Thursday, December 8, 2011

A Habitable Exo-Earth?

The search for terrestrial, Earth-like planets has really been heating up over the last decade or so, since we've been able to find planets orbiting other stars. So far we have identified three types of exoplanets: gas giants, hot-super-Earths in close orbits, and ice giants. The discovery of smaller, terrestrial planets has been a challenge. NASA has been using it's Kepler mission to discover planets and planet candidates. This mission is "specifically designed to survey a portion of our region of the Milky Way galaxy to discover dozens of Earth-size planets in or near the habitable zone and determine how many of the billions of stars in our galaxy have such planets." The "habitable zone," or "Goldilocks zone," is the not-too-hot, not-too-cold region around a star where water is able to stay in a liquid form (see above picture). Kepler identifies these planets using the transit method, measuring dips in the brightness of stars when a planet crosses in front of them (see the post Exoplanet Extravaganza for more on the methods of planet finding).

There has been a lot of buzz this week about NASA's report that the Kepler mission has found it's first planet in the habitable zone. The newly confirmed planet is called Kepler-22b and it orbits in the habitable zone of a star that is similar to our sun, a G-type star. Kepler-22b is 600 light years away from us, has an orbit of 290 days around it's star, and measures about 2.4 times the radius of Earth. This makes it the smallest planet yet found in the habitable zone of such a star. Previous research has suggested that such a planet is out there, but we had yet to find and confirm that one actually exists. We have found planets that orbit on the edges of the habitable zones, similar to Venus and Mars, around smaller, cooler stars. But Kepler-22b orbits right smack in the middle of it's star's habitable zone.

What's the climate like on Kepler-22b?  It hasn't been determined if the planet has a predominately rocky, gaseous or liquid composition. The planet's temperature is probably around 72 degrees Fahrenheit, but it is unknown if the planet has an atmosphere and what it is composed of. To say whether or not it is truly Earth-like this is information we need to know. At the moment, speculations are running a bit wild, from it might not even have a surface to ideas about how civilizations have evolved there. I suppose that type of thing goes along with the discovery of the first anything.

The Kepler Mission has also discovered 1,094 other new planet candidates, bringing Kepler's total planet number up to 2,326. Of these, there are 207 that are approxiamtely Earth-size, 680 that are super Earth-size, 1,181 that are Neptune-size, 203 that are Jupiter-size, and 55 that are larger than Jupiter. These planets are just waiting for follow-up observations to verify that they are actual planets. Kepler-22b is the first to receive this confirmation. In addition to Kepler-22b, there are 48 other planet candidates in their star's habitable zone. It should be exciting to find out more details about these planets too!

I don't have a paper to cite for you on this one, but one is expected to be published soon in The Astrophysical Journal. Results will also be presented at the first Kepler Science Conference this week at NASA's Ames Research Center.

Until then here are some sources to get you started...
Find out more about the NASA's Kepler Mission.
Read NASA's News Release on Kepler-22b: "NASA's Kepler Confirms Its First Planet in Habitable Zone"
McDonald Observatory Release: "NASA Mission, Texas Astronomers Collaborate to find Goldilocks Planet, Others"
Washington Post: "NASA finds new planet Kepler 22b outside solar system with temperature right for life"
ABC News: "New Planet: An Earth-Like World, 600 Light-Years Away?"
The Telegraph: "Kepler 22b: probably not home to interesting aliens"

(image c/o NASA)

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Canvas Bags

Tim Minchin is one of my favorite comedians. This video is the unedited version of his Environmental Anthem film clip recorded for BBC3's Comedy Shuffle.

Don't forget to take your canvas bags to the grocery store, y'all.

Science Podcast Roundup: Part 2

Welcome to Part 2 of the Science Podcast Roundup. As with Science Podcast Roundup: Part 1 I'm only going to include podcasts that I have listened to so as to give a more honest opinion. I'm finishing up the list in this post so if you don't see your favorite podcast then please leave a comment with your suggestion. All of these podcasts can be found in the iTunes directory or through RSS feeds on the websites I’ve provided.


This podcast is from WNYC, a New York public radio station, and NPR. It is hosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich. The show is weekly and has full episodes that last over an hour as well as shorts that are about 20 minutes long. The podcast presents topics at the intersection of science, philosophy, and the human experience. They take on big questions and are often very story based. These stories are typically told through interviews. I find that the show explores interesting topics on a more personal level, and the hosts’ voices have almost a soothing quality that makes them very easy to listen to.

Science Times

This is another podcast from the reporters and editors of The New York Times. It is a 30 minute long podcast, hosted by David Corcoran, that discusses news in science, medicine, and the environment. So why not just read the NYT Science Section? This podcast reports those stories in much more detail, often going to location and interviewing doctors and scientists.

Science Weekly

This podcast is presented by The Guardian and is hosted by Alok Jha along with some of The Guardian’s science reporters. In general, it covers “the best analysis and interviews from the worlds of science and technology.” These weekly episodes run anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour. The episodes tend to be topic driven and include interviews by experts in the field. Overall, it is an easy to listen to, informative podcast.

Science…sort of

This podcast reminds me quite a bit of This Week in Science (described below). If you are a TWiS minion then you will probably like this show. The podcast is hosted by The Paleopals (Patrick, Ryan, Charlie, Ben, Jacob, Kelly, and Justin) and is “about things that are science, things that are sort of science, and things that wish they were science.” The weekly podcast runs about an hour and a half and covers more topics and stories than your average topic-based podcasts. The format is kind of just scientist friends talking about science stories they find interesting. It has a very informal sound to it, but that leads to some entertaining conversation and joking around. The informal format is not for everyone and to really like this style you may have to listen to a few episodes and get to know the personalities of the hosts. Once you do that you may find that you agree with certain people more than others and look forward to what they say in the next episode.

