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kottke.org posts about science

Our Missed Head Start on the Climate Crisis

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 08, 2024

a timeline showing the passage of 120 years between the invention of the Watt steam engine to the discovery of the greenhouse effect and 128 years between the greenhouse discovery and today

In 1896, scientists determined that industrialization was adding CO2 to the atmosphere and quantified how much it would warm the Earth. That date is closer to the start of the Industrial Revolution than to the present day.

If you’re wondering, like I did, about that 1896 date — what about Fourier and Pouillet and Tyndall and Eunice Foote? — the Wikipedia pages on the history of the discovery of the greenhouse effect and the history of climate change science are worth a read.

The warming effect of sunlight on different gases was examined in 1856 by Eunice Newton Foote, who described her experiments using glass tubes exposed to sunlight. The warming effect of the sun was greater for compressed air than for an evacuated tube and greater for moist air than dry air. “Thirdly, the highest effect of the sun’s rays I have found to be in carbonic acid gas.” (carbon dioxide) She continued: “An atmosphere of that gas would give to our earth a high temperature; and if, as some suppose, at one period of its history, the air had mixed with it a larger proportion than at present, an increased temperature from its action, as well as from an increased weight, must have necessarily resulted.”

Foote’s paper went largely unnoticed until it was rediscovered in the last decade. If you’re interested, the best thing I’ve read on the history of climate change is the 7th chapter of Charles Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet.

Meet Venus’s Newly Named Quasi-Moon: Zoozve

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 08, 2024

a portion of a solar system map showing an object called Zoozve orbiting Venus

A couple of weeks ago, Radiolab aired an episode about a puzzling object on a children’s poster of the solar system: a Venusian moon called Zoozve. Venus doesn’t have any moons and “Zoozve” didn’t show up on Google at all, so co-host Latif Nasser went on a bit of a mission to find out what the heck this object was. He talked to someone at NASA, the poster’s designer, and various astronomers and physicists, including the person who had discovered Zoozve (aka 2002 VE68).

So begins a tiny mystery that leads to a newly discovered kind of object in our solar system, one that is simultaneously a moon, but also not a moon, and one that waltzes its way into asking one of the most profound questions about our universe: How predictable is it, really? And what does that mean for our place in it?

It’s an entertaining listen and you’ll want to catch the follow-up as well, which I won’t spoil for you. And if you’re a reader rather than a listener, this piece at space.com recaps the whole thing.

Spectacular JWST Photos Adorn New USPS Stamps

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 06, 2024

USPS stamp of the Pillars of Creation astronomy image

USPS stamp of the Cosmic Cliffs astronomy image

The USPS has released two new Priority Post stamps featuring imagery captured by the JWST: Pillars of Creation (NASA original) and Cosmic Cliffs (NASA original). From the USPS press release:

Captured by the James Webb Space Telescope, this extremely high-definition infrared image shows the magnificent Pillars of Creation formation within the Eagle Nebula. By assigning color to various wavelengths, the digitized image allows us to see a landscape otherwise invisible to the human eye. Red areas toward the end of the pillars show burgeoning stars ejecting raw materials as they form, while the relatively small red orbs scattered throughout the image show newly born stars.

This remarkable image from the James Webb Space Telescope is a digitally colored depiction of the invisible bands of mid-infrared light emitted by the Cosmic Cliffs of the Carina Nebula. Red and yellow flares scattered throughout the cliffs show developing and newly born stars. The orange-and-brown clouds in the lower third of the image are swirls of dust and gas. Additional stars, in our Milky Way and in distant galaxies, appear in the blue and black regions above and beyond the nebula.

What Would a Magnitude 15 Earthquake Be Like?

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 05, 2024

I’d missed that Randall Munroe has been doing videos based on his What If? website and books. The one I ran across the other day is about earthquakes:

Since we usually hear about earthquakes with ratings somewhere between 3 and 9, a lot of people probably think of 10 as the top of the scale and 0 as the bottom. In fact, there is no top or bottom to the scale!

