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kottke.org posts about science

The Winter Olympics, male & female physiology, and socially constructed bodies

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 19, 2018

This is a fascinating thread by Milena Popova about the differing performances of male and female athletes at the Winter Olympics. As they point out, humans are sexually dimorphic but the story doesn’t end there. Bodies are also socially constructed.

Physiology is a thing, but physiology is shaped and mediated by our social context.

Look back at those pictures of “women”. Those petite, delicate bodies, those faces we process as “beautiful”. Those are the qualities that globally dominant Western cultures associate with “femininity”.

And sport is one of the institutions that fiercely guards and reproduces dominant ideas about gender, masculinity and femininity. This plays out differently in different sports.

Generally, men and women compete separately. And for the purposes of sport “men” and “women” are defined as people whose bodies were assigned male or female at birth and whose gender matches that assignment.

The obvious example here is South African runner Caster Semenya. But Popova continues with a more subtle (and admittedly speculative) situation:

Now, what really gets me is snowboarding. Because on the face of it that’s not a sport that’s judged on the same gendered criteria of artistry and aesthetics as figure skating or gymnastics.

You’d think under all the skiing gear, helmets, scarves and goggles, it would be quite hard to perform femininity.

And still, as my friend whom I made watch slope style and half pipe for the first time in her life last night pointed out, the body types of the men and women riders are really rather different. You can tell even under all the gear.

And that translates to performance. Women get an amplitude of about 3m above the half pipe, men about 4-5m. The best women do 1080s (three revolutions), the best men 1440s (four revolutions).

But much like any other subculture snowboarding reproduces hierarchical structures. Moves are named after people, some people find it easier to access than others (hint: it’s a massively expensive sport), some people set trends.

One of the structures it reproduces is a gendered hierarchy. It’s a very masculine culture. Women find it harder to access the sport, find it harder to be taken seriously as athletes in their own right rather than “just hangers-on”.

And I have the sneaky suspicion that because the people with the most subcultural capital tend to be men and they decide whom they will admit and accept to the community, there are certain looks and body types of women who find it less hard (not easy!) to gain access.

And those happen to be the body types that may find it harder to do 1440s and to get 5m amplitude above the half pipe.

Another example from figure skating is Surya Bonaly, a French figure skater who landed a backflip on one skate in a performance at the 1998 Olympics. While backflips weren’t banned because of Bonaly’s relative ease in performing them (as claimed here), her athletic style was outside the norm in women’s figure skating, in which traditional femininity is baked right into the rules & judging. This was also a factor in Tonya Harding’s career (as depicted in I, Tonya).

Anyway, super interesting to think about.

Photo of a single atom wins science photo contest

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 13, 2018

Single Atom Photo

The UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council just announced the winner of their annual science photography contest: a photo of a single strontium atom suspended in an electric field taken by David Nadlinger. The atom is that tiiiiny dot in the middle of the photo above.

‘Single Atom in an Ion Trap’, by David Nadlinger, from the University of Oxford, shows the atom held by the fields emanating from the metal electrodes surrounding it. The distance between the small needle tips is about two millimetres.

When illuminated by a laser of the right blue-violet colour the atom absorbs and re-emits light particles sufficiently quickly for an ordinary camera to capture it in a long exposure photograph. The winning picture was taken through a window of the ultra-high vacuum chamber that houses the ion trap.

Laser-cooled atomic ions provide a pristine platform for exploring and harnessing the unique properties of quantum physics. They can serve as extremely accurate clocks and sensors or, as explored by the UK Networked Quantum Information Technologies Hub, as building blocks for future quantum computers, which could tackle problems that stymie even today’s largest supercomputers.

Why speeding is so dangerous

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 13, 2018

Let’s say you’re doing 100 mph in a car and suddenly a downed tree, stopped car, or person appears in the road up ahead and you need to slam on the brakes. How much more dangerous is that situation than when you’re doing 70 mph? Your intuition might tell you that 70 mph is only 30% less than 100 mph. But as this video shows, the important factor in stopping a car (or what happens to the car when it collides with something else) is not speed but energy, which increases at the square of speed. In other words, going from 70 mph to 100 mph more than doubles your energy…and going from 55 to 100 more than triples it. (thx, david)

A map of the world after four degrees of warming

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 12, 2018

Four Degrees World Map

In this speculative world map published in 2009, New Scientist imagines what the world might look like if (or more likely, when) the Earth warms by 4ºC. Many current coastal areas would be underwater and much of the most heavily populated areas of the Earth would be desert or otherwise uninhabitable while the northern parts of Canada and Russia would become the new bread baskets of the world. But on the plus side, western Antartica would be habitable and possibly “densely populated with high rise cities”. In an article that accompanied the map, Gaia Vince wrote:

Imagine, for the purposes of this thought experiment, that we have 9 billion people to save — 2 billion more than live on the planet today. A wholesale relocation of the world’s population according to the geography of resources means abandoning huge tracts of the globe and moving people to where the water is. Most climate models agree that the far north and south of the planet will see an increase in precipitation. In the northern hemisphere this includes Canada, Siberia, Scandinavia and newly ice-free parts of Greenland; in the southern hemisphere, Patagonia, Tasmania and the far north of Australia, New Zealand and perhaps newly ice-free parts of the western Antarctic coast.

