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kottke.org posts about science

Happy 150th Birthday, Periodic Table!

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 06, 2019

Bloomberg Businessweek dedicated their entire Sept 2, 2019 issue to the periodic table (it’s 150 years old this year) and the elements it contains. From the introductory essay:

Over the past century and a half, but particularly since World War II, scientists and engineers have learned to treat the periodic table like a banquet table-a bountiful spread from which to pluck what they need. There’s scandium in bicycle frames, tin (stannous fluoride) in toothpaste, tungsten in catheters, and arsenic in some computer chips. We are well past the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age, and into the Everything Age, because almost every entry on the periodic table is being put to some kind of use in today’s economy (excluding synthetic elements that are costly to make and highly radioactive, such as einsteinium).

Cellphones exemplify the complexification. The first ones in the 1980s “were the size of a shoebox and consisted of 25 to 30 elements,” Larry Meinert, U.S. Geological Survey deputy associate director for energy and minerals, said in 2017. “Today, they fit in your pocket or on your wrist and are made from about 75 different elements, almost three-quarters of the periodic table.” That may include tantalum from Rwanda, potassium from Belarus, silver from Mexico, tin from Myanmar, carbon from India, and germanium from China.

Scrolling down on the main story page will take you on a modern-day tour of the periodic table from the lightest elements (hydrogen, helium, lithium) to the heavier ones (uranium, polonium) to some fake ones (adamantium, unobtanium, feminum).

How a 30-Minute Commute Has Shaped Centuries of Cities

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 05, 2019

Twenty-five years ago, physicist Cesare Marchetti argued that people, on average, tend to keep their commutes to about an hour a day, round-trip. For Citylab, Jonathan English looks at how this inclination has interacted with advances in transportation to affect how cities grow and evolve. For instance, walking and travel by horse kept cities to an effective diameter of a few miles, allowing their density to grow over many centuries.

Sure enough, most cities from the ancients to the Industrial Revolution did not grow much bigger than a two-mile diameter. Their core areas were often even smaller, though some of the poor lived in settlements outside the city gates. Ancient Rome packed as many as a million people into an area a little more than two miles in diameter. Medieval Paris stretched about two miles from the Bastille to the Louvre, Vienna’s Innere Stadt measures only one mile in diameter, and the historic City of London is nicknamed the “Square Mile” for a reason. Beijing’s walls enclosed an inner city about three miles in diameter; into the 20th century, that still made up most of the developed area.

Rail, streetcars, bicycles, subways, and cars followed, each increasing the amount of distance from a city’s center that could be reached within Marchetti’s time limit.

The car on the expressway enabled large numbers of people to travel long distances on a day-to-day basis. Instead of small railroad suburbs, where housing was restricted to a short radius around stations, drivers spread out across suburbs could now commute 20 miles in 30 minutes. If the streetcar city covered 50 square miles, the 40-mile-diameter expressway city could cover over 1,250 square miles.*

How to Mail a Package (From Space)

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 04, 2019

Randall Munroe’s new book, How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems, just came out and Wired has a lengthy excerpt: How to Mail a Package (From Space).

How to Mail a Package (From Space)

Getting an object down to Earth from the International Space Station is easy: you can just toss it out the door and wait. Eventually, it will fall to Earth.

There’s a very small amount of atmosphere at the ISS’s altitude. It’s not much, but it’s enough to produce a tiny but measurable amount of drag. This drag sooner or later causes objects to slow down, fall into a lower and lower orbit, and eventually hit the atmosphere and (usually) burn up. The ISS also feels this drag; it uses thrusters to compensate, periodically boosting itself up into a higher orbit to make up for lost altitude. If it didn’t, its orbit would gradually decay until it fell back to Earth.

This shipping method has two big problems: First, your package will burn up in the atmosphere before it ever reaches the ground. And second, if it does survive, you’ll have no way to know where it will land. To deliver your package, you’ll have to solve both these problems.

Fun fact: a piece of paper drifting down from orbit might move slowly enough not to burn up on reentry.

Endlings and the Death of Species

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 28, 2019

An endling is the last known member of a species and once it dies, the species becomes extinct. George was a tree snail that died in early 2019, the last member of the now-extinct Achatinella apexfulva species. He was 14.