There are three more short videos on the channel so far: What if Earth suddenly stopped spinning?, What if NASCAR had no rules?, and What if we aimed the Hubble Telescope at Earth? Good stuff.

Did The Future Already Happen?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 30, 2024

Kurzgesagt’s latest video on the paradox of time is a bit more of a brain-bender than their usual videos. From the accompanying sources document:

This video summarizes in a narrative format two well-known theories about time: the so-called “block universe” and the “growing block”.

The block universe is an old theory of time which appears to be an unavoidable consequence of Einstein’s theory of special relativity. In philosophical contexts, basically the same idea is known as “eternalism”. Simplified, this theory posits that, although not apparent to our human perception, both the past and the future exist in the same way as the present does, and are therefore as real as the present is: The past still exists and the future exists already. As a consequence, time doesn’t “flow” (even if it looks so to us) and things in the universe don’t “happen” - the universe just “is”, hence the name “block universe”.

But then: “Quantum stuff is ruining everything again.” And so we have the growing block theory:

The Evolving/Growing Block: A relatively new alternative to the classical block universe theory, which asserts that the past may still exist but the present doesn’t yet, and all that in a way that is still compatible with Einstein’s relativity.

And there are still other theories about how time works:

Some scientists think that the idea of “now” only makes sense near you, but not in the universe as a whole. Others think that time itself doesn’t even exist — that the whole concept is an illusion of our human mind. And others think that time does exist, but that it’s not a fundamental feature of the universe. Rather, time may be something that emerges from a deeper level of reality, just like heat emerges from the motion of individual molecules or life emerges from the interactions of lifeless proteins.

Like I said, a brain-bender.

Our ‘Grey Swan’ Climate Crisis: Nonlinear, Predictable, and Unprecedented

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 26, 2024

Zoë Schlanger writing for the Atlantic: Prepare for a ‘Gray Swan’ Climate.

The way to think about climate change now is through two interlinked concepts. The first is nonlinearity, the idea that change will happen by factors of multiplication, rather than addition. The second is the idea of “gray swan” events, which are both predictable and unprecedented. Together, these two ideas explain how we will face a rush of extremes, all scientifically imaginable but utterly new to human experience.

It’s the nonlinearity that’s always worried me about the climate crisis — and is the main source of my skepticism that it’s “fixable” at this point. Think about another nonlinear grey swan event: the Covid-19 pandemic. When was it possible to stop the whole thing in its tracks? When 10 people were infected? 50? 500? With a disease that spreads linearly, let’s say that stopping the spread when 20 people are infected is twice as hard as when 10 are infected — with nonlinear spread, it’s maybe 4x or 10x or 20x harder. When you reach a number like 20,000 or 100,000 infected over a wide area, it becomes nearly impossible to stop without extraordinary effort.

In thinking about the climate crisis, whatever time, effort, and expense halting global warming (and the myriad knock-on effects) may have required in 1990, let’s say it doubled by 2000. And then it didn’t just double again in the next ten years, it tripled. And then from 2010 to 2020, it quadrupled. An intact glacier in 1990 is waaaaay easier and cheaper to save than one in 2010 that’s 30% melted into the ocean; when it’s 75% melted in 2020, there’s really no way to get that fresh water back out of the ocean and into ice form.

It’s like the compounding interest on your student loans when you’re not making the minimum payments — not only does the amount you owe increase each month, the increase increases. And at a certain point, the balance is actually impossible to pay off at your current resource level.1 It’s hard to say where we are exactly on our climate repayment curve (and what the interest rate is), but we’ve not been making the minimum payments for awhile now and the ocean’s repossessing our glaciers and ice shelves and…

  1. Think also of the story of the inventor of chess asking for a reward of a single rice grain on the first square of a chess board and double the amount on each successive square. After a week, he’s got only 127 grains. After four weeks, he’s got himself several thousand pounds of rice. Another week or two after that, he owns the whole kingdom. (And if the multiplication factor is only 1.2, he still gets the kingdom in fewer than 2 chess boards.)

