kottke.org posts about science

The molecular structure of citiesJul 23 2014

MIT's Franz-Josef Ulm has taken to analyzing the structure of cities as if they were molecular materials like glass or crystal.

With colleagues, Ulm began analyzing cities the way you'd analyze a material, looking at factors such as the arrangement of buildings, each building's center of mass, and how they're ordered around each other. They concluded that cities could be grouped into categories: Boston's structure, for example, looks a lot like an "amorphous liquid." Seattle is another liquid, and so is Los Angeles. Chicago, which was designed on a grid, looks like glass, he says; New York resembles a highly ordered crystal.

I love this. It's like Jane Jacobs + the materials science research I did in college.

So far, Ulm says, the work has two potential applications. First, it could help predict and mitigate urban heat island effects, the fact that cities tend to be several degrees warmer than their surrounding areas-a phenomenon that has a major impact on energy use. (His research on how this relates to structure is currently undergoing peer review.) Second, he says that cities' molecular order (or disorder) may also affect their vulnerability to the kinds of catastrophic weather events that are becoming more frequent thanks to climate change.

(via 5 intriguing things)

The polar flipJul 16 2014

Earth Magnetic Field

According to data collected by a European satellite array, the Earth's magnetic field is shifting and weakening at a greater pace than previously thought. One of the reasons for the shift might be that the magnetic North and South poles are swapping positions.

Scientists already know that magnetic north shifts. Once every few hundred thousand years the magnetic poles flip so that a compass would point south instead of north. While changes in magnetic field strength are part of this normal flipping cycle, data from Swarm have shown the field is starting to weaken faster than in the past. Previously, researchers estimated the field was weakening about 5 percent per century, but the new data revealed the field is actually weakening at 5 percent per decade, or 10 times faster than thought. As such, rather than the full flip occurring in about 2,000 years, as was predicted, the new data suggest it could happen sooner.

You can read up on geomagnetic reversals on Wikipedia. A short sampling:

These periods [of polarity] are called chrons. The time spans of chrons are randomly distributed with most being between 0.1 and 1 million years with an average of 450,000 years. Most reversals are estimated to take between 1,000 and 10,000 years. The latest one, the Brunhes-Matuyama reversal, occurred 780,000 years ago. A brief complete reversal, known as the Laschamp event, occurred only 41,000 years ago during the last glacial period. That reversal lasted only about 440 years with the actual change of polarity lasting around 250 years. During this change the strength of the magnetic field dropped to 5% of its present strength.

Scientist biography recommendationsJul 02 2014

Earlier today I asked my Twitter followers for recommendations for "really good" biographies about scientists. I gave Genius (James Gleick's bio of Richard Feynman) and Cleopatra, A Life (not about a scientist but was super interesting and well-written) as examples of what I was looking for. You can see the responses here and I've pulled out a few of the most interesting ones below:

- Isaac Newton by James Gleick. Gleick wrote the aforementioned Genius and Chaos, another favorite of mine. I tried to read The Information last year after many glowing recommendations from friends but couldn't get into it. Someone suggested Never at Rest is a superior Newton bio.

- The Man Who Loved Only Numbers by Paul Hoffman. I've read this biography of mathematician Paul Erdos; highly recommended.

- Galileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel. I've never read anything by Sobel; I'll have to rectify that.

- Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson. I enjoyed his problematic Jobs biography and I notice that he's written one on Ben Franklin as well.

- Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges.

- American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin. Bio of J. Robert Oppenheimer, leader of the Manhattan Project. See also: The Making of the Atomic Bomb, one of my favorite books ever.

- Everything and More by David Foster Wallace. I've heard Wallace was bit handwavy with the math in this one, but I still enjoyed it.

- Newton and the Counterfeiter by Thomas Levenson. Newton was a detective?

- The Philosophical Breakfast Club by Laura Snyder. Four-way bio of a group of school friends (Charles Babbage, John Herschel, William Whewell, and Richard Jones) who changed the world.

- The Reluctant Mr. Darwin by David Quammen. How Charles Darwin devised his theory of evolution and then sat on it for years is one of science's most fascinating stories.

- T. rex and the Crater of Doom by Walter Alvarez. Not a biography of a person but of a theory: that a meteor impact 65 million years ago caused the extinction of the dinosaurs.

- Walt Disney by Neal Gabler. Disney isn't a scientist, but when you ask for book recommendations and Steven Johnson tells you to read something, it goes on the list.

- The Man Who Knew Infinity by Robert Kanigel. Bio of brilliant Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan.

- Edge of Objectivity by Charles Gillispie. A biography of modern science published in 1966, all but out of print at this point unfortunately.

- Galileo at Work by Stillman Drake.

- The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes.

And many more here. Thanks to everyone who suggested books.

Update: Because this came up on Twitter, some biographies specifically about women in science: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Hedy's Folly, On a Farther Shore, Marie Curie: A Life, A Feeling for the Organism, Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA, Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man, and Radioactive.

What else is out there?Jun 26 2014

Great post on the Fermi Paradox, aka if there are so many potential intelligent civilizations out there in the universe (possibly 10 quadrillion of them), why haven't we heard from anyone?

