seawater and lithium. It would never melt down. It would realize a yearning, as old as the story of Prometheus, to bring the light of the heavens to Earth, and bend it to humanity's will. iter, in Latin, means "the way."
But ITER is a collaborative effort between 35 different countries, which means the project is political, slow, and expensive.
For the machine's creators, this process-sparking and controlling a self-sustaining synthetic star-will be the culmination of decades of preparation, billions of dollars' worth of investment, and immeasurable ingenuity, misdirection, recalibration, infighting, heartache, and ridicule. Few engineering feats can compare, in scale, in technical complexity, in ambition or hubris. Even the iter organization, a makeshift scientific United Nations, assembled eight years ago to construct the machine, is unprecedented. Thirty-five countries, representing more than half the world's population, are invested in the project, which is so complex to finance that it requires its own currency: the iter Unit of Account.
No one knows iter's true cost, which may be incalculable, but estimates have been rising steadily, and a conservative figure rests at twenty billion dollars -- a sum that makes iter the most expensive scientific instrument on Earth.
I wonder what the project would look like if, say, Google or Apple were to take the reins instead. In that context, it's only $20 billion to build a tiny Sun on the Earth. Facebook just paid $19 billion for WhatsApp, Apple has a whopping $158.8 billion in cash, and Google & Microsoft both have more than $50 billion in cash. Google in particular, which is making a self-driving car and has been buying up robots by the company-full recently, might want their own tiny star.
But back to reality, the circumstances of ITER's international construction consortium reminded me of the building of The Machine in Carl Sagan's Contact. In the book, the countries of the world work together to make a machine of unknown function from plans beamed to them from an alien intelligence, which results in the development of several new lucrative life-enhancing technologies and generally unites humanity. In Sagan's view, that's the power of science. Hopefully the ITER can work through its difficulties to achieve something similar.
Richard Lenski and his team of researchers utilize a clever technique to observe and study evolution of bacteria in realtime. Periodically freezing a sample of the bacteria every few generations allows them to go back in time to study particular traits and to pinpoint when differences occur.
After 30,000 generations, researchers noticed something strange. One population had evolved the ability to use a different carbon-based molecule in the solution, called citrate, as a power source.
Researchers wondered whether it was the result of a rare, single mutation, or a more complex change involving a series of mutations over generations. To find out, one of Lenski's postdocs, Zachary Blount, took some of the frozen cells and grew them in a culture lacking glucose, with citrate as the only potential food source.
After testing 10 trillion ancestral cells from early generations, he got no growth. But when he tested cells from the 20,000th generation on, he began to get results, eventually finding 19 mutants that could use citrate as a power source. The results showed that the citrate-eating mutation was most likely not the result of a single mutation, but one enabled by multiple changes over 20,000 generations.
Children now consume fewer calories from sugary beverages than they did in 1999. More women are breast-feeding, which can lead to a healthier range of weight gain for young children. Federal researchers have also chronicled a drop in overall calories for children in the past decade, down by 7 percent for boys and 4 percent for girls, but health experts said those declines were too small to make much difference.
Barry M. Popkin, a researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has tracked American food purchases in a large data project, said families with children had been buying lower-calorie foods over the past decade, a pattern he said was unrelated to the economic downturn.
He credited those habits, and changes in the federally funded Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, for the decline in obesity among young children. The program, which subsidizes food for low-income women, reduced funding for fruit juices, cheese and eggs and increased it for whole fruits and vegetables.
NASA announced the discovery of 719 new planets today. That brings the tally of known planets in our universe to almost 1800. 20 years ago, that number was not more than 15 (including the nine planets orbiting the Sun). Here's a rough timeline of the dramatically increasing pace of planetary discovery:
And if you want a sense of how weird, and how fraught, the relationship between science, politics, and commerce is in our modern world, then there's really no better place to go.
In The Daily Beast Michael Schulson provides a alternate view on Whole Foods: America's Temple of Pseudoscience. (The first time I read this, I nearly spit out my probiotic-infused kombucha, kale, quinoa, coconut water shake.)
Camels probably had little or no role in the lives of such early Jewish patriarchs as Abraham, Jacob and Joseph, who lived in the first half of the second millennium B.C., and yet stories about them mention these domesticated pack animals more than 20 times. Genesis 24, for example, tells of Abraham's servant going by camel on a mission to find a wife for Isaac.
These anachronisms are telling evidence that the Bible was written or edited long after the events it narrates and is not always reliable as verifiable history. These camel stories "do not encapsulate memories from the second millennium," said Noam Mizrahi, an Israeli biblical scholar, "but should be viewed as back-projections from a much later period."
Dr. Mizrahi likened the practice to a historical account of medieval events that veers off to a description of "how people in the Middle Ages used semitrailers in order to transport goods from one European kingdom to another."
Archaeologists have established that camels were probably domesticated in the Arabian Peninsula for use as pack animals sometime towards the end of the 2nd millennium BCE. In the southern Levant, where Israel is located, the oldest known domesticated camel bones are from the Aravah Valley, which runs along the Israeli-Jordanian border from the Dead Sea to the Red Sea and was an ancient center of copper production. At a 2009 dig, Dr. Ben-Yosef dated an Aravah Valley copper smelting camp where the domesticated camel bones were found to the 11th to 9th century BCE.
About 250 million years ago, Earth suffered its fifth (and worst) mass extinction event. Nearly seventy percent of land species disappeared. And they got off easy compared to marine species. Are we headed for another mass extinction on Earth? I'm not ready to break that news. But something unusual is definitely going on and extinction rates seem to be speeding up. Here's an interesting chat with Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction.
The worst mass extinction of all time came about 250 million years ago [the Permian-Triassic extinction event]. There's a pretty good consensus there that this was caused by a huge volcanic event that went on for a long time and released a lot of carbon-dioxide into the atmosphere. That is pretty ominous considering that we are releasing a lot of CO2 into the atmosphere and people increasingly are drawing parallels between the two events.
First of all, not all of the Earth would simply be sucked into the black hole. When the matter near the black hole begins to fall into the black hole, it will be compressed to a very high density that will cause it to be heated to very high temperatures. These high temperatures will cause gamma rays, X-rays, and other radiation to heat up the other matter falling in to the black hole. The net effect will be that there will be a strong outward pressure on the outer layers of the Earth that will first slow down their fall and will eventually ionize and push the outer layers away from the black hole. So some inner portion of the core will fall into the black hole, but the outer layers, including the crust and all of us, would be vaporized to a high temperature plasma and blown into space.
This would be a gigantic explosion -- a significant fraction of the rest of the mass of the Earth matter that actually fell into the black hole will be converted into energy.
FYI, that marble-sized black hole would have about the same mass as the Earth. Not that they exist, mind you. Maybe, maybe not. Blackish holes? Dark grey holes? Anyway, really heavy.
This is nutty...by chance, a group of archaeologists found what are believed to be the oldest known human footprints outside of Africa on a beach in England. The footprints are an estimated 800,000 years old and are now completely gone. The tide that uncovered them washed them away in less than a month.
The footprints have been described as "one of the most important discoveries, if not the most important discovery that has been made on [Britain's] shores," by Dr Nick Ashton of the British Museum.
"It will rewrite our understanding of the early human occupation of Britain and indeed of Europe," he told BBC News.
The markings were first indentified in May last year during a low tide. Rough seas had eroded the sandy beach to reveal a series of elongated hollows.
I agree; it is amazing! I've written about this manytimes. But we know that complexity can arise naturally through the laws of physics. It doesn't take very complex rules to create huge diversity. Look at poker; a simple set of rules creates a game that has so many combinations it's essentially infinite to human experience. We can figure out the rules of nature by studying the way processes follow them, and deduce what's going on behind the scenes. And whenever we do, we see science.
This makes me think of Richard Feynman's ode to the scientific beauty of a flower:
I have a friend who's an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don't agree with very well. He'll hold up a flower and say "look how beautiful it is," and I'll agree. Then he says "I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing," and I think that he's kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is ... I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it's not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there's also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don't understand how it subtracts.
Every day on Earth, an estimated 371,124 people are born and 154,995 people die. When youask Wolfram Alpha about these rates, the scientifically inclined site returns a curious corresponding quantity: the frequency in hertz (aka the number of cycles/second in a periodic occurrence).
Measurement in hertz is an unusual way to think about living and dying; hertz are typically reserved for things like human-audible sound frequencies (20 to 16,000 Hz), how fast your laptop's CPU runs (1 to 4 Ghz), or the frequency of the power running into your house (50 to 60 Hz). But if you subtract the death rate from the birth rate, you get a net rate of 216,129 new people a day, or about 2.5 Hz. That's the frequency of humanity. While that's a lot slower than your computer, it's in the same frequency ballpark as a human's resting heart rate (1.3 Hz), steps taken while walking briskly (1.8 Hz), or moderately energetic dance music (2.25 Hz).
Note: Illustration by Chris Piascik...check out his shop, where you'll find prints, tshirts, iPhone cases, etc.
In 1976, legendary cosmologist and astronomer Carl Sagan tried to recruit a 17-year-old Neil deGrasse Tyson to Cornell University. In April of that year, Tyson wrote Sagan a letter informing him of his intention to enroll at Harvard instead:
The Viking Missions referred to in the letter were the two probes sent to Mars in the mid-1970s.