Few people would mourn a snail, but Sischo and his team had spent years caring for George. He was a daily constant, a familiar friend. He was also the last known snail of his kind, the final Achatinella apexfulva. It is said that everyone dies alone, but that was doubly true for George-alone at the end both in his cage and in the world.

When the last of a species disappears, it usually does so unnoticed, somewhere in the wild. Only later, when repeated searches come up empty, will researchers reluctantly acknowledge that the species must be extinct. But in rare cases like George’s, when people are caring for an animal’s last known representative, extinction-an often abstract concept-becomes painfully concrete. It happens on their watch, in real time. It leaves behind a body. When Sischo rang in the new year, Achatinella apexfulva existed. A day later, it did not. “It is happening right in front of our eyes,” he said.

There’s a part early on in the video where Sischo is showing the snails in his team’s care and he casually points to a small chamber and says “here is the entire world’s population of this snail species” — I found that incredibly sad and had to stop the video for awhile to regroup. (Oh and the cardboard boxes labeled “snail morgue”.)

George was unique and we’re trying to avoid another George. But we have 100 species that will be gone within the next 5 to 10 years without intervention.

SpaceX Starhopper Rocket Test

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 28, 2019

SpaceX took its Starhopper rocket out for a little test run in Texas the other day, taking off and then landing about 300 feet away after reaching a height of about 500 feet. Spacehopper is a prototype of the company’s Starship spacecraft & rocket, which they plan to fly to and land on the Moon and Mars.

I’ve written about the wonder of SpaceX’s reusable rockets before, but the Starhopper test in particular seems like some deeply sci-fi shit, like what society imagined future space travel would look like. The ship looks and moves like something straight out of a late 60s Dr. Who serial.

The Hubble’s New Portrait of Jupiter

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 27, 2019

Jupiter Hubble 2019

A photo of Jupiter taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in late June was recently released by NASA. Among other things, it shows just how much smaller, redder, and rounder the Great Red Spot has gotten.

The Great Red Spot is a towering structure shaped like a wedding cake, whose upper haze layer extends more than 3 miles (5 kilometers) higher than clouds in other areas. The gigantic structure, with a diameter slightly larger than Earth’s, is a high-pressure wind system called an anticyclone that has been slowly downsizing since the 1800s. The reason for this change in size is still unknown.

The spot was “once big enough to swallow three Earths with room to spare” but has been shrinking steadily since a brief expansion in the 1920s. As the storm contracts, it has stretched up into the Jovian atmosphere.

Because the storm has been contracting, the researchers expected to find the already-powerful internal winds becoming even stronger, like an ice skater who spins faster as she pulls in her arms.

Instead of spinning faster, the storm appears to be forced to stretch up. It’s almost like clay being shaped on a potter’s wheel. As the wheel spins, an artist can transform a short, round lump into a tall, thin vase by pushing inward with his hands. The smaller he makes the base, the taller the vessel will grow.

Recently amateur astronomers have observed “flakes” or “blades” coming off of the storm and dissipating into the larger atmosphere, a formerly rare phenomenon that now seems more common.

The Hubble photographs also yielded a rotating view of the planet as well as a very cool stretched-out photo of the surface:

Jupiter Hubble 2019 Stretch

The Entire Plane of the Milky Way Captured in a Single Photo

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 26, 2019

Entire Galaxy

By photographing two separate nighttime scenes, one in the northern hemisphere and the other in the southern hemisphere, amateur astrophotographer Maroun Habib cleverly produced this dazzling image of the complete galactic plane visible from Earth.

Is it possible to capture the entire plane of our galaxy in a single image? Yes, but not in one exposure — and it took some planning to do it in two. The top part of the featured image is the night sky above Lebanon, north of the equator, taken in 2017 June. The image was taken at a time when the central band of the Milky Way Galaxy passed directly overhead. The bottom half was similarly captured six months later in latitude-opposite Chile, south of Earth’s equator. Each image therefore captured the night sky in exactly the opposite direction of the other, when fully half the Galactic plane was visible.

See also The Earth Rotating Beneath a Stationary Milky Way, which went viral after I posted it two weeks ago. (via @surfinsev)

Hand-Sculpted Archaeological Reconstructions of Ancient Faces

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 23, 2019

Working from remains discovered during archaeological excavations, sculptor and archaeologist Oscar Nilsson combines his two disciplines to reconstruct the faces of people who lived hundreds, thousands, and even tens of thousands of years ago.