The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe

This podcast is produced by the New England Skeptical Society and is “dedicated to promoting critical thinking, reason, and the public understanding of science through online and other media.” It is currently hosted by Robert Novella (a neurologist), Rebecca Watson (the founder of Skepchick, Evan Bernstein (blogger and professional skeptic), and Jay Novella (skeptical activist, blogger, and producer). The show discusses the latest news from the world of the paranormal, fringe science, and controversial claims. It is all discussed from a scientific point of view – and that is the important part for me. The weekly show has a run time of just over an hour, the format is informal, and the material informative and entertaining. I really like their scientific point of view for topics that can get very unscientific very quickly.

Star Talk

So I may have a small academic-crush on Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist and a scientist involved in educating the public. This (mostly) weekly podcast runs about 45 minutes, is hosted by Neil, and presented by Discover magazine. It strives to bridge “the intersection between pop culture and pop science, covering subjects like space travel, extraterrestrial life, the Big Bang, the future of Earth and the environment, and other breaking news from around the universe.” Neil is often joined by comedian co-hosts, celebrities, and other special guests. I’ve always thought Neil to be well spoken and funny and this obviously lends well to radio. Each episode tends to be topic or interview based. The show is well suited for the average listener, and even for younger audiences. I find the podcast to be funny and informative. Try it and I’m sure you’ll love it too.
Website: http://

The Story Collider

This podcast is all about personal stories. They are live shows that are recorded and posted as podcasts for us to listen to. The episodes are posted weekly and range from 10 to 20 minutes in length. Essentially they are one person telling one story about how science, any part of it, has affected them. These people come from all walks of life, they are scientists, comedians, librarians, artists…whoever. Their stories range from important scientific discoveries to the very personal process of going through fertility treatments. They often contain really funny moments of humor as well as really personal life struggles. If you like to hear stories then this is the podcast for you.

This Week in Microbiology (TWiM)

This is a new podcast funded by the American Society for Microbiology. It is hosted by Vincent Racaniello (a virologist at Columbia University), Cliff Mintz (biopharmaceutical educator, microbiologist, and blogger), Michael Schmidt (professor and researcher in microbiology and immunology at MUSC), Stanley Maloy (bacteriologist and professor at San Diego State University), and other experts in the field. This biweekly podcast runs from an hour to an hour and a half in length and discusses the “unseen life on Earth.” They “strive to produce an informal yet informative conversation about microbes which is accessible to everyone, no matter what their science background.” I find that statement to be true, for the most part. I think that the average person can keep up with them but that it defiantly helps to have at least a little knowledge of the subject. The hosts definitely know their stuff, effectively and thoroughly exploring a recently published article or news story, often referencing related primary literature. I find the podcast to be very well put together and easy to listen to. I subscribe to it because it keeps me up-to-date on a topic that I don’t read a lot of literature on. This podcast follows in the path of the successful This Week in Virology (TWiV) and This Week in Parasitism (TWiP). I have not given these shows a try, but if you like TWiM it is likely you will enjoy these other two shows as well.
Websites: and

This Week in Science (TWiS)

This is actually the first science podcast I ever listened to. It is a weekly science radio talk show broadcasted by KDVS 90.3FM on the University of California Davis campus. The weekly, hour long show is hosted by Dr. Kirsten Sanford and Justin Jackson. They review articles and news stories in a wide range of topics and they will often have a long interview with a guest. This is one of the more entertaining podcasts as the hosts often take a “humorous and irreverent look at the week in science and tech.” Some of their more famous segments include This Week in World Robot Domination and the TWiS Bookclub. And, more recently, they have started broadcasting a live video stream of their show through the KDVS website.

NPR: Science Friday

SciFri is a weekly (yes, on Friday), two hour, call-in talk show hosted by Ira Flatow. It is part of NPR’s Talk of the Nation and is one of the most popular iTunes downloads, it even has iPhone and Android Apps. They “focus on science topics that are in the news and try to bring an educated, balanced discussion to bear on the scientific issues at hand.” The show frequently includes panels of expert guests, takes questions from listeners, and has in-depth interviews with scientists. This is one of the premiere science shows and one I highly recommend.

Science on Saturday

This show can be found in the iTunesU section of the Apple Store. It is an approximately hour long video podcast from the University of California Television Network (UCTV) and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s Education Program. It consists of a series of lectures for middle and high school students. They focus on cutting-edge science topics and explore them in fun and interesting ways. Although this is geared towards pre- through late teens, the average listener will probably also enjoy them.

The Science Show

This is one of the longest running shows on Australian radio. It is a weekly, hour long show hosted by Robyn Williams and broadcast by ABC Radio National. It features current scientific issues, debates, events, and personalities. It also has segments recorded on location, interviews with scientists, and special feature stories and series. I find Robyn to be an exceptional host, often going to locations and hosting full interviews himself. If you like Science Friday and the Nature podcast then I highly recommend trying this one out.