NASA: The Ingenuity Helicopter’s Mission Comes to an End

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 26, 2024

the Ingenuity helicopter on the surfce of Mars

NASA has announced that the mission of the Ingenuity helicopter has come to an end on the surface of Mars.

While the helicopter remains upright and in communication with ground controllers, imagery of its Jan. 18 flight sent to Earth this week indicates one or more of its rotor blades sustained damage during landing and it is no longer capable of flight.

Originally designed as a technology demonstration to perform up to five experimental test flights over 30 days, the first aircraft on another world operated from the Martian surface for almost three years, performed 72 flights, and flew more than 14 times farther than planned while logging more than two hours of total flight time.

Nice job, little flying rover! Rest well.

Massive Ancient Network of Cities Found in the Amazon

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 25, 2024

lidar image of straight roads and structures built by an ancient Amazonian civilization

lidar image of straight roads and structures built by an ancient Amazonian civilization

lidar image of straight roads and structures built by an ancient Amazonian civilization

Using lidar, a team led by archaeologist Stéphen Rostain has found evidence of a network of cities in the Amazon dating back thousands of years. From the BBC:

Using airborne laser-scanning technology (Lidar), Rostain and his colleagues discovered a long-lost network of cities extending across 300sq km in the Ecuadorean Amazon, complete with plazas, ceremonial sites, drainage canals and roads that were built 2,500 years ago and had remained hidden for thousands of years. They also identified more than 6,000 rectangular earthen platforms believed to be homes and communal buildings in 15 urban centres surrounded by terraced agricultural fields.

The area may have been home to anywhere from 30,000 to hundreds of thousands of people:

“This discovery has proven there was an equivalent of Rome in Amazonia,” Rostain said. “The people living in these societies weren’t semi-nomadic people lost in the rainforest looking for food. They weren’t the small tribes of the Amazon we know today. They were highly specialised people: earthmovers, engineers, farmers, fishermen, priests, chiefs or kings. It was a stratified society, a specialised society, so there is certainly something of Rome.”

You can read more coverage of this in New Scientist, the NY Times, Science, and the Guardian.

I still remember reading Charles Mann’s Earthmovers of the Amazon (which he turned into the excellent 1491) almost 25 years ago and being astounded to learn that civilizations in the Americas were older, larger, and more widespread than I’d been taught.

The Clever Engineering Trick That Allows Simple Rice Cookers to Perfectly Cook Rice

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 12, 2024

The other day I posted a quick note of appreciation for my trusty rice cooker. I have what you might call a fancy rice cooker — it has all sorts of different settings and “advanced Neuro Fuzzy logic technology” — and it cooks my rice perfectly, every time. I am sure it is an engineering marvel.

But this $20 one-button rice cooker also cooks rice perfectly, every time. And it does so using some very simple and clever engineering involving magnets:

This button thing is made of an alloy that has a Curie temperature just a bit higher than the boiling point of water. This allows it to function as a temperature-dependent kill switch. Thanks to the outer spring, it’s always held firmly in contact with the bottom of the pot, which ensures it and the pot are at nearly equal temperatures. So long as there’s liquid water sitting in that pot, the pot itself cannot get hotter than water’s boiling point.

This means that the button remains magnetic, and the magnet is able to overcome the force of the inner spring, so the device stays in cook mode. But, once the rice has absorbed all of the water (and/or once all the remaining water has boiled away) the energy being added to the pot by the heating element is no longer being absorbed as latent heat.

Now, the pot can quickly start to exceed the boiling point of water. And once it gets past the Curie point of that little sensing button, the magnet is no longer attracted to it, so the spring overcomes the magnet and… *click* the rice cooker switches back to the warming mode.