Possibility 5) There's only one instance of higher-intelligent life -- a "superpredator" civilization (like humans are here on Earth) -- who is far more advanced than everyone else and keeps it that way by exterminating any intelligent civilization once they get past a certain level. This would suck. The way it might work is that it's an inefficient use of resources to exterminate all emerging intelligences, maybe because most die out on their own. But past a certain point, the super beings make their move -- because to them, an emerging intelligent species becomes like a virus as it starts to grow and spread. This theory suggests that whoever was the first in the galaxy to reach intelligence won, and now no one else has a chance. This would explain the lack of activity out there because it would keep the number of super-intelligent civilizations to just one.

The leaf that hates waterJun 20 2014

Aatish Bhatia noticed a plant in his backyard whose leaves naturally repelled water. He took a sample to a friend who had access to a high-speed camera and an electron microscope to investigate what made the leaves so hydrophobic.

But how does a leaf become superhydrophobic? The trick to this, Janine explained, is that the water isn't really sitting on the surface. A superhydrophobic surface is a little like a bed of nails. The nails touch the water, but there are gaps in between them. So there's fewer points of contact, which means the surface can't tug on the water as much, and so the drop stays round.

The leaf is so water repellant that drops of water bounce right off of it:

Memories without all the pesky feelingsJun 19 2014

In the New Yorker, Michael Specter writes generally about the malleability of memory and specifically about Daniela Schiller's research on disassociating people's memories from the feelings they have about them. Simply recalling a memory can change it, and Schiller has found evidence that process can be used to remove the feelings of stress, anxiety, and fear associated with certain memories.

Even so, Schiller entered her field at a fortunate moment. After decades of struggle, scientists had begun to tease out the complex molecular interactions that permit us to form, store, and recall many different types of memories. In 2004, the year Schiller received her doctorate in cognitive neuroscience, from Tel Aviv University, she was awarded a Fulbright fellowship and joined the laboratory of Elizabeth Phelps, at New York University. Phelps and her colleague Joseph LeDoux are among the nation's leading investigators of the neural systems involved in learning, emotion, and memory. By coincidence, that was also the year that the film "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" was released; it explores what happens when two people choose to have all their memories of each other erased. In real life, it's not possible to pluck a single recollection from our brains without destroying others, and Schiller has no desire to do that. She and a growing number of her colleagues have a more ambitious goal: to find a way to rewrite our darkest memories.

"I want to disentangle painful emotion from the memory it is associated with," she said. "Then somebody could recall a terrible trauma, like those my father obviously endured, without the terror that makes it so disabling. You would still have the memory, but not the overwhelming fear attached to it. That would be far more exciting than anything that happens in a movie." Before coming to New York, Schiller had heard -- incorrectly, as it turned out -- that the idea for "Eternal Sunshine" originated in LeDoux's lab. It seemed like science fiction and, for the most part, it was. As many neuroscientists were aware, though, the plot also contained more than a hint of truth.

The largest black hole in the UniverseJun 16 2014

The black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy is estimated to have a mass of 4 million Suns. The largest black hole astronomers have found so far has a mass of 18 billion solar masses, or more than 4000 times as massive as the Milky Way's.

Around 3.5 billion light-years away, this galaxy is estimated to contain the largest black hole presently known, at 18 billion solar masses. (Although, the error bars for this one and NGC 1277's overlap substantially.) But the most spectacular part of this galaxy -- and why we're able to learn so much about it's central region -- is because there's a 100 million Solar mass black hole (that's 25 times larger than the one at the Milky Way's core) that's orbiting the even larger one!

Also, the largest know galaxy in the Universe is IC 1101, with a mass of 100 trillion solar masses.

What is Mother Earth worth?Jun 12 2014

A group led by Dr. Robert Costanza has calculated the value of the world's ecosystems...the group's most recent estimate puts the yearly value at $142.7 trillion.

"I think this is a very important piece of science," said Douglas J. McCauley of the University of California, Santa Barbara. That's particularly high praise coming from Dr. McCauley, who has been a scathing critic of Dr. Costanza's attempt to put price tags on ecosystem services.

"This paper reads to me like an annual financial report for Planet Earth," Dr. McCauley said. "We learn whether the dollar value of Earth's major assets have gone up or down."

The group last calculated this value back in 1997 and it rose sharply over the past 17 years, even as those natural habitats are disappearing. This line from the article stunned me:

Dr. Costanza and his colleagues estimate that the world's reefs shrank from 240,000 square miles in 1997 to 108,000 in 2011.

Coral reefs shrank by more than half over the past 17 years...I had no idea the reef situation was that bad. Jesus.

Lego to make set of female scientist minifigsJun 05 2014

A proposal by geochemist Ellen Kooijman for a minifigure set of female scientists has won Lego's Winter 2014 Review. The set, called "Research Institute," is on track to be released by Lego Ideas in August 2014, more than two years after a campaign that took off with huge support from the internet.

Kooijman designed twelve figures in total, plus accessories. Lego will tweak the final designs and hasn't announced the specific characters or total number that will be included. Kooijman's proposed set includes an astronomer, a paleontologist, and a chemist:

female research institute.jpg

Me, I'm a fan of the robotics engineer (pictured below, right, with a falconer and geologist):

Alternate female scientists.jpg

Lego already has one female scientist minifigure, released just last fall (after Koojiman's original proposal). She's a chemist/theoretician, with the typical glasses (safety glasses! according to materials scientist Deb Chachra), pocket protector, and laboratory flasks. But scientists have all kinds of tools and look all sorts of different ways, even broader than Kooijman's all-yellow/caucasian team with generic Lego hair. ("Ideally, Lego would use some 'rare' face and hair designs if they were to produce a set," she writes.)

