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kottke.org posts about science

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.

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.

Strange Stars and Strange Matter

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 17, 2019

Nuclear physicists hypothesize that when the cores of neutron stars are subject to enough pressure, the quarks that make up the core can turn from up and down quark varieties into strange quarks. As this Kurzgesagt video explains, this strange matter is particularly stable and if it were to escape from the core of the neutron star, it would convert any ordinary matter it came into contact with to more strange matter. If you hadn’t heard about this hypothesis before, you can read up on it in their list of sources for the video.

The first photo of a black hole

posted by Chrysanthe Tenentes   Apr 10, 2019

The first photo of a black hole

Ok, this is pretty cool. We have the first photo of a supermassive black hole, from imagery taken two years ago of the elliptical galaxy M87 (in the constellation Virgo) by the Event Horizon Telescope project. The EHT team is a group of 200 scientist that has been working on this project for two decades. The image was created using data captured from radio telescopes from Hawaii to the South Pole and beyond using very long baseline interferometry.

The image, of a lopsided ring of light surrounding a dark circle deep in the heart of the galaxy known as Messier 87, some 55 million light-years away from here, resembled the Eye of Sauron, a reminder yet again of the power and malevolence of nature. It is a smoke ring framing a one-way portal to eternity.

Now is a good time to (re)read Jonathan Lethem’s early novel, the absurdist physics love story As She Climbed Across the Table.

Update: Vox’s Joss Fong has a good 6-minute video that explains how the photo was taken:

And this video by Veritasium is even more meaty (and this one too):

One woman’s story of self-discovery through psychotropic withdrawl

posted by Chrysanthe Tenentes   Apr 08, 2019

In this week’s New Yorker, Rachel Aviv looks at why it’s so hard to go off psychiatric drugs, and why they may often be overprescribed. She tells the story of Laura Delano, a descendant of Franklin Delano Roosevelt from Greenwich, CT.

Laura received a bipolar diagnosis as a teen and was medicated for several conditions and a cascade of associated symptoms. She assumed her depression was due to a chemical imbalance being corrected by the cocktail of psychotropic drugs used longterm. Her decades-long cycle through different drugs, diagnoses, and symptoms show an under-discussed side of psychopharmacology.

Dorian Deshauer, a psychiatrist and historian at the University of Toronto, has written that the chemical-imbalance theory, popularized in the eighties and nineties, “created the perception that the long term, even life-long use of psychiatric drugs made sense as a logical step.” But psychiatric drugs are brought to market in clinical trials that typically last less than twelve weeks. Few studies follow patients who take the medications for more than a year. Allen Frances, an emeritus professor of psychiatry at Duke, who chaired the task force for the fourth edition of the DSM, in 1994, told me that the field has neglected questions about how to take patients off drugs—a practice known as “de-prescribing.” He said that “de-prescribing requires a great deal more skill, time, commitment, and knowledge of the patient than prescribing does.” He emphasizes what he called a “cruel paradox: there’s a large population on the severe end of the spectrum who really need the medicine” and either don’t have access to treatment or avoid it because it is stigmatized in their community. At the same time, many others are “being overprescribed and then stay on the medications for years.” There are almost no studies on how or when to go off psychiatric medications, a situation that has created what he calls a “national public-health experiment.”

Aviv makes an apt observation about our culture and willingness to confront mental health:

Overprescribing isn’t always due to negligence; it may also be that pills are the only form of help that some people are willing to accept.

But back to Laura. In 2010, after years of cycling through diagnoses (most recently borderline personality disorder), psychiatrists, pharmacologists, and prescriptions, she came across what would turn out to be a life-altering discovery in a bookstore.

On the table of new releases was “Anatomy of an Epidemic,” by Robert Whitaker, whose cover had a drawing of a person’s head labelled with the names of several medications that she’d taken. The book tries to make sense of the fact that, as psychopharmacology has become more sophisticated and accessible, the number of Americans disabled by mental illness has risen. Whitaker argues that psychiatric medications, taken in heavy doses over the course of a lifetime, may be turning some episodic disorders into chronic disabilities. (The book has been praised for presenting a hypothesis of potential importance, and criticized for overstating evidence and adopting a crusading tone.)