Science is so cool. (via david)

The Science of Snowflakes

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 11, 2024

In a video for the Royal Society, physicist Brian Cox explains the science of snowflakes, from how they form to where their shape and symmetry comes from. Plus this bombshell: “Snowflakes aren’t actually white.” (via aeon)

From The Smallest to the Largest Thing in The Universe

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 05, 2024

I’ve posted more than a few size comparison videos here over the years — Powers of Ten is the obvious one — but this one from Kurzgesagt is one of the best, showing how big everything in the universe is compared to humans, who seemingly find themselves smack in the middle. This video does an excellent job illustrating the similarity of structures and interdependency across different scales — how blood vessels are like city streets for instance or how very tiny proteins can affect the entire Earth.

An Octopus vs an Underwater Maze

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 05, 2024

Mark Rober puts an octopus he bought from a pet store through an underwater maze to see if it can solve a bunch of puzzles to reach a motherlode of tasty shrimp at the end. This video paired well with a book I recently read, Ray Nayler’s Mountain in the Sea: “Humankind discovers intelligent life in an octopus species with its own language and culture, and sets off a high-stakes global competition to dominate the future.”

As for the name Rober gives the octopus… Sashimi? Really? Bros gotta bro, I guess. 🙄

Lego Sets of Famous Moments in Psychology

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 21, 2023

a Lego depiction of the Stanford Prison Experiment

a Lego depiction of the marshmallow test

a Lego depiction of the invisible gorilla experiment

I love these depictions of famous moments in psychology and cognitive science via @tomerullman. From top to bottom: the Stanford prison experiment, the marshmallow test, and the selective attention test.

These didn’t track as AI-generated at first…and then I tried to read the text — THE STANFORD PRESERIBENT. You can see the whole set on Bluesky (if you have access).

The Telegraph and the Invention of Weather Forecasting

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 16, 2023

In the early days of the telegraph, station operators began sharing the local weather with each other. As the practice became more widespread, people started to realize that what happened in one location translated to later events in another location. Modern weather forecasting and the concept of weather systems were born.

The operators had discovered something both interesting and paradoxical, the writer Andrew Blum observes in his book The Weather Machine. The telegraph had collapsed time but, in doing so, it had somehow simultaneously created more of it. Now people could see what the future held before it happened; they could know that a storm was on its way hours before the rain started falling or the clouds appeared in the sky. This new, real-time information also did something else, Blum points out. It allowed weather to be visualized as a system, transforming static, localized pieces of data into one large and ever-shifting whole.

How Would Interstellar Weaponry Work?

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 16, 2023

In their latest video, Kurzgesagt takes a break from their more serious topics to consider a scenario from the realm of science fiction: interstellar combat. Using technology that is theoretically available to us here on Earth, could a more advanced civilization some 42 light years away destroy our planet without any warning? They outline three potential weapons: the Star Laser, the Relativistic Missile, and the Ultra-Relativistic Electron Beam.

Here’s what I don’t understand though: how would the targeting work? In order for an alien civilization to hit the Earth with a laser from 42 light years away, it has to not only predict, within a margin of error of the Earth’s diameter, precisely where the Earth is going to be, but also have a system capable of aiming across 42 light years of distance with that precision. Is this even possible? How precisely do we know where the Earth is going to be in 42 years? And if you’re aiming at something 42 light years away, if you move the sights a nanometer, how much angular distance does that shift the the destination by? And how much does the gravity of matter along the way shift the trajectory and is it possible to accurately compensate for that? Maybe this should be their next video…

“Something Weird Happens When You Keep Squeezing”

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 14, 2023

This fascinating and well-produced video from Vox introduces us to what happens to materials that are put under vast amounts of pressure — I’m talking center of the Sun pressures upwards of 100 billion atmospheres. Scientists are just beginning their explorations of the strange things that happen “when you keep squeezing”.

Tens of thousands of kilometers below Jupiter’s surface, physicists think hydrogen will go through another change becoming a shiny conductor of electricity. It’s thought that a lot of Jupiter is made up of this metallic hydrogen.