Besides, go back and look at the composition of some of Lego's other sets to see if it could use more than one female scientist. Minifigure Series 1 had sixteen characters, with the two women being "Cheerleader" and "Nurse." The "Scientist" just came out in Series 11, along with "Grandma," [ok fine] "Pretzel Girl," [really?] "Diner Waitress," [ugh!] and the admittedly awesome "Lady Robot," who loves to party. "Some day she might decide she's ready to stop partying...but not yet!" Go ahead, be gone with it, Lady Robot.

Update: The retail version of the Lego Research Institute has arrived! It's Kooijman's original trio of paleontologist, astronomer, and chemist, with tweaked designs and accessories. Here's a picture:

Lego Research Final.jpg

(Thanks, @debcha)

Gwyneth Paltrow's pseudoscienceJun 02 2014

It is sad to see Gwyneth Paltrow promoting pseduoscience hucksters like Masaru Emoto in her very popular Goop newsletter. It begins:

I am fascinated by the growing science behind the energy of consciousness and its effects on matter. I have long had Dr. Emoto's coffee table book on how negativity changes the structure of water, how the molecules behave differently depending on the words or music being expressed around it.

And later on in the letter, Dr. Habib Sadeghi continues:

Japanese scientist, Masaru Emoto performed some of the most fascinating experiments on the effect that words have on energy in the 1990's. When frozen, water that's free from all impurities will form beautiful ice crystals that look exactly like snowflakes under a microscope. Water that's polluted, or has additives like fluoride, will freeze without forming crystals. In his experiments, Emoto poured pure water into vials labeled with negative phrases like "I hate you" or "fear." After 24 hours, the water was frozen, and no longer crystallized under the microscope: It yielded gray, misshapen clumps instead of beautiful lace-like crystals. In contrast, Emoto placed labels that said things like "I Love You," or "Peace" on vials of polluted water, and after 24 hours, they produced gleaming, perfectly hexagonal crystals. Emoto's experiments proved that energy generated by positive or negative words can actually change the physical structure of an object.

Riiiight. Paltrow should stick to recipes, fashion, and workouts and leave the science to people who actually understand it lest she wander into Jenny McCarthy territory. There's nothing wrong with asserting that thinking positively will improve your life, but connecting it with quantum physics and the like, without rigorous scientific proof, is dangerous and stupid.

How We Got to Now trailerMay 28 2014

Steven Johnson has been working on a six-part series for PBS called How We Got to Now. (There's a companion book as well.) The series is due in October but the trailer dropped today:

And here's a snippet of one of the episodes about railway time. I'm quite looking forward to this series; Johnson and I cover similar ground in our work with similar sensibilities. I'm always cribbing stuff from his writing and using his frameworks to think things through and just from the trailer, I counted at least three things I've covered on kottke.org in the past: Hedy Lamarr, urban sanitation, and Jacbo Riis (not to mention all sorts of stuff about time).

Building the ultimate solar systemMay 28 2014

There are a couple of different ways you can construct a stable solar system with a maximum number of habitable worlds. One includes 36 habitable worlds in a single solar system.

Ultimate Solar System

We can fit the orbits of four gas giants in the habitable zone (in 3:2 resonances). Each of those can have up to five potentially habitable moons. Plus, the orbit of each gas giant can also fit an Earth-sized planet both 60 degrees in front and 60 degrees behind the giant planet's orbit (on Trojan orbits). Or each could be a binary Earth! What is nice about this setup is that the worlds can have any size in our chosen range. It doesn't matter for the stability.

Let's add it up. One gas giant per orbit. Five large moons per gas giant. Plus, two binary Earths per orbit. That makes 9 habitable worlds per orbit. We have four orbits in the habitable zone. That makes 36 habitable worlds in this system!

Immigrant life on MarsMay 20 2014

If there wasn't life on Mars before, there might be now. Before NASA sent Curiosity to Mars, it was thoroughly cleaned of all traces of contaminants. But swabs of rover's surfaces taken before it was sent to Mars have revealed 377 different strains of bacteria that potentially could have made the trip. Some of them may have even survived.

A study that identified 377 strains found that a surprising number resist extreme temperatures and damage caused by ultraviolet-C radiation, the most potentially harmful type. The results, presented today at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology, are a first step towards elucidating how certain bacteria might survive decontamination and space flight.

The Moon, closerMay 19 2014

If the Moon orbited the Earth at the same distance as the International Space Station, it might look a little something like this:

At that distance, the Moon would cover half the sky and take about five minutes to cross the sky. Of course, as Phil Plait notes, if the Moon were that close, tidal forces would result in complete chaos for everyone involved.

There would be global floods as a tidal wave kilometers high sweeps around the world every 90 minutes (due to the Moon's closer, faster orbit), scouring clean everything in its path. The Earth itself would also be stretched up and down, so there would be apocalyptic earthquakes, not to mention huge internal heating of the Earth and subsequent volcanism. I'd think that the oceans might even boil away due to the enormous heat released from the Earth's interior, so at least that spares you the flood... but replaces water with lava. Yay?