Weird Things

This podcast is a production of the blog of the same name. It is an almost weekly show that runs about an hour and a half and is hosted by Andrew Mayne, Justin Robert Young, and Brian Brushwood. It is geared towards “people who love both science and are fascinated by the impossible and fantastic” and “who believe a mystery is interesting no matter the outcome.” They attempt to answer questions like: How can you prepare for a zombie apocalypse? and How would you fight a Yeti in hand to hand combat? The hosts will present a story and then spend the rest of the time both talking directly about that story and going off on wild tangents. I find this podcast’s informal format and unique topics to be very entertaining and strangely informative, all at the same time. I definitely wouldn’t call it hard science, and it is skimming the surface of science news reporting at all, but it is funny. Consider becoming a Weirdling!

And last, but not least, I’m going to throw out a general approval-blanket over iTunesU. Several universities are now posting large amounts of information on the service. You can find individual podcast-type shows, made-for-audio specials, and even listen to class lectures. All for free! Want to know about a topic you never got around to taking in school? No problem. You’ll find several versions of the class here, you just need to decide on the school and professor. A note here though: Audio quality varies, especially for class lectures, so take a quick listen before downloading an entire class. If you can’t listen to a few minutes then there is no way you’ll get through an entire semester. But because there are so many choices, if you don’t like one then there is sure to be another out there.

Hope you enjoyed this tour through the world of science podcasts. I've gotten many friends, family, and collegues hooked on them in the past and I hope to do the same for you. As with all things, have fun!

Science Podcast Roundup: Part 1

To say I listen to a lot of podcasts would be an understatement. I constantly have headphones in my ears, much to the delight of friends and family who like to see if they can catch me unawares and scare the bajeezus out of me. There are so many podcasts out there, and the fact that they are free is just icing on the cake. I find that they are a great way to keep up on news, national, international, and science news in particular. But the multitude can often make it difficult to choose which ones to subscribe to. So I thought I would put together a list of science podcasts to help you decide. I’m limiting my list to those I’ve actually listened to so I can give a more honest opinion. If you have a podcast that you love, and that I haven’t listed here, then please leave comment.
I started off this post thinking that it would be quick and easy. Yeah, not so much. I started writing, and writing, and writing. I soon came to realize that (1) I probably listen to way too many podcasts, and (2) just one post wasn’t gonna cut it. And so this is part one of the Science Podcast Roundup.

All of these podcasts can be found in the iTunes directory or through RSS feeds on the websites I’ve provided.

60 Second Science

This is a podcast from Scientific American with the tagline “It’ll just take a minute.” The brief show is presented by science journalists who describe an interesting science story in, you guessed it, 60 seconds. The purpose of such a short podcast is simply to give you, the public, an easily consumable, bite-size piece of news or commentary. Personally, I find the stories interesting and well presented, but the one minute format can be annoying on a mechanical level. If listening on iTunes or my iPod I find that when one episode ends I must go to the window or device and scroll to the next one, interrupting whatever other task I’m doing every minute or so.
The accompanying blog called “Observations”

Ask a Biologist

This show can be found in the iTunesU section and comes from the Arizona State University School of Life Sciences. The approximately 30 minute show is hosted by Dr. Biology (a.k.a. CJ Kazilek). The show is geared towards students prekindergarten through grade 12, and it is intended as a resource for teachers and parents. Questions appropriate to this age class can be submitted to be answered by Dr. Biology, and the host often has interviews with scientists. If you have an inquisitive child then this is the perfect podcast for you!

Astronomy Cast

This podcast is a “fact-based journey through the cosmos.” It is a weekly (for the most part) discussion on all sorts of astronomical topics ranging from planets, to physics, to space missions, and more. It is hosted by Fraser Cain, publisher of Universe Today, and Dr. Pamela Gay, a professor at Southern Illinois University Edwarsville. Fraser takes a host role while also asking the questions that you yourself would ask of a particular topic. Pamela does a great job explaining a topic in detail, often using examples that make the topic understandable and that easily translate through audio. You don’t have to be an astronomer to understand what they are talking about, this podcast is for anyone. I like the 30 minute time format, you wouldn’t think it but it is actually a good amount of time for grasping a topic. Also, the podcast has been running since September 10, 2006, and as it is topic based and not current event based, it is easy to go back and listen to past episodes without feeling like you will miss something or get behind on a discussion. Personally, I love their tour through the solar system where they devote an episode to each of the planets and major components of our solar system.

Big Picture Science

This podcast is presented by the SETI Institute’s radio studio in Mountain View, California. It is a weekly, one hour show that is broadcast on several radio stations in the U.S. (and one in Italy) as well as being rebroadcast on many Internet radio stations, in addition to its podcast format. The show “connects ideas about the origins, the behavior, and the future of life – and technology – on Earth in surprising and playful ways.” And once a month they have a “Skeptic Check” episode where they “separate science from pseudoscience – and facts from the phony.” I find that this podcast covers some really interesting topics and has great interviews. Sometimes the hosts can sound a little staged and robotic and the sound pieced together, especially for interviews, but it is overall it is easy to listen to and very informative.


This podcast is brought to you by NPR and has several hosts that range in expertise from birders to broadcasters. This daily podcast consists of short two minute or so episodes about “the intriguing ways of birds.” They are usually topical, focusing on a particular habitat, behavior, or species and incorporate some wonderfully rich bird sounds. This podcast suffers from the same short formatting issues as 60 Second Science, if your device doesn’t auto-advance then you are constantly scrolling to the next episode. On the other hand, each episode has that smooth, professional quality that is so talk radio. I would say that this show is more for the average listener and/or backyard birder. Hardcore birders might be better entertained and informed elsewhere.

