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kottke.org posts about science

Why is the upcoming total solar eclipse such a big deal?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 20, 2017

Well, the short answer is that they don’t happen all that often and when they do, they’ve visible from only a small bit of Earth. Joss Fong elaborates in a video for Vox.

The next total solar eclipse to visit the US will be in 2024. If an eclipse happens to come to your town, you’re lucky. Any given location will see a total solar eclipse only once in more than 300 years, on average. The vast majority of us will have to travel to an eclipse path if we want to see a total eclipse in our lifetimes.

I’m off to Nebraska in August to meet up with some friends and see the eclipse. (And that 2024 eclipse Fong mentions? The path of totality goes right over my damn house. Woooo!) But no matter where you are in North America, you can enjoy the eclipse…just make sure you buy some safety glasses (and other supplies) if you want to look directly at the Sun. (via @veganstraightedge)

Beating cancer is a team sport

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 20, 2017

Senator John McCain has been diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of brain cancer. The tumor has been removed and McCain is recovering at home with his family. I wish Senator McCain well and hope for a speedy recovery.

In the wake of his diagnosis, many of those expressing support for McCain reference his considerable personal strength in his fight against cancer. President Obama said:

John McCain is an American hero & one of the bravest fighters I’ve ever known. Cancer doesn’t know what it’s up against. Give it hell, John.

McCain’s daughter Meghan references his toughness and fearlessness in a statement released yesterday. Vice-President Joe Biden expressed similar sentiments on Twitter:

John and I have been friends for 40 years. He’s gotten through so much difficulty with so much grace. He is strong — and he will beat this.

This is the right thing to say to those going through something like this, and hearing this encouragement and having the will & energy to meet this challenge will undoubtably increase McCain’s chances of survival. But what Biden said next is perhaps more relevant:

Incredible progress in cancer research and treatment in just the last year offers new promise and new hope. You can win this fight, John.

As with polio, smallpox, measles, and countless other diseases before it, beating cancer is not something an individual can do. Being afflicted with cancer is the individual’s burden to bear but society’s responsibility to cure. In his excellent biography of cancer from 2011, The Emperor of All Maladies, Siddhartha Mukherjee talks about the progress we’ve made on cancer:

Incremental advances can add up to transformative changes. In 2005, an avalanche of papers cascading through the scientific literature converged on a remarkably consistent message — the national physiognomy of cancer had subtly but fundamentally changed. The mortality for nearly every major form of cancer — lung, breast, colon, and prostate — had continuously dropped for fifteen straight years. There had been no single, drastic turn but rather a steady and powerful attrition: mortality had declined by about 1 percent every year. The rate might sound modest, but its cumulative effect was remarkable: between 1990 and 2005, the cancer-specific death rate had dropped nearly 15 percent, a decline unprecedented in the history of the disease. The empire of cancer was still indubitably vast — more than half a million American men and women died of cancer in 2005 — but it was losing power, fraying at its borders.

What precipitated this steady decline? There was no single answer but rather a multitude. For lung cancer, the driver of decline was primarily prevention — a slow attrition in smoking sparked off by the Doll-Hill and Wynder-Graham studies, fueled by the surgeon general’s report, and brought to its full boil by a combination of political activism (the FTC action on warning labels), inventive litigation (the Banzhaf and Cipollone cases), medical advocacy, and countermarketing (the antitobacco advertisements). For colon and cervical cancer, the declines were almost certainly due to the successes of secondary prevention — cancer screening. Colon cancers were detected at earlier and earlier stages in their evolution, often in the premalignant state, and treated with relatively minor surgeries. Cervical cancer screening using Papanicolaou’s smearing technique was being offered at primary-care centers throughout the nation, and as with colon cancer, premalignant lesions were excised using relatively minor surgeries. For leukemia, lymphoma, and testicular cancer, in contrast, the declining numbers reflected the successes of chemotherapeutic treatment. In childhood ALL, cure rates of 80 percent were routinely being achieved. Hodgkin’s disease was similarly curable, and so, too, were some large-cell aggressive lymphomas. Indeed, for Hodgkin’s disease, testicular cancer, and childhood leukemias, the burning question was not how much chemotherapy was curative, but how little: trials were addressing whether milder and less toxic doses of drugs, scaled back from the original protocols, could achieve equivalent cure rates.

Perhaps most symbolically, the decline in breast cancer mortality epitomized the cumulative and collaborative nature of these victories — and the importance of attacking cancer using multiple independent prongs. Between 1990 and 2005, breast cancer mortality had dwindled an unprecedented 24 percent. Three interventions had potentially driven down the breast cancer death rate-mammography (screening to catch early breast cancer and thereby prevent invasive breast cancer), surgery, and adjuvant chemotherapy (chemotherapy after surgery to remove remnant cancer cells).

Understanding how to defeat cancer is an instance where America’s fierce insistence on individualism does us a disservice. Individuals with freedom to pursue their own goals are capable of a great deal, but some problems require massive collective coordination and effort. Beating cancer is a team sport; it can only be defeated by a diverse collection of people and institutions working hard toward the same goal. It will take government-funded research, privately funded research, a strong educational system, philanthropy, and government agencies from around the world working together. This effort also requires a system of healthcare that’s available to everybody, not just to those who can afford it. Although cancer is not a contagious disease like measles or smallpox, the diagnosis and treatment of each and every case brings us closer to understanding how to defeat it. We make this effort together, we spend this time, energy, and money, so that 10, 20, or 30 years from now, our children and grandchildren won’t have to suffer like our friends and family do now.

An appreciation and reevaluation of Contact, 20 years after its theatrical release

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 12, 2017

Contact, based on Carl Sagan’s book of the same name, is on its face a movie about science vs. religion. On the 20th anniversary of its release, Germain Lussier rewatched the film and came away with a different impression: director Robert Zemeckis wanted viewers to think about our relationship to media and technology.