Jupiter's Great Red Spot is shrinkingMay 15 2014

Jupiter Spot Shrinking

Jupiter's Great Red Spot is becoming more of a Medium Red Spot. The gas giant's signature beauty mark was recently measured by the Hubble as spanning 10,250 miles across its widest point, down from a high of 25,500 miles across.

Historic observations as far back as the late 1800s [2] gauged this turbulent spot to span about 41 000 kilometres at its widest point -- wide enough to fit three Earths comfortably side by side. In 1979 and 1980 the NASA Voyager fly-bys measured the spot at a shrunken 23 335 kilometres across. Now, Hubble has spied this feature to be smaller than ever before.

"Recent Hubble Space Telescope observations confirm that the spot is now just under 16 500 kilometres across, the smallest diameter we've ever measured," said Amy Simon of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, USA.

Amateur observations starting in 2012 revealed a noticeable increase in the spot's shrinkage rate. The spot's "waistline" is getting smaller by just under 1000 kilometres per year. The cause of this shrinkage is not yet known.

The truth of science with your own eyesMay 14 2014

Clive Thompson recently saw the moons of Jupiter with his own eyes and has a moment.

I saw one huge, bright dot, with three other tiny pinpoints of light nearby, all lined up in a row (just like the image at the top of this story). Holy moses, I realized; that's no star. That's Jupiter! And those are the moons of Jupiter!

I'm a science journalist and a space buff, and I grew up oohing and aahing over the pictures of Jupiter sent back by various NASA space probes. But I'd never owned a telescope, and never done much stargazing other than looking up in the night unaided. In my 45 years I'd never directly observed Jupiter and its moons myself.

So I freaked out. In a good way! It was a curiously intense existential moment.

For my birthday when I was seven or eight, my dad bought me a telescope. (It was a Jason telescope; didn't everyone have a telescope named after them?) We lived in the country in the middle of nowhere where it was nice and dark, so over the next few years, we looked at all sorts of celestial objects through that telescope. Craters on the Moon, the moons of Jupiter, Mars, and even sunspots on the Sun with the aid of some filters. But the thing that really got me, that provided me with my own version of Thompson's "curiously intense existential moment", was seeing the rings of Saturn through a telescope.

We had heard from PBS's Jack Horkheimer, the Star Hustler, that Saturn and its rings would be visible and he showed pictures of what it would look like, something like this:

Saturn through a telescope

But seeing that with your own eyes through a telescope was a different thing entirely. Those tiny blurry rings, visible from millions of miles away. What a thrill! It's one of my favorite memories.

Alien DNAMay 09 2014

For the first time, scientists have created a living cell with DNA containing more than just the familiar A, T, C, and G units.

Hailed as a breakthrough by other scientists, the work is a step towards the synthesis of cells able to churn out drugs and other useful molecules. It also raises the possibility that cells could one day be engineered without any of the four DNA bases used by all organisms on Earth.

"What we have now is a living cell that literally stores increased genetic information," says Floyd Romesberg, a chemical biologist at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, who led the 15-year effort.

So instead of just using the GATTACA alphabet, scientists may eventually gain the use of an alphabet containing dozens or even hundreds or thousands of different letters. Potentially powerful stuff.

How to Build a Time MachineMay 08 2014

How to Build a Time Machine is a documentary about two men on separate quests to build their own time machines. Here's a teaser trailer:

Ronald Mallett's reason for his search for a way to travel through time is quite poignant...he shared his story in a book and on an episode of This American Life back in 2007. (via ★interesting)

Climate change? More like climate changed.May 08 2014

According to the National Climate Assessment, climate change has already affected the US in significant ways. This map from the NY Times shows the change in temperatures from around the country, specifically the "1991-2012 average temperature compared with 1901-1960 average".

Climate change US temps

Among the report's findings? As I've noted before, weather is getting weirder and more bursty, not just hotter.

One of the report's most striking findings concerned the rising frequency of torrential rains. Scientists have expected this effect for decades because more water is evaporating from a warming ocean surface, and the warmer atmosphere is able to hold the excess vapor, which then falls as rain or snow. But even the leading experts have been surprised by the scope of the change.

The report found that the eastern half of the country is receiving more precipitation in general. And over the past half-century, the proportion of precipitation that is falling in very heavy rain events has jumped by 71 percent in the Northeast, by 37 percent in the Midwest and by 27 percent in the South, the report found.

Nonlinear systems, man.

The island of stabilityApr 25 2014

The elements located in the upper reaches of the periodic table are notable for their short half-lives, the amount of time during which half the mass of an element will decay into lighter elements (and other stuff). For instance, the longest lived isotope of fermium (#100) has a half-life of just over 100 days. More typical is bohrium (#107)...its half-life is only 61 seconds. The elements with the highest numbers have half-lives measured in milliseconds...the half-life of ununoctium (#118) is only 0.89 milliseconds.

So why do chemists and physicists keep looking for heavier and heavier elements if they are increasingly short-lived (and therefore not that useful)? Because they suspect some heavier elements will be relatively stable. Let's take a journey to the picturesque island of stability.