We think of high energy density materials as completely inverting the periodic table. So your metals become transparent and your transparent materials become metals. And all these gases become solids…

Water transforms into ice that conducts electricity: Black, Hot Ice May Be Nature’s Most Common Form of Water. Hydrogen can be compressed into a metal: Metallic hydrogen finally made in lab at mind-boggling pressure. Sodium can turn clear: Metal Discovered To Become Transparent Under High Pressure. So weird and interesting!

A 4.5 Billion Year Video Timeline of Earth in 60 Minutes

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 13, 2023

To mark the 10th anniversary of their YouTube channel, Kurzgesagt has released a video timeline of the Earth’s evolution, all 4.5 billion years of it. The video is 60 minutes long, which means that each second shows about 1 million years. And it’s kind of a music video…of sorts? There’s talking but there are definitely stretches of just music and visuals…it’s not your usual science explainer video.

Hop on a musical train ride and experience how long a billion years really is. It’s the perfect background for your next party, a great way to take a break from studying, or a fascinating companion while you’re on the go.

Why Some of the Rainbow Is Missing

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 01, 2023

If you look closely at a rainbow made from sunlight (e.g. through a prism or an actual rainbow), you’ll notice that some of the colors are missing. It turns out that these absent colors (called Fraunhofer lines) have something to do with the types of elements that are present in the Sun (and the Earth’s atmosphere). Dr. Joe Hanson explains in the video above.

Over 200 years ago, scientists were looking at sunlight through a prism when they noticed that part of the rainbow was missing. There were dark lines where there should have been colors. Since then, scientists have unlocked the secrets encoded in these lines, using it to uncover mind-boggling facts about the fundamental nature of our universe and about worlds light-years away.

Science is fascinating…Fraunhofer lines can tell us something about objects and processes all along the Powers of Ten scale, from the inner workings of the atom to the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere to how quickly the universe is expanding or contracting.

If you’d like to check out the missing parts of the rainbow for yourself, you can make this DIY spectroscope using a CD or DVD and a few other items. (via the kid should see this)

Does Your Brain Picture Things?

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 27, 2023

A few weeks ago, I shared the following image on Instagram:

a scale for measuring what you see in your 'mind's eye', featuring an apple

It’s a scale for measuring how people visualize objects in their heads. I’m between 4 & 5, which means I have a condition called aphantasia. Marco Giancotti recently wrote about this for Nautilus; he underwent an MRI scan to test what was going on in his head:

A few seconds pass, then a synthetic female voice speaks into my ears over the electronic clamor: “top hat.” I close my eyes and I imagine a top hat. A few seconds later a beep tells me I should rate the quality of my mental picture, which I do with a controller in my hand. The voice speaks again: “fire extinguisher,” and I repeat the routine. Next is “butterfly,” then “camel,” then “snowmobile,” and so on, for about 10 minutes, while the system monitors the activation of my brain synapses.

For most people, this should be a rather simple exercise, perhaps even satisfying. For me, it’s a considerable strain, because I don’t “see” any of those things. For each and every one of the prompts, I rate my mental image “0” on a 0 to 5 scale, because as soon as I close my eyes, what I see are not everyday objects, animals, and vehicles, but the dark underside of my eyelids. I can’t willingly form the faintest of images in my mind. And, although it isn’t the subject of the current experiment, I also can’t conjure sounds, smells, or any other kind of sensory stimulation inside my head. I have what is called “aphantasia,” the absence of voluntary imagination of the senses. I know what a top hat is. I can describe its main characteristics. I can even draw an above-average impression of one on a piece of paper for you. But I can’t visualize it mentally. What’s wrong with me?

And here’s a good video explanation of it too, from an artist who has aphantasia:

Like a lot of people, I wasn’t even aware that I visualized things differently than others — I assumed that everyone saw extremely ghostly images of objects in their mind’s eye, more like the ideas of things than the things themselves. It wasn’t until I was talking to my daughter a few years ago about how the characters in a movie looked nothing like the ones she’d pictured in her head from reading the books that I realized that she’s got a vibrant, full-color movie going on in her head when she reads and I was like EXCUSE ME?