The citizens of the world’s wealthiest and most populous nations will become climate refugees, which means things are going to get really, really ugly for everyone else.

Ed Yong on fixing the gender imbalance in his stories

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 07, 2018

Science writer Ed Yong noticed that the stories he was writing quoted sources that were disproportionately male. Using a spreadsheet to track who he contacted for stories and a few extra minutes per piece, Yong set about changing that gender imbalance.

Skeptics might argue that I needn’t bother, as my work was just reflecting the present state of science. But I don’t buy that journalism should act simply as society’s mirror. Yes, it tells us about the world as it is, but it also pushes us toward a world that could be. It is about speaking truth to power, giving voice to the voiceless. And it is a profession that actively benefits from seeking out fresh perspectives and voices, instead of simply asking the same small cadre of well-trod names for their opinions.

Another popular critique is that I should simply focus on finding the most qualified people for any given story, regardless of gender. This point seems superficially sound, but falls apart at the gentlest scrutiny. How exactly does one judge “most qualified”? Am I to list all the scientists in a given field and arrange them by number of publications, awards, or h-index, and then work my way down the list in descending order? Am I to assume that these metrics somehow exist in a social vacuum and are not themselves also influenced by the very gender biases that I am trying to resist? It would be crushingly naïve to do so.

Journalism and science both work better with the inclusion and participation of a diverse set of voices bent on the pursuit of truth.

Update: NY Times’ columnist David Leonhardt conducted his own experiment and discovered I’m Not Quoting Enough Women.

The Falcon Heavy launch, space advertising for billionaires, and the beauty of science

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 07, 2018

I’ve slept on it and my mind & soul are still reeling from the SpaceX launch of Falcon Heavy yesterday. I can’t tell you why exactly, but when the two side boosters landed safely back on Earth at nearly the same instant, as in a beautifully choreographed ballet, I nearly burst into tears. Just watching the replay gets me all verklempt:

Of course, the boosters were supposed to land at the same time. They broke away from the main stage at the same time and were controlled by identical computer systems in their descent; it’s a simple matter of high school physics to solve for the time it takes two uniform objects to travel from point A to point B. But as Richard Feynman said about the beauty of a flower, knowing the science makes moments like this more wondrous.

And then right after that, the video showed what appears to be a human driving a car in Earth orbit to the strains of David Bowie’s Life on Mars. What an incredible, ridiculous, ludicrous thing:

SpaceX Carman

There is ample prior art, but I suspect Elon Musk launching a Tesla Roadster into orbit will go down in history as the first notable advertisement in space, a marketing stunt for the ages. However, it seems problematic that billionaires can place billboards in orbit and then shoot them willy nilly into the asteroid belt without much in the way of oversight. As the Roadster recedes from Earth and our memory, will it become just another piece of trash carelessly tossed by humanity into a pristine wilderness, the first of many to come? Or as it ages, will it become an historic artifact, a orbiting testament to the achievement and naivety of early 21st century science, technology, and culture? It’s not difficult to imagine, 40 or 50 years from now, space tourists visiting the Roadster on its occasional flybys of Mars and Earth. I wonder what they’ll think of all this?

Update: The Roadster has been assigned an interplanetary ID by NASA: Tesla Roadster (AKA: Starman, 2018-017A). Using data from a Chilean telescope, astronomers have been able to figure out how fast the car is tumbling in space from the changes in brightness: 1 rotation every ~4.8 minutes (although there’s some disagreement in the comments that it might be twice that). At any rate (har har), here’s a time lapse video of the car taken with the 4.1-m SOAR telescope in Chile:

Astrophotographer Rogelio Bernal Andreo also captured the Roadster moving across the sky in this video:

A time lapse video where you can actually see the Crab Nebula expanding

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 02, 2018

The Crab Nebula is the result of a supernova that happened 6,500 light years away from Earth. From our perspective, the supernova happened almost 1000 years ago, in July, 1054. Using a home-built telescope, amateur astronomer Detlef Hartmann took a photos of the Crab Nebula over a ten-year period and assembled them into a time lapse video of the nebula’s expansion. Even after a millennia and across all that distance, the expansion of the nebula is clearly visible. And why not, those gases are moving at a clip of 1400 kilometers per second (more than 3 million miles per hour or 0.5% the speed of light).