Not only did this alter the course of Laura’s treatment, but her life’s work as well. Last year, she helped launched the online resource the Withdrawal Project after years of both informal and formal counseling of others.

But what’s next for our brain health? Some health experts say probiotics and our microbiome should not be ignored.

The Day the Dinosaurs Died

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 01, 2019

It’s only Monday, but I’m confident this will be my favorite read of the week. Since 2012, paleontologist Robert DePalma has been excavating a site in North Dakota that he thinks is “an incredible and unprecedented discovery”. What’s potentially so special about this site? Fossils from dinosaurs and other animals from thousands of years before the asteroid impact are very hard to come by, leading some to believe that dinosaurs died out before the impact, not because of it. DePalma believes the site preserves, as if in amber, the day, the precise and exact day (and perhaps even the exact hour), that the massive asteroid believed to have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs hit the Earth 65 million years ago.

As DePalma carefully excavated the upper layers, he began uncovering an extraordinary array of fossils, exceedingly delicate but marvellously well preserved. “There’s amazing plant material in there, all interlaced and interlocked,” he recalled. “There are logjams of wood, fish pressed against cypress — tree root bundles, tree trunks smeared with amber.” Most fossils end up being squashed flat by the pressure of the overlying stone, but here everything was three-dimensional, including the fish, having been encased in sediment all at once, which acted as a support. “You see skin, you see dorsal fins literally sticking straight up in the sediments, species new to science,” he said. As he dug, the momentousness of what he had come across slowly dawned on him. If the site was what he hoped, he had made the most important paleontological discovery of the new century.

The type of evidence present at the site is almost too good to believe:

He noted that every fish he’d found in the site had died with its mouth open, which may indicate that the fish had been gasping as they suffocated in the sediment-laden water.

“Most died in a vertical position in the sediment, didn’t even tip over on their sides,” he said. “And they weren’t scavenged, because whatever would have dug them up afterward was probably gone.”

Depalma Fossil Fish

Clues from the growth stages of animals and pollen found at the site might even point to what season it was when the asteroid struck…DePalma’s current guess is in autumn. And then there’s this, about a burrow that DePalma discovered:

“Any Cretaceous mammal burrow is incredibly rare,” he said. “But this one is impossible — it’s dug right through the KT boundary.” Perhaps, he said, the mammal survived the impact and the flood, burrowed into the mud to escape the freezing darkness, then died. “It may have been born in the Cretaceous and died in the Paleocene,” he said.

A scientific paper is forthcoming this week. I couldn’t find it online, but this piece in Science says that it’s generating some discussion and controversy already.

“Outcrops like [this] are the reasons many of us are drawn to geology,” says David Kring, a geologist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas, who wasn’t a member of the research team. “Those few meters of rock record the wrath of the Chicxulub impact and the devastation it caused.” But not everyone has fully embraced the find, perhaps in part because it was first announced to the world last week in an article in The New Yorker. The paper, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), does not include all the scientific claims mentioned in The New Yorker story, including that numerous dinosaurs as well as fish were buried at the site.

“I hope this is all legit-I’m just not 100% convinced yet,” says Thomas Tobin, a geologist at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Tobin says the PNAS paper is densely packed with detail from paleontology, sedimentology, geochemistry, and more. “No one is an expert on all of those subjects,” he says, so it’s going to take a few months for the research community to digest the findings and evaluate whether they support such extraordinary conclusions.

I’m eager to follow the progress of this story as more of the results are released and analyzed by the scientific community.

A Timelapse of the Entire Universe

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 01, 2019

John Boswell has made a 10-minute time lapse video showing the history of the universe, from its formation 13.8 billion years ago up to the present. Each second of the video represents the passing of 22 million years. But don’t blink right near the end…you might miss the tiny fraction of a second that represents the entire history of humanity.