Bits: Tech Talk

I don’t listen to all that many technology related podcasts, but I do really like this one. It is from The New York Times. It is a 30 minute long, weekly podcast hosted by J.D. Biersdorfer and Pedro Rafael Rosado. It discusses tech news, trends and innovations. They have really great hands-on computing tips – I particularly like their Tip of the Week. They include product reviews and have interviews with inventors, manufacturers, and software experts. Their website also links to all of the stories they talk about each week.

Brain Science Podcast

This podcast is hosted by Dr. Ginger Campbell, an emergency physician with an interest in mind-body medicine, the brain, and consciousness. Episodes are approximately monthly and range in time from 20 minutes to just over an hour. The podcast features discussions on the latest books about neuroscience as well as interviews with leading scientists in the field. I find that when Dr. Campbell just reviews a book that it comes off much like she is reading a well researched book report. However, when she interviews someone the show flows more naturally, perhaps because she is engaging with another scientist. Also, the podcast can get rather technical and so I would recommend it to those in the science and medical fields rather than just the average listener.

Brain Stuff

This podcast is from the folks over at How Stuff and is hosted by Marshall Brain. Episodes are released every other day and are about 3 minutes in length. Originally I read the title thinking it may be a neurology podcast. Not so. This podcast answers a single user-submitted question per show. The host is engaging but the audio is not all that great, making him sound like he’s sitting in a big hollow room with an itty bitty microphone. The subject matter, while interesting at times, tends to be a little young. If you have kids then they might find it fun and neat to find out what makes glass transparent or how blimps work.


This podcast is produced by Cell Press, the publisher who puts out peer reviewed journals such as Cell, Current Biology, Neuron, Trends in Ecology and Evolution (TREE), and many others. It is hosted by the editors of this group and features interviews with the scientists that have published papers in this journal group. The monthly podcast runs 20 to 30 minutes long. It is easy to listen to and features some really interesting and groundbreaking science. However, I would recommend it for scientists and other academics as it can get rather technical. If you are unfamiliar with the terminology in the fields of cell biology, chemistry, genetics, immunology, and evolution then you can get lost very quickly. I find that it is a good way to keep up with a topic that I am familiar with but that I don’t really read the literature on with any regularity.
Website: http://


This podcast is from the folks over at the BBC. Episodes run about 20 minutes and come out each week. Their objective is to take an “in-depth look at the most significant ideas, discoveries and trends in science, from the smallest microbe to the furthest corner of space.” I like this podcast quite a bit. It presents news with a global perspective, something I appreciate since news in the U.S., even science news, tends to be U.S.-centric. They cover a wide range of topics, and they even report on location. A show tends to be topic driven, only covering one topic per week, so if you are looking for broader science news coverage then you may want to listen to a different podcast.

The Naked Scientists

No they are not actually naked (I think…and hope), but rather these podcasters strip down science to its bare essentials so that it is easily understood by the public. This podcast is a weekly science radio talk show broadcast by the BBC, and it runs about an hour long. It is hosted out of Cambridge University by its creator Dr. Chris Smith along with Dave Ansell, Kat Arney, Sara Castor-Perry, Ben Valsler, Carolin Crawford, Dominic Ford, and more. Their fields of expertise vary from medicine to physics to marine biology, which means that the science news stories they present are both varied and interesting. To go along with these stories they have sections on kitchen science (small, safe experiments you can do at home), interviews, and question shows. Note: If you are using iTunes, all of the regular and specialty shows from The Naked Scientists come in both podcast and iTunesU versions. I recommend subscribing to the podcast version as it will update automatically and be listed under Podcasts rather than Music on your iPod.

Naked Astronomy

This is one of the specialty shows from The Naked Scientists. It is a monthly, one hour long show on the happenings in astronomy news. It is hosted by Ben Valsler, Andrew Pontzen, Carolin Crawford, and Dominic Ford. This podcast has really great interviews and question shows as well. It is pretty comprehensive on all of the big astronomy news that has happened over the past month, explaining each story in such a way that both scientists and the lay person will enjoy.
Website: http://www.thenakedscientists/astronomy

Naked Oceans

Another specialty show from The Naked Scientists, this podcast takes you down under the waves, and into the ocean. This is a monthly, 30 minute show that discusses all of the latest news in marine biology. It is hosted by Helen Scales and Sarah Castor-Perry and often has guests and interviews. I find that it is a little less technical, or maybe just a little easier to follow, than Naked Astronomy, but perhaps that is only a result of the topic. It has a light-hearted almost playful feel to it while still presenting serious science stories.
Website: http://www.thenakedscientists/oceans


NASA has several audio and video podcasts. The shows cover a wide variety of space topics, current space news, and NASA missions in particular. The podcasts are approximately weekly and range in run time from 10-15 minutes. The This Week @NASA podcast can be a bit choppy as they present many stories in a short span of time. However, the other podcasts are more topic driven and so flow better and explain the week’s topic in greater detail, and the video podcasts have some great NASA images and interviews with specialists and astronauts. It is a good podcast for keeping up on all things NASA.
Website: http://
Nature Podcast

Nature is one of the top journals in the field of science, and this is a podcast created by this publication. The podcast is hosted by Kerri Smith, Geoff Brumfiel and Geoff Marsh, along with reporters Charlotte Stoddart, Eric Olson and Natasha Gilbert. Each week the approximately 30 minute show covers the top stories from Nature, often featuring interviews with scientists and reporting on location. This podcast seems to be on par with Science Friday, so if you already like and listen that one you will probably like this one.