As Phil Plait notes, we’re used to seeing things in our solar system move in the skies, but far-away bodies? That’s just weeeeeird.

Sure, the Moon moves in the sky, and the planets around the Sun, but deep sky objects — stars, nebulae, galaxies — are so distant that any physical motion at all is incredibly difficult to detect. They may as well be frozen in time. Being able to see it… that’s astonishing.

Hartmann’s is not the first Crab Nebula animation; I also found animations using images from 2002 & 2012, 1973 & 2001, 1999 & 2012, and 1950 & 2000. Someone with an interest in astronomy and photo/video editing should put all these views together into one 68-year time lapse of the nebula’s expansion.

Photos from the Curiosity rover’s 2000 days on Mars

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 01, 2018

Mars Curiosity Photos

Mars Curiosity Photos

Mars Curiosity Photos

NASA’s Curiosity rover has been on Mars for more than 2000 days now, and it has sent back over 460,000 images of the planet. Looking at them, it still boggles the mind that we can see the surface of another planet with such clarity, like we’re looking out the window at our front yard. Alan Taylor has collected a bunch of Curiosity’s photos from its mission, many of which look like holiday snapshots from the rover’s trip to the American Southwest.

A visual introduction to the Fourier Transform

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 30, 2018

The Fourier Transform is an incredibly useful mathematical function that can be used to show the different parts of a continuous signal. As you can see from the Wikipedia page, the formula and the mathematical explanation of the Fourier Transform can get quite complicated. But as with many complex mathematical subjects, the FT can also be explained visually. In the video above, 3blue1brown breaks down the Fourier Transform into a really intuitive visual system that’s surprisingly easy to follow if you’re not a science or math person. This would have been super helpful in my physics and math classes in college.

See also Better Explained’s interactive guide to the Fourier Transform, which describes the FT metaphorically like so:

What does the Fourier Transform do? Given a smoothie, it finds the recipe.
How? Run the smoothie through filters to extract each ingredient.
Why? Recipes are easier to analyze, compare, and modify than the smoothie itself.
How do we get the smoothie back? Blend the ingredients.

The guide includes interactive graphs that you can play around with. Stuff like this always gets me so fired up about math and science. Ah, the path not taken…

Art observation skills can transfer to the medical lab

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 17, 2018

In a study done by UPenn researchers, first-year medical students who were taught art observation classes at the Philadelphia Museum of Art were more proficient at reading clinical imagery than students who didn’t take the classes.

If you’re unfamiliar or uncomfortable with how art and science can mingle to produce something clinically beneficial, it’s a study premise that might seem far-fetched — but it didn’t seem that way to Gurwin, an ophthalmology resident at Penn, in part because she’d already seen the benefits of art education on a medical career firsthand.

“Having studied fine arts myself and having witnessed its impact on my medical training, I knew art observation training would be a beneficial practice in medical school,” she said. “Observing and describing are skills that are taught very well in fine arts training, and so it seemed promising to utilize their teachings and apply it to medicine.”

Gurwin and Binenbaum’s findings, published in the journal Ophthalmology in September: The medical students who’ve dabbled in art just do better.

It’s a glimpse at how non-clinical training can and does make for a better-prepared medical professional. Not only does art observation training improve med students’ abilities to recognize visual cues, it also improves their ability to describe those cues.

The results of this study reminded me of Walter Isaacson’s assertion in his book that Leonardo da Vinci’s greatest skill was his keen observational ability. Not coincidentally, Leonardo was both an artist and a medical researcher who dissected more than 30 human cadavers to study human anatomy. These dissections helped him to represent the human form more realistically in his paintings and drawings.

Leonardo Anatomy

It’s easier to draw a hand, particularly a hand that appears to be moving (as Leonardo liked to do), if you know that’s going on underneath the skin. Looking carefully and purposefully at art, at anatomy, at the physical world, at people’s actions, at movies; it’s all the same skill that can be applied to anything.

I’ve been preoccupied with observation lately…the new kottke.org newsletter is named Noticing for good reason. Again, Leonardo factors in:

Isaacson argues that Leonardo’s observational powers were not innate and that with sufficient practice, we can all observe as he did. People talk in a precious way about genius, creativity, and curiosity as superpowers that people are born with but noticing is a more humble pursuit. Noticing is something we can all do.