Once Ellie and her team discover the signal from Vega, seemingly every scene in the film features a monitor or some kind of television-related paraphernalia. Whether that’s unpacking a TV to unveil the Olympic footage, people watching news reports on CNN, a terrorist videotaping himself, or multiple scenes in the screen-filled Mission Control, Contact is filled with monitors, forcing both the characters and the audience to watch them. Full scenes of the film are made up of fuzzy TV footage. There are numerous press conferences on TV. The selection of the Machine representative unfolds via the news. Ellie’s interactions with Hadden are almost entirely done over a monitor. Even in scenes where the camera is in a room with the characters, Zemeckis often films them watching TV, or simply puts TV monitors in the frame to constantly remind us they’re there.

But that’s not it. People video chat regularly, which was not common in 1997. The terrorist attack on the Machine is first discovered on a TV monitor and subsequently played out there too. Then, finally, what’s the smoking gun of Ellie’s whole trip at the end of the movie? Eighteen hours of video footage. I could go on and on with examples where Contact uses television and monitors, but once you start seeing the film’s obsession with video, it’s almost comical how often it’s used. Which poses the obvious question, “Why?”

In this light, the organized religion & organized science depicted in the film are just other forms of mediated experience, separate from the personal experience of seeing something with your own eyes.

Contact is one of my favorite movies — I watch it every 12-18 months or so — and this makes me appreciate it all the more. And I had forgotten how good the trailer was:

It’s dead simple: that amazingly resonant Vega signal sound over a series of quickly cut scenes that tells the story in miniature. Surely this belongs on best movie trailers lists as much as any of these.

Oh, and while I’m not generally a fan of reboots, I would love to see what Denis Villeneuve could do with Sagan’s story. I’m also not crazy about Jodie Foster — I find her less and less tolerable as Arroway with each viewing — so it would be cool to see another actress in the role. Arrival’s Amy Adams is almost too on the nose…how about Lupita Nyong’o, ?Emma Watson, Janelle Monáe, Brie Larson, or Emma Stone?

How to safely enjoy the 2017 solar eclipse, a buyer’s guide for normal people

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 12, 2017

Solar Eclipse Illo

On August 21, 2017 across the entire United States, the Moon will move in front of the Sun, partially blocking it from our view. For those on the path of totality, the Moon will entirely block out the Sun for more than 2 minutes. I’ve been looking forward to seeing a total solar eclipse since I was a little kid, so I’ve been doing a lot of research on what to buy to enjoy the eclipse safely. Here’s what I’ve come up with.

I’ve oriented this guide toward the enthusiastic beginner, someone who’s excited about experiencing the wonder of the eclipse with their friends & family but isn’t interested in expensive specialty gear or photography (like me!). And, again, since you will be able to see this eclipse from everywhere in North America to some degree, this guide applies to anyone in the US/Canada/Mexico.

In planning for eclipse viewing, please check out NASA’s safety notes for more information. Make sure that whatever you buy, it’s properly rated for naked eye solar viewing. Looking directly at the Sun without a proper filter can cause permanent damage, particularly through binoculars, a camera lens, or a telescope.

Note: If you’re going to get eclipse supplies, now is the time. Some of this stuff will probably be very difficult to find (or very expensive) as we approach August 21 — for instance, shipping estimates on Amazon for some of the glasses are mid-August already.

Solar Glasses

Solar eclipse glasses are essential. Right up until the Sun goes completely behind the Moon (if you’re on the path of totality), you will want to look at the crescent-shaped Sun and you’ll need certified safety glasses to do so. Regular sunglasses will not work! Do not even. A 10-pack of glasses with cardboard frames is only $16. For something a little sturdier, go with glasses with plastic frames like this 3-pack for $15. If those choices aren’t available, there are dozens of options…find some in stock that ship soon. Note: If you have young kids, splurge for the plastic framed glasses…my testing indicates the cardboard ones don’t stay on smaller heads that well.

Make a pinhole viewer. A pinhole viewer will let you see the shape of the eclipsed Sun without having to look directly at it. This Exploratorium guide should get you started. All you need in terms of supplies you probably have lying around at home: aluminum foil, paper, cardboard, etc. I suspect Kelli Anderson’s This Book is a Camera ($27) might also work if you play with the exposure times?

Apply good sunscreen. You’ve got your eye protection down, now for the rest of yourself. The eclipse is happening in the middle of the day in much of the country, in what you hope will be complete sunshine, so bring some sunscreen. The Sweethome recommends this SPF 70 Coppertone for $9. Wear a cap. Stay in the shade. Bonus for shading yourself under trees: the gaps between the leaves will form little pinhole lenses and you’ll see really cool patterns:

Solar Eclipse Leaves

A nice pair of binoculars. If you’re in the path of totality, you might want a pair of binoculars to look more closely at the totally eclipsed Sun (after checking that it’s safe!!). I’m guessing you don’t want to buy a pair of specialty astronomy binoculars, so the best binoculars are probably ones you already own. If you don’t already have a pair, The Wirecutter recommends the Midas 8 x 42 binoculars by Athlon Optics ($290) with the Carson VP 8x42mm ($144) as a budget pick. (For solar filter options, see below.)

A solar filter for your camera. If you have a camera, they might make a solar filter for whatever lens you want to use. Hydrogen alpha filters will allow you to see the most detail — “crazy prominences and what-not” in the words of a photography pal of mine — but are also pretty expensive. Better option for the casual photographer are adjustable lens filters or these cardboard lens covers: 70mm solar filter ($17) and 50mm solar filter ($13). Or you can buy solar filter sheets ($29) to make your own lens coverings for your camera, binoculars, or telescope. Quality will likely not be fantastic, but you’ll get something. Safety warning: place any filters in front of lenses or it can burn a hole in the filter (and then into your eye); i.e. don’t use binoculars in front of safety glasses!!

Note for budding solar photographers: Shooting the eclipse will be challenging. First there’s too much light and you’ll need a filter. Then when totality occurs, you’ll be in the dark needing a tripod and a fast lens. Plan accordingly…or leave it all at home and look at the thousands of photos taken by pro photographers after the fact.