The Nerdist

I’m including this podcast no so much as a great science reference but more as a fun geekology listen. It is a weekly show that runs about an hour and is hosted by Chris Hardwick, Jonah Ray, and Matt Mira. Each episode typically features a famous guest – the kind of famous that everyone knows, not just scientists, like Stan Lee, Drew Carey, Dave Attell, etc. etc. etc. The guests are varied but usually relate to nerd culture, comedy, or science in some way. I find the show to be very entertaining, and the conversations with and stories told by the guests are usually really funny. It’s a light listen, something for when you don’t want to be bogged down in hard science and need a laugh. It is probably important to mention that the hosts occasionally (or sometimes frequently) swear, so you might not throw this on the mp3 player with the kiddies in earshot.

That's all for now. For the rest of this list continue on to the Science Podcast Roundup: Part 2.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Big Bang Song

The Big Bang Theory is, hands down, my favorite comedy on air right now. I just love those crazy physicists! I also know all the words to the theme song, or I thought I did. Here's the full version by the Barenaked Ladies. Enjoy and just try not to sing along!

Curiosity to Mars

NASA's Mars Science Laborary (MSL) spacecraft launched today aboard the Atlas V rocket. The mission is slated to arrive at the red planet next August 2012. It includes the new Curiosity rover, the world's biggest extraterrestrial explorer. The landing of this large rover will be different than that of Pathfinder, Spirit, and Opportunity which relied on airbags to cushion their landing. The rover will be lowered to the surface using cables suspended from at rocket powered "sky crane" and then use landing rockets to get it gently to the surface. Curiosity is the size of a car (10 feet long and 9 feet wide) and is just too big and heavy to get to the surface using airbags. The rover will spend at least two years exploring the Gale Crater, a site rich in minerals and a likely place to find evidence of past life. Curiosity carries a drill, a stone-zapping laser, 10 scientific instruments, and cameras all designed to see whether Mars may have once been hospitable for microbial life. It should be interesting to see what it finds!

Here's a video of the launch:

And an animation from JPL about the rover's landing and function:

Explore the Mars Science Laboratory Mission Page over at the NASA website.

The New York Times: "NASA Launches Sofisticated Rover on Journey to Mars"
The Telegraph: "Curiosity the Nasa space rover ready for launch for Mars"
Time: "NASA Launches 'Curiosity' Rover to Mars"

UPDATE: August 6, 2012

Curiosity has landed!

Here is the first color image from the Curiosity rover:

Mt. Sharp, the main science target, with Curiosity's shadow in the foreground.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Become a Noun

I've featured videos by Adam Cole (cadamole) a few times on this blog, and expect to see him more as I consider his songs kinda genius. Here's a video he did recently through NPR and Krulwich Wonders.

Adam Cole: When I say "Henry Shrapnel, Jules Leotard, Robert Bunsen," you think — what?
Robert Krulwich: That they're inventors?
Adam: No. Better than that. Each one has become immortal. They're nouns!
Robert Krulwich: Is that a good thing, becoming a noun? ...
Adam: Are you kidding? It's a wonderful thing. A thing to sing about.
Robert Krulwich: You're going to sing?
Adam: If I may ...

Read the rest of the interveiw HERE.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Name the Array Contest

Radio astronomy is a subfield of astronomy that studies celestial objects that emit radio waves. This type of astronomy uses large radio antennas or radio telescopes that can be used either singularly or as multiple linked telescopes utilizing radio inferometry and aperture synthesis techniques. It is incredibly useful because radio waves penetrate dust, which can obstruct visible light, and see objects which would otherwise be invisible to us. Astronomers can observe such things as the Microwave Background Radiation (the remnant signal of the birth of the universe in the Big Bang), the generation of galaxies, black holes, and much more.

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) is a facility of the National Science Foundation (NSF). The NRAO was founded in 1956 and provides radio telescope facilities open to all astronomers regardless of institutional or national affiliation. One of the most famous and widely used of their facilities is the Very Large Array (VLA) located on the Plains of San Agustin, about 50 miles west of Socorro, New Mexico, USA. You may recognize it if you have seen the movie Contact. The VLA consists of 27, 230-ton, 25-meter diameter dish antennas that together comprise a single radio telescope system. Over the past few years, the original 1970's vintage electronics that run the telescopes has been replaced with state-of-the-art equipment, expanding the VLA into the Expanded Very Large Array (EVLA) by 2012. This new equipment increases the telescope's technical capabilities by factors of as much as 8,000!

And now this new facility needs a new name!

The NRAO is currently seeking ideas for a new name for the VLA and they want you to submit your ideas. You can enter a free-form name, or a word or phrase to come as a prefix before "Very Large Array," or both. Submissions will be accepted until 23:59 EST on December 1, 2011. The new name will be announced at NRAO's Town Hall at the American Astronomical Society's meeting in Austin, Texas on Tuesday, January 10, 2012.

Visit the Name the Array webpage to learn more and submit your ideas!

(image by Richard Ryer and from, selected for Google Earth ID: 633587)

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

What's Your Map Projection?

Consult your inner geographer. What's your favorite map projection?

(via xkcd)

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Lab Technician

Do you want to get your white coat dirty?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Scrat in Real Life

Have you seen the Ice Age movies? If you are like me then Scrat, the neurotic saber-toothed squirrel, is your favorite character. That poor squirrel just can't hold on to his acorn. According to a new paper published in Nature, Scrat may be closer to a real prehistoric creature than the animators realized, anatomically speaking at least.