A wishlist of scientific breakthroughs by Robert Boyle

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 16, 2018

Robert Boyle List

17th-century scientist Robert Boyle, one of the world’s first chemists and creator of Boyle’s Law, wrote out a list of problems he hoped could be solved through science. Since the list was written more than 300 years ago, almost everything on it has been discovered, invented, or otherwise figured out in some fashion. Here are several of the items from Boyle’s list (in bold) and the corresponding scientific advances that have followed:

The Prolongation of Life. English life expectancy in the 17th century was only 35 years or so (due mainly to infant and child mortality). The world average in 2014 was 71.5 years.

The Art of Flying. The Wright Brothers conducted their first flight in 1903 and now air travel is as routine as riding in a horse-drawn carriage in Boyle’s time.

The Art of Continuing long under water, and exercising functions freely there. Scuba gear was in use by the end of the 19th century and some contemporary divers have remained underwater for more than two days.

The Cure of Diseases at a distance or at least by Transplantation. Not quite sure exactly what Boyle meant by this, but human organ transplants started happening around the turn of the 20th century. X-rays, MRI machines, and ultrasound all peer inside the body for disease from a distance. Also, doctors are now able to diagnose many conditions via video chat.

The Attaining Gigantick Dimensions. I’m assuming Boyle meant humans somehow transforming themselves into 20-foot-tall giants and not the obesity that has come with our relative affluence and availability of cheap food. Still, the average human is taller by 4 inches than 150 years ago because of improved nutrition. Factory-farmed chickens have quadrupled in size since the 1950s. And if Boyle paid a visit to the Burj Khalifa or the Mall of America, he would surely agree they are Gigantick.

The Acceleration of the Production of things out of Seed. To use just one example out of probably thousands, some varieties of tomato take just 50 days from planting to harvest. See also selective breeding, GMOs, hydroponics, greenhouses, etc. (P.S. in Boyle’s time, tomatoes were suspected to be poisonous.)

The makeing of Glass Malleable. Transparent plastics were first developed in the 19th century and perfected in the 20th century.

The making of Parabolicall and Hyperbolicall Glasses. The first high quality non-spherical lenses were made during Boyle’s lifetime, but all he’d need is a quick peek at a pair of Warby Parkers to see how much the technology has advanced since then, to say nothing of the mirrors on the Giant Magellan Telescope.

The making Armor light and extremely hard. Bulletproof armor was known in Boyle’s time, but the introduction of Kevlar vests in the 1970s made them truly light and strong.

The practicable and certain way of finding Longitudes. When pushed to its limits, GPS is accurate in determining your location on Earth to within 11 millimeters.

Potent Druggs to alter or Exalt Imagination, Waking, Memory, and other functions, and appease pain, procure innocent sleep, harmless dreams, etc. Dude, we have so many Potent Druggs now, it’s not even funny. According to a 2016 report, the global pharmaceutical market will reach $1.12 trillion.

A perpetuall Light. It’s not exactly perpetual, but the electric lightbulb was invented in the 19th century and the longest-lasting bulb has been working least 116 years.

Varnishes perfumable by Rubbing. Scratch and sniff was invented by 3M in 1965.

(via bb)

Possible roadblock to CRISPR use in humans: we might be immune to it

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 11, 2018

Researchers from Stanford have published a study showing that immunity might hinder the use of the CRISPR gene editing technique in humans. The Cas9 bacterial protein commonly used in CRISPR is found in and around human bodies, so many of those bodies have already built up an immunity to it. That means if you send Cas9 into a body to do some gene editing, that body’s immune system might attack and destroy it before it can do its work. Sarah Zhang wrote about the study for The Atlantic.

Porteus and his colleagues focused on two versions of Cas9, the bacterial protein mostly commonly used in CRISPR gene editing. One comes from Staphylococcus aureus, which often harmlessly lives on skin but can sometimes causes staph infections, and another from Streptococcus pyogenes, which causes strep throat but can also become “flesh-eating bacteria” when it spreads to other parts of the body. So yeah, you want your immune system to be on guard against these bacteria.

It sounds like this was something geneticists were well aware of but wasn’t common knowledge among non-technical CRISPR enthusiasts. As Chang notes, scientists are already employing strategies to route around the potential immunity roadblock:

Modify Cas9 or use a different CRISPR protein altogether: It may be possible to redesign Cas9 to hide it from the immune system or to find other bacterial proteins that can do the job of Cas9 without provoking the immune response. Many different bacteria have CRISPR systems. “We already have lots of Cas enzymes and could get many more,” George Church, a geneticist at Harvard and a founding scientific advisor of Editas, wrote in an email.

DNA evidence is changing the understanding of how the Americas were settled

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 08, 2018

DNA analysis of remains found at archaeological sites is changing the story of how humans populated the Americas. Analysis of a pair of infants found in Alaska suggests that only one wave of humans settled the Americas around 20,900 years ago.