Ok, that’s it. Have a good eclipse and stay safe!

Update: I removed a reference to the plastic-rimmed safety glasses I ordered because the image has changed on this item since I ordered them and published this guide…it’s now a wire-rimmed pair of glasses. I would recommend getting something else (like these or these) instead, just to be safe. (thx, @kahnnn)

Update: NASA has been alerted that some of the paper glasses being sold are not safe for viewing the eclipse. When buying, look for the ISO icon (referencing 12312-2) and for glasses made by these recommended manufacturers: American Paper Optics, Rainbow Symphony, Thousand Oaks Optical, or TSE 17. The paper glasses I link to in this guide are safe…they have the ISO symbol and are made by American Paper Optics. (via @ebellm)

Climate change: a plausible worst-case scenario for humanity

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 10, 2017

Climate Worst Case

After talking with dozens of climatologists and related researchers, David Wallace-Wells writes about what will happen to the Earth and human civilization without taking “aggressive action” on slowing climate change. It is a sobering piece.

Since 1980, the planet has experienced a 50-fold increase in the number of places experiencing dangerous or extreme heat; a bigger increase is to come. The five warmest summers in Europe since 1500 have all occurred since 2002, and soon, the IPCC warns, simply being outdoors that time of year will be unhealthy for much of the globe. Even if we meet the Paris goals of two degrees warming, cities like Karachi and Kolkata will become close to uninhabitable, annually encountering deadly heat waves like those that crippled them in 2015. At four degrees, the deadly European heat wave of 2003, which killed as many as 2,000 people a day, will be a normal summer. At six, according to an assessment focused only on effects within the U.S. from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, summer labor of any kind would become impossible in the lower Mississippi Valley, and everybody in the country east of the Rockies would be under more heat stress than anyone, anywhere, in the world today. As Joseph Romm has put it in his authoritative primer Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know, heat stress in New York City would exceed that of present-day Bahrain, one of the planet’s hottest spots, and the temperature in Bahrain “would induce hyperthermia in even sleeping humans.” The high-end IPCC estimate, remember, is two degrees warmer still.

Carbon is not only warming the atmosphere, it’s also polluting it.

Our lungs need oxygen, but that is only a fraction of what we breathe. The fraction of carbon dioxide is growing: It just crossed 400 parts per million, and high-end estimates extrapolating from current trends suggest it will hit 1,000 ppm by 2100. At that concentration, compared to the air we breathe now, human cognitive ability declines by 21 percent.

Our climate is supposed to move slowly, in concert with many other slow moving things like ecosystems, evolution, global economies, politics, and civilizations. When the pace of climate change quickens? A lot of those slow moving things are going to break. Heat, drought, famine, coastal flooding, pollution, disease, war, forced migration, economic collapse…humanity will survive, but the worst case scenario is not pretty. And of course, the most vulnerable among us — the poor, young children, the elderly, pregnant women, the disabled, and the otherwise disadvantaged — will undergo the most suffering.

Update: And once again, addressing climate change isn’t about saving the planet, it’s about preserving humanity and preventing human suffering. As Seth Michaels tweeted: “‘the planet’ will be fine. the patterns and structures that determine where we live, what we eat, how we get along? *that’s* what’s at stake”. (via @lauraolin)

Update: A piece like this was going to be controversial and some of the responses are worth reading.

Climate scientist Michael Mann:

I have to say that I am not a fan of this sort of doomist framing. It is important to be up front about the risks of unmitigated climate change, and I frequently criticize those who understate the risks. But there is also a danger in overstating the science in a way that presents the problem as unsolvable, and feeds a sense of doom, inevitability and hopelessness.

The article argues that climate change will render the Earth uninhabitable by the end of this century. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The article fails to produce it.

Eric Holthaus: Stop scaring people about climate change. It doesn’t work.

The real problem is that time and time and time again, psychology researchers have found that trying to scare people into action usually backfires. Presented with the idea that the planet that gives us life might be dying, parts of our brain shut down. We are unable to think logically.

Our brain’s limbic system is hard-wired to prioritize these kinds of threats, so we shift into fight-or-flight mode. And because the odds look stacked against us, most choose to flee. If anything, strategies like this make the problem worse. They take people willing to read something like “The Uninhabitable Earth” and essentially remove them from the pool of people working on real-world solutions.

Robinson Meyer: Are We as Doomed as That New York Magazine Article Says?

Many climate scientists and professional science communicators say no. Wallace-Wells’s article, they say, often flies beyond the realm of what researchers think is likely. I have to agree with them.

At key points in his piece, Wallace-Wells posits facts that mainstream climate science cannot support. In the introduction, he suggests that the world’s permafrost will belch all of its methane into the atmosphere as it melts, accelerating the planet’s warming in the decades to come. We don’t know everything about methane yet, but the picture does not seem this bleak. Melting permafrost will emit methane, and methane is an ultra-potent greenhouse gas, but scientists do not think so much it will escape in the coming century.

Andrew Freedman: Do not accept New York Mag’s climate change doomsday scenario.

In several places, the story either exaggerates the evidence or gets the science flat-out wrong. This is unfortunate, because it detracts from a well-written, attention-grabbing piece. It’s still worth reading, but with a sharp critical eye.

In recent years, scientific evidence has solidified around central findings, showing that sea level rise is likely to be far more severe during the rest of this century than initially anticipated, and that key temperature thresholds may be crossed that make life difficult for some kinds of plants and animals to survive in certain places.

What if the Earth suddenly turned flat?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 23, 2017

Disc Earth

We all know the Earth is (nearly) spherical. Wellllll, not everyone does. So what if our planet did suddenly turn flat? Gizmodo recently asked a bunch of scientists this question and the answer came back: certain death for all life on Earth. More specifically, seismologist Susan Hough says:

If the earth were to suddenly flatten, presumably all sorts of hell would break loose. I guess it would depend on how flat is flat. If we’re talking pancake flat, gravity would be an immediate problem: gravitational attraction goes as G(m1*m2)/r^2, where G is the gravitational constant, m1 & m2 are two masses, and r is distance. A sphere is the 3D shape that maximizes surface area relative to volume, which kind of gives gravity the biggest bang for its buck. If you flatten the sphere, the far side gets closer to the new center point, but the ends spread way out, so surface gravity goes down at the center, and way down at the edges. Lose gravity and bye-bye atmosphere.