Aphantasia is sometimes described as a deficiency or even a disability, but I don’t think of it that way at all. I believe my brain works pretty well, thank you very much, even though I can’t close my eyes and see the faces of my kids. And it’s not as straightforward as the simple scale above, at least in my case.

I can’t picture what a room would look like with a different sofa or rug (I just have to buy it and cross my fingers that it looks good when it arrives) or what a sweater would look like on me without actually trying it on (making online clothes shopping difficult). But I also have a weirdly visual memory. In college, I would remember things for tests and papers based where they were written in my notebook (lower right-hand corner of the left-hand page) or appeared in the textbook (on the right-hand page, under the blue illustration). I can’t see it in my brain, but I can see the idea of it and remember what was written there. (I told my daughter this and she said she can do this too, but for her, she pictures herself sitting at her desk in biology class with her notes open in front of her and she can then recall what was written in certain places. It is fascinating to talk about this stuff with her!)

Anyway, on Insta I asked people where they are on the apple scale and the responses were super interesting, so I’m opening up the comments on this one so we can chat about it.

How Do Black Holes Compare to Regular Holes?

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 24, 2023

a humorous chart from XKCD about how black holes compare to regular holes

From XKCD, a comparison chart that shows how black holes and regular holes measure up to one another. Some of these are pretty clever: “some of them are the mouths of wormholes”.

Vaccines: “The Greatest Benefit Conferred on Humankind”

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 05, 2023

From The Economist on the occasion of the award of the Nobel Prize for Medicine to Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman for their work that led to the development of the Covid-19 mRNA vaccines, a lovely short appreciation of vaccines.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says that vaccines have saved more from death than any other medical invention. It is a hard claim to gainsay. Vaccines protect people from disease cheaply, reliably and in remarkable numbers. And their capacity to do so continues to grow. In 2021 the who approved a first vaccine against malaria; this week it approved a second.

Vaccines are not only immensely useful; they also embody something beautifully human in their combination of care and communication. Vaccines do not trick the immune system, as is sometimes said; they educate and train it. As a resource of good public health, they allow doctors to whisper words of warning into the cells of their patients. In an age short of trust, this intimacy between government policy and an individual’s immune system is easily misconstrued as a threat. But vaccines are not conspiracies or tools of control: they are molecular loving-kindness.

The WHO says that vaccines currently prevent 4-5 million deaths per year. The CDC points to a paper that says that more than 50 million death can be prevented between 2021 and 2030. Vaccination is nothing short of a scientific miracle. (via eric topol)

One Revolution Per Minute

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 04, 2023

Erik Wernquist made his short film One Revolution Per Minute to explore his “fascination with artificial gravity in space”. The film shows what it would be like to travel on a large, circular space station, 900 meters (0.56 miles) in diameter that rotates a 1 rpm. Even at that slow speed, which generates 0.5 g at the outermost shell, I was surprised to see how quickly the scenery (aka the Earth, Moon, etc.) was rotating and how disorienting it would be as a passenger.

Realistically - and admittedly somewhat reluctantly — I assume that while building a structure like this is very much possible, it would be quite impractical for human passengers.

Putting aside the perhaps most obvious problem with those wide windows being a security hazard, I believe that the perpetually spinning views would be extremely nauseating for most humans, even for short visits. Even worse, I suspect — when it comes to the comfort of the experience — would be the constantly moving light and shadows from the sun.

I calculated that the outer ring of the space station is moving at 105.4 mph with respect to the center. That’s motoring right along — no wonder everything outside is spinning so quickly.