Tyson occupies a role in today's society similar to Sagan's in the 1980s as an unofficial public spokesman of the wonderous world of science. Tyson is even hosting an updated version of Sagan's seminal Cosmos series for Fox, which debuts on March 9th. Here's a trailer:
"Drilling into magma is a very rare occurrence, and this is only the second known instance anywhere in the world," Elders said. The IDDP and Iceland's National Power Company, which operates the Krafla geothermal power plant nearby, decided to make a substantial investment to investigate the hole further.
This meant cementing a steel casing into the well, leaving a perforated section at the bottom closest to the magma. Heat was allowed to slowly build in the borehole, and eventually superheated steam flowed up through the well for the next two years.
Elders said that the success of the drilling was "amazing, to say the least", adding: "This could lead to a revolution in the energy efficiency of high-temperature geothermal projects in the future."
The well funnelled superheated, high-pressure steam for months at temperatures of over 450°C -- a world record. In comparison, geothermal resources in the UK rarely reach higher than around 60-80°C.
In a short video from The Atlantic, science writer Philip Ball explains why Isaac Newton picked ROYGBIV (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet) for the colors of the spectrum and not 3 or 6 or even 16 other possible colors.
Newton was the first to demonstrate through his famous prism experiments that color is intrinsic to light. As part of those experiments, he also divvied up the spectrum in his own idiosyncratic way, giving us ROYGBIV. Why indigo? Why violet? We don't really know why Newton decided there were two distinct types of purple, but we do know he thought there should be seven fundamental colors.
It will take it just 6 months to burn up its oxygen. Again, when there's not enough oxygen being fused to generate energy to balance the pressure of gravitational contraction, the star begins to shrink, almost doubling the temperature, tripling the density, and causing the silicon (which was produced by the oxygen fusion) to begin fusing, in its own complicated sequence involving the alpha process, with the end result of nickel-56 (which radioactively decays into cobalt-56 and iron-56). This, as before, balances against the gravitational pressure and returns the star to equilibrium.
And now it will take merely 1 day to burn up its silicon. Finally, when there's not enough silicon being fused to generate energy to balance the pressure of gravitational contraction, the star begins to shrink.
This time, however, the core of the star is mostly nickel and iron, and they cannot ordinarily be fused into heavier elements, so as the star shrinks and the temperature and density increase, there is no nuclear fusion ignition of the nickel and iron to counteract the contraction. Here the limit of pressure and density is the electron degeneracy pressure, which is the resistance of electrons being forced to occupy the same energy states, which they can't.
Most physicists foolhardy enough to write a paper claiming that "there are no black holes" -- at least not in the sense we usually imagine -- would probably be dismissed as cranks. But when the call to redefine these cosmic crunchers comes from Stephen Hawking, it's worth taking notice. In a paper posted online, the physicist, based at the University of Cambridge, UK, and one of the creators of modern black-hole theory, does away with the notion of an event horizon, the invisible boundary thought to shroud every black hole, beyond which nothing, not even light, can escape.
In its stead, Hawking's radical proposal is a much more benign "apparent horizon", which only temporarily holds matter and energy prisoner before eventually releasing them, albeit in a more garbled form.
A supernova erupted recently1 in galaxy M82, a mere 11.4 million light years away from Earth, which means that it was close enough to be discovered by someone using an ordinary telescope in London and may be visible with binoculars sometime in the next two weeks.
M82's proximity means that there are many existing images of it, pre-explosion, including some from the Hubble Space Telescope. Cao and others will comb through those images, looking for what lay in the region before. It will not be easy: M82 is filled with dust. But the light the supernova shines on the dust could teach astronomers something about the host galaxy, too. One team is already looking for radioactive elements, such as nickel, that theories predict form in such supernova, says Shri Kulkarni, an astronomer at California Institute of Technology. "Dust has its own charms."
 Ok, it didn't erupt recently. M82 is 11.4 million light years away, so the supernova happened 11.4 million years ago and the light is just now reaching us here on Earth. ↩
I've read dozens of Web pages on how to season cast iron, and there is no consensus in the advice. Some say vegetable oils leave a sticky surface and to only use lard. Some say animal fat gives a surface that is too soft and to only use vegetable oils. Some say corn oil is the only fat to use, or Crisco, or olive oil. Some recommend bacon drippings since lard is no longer readily available. Some say you must use a saturated fat -- that is, a fat that is solid at room temperature, whether it's animal or vegetable (palm oil, coconut oil, Crisco, lard). Some say never use butter. Some say butter is fine. Some swear by Pam (spray-on canola oil with additives). Some say the additives in Pam leave a residue at high temperatures and pure canola oil is best. Some say it doesn't matter what oil you use.
They are all wrong. It does matter what oil you use, and the oil that gives the best results is not in this list. So what is it? Here are some hints: What oil do artists mix with pigment for a high quality oil paint that dries hard and glassy on the canvas? What oil is commonly used by woodturners to give their sculptures a protective, soft-sheen finish? It's the same oil. Now what is the food-grade equivalent of this oil?
The oil used by artists and woodturners is linseed oil. The food-grade equivalent is called flaxseed oil. This oil is ideal for seasoning cast iron for the same reason it's an ideal base for oil paint and wood finishes. It's a "drying oil", which means it can transform into a hard, tough film. This doesn't happen through "drying" in the sense of losing moisture through evaporation. The term is actually a misnomer. The transformation is through a chemical process called "polymerization".
Those before and after photos are hard to argue with. (via @akuban)
Scientists at the University of Vermont's Proctor Maple Research Center have made an interesting discovery. It seems that the sap used to produce maple syrup doesn't flow from the tops of trees, it gets sucked up from the trees' roots. Which means that maple syrup makers can use saplings instead of fully grown maple trees to produce syrup.
They realized that their discovery meant sugarmakers could use saplings, densely planted in open fields, to harvest sap. In other words, it is possible that maple syrup could now be produced as a row crop like every other commercial crop in North America.
In a natural forest, which varies in maple density, an average 60 to 100 taps per acre will yield 40 to 50 gallons of syrup. According to the researchers' calculations, an acre of what is now called "the plantation method" could sustain 5,800 saplings with taps yielding 400 gallons of syrup per acre. If the method is realized, producing maple syrup on a commercial scale may no longer be restricted to those with forest land; it could require just 50 acres of arable land instead of 500 acres of forest. Furthermore, any region with the right climate for growing maples would be able to start up maple "farms". The natural forest would become redundant.
Think about this ... an ordinary fox can stalk a mole, mouse, vole or shrew from a distance of 25 feet, which means its food is making a barely audible rustling sound, hiding almost two car lengths away. And yet our fox hurls itself into the air -- in an arc determined by the fox, the speed and trajectory of the scurrying mouse, any breezes, the thickness of the ground cover, the depth of the snow -- and somehow (how? how?), it can land straight on top of the mouse, pinning it with its forepaws or grabbing the mouse's head with its teeth.
Let slip the tubas of war! Aaaaanyway, as the acoustic location device gave way to the more effective radar, so too is the fox more successful at hunting when he is pointed northeast -- a kind of magnetic radar, if you will. Fascinating.
Here, three implementations of Internet searches for time travelers are described, all seeking a prescient mention of information not previously available. The first search covered prescient content placed on the Internet, highlighted by a comprehensive search for specific terms in tweets on Twitter. The second search examined prescient inquiries submitted to a search engine, highlighted by a comprehensive search for specific search terms submitted to a popular astronomy web site. The third search involved a request for a direct Internet communication, either by email or tweet, pre-dating to the time of the inquiry. Given practical verifiability concerns, only time travelers from the future were investigated.
"At the moment, this hyperwafer can only exist for six milliseconds in a precisely calibrated field of magnetic energy, positrons, roasted garlic, and beta particles," lab chief Dr. Paul Ellison told reporters at a press conference outside Nabisco's $200 million seven-whole-grain accelerator.
The last line of the piece made me LOL for real. (thx, meg)
The researchers say that in crimes in which the victims are photographed, such as hostage taking or child sex abuse, reflections in the eyes of the photographic subject could help to identify perpetrators. Images of people retrieved from cameras seized as evidence during criminal investigations could be used to piece together networks of associates or to link individuals to particular locations.
By zooming in on high-resolution passport-style photographs, Jenkins and co-researcher Christie Kerr of the School of Psychology, University of Glasgow were able to recover bystander images that could be identified accurately by observers, despite their low resolution.
Plants eat light, grow almost everywhere on Earth, and make up 99% of the planet's biomass. But do what extent do plants think? Or feel? Michael Pollan tackles the question of plant intelligence in a thought-provoking article for the New Yorker (sadly behind their paywall).
Indeed, many of the most impressive capabilities of plants can be traced to their unique existential predicament as beings rooted to the ground and therefore unable to pick up and move when they need something or when conditions turn unfavorable. The "sessile life style" as plant biologists term it, calls for an extensive and nuanced understanding of one's immediate environment, since the plant has to find everything it needs, and has to defend itself, while remaining fixed in place. A highly developed sensory apparatus is required to locate food and identify threats. Plants have evolved between fifteen and twenty different senses, including analogues of our five: smell and taste (they sense and respond to chemicals in the air or on their bodies); sight (they react differently to various wavelengths of light as well as to shadow); touch (a vine or root "knows" when it encounters a solid object); and, it has been discovered, sound.