Other first-order problems: heat, radioactivity, etc. In our spherical earth, both of these are concentrated in the core. If the earth were flattened, they would have to go somewhere-presumably a lot closer to the surface.

The view from Mars

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 21, 2017

Mars Opportunity 2017

NASA’s Opportunity rover started exploring the surface of Mars in January 2004. Its mission was supposed to last about 90 days, but over 13 years later, Opportunity is still rolling around the red planet, doing science and taking photos. Jason Major processed a few of Opportunity’s most recent snaps of the Endeavour Crater and they’re just wonderful. I’m especially taken with the one included above…it belongs in a museum!

Quantum entanglement effects observed over 100s of miles

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 19, 2017

A group of Chinese scientists say they have demonstrated the effects of quantum entanglement over a distance of 1200 km (745 miles).

Entanglement involves putting objects in the peculiar limbo of quantum superposition, in which an object’s quantum properties occupy multiple states at once: like Schrodinger’s cat, dead and alive at the same time. Then those quantum states are shared among multiple objects. Physicists have entangled particles such as electrons and photons, as well as larger objects such as superconducting electric circuits.

Theoretically, even if entangled objects are separated, their precarious quantum states should remain linked until one of them is measured or disturbed. That measurement instantly determines the state of the other object, no matter how far away. The idea is so counterintuitive that Albert Einstein mocked it as “spooky action at a distance.”

What’s weird to me is that all the articles I read about this touted that this happened in space, that an ultra-secure communications network was possible, or that we could build a quantum computer in space. Instantaneous communication over a distance of hundreds of miles is barely mentioned. Right now, it takes about 42 minutes for a round-trip communication between the Earth and Mars (and ~84 minutes for Jupiter). What if, when humans decide to settle on Mars, we could send a trillion trillion quantum entangled particles along with the homesteaders that could then be used to communicate in real time with people on Earth? I mean, how amazing would that be?

Update: Well, the simple reason why these articles don’t mention instantaneous communication at distance is that you can’t do it, even with quantum entanglement.

This is one of the most confusing things about quantum physics: entanglement can be used to gain information about a component of a system when you know the full state and make a measurement of the other component(s), but not to create-and-send information from one part of an entangled system to the other. As clever of an idea as this is, Olivier, there’s still no faster-than-light communication.

(thx, everyone)

If you can’t explain something in simple terms, you don’t understand it

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 15, 2017

Feynman Blackboard

In the early 1960s, Richard Feynman gave a series of undergraduate lectures that were collected into a book called the Feynman Lectures on Physics. Absent from the book was a lecture Feynman gave on planetary motion, but a later finding of the notes enabled David Goodstein, a colleague of Feynman’s, to write a book about it: Feynman’s Lost Lecture. From an excerpt of the book published in a 1996 issue of Caltech’s Engineering & Science magazine:

Feynman was a truly great teacher. He prided himself on being able to devise ways to explain even the most profound ideas to beginning students. Once, I said to him, “Dick, explain to me, so that I can understand it, why spin one-half particles obey Fermi-Dirac statistics.” Sizing up his audience perfectly, Feynman said, “I’ll prepare a freshman lecture on it.” But he came back a few days later to say, “I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t reduce it to the freshman level. That means we don’t really understand it.”

John Gruber writes the simple explanations are the goal at Apple as well:

Engineers are expected to be able to explain a complex technology or product in simple, easily-understood terms not because the executive needs it explained simply to understand it, but as proof that the engineer understands it completely.

Feynman was well known for simple explanations of scientific concepts that result a in deeper understanding of the subject matter: e.g. see Feynman explaining how fire is stored sunshine, rubber bands, how trains go around curves, and magnets. Critically, he’s also not shy about admitting when he doesn’t understand something…or, alternately, when scientists as a group don’t understand something. There’s the spin anecdote above and of his explanation of magnets, he says:

I really can’t do a good job, any job, of explaining magnetic force in terms of something else you’re more familiar with, because I don’t understand it in terms of anything else you’re more familiar with.

Feynman was also quoted as saying:

I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.

Pretty interesting thing to hear from a guy who won a Nobel Prize for explaining quantum mechanics better than anyone ever had before. Even when he died in 1988 at the end of a long and fruitful careeer, a note at the top of his blackboard read:

What I cannot create, I do not understand.

Oldest homo sapiens fossils found in Morocco, dating back 300,000 years ago

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 08, 2017

Oldest Human Jawbone

The oldest known fossils of homo sapiens have been found in Morocco. The bones date back to ~300,000 years ago, more than 100,000 years earlier than previous fossils found. Here’s Carl Zimmer reporting for the NY Times about the paper in Nature:

Dating back roughly 300,000 years, the bones indicate that mankind evolved earlier than had been known, experts say, and open a new window on our origins.

The fossils also show that early Homo sapiens had faces much like our own, although their brains differed in fundamental ways.

Until now, the oldest fossils of our species, found in Ethiopia, dated back just 195,000 years. The new fossils suggest our species evolved across Africa.

“We did not evolve from a single cradle of mankind somewhere in East Africa,” said Phillipp Gunz, a paleoanthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Liepzig, Germany, and a co-author of two new studies on the fossils, published in the journal Nature.

The previous oldest fossils were found clear across the continent in Ethiopia, in eastern Africa. From a New Yorker article on the discovery:

And the specimens in question were found not in East Africa, which has become synonymous with a sort of paleoanthropological Garden of Eden, but clear on the other side of the continent — and the Sahara — in Morocco. “We’re not claiming that Morocco is the cradle of modern humankind,” the lead author, Jean-Jacques Hublin, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, said at a press conference yesterday. Rather, he added, our emergence as a species was pan-African. “There is no Garden of Eden in Africa — or if there is, it’s Africa,” Hublin said. “The Garden of Eden is the size of Africa.”