This Neanderthal woman lived 45-50,000 years ago:

Oscar Nilsson

This young woman lived in what is now Britain about 5500 years ago. DNA evidence shows that the skin color of the region’s inhabitants at the time was quite dark, akin to that of modern North Africans.

Oscar Nilsson 02

This man was around 20 when he died in northern Switzerland 1300 years ago. His skull was unusual in that it contained a full set of perfect teeth.

Oscar Nilsson 03

You can read more about Nilsson’s restorations at Facebook and National Geographic.

Nilsson’s forensic technique starts with an exact 3D replica of the original skull, scanned, printed, and then modeled by hand to reflect bone structure and tissue thickness based on the individual’s origin, sex, and estimated age at death.

Recent genome studies of ancient European populations enable Nilsson to outfit his reconstructions with reasonably accurate estimates of skin, hair, and eye color. The Neolithic population that the 5,600-year-old Whitehawk woman belonged to, for instance, generally had lighter skin and darker eyes than earlier occupants of Britain such as Cheddar Man, but were darker than the exhibit’s Ditchling Road man, who arrived on the island in the first wave of light-skinned, light-eyed Beaker people from continental Europe around 4,400 years ago.

Making Food from Carbon Dioxide & Water

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 13, 2019

Using a concept from NASA, a Finnish company called Solar Foods has figured out how to manufacture protein from carbon dioxide, water, and electricity. They call it Solein.

A company from Finland, Solar Foods, is planning to bring to market a new protein powder, Solein, made out of CO2, water and electricity. It’s a high-protein, flour-like ingredient that contains 50 percent protein content, 5-10 percent fat, and 20-25 percent carbs. It reportedly looks and tastes like wheat flour, and could become an ingredient in a wide variety of food products after its initial launch in 2021.

It’s likely to first appear on grocery shelves in protein shakes and yogurt. It could be an exciting development: Solein’s manufacturing process is carbon neutral and the potential for scalability seems unlimited — we’ve got too much CO2, if anything. Why not get rid of some greenhouse gas with a side of fries?

The production of food (and the protein contained in meat in particular) is responsible for a large percentage of our planet’s changing climate, so if Solein pans out, it could be a huge development. It will be interesting to see if the wizards or prophets win the battle to “fix” climate change…Solein is one hell of a salvo by the wizards.

The Builder’s Remorse

posted by Tim Carmody   Jul 26, 2019

It’s nothing new for people who built tools to later have remorse when seeing those tools abused. Sometimes that remorse is world-historical, like with many of the scientists whose work led to the atom bomb. Sometimes, it’s something less than that, like the guy who built the retweet button for Twitter.

In the retweet button’s case, this guy is named Chris Wetherell. He’s also responsible for leading the team that built Google Reader. This is usually posed as an irony: the guy who built a thing that’s now loathed and everywhere (the retweet) also built the thing that’s beloved after its death. But to me, it’s not so ironic.

See, what Wetherell did in both cases was less invent something from whole cloth than adapt a user behavior (manual retweets and RSS readers) into part of a corporate product. In both case, the corporate versions of each were so successful that they crowded out the original forms of user behavior. The retweet got lucrative but ugly, the RSS reader enabled all new kinds of connections, but grew costly. The retweet lived and Reader died, but the underlying pattern was the same; once it was handed over to the corporation, everyone lost control.

And I think you can argue that there’s a parallel here too with the atom bomb folks. Few of them were upset that the structure of the universe works the way their theories predicted. What terrified them was putting the tremendous power inherent in the structure of the universe at the behest of the state.

This is the builder’s remorse. Not that you invented a thing, not that the consequences were unforeseen. It’s that you gave the thing to a power structure where things were overwhelmingly likely to end in ruin. You gave the power to people who don’t care about what you claim to care about. And that problem, because of the nature and structure of money and power, is extremely hard to avoid.

What Neil Armstrong Saw from His Window As He Landed on the Moon

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 22, 2019

I was away this weekend at a family function and mostly without internet access, so I didn’t get to watch the coverage of the Moon landing for the first time in more than a decade. I also didn’t get to share a bunch of links I had up in browser tabs and now I think everyone is (justifiably) tired of all the Apollo 11 hoopla, myself included. But I hope you’ll indulge me in just one more and then I’ll (maybe! hopefully!) shut up about it for another year.