In a recent experiment, Heidi Appel, a chemical ecologist at the University of Missouri, found that, when she played a recording of a caterpillar chomping a leaf for a plant that hadn't been touched, the sound primed the the plant's genetic machinery to produce defense chemicals. Another experiment, dome in Mancuso's lab and not yet published, found that plant roots would seek out a buried pipe through which water was flowing even if the exterior of the pipe was dry, which suggested that plants somehow "hear" the sound of flowing water.
One of the researchers featured in the article, Stefano Mancuso, has a TED talk available in which he outlines his case for plant intelligence:
In reality, van Hoeydonck's lunar sculpture, called Fallen Astronaut, inspired not celebration but scandal. Within three years, Waddell's gallery had gone bankrupt. Scott was hounded by a congressional investigation and left NASA on shaky terms. Van Hoeydonck, accused of profiteering from the public space program, retreated to a modest career in his native Belgium. Now both in their 80s, Scott and van Hoeydonck still see themselves unfairly maligned in blogs and Wikipedia pages-to the extent that Fallen Astronaut is remembered at all.
And yet, the spirit of Fallen Astronaut is more relevant today than ever. Google is promoting a $30 million prize for private adventurers to send robots to the moon in the next few years; companies such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic are creating a new for-profit infrastructure of human spaceflight; and David Scott is grooming Brown University undergrads to become the next generation of cosmic adventurers.
Governments come and go, public sentiment waxes and wanes, but the dream of reaching to the stars lives on. Fallen Astronaut does, too, hanging eternally 238,000 miles above our heads. Here, for the first time, we tell the full, tangled tale behind one of the smallest yet most extraordinary achievements of the Space Age.
Pure breeding has also introduced medical problems for some breeds.
The English bulldog has come to symbolize all that is wrong with the dog fancy and not without good reason; they suffer from almost every possible disease. A 2004 survey by the Kennel Club found that they die at the median age of 6.25 years (n=180). There really is no such thing as a healthy bulldog. The bulldog's monstrous proportions makes them virtually incapable of mating or birthing without medical intervention.
There's evidence you can will yourself to wake on time, too. Sleep scientists at Germany's University of Lubeck asked 15 volunteers to sleep in their lab for three nights. One night, the group was told they'd be woken at 6 a.m., while on other nights the group was told they'd be woken at 9 a.m..
But the researchers lied-they woke the volunteers at 6 a.m anyway. And the results were startling. The days when sleepers were told they'd wake up early, their stress hormones increased at 4:30 a.m., as if they were anticipating an early morning. When the sleepers were told they'd wake up at 9 a.m., their stress hormones didn't increase -- and they woke up groggier. "Our bodies, in other words, note the time we hope to begin our day and gradually prepare us for consciousness," writes Jeff Howe at Psychology Today.
For more than 50 years, the NASA Innovative Partnerships Program has connected NASA resources to private industry, referring to the commercial products as spin-offs. Well-known products that NASA claims as spin-offs include memory foam (originally named temper foam), freeze-dried food, firefighting equipment, emergency "space blankets", Dustbusters, cochlear implants, and now Speedo's LZR Racer swimsuits. NASA claims that there are over 1650 other spin-offs in the fields of computer technology, environment and agriculture, health and medicine, public safety, transportation, recreation, and industrial productivity.
Hans Bethe was a giant in the field of nuclear physics. He rubbed shoulders with Einstein, Bohr, and Pauli, was head of the Theoretical Division of the US atomic bomb project, and was awarded a Nobel Prize. In 1999, at the age of 93, Bethe gave a series of three lectures to the residents of his retirement community near Cornell University, where he had taught since 1935. Video of the lectures is available on the Cornell website.
In the first lecture, Bethe covers the development of the "old quantum theory", covering the work of Max Planck and Niels Bohr. In the second and third lectures, he relates how modern quantum mechanics was developed, with a healthy amount of personal recollection along the way:
Professor Bethe offers personal anecdotes about many of the famous names commonly associated with quantum physics, including Bohr, Heisenberg, Born, Pauli, de Broglie, Schrödinger, and Dirac.
Without a doubt, this is the most high-power presentation ever made at a retirement home. (via @stevenstrogatz)
In theory, quantum computers can perform calculations far faster than their classical counterparts to solve incredibly complex problems. They do this by storing information in quantum bits, or qubits.
At any given moment, each of a classical computer's bits can only be in an "on" or an "off" state. They exist inside conventional electronic circuits, which follow the 19th-century rules of classical physics. A qubit, on the other hand, can be created with an electron, or inside a superconducting loop. Obeying the counterintuitive logic of quantum mechanics, a qubit can act as if it's "on" and "off" simultaneously. It can also become tightly linked to the state of its fellow qubits, a situation called entanglement. These are two of the unusual properties that enable quantum computers to test multiple solutions at the same time.
But in practice, a physical quantum computer is incredibly difficult to run. Entanglement is delicate, and very easily disrupted by outside influences. Add more qubits to increase the device's calculating power, and it becomes more difficult to maintain entanglement.
Not to get all Malcolm Gladwell here, but it's counterintuitive that hot water freezes faster than cold water. The phenomenon is called the Mpemba effect and until recently, no one could explain how it works. A group of researchers in Singapore think they've cracked the puzzle.
Now Xi and co say hydrogen bonds also explain the Mpemba effect. Their key idea is that hydrogen bonds bring water molecules into close contact and when this happens the natural repulsion between the molecules causes the covalent O-H bonds to stretch and store energy.
But as the liquid warms up, it forces the hydrogen bonds to stretch and the water molecules sit further apart. This allows the covalent molecules to shrink again and give up their energy. The important point is that this process in which the covalent bonds give up energy is equivalent to cooling.
In fact, the effect is additional to the conventional process of cooling. So warm water ought to cool faster than cold water, they say. And that's exactly what is observed in the Mpemba effect.
NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory is getting some really amazing shots of the Sun, including this 200,000 mile-long solar eruption that left a huge canyon on the surface of the Sun:
Different wavelengths help capture different aspect of events in the corona. The red images shown in the movie help highlight plasma at temperatures of 90,000° F and are good for observing filaments as they form and erupt. The yellow images, showing temperatures at 1,000,000° F, are useful for observing material coursing along the sun's magnetic field lines, seen in the movie as an arcade of loops across the area of the eruption. The browner images at the beginning of the movie show material at temperatures of 1,800,000° F, and it is here where the canyon of fire imagery is most obvious.
The level of detail shown is incredible. (via @DavidGrann)
In an interview accompanying a Frontline episode on drug-resistant bacteria, an associate director for the CDC, Dr. Arjun Srinivasan, says that "we're in the post-antibiotic era".
The more you use an antibiotic, the more you expose a bacteria to an antibiotic, the greater the likelihood that resistance to that antibiotic is going to develop. So the more antibiotics we put into people, we put into the environment, we put into livestock, the more opportunities we create for these bacteria to become resistant. ...We also know that we've greatly overused antibiotics and in overusing these antibiotics, we have set ourselves up for the scenario that we find ourselves in now, where we're running out of antibiotics.
We are quickly running out of therapies to treat some of these infections that previously had been eminently treatable. There are bacteria that we encounter, particularly in health-care settings, that are resistant to nearly all -- or, in some cases, all -- the antibiotics that we have available to us, and we are thus entering an era that people have talked about for a long time.
For a long time, there have been newspaper stories and covers of magazines that talked about "The end of antibiotics, question mark?" Well, now I would say you can change the title to "The end of antibiotics, period."
We're here. We're in the post-antibiotic era. There are patients for whom we have no therapy, and we are literally in a position of having a patient in a bed who has an infection, something that five years ago even we could have treated, but now we can't.
You know how when you first hear a joke it's the funniest thing ever and then you hear it a second time and it's less funny and then a third, fourth, and fifth times and it just keeps getting less and less funny until you're not laughing at all and it actually becomes annoying? That's how antibiotics work across the entire human population. And if Dr. Srinivasan is correct, we're transitioning into the not laughing stage and the annoying stage where lots of people start dying can't be far behind (unless we get some new jokes/treatments).
Yesterday, Mark Sample tweeted about disasters, low-points, and chronic trauma:
"Low point" is the term for when the worst part of a disaster has come to pass. Our disasters increasingly have no low point.
After the low point of a disaster is reached, things begin to get better. When there is no clear low point, society endures chronic trauma.
Disasters with no clear low point: global warming, mass extinction, colony collapse disorder, ocean acidification, Fukushima.
To which I would add: drug-resistant infectious diseases. (via digg)
It turns out that particles already known to us are not enough to account for the mass of the hot matter in which the sound waves must have propagated. Fully five sixths of the matter of the universe would have to be some kind of "dark matter," which does not emit or absorb light. The existence of this much dark matter in the present universe had already been inferred from the fact that clusters of galaxies hold together gravitationally, despite the high random speeds of the galaxies in the clusters. So this is a great puzzle: What is the dark matter? Theories abound, and attempts are underway to catch ambient dark matter particles or remnants of their annihilation in detectors on Earth or to create dark matter in accelerators. But so far dark matter has not been found, and no one knows what it is.
This enormous mosaic showing the flattened globe of Saturn floating amongst the complete disk of its rings must surely be counted among the great images of the Cassini mission. From Earth, we never see Saturn separate from its rings. Here, we can see the whole thing, a gas giant like Jupiter, separated at last from the rings that encircle it.
Taking this idea one step further, I removed the rings completely, along with the "ringlight" lighting up the night hemisphere, creating a more-or-less pure look of what Saturn would look like without its rings.