Vivid new images and flyby videos of Jupiter

posted by Jason Kottke   May 30, 2017

Jupiter South Pole Juno

NASA’s Juno spacecraft is currently orbiting around Jupiter and taking some of the best photos and scientific measurements we’ve seen of the solar system’s largest planet. The photo above is of Jupiter’s south pole, gathering point for massive cyclones.

Early science results from NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter portray the largest planet in our solar system as a complex, gigantic, turbulent world, with Earth-sized polar cyclones, plunging storm systems that travel deep into the heart of the gas giant, and a mammoth, lumpy magnetic field that may indicate it was generated closer to the planet’s surface than previously thought.

“We are excited to share these early discoveries, which help us better understand what makes Jupiter so fascinating,” said Diane Brown, Juno program executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “It was a long trip to get to Jupiter, but these first results already demonstrate it was well worth the journey.”

Using data and photos from Juno, Gerald Eichstädt and Seán Doran have created these videos that approximate what it might look like flying by Jupiter in a spacecraft.

Wonderful.

A biologist explains CRISPR to people at five different levels of knowledge

posted by Jason Kottke   May 26, 2017

For the second part of an ongoing series, Wired asked biologist Neville Sanjana to explain CRISPR to five people with different levels of knowledge: a 7-year-old, a high school student, a college student, a grad student, and an expert on CRISPR. As I began to watch, I thought he’d gone off the rails right away with the little kid, but as soon as they connected on a personal issue (allergies), you can see the bridge of understanding being constructed.

The first installment in the series featured a neuroscientist explaining connectomes to five people.

The Biodiversity Heritage Library on Flickr

posted by Jason Kottke   May 25, 2017

Biodiversity

Biodiversity

Biodiversity

Biodiversity

The Biodiversity Heritage Library maintains a huge trove of plant and animal drawings that they’ve put up on Flickr for free.

The Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) is a consortium of natural history and botanical libraries that cooperate to digitize the legacy literature of biodiversity held in their collections and to make that literature available for open access and responsible use as a part of a global “biodiversity commons.”

Over 110,000 images are available, organized into hundreds of albums. You could easily lose an entire afternoon in there.

P.S. While the Biodiversity Heritage Library doesn’t appear to be an official participant, Flickr’s The Commons project remains one of the under-appreciated gems of the Web.

Is the Great Barrier Reef dead?

posted by Jason Kottke   May 23, 2017

Due to the unprecedented bleaching events over the past few years, the Great Barrier Reef has been eulogized extensively in the media. But it’s not actually dead. Yet. In this video for Vox, Joss Fong explains how corals form, bleach, and die and how our response to climate change might be the only thing that can save the Great Barrier Reef and the world’s other coral reefs from death.

Here’s how we know the Earth is round

posted by Jason Kottke   May 23, 2017

Flat-Earthers aside, people have known that the Earth is round since at least the 3rd century BC. This quick video explores a few of the ways we know the world is spherical, some of them quite simple to recreate as experiments. See also Top 10 Ways to Know the Earth is Not Flat.

(5) Seeing Farther from Higher

Standing in a flat plateau, you look ahead of you towards the horizon. You strain your eyes, then take out your favorite binoculars and stare through them, as far as your eyes (with the help of the binocular lenses) can see.

Then, you climb up the closest tree — the higher the better, just be careful not to drop those binoculars and break their lenses. You then look again, strain your eyes, stare through the binoculars out to the horizon.

The higher up you are the farther you will see. Usually, we tend to relate this to Earthly obstacles, like the fact we have houses or other trees obstructing our vision on the ground, and climbing upwards we have a clear view, but that’s not the true reason. Even if you would have a completely clear plateau with no obstacles between you and the horizon, you would see much farther from greater height than you would on the ground.

This phenomena is caused by the curvature of the Earth as well, and would not happen if the Earth was flat.

Update: Carl Sagan explains how Greek astronomer and mathematician Eratosthenes figured out how the Earth was round in ~200 BC.

(via @preshit)

Studying climate change with small self-contained ecosystems

posted by Jason Kottke   May 17, 2017

Carl Zimmer reports that a team of Australian scientists have developed a useful way of studying the effects of climate change: they’re building small-scale ocean ecosystems in the lab and manipulating different variables and studying the outcomes. The approach is a middle-of-the-road effort to minimize the number of variables typically present in a real-world ecosystem like a coral reef while having the habitats be large enough to observe the effects they’re looking for without oversimplifying.

To test the effects of climate change, Dr. Nagelkerken and his colleagues manipulated the water in the pools. In three of them, the researchers raised the temperature 5 degrees - a conservative projection of how warm water off the coast of South Australia will get.

The scientists also studied the effect of the carbon dioxide that is raising the planet’s temperature.

The gas is dissolving into the oceans, making them more acidic and potentially causing harm to marine animals and plants. Yet the extra carbon dioxide can be used by algae to carry out more photosynthesis.

To measure the overall impact, Dr. Nagelkerken and his colleagues pumped the gas into three of the pools, keeping them at today’s ocean temperatures.

In three others, the researchers made both changes, heating up the water and pumping in carbon dioxide. The scientists left the remaining three pools unaltered, to serve as a baseline for measuring changes in the other nine pools.

An amazingly well-preserved dinosaur found in Canada

posted by Jason Kottke   May 14, 2017

Nodosaur

In 2011, an excavator operator working in a Canadian mine uncovered a group of unusual looking rocks. The rocks turned out to be the remains of a dinosaur called a nodosaur that died about 110 million years ago. The nodosaur was so well preserved that it looks like a stone statue of a dinosaur instead of just fossilized remains.