Island Of Stability

In nuclear physics, the island of stability is a set of as-yet undiscovered heavier isotopes of transuranium elements which are theorized to be much more stable than some of those closer in atomic number to uranium. Specifically, they are expected to have radioactive decay half-lives of minutes or days, with "some optimists" expecting half-lives of millions of years.

Super Planet CrashApr 21 2014

Super Planet Crash

Super Planet Crash is half game, half planetary simulator in which you try to cram as much orbital mass into your solar system without making any of your planets zing off beyond the Kuiper belt. You get bonus points for crowding planets together and locating planets in the star's habitability zone. Warning: I got lost in this for at least an hour the other day.

Big Bang gravitational waves possibly in doubtApr 18 2014

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)

Navy: using seawater for fuelApr 14 2014

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."

Discover has more, in slightly more accessible language.

That skydiver meteorite was just a rockApr 08 2014

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.

The anternetApr 04 2014

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.

(via wordspy)

Neil deGrasse Tyson explains evolutionMar 23 2014

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.

Surprise! Science!Mar 17 2014

I love this video. Love love love. Chao-Lin Kuo surprises Andrei Linde and his wife with the news that gravitational waves were detected, proving Linde's theory of an inflationary universe.

Love love love. (via @stevenstrogatz)

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 defines r 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:

Inflation r value

From the brief explanation of the science behind the BICEP2 experiment:

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.

Update: The Atlantic's Megan Garber spoke to Stanford's science information officer about how the video came 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.

Physicists "see" the Big BangMar 17 2014

Gravity Waves

This is huge: physicists have detected gravitational waves that harken back to the beginning of the universe, when it was "a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second old". The discovery goes a long way toward proving the inflation theory of how the universe formed.

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.

What if What If? was a book?Mar 13 2014

What If Randall Munroe

Fantastic...Randall Munroe is turning his What If? web series into a book. Munroe explains:

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.)

Particle FeverMar 12 2014

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:

Two additional data points: the movie is holding a 95% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and legendary sound designer and editor Walter Murch edited the film. Particle Fever is showing at Film Forum in New York until March 20. (thx, james)

Video of extinct bird foundMar 12 2014

heath hens

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."

The magical chain fountainMar 06 2014

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.

There are lots of fish in the seaMar 05 2014

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)

If the Moon was only 1 pixelMar 05 2014

Moon 1 pixel

Nice visualization of the solar system; the Moon is one pixel across and everything else is scaled to that, including the distances between planets. Get ready to scroll. A lot.

It would be neat to do this with a plutonium atom or something. Related: typographically speaking, what's the point size of the Moon?

The slow-motion political race to build tiny stars on EarthMar 04 2014

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.

Test tube time machineFeb 27 2014

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.

US obesity rate for young kids down sharplyFeb 27 2014

According to an article in The Journal of the American Medical Association, the obesity rate of American 2- to 5-year-old children has dropped from 14% in 2004 to 8% in 2012.

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.

Kevin Drum calls the drop "baffling".

More than 700 new planets discovered todayFeb 26 2014

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:

4.54 billion BCE-1700: 6
1700-1799: 1
1800-1899: 1
1900-1950: 1
1951-1990: 1
1991-2000: 49
2001-2005: 131
2006-2010: 355
2006: -1 [for Pluto :( ]
2011-2014: 1243

Last year, Jonathan Corum made an infographic of the sizes and orbits of the 190 confirmed planets discovered at that point by the Kepler mission. I hope the Times updates it with this recent batch.

A Brief History of TimeFeb 25 2014

Huzzah! Long unavailable (or at least not widely available), Errol Morris' documentary film on Stephen Hawking and his work, A Brief History of Time, is now available for rent or purchase on iTunes. Or if you can wait a little bit, there's a Criterion Blu-ray edition coming out in mid-March. Bonus: score by Philip Glass!

Whole Foods, temple of pseudoscienceFeb 24 2014

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.)

The frequencies of humanityFeb 19 2014

Related to my post on the frequency of humanity is this post on XKCD on the various frequencies of events, from human births to dog bites to stolen bicycles.

The Bible's anachronistic camel problemFeb 13 2014

There are too many camels in the Bible. Evidence suggests they were domesticated in Israel centuries after the events in Genesis took place.

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."

Update: Added "in Israel" to clarify the camel domestication timeline...they were domesticated much earlier in the Arabian Peninsula.

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.

(via @arbesman)

The sixth extinctionFeb 12 2014

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.

There's a tiny black hole in my heartFeb 11 2014

What would happen if a tiny black hole the size of a marble were placed at the center of the Earth? Rest assured, the Earth won't completely be swallowed up by the black hole but that's really the only good news to offer.

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.

The sea giveth, the sea taketh awayFeb 10 2014

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.

Scientific answers for creationistsFeb 06 2014

The other day, Bill Nye debated Ken Ham about evolution and creationism. At the event, Matt Stopera asked self-identifying creationists to write question/notes to those who "believe" in evolution. Here's one:

Creation is amazing

Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy responded to each of the 22 notes/questions from the creationists. Here's his answer to the comment above:

I agree; it is amazing! I've written about this many times. 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.

The frequency of humanityFeb 06 2014

Death 1.8 Hz

Every day on Earth, an estimated 371,124 people are born and 154,995 people die. When you ask 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).