What's so confounding is that many of the parents requesting exemptions for their children cite specious, disproven fears -- such as that the vaccine could cause autism -- many of which were based on a fraudulent, retracted study or fringe research published in non-peer-reviewed journals. And the rest of the country hasn't been as successful as Massachusetts in containing measles infections. Earlier this year, an intentionally unvaccinated 17-year-old from Brooklyn, New York, was infected with measles while on a trip to the United Kingdom. Because he lived in a community with a large number of other deliberately unvaccinated children, the virus quickly spread. By the time the outbreak was contained, 58 people had been infected -- making it the largest outbreak in the country in more than 15 years. Nationwide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 159 total cases between January and August, which puts 2013 on track to record the most domestic measles infections since the disease was declared eliminated from the United States in 2000.
Scientists have discovered the source of a massive 13th century volcanic eruption: a volcano called Samalas on Indonesia's Lombok Island. The blast was eight times as powerful as Krakatoa.
Though the eruption was equatorial, its impact was felt and noted around the world. "The climate was disturbed for at least two years after the eruption," Lavigne said. Evidence of this was found in studies of tree rings that revealed abnormal growth rates, climate models, and historical records from as far afield as Europe."
Medieval chronicles, for example, describe the summer of 1258 as unseasonably cold, with poor harvests and incessant rains that triggered destructive floods -- a "year without a summer." The winter immediately following the eruption was warmer in western Europe, however, as would be expected from high-sulfur eruptions in the tropics. The team cites historical records from Arras (northern France) that speak of a winter so mild "that frost barely lasted for more than two days," and even in January 1258 "violets could be observed, and strawberries and apple trees were in blossom."
LIGO works by shooting laser beams down two perpendicular arms and measuring the difference in length between them-a strategy known as laser interferometry. If a sufficiently large gravitational wave comes by, it will change the relative length of the arms, pushing and pulling them back and forth. In essence, LIGO is a celestial earpiece, a giant microphone that listens for the faint symphony of the hidden cosmos.
Like many exotic physical phenomena, gravitational waves originated as theoretical concepts, the products of equations, not sensory experience. Albert Einstein was the first to realize that his general theory of relativity predicted the existence of gravitational waves. He understood that some objects are so massive and so fast moving that they wrench the fabric of spacetime itself, sending tiny swells across it.
How tiny? So tiny that Einstein thought they would never be observed. But in 1974 two astronomers, Russell Hulse and Joseph Taylor, inferred their existence with an ingenious experiment, a close study of an astronomical object called a binary pulsar [see "Gravitational Waves from an Orbiting Pulsar," by J. M. Weisberg et al.; Scientific American, October 1981]. Pulsars are the spinning, flashing cores of long-exploded stars. They spin and flash with astonishing regularity, a quality that endears them to astronomers, who use them as cosmic clocks. In a binary pulsar system, a pulsar and another object (in this case, an ultradense neutron star) orbit each other. Hulse and Taylor realized that if Einstein had relativity right, the spiraling pair would produce gravitational waves that would drain orbital energy from the system, tightening the orbit and speeding it up. The two astronomers plotted out the pulsar's probable path and then watched it for years to see if the tightening orbit showed up in the data. The tightening not only showed up, it matched Hulse and Taylor's predictions perfectly, falling so cleanly on the graph and vindicating Einstein so utterly that in 1993 the two were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics.
Friday morning is as good a time as any to revisit what I consider one of the quintessential Kottke.org post(s), The case of the plane and conveyor belt. Essentially, will an airplane take off on a treadmill. Prompted by a question on The Straight Dope, the post, now over 7 years old, has everything you need for a Kottke.org post: airplanes, physics, a waffle, and careful consideration of the facts. The question was addressed again a few days later to definitively and succinctly put the argument to rest.
Now that I've closed the comments on the question of the airplane and the conveyor belt, I'm still getting emails calling me an idiot for thinking that the plane will take off. Having believed that after first hearing the question and formulating several reasons reinforcing my belief, I can sympathize with that POV, but that doesn't change the fact that I was initially wrong and that if you believe the plane won't take off, you're wrong too.
After experimenting on protozoa, rats, and his eight children, Ehret recommended that the international traveler, in the several days before his flight, alternate days of feasting with days of very light eating. Come the flight, the traveler would nibble sparsely until eating a big breakfast at about 7:30 a.m. in his new time zone -- no matter that it was still 1:30 a.m. in the old time zone or that the airline wasn't serving breakfast until 10:00 a.m. His reward would be little or no jet lag.
The diet was adopted by US government agencies and other groups as well as Ronald Reagan, but it difficult to stick to. Recently, researchers in Boston have devised a simpler anti-jet lag remedy:
The international traveler, they counsel, can avoid jet lag by simply not eating for twelve to sixteen hours before breakfast time in the new time zone-at which point, as in Ehret's diet, he should break his fast. Since most of us go twelve to sixteen hours between dinner and breakfast anyway, the abstention is a small hardship.
According to the Harvard team, the fast works because our bodies have, in addition to our circadian clock, a second clock that might be thought of as a food clock or, perhaps better, a master clock. When food is scarce, this master clock suspends the circadian clock and commands the body to sleep much less than normally. Only after the body starts eating again does the master clock switch the circadian clock back on.
Totally trying this the next time I have to travel, although the Advil PM/melatonin combination my doctor suggested worked really well for me on my trip to New Zealand. (via @genmon)
The patient had an infection with Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Cordell says. So when he ate or drank a bunch of starch -- a bagel, pasta or even a soda -- the yeast fermented the sugars into ethanol, and he would get drunk. Essentially, he was brewing beer in his own gut. Cordell and McCarthy reported the case of "auto-brewery syndrome" a few months ago in the International Journal of Clinical Medicine.
Some clever entrepreneur will undoubtedly turn this syndrome into a product...the market opportunity for a pill that allows you to get drunk on spaghetti *and* be the owner/operator of your own microbrewery is too large to ignore. (via ★interesting)
For the first time, researchers have put together all the climate data they have (from ice cores, coral, sediment drilling) into one chart that shows the "global temperature reconstruction for the last 11,000 years":
The climate curve looks like a "hump". At the beginning of the Holocene - after the end of the last Ice Age - global temperature increased, and subsequently it decreased again by 0.7 ° C over the past 5000 years. The well-known transition from the relatively warm Medieval into the "little ice age" turns out to be part of a much longer-term cooling, which ended abruptly with the rapid warming of the 20th Century. Within a hundred years, the cooling of the previous 5000 years was undone. (One result of this is, for example, that the famous iceman 'Ötzi', who disappeared under ice 5000 years ago, reappeared in 1991.)
What on Earth could have caused that spike over the past 250 years? A real head-scratcher, that. But also, what would have happened had the Industrial Revolution and the corresponding anthropogenic climate change been delayed a couple hundred years? The Earth might have been in the midst of a new ice age, Europe might have been too cold to support industry, and things may not have gotten going at all. Who's gonna write the screenplay for this movie? (via @CharlesCMann)
Nearly fifty years have passed since Richard Feynman taught the introductory physics course at Caltech that gave rise to these three volumes, The Feynman Lectures on Physics. In those fifty years our understanding of the physical world has changed greatly, but The Feynman Lectures on Physics has endured. Feynman's lectures are as powerful today as when first published, thanks to Feynman's unique physics insights and pedagogy. They have been studied worldwide by novices and mature physicists alike; they have been translated into at least a dozen languages with more than 1.5 millions copies printed in the English language alone. Perhaps no other set of physics books has had such wide impact, for so long.
The apples that you buy at the market are all from the same species of plant, Malus domestica. Within that species, there are 7,500 different varieties (or cultivars) of apples. The list of apple cultivars includes Red Delicious, Macoun, Honeycrisp, Granny Smith, and the like. They look and taste different but are all recognizable as apples.
Brassica oleracea is a species of plant that, like the apple, has a number of different cultivars. But these cultivars differ widely from each other: cabbage, kale, broccoli, brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, collard greens, and cauliflower. Nutty that all those vegetables come from the same species of plant.
Caspari says it wasn't a biological change that allowed people to start living reliably to their 30s and beyond. (When she looked at other populations of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens that lived in the same place and time, the two different species had similar proportions of old people, suggesting the change was not genetic.) Instead, it was culture. Something about how people were living made it possible to survive into old age, maybe the way they found or stored food or built shelters, who knows. That's all lost-pretty much all we have of them is teeth-but once humans found a way to keep old people around, everything changed.
Old people are repositories of information, Caspari says. They know about the natural world, how to handle rare disasters, how to perform complicated skills, who is related to whom, where the food and caves and enemies are. They maintain and build intricate social networks. A lot of skills that allowed humans to take over the world take a lot of time and training to master, and they wouldn't have been perfected or passed along without old people. "They can be great teachers," Caspari says, "and they allow for more complex societies." Old people made humans human.
What's so special about age 30? That's when you're old enough to be a grandparent. Studies of modern hunter-gatherers and historical records suggest that when older people help take care of their grandchildren, the grandchildren are more likely to survive. The evolutionary advantages of living long enough to help raise our children's children may be what made it biologically plausible for us to live to once unthinkably old ages today.
I took a Greek and Roman literature class in college. Among the texts we studied was Lucretius' On The Nature of Things. Shamefully, about the only thing I remembered from it was that the poem was an early articulation of the concept of atoms (see also Democritus). Impressive, chatting about atoms in 50 BCE. But reading Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve has reminded me what an impressive and prescient document it is, quite apart from its beauty as a poem. In chapter eight of his book, Greenblatt summarizes the main points of Lucretius' poem:
Everything is made of invisible particles.