It’s tough to narrow it down, but the most dramatic & harrowing part of the whole mission is when Neil Armstrong notices that the landing site the LM (call sign “Eagle”) is heading towards is no good — it’s too rocky and full of craters — so he guides the spacecraft over that area to a better landing spot. He does this despite never having flown the LM that way in training, with program alarms going off, with Mission Control not knowing what he’s doing (he doesn’t have time to tell them), and with very low fuel. Eagle had an estimated 15-20 seconds of fuel left when they touched down and the guy doing the fuel callouts at Mission Control was basically just estimating the remaining fuel in his head based on how much flying he thinks the LM had done…and again, the LM had never been flown like that before and Mission Control didn’t know what Armstrong was up to! (The 13 Minutes to the Moon podcast does an excellent job explaining this bit of the mission, episode 9 in particular.)

Throughout this sequence, there was a camera pointed out Buzz Aldrin’s window — you can see that video here — but that was a slightly different view from Armstrong’s. We’ve never seen what Armstrong saw to cause him to seek out a new landing site. Now, a team at NASA has simulated the view out of his window using data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera:

The LROC team reconstructed the last three minutes of the landing trajectory (latitude, longitude, orientation, velocity, altitude) using landmark navigation and altitude call outs from the voice recording. From this trajectory information, and high resolution LROC NAC images and topography, we simulated what Armstrong saw in those final minutes as he guided the LM down to the surface of the Moon. As the video begins, Armstrong could see the aim point was on the rocky northeastern flank of West crater (190 meters diameter), causing him to take manual control and fly horizontally, searching for a safe landing spot. At the time, only Armstrong saw the hazard; he was too busy flying the LM to discuss the situation with mission control.

This reconstructed view was actually pretty close to the camera’s view out of Aldrin’s window:

See also a photograph of the Apollo 11 landing site taken by the LRO camera from a height of 15 miles.

Video of the Complete Descent of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 18, 2019

The Apollo Flight Journal has put together a 20-minute video of the full descent and landing of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module containing Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on July 20, 1969.

The video combines data from the onboard computer for altitude and pitch angle, 16mm film that was shot throughout the descent at 6 frames per second. The audio recording is from two sources. The air/ground transmissions are on the left stereo channel and the mission control flight director loop is on the right channel. Subtitles are included to aid comprehension.

Reminder that you can follow along in sync with the entire Apollo 11 mission right up until their splashdown. I am also doing my presentation of Walter Cronkite’s CBS news coverage of the landing and the Moon walk again this year, starting at 4:10pm EDT on Saturday, July 20. Here’s the post I wrote about it last year for more details. (thx, david)

Simulating Natural Selection

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 17, 2019

The YouTube channel Primer is running a series on evolution and how it works. Topics include mutations, selfish genes, and altruism in natural selection. The most popular video of the series is this one on the simulation of natural selection:

In it, you can see how different environments cause groups to tend towards certain traits (size, speed, sensing ability) based on food availability, with random mutation and reproduction in the mix as well. Seeing the populations’ traits change in realtime as the generations pass is a powerful way to make sense of a complex concept.

The Highest Resolution MRI Scan of a Human Brain

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 15, 2019

Brain High Res MRI

A team of researchers at the Laboratory for NeuroImaging of Coma and Consciousness have done an ultra-high resolution MRI scan of a human brain. The scan took 100 hours to complete and can distinguish objects as small as 0.1 millimeters across.

“We haven’t seen an entire brain like this,” says electrical engineer Priti Balchandani of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, who was not involved in the study. “It’s definitely unprecedented.”

The scan shows brain structures such as the amygdala in vivid detail, a picture that might lead to a deeper understanding of how subtle changes in anatomy could relate to disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

This video above shows the scanned slices of the entire brain from side to side.

You can view/download the entire dataset of images here.

Posters of STEM Role Models

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 11, 2019

Stem Heroes

Stem Heroes

The folks behind the Nevertheless podcast commissioned a set of seven posters of STEM role models, people who have made significant contributions to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The posters are free to download and print out in eight different languages (including English, Spanish, and Simplified Chinese).