Meet Cronopio dentiacutus. A fossil from the La Buitrera locality, Río Negro Province, Argentina was identified as a medium-sized dryolestoid, with an extremely enlongated snout and a pair of curved saber-fangs.  Dryolestoids are an extinct mammalian group belonging to the lineage that leads to modern marsupials and placentals. They thrived in South America through the Mesozoic and into the Cenozoic. This specimen was of the early Late Cretaceous (60 million years from previously known), and based on it's dental and cranial features, is unlike previously identified specimens from the Mesozoic.

Artist depiction of Cronopio dentiacutus
Unfortunately for this Scrat-like critter, there were no acorns in the Cretaceous.

The paper:
Rougier, Guillermo W., Sabastiam Apesteguia, and Leandro C. Gaetano (2011) Highly specialized mammalian skulls from the Late Cretaceous of South America. Nature: 479, 98-102. (DOI: 10.1038/nature10591)

ScienceShot Article: Meet the Saber-Toothed Squirrel

The Human Biome

Wired recently posted an Atlas of the Human Ecosystem. It is a great infographic that includes some fantastic information. I'm posting their introduction, but follow the link at the end to see the full images.
"If some twisted genius vaporized all 10 trillion cells in your body — along with the hair, the fingernails, and other tissue they create — it would not leave empty space behind. A body-shaped cloud made of bacteria, viruses, and other former stowaways would hover briefly in the air. The cloud would outline your skin, delineate your lungs, trace your digestive tract. You might be gone for good, but your shadow biosphere would remain.

We got our first glimpse of these tiny tenants — now known collectively as the microbiome — in the late 17th century, when a Dutch lens grinder named Anton van Leeuwenhoek noticed a layer of white scum between his teeth. He mixed some of the gunk with pure rainwater and then placed it under one of his handmade microscopes. 'I found, to my great surprise,' he wrote, 'that it contained many small animalcules, the motions of which were very pleasing to behold.'

With the advent of fast DNA sequencing, today’s microbiologists can delve deep into this weird inner universe, and they’re just as amazed as Van Leeuwenhoek was. It’s not just the sheer quantity of microbial cells (100 trillion or so for one person alone) but also their diversity: Each of us is home to thousands of species of microbes, and no two people have quite the same mix.

We’re just beginning to learn the effects our microbiome has on us, but it’s clear that they can be profound. Certain species help digest food and synthesize vitamins; others guide the immune system. Medical researchers have linked obesity, heart disease, and anxiety to properties of the microbiome. In many cases, it’s not the individual species that seem to matter but the richness of the ecosystem. Just as the health of a forest depends upon diversity, our own health appears to benefit from the presence of a wide range of uninvited guests, many of which coevolved with us.

See below for a guided tour of your own personal ecosystem. From the top of your head to the depth of your gut, there’s a jungle in — and on — you."

Visit The Wired Atlas of the Human Ecosystem

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Monday, October 31, 2011

Beware the Freshman 15?

I have this theory that the Freshman 15 applies to every time you enter college. My theory is all about cumulative weight gain as it relates to college attendance and employment, and so far I've only tested it on myself. I'm wondering if my experiment (I'm gonna call it that since it sounds better than the excuses I made to skip going to the gym), and my n=1, are correct.

A new study published in Social Science Quarterly describes the weight change observed by new college students. In case you haven't heard of the publicized, and horrifying, phenomenon that is the Freshman 15 then know that it describes the notion that students tend to gain a substantial amount of weight, about 15 pounds, during their first year at college. Considering the lack of parental supervision, all the free food (particularly ice cream and pizza...oh, and beer, don't forget all the beer) that abounds on college campuses, how poor college students are, the increased stress levels, the lack of sleep coupled with odd eating/snacking hours, andthe  overall decrease in physical activity I can see where that notion stems from. The authors of this paper start by looking at things from a public health perspective, if the Freshman 15 is actually real then efforts should be made to encourage healthy lifestyle habits and prevent obesity in this age group. If it is a media myth then all this encouragement will prove ineffective, cause unnecessary worry, and worsen body image which could actually lead to weight gain. But we'll get back to that later. First, is there actually literature on this topic? Actually, yes. Previous studies, 20 of them to be exact, have looked at weight change among college freshman. Early analyses, in the late 1980's and early 1990's, focused on women and many found that they gain weight. And you can thank Seventeen Magazine for coining the term "Freshman 15" in 1989. About half of the more recent studies include men, but those studies still include more women than men. Seeing a trend here yet? You add up all of the studies and you will see that freshman do in fact gain weight, although not nearly 15 pounds. Usually they average around four.

Those previous studies had a couple of major flaws. I've pointed out the mostly women thing, but they also were largely conducted on small campuses and included nonrandom samples. This new study attempts to solve those problems by using the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY97) which allows them a large, nationally representative, random sample of college freshmen, and they can compare freshman to similarly aged noncollege students. They tracked mean and median weight changes, ran multivariate regressions that adjust for each individual's weight gain according to specific factors (age, gender, etc), ran simulations to estimate the difference in weight gain between college and noncollege students, and then conducted a longitudinal analysis to track weight change during and after college.