The elementary particles of matter -- "the seeds of things" -- are eternal.
The elementary particles are infinite in number but limited in shape and size.
All particles are in motion in an infinite void.
The universe has no creator or designer.
Everything comes into being as a result of a swerve.
[Ok, the swerve deserves a bit of explanation. Here's Greenblatt:
If all the individual particles, in their infinite numbers, fell through the void in straight lines, pulled down by their own weight like raindrops, nothing would ever exist. But the particles do no move lockstep in a preordained single direction. Instead, "at absolutely unpredictable time and places they deflect slightly from their straight course, to a degree that could be described as no more than a shift of movement." The position of the elementary particles is thus indeterminate.
I can't help but think of quantum mechanics here. Anyway, back to the list.]
The swerve is the source of free will.
Nature ceaselessly experiments.
The universe was not created for or about humans.
Humans are not unique.
Human society began not in a Golden Age of tranquility and plenty, but in a primitive battle for survival.
The soul dies.
There is no afterlife.
Death is nothing to us.
All organized religions are superstitious delusions.
Religions are invariably cruel.
There are no angels, demons, or ghosts.
The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain.
The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion.
Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder.
The seeds of atomic theory, quantum mechanics, evolution, agnosticism, atheism...they're all right there, in a poem written by a man who died more than 2000 years ago.
My friends at Tinybop have released their first app, The Human Body, in which "curious kids ages 4+ can see what we're made of and how we work, from the beating heart to gurgling guts". Kelli Anderson did the illustrations for the app and they look amazing. Can't wait to try this out with Ollie and Minna.
Explore one of the greatest scientific mysteries of our time, the Pioneer Anomaly: in the 1980s, NASA scientists detected an unknown force acting on the spacecraft Pioneer 10, the first man-made object to journey through the asteroid belt and study Jupiter, eventually leaving the solar system. No one seemed able to agree on a cause. (Dark matter? Tensor-vector-scalar gravity? Collisions with gravitons?) What did seem clear to those who became obsessed with it was that the Pioneer Anomaly had the potential to upend Einstein and Newton -- to change everything we know about the universe.
Kakaes was a science writer for The Economist and studied physics at Harvard, so this topic seems right up his alley. Available for $2.99 for the Kindle and for iBooks on iOS.
The show builds on many of themes in the innovation history trilogy of The Ghost Map, The Invention Of Air, and Where Good Ideas Come From, but is based on new material with a completely different structure. Each hour-long episode takes one facet of modern life that we mostly take for granted -- artificial cold, clean drinking water, the lenses in your spectacles -- and tells the 500-year story of how that innovation came into being: the hobbyists and amateurs and entrepreneurs and collaborative networks that collectively made the modern world possible. It's also the story of the unintended consequences of these inventions: air conditioning and refrigeration didn't just make it possible to build ski slopes in the desert; they also triggered arguably the largest migration of human beings in the history of the species -- to cities like Dubai or Phoenix that would otherwise be virtually uninhabitable.
Outside of the nature documentaries like Planet Earth, I haven't seen a decent science series on TV in a long while -- most of them are too slow with too much filler and not enough actual, you know, science -- so I'm not getting my hopes up too high, but hoping this one bucks that trend.
On January 15, 1919 in Boston's North End, a storage container holding around 2.3 million gallons of molasses ruptured, sending a 8-15 ft. wave of molasses shooting out into the streets at 35 mph. Twenty-one people died, many more were injured, and the property damage was severe. In an article in Scientific American, Ferris Jabr explains the science of the molasses flood, including why it was so deadly and destructive.
A wave of molasses does not behave like a wave of water. Molasses is a non-Newtonian fluid, which means that its viscosity depends on the forces applied to it, as measured by shear rate. Consider non-Newtonian fluids such as toothpaste, ketchup and whipped cream. In a stationary bottle, these fluids are thick and goopy and do not shift much if you tilt the container this way and that. When you squeeze or smack the bottle, however, applying stress and increasing the shear rate, the fluids suddenly flow. Because of this physical property, a wave of molasses is even more devastating than a typical tsunami. In 1919 the dense wall of syrup surging from its collapsed tank initially moved fast enough to sweep people up and demolish buildings, only to settle into a more gelatinous state that kept people trapped.
This could just be a Boston urban legend, but it's said that on hot days in the North End, the sweet smell of molasses can be detected wafting through the air.
Mean growth rate was severely depressed and more variable in 1987-1989 and several other subsequent years, following the nuclear accident in April 1986 compared to the situation before 1986. The higher frequency of years with poor growth after 1986 was not caused by elevated temperature, drought or their interactions with background radiation. Elevated temperatures suppressed individual growth rates in particular years. Finally, the negative effects of radioactive contaminants were particularly pronounced in smaller trees. These findings suggest that radiation has suppressed growth rates of pines in Chernobyl, and that radiation interacts with other environmental factors and phenotypic traits of plants to influence their growth trajectories in complex ways.
Been waiting for this one for awhile: a three-minute trailer for Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, a sequel to Carl Sagan's Cosmos.
The show will be hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson and is being produced by Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy) and Sagan's widow Ann Druyan. If MacFarlane's involvement raises some eyebrows, it shouldn't: he came up with the idea of rebooting the series and is apparently a big space nerd and fan of the original series. (via devour)
Pitch is an extremely viscous substance, about 2 million times more viscous than honey. Drops take 7-13 years to form and less than a second to fall. A similar experiment has been running at University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia since 1927...their next drop is expected to fall sometime later this year.
Or rather, protozoan? Toxoplasma gondii is a protozoan parasite which is transmitted from rodents to cats through a crafty mechanism...it makes mice attracted to the smell of cat urine. Mouse goes near cat, cat eats mouse, T. gondii has a new host. From cats, the parasite can jump into humans, where it may be responsible for all sorts of nastiness:
Well, the behavioral influence plays out in a number of strange ways. Toxoplasma infection in humans has been associated with everything from slowed reaction times to a fondness toward cat urine -- to more extreme behaviors such as depression and even schizophrenia. And here's the kicker: Two different research groups have independently shown that Toxo-infected individuals are three to four times as likely of being killed in car accidents due to reckless driving.
And maybe makes us want to invent networking technology and share cool links? In this five-minute talk, Kevin Slavin cleverly connects viral media with T. gondii:
That video was so good, I watched the whole thing twice.
Using pulse monitors attached to the singers' ears, the researchers measured the changes in the choir members' heart rates as they navigated the intricate harmonies of a Swedish hymn. When the choir began to sing, their heart rates slowed down.
"When you sing the phrases, it is a form of guided breathing," says musicologist Bjorn Vickhoff of the Sahlgrenska Academy who led the project. "You exhale on the phrases and breathe in between the phrases. When you exhale, the heart slows down."
But what really struck him was that it took almost no time at all for the singers' heart rates to become synchronized. The readout from the pulse monitors starts as a jumble of jagged lines, but quickly becomes a series of uniform peaks. The heart rates fall into a shared rhythm guided by the song's tempo.
Did you know that there are new human beings? Like, not just new human babies but new species of humans? And not just new species of humans, but new species of humans who lived at the same time as, and even possibly bred with, modern humans, aka us? (Helloooooo, mesofacts.)
If you've read kottke.org over the years, you've likely heard of Homo floresiensis (aka Flores man, aka Hobbits), a species whose remains were discovered in present-day Indonesia in 2003. Homo floresiensis lived 95,000 to 13,000 years ago and stood about three feet high.
In this month's National Geographic, Jamie Shreeve tells the story of the 2010 discovery of the Denisovans, hominids who lived in modern-day Russia as late as 40,000 years ago. Only a handful of bone fragments and teeth have been recovered, but DNA and other evidence suggests that Denisovans, Neanderthals, and modern humans lived together in the same place and interbred.
By the time of the Denisova symposium, Pääbo and his colleagues had published first drafts of the entire Neanderthal and Denisovan genomes. Reading so many more pages allowed Pääbo and his colleagues, including David Reich at Harvard University and Montgomery Slatkin at the University of California, Berkeley, to discover that human genomes today actually contain a small but significant amount of Neanderthal code -- on average about 2.5 percent. The Neanderthals still may have been swept into extinction by the strange, high-browed new people who followed them out of Africa, but not before some commingling that left a little Neanderthal in most of us, 50,000 years later. Only one group of modern humans escaped that influence: Africans, because the commingling happened outside that continent.
Although the Denisovans' genome showed that they were more closely related to the Neanderthals, they too had left their mark on us. But the geographic pattern of that legacy was odd. When the researchers compared the Denisovan genome with those of various modern human populations, they found no trace of it in Russia or nearby China, or anywhere else, for that matter -- except in the genomes of New Guineans, other people from islands in Melanesia, and Australian Aborigines. On average their genomes are about 5 percent Denisovan. Negritos in the Philippines have as much as 2.5 percent.
The Red Deer Cave dwellers' unusual features included a flat face, a broad nose, a jutting jaw that lacked a chin, large molar teeth, a rounded braincase with prominent brow ridges, and thick skull bones, the researchers say.
Their brains were "moderate in size," Curnoe added.
Despite this seemingly primitive human design, radiocarbon dating of charcoal from the fossil deposits suggests the Red Deer Cave people lived just 14,500 to 11,500 years ago, the team says-a time by which all other human species, such as Neanderthals, are thought to have died out.