Genetic evidence published today in Nature is the first to show that all Native Americans can trace their ancestry back to a single migration event that happened at the tail-end of the last Ice Age. The evidence — gleaned from the full genomic profile of the six-week-old girl and the partial genomic remains of another infant — suggests the continent’s first settlers arrived in a single migratory wave around 20,900 years ago. But this population then split into two groups — one group that would go on to become the ancestors of all Native North Americans, and another that would venture no further than Alaska — a previously unknown population of ancient North Americans now dubbed the “Ancient Beringians.”

(via clive thompson)

The 2017 Hubble Space Telescope Advent Calendar

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 11, 2017

Hubble Advent 2017

From Alan Taylor at In Focus, the 10th anniversary installment of the Hubble Space Telescope Advent Calendar. One image taken by the Hubble for each day in December leading up to Dec 25th. Here’s Taylor’s caption for the image above:

A Caterpillar in the Carina Nebula. Scattered across the enormous Carina nebula are numerous dense clumps of cosmic gas and dust called Bok globules, including this one, which resembles a huge glowing caterpillar. First described by by astronomer Bart Bok, the globules are relatively small, dark, and cold regions made up of molecular hydrogen, carbon oxides, helium, and dust. The glowing edge of the caterpillar indicates that it is being photoionized by the hottest stars in the surrounding cluster. It has been hypothesized that stars may form inside these dusty cocoons.

NASA is reinventing the wheel

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 06, 2017

Imagine you’re sending a rover to Mars. The rover’s tires need to be light, durable, and also flexible enough to tackle a variety of terrain. NASA has spent decades trying to craft the perfect rover wheels, but something always comes up short in the pick-two situation…typically durability. Now researchers at the NASA Glenn Research Center have come up with a promising new rover wheel for the next generation of rovers.

The wheels are made from nickel titanium, a shape memory alloy that allows the tires to bounce back into their former shape even when they’re severely deformed.

The story of how the team stumbled upon this solution is a classic case of how important cross-disciplinary knowledge is for creation and invention. All it takes is one person in a different area of expertise to solve a seemingly intractable problem:

Inequality and America’s Lost Einsteins

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 04, 2017

In response to some poorly conducted and racist research attempting to correlate the size of people’s brains to their intelligence, science historian and paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote in his 1980 book, The Panda’s Thumb:

I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.

Gould’s assertion is echoed by this piece in the NY Times, in which David Leonhardt reports on the research of Stanford’s Raj Chetty. Chetty’s findings (unsurprisingly) show that financial inequality and differences in race & sex have a large effect on which Americans end up inventing things. Leonhardt calls this “a betrayal of American ideals”.

Not surprisingly, children who excelled in math were far more likely to become inventors. But being a math standout wasn’t enough. Only the top students who also came from high-income families had a decent chance to become an inventor.

This fact may be the starkest: Low-income students who are among the very best math students — those who score in the top 5 percent of all third graders — are no more likely to become inventors than below-average math students from affluent families.

In the article, AOL founder Steve Case says: “Creativity is broadly distributed. Opportunity is not.” The problem is even more severe when you consider differences in sex and race:

I encourage you to take a moment to absorb the size of these gaps. Women, African-Americans, Latinos, Southerners, and low- and middle-income children are far less likely to grow up to become patent holders and inventors. Our society appears to be missing out on most potential inventors from these groups. And these groups together make up most of the American population.

Because of survivorship bias, it’s tough to focus on the potential inventors, the lost Einsteins:

The key phrase in the research paper is “lost Einsteins.” It’s a reference to people who could “have had highly impactful innovations” if they had been able to pursue the opportunities they deserved, the authors write. Nobody knows precisely who the lost Einsteins are, of course, but there is little doubt that they exist.

Voyager 1 just fired its trajectory thrusters for the first time since 1980

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 04, 2017

Nasa Voyager

The last time that the four trajectory thrusters on the Voyager 1 probe were fired, Jimmy Carter was still President of the United States. But with the main attitude control thrusters deteriorating from trying to keep the probe oriented correctly, the team thought they could keep the mission going using the trajectory thrusters. So they fired them up.

On Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017, Voyager engineers fired up the four TCM thrusters for the first time in 37 years and tested their ability to orient the spacecraft using 10-millisecond pulses. The team waited eagerly as the test results traveled through space, taking 19 hours and 35 minutes to reach an antenna in Goldstone, California, that is part of NASA’s Deep Space Network.

Lo and behold, on Wednesday, Nov. 29, they learned the TCM thrusters worked perfectly — and just as well as the attitude control thrusters.

Voyager 1 was launched in 1977, is currently more than 13 billion miles from Earth, and is still functional and doing science. Incredible.