The frequency of humanity

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.

A young Neil deGrasse Tyson's letter to Carl SaganJan 30 2014

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:

Letter Sagan Tyson

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:

Letter courtesy of The Seth Macfarlane Collection of the Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive at the Library of Congress, which is chock full of great Sagan stuff. And yeah, that's Seth Macfarlane, creator of Family Guy and much-maligned host of the Oscars. Macfarlane was a big fan of the original Cosmos series and was instrumental in getting the new series made. (via @john_overholt)

Volcano-powered energy sourceJan 30 2014

A geothermal engineering project in Iceland drilled 1.3 miles into the Earth and unexpectedly hit a pocket of magma. Instead of capping the hole, as was done in a similar instance previously, they decided to see if they could harness the energy of the magma.

"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.

ROYGBIV is arbitraryJan 29 2014

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.

Ball is the author of Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color, which looks pretty interesting. His mention in the video of the changing perception of color throughout history reminds me of my favorite segment of Radiolab, which covers that very topic.

An ode to the supernovaJan 29 2014

In a thread about the newly visible supernova in the M82 galaxy, MetaFilter user Ivan Fyodorovich offered up this plain-English explanation of what happens when a star dies and goes supernova. It's a great read.

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.

(via @mathowie)

Hawking backtracks on black holesJan 27 2014

In an "only Nixon can go to China" moment in physics, Stephen Hawking now says "there are no black holes".

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.

There's a new supernova in townJan 23 2014

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."

[1] 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.

How to season a cast iron panJan 22 2014

Sheryl Canter extensively researched the best way to season a cast iron pan and here is what she recommends you do. (Because science.)

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)

Update: Canter wrote a bit more about seasoning and added an extra step to the process. (via @_Atticus)

Say hello to Big MapleJan 21 2014

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.

(via @youngna)

How does the snow-diving fox hunt?Jan 09 2014

First of all, how cute are these foxes jumping up and diving down into the snow after mice?

So. Cute. Here's Robert Krulwich on what they're up to:

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.

Look at those ears and how the fox moves his head around to zero in on the mouse's location...reminds me of the pre-radar acoustic location devices (sometimes called war tubas) used in the early 20th century to detect approaching aircraft:

War Tuba

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.

Searching Twitter for signs of time travelJan 06 2014

A pair of scientists recently searched the internet for evidence of time travel.

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.

Spoiler: they didn't find any. (via @CharlesCMann)

Nabisco scientists discover unstable Quadriscuit crackerJan 02 2014

Inspired by the escalating blade count of the razor industry, Nabisco has developed a new snack called the Quadriscuit.

"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)

Enhance!Dec 30 2013

In a feature straight out of the movies, Dr. Rob Jenkins and his team have demonstrated that for sufficiently high-resolution photos, recognizable images of reflected faces of the photographer and bystanders can be retrieved from a subject's eyes.

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.

Here's some older research about reading confidential data using reflections from tea pots, glasses, eyes, and even diffuse materials like fabric. And of course, there's the famous eBay tea kettle. (via waxy)

Plant intelligenceDec 17 2013

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:

The article also discusses if plants have feelings. If so, should we feel bad that our wifi routers might kill plants?

The Moon's tiny art galleryDec 17 2013

There's art on the Moon, a small sculpture called Fallen Astronaut. Artist Paul van Hoeydonck made it. Commander David Scott of Apollo 15 placed it on the Moon in 1971. Instead of a triumph, the whole thing fell into scandal and was forgotten.

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.

The first video of the Moon orbiting the EarthDec 11 2013

In a fly-by of Earth on its way to Jupiter, NASA's Juno probe took a short movie of the Moon orbiting the Earth. It's the first time the Moon's orbit has been captured on film.

(via @DavidGrann)

Cool gravity visualizationDec 05 2013

Using a large piece of spandex (representing spacetime) and some balls and marbles (representing masses), a high school science teacher explains how gravity works.

The bits about how the planets all orbit in the same direction and the demo of the Earth/Moon orbit are really neat. And you can stop watching around the 7-minute mark...the demos end around then.

Update: Here's another video of a similar system with some slightly different demos.

Dog breed "improvement"Dec 04 2013

From a blog about the science of dogs, a comparison of photos of purebred dogs from 1915 to those of today. You can see how much the dogs have changed in just under 100 years, in some cases for the worse. For instance, the difference in the Bull Terrier (aka the Spuds MacKenzie dog) is marked and a bit disturbing:

Bull Terrier

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.

(via @mulegirl)

Why do you wake up before your alarm?Nov 20 2013

Your body clock alarm is just as accurate as the one on your phone: your body naturally takes note of what time you want to wake up and wakes you up.

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.

(via digg)

NASA spin-off technologiesNov 18 2013

From Wikipedia, a list of products and technologies that have been developed with the help of NASA, including memory foam, Dustbusters, and powdered lubricants.

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.

NASA did not, however, invent Teflon or Velcro. (via @tangentialism)

Quantum mechanics made relatively simpleNov 13 2013

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)

Is Google's quantum computer even quantum?Nov 12 2013

Google and NASA recently bought a D-Wave quantum computer. But according to a piece by Sophie Bushwick published on the Physics Buzz Blog, there isn't scientific consensus on whether the computer is actually using quantum effects to calculate.