As with the other potential new human species, and as is proper in science, there is some skepticism about the Red Deer Cave people.
The team's suggestion that the Red Deer Cave people are somehow evolutionarily unique is receiving a skeptical reception from other scientists.
Physical anthropologist Erik Trinkaus described the findings as "an unfortunate overinterpretation and misinterpretation of robust early modern humans, probably with affinities to modern Melanesians"-indigenous peoples of Pacific islands stretching from New Guinea to Fiji (map).
"There is nothing extraordinary" about the newly announced fossil human, added Trinkaus, of Washington University in St. Louis, via email.
Philipp Gunz, of Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, isn't convinced by the study team's interpretation either.
"I would be surprised if it really was a new human group that was previously undiscovered," said, Gunz, also a physical anthropologist.
Turning the Sun into a giant radio telescope through gravitational lensing will take some work, but it is possible.
An Italian space scientist, Claudio Maccone, believes that gravitational lensing could be used for something even more extraordinary: searching for radio signals from alien civilizations. Maccone wants to use the sun as a gravitational lens to make an extraordinarily sensitive radio telescope. He did not invent the idea, which he calls FOCAL, but he has studied it more deeply than anyone else. A radio telescope at a gravitational focal point of the sun would be incredibly sensitive. (Unlike an optical lens, a gravitational lens actually has many focal points that lie along a straight line, called a focal line; imagine a line running through an observer, the center of the lens, and the target.) For one particular frequency that has been proposed as a channel for interstellar communication, a telescope would amplify the signal by a factor of 1.3 quadrillion.
The results are as reliable as flipping a light switch, but even after decades of testing, no one knows exactly why it works. Dr. Kaplitt, the surgeon who installed Rebecca Serdans' implant, explains it by likening the brain to a collection of electrical circuits. A disorder like dystonia is a failure of those circuits. When you install a brain stimulation device, "it's presumably blocking abnormal information from getting from one part of the brain to another, or normalizing that information." But Kaplitt is the first to acknowledge that this is just a theory. "The mechanism by which brain stimulation works is still somewhat unclear and controversial."
But the lingering questions haven't slowed down research. There are already patents that would use brain stimulation implants to enhance memory or prevent stuttering, to cure anorexia or bring a person to orgasm. Experimental studies use the device to treat Alzheimer's disease and drug addiction. Those circuits aren't as well understood as the circuits governing movement disorders, but the principle is no different. Once you've got a line into the circuitry of the brain, Parkinson's is just the beginning.
The center of the Sun is extremely dense, and a photon can only travel a tiny distance before running into another hydrogen nucleus. It gets absorbed by that nucleus and the re-emitted in a random direction. If that direction is back towards the center of the Sun, the photon has lost ground! It will get re-absorbed, and then re-emitted, over and over, trillions of times.
This is from 1997, so that figure might have been revised a bit (anyone have updated numbers?) but still, that's incredible. (via hacker news)
Andrew Johnson has been diagnosed with Early Onset Parkinson's Disease and recently underwent deep brain stimulation (DBS) surgery to implant a brain pacemaker that supplies his brain with regular and reliable electrical pulses. In this incredible video, Johnson turns the pacemaker off and you can see the effect that DBS has had on his life.
Understatement of the year at the end of the video. Wow. Johnson writes about his experience with Parkinson's on his site, Young and Shaky. (thx, eamon)
In analysing the Odyssey, they identified 342 unique characters and over 1700 relations between them.
Having constructed the social network, Miranda and co then examined its structure. "Odyssey's social network is small world, highly clustered, slightly hierarchical and resilient to random attacks," they say.
What's interesting about this conclusion is that these same characteristics all crop up in social networks in the real world. Miranda and co say this is good evidence that the Odyssey is based, at least in part, on a real social network and so must be a mixture of myth and fact.
The secret to Roman concrete lies in its unique mineral formulation and production technique. As the researchers explain in a press release outlining their findings, "The Romans made concrete by mixing lime and volcanic rock. For underwater structures, lime and volcanic ash were mixed to form mortar, and this mortar and volcanic tuff were packed into wooden forms. The seawater instantly triggered a hot chemical reaction. The lime was hydrated -- incorporating water molecules into its structure -- and reacted with the ash to cement the whole mixture together."
The Portland cement formula crucially lacks the lyme and volcanic ash mixture. As a result, it doesn't bind quite as well when compared with the Roman concrete, researchers found. It is this inferior binding property that explains why structures made of Portland cement tend to weaken and crack after a few decades of use, Jackson says.
The case involved Myriad Genetics Inc., which holds patents related to two genes, known as BRCA1 and BRCA2, that can indicate whether a woman has a heightened risk of developing breast cancer or ovarian cancer.
Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the court, said the genes Myriad isolated are products of nature, which aren't eligible for patents.
The high court's ruling was a win for a coalition of cancer patients, medical groups and geneticists who filed a lawsuit in 2009 challenging Myriad's patents. Thanks to those patents, the Salt Lake City company has been the exclusive U.S. commercial provider of genetic tests for breast cancer and ovarian cancer.
The challengers argued the patents have allowed Myriad to dictate the type and terms of genetic screening available for the diseases, while also dissuading research by other laboratories.
Now, there's another important implication of genomic ancestry studies: Most of the people you are descended from are no more genetically related to you than strangers are. Or to put it another way, your genealogical family tree, which includes all the history of your family going back thousands of years, is much larger than your genetic family tree-the people whom genome sequencing would pinpoint as related to you. 99.9 percent of your genome is the same as that of every other human being (apart from the x and y chromosomes), and that .1 percent of variation in each person gets thinned out pretty quickly across the generations, as each child gets half of each of her parents' genomes, passes on half to each of her children, and so on. Geneticist Luke Jostins did a nice mathematical analysis and estimated that you have only about a 12 percent chance of being genetically related to an ancestor 10 generations ago; by the time you get to a 14-generation ancestor, the probability is nearly zero.
A mammoth recently found in Siberia was so well preserved that when researchers were chipping it out of the ice, liquid blood flowed out.
Semyon Grigoriev, chairman of the university's Museum of Mammoths and head of the expedition, said: "The fragments of muscle tissues, which we've found out of the body, have a natural red colour of fresh meat. The reason for such preservation is that the lower part of the body was underlying (sic) in pure ice, and the upper part was found in the middle of tundra. We found a trunk separately from the body, which is the worst-preserved part."
The temperature was ten degrees celsius below zero when the mammoth was found, so the discovery of liquid blood was a shock. "It can be assumed that the blood of mammoths had some cryo-protective properties," Grigoriev said. "The blood is very dark, it was found in ice cavities below the belly and when we broke these cavities with a pick, the blood came running out."
4. Arkansas. Official state bird: northern mockingbird
Christ. What makes this even less funny is that there are like eight other states with mockingbird as their official bird. I'm convinced that the guy whose job it was to report to the state's legislature on what the official bird should be forgot until the day it was due and he was in line for a breakfast sandwich at Burger King. In a panic he walked outside and selected the first bird he could find, a dirty mockingbird singing its stupid head off on top of a dumpster.
What it should be: painted bunting
More hilarious science journalism, please. Yes, in addition to the excellent What If? (via @jessamyn)
The researchers, at Oregon Health and Science University, took skin cells from a baby with a genetic disease and fused them with donated human eggs to create human embryos that were genetically identical to the 8-month-old. They then extracted stem cells from those embryos.
The embryo-creation technique is essentially the same as that used to create Dolly the sheep and the many cloned animals that have followed. In those cases, the embryos were implanted in the wombs of surrogate mothers.
These embryos won't work for producing clones humans...they are being used to harvest stem cells.
The Oregon researchers, who published a paper on their work in the journal Cell, say their goal is what has been called therapeutic cloning: making embryonic stem cells that are genetically identical to a particular patient.
Embryonic stem cells can turn into any type of cell in the body, like heart cells, muscles or neurons. That raises the hope that one day the cells will be turned into replacement tissue or even replacement organs to treat a host of diseases.
In this morning's NY Times, Angelina Jolie writes about her decision to have a preventive double mastectomy to hopefully ward off cancer.
My mother fought cancer for almost a decade and died at 56. She held out long enough to meet the first of her grandchildren and to hold them in her arms. But my other children will never have the chance to know her and experience how loving and gracious she was.
We often speak of "Mommy's mommy," and I find myself trying to explain the illness that took her away from us. They have asked if the same could happen to me. I have always told them not to worry, but the truth is I carry a "faulty" gene, BRCA1, which sharply increases my risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer.
It happens that just last night I read about the BRCA-1 gene in Siddhartha Mukhergee's excellent biography of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies. This part is right near the end of the book:
Like cancer prevention, cancer screening will also be reinvigorated by the molecular understanding of cancer. Indeed, it has already been. The discovery of the BRCA genes for breast cancer epitomizes the integration of cancer screening and cancer genetics. In the mid-1990s, building on the prior decade's advances, researchers isolated two related genes, BRCA-1 and BRCA-2, that vastly increase the risk of developing breast cancer. A woman with an inherited mutation in BRCA-1 has a 50 to 80 percent chance of developing breast cancer in her lifetime (the gene also increases the risk for ovarian cancer), about three to five times the normal risk. Today, testing for this gene mutation has been integrated into prevention efforts. Women found positive for a mutation in the two genes are screened more intensively using more sensitive imaging techniques such as breast MRI. Women with BRCA mutations might choose to take the drug tamoxifen to prevent breast cancer, a strategy shown effective in clinical trials. Or, perhaps most radically, women with BRCA mutations might choose a prophylactic mastectomy of both breasts and ovaries before cancer develops, another strategy that dramatically decreases the chances of developing breast cancer.