Graphene-drinking spiders spin webbing as strong as Kevlar

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 27, 2017

A team of scientists in Italy fed some spiders a solution of graphene and carbon nanotubes, which the spiders duly incorporated into their webs. The result is webbing that’s five times stronger than regular webbing, on par with the strength of bulletproof Kevlar. And why stop with spiders:

If you think that creating super-spiders might be going to far, this research is only the beginning. Pugno and her team are preparing to see what other animals and plants might be enhanced if they are fed graphene. Might it get incorporated into animals’ skin, exoskeletons, or bones?

“This process of the natural integration of reinforcements in biological structural materials could also be applied to other animals and plants, leading to a new class of ‘bionicomposites’ for innovative applications,” Pugno added.

The future is gonna be weird, y’all!

The first asteroid from outside our solar system pays us a visit

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 21, 2017

Asteroid Oumuamua

Back in October, the solar system welcomed a visitor from interstellar space…the first interstellar asteroid ever detected.

Astronomers have confirmed that an object that recently passed by our planet is from outside our Solar System — the first interstellar asteroid that’s ever been observed. And it doesn’t look like any object we’ve ever seen in our cosmic neighborhood before.

Follow-up observations, detailed today in Nature, have found that the asteroid is dark and reddish, similar to the objects in the outer Solar System. It doesn’t have any gas or dust surrounding it, like comets do, and it’s stretched long and skinny, looking a bit like an oddly shaped pen. It’s thought to be about a quarter-mile long, and about 10 times longer than it is wide. That makes it unlike any asteroids seen in our Solar System, none of which are so elongated.

Here’s a video of the asteroid’s path through the solar system:

Um, folks…that looks like a rocket. How do we know this “asteroid” isn’t actually an ancient alien ship that’s become encrusted with rock over millions of years? Or an ancient weapon gone awry? We’ve all seen the first Star Trek movie, right? (I am only a little bit kidding about this.)

Update: Scientists — or at least one scientist who has a billionaire’s ear — think that’s there’s something a little odd about Oumuamua, so they’re going to check it for radio signals. Spoiler: they’re not going to find any, but wouldn’t it be fun if they did!?

Update: They listened and did not find any radio signals coming from Oumuamua.

Physics lessons using simple homemade marble tracks

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 15, 2017

Bruce Yeany teaches physical science to 8th graders in Annville, PA and he is very enthusiastic about it. On his popular Homemade Science YouTube channel, Yeany highlights all sorts of physics experiments and demonstrations without using any special equipment. In one of his latest videos, he shares a bunch of marble tracks that he’s built to demonstrate motion and momentum.

The “identical track race” starting at 1:43 might blow your noodle a little bit unless you’re familiar with Galileo’s pendulum research. (via digg)

Envisioning Chemistry, beautifully stunning videos of chemical reactions and processes

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 14, 2017

As a follow-up to Beautiful Chemistry, the Beauty of Science and the Chinese Chemical Society have teamed up to showcase the natural beauty of chemical reactions in Envisioning Chemistry.

To achieve this goal, we took two approaches. The first was the artistic approach, in which we used chemical reactions as an essential element in the film media, together with music and editing, to explore the new possibility of film-making. The second was the technical approach, in which we took advantages of the state-of-the-art photography equipment, including high-resolution microscopes, infrared thermal imaging cameras, high-speed cameras, and 4K Ultra HD cameras, to reveal beauty of chemical reactions like never before.

You’ll notice while watching some of these videos how alive these reactions look and how common the growing/branching structures of crystals & skeletons & trees & circulatory systems are in nature, on all scales.

How to make an Extremely Large Telescope

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 09, 2017

The Giant Magellan Telescope, currently under construction at the University of Arizona’s Mirror Lab, will be one of the first of a new class of telescopes called Extremely Large Telescopes. The process involved in fashioning the telescope’s seven massive mirrors is fascinating. This is one of those articles littered with mind-boggling statements at every turn. Such as:

“We want the telescope to be limited by fundamental physics — the wavelength of light and the diameter of the mirror — not the irregularities on the mirror’s surface,” says optical scientist Buddy Martin, who oversees the lab’s grinding and polishing operations. By “irregularities,” he’s talking about defects bigger than 20 nanometers — about the size of a small virus. But when the mirror comes out of the mold, its imperfections can measure a millimeter or more.

Precision of 20 nanometers on something more than 27 feet in diameter and weighing 17 tons? That’s almost unbelievable. In this video, Dr. Wendy Freedman, former chair of the board of directors for the GMT project, puts it this way:

The surface of this mirror is so smooth that if we took this 27-foot mirror and then spread it out, from coast-to-coast in the United States, east to west coast, the height of the tallest mountain on that mirror would be about 1/2 an inch. That’s how smooth this mirror is.