A Family of Humming-Birds

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 02, 2023

a poster depicting hundreds of hummingbirds in a swarm

Wow, Nicholas Rougeux has restored John Gould’s A Monograph of the Trochilidæ, or Family of Humming-Birds, which was published between 1848 & 1887 and contains hand-colored lithographic depictions of almost every single hummingbird species known to exist at the time.

a pair of hummingbirds fly amongst flowers

two hummingbirds perch on a plant

three hummingbirds perch on a flowering plant

From Rougeux’s page about the project:

The monograph is considered one of the finest examples of ornithological illustration ever produced, as well as a scientific masterpiece. Gould’s passion for hummingbirds led him to travel to various parts of the world, such as North America, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, to observe and collect specimens. He also received many specimens from other naturalists and collectors.

The image at the top of the post is the gorgeous poster that Rougeux created from the drawings in Gould’s monograph…you can order some for your walls and read a making-of.

See also other projects by Rougeux that I’ve posted about.

The Plot of All Objects in the Universe

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 26, 2023

a scientific plot of all of the objects in the universe

You just have to admire a chart that casually purports to show every single thing in the Universe in one simple 2D plot. The chart in question is from a piece in the most recent issue of the American Journal of Physics with the understated title of “All objects and some questions”.

In Fig. 2, we plot all the composite objects in the Universe: protons, atoms, life forms, asteroids, moons, planets, stars, galaxies, galaxy clusters, giant voids, and the Universe itself. Humans are represented by a mass of 70 kg and a radius of 50 cm (we assume sphericity), while whales are represented by a mass of 10^5 kg and a radius of 7 m.

The “sub-Planckian unknown” and “forbidden by gravity” sections of the chart makes the “quantum uncertainty” section seem downright normal — the paper collectively calls these “unphysical regions”. Lovely turns of phrase all.

But what does it all mean? My physics is too rusty to say, but I thought one of the authors’ conjectures was particularly intriguing: “Our plot of all objects also seems to suggest that the Universe is a black hole.” Huh, cool.

What Happens If You Destroy A Black Hole?

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 21, 2023

Here’s a fun thought experiment: can you destroy a black hole? Nuclear weapons probably won’t work but what about antimatter? Or anti black holes? In this video, Kurzgesagt explores the possibilities and impossibilities. This part baked my noodle (in a good way):

Contrary to widespread belief, the singularity of a black hole is not really “at its center”. It’s in the future of whatever crosses the horizon. Black holes warp the universe so drastically that, at the event horizon, space and time switch their roles. Once you cross it, falling towards the center means going towards the future. That’s why you cannot escape: Stopping your fall and turning back would be just as impossible as stopping time and traveling to the past. So the singularity is actually in your future, not “in front of you”. And just like you can’t see your own future, you won’t see the singularity until you hit it.

🤯

Some Stunning Shots From the Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2023 Competition

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 18, 2023

a colorful shot of The Running Chicken Nebula

what looks like a question mark on the surface of the sun

purple sprites in the upper reaches of the atmosphere

a photo of the whole sun

the Andromeda galaxy next to a giant blue plasma arc

The Royal Observatory Greenwich in London has announced the winners of the Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2023 competition and as you can see from the selection above, there were some amazing shots. From top to bottom:

  1. Runwei Xu and Binyu Wang for their photo of The Running Chicken Nebula.
  2. Eduardo Schaberger Poupeau for capturing a question mark on the Sun. I will never tire of looking at the detail of the Sun’s surface.
  3. Angel An. “This is not, as it might first appear, an enormous extraterrestrial, but the lower tendrils of a sprite (red lightning)! This rarely seen electrical discharge occurs much higher in the atmosphere than normal lightning (and indeed, despite the name, is created by a different mechanism), giving the image an intriguingly misleading sense of scale.”
  4. Mehmet Ergün. More Sun!
  5. Marcel Drechsler, Xavier Strottner and Yann Sainty for their shot of the Andromeda galaxy.

The last shot was the overall winner. While not as dramatic as some of the others, it documented the discovery of a previously unknown feature of a nearby cosmic neighbor:

The Andromeda galaxy is the closest spiral galaxy to our own Milky Way, and one of the most photographed deep-sky objects. Yet this particular photo, captured by an international trio of amateur astronomers, revealed a feature that had never been seen before: a huge plasma arc, stretching out across space right next to the Andromeda galaxy.