Climate Stripes

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 11, 2019

Using temperature data from around the world, climate scientist Ed Hawkins has built a tool for viewing the “climate stripes” for almost any location, a data visualization that represents the change in temperature over time over the past 100+ years. For most locations, the graphs shift from blues to oranges & reds as the climate warms, neatly illustrated by the global graph:

Climate Stripes

Here’s Vermont (where I live) and Arizona:

Climate Stripes

Climate Stripes

You can see there’s more variation on the regional level than globally. Check out the graph for Mississippi:

Climate Stripes

The warming patterns for particular regions are not going to be uniform…some places are actually forecast to get cooler and wetter rather than hotter and dryer. You can create and download your own climate stripes here…perhaps you can use it to make a global warming blanket. (via riondotnu)

The Atlas of Moons

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 11, 2019

Atlas Of Moons

From National Geographic comes The Atlas of Moons, an interactive reference to all of the major moons in our solar system, from the Earth’s own moon to the Galilean moons of Jupiter to Charon, which forms a binary system with Pluto.

For whatever reason, I wasn’t fully aware that some of Jupiter’s and Saturn’s major moons orbited their planets so quickly — Europa takes 3.6 days to complete an orbit, Io once every 1.8 days, and Mimas speeds around Saturn every 22.6 hours.

Is Your Phone’s Electromagnetic Pollution Making You Ill?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 08, 2019

According this video by Kurzgesagt (and their extensive list of sources), the answer to that question for now is: no, our electronic devices are not causing long- or short-term health problems in the brains or bodies of people who use them.

Electrosmog is one of those things that is a bit vague and hard to grasp. When personal health is involved, feelings clash extra hard with scientific facts and there is a lot of misinformation and exaggeration out there. On the other hand, some people are really worried and distressed by the electricity that surrounds them. And just to wave this off is not kind or helpful.

While there is still a lot of researching being done on the dangers of constant weak electromagnetic radiation, it is important to stress that so far, we have no reason to believe that our devices harm us. Other than… well… spending too much time with them.

Beautiful Maps of the Solar System’s Asteroids and the Topography of Mercury

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 17, 2019

Remember how last week I told you about Eleanor Lutz’s An Atlas of Space?

Over the past year and a half I’ve been working on a collection of ten maps on planets, moons, and outer space. To name a few, I’ve made an animated map of the seasons on Earth, a map of Mars geology, and a map of everything in the solar system bigger than 10km.

Well, she’s posted her first two projects: An Orbit Map of the Solar System (a map of more than 18,000 asteroid orbits in the solar system) and A Topographic Map of Mercury.

Atlas Of Space

Atlas Of Space

As promised, Lutz has posted the source code for each project to her GitHub account: Mercury topography, asteroid orbits. What a great resource for aspiring data visualization designers. Stay tuned to her site, Twitter, or Tumblr for upcoming installments of the atlas.

Update: Lutz’s third map in the series is out: The Geology of Mars. And here’s the link to the code and how-to on Github.

Atlas Of Space

Update: Lutz’s fourth map has been released: an animated map of the Earth cycling through all four seasons. Link to the code on GitHub.

Also, she’s made high-res wallpapers available for download in a number of different aspect ratios…check out the links at the bottom of the post.

Update: Today’s installment of the atlas presents a view from our solar system: The Western Constellations (source code on Github).

Atlas Of Space

This week’s map shows every single star visible from Earth, on the darkest night with the clearest sky. The map also includes all of the brightest galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters from W.H. Finlay’s Concise Catalog of Deep-sky Objects. I illustrated the familiar Western star patterns — or asterisms — in blue and gold, as well as the scientific constellation boundaries in red.

Update: Holy moly, I think Lutz’s Topographic Map of Mars might be her most beautiful one yet.

Atlas Of Space

Update: I couldn’t keep up with all of Lutz’s additions to her atlas. You can check out all of the installments in the archive, including the last part (for now), The Geology of the Moon.

The Apollo 11 Mission in Realtime

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 17, 2019

Apollo 11 Realtime

Well, this is just flat-out fantastic. Ben Feist and a team of collaborators have built Apollo 11 In Real Time, an interactive presentation of the first mission to land on the Moon as it happened.

This website replays the Apollo 11 mission as it happened, 50 years ago. It consists entirely of historical material, all timed to Ground Elapsed Time — the master mission clock. Footage of Mission Control, film shot by the astronauts, and television broadcasts transmitted from space and the surface of the Moon, have been painstakingly placed to the very moments they were shot during the mission, as has every photograph taken, and every word spoken.