The more I look at it, the more mind-boggling it becomes. Fossilized remnants of skin still cover the bumpy armor plates dotting the animal’s skull. Its right forefoot lies by its side, its five digits splayed upward. I can count the scales on its sole. Caleb Brown, a postdoctoral researcher at the museum, grins at my astonishment. “We don’t just have a skeleton,” he tells me later. “We have a dinosaur as it would have been.”

The photos are amazing…it really does look like a statue.

A world map for fossil finds

posted by Jason Kottke   May 12, 2017

Fossil World Map

The Paleobiology Database Navigator is a world map that shows where hundreds of thousands of fossils have been found. The data is maintained by an international group of paleontologists and you can filter the map by type of fossil and when it was found. There’s even a toggle to flip back and forth between the current placement of the continents and much earlier Pangea-like configurations. (via @srikardr)

The latest SpaceX rocket launch and landing, start-to-finish

posted by Jason Kottke   May 01, 2017

This is cool. SpaceX has built a reusable rocket for launching things into space. The rocket takes off, separates from its payload, and then lands back on Earth, upright and intact on a landing pad. They’ve had several successful missions but this morning, they webcast the launch and return of the rocket with footage from long-range cameras and a camera fixed to the side of the rocket from start to finish.

The launch happens at 11:58, at 14:24 the main stage separates from the payload, and at 21:00, it’s on the ground — the whole thing is over in 9 minutes. And the views are super-clear (until clouds and exhaust from engines cloud the view right at the end) and the long continuous shot of the rocket is astounding…it looks totally fake, like out of a sci-fi movie.

Speaking of sci-fi, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk shared a better view of the rocket landing on Instagram…here it is on YouTube:

Look at the landing gear delicately fold down about 2 seconds before the landing. Looks totally CG! I’ve seen footage of these landings dozens of times and it’s still incredible.

Race, identity, and genetic stories

posted by Jason Kottke   May 01, 2017

Finding out about your family history through a DNA test can be a thrilling or disturbing experience, particularly when it comes to race and identity. In the NY Times, researcher Anita Foeman writes about asking people how they identify and then DNA testing them. A man named Bernard identifies as black and predicted his test would show 50% European and 50% African ancestry (his father was black and his mother was white):

His comments before the test: My mother said, “I know you are me, but no cop is going to take the time to find out your mother is white.” She was very specific about raising me as a black man.

His DNA test showed he is “91% European, 5% Middle Eastern, 2% Hispanic; less than 1% African and Asian”:

Thoughts about his ancestry results: What are you trying to do to me? You have caused a lot of problems in my family. I know my nose is sharp and my skin is light, but my politics are as black as night. Today, I don’t identify as mixed. I reject my white privilege in a racist America. There is no way that I or my kids will identify as anything other than black.

In a follow-up newsletter, Times reader Carl Johnson writes:

I am a 55-year-old American male of African descent. I have a dark complexion and grew up in rural East Tennessee with my mother’s relatives. I wanted to have DNA testing done to confirm rumors of my Native American heritage. To my surprise, my results were 84 percent West African, 14 percent European, and 2 percent East Asian.

My bigger dilemma is: How do I embrace my European origins? It’s assumed that the European DNA was obtained by force during slavery. I think that is most likely. But what if my European ancestors were indentured servants who worked closely with African slaves and a real romance evolved, despite the cultural norms of that time, and now here I am?

If I am true to myself and the scientific evidence that provides richness to the DNA I’ve inherited, I now need to figure out a way to honor all of me and those who survived to make me possible. The journey and adventure continues.

I got DNA tested many years ago and I just went back to look at the results. My parents’ grandparents (or great grandparents, don’t really know) settled in Minnesota and Wisconsin in the mid-to-late 1800s as part of a wave of upper Midwestern immigration from Germany and Scandinavia.1 Unsurprisingly, my results came back as 100% European — mostly Northern European with some Eastern European2 — but with more British and Irish than I suspected (12%):

You most likely had a grandparent, great-grandparent, or second great-grandparent who was 100% British & Irish. This person was likely born between 1850 and 1910.

Huh.

  1. This resulted in some interesting family stories. During WWII, my great uncle Jens Jensen (Danish!) was fighting with the US Armed Forces over in Europe while his wife Hulda (German!) was sending food and clothing to family members in Germany. He was still wound up about it even 40 years later when I heard the story — “I was getting shot at by Nazis and she’s sending them goddamned care packages!” — but stories like that were always accompanied by a wink and a grin, so at least some of the sting had dissipated.

  2. In the 1800s, the territories of Prussia and Germany often included Poland. I don’t know exactly where my branch of the Kottke family lived in the “Old Country” but I’ve heard that it’s more likely to be in modern-day Poland than within the present German borders.

The absurd precision involved in detecting gravitational waves

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 27, 2017

Back in September 2015, the LIGO experiment detected gravitational waves formed 1.3 billion years ago when two black holes merged into one. The physics is pretty straightforward but to get the measurement, scientists had to build one of the most sensitive machines ever built. How sensitive? To get an accurate result, they needed to measure a distance of 4km with an accuracy of 1/10000th the width of a proton. This video from Veritasium looks at how the scientists and engineers accomplished such an amazing feat.

Seinfeld-sourced paper gets into “legit” science journal

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 26, 2017

John McCool suspected that a scientific journal called the Urology & Nephrology Open Access Journal was essentially a pay-to-publish journal with a flimsy peer-review process. So he wrote a paper based on a bogus medical condition made up for an episode of Seinfeld and submitted it to them.

This was inspired by the classic 1991 episode “The Parking Garage,” where the gang can’t find their car in a mall parking garage. Eventually, Jerry has to urinate; he goes against a garage wall and gets busted by a security guard; and he tries to get out of it by claiming that he suffers from a disease called “uromycitisis” and could die if he doesn’t relieve himself whenever and wherever he needs to.