“Scientists are now investigating the newly discovered giant in a transnational collaboration,” explain the photographers. “It could be the largest such structure nearest to us in the Universe.”

You can see the rest of the winning images on the Royal Observatory site as well as coverage from the BBC, the Guardian, Colossal, and Universe Today.

The Brassicas Will Continue Until Morale Improves

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 15, 2023

a simple cartoon of two people standing next to a redwood tree. One says to the other, 'Did you know the mighty redwood is actually the same species as broccoli and kale?' The caption reads 'Every year or two, botanists add another plant to brassica oleracea and see if anyone calls them on it.'

For a recent XKCD, Randall Munroe celebrates the the magical brassica oleracea plant.

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.

Welcome, redwood, to the family, er, species.

The Science of the Perfect Second

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 13, 2023

I really enjoyed this piece by Tom Vanderbilt on how time is kept, coordinated, calculated, and forecast. It’s full of interested tidbits throughout, like:

Care to gawk at one of the world’s last surviving original radium standards, a glass ampoule filled with 20.28 milligrams of radium chloride prepared by Marie Curie in 1913? NIST has it in the basement, encased in a steel bathtub, buried under lead bricks.

And:

For GPS to work, it needs ultra-exact timing: accuracy within fifteen meters requires precision on the order of fifty nanoseconds. The 5G networks powering our mobile phones demand ever more precise levels of cell-tower synchronization or calls get dropped.

And:

And as Mumford could have predicted, nowhere has time become so fetishized as in the financial sector, with the emergence over the past decade of algorithmic high-frequency trading. Donald MacKenzie, the author of Trading at the Speed of Light, estimated in 2019 that a trading program could receive market data and trigger an order in eighty-four nanoseconds, or eighty-four billionths of a second.

And:

All this makes F1 staggeringly accurate: it will gain or shed only one second every 100,000,000 years. Since the days when time was defined astronomically, the accuracy of the second is estimated to have increased by a magnitude of eight.

And:

“A clock accurate to a second over the age of the cosmos,” Patrick Gill, a physicist at the U.K.’s National Physical Laboratory, is quoted as saying in New Scientist, “would allow tests of whether physical laws and constants have varied over the universe’s history.”

And:

“If you were to lift this clock up a centimeter of elevation,” Hume told me, “you would be able to discern a difference in the ticking rate.” The reason is Einstein’s theory of relativity: Time differs depending on where you are experiencing it.

And I could go on and on. If any or all of those tidbits is interesting to you, you should go ahead and read the whole thing.

Stunning JWST Image of a Grand-Design Spiral Galaxy

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 12, 2023

image of spiral galaxy M51

Love this recent JWST shot of the M51 spiral galaxy.

The graceful winding arms of the grand-design spiral galaxy M51 stretch across this image from the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope. Unlike the menagerie of weird and wonderful spiral galaxies with ragged or disrupted spiral arms, grand-design spiral galaxies boast prominent, well-developed spiral arms like the ones showcased in this image. This galactic portrait was captured by Webb’s Mid-InfraRed Instrument (MIRI).

In this image the reprocessed stellar light by dust grains and molecules in the medium of the galaxy illuminate a dramatic filamentary medium. Empty cavities and bright filaments alternate and give the impression of ripples propagating from the spiral arms. The yellow compact regions indicate the newly formed star clusters in the galaxy.

(via bad astronomy)

A Microscopic Ode to the Tiny Worlds Found in Rainwater Puddles

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 29, 2023

From the Journey to the Microcosmos YouTube channel, this is an exploration of the tiny worlds contained in rainwater puddles and their connection to the discovery of microbial organisms in the 1670s by Dutch scientist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek. What a trip that must have been, to be the first person to peer microscopically into some water and observe tiny organisms swimming around. (via @JenLucPiquant)