After all of that the authors conclude that the Freshman 15 is a media myth. Freshman do indeed gain weight but on average only about 3 pounds. Additionally, college students were found to only gain half a pound more than noncollege students. The authors suggest that this media myth is perpetuated by the use of the catchy "the Freshman 15" phrase, and that it contributes to the misperception of being overweight, especially for women. Thanks for that 1980's studies and media jerks. They also suggest that the transition to college is not a critical point in terms of weight gain, that weight gain doesn't happen all in the freshman year but gradually over a longer period of time. That being said and returning to the public health perspective from above, they recommend that media and campus reports frame articles and information with a healthy living theme, including fitness tips and debunking myths. They also point out that college is a good place to teach young adults about proper nutrition, healthy cooking, and fitness. Now for the "we'll get back to that later" part, I'm not sure how this healthy lifestyle encouragement fits in with the statement that such information will prove ineffective, cause unnecessary worry, and worsen body image which could actually lead to weight gain, as they stated earlier in their paper. They don't really expand on whether it is the use of the term "Freshman 15" or whether using it in conjunction with healthy lifestyle encouragement or if just the healthy lifestyle encouragement itself is the worrying part for people. My waistline and I would be very interested to know. In general, I say living healthier is healthier for someone. But, hey, what do I know?

So I suppose my theory doesn't really have all that much scientific evidence. Ah, well, tis the nature of science.

Here's the paper:
Zagorsky, Jay L. and Patricia K. Smith (2011) The Freshman 15: A critical time for obesity intervention or media myth? Social Science Quarterly: 92(5), 1389-1407. (DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-6237.2011.00823.x)

The Axes of Evil

Happy Halloween! Beware of sinister graphs...

(via Incidental Comics)

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Space Junk? Meet Lasers

"Back in the 60's, I had a weather changing machine that was, in essence, a sophisticated heat beam which we called a 'laser.' Using these 'lasers,' we punch a hole in the protective layer around the Earth, which we scientists call the 'Ozone Layer.' Slowly but surely, ultraviolet rays would pour in, increasing the risk of skin cancer. That is unless the world pays us a hefty ransom."

Perhaps I should have titled this post the Alan Parsons Project?

Anyway, I was looking for a specific article I had seen written up in Wired Science and my cursor would not allow me to scroll further than an article about frying space junk with lasers. Smart cursor.

As with everywhere else we've been we leave stuff behind. Space is no exception. Over the past 35 years we have created several hundred thousand pieces of space debris larger than 1cm in the 400-2000km altitude low Earth orbit (LEO) band, their density reaching a peak in the 800-1,000km altitude range. Small, untracked debris is hazardous to space vehicles, and although larger debris are less numerous and trackable they are also dangerous. Not to mention that what goes up may eventually come down. Recent events with a falling satellite have illustrated that. As someone who lives on the down area I may have cause to be concerned. But what do do about it?

A new paper published Oct. 17 on arxiv suggests a solution. First, categorize the debris into threat categories. The authors present an equation that calculates the interval between collisions because while the debris growth rate is reduced by removing large objects that, when hit, produce small objects and the small objects are a greater threat numerically.

Next, create a method to get rid of said debris. Up to now many methods have been proposed to rid LEO of space junk including grappling the objects, attaching deorbiting kits, deploying nets to capture objects, attaching an electrodynamic tether and deploying clouds of frozen mist, gas or blocks of aerogel in the debris path to slow it. The problems with these techniques are the expense (costing about 27 million dollars per large object!), the accuracy, and the difficulty.  So what do you do? Lasers!

Laser-based methods can be divided into three categories: (1) low laser intensity which doesn't destroy but instead divert the debris, (2) higher laser intensity which heats to ablation with continuous (CW) lasers, and (3) pulsed laser orbital debris removal (LODR) which uses a mirror to focus a repetitively pulsed, high intensity laser on an object. The first method is less efficient, its effects are comparable to the uncertain effects of space weather and sunlight, and it does not address the debris growth problem. The second method involves slow heating of tumbling debris which gives an ablation jet whose momentum contribution cancels itself out, and the heating causes a messy melt ejection that adds to the debris problem. Therefore the authors recommend the third method.

If you read the entire 37 page paper then you will see that the authors make a good case for the pulsed laser space junk removal system. Overall, it costs the least per object, can deal with both small and large objects, can handle tumbling objects, can prevent collisions, and the target access is at the speed of light, redundant and agile. Not to mention that it will require international cooperation to build and operate, and the authors make the point that this cooperation will "avoid concerns that it is a weapon system." So I guess it has that forcing everyone to play nice factor going for it.

Summary: Lasers disintegrating space junk = Really cool.

Here's the paper:
Phipps, Claude R. (2011) Removing orbital debris with lasers. (arxiv:1110.3835)

And here is the Wired Science Story:
Space Junk Crisis: Time to Bring in the Lasers

Also check out:
Space Junk Problem Reaches 'Tipping Point' from Discovery News

"Mini Me, stop humping the 'laser'. Honest to God! Why don't you and the giant 'laser' get a fricken room for God's sakes"

Sorry, couldn't help it; I just had to throw in one last Dr. Evil quote.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


For natural Ph.D. enhancement.

Following Birds Following Ants

What is mental time travel? Sounds a little like something from Star Trek or Dr. Who. Actually its pretty simple, its really just a type of memory. It can be broken down in to 2 elements: the ability to remember past events (episodic memory) and the ability to anticipate and plan for future ones (future thinking). One of the reasons it sounds so simple is that, as humans, it is something that we can do. There is some evidence that a number of animals such as corvids, chickadees, rats, and great apes can remember past events in terms of what happened when and where, and there is some evidence that corvids and primates engage in future planning. However, the issue is whether animals engage in mental time travel.