See also: Boswell’s Timelapse of the Future, a dramatized time lapse of possible events from now until the heat death of the universe many trillion trillion trillions of years from now.

What Is Our Least Useful Body Part?

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 29, 2019

Gizmodo’s Daniel Kolitz recently asked a panel of anatomists and evolutionary biologists about what the most useless part of the human body might be. Biology professor Dr. Nathan Lents reminds us that our bodies contain ample evidence of our design by evolution:

It’s hard to pick just one! The human wrist is a clunky hodgepodge of unnecessary bones. If we could design that joint from scratch, there is no way we would stick eight small, fixed, and mostly useless bones in there. We also have the stump of a tail that we could totally do without. It does nothing for us except occasionally gets injured or develops cancer.

I think my favorite useless body part is the pyramidalis muscle, which is located in our pelvic floor and attaches to the pelvis and some other connective tissue in our nether regions. What does it do? Well, when you flex this muscle, you can sort of squish the tissue in that area around pointlessly, but in monkeys and other mammals, it helps to manipulate the tail. So useless is this muscle that at least 20% of us don’t even have one and we don’t even miss it. I always enjoy telling people that, although humans and other apes don’t have tails, we still have the muscles to flex them!

Timelapse of the Future

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 27, 2019

One of my favorite Wikipedia articles is the timeline of the far future, which details the predictions science makes about the possible futures of the Earth, solar system, galaxy, and universe, from Antares exploding in a supernova visible from Earth in broad daylight in 10,000 years to the end of star formation in galaxies 1 trillion years from now…and beyond.

In his new video, Timelapse of the Future, John Boswell takes us on a trip through that timeline, a journey to the end of time.

We start in 2019 and travel exponentially through time, witnessing the future of Earth, the death of the sun, the end of all stars, proton decay, zombie galaxies, possible future civilizations, exploding black holes, the effects of dark energy, alternate universes, the final fate of the cosmos — to name a few.

A regular time lapse of that voyage would take forever, so Boswell cleverly doubles the pace every 5 seconds, so that just after 4 minutes into the video, a trillion years passes in just a second or two.1 You’d think that after the Earth is devoured by the Sun about 3 minutes in, things would get a bit boring and you could stop watching, but then you’d miss zombie white dwarfs roaming the universe in the degenerate era, the black hole mergers era 1000 trillion trillion trillion trillion years from now, the possible creation of baby “life boat” universes, and the point at which “nothing happens and it keeps not happening forever”.

  1. This is similar to Charles and Ray Eames’ Powers of Ten increasing its speed and field of view every 10 seconds.

The Collective Effervescence of Dancing

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 27, 2019

Why do we dance? It’s a silly question because the answer seems obvious — “because we want to, duh” — but this video from Aeon looks a bit closer at why humans like to collectively move to the beat. It has to do with our social nature and this great phrase, “collective effervescence”.

The answer, it seems, is in our need for social cohesion - that vital glue that keeps societies from breaking apart despite interpersonal differences. The French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) theorised that ‘collective effervescence’ — moments in which people come together in some form of unifying, excitement-inducing activity — is at the root of what holds groups together. More recently, Bronwyn Tarr, an evolutionary biologist and psychologist at the University of Oxford who is also a dancer, has researched the evolutionary and neurological underpinnings of our innate tendency to bust a move. Drawing on the work of both Durkheim and Tarr, this Aeon Original video explores that unifying feeling of group ‘electricity’ that lifts us up when we’re enthralled by our favourite sports teams, participating in religious rituals, entranced by music - and, yes, dancing the night away.

You can read more about Durkheim and his work here and about Tarr’s work here.