You can tune in in real time beginning July 16th, watch/experience it right now from 1 minute before launch, or you can skip around the timeline to just watch the moments you want. As someone who has been hosting an Apollo 11 in real time thing for the past 9 years, this site makes me both ridiculously happy and a little bit jealous.

I’ve only ever seen footage of the first moonwalk in grainy videos as broadcast on TV, but this site shows it in the original resolution and it’s a revelation. Here’s the moonwalk, beginning with some footage of the folks in Mission Control nervously fidgeting with their hands (skip to 5:18:00 if the video doesn’t start there):

The rest of the video for the entire mission can be found here…what a trove. This whole thing is marvelous…I can’t wait to tune in when July 16th rolls around.

An Atlas of Space

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 03, 2019

Atlas Of Space

Eleanor Lutz is one of my favorite data visualizers (previously) and she’s about ready to drop her new project: An Atlas of Space.

I’m excited to finally share a new design project this week! Over the past year and a half I’ve been working on a collection of ten maps on planets, moons, and outer space. To name a few, I’ve made an animated map of the seasons on Earth, a map of Mars geology, and a map of everything in the solar system bigger than 10km.

Over the next few weeks I want to share each map alongside the open-source Python code and detailed tutorials for recreating the design. All of the astronomy data comes from publicly available sources like NASA and the USGS, so I thought this would be the perfect project for writing design tutorials (which I’ve been meaning to do for a while).

Ahhh, look at those colors! Lutz is going to be posting a new map from the project periodically over the next few weeks so follow her on Tabletop Whale, Twitter, or Tumblr to tune in.

Update: I’m keeping track of the projects that make up the atlas as they are released in updates to this post.

A School of Fossilized Fish

posted by Jason Kottke   May 30, 2019

Fossil Fish School

The results of recently analyzed find from the Green River Formation in the western US were published yesterday show the fossilized remains of an entire school of 257 fish. Beyond the fact that a whole school of fish was somehow frozen in time together 50 million years ago, what’s so remarkable is this discovery provides evidence of the social behavior of a now-extinct animal.

We found traces of two rules for social interaction similar to those used by extant fishes: repulsion from close individuals and attraction towards neighbours at a distance. Moreover, the fossilized fish showed group-level structures in the form of oblong shape and high polarization, both of which we successfully reproduced in simulations incorporating the inferred behavioural rules. Although it remains unclear how the fish shoal’s structure was preserved in the fossil, these findings suggest that fishes have been forming shoals by combining sets of simple behavioural rules since at least the Eocene. Our study highlights the possibility of exploring the social communication of extinct animals, which has been thought to leave no fossil record.

Read more about the analysis in Science News.

The Women Who Helped Pioneer Chaos Theory

posted by Jason Kottke   May 29, 2019

The story goes that modern chaos theory was birthed by Edward Lorenz’s paper about his experiments with weather simulation on a computer. The computing power helped Lorenz nail down hidden patterns that had been hinted at by computer-less researchers for decades. But the early tenets of chaos theory were not the only things that were hidden. The women who wrote the programs that enabled Lorenz’s breakthroughs haven’t received their proper due.

But in fact, Lorenz was not the one running the machine. There’s another story, one that has gone untold for half a century. A year and a half ago, an MIT scientist happened across a name he had never heard before and started to investigate. The trail he ended up following took him into the MIT archives, through the stacks of the Library of Congress, and across three states and five decades to find information about the women who, today, would have been listed as co-authors on that seminal paper. And that material, shared with Quanta, provides a fuller, fairer account of the birth of chaos.

The two women who programmed the computer for Lorenz were Ellen Gille (née Fetter) and Margaret Hamilton. Yes, that Margaret Hamilton, whose already impressive career starts to look downright bonkers when you add in her contributions to chaos theory.

The Solitary Garden

posted by Jason Kottke   May 21, 2019

In 1960, David Latimer put some compost, water, and plant seeds into a large glass jar and sealed it up. And it’s been growing like that ever since, save for when Latimer opened the bottle to water it in 1972.

Bottle Plants

It’s easy to take nature and evolution for granted but think about how marvelous this is. Over billions of years, an ecosystem evolved on Earth that can sustain itself basically forever using light from the Sun.