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.

(via fine structure)

Why hot water freezes faster than cold waterOct 31 2013

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.

(via ★djacobs)

How to time travelOct 28 2013

This video dicusses three simple ways to travel through time (all of which you can do right now at home) and three not-so-simple time travel methods.

For more on time-travel, here are some works by physicist and time-lord Sean Carroll:

Rules for time-travellers - http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cos...

Learn more about time and time-machines in his book From Eternity to Here - http://preposterousuniverse.com/etern...

Visualizations of the spinning universe - http://iopscience.iop.org/1367-2630/1...

An engaging talk on the Paradoxes of Time Travel - https://vimeo.com/11917849

(via digg)

A canyon of fire on the SunOct 25 2013

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)

CDC official: we've reached "the end of antibiotics"Oct 24 2013

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)

Turn your iPhone into a microscopeOct 22 2013

With $10 and a little elbow grease, you can turn your iPhone into a really nice digital microscope capable of 175x magnification, allowing you to take photos of plant cells:

iPhone microscope photo

Here's how you do it:

(via ★interesting)

Physics: what we currently know and don't knowOct 21 2013

For the New York Review of Books, theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg gives us an update on what we know and don't know about physics.

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.

Saturn without its ringsOct 17 2013

Over at The Planetary Society, Emily Lakdawalla highlighted an image taken by the Cassini spacecraft of Saturn separate from its rings.

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.

Saturn Without Rings

Larger version is available on Mlkshk.

Google's new quantum computerOct 16 2013

Google's got themselves a quantum computer (they're sharing it with NASA) and they made a little video about it:

I'm sure that Hartmut is a smart guy and all, but he's got a promising career as an Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonator hanging out there if the whole Google thing doesn't work out.

Square 1Oct 04 2013

A promising debut by Sarah Pavis of a science program called Square 1, an attempt at a Connections-like show for the modern day. In the first episode, she explores how phone touchscreens work.

In addition to being an occasional guest editor around these parts, Sarah is a mechanical engineer, so she knows her science.

"Vaccines. And now my kids don't die."Oct 02 2013

What if there were a new class of wonder drugs for children that prevented some of the worst diseases in history with very limited side effects...would you take them?

Some people don't "trust" that wacky "science" though.

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.

Declared eliminated! [Hair-tearing-out noise]

The largest volcanic eruption in the last 3,700 yearsOct 01 2013

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."

Note that at a volume of 40 km3 of debris, Samalas doesn't even come close to being on the list of the 40 most explosive volcanic eruptions in history, most of which happened millions of years ago. (via digg)

The new hotness: using gravity waves to map the universeSep 30 2013

Light (aka electromagnetic radiation) is responsible for most of what we know about the universe. By measuring photons of various frequencies in different ways -- "the careful collection of ancient light" -- we've painted a picture of our endless living space. But light isn't perfect. It can bend, scatter, and be blocked. Changes in gravity are more difficult to detect, but new instruments may allow scientists to construct a different map of the universe and its beginnings.

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.

Will an airplane on a treadmill take off?Sep 27 2013

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.

A 2008 liveblog of an episode of Mythbusters, further cemented the following notion:

The Plane Takes Off

For what it's worth commenters almost everywhere continue to disagree. For more opinions, see here, here, here, here.

How to beat jet lagSep 26 2013

In the 1980s, Charles Ehret developed an antidote to jet lag called The Argonne Anti-Jet-Lag-Diet.

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)

Richard Feynman explains rubber bandsSep 24 2013

I had no idea that's how rubber bands worked. Once again, Feynman takes something that seems pretty simple and makes it both simpler and vividly complex.

(via @stevenstrogatz)

Area man brews own beer in gutSep 18 2013

A Texas man was getting drunk without drinking alcohol and his doctors think they figured out why: brewer's yeast in his in gut was brewing beer and making the man intoxicated.

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)

Temperature chart for the last 11,000 yearsSep 16 2013

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":

11000 years temperatures

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)

The Feynman Lectures on Physics in HTMLSep 13 2013

Volume 1 of The Feynman Lectures on Physics is now available in HTML form. What a fantastic resource.

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 magical Brassica oleracea plantSep 11 2013

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.

(via @ajsheets)

The invention of old peopleSep 10 2013

Old people, like those who live to be older than 30, didn't exist in great numbers until about 30,000 years ago. Why is that? Anthropologist Rachel Caspari speculates that around that time, enough people were living long enough to function as a shared cultural hard drive for humans, a living memory bank for skills, histories, family trees, etc. that helped human groups survive longer.

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.

On the prescient nature of On the Nature of ThingsAug 21 2013

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.

The Human BodyAug 16 2013

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.

The Pioneer DetectivesAug 13 2013

If you're at all interested in the Pioneer Anomaly (and you really should be, it's fascinating), The Pioneer Detectives ebook by Konstantin Kakaes looks interesting.

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.

How We Got To NowAug 13 2013

Now this looks interesting: Steven Johnson is doing a six-episode series on PBS about the 500-year histories of several aspects of modern life. Sounds right up my alley...and also quite Connections-ish.

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.