I went all out. I wrote it as Dr. Martin van Nostrand, Kramer’s physician alter ego, and coauthored by Jay Reimenschneider (Kramer’s friend who eats horse meat) and Leonard “Len” Nicodemo (another of Kramer’s friends, who once had gout). I included fake references to articles written by the likes of Costanza GL, Pennypacker HE, and Peterman J. I created a fake institution where the authors worked: the Arthur Vandelay Urological Research Institute. In the Acknowledgements section, I thanked people such as Tor Eckman, the bizarre holistic healer from “The Heart Attack” episode, giving him a “Doctor of Holistic Medicine (HMD)” degree.

The Arthur Vandelay Urological Research Institute!! That’s some top-shelf trolling right there. If you read the full paper, you’ll also see references to Steinbrenner and Lloyd Braun. Of course the journal accepted and published it:

The journal was excited to receive this “quality” and “very interesting” case report. A mere 33 minutes after receiving it, a representative notified “Dr. van Nostrand” that it had been sent out for peer review (a process the journal’s website touts as “rigorous”). Three days later, reviewer comments were returned to me, and I was asked to make a few minor changes, including adding lab test results from when the patient was in the emergency room. I made these up, too, and promptly resubmitted the revised case report. Soon after, it was officially accepted for publication.

The publication eventually figured out it had been pranked and had a quick back-and-forth with McCool about it.

Preemie lambs successfully grown to term in artificial wombs

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 25, 2017

Artificial Womb

Researchers at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia have succeeded in gestating premature lambs in artificial wombs. The abstract from the paper in Nature Communications:

In the developed world, extreme prematurity is the leading cause of neonatal mortality and morbidity due to a combination of organ immaturity and iatrogenic injury. Until now, efforts to extend gestation using extracorporeal systems have achieved limited success. Here we report the development of a system that incorporates a pumpless oxygenator circuit connected to the fetus of a lamb via an umbilical cord interface that is maintained within a closed ‘amniotic fluid’ circuit that closely reproduces the environment of the womb. We show that fetal lambs that are developmentally equivalent to the extreme premature human infant can be physiologically supported in this extra-uterine device for up to 4 weeks. Lambs on support maintain stable haemodynamics, have normal blood gas and oxygenation parameters and maintain patency of the fetal circulation. With appropriate nutritional support, lambs on the system demonstrate normal somatic growth, lung maturation and brain growth and myelination.

The Atlantic’s Olga Khazan translates what that might mean for human babies born prematurely.

One reason preterm birth is so dangerous is that, for an underweight baby, the first few breaths of air halt the development of the lungs. “Infants that are currently born and supported in a neonatal intensive care unit with gas-based ventilation demonstrate an arrest of lung development,” Partridge says, “which manifests in a long-term, severe restriction of lung function.”

With the artificial womb, the infant would continue “breathing” through the umbilical cord as its floats in amniotic fluid, which would flow into and out of the bag. Using its tiny heart, the fetus would pump its own blood through its umbilical cord and into an oxygenator, where the blood would pick up oxygen and return it to the fetus-much like with a normal placenta. In addition to boosting lung growth, the amniotic fluid would protect the baby from infections and support the development of the intestines.

If this does work for humans, there’s a possibility that at some point using artificial wombs may be safer (or just preferable for some people) than women carrying babies to term…which would have an interesting effect on childbirth (to say the least). And as Khazan mentions, there are potential implications related to abortion rights:

If they ever materialize, artificial wombs may stir concerns among pro-choice advocates, since the devices could push the point of viability for human fetuses even lower. That might encourage even more states to curtail abortions after, say, 20 weeks’ gestation. But speaking with reporters Monday, the Philadelphia researchers emphasized they don’t intend to expand the bounds of life before the 23rd gestational week. Before that point, fetuses are too fragile even for the artificial wombs.

Update: There’s a short video clip of the lamb in the artificial womb as well:

Science is a fundamental part of America

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 24, 2017

Science in America is an impassioned video from Neil deGrasse Tyson about the threat we face from the political uncoupling of science from the truth in America today.

How did America rise up from a backwoods country to be one of the greatest nations the world has ever known? We pioneered industries. And all this required the greatest innovations in science and technology in the world. And so, science is a fundamental part of the country that we are. But in this, the 21st century, when it comes time to make decisions about science, it seems to me people have lost the ability to judge what is true and what is not, what is reliable what is not reliable, what should you believe what you do not believe. And when you have people who don’t know much about science standing in denial of it and rising to power, that is a recipe for the complete dismantling of our informed democracy.

What will the night sky look like in 5 million years?

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 13, 2017

Based on the motions of the 2 million stars observed by ESA’s Gaia mission over the past two years, scientists created this simulated animation of how the view of the Milky Way in the night sky will evolve over the next 5 million years.

The shape of the Orion constellation can be spotted towards the right edge of the frame, just below the Galactic Plane, at the beginning of the video. As the sequence proceeds, the familiar shape of this constellation (and others) evolves into a new pattern. Two stellar clusters — groups of stars that were born together and consequently move together — can be seen towards the left edge of the frame: these are the alpha Persei (Per OB3) and Pleiades open clusters.

Stars seem to move with a wide range of velocities in this video, with stars in the Galactic Plane moving quite slow and faster ones appearing over the entire frame. This is a perspective effect: most of the stars we see in the plane are much farther from us, and thus seem to be moving slower than the nearby stars, which are visible across the entire sky.

Well, how’s that for some perspective? (via blastr)

Marvelous and super-detailed visualizations of the complex structure of the human brain

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 11, 2017

Self Reflected Brain

Self Reflected Brain

Self Reflected is a project by a pair of artist/scientists that aims to visualize the inner workings of the human brain.

Dr. Greg Dunn (artist and neuroscientist) and Dr. Brian Edwards (artist and applied physicist) created Self Reflected to elucidate the nature of human consciousness, bridging the connection between the mysterious three pound macroscopic brain and the microscopic behavior of neurons. Self Reflected offers an unprecedented insight of the brain into itself, revealing through a technique called reflective microetching the enormous scope of beautiful and delicately balanced neural choreographies designed to reflect what is occurring in our own minds as we observe this work of art. Self Reflected was created to remind us that the most marvelous machine in the known universe is at the core of our being and is the root of our shared humanity.