The plant creates energy from the sunlight via photosynthesis, using up carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen into the bottle. When parts of the plant die, bacteria in the soil use the oxygen to break down these dead parts, releasing carbon dioxide and completing the circle. The water cycle is similarly self-refueling: whatever water the plant takes in through its roots ultimately transpires out of its leaves, condenses on the inside of the bottle, and drips back into the soil.

Why Do Birds Fly in a V-Formation?

posted by Jason Kottke   May 16, 2019

Many species of migratory birds, like the Canada goose in North America, fly in a v-formation. Scientists have long suspected that there was some energy-saving advantage to flying in formation and a 2014 study provides evidence to that effect.

By comparing the birds’ flight data to computer simulations, Portugal found that the ibises are apparently drafting — catching an uprush of air from the wingtip of the bird ahead. “Furthermore, when they’re in that position, they time wing beats perfectly,” he says. “So they don’t just sit there passively hoping to get some of the good air from the bird in front.”

They actually flap along the perfect sweet spot. Portugal thinks there’s a very good reason why the ibises do this. Previous studies have shown that flying is hard work.

“When we get exercising, our heart rate gets up to around 180 beats per minute on a good day,” Portugal says. “When birds are flying, it goes up to 400 beats per minute.”

You can read the paper published by the researchers in Nature. (via the kid should see this)

Meet Aerospace Engineer Judith Love Cohen

posted by Jason Kottke   May 14, 2019

Judith Love Cohen was, at various times in her fascinating life, an engineer who worked on the Pioneer, Apollo, and Hubble missions, an author & publisher of books about women in STEM and environmentalism in the 90s, a ballet dancer with the New York Metropolitan Opera Ballet Company, an advocate for better treatment of women in the workplace, and actor Jack Black’s mother. From an obituary written by her son Neil Siegel after her death in 2016:

My mother usually considered her work on the Apollo program to be the highlight of her career. When disaster struck the Apollo 13 mission, it was the Abort-Guidance System that brought the astronauts home safely. Judy was there when the Apollo 13 astronauts paid a “thank you” [visit] to the TRW facility in Redondo Beach.

She finished her engineering career running the systems engineering for the science ground facility of the Hubble Space Telescope.

During her engineering career, she was a vigorous and tireless advocate of better treatment for women in the workplace. Many things that today we consider routine — the posting of job openings inside of a company so that anyone could apply, formal job descriptions for every position, and so forth - were her creations. She had a profound impact on equality in the workforce.

Here’s Cohen pictured with an early Pioneer spacecraft in 1959:

June Love Cohen

Frustrated with the lack of female role models for girls interested in science, math, and technology, she retired from engineering to write and publish a series of books. From a 1999 LA Times profile:

The 11-book series features female professionals such as a paleontologist, Egyptologist and marine biologist. Cohen’s first book in 1991, “You Can Be a Woman Engineer,” traces her arc from a girl who had never heard of female engineers to a woman who led a team of engineers on the design for NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

“You only think about things when you see people doing it. Most girls know now they can be lawyers” from TV shows like “Ally McBeal” and female lawyers in the news, Cohen said. “They know that they can work in an emergency room — they’ve seen ‘ER.’ But I don’t recall that anyone has seen scientists on a large scale, except for a few paleontologists in ‘Jurassic Park.’”

At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, physicist Barbara Wilson, 50, said she never knew of any female scientists while growing up in the Midwest. At age 10, she started reading science fiction books for inspiration, but none of them featured women. In school, counselors dismissed the idea of her becoming a scientist, saying she should consider jobs that “women are more likely to be good at.” Books like Cohen’s would have provided the validation she sought, said Wilson, JPL’s chief technologist.

“It was really difficult psychologically and emotionally to be better than all the boys in math and science,” she said. “[The books] really would have helped encourage my feeling good about myself, that this was the direction I wanted to go. I didn’t see role models. I didn’t get encouragement other than at home.”

It’s difficult to imagine a better role model than Cohen…she obviously loved engineering and her work. When her son Jack Black was born, she barely hit the pause button:

Her fourth child, Jack, was born a few years later. She actually went to her office on the day that Jack was born. When it was time to go to the hospital, she took with her a computer printout of the problem she was working on. Later that day, she called her boss and told him that she had solved the problem. And… oh, yes, the baby was born, too.