You need that level of smoothness if you’re going to achieve better vision than the Hubble:

With a resolving power 10 times that of the Hubble Space Telescope, the GMT is designed to capture and focus photons emanating from galaxies and black holes at the fringes of the universe, study the formation of stars and the worlds that orbit them, and search for traces of life in the atmospheres of habitable-zone planets.

The telescope has a price tag of $1 billion and should be operational within the the next five years in Chile.

Cancer survival rates have increased dramatically over the past 35 years

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 08, 2017

Cancer Survival Rates

According to a study published in March 2017 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, cancer death rates continue to fall across most cancer types. From 2010 to 2014 (the most recent year that statistical data is available), overall death rates decreased by 1.8%.

Overall cancer death rates from 2010 to 2014 decreased by 1.8% (95% confidence interval [CI] = -1.8% to -1.8%) per year in men, by 1.4% (95% CI = -1.4% to -1.3%) per year in women, and by 1.6% (95% CI = -2.0% to -1.3%) per year in children. Death rates decreased for 11 of the 16 most common cancer types in men and for 13 of the 18 most common cancer types in women, including lung, colorectal, female breast, and prostate, whereas death rates increased for liver (men and women), pancreas (men), brain (men), and uterine cancers.

But the trends are much clearer when you look at progress over a longer time period. As this graph from Axios shows, the five-year survival rates for most common types of cancer have increased quite significantly in the past 30-40 years. Survival rates from all cancers increased by 16% and jumped 26% and almost 29% for non-Hodkin lymphoma and leukemia respectively. If you have prostate or thyroid cancer, you’re almost guaranteed to survive 5 years at this point and the female breast cancer survival rate is up to almost 91%. (via @Atul_Gawande)

Gorgeous computer-generated animation of a nebula

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 07, 2017

Designed by Teun van der Zalm, Nebulae is a computer generated nebula set to atmospheric music by Lee Rosevere. Worth seeking out a large screen for viewing. Several of van der Zalm’s other videos are equally beautiful variations on the same theme.

Alongside mass extinction, humans are also the cause of “a great flourishing of life”

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 07, 2017

In her book The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert warns that we are in the midst of the Earth’s sixth mass extinction of life, this time caused by humans.

Over the last half a billion years, there have been five mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. This time around, the cataclysm is us.

This is a mainstream view of humanity’s effect on the Earth flora and fauna…for evidence, you don’t need to look any further than all of the large mammal species that have gone extinct or are endangered because of human activity.

A more controversial take is offered by Chris Thomas in his recent book, Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction. Thomas allows that there’s a “mini mass extinction” happening, but he also argues that the extreme evolutionary pressure brought by our increasing dominance of our planet’s ecosystems will result in a “sixth mass genesis”, a dramatic increase in the Earth’s biodiversity.

Human cities and mass agriculture have created new places for enterprising animals and plants to live, and our activities have stimulated evolutionary change in virtually every population of living species. Most remarkably, Thomas shows, humans may well have raised the rate at which new species are formed to the highest level in the history of our planet.

Drawing on the success stories of diverse species, from the ochre-colored comma butterfly to the New Zealand pukeko, Thomas overturns the accepted story of declining biodiversity on Earth. In so doing, he questions why we resist new forms of life, and why we see ourselves as unnatural. Ultimately, he suggests that if life on Earth can recover from the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs, it can survive the onslaughts of the technological age.

Vox’s Ferris Jabr recently interviewed Thomas about his views. When asked about the “sixth mass genesis”, Thomas answered:

The history of life on Earth is a history of extinctions and ecological failures, but it is also a story of formation of new forms and spread of those new forms around the world. The net result has been a gain in diversity. In the human era we are seeing great losses, but we are also seeing all these biological gains of new animals and plants spreading around the world, new hybrids coming into existence. I am not saying there is yet a balance between the two. I accept the losses, but it is also scientifically, and in terms of our human attitudes to nature, extremely interesting to contemplate the gains simultaneously.

If the processes that are going on at the moment continue for a very long time, it is my expectation that the number of species on Earth will grow enormously. We are moving species of existing animals and plants back and forth across the world, so that they are all arriving in new geographic regions. We know when species have done this in the ancient past, they have turned into new species in those different regions. If you fast-forward a million years or a few million years, all of these introduced species that leave surviving descendants will have turned into new species. And that is going to generate many more species. We have effectively created a massive species generator.

That certainly does put an interesting spin on extinction and invasive species.