What a mosquito bite looks likeAug 13 2013

Hey there. Sleeping ok? Perhaps not after you watch this microscopic video of a mosquito's mouthparts searching the flesh of its victim for blood vessels.

I've never been shy about killing mosquitos but now I am on a mission.

The science of Boston's molasses flood of 1919Aug 13 2013

Boston Molasses Flood

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.

The trees of ChernobylAug 09 2013

This is what the trees look like near Chernobyl when you cut them down. It's a biiiit tricky but see if you can spot when the nuclear plant disaster happened...

Chernobyl trees

Not surprisingly, researchers have found evidence that the radiation has affected the growth of trees near the accident site. From the paper:

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.

The turbo caterpillar treadmillJul 29 2013

These caterpillars in the Amazon rain forest travel together in kind of a treadmill formation, with the whole group able to travel faster than any individual caterpillar.

Here's the explanation. And I've got a thing for treadmills, I guess: here's the plane on a treadmill problem, Slinky on a treadmill, and a Japanese game show featuring treadmills. (via @stevenstrogatz)

Cosmos: A Spacetime OdysseyJul 24 2013

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 drop caught on video for first timeJul 18 2013

After running since 1944, the pitch drop experiment at Trinity College Dublin has finally yielded results: a drop has been caught falling on camera.

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.

Jenny McCarthy's dangerous viewsJul 16 2013

From The New Yorker: Jenny McCarthy's Dangerous Views. She's been hired as a new host on The View. Some worry that we'll be hearing a lot more about her anti-vaccine postions. Of course, if you are making life-decisions based on the views of people on The View, you might want to consider the host who thought the world might be flat.

Are viral cat videos actually viral?Jul 11 2013

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.

Keeping to the beatJul 11 2013

A study by researchers in Sweden indicates that the heartbeats of singers in a choir quickly synchronize.

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.

(via @stevenstrogatz)

All in the familyJul 08 2013

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.

In 2012, evidence emerged of a possible new human species, the Red Deer Cave people, who lived in what is now southern China.

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.

The Sun telescopeJul 02 2013

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.

Bionic men and women walk among usJul 01 2013

For The Verge, Russell Brandom writes about the increasing use of neural implants to control the symptoms of a variety of diseases, from depression to Parkinson's to dystonia.

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.

Last week I featured a video of a man with Parkinson's who has a brain pacemaker that allows him to function normally.

A photon's random walkJun 27 2013

The Sun is so dense at its core that the average photon created by the fusion process takes more than 40,000 years to escape to the surface. !!!

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)

No Parkinson's with the flip of a switchJun 24 2013

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)

The Homeric social networkJun 19 2013

The structure of the social network among characters in Homer's Odyssey indicates the story is at least partially based on actual events.

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.

Secret to ancient Roman concrete discoveredJun 17 2013

We're used to thinking that technology progresses. Stuff gets better. But that's not the case with concrete...the Romans made concrete that's superior to the stuff we have now and scientists recently found out why it's so good.

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.

Supreme Court: human genes not patentableJun 13 2013

In a unanimous decision, the US Supreme Court ruled today that human genes cannot be patented.

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.

Fuck yes. A defect in her BRCA1 gene is what caused Angelina Jolie to recently have a preventive double mastectomy. (via @tylercowen)

Physicists on moneyJun 13 2013

Some countries, the cool ones, put physicists and other scientists on their money. Here's Niels Bohr on the Danish 500 kroner note:

Niels Bohr Currency

Even the US sneaks onto the cool list with Ben Franklin on the $100.

Charlemagne for everyone!Jun 03 2013

We are all mostly related to each other. But weirder still, you're just about as related to the stranger next to you as to your great×12 grandparents.

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.

Liquid mammoth blood foundMay 29 2013

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."

More photos and information here. Bring on the mammoth clones, John Hammond. (via @carlzimmer)

Better state birdsMay 21 2013

Surprisingly entertaining article about better choices for the state birds of each of the 50 US states.

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)

Human embryos successfully cloned (sort of)May 16 2013

A group of researchers in Oregon have successfully cloned human embryos. No, really:

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.

Angelina Jolie had a preventive double mastectomyMay 14 2013

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."

The genetic testing company 23andme screens for three common types of mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes:

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.

23andme testing kits are only $99.

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.

Two: I have no idea what the $99 23andme test covers with regard to BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations beyond what the company states. The most comprehensive test for BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations was developed by a company called Myriad Genetics and costs about $3000. Myriad has patented the genes, a decision that has been sharply criticized and is currently being decided by the Supreme Court.

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)

Life in spaceMay 09 2013

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.

It's a bird, it's a plane, no, it's a bolide!May 09 2013

Since 861 AD, almost 35,000 meteorites were recorded hitting the Earth but only 1,045 were actually seen falling. This animated infographic is a good way to visualize the data. Bolides is the perfect domain name. (via @DavidGrann)

Under pressureMay 08 2013

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:

An explanation of the effect can be found here. (thx, will)

Perpetual motion: the "time crystals" editionMay 01 2013

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)

Anti-vaccine mom changes mindApr 25 2013

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.

Duh, indeed. This anti-vaccination nonsense is an instance in which the public's lack of knowledge about how science works (and not just their lack of recall of scientific facts) is truly harmful. (via @CharlesCMann)

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