One hypothesis is that it provides an opportunity for people to come together, making them move — dance — and in doing so we experience internal hormonal cascades which are made up of ‘feel good’ chemicals. These bursts of chemicals are part of our brain’s pain and pleasure and reward circuitry, and when they are triggered they provide an experience of elation and positive reward. When we get this kick in the presence of others, the result is that of collective joy — positive, shared experiences through which we establish and maintain important social connections with others. Now we feel like we belong to a unified, cohesive whole.

Being part of a cohesive social group would have been really important for our ancestors — collaborating with others to find shelter, hunt, rear young would have increased our chances of survival. Music and dance are by no means the only ways we can stimulate these positive social ‘highs’. But they’re really good ways of doing it because it’s an experience that we can share with lots of people at once. In order to understand why that would have given us such a great advantage we need to look at our species in the context of primates.

(via open culture)

What’s Eating Dan?

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 21, 2019

From America’s Test Kitchen and Dan Souza, the editor-in-chief of Cook’s Illustrated, a YouTube series called What’s Eating Dan? In each episode, Souza picks a different food — pizza, rice, salmon — shares some of the science involved, and then shows us the best way to cook it. For starters, I’d suggest the first episode on burgers and a more recent one on mushrooms:

Actually, Mercury Is Our Closest Planetary Neighbor

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 21, 2019

If you look at the orbits of the planets adjacent to the Earth’s orbit (Venus & Mars), you’ll see that Venus’s orbit is closest to our own. That is, at its closest approach, Venus gets closer to Earth than any other planet. But what about the average distance?

According to this article in Physics Today by Tom Stockman, Gabriel Monroe, and Samuel Cordner, if you run a simulation and do a proper calculation, you’ll find that Mercury, and not Venus or Mars, is Earth’s closest neighbor on average (and spends more time as Earth’s closest neighbor than any other planet):

Although it feels intuitive that the average distance between every point on two concentric ellipses would be the difference in their radii, in reality that difference determines only the average distance of the ellipses’ closest points. Indeed, when Earth and Venus are at their closest approach, their separation is roughly 0.28 AU — no other planet gets nearer to Earth. But just as often, the two planets are at their most distant, when Venus is on the side of the Sun opposite Earth, 1.72 AU away. We can improve the flawed calculation by averaging the distances of closest and farthest approach (resulting in an average distance of 1 AU between Earth and Venus), but finding the true solution requires a bit more effort.

What the calculation also shows is that Mercury is the closest planetary neighbor to every planet, on average. Also, the authors of the paper don’t explicitly mention this, but the Sun (at 1 AU) is closer on average to the Earth than even Mercury (1.04 AU).

Tetanus Has Nothing To Do With Rust

posted by Tim Carmody   Mar 15, 2019

Tetanus, popularly called “lockjaw,” is a serious illness, fatal in 10 percent of cases in North America and a larger percentage elsewhere. But despite the popular perception of its association with cutting oneself on a rusty nail, the disease has nothing to do with iron oxide, or rust:

Rather, tetanus is a product of the bacteria Clostridium tetani, which is in dirt, dust, and feces—in other words, everywhere. It can enter your body through puncture wounds, yes, but also through superficial cuts, bug bites, surgical procedures, and any other rupture to your skin. It can come from stepping on a rusty nail, or tending the soil in your garden. That’s why it’s so essential to track your booster shots: You need one every decade, not just when you rip your palm open on a rusty chain link fence. Waiting for a classic tetanus injury won’t work when anything could, in theory, be a tetanus injury.

If the bacteria enter your body and you aren’t up-to-date on your vaccinations, the tiny invaders begin to multiply rapidly. This incubation period, which lasts between three and 21 days, according to the CDC, is symptom free. But as the bacteria begin to die inside you, they form a neurotoxin that attacks the nervous system. Specifically, it inhibits the chemical GABA, which regulates muscle contractions. The result is a body-wide state of tension, from lockjaw in your face to uncontrollable arching spasms in your back to permanently-curled toes.

Luckily, here as elsewhere, tetanus vaccines (a series of three shots and a booster every ten years) work. Get those shots up to date and mind those cuts, no matter where they came from.