The 100-megapixel Moon

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 06, 2017

100 Megapixel Moon

Seán Doran used images from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to create this 100-megapixel image of the Moon (full 10000x10000 pixel image here). Phil Plait explains how Doran made the image:

LRO WAC images have a resolution of about 100 meters per pixel over a swath of about 60 km of lunar surface (using what’s called the pushbroom technique, similar to how a flatbed scanner works). They are usually taken straight down, toward the spacecraft nadir (the opposite of the zenith). To get the correct perspective for the Moon as a globe, Doran took the images, along with altimeter data, and mapped them onto a sphere. That way features near the edge look foreshortened, as they really do when you look at the entire Moon. He also used Apollo images to make sure things lined up. So the image isn’t exactly scientifically rigorous, but it is certainly spectacular.

The image is also available at Gigapan for easier exploration.

The Universe is much bigger than it is old

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 20, 2017

In a Twitter thread, author Oliver Morton compares the physical scale of the Universe with its age (from the perspective of humans).

If a human life is 70 years long, there has been room for 200 million lives since the big bang, but 200 million humans, end to end, would reach just a bit further than the moon. If you had started walking towards the centre of the galaxy on the day of the big bang (had there been days, you, paths & galaxies), you would have got about 20 parsecs by now: just 0.25% of the way.

Maybe walking pace is the wrong metric. A nerve impulse travels around 70 times faster than a person walks. But even at the speed of thought, the age of the universe is too small for something to have reached the centre of the galaxy.

The situation is even worse when you choose another reference object, like UY Scuti, the largest known star. The red hypergiant is nearly 1.5 billion miles across and, because of its size and position near the center of the galaxy, is probably around 13 billion years old, just a few hundred million years younger than the age of the Universe itself.

Even if you use light as a marker, the size of Universe remains unfathomably immense. Over the course of the Universe’s lifetime, a photon could have travelled 13.8 billion light-years, just 15% of the current estimate of the Universe’s diameter of 93 billion light-years. See also what are the physical limits of humanity?

A scientific simulation of Seveneves’ Moon disaster

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 06, 2017

In the first line of Seveneves, Neal Stephenson lays out the event that the entire book’s action revolves around:

The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.

Mild spoilers, but fairly quickly, scientists in the book figure out that this is a very bad thing that will cause humanity to become extinct unless drastic action is taken.

In the novel, one day the moon breaks up into 7 roughly equal-sized pieces. These pieces continue peacefully orbiting the Earth for a while, and eventually two pieces collide. This collision causes a piece to fragment, making future collisions more likely. The process repeats, at what Stephenson says is an exponential rate, until the Earth is under near-constant bombardment from meteorites, wiping out (nearly) all life on Earth.

Jason Cole wondered how plausible that scenario is and created a simulation to model it. Turns out Stephenson had his figures right.

The Astronomy Photographer of the Year for 2017

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 04, 2017

Astronomy Photo 2017

Astronomy Photo 2017

Astronomy Photo 2017

Put on by the Royal Observatory Greenwich, The Astronomy Photographer of the Year is the largest competition of its kind in the world. For the 2017 awards, more than 3800 photos were entered from 91 countries. It’s astounding to me that many of these were taken with telescopes you can easily buy online (granted, for thousands of dollars) rather than with the Hubble or some building-sized scope on the top of a mountain in Chile.

The photos above were taken by Andriy Borovkov, Alexandra Hart, and Kamil Nureev.

Researchers may have found a CTE test for living patients

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 28, 2017

Currently, the only way to diagnose chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a disease caused by repeated head trauma, is by posthumously examining brain tissue for signs of tau protein buildup. But a group from Boston University may have found a way to test for CTE in living patients.

McKee and her team discovered a specific biomarker in the brains of former football players. A biomarker is a measurable substance which is, in this case, found in the brain and identifies an abnormality.

This particular biomarker is called CCL11, and it’s a secreted protein the human body uses to help regulate the immune system and inflammation in the body.

As The Ringer’s Claire McNear writes, if a CTE test is easily available to players, what will that do to football? (Or indeed, what will it do to sports like soccer, boxing, skateboarding, or even skiing?)

“After learning all of this,” the retiring Ferguson wrote of the clarity he gained when he began researching CTE, “I feel a bit betrayed by the people or committees put in place by the league who did not have my best interests at heart.” He should feel betrayed, as should many of his fellow players. As will, certainly, so very many, once they have the ability to see what has happened to them. They may wonder, rightfully, about the people who trained them and paid them, sometimes even as they attempted to shut down research into CTE. They may look at the league’s structure, at the lopsided contracts that rob many players of their leverage, forcing them to choose between getting back on the field or losing a paycheck (and possibly getting cut), and at how the league cycles through players like they’re nothing more than easily broken pieces on a board.