Radical is an understatement...what a tough and brave decision to make. Again from the book, I liked this woman's take on it:
An Israeli woman with a BRCA-1 mutation who chose this strategy after developing cancer in one breast told me that at least part of her choice was symbolic. "I am rejecting cancer from my body," she said. "My breasts had become no more to me than a site for my cancer. They were of no more use to me. They harmed my body, my survival. I went to the surgeon and asked him to remove them."
Five to 10 percent of breast cancers occur in women with a genetic predisposition for the disease, usually due to mutations in either the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes. These mutations greatly increase not only the risk for breast cancer in women, but also the risk for ovarian cancer in women as well as prostate and breast cancer among men. Hundreds of cancer-associated BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations have been documented, but three specific BRCA mutations are worthy of note because they are responsible for a substantial fraction of hereditary breast cancers and ovarian cancers among women with Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry. The three mutations have also been found in individuals not known to have Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry, but such cases are rare.
Update: Two things. First, and I hope this isn't actually necessary because you are all intelligent people who can read things and make up your own minds, but let me just state for the official record that you should never never never never NEVER take medical advice, inferred or otherwise, from celebrities or bloggers. Come on, seriously. If you're concerned, go see a doctor.
But many doctors, patients and scientists aren't happy with the situation.
Some are offended by the very notion that a private company can own a patent based on a gene that was invented not by researchers in a lab but by Mother Nature. Every single cell in every single person has copies of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes.
Myriad officials say they deserves the patent because they invested a great deal of money to figure out the sequence and develop "synthetic molecules" based on that sequence that can be used to test the variants in a patient.
"We think it is right for a company to be able to own its discoveries, earn back its investment, and make a reasonable profit," the company wrote on its blog.
I do know the 23andme test covers something related to the BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations...a friend of a friend did the 23andme test, tested positive for the BRCA1 mutation, and decided to have a preventive double mastectomy after consulting her doctor and further tests. (thx, mark, allison, and ★spavis)
The quick progress of the US space program in the 1960s and 70s and the science fiction of the 70s and 80s seemed to point towards humans living permanently in space. What happened?
Ironically, our actual experiments in space living have largely reinforced this stark perspective. Real life in space is often cramped, unpleasant and even pointless. Some years back, I visited Star City near Moscow, the training centre for cosmonauts since Gagarin, where I had a chance to clamber inside a full-scale training mock-up of the Mir space station. The experience was more like residing inside a computer terminal than one of O'Neill's cylindrical islands, so proximate and abundant were tubes, wires, levers, buttons and unnameable gadgets.
More disorienting was the placement of controls and conveniences: because space was limited, these were distributed throughout the station without reference to Earthly gravity, thus making use of 'ceilings' as sleeping quarters, walls for toilet cubicles and virtually any other surface for any other activity. One could get used to such things (and you'd have to be a true cynic to tire of the view outside your window). But it's a far, far cry from strolling the wide corridors of the Starship Enterprise.
They promised us life in space, flying cars, and jetpacks but all we got were pocket-sized rectangles containing all human knowledge. FAIL.
Damn! Watch this railroad tanker car instantly implode:
I couldn't find too much information on the source of this clip, but it appears to be part of a safety training video on the perils of improperly steam cleaning tanker cars. In the clip, the tanker car is filled with steam and the safety valves are disabled. The steam cools, then condenses, the pressure inside drops, and the pressure difference is big enough to crumple that huge railcar like a napkin.
Update: See also "sun kink", when railroad tracks buckle in intense heat:
Normally when someone says they've thought up a theoretically possible perpetual motion scheme, you roll your eyes and pass the dutchie to the left hand side. But when that someone is a Nobel laureate in physics, is not generally off his rocker, and has published his idea in a prestigious peer-reviewed journal, people pay attention. Frank Wilczek believes he's invented something called time crystals.
In February 2012, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Frank Wilczek decided to go public with a strange and, he worried, somewhat embarrassing idea. Impossible as it seemed, Wilczek had developed an apparent proof of "time crystals" -- physical structures that move in a repeating pattern, like minute hands rounding clocks, without expending energy or ever winding down. Unlike clocks or any other known objects, time crystals derive their movement not from stored energy but from a break in the symmetry of time, enabling a special form of perpetual motion.
"Most research in physics is continuations of things that have gone before," said Wilczek, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This, he said, was "kind of outside the box."
An effort to prove or disprove Wilczek's theory is underway...let's hope it holds up to scientific scrutiny better than Time Cube. (via digg)
An article from a mother who was anti-vaccine until her daughter (and then the rest of the family) got the whooping cough. And still she feels "funny" about vaccination.
And yet I still wondered about that list of things that I would now, I suppose, have to surrender to and immunise my child against. Polio, for one -- a couple of my parents' pensioner friends still carry the limp left by their childhood polio, but none of my friends do, because it isn't around any more. And diphtheria -- what was that, even? I knew it had killed one of Queen Victoria's daughters, but that wasn't our reality.
The reason it wasn't our reality was, of course, due to a continuous programme of immunisation. Duh. Diphtheria is a disease that still kills one in five infants it meets, even if they get treatment, their necks swelling up until they can no longer breathe. I have now seen a picture of a child whose neck was ravaged by diphtheria, bloated like a foie gras goose about to burst. I wish I could unsee it.
A pair of scientists looked at the rate at which the complexity of life increases and then extrapolated back to a point of zero complexity, aka the origin of life. The answer they came up with is 9.7 ± 2.5 billion years ago. Which is much older than the Earth. This idea has some provocative implications:
Sharov and Gordon say their interpretation also explains the Fermi paradox, which raises the question that if the universe is filled with intelligent life, why can't we see evidence of it.
However, if life takes 10 billion years to evolve to the level of complexity associated with humans, then we may be among the first, if not the first, intelligent civilisation in our galaxy. And this is the reason why when we gaze into space, we do not yet see signs of other intelligent species.
Great article by Burkhard Bilger about NASA's Curiosity mission to Mars.
The search for life on Mars is now in its sixth decade. Forty spacecraft have been sent there, and not one has found a single fossil or living thing. The closer we look, the more hostile the planet seems: parched and frozen in every season, its atmosphere inert and murderously thin, its surface scoured by solar winds. By the time Earth took its first breath three billion years ago, geologists now believe, Mars had been suffocating for a billion years. The air had thinned and rivers evaporated; dust storms swept up and ice caps seized what was left of the water. The Great Desiccation Event, as it's sometimes called, is even more of a mystery than the Great Oxygenation on Earth. We know only this: one planet lived and the other died. One turned green, the other red.
Perfect read if you've been curious about what Curiosity is up to on Mars but needed something a bit more narrative than the mission home page or Wikipedia page to guide you. Also features the phrase "a self-eating watermelon of despair", so there's that. Oh, and here's the Seven Minutes of Terror video referred to in the story.
The other day I posted a video about how differential gears work to help cars go smoothly around curves. Trains don't have differential gears, so how do they manage to go around curves without slipping or skidding? Richard Feynman explains:
The numbers, especially for competitive athletes, are sobering. According to their calculations, static stretching reduces strength in the stretched muscles by almost 5.5 percent, with the impact increasing in people who hold individual stretches for 90 seconds or more. While the effect is reduced somewhat when people's stretches last less than 45 seconds, stretched muscles are, in general, substantially less strong.
They also are less powerful, with power being a measure of the muscle's ability to produce force during contractions, according to Goran Markovic, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Zagreb and the study's senior author. In Dr. Markovic and his colleagues' re-analysis of past data, they determined that muscle power generally falls by about 2 percent after stretching.
And as a result, they found, explosive muscular performance also drops off significantly, by as much as 2.8 percent. That means that someone trying to burst from the starting blocks, blast out a ballistic first tennis serve, clean and jerk a laden barbell, block a basketball shot, or even tick off a fleet opening mile in a marathon will be ill served by stretching first. Their performance after warming up with stretching is likely to be worse than if they hadn't warmed up at all.
Over the past 15 years air temperatures at the Earth's surface have been flat while greenhouse-gas emissions have continued to soar. The world added roughly 100 billion tonnes of carbon to the atmosphere between 2000 and 2010. That is about a quarter of all the CO₂ put there by humanity since 1750. And yet, as James Hansen, the head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, observes, "the five-year mean global temperature has been flat for a decade."
Temperatures fluctuate over short periods, but this lack of new warming is a surprise. Ed Hawkins, of the University of Reading, in Britain, points out that surface temperatures since 2005 are already at the low end of the range of projections derived from 20 climate models. If they remain flat, they will fall outside the models' range within a few years.
The mismatch between rising greenhouse-gas emissions and not-rising temperatures is among the biggest puzzles in climate science just now. It does not mean global warming is a delusion. Flat though they are, temperatures in the first decade of the 21st century remain almost 1°C above their level in the first decade of the 20th. But the puzzle does need explaining.
A mysterious malady that has been killing honeybees en masse for several years appears to have expanded drastically in the last year, commercial beekeepers say, wiping out 40 percent or even 50 percent of the hives needed to pollinate many of the nation's fruits and vegetables.