It’s important to emphasize that these images are not brain scans…they are artistic representations of neural pathways and other structures in the brain.

Self Reflected was designed to be a highly accurate representation of a slice of the brain and is informed by deep neuroscience research to allow it to function as a reliable educational tool as well as a work of art.

The Orion Nebula, our friendly neighborhood star factory

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 03, 2017

Orion Nebula

Rolf Olsen recently took this amazing photo of the Orion Nebula using a home-built telescope.

The Orion Nebula is one of the most studied objects in the sky and also has a significant place in the history of astrophotography. In 1880 it was the first ever nebula to be photographed; Henry Draper used the newly invented dry plate process to acquire a 51-minute exposure of the nebula with an 11 inch telescope. Subsequently, in 1883, amateur astronomer Andrew Ainslie Common recorded several exposures up to 60 minutes long with a much larger 36-inch telescope, and showed for the first time that photography could reveal stars and details fainter than those visible to the human eye.

Thanks to Phil Plait for the link…he’s got much more to say about the image and the nebula here.

Also called M42 (the 42nd object in a catalog kept by comet hunter Charles Messier in the late 18th century), it is a sprawling star factory, a gas cloud where stars are born. It’s a couple of dozen light-years across, and sits well over a thousand light-years from Earth. That’s 10,000 trillion kilometers, and you can see it with your naked eye! It’s so bright because of a handful of extremely massive hot stars sit in its center. They blast out ultraviolet light that energizes the gas in the nebula, causing it to glow.

It’s actually a small section of a much larger dark cloud, what’s called a molecular cloud, that we cannot see directly. Stars were born near the edge of that cloud, not too deeply inside it, and when they switched on their fierce light and stellar winds blew a hole in the cloud, popping it like a bubble. The Orion Nebula is a cavity in the side of that cloud, carved by the newborn stars.

A full rotation of the Moon

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 31, 2017

All but a few humans have seen no more than half of the Moon with their own eyes. For the rest of us stuck on Earth, we only get to see the side that always faces the Earth because the Earth & Moon are tidally locked; the Moon’s rotation about its axis and its orbit around the Earth take the same amount of time. But NASA’s LRO probe has taken high-resolution photos of all but 2% of the Moon’s surface, which have been stitched together into this video of the Moon’s full 360-degree rotation.

The facts, fears, and safety of GMO foods

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 31, 2017

Kurzgesagt takes a look at the debate over genetically modified foods. Decades of scientific research plainly says that GMO foods are safe to consume, but that’s not the only issue.

Over 90% of all cashed crops in the US are herbicide resistant, mostly to glyphosate. As a result, the use of glyphosate has increased greatly. That isn’t only bad, glyphosate is much less harmful to humans than many other herbicides. Still, this means farmers have a strong incentive to rely on this one method only, casting more balanced ways of managing weeds aside.

That’s one of the most fundamental problems with the GMO debate. Much of the criticism of this technology is actually criticism of modern agriculture and a business practice of the huge corporations that control our food supply. This criticism is not only valid, it’s also important. We need to change agriculture to a more sustainable model.

One thing is for certain…the debate online is polarized.

Recreating the Asteroids arcade game with a laser

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 22, 2017

Watch as digital artist Seb Lee-Delisle recreates the old school video game Asteroids with a laser. But why use a laser? There’s actually a good explanation for this. In the olden days of arcade video games, the screens on most games were like Pac-Man or Donkey Kong…a typical CRT refreshed the entire screen line-by-line many times a second to form a pixelized scene. But with vector games like Tempest, Star Wars, and Asteroids, the electron beam was manipulated magnetically to draw the ships and rocks and enemies directly…and you get all these cool effects like phosphor trails and brighter objects where the beam lingers. When you play Asteroids on a contemporary computer or gaming system, all those artifacts are lost. But with a laser, you can emulate the original feel of the game much more closely.

You’re not going to want to because it’s 17 minutes long, but you should watch the whole video…it’s super nerdy and the explanations of how the various technologies work is worth your while (unless you’re already a laser expert). I loved the bit near the end where they slowed down the rate of the laser so you could see it drawing the game and then slowly sped it back up again, passing through the transition from seeing the individual movements of the laser to observing an entire seamless scene that our mind has stitched together. In his recent book Wonderland, Steven Johnson talks about this remarkable trick of the mind:

On some basic level, this property of the human eye is a defect. When we watch movies, our eyes are empirically failing to give an accurate report of what is happening in front of them. They are seeing something that isn’t there. Many technological innovations exploit the strengths that evolution has granted us: tools and utensils harness our manual dexterity and opposable thumbs; graphic interfaces draw on our powerful visual memory to navigate information space. But moving pictures take the opposite approach: they succeed precisely because our eyes fail.

This flaw was not inevitable. Human eyesight might have just as easily evolved to perceive a succession of still images as exactly that: the world’s fastest slide show. Or the eye might have just perceived them as a confusing blur. There is no evolutionary reason why the eye should create the illusion of movement at twelve frames per second; the ancestral environment where our visual systems evolved had no film projectors or LCD screens or thaumatropes. Persistence of vision is what Stephen Jay Gould famously called a spandrel — an accidental property that emerged as a consequence of other more direct adaptations. It is interesting to contemplate how the past two centuries would have played out had the human eye not possessed this strange defect. We might be living in a world with jet airplanes, atomic bombs, radio, satellites, and cell phones — but without television and movies. (Computers and computer networks would likely exist, but without some of the animated subtleties of modern graphical interfaces.) Imagine the twentieth century without propaganda films, Hollywood, sitcoms, the televised Nixon-Kennedy debate, the footage of civil rights protesters being fire-hosed, Citizen Kane, the Macintosh, James Dean, Happy Days, and The Sopranos. All those defining experiences exist, in part, because natural selection didn’t find it necessary to perceive still images accurately at rates above twelve frames a second — and because hundreds of inventors, tinkering with the prototypes of cinema over the centuries, were smart enough to take that imperfection and turn it into art.