If anyone from the NY Times is reading, I think Cohen would make a good subject for the Overlooked series. (via history cool kids)

On the Safety of Vaccines and the Low Risk of Side Effects

posted by Jason Kottke   May 13, 2019

The development of vaccines against infectious diseases is among the greatest of human accomplishments and has saved ten of millions of people from dying. And yet some are still hung up on their side effects (and also the widely disproved and debunked fraudulent claim that vaccines cause autism). In this video, Kurzgesagt looks at how vaccines work and compares the impact of their side effects (minuscule) to the potential effect of the diseases they protect against (children dying).

The extensive list of sources they used for the video can be found here.

The title of this video is “The Side Effects of Vaccines - How High is the Risk?”, which seems like it’s maximized for clicks and to spread amongst anti-vaxxers on social media. I wish it had a more accurate title — something like “The Absurdly Low Risk of Vaccine Side Effects” or maybe “Vaccines. And Now My Kids Don’t Die.” — but perhaps positioning it this way is a good strategy to get folks who may not be quite so radicalized to watch it.

Eight Ways to Teach Climate Change in School

posted by Jason Kottke   May 02, 2019

According to a poll conducted by NPR/Ipsos, over 80% of American parents want climate change to be taught in our schools, but only 42% of the teachers polled say that they teach it in their classrooms.

If they don’t hear about it at home, will kids learn about climate change in school? To answer this question, NPR/Ipsos also completed a nationally representative survey of around 500 teachers. These educators were even more likely than the general public to believe in climate change and to support teaching climate change.

In fact, 86% of teachers believe climate change should be taught in schools. In theory.

But in practice, it’s more complicated. More than half — 55% — of teachers we surveyed said they do not cover climate change in their own classrooms or even talk to their students about it.

The most common reason given? Nearly two-thirds (65%) said it’s outside their subject area.

NPR education correspondent Anya Kamenetz shared 8 Ways To Teach Climate Change In Almost Any Classroom, regardless of what subject you teach.

5. Assign a research project, multimedia presentation or speech.

Gay Collins teaches public speaking at Waterford High School in Waterford, Conn. She is interested in “civil discourse” as a tool for problem-solving, so she encourages her students “to shape their speeches around critical topics, like the use of plastics, minimalism, and other environmental issues.

I am, however, still hung up on the 12% of teachers polled who said that the world’s climate is not changing.

Climate Poll Teachers

Grace Hopper Explains a Nanosecond

posted by Jason Kottke   May 01, 2019

In this short clip from 1983, legendary computer scientist Grace Hopper uses a short length of wire to explain what a nanosecond is.

Now what I wanted when I asked for a nanosecond was: I wanted a piece of wire which would represent the maximum

distance that electricity could travel in a billionth of a second. Now of course it wouldn’t really be through wire — it’d be out in space, the velocity of light. So if we start with a velocity of light and use your friendly computer, you’ll discover that a nanosecond is 11.8 inches long, the maximum limiting distance that electricity can travel in a billionth of a second.

You can watch the entirety of a similar lecture Hopper gave at MIT in 1985, in which she “practically invents computer science at the chalkboard”. (via tmn)

Fighting Climate Change with CO2-Eating “Ideal Plants”

posted by Jason Kottke   May 01, 2019

At the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, Dr. Joanne Chory is working on a project to create plants capable of storing more carbon for a longer period of time than normal plants in order to help mitigate the effects of climate change.

Suberin — also known as cork — is a naturally occurring carbon-rich substance found in plant roots. It absorbs carbon yet resists decomposition (which releases carbon back into the atmosphere), enriches soil and helps plants resist stress.

By understanding and improving just a few genetic pathways in plants, Salk’s plant biologists believe they can help plants grow bigger, more robust root systems that absorb larger amounts of carbon, burying it in the ground in the form of suberin.

The Salk team will use cutting-edge genetic and genomic techniques to develop these Salk Ideal Plants.

Salk Ideal Plants

According to this piece in the Guardian on the project, one of the techniques they’re using is CRISPR, basically a genetic copy/paste system. Once the team demonstrates they can grow these larger root systems in model plants, they’ll genetically transfer that capability to the world’s largest food crops like rice, wheat, and corn.

As a bonus, the team believes that Ideal Plants will have other positive effects:

In addition to mitigating climate change, the enhanced root systems will help protect plants from stresses caused by climate changes and the additional carbon in the soil will make the soil richer, promoting better crop yields and more food for a growing global population.

This project is firmly on the wizard end of the wizards vs prophets spectrum.