Which is like, yeah, big whoop, it's just bees, right? Except that:
The Agriculture Department says a quarter of the American diet, from apples to cherries to watermelons to onions, depends on pollination by honeybees.
Well, this is interesting. Graphene is a substance discovered relatively recently that has a number of unusual properties. In 2004, physicists at the University of Manchester and the Institute for Microelectronics Technology in Russia used ordinary scotch tape to isolate single-layer sheets of graphene. Once isolated, the sheets could be tested for the unusual properties I mentioned. The 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for this work.
In 2012, a group of researchers at UCLA discovered they could make single-layer sheets of graphene by coating a DVD with graphite oxide and then "playing" the disc in a plain old DVD drive. And then in a happy accident, they found that graphene has unusually high supercapacitance properties, which could mean that graphene could be used, for example, as a mobile phone battery that lasts all day, charges in a few seconds, and can be thrown into a compost bin after use.
Click through for an animated GIF of all the comparisons. Not bad for the telescopic state of the art in 1610. For a taste of how celestial objects actually appeared when viewed through Galileo's telescope, check out this video starting around 7:30. (thx, john)
The most startling claims, however, are based on electron microscope images of structures within the stones (see above). Wallis and co say that one image shows a complex, thick-walled, carbon-rich microfossil about 100 micrometres across that bares similarities with a group of largely extinct marine dinoflagellate algae.
They say another image shows well-preserved flagella that are 2 micrometres in diameter and 100 micrometres long. By terrestrial standards, that's extremely long and thin, which Wallis and co interpret as evidence of formation in a low-gravity, low-pressure environment.
Gotta take this with a massive grain of salt, but it will be interesting to see how this one plays out.
On May 24, 2003 The Lancet published a letter from Wickramasinghe, jointly signed by Milton Wainwright and Jayant Narlikar, in which they hypothesized that the virus that causes Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) could be extraterrestrial in origin and not originated from chickens.
Wickramasinghe and his mentor Fred Hoyle have also used their data to argue in favor of cosmic ancestry, and against evolution.
You've likely seen the graph of the Earth's average global temperature over the past 2000 years...it's mostly a straight line until you get to the industrial revolution and then it shoots up. It looks like a hockey stick. In a study published today in Science, that graph has been extended back 11,300 years and you can really see the scope of the abrupt temperature change.
The decade of 1900 to 1910 was one of the coolest in the past 11,300 years - cooler than 95 percent of the other years, the marine fossil data suggest. Yet 100 years later, the decade of 2000 to 2010 was one of the warmest, said study lead author Shaun Marcott of Oregon State University. Global thermometer records only go back to 1880, and those show the last decade was the hottest for this more recent time period.
"In 100 years, we've gone from the cold end of the spectrum to the warm end of the spectrum," Marcott said. "We've never seen something this rapid. Even in the ice age the global temperature never changed this quickly."
Using fossils from all over the world, Marcott presents the longest continuous record of Earth's average temperature. One of his co-authors last year used the same method to look even farther back. This study fills in the crucial post-ice age time during early human civilization.
Marcott's data indicates that it took 4,000 years for the world to warm about 1.25 degrees from the end of the ice age to about 7,000 years ago. The same fossil-based data suggest a similar level of warming occurring in just one generation: from the 1920s to the 1940s. Actual thermometer records don't show the rise from the 1920s to the 1940s was quite that big and Marcott said for such recent time periods it is better to use actual thermometer readings than his proxies.
Paul Frampton is a 69-year-old theoretical particle physicist who has co-authored papers with Nobel laureates. In late 2011, the absentminded professor met a Czech bikini model online. Over email and Yahoo chat, they became romantically involved and she sent him a plane ticket to come meet her at a photo shoot in Bolivia. Then she asked him to bring a bag of hers with him on his flight.
While in Bolivia, Frampton corresponded with an old friend, John Dixon, a physicist and lawyer who lives in Ontario. When Frampton explained what he was up to, Dixon became alarmed. His warnings to Frampton were unequivocal, Dixon told me not long ago, still clearly upset: "I said: 'Well, inside that suitcase sewn into the lining will be cocaine. You're in big trouble.' Paul said, 'I'll be careful, I'll make sure there isn't cocaine in there and if there is, I'll ask them to remove it.' I thought they were probably going to kidnap him and torture him to get his money. I didn't know he didn't have money. I said, 'Well, you're going to be killed, Paul, so whom should I contact when you disappear?' And he said, 'You can contact my brother and my former wife.' " Frampton later told me that he shrugged off Dixon's warnings about drugs as melodramatic, adding that he rarely pays attention to the opinions of others.
On the evening of Jan. 20, nine days after he arrived in Bolivia, a man Frampton describes as Hispanic but whom he didn't get a good look at handed him a bag out on the dark street in front of his hotel. Frampton was expecting to be given an Hermès or a Louis Vuitton, but the bag was an utterly commonplace black cloth suitcase with wheels. Once he was back in his room, he opened it. It was empty. He wrote to Milani, asking why this particular suitcase was so important. She told him it had "sentimental value." The next morning, he filled it with his dirty laundry and headed to the airport.
After starting on treatment, the baby's immune system responded and tests showed diminishing levels of the virus until it was undetectable 29 days after birth. Ten months later, when the baby returned to the hospital (her mother stopped bringing her, without explanation) the researchers tested her again for HIV and found no sign of the virus. It appeared she had been functionally cured.
Michael Moss is a Pulitzer-winning investigative journalist for the NY Times and he's written a book called Salt Sugar Fat.
From a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter at The New York Times comes the explosive story of the rise of the processed food industry and its link to the emerging obesity epidemic. Michael Moss reveals how companies use salt, sugar, and fat to addict us and, more important, how we can fight back.
Every year, the average American eats thirty-three pounds of cheese (triple what we ate in 1970) and seventy pounds of sugar (about twenty-two teaspoons a day). We ingest 8,500 milligrams of salt a day, double the recommended amount, and almost none of that comes from the shakers on our table. It comes from processed food. It's no wonder, then, that one in three adults, and one in five kids, is clinically obese. It's no wonder that twenty-six million Americans have diabetes, the processed food industry in the U.S. accounts for $1 trillion a year in sales, and the total economic cost of this health crisis is approaching $300 billion a year.
Moss researched the book for four years, interviewing hundreds of current and former processed-food industry employees and reviewing thousands of pages of industry memos. This weekend's NY Times Magazine has a lengthy excerpt from the book that's well worth a read.
Eventually, a line of the [Lunchables] trays, appropriately called Maxed Out, was released that had as many as nine grams of saturated fat, or nearly an entire day's recommended maximum for kids, with up to two-thirds of the max for sodium and 13 teaspoons of sugar.
When I asked Geoffrey Bible, former C.E.O. of Philip Morris, about this shift toward more salt, sugar and fat in meals for kids, he smiled and noted that even in its earliest incarnation, Lunchables was held up for criticism. "One article said something like, 'If you take Lunchables apart, the most healthy item in it is the napkin.' "
Well, they did have a good bit of fat, I offered. "You bet," he said. "Plus cookies."
The prevailing attitude among the company's food managers - through the 1990s, at least, before obesity became a more pressing concern - was one of supply and demand. "People could point to these things and say, 'They've got too much sugar, they've got too much salt,' " Bible said. "Well, that's what the consumer wants, and we're not putting a gun to their head to eat it. That's what they want. If we give them less, they'll buy less, and the competitor will get our market. So you're sort of trapped." (Bible would later press Kraft to reconsider its reliance on salt, sugar and fat.)
I brought him two shopping bags filled with a variety of chips to taste. He zeroed right in on the Cheetos. "This," Witherly said, "is one of the most marvelously constructed foods on the planet, in terms of pure pleasure." He ticked off a dozen attributes of the Cheetos that make the brain say more. But the one he focused on most was the puff's uncanny ability to melt in the mouth. "It's called vanishing caloric density," Witherly said. "If something melts down quickly, your brain thinks that there's no calories in it... you can just keep eating it forever."
There's an assumption that because of the relationship between metabolic rates, volume, and surface area, animals get an average of one billion heartbeats out of their bodies before they expire. Turns out there's some truth to it.
As animals get bigger, from tiny shrew to huge blue whale, pulse rates slow down and life spans stretch out longer, conspiring so that the number of heartbeats during an average stay on Earth tends to be roughly the same, around a billion.
Mysteriously, these and a large variety of other phenomena change with body size according to a precise mathematical principle called "quarter-power scaling".
It might seem that because a cat is a hundred times more massive than a mouse, its metabolic rate, the intensity with which it burns energy, would be a hundred times greater. After all, the cat has a hundred times more cells to feed.
But if this were so, the animal would quickly be consumed by a fit of spontaneous feline combustion, or at least a very bad fever. The reason: the surface area a creature uses to dissipate the heat of the metabolic fires does not grow as fast as its body mass.
To see this, consider a mouse as an approximation of a small sphere. As the sphere grows larger, to cat size, the surface area increases along two dimensions but the volume increases along three dimensions. The size of the biological radiator cannot possibly keep up with the size of the metabolic engine.
Humans and chickens are both outliers in this respect...they both live more than twice as long as their heart rates would indicate. Small dogs live about half as long.
Unfortunately, [the X-Plane simulator] is not capable of simulating the hellish environment near the surface of Venus. But physics calculations give us an idea of what flight there would be like. The upshot is: Your plane would fly pretty well, except it would be on fire the whole time, and then it would stop flying, and then stop being a plane.