A new ideas paper in Behavioral Ecology reviews mental time travel by looking at bivouac-checking, a specialized behavior of birds that interact with army ants. Army ants (Eciton burchellii) have regular alternating periods of high (nomadic) and low (statary) raiding activity. The statary period often lasts for several days, but when the ants enter the nomadic phase they raid the forest many days in a row. Several species of birds will follow the ants back to their temporary nest (called a bivouac) to inspect its location and assess this activity. This checking occurs in the evening and then the birds return the next morning to check the bivouac before feeding at the ants' raid. Now this raid is the important part. The army ants swarm across the forest floor and flush out leaf-litter dwelling arthropods. This flushing allows the birds to forage the fleeing arthropods. So you can see why it would be beneficial that the birds know when these raids will happen by checking up on the ants, and it is even more benefical to keep track of multiple bivouacs. And this is where the mental time travel comes in to play.

Bivouac-checking behavior may require episodic-like memory. The birds must remember the location of the bivouac so that they can return to it the next morning while also remembering which nests are in the nomadic phase. They must also get there before the ants start their raid. Element 2 of mental time travel is future thinking. That's a tough one. I mean, how do you test whether a bird is making plans for the future? The birds do exhibit some behavior that may indicate future thinking. They check bivouac when they are sated. A bird with a full tummy doesn't immediately benefit by checking a bivouac. There is, however, a delayed benefit when the bird returns the next morning to find the ants raiding again. This dissociation of current state and future need suggests anticipation of future events.

Being an ideas paper this isn't an actual study. The authors are really just suggesting a good model system for the study of mental time travel by describing the merits of the system and providing some interesting questions for a future study.

Read the paper here:
Logan, Corina J., Sean O'Donnell, and Nicola S. Clayton (2011) A case of mental time travel in ant-following birds? Behavioral Ecology: 22(6), 1156-1165. (DOI: 10.1093/beheco/arr104)

Friday, October 21, 2011

Skill Sets

I'm not sure why I find this so funny, maybe it is the simplicity of it's truth.Whatever. Still laughing.

(via FB I am in science)

Thursday, October 20, 2011

What is Your Ph.D. About?

Dance Your Ph.D. is a contest for people in the sciences (biology, chemistry, physics, and social science) to create videos in which they explain their research thesis through dance. The rules are that a video must be on the Ph.D. student's own thesis and that the Ph.D. student must be a part of the video. The grand prize winner receives $1000, is recognized by Science, and achieves "immortal geek fame on the Internet." The best Ph.D. dance also gets a free trip and hotel stay in Brussels so they can be crowned the winner at the TEDx conference on November 22, 2011. A $500 prize goes to each of the best videos in each remaining science categories.

As of today the four winners have been announced!

Joel Miller,  a biomedical engineer at the University of Western Australia in Perth, has won the grand prize for his video about using lasers to create titanium alloys strong and flexible enough for long-lasting hip replacements.

Cedric Tan of the University of Oxford, United Kingdom won the Biology prize for his video depicting the mating dance of the fruit fly, capturing the way that male flies stalk and sniff the female flies.

FoSheng Hsu, a chemist at Cornell University,  won the Chemistry prize for his project about the entire sequence of steps required for x-ray crystallography. His video starts with the depiction of a bacterium spitting out raw protein and ends with a dance interpretation of the three-dimensional structure of a protein.

Emma Ware, a behavioral biologist at Queen's University in Canada, won the Social Sciences prize for her video about the courtship dances of male pigeons and their attention to the females.

Didn't get to enter your video this year? No worries! The contest will be going again next year so start thinking of great ways to Dance Your Ph.D.

Find out more and enter your video here:
The Dance Your Ph.D. Contest Website

Science article "'Dance Your Ph.D.' Winner Announced"

To see all the videos from the 16 finalists check out the Science article "Dancing to Epigenetics and Endocytosis"

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

To Eat or Not to Eat, That is the Fishy Question

I love seafood as much as the next person...well, ok, probably more. It is a healthy and delicious food source, but there is a limit to the fish in the sea. We tend to think of ocean fish and shellfish as just food on our plates, but they are wildlife. Wildlife that we hunt on a very large scale.

Humans have been fishing the oceans for thousands of years, but within the last half century technology has developed such that we are able to fish farther, deeper, and more efficiently. As such, more than 70 percent of the world's commercial marine fish stocks are either fully exploited, overfished, or have collapsed. Add to that illegal fishing, habitat damage, and bycatch and you have a serious worldwide problem. Over the past few decades aquaculture, or fish farming, has become an increasingly popular solution to the increasing pressures on marine resources. In fact, today, half of our seafood comes from farms. However, the ecological impact of farming depends on the species raised, the farm location, and how the animals are raised. What does that mean? Well, some species are easier to raise than others, some farms are closed-systems where wastes are controlled, some farms have higher escape rates which threaten native species with diseases, and some farms feed a vegetable- or soy-based diet while others feed with wild caught fish.

Alright, well, that's pretty bleak right? So what can you, the single lowly consumer, do about it? Actually, that is pretty simple. Ask questions and watch what you eat. First, there are a few ocean-friendly steps that you can take:

1. Purchase seafood from a green (or if unavailable, yellow list) or look for the Marine Stewardship Council blue eco-label in stores and restaurants. (see below about where to get and how to read seafood guides)

2. When you buy seafood, ask where it comes from and if it is farmed or wild-caught. Most reputable markets will label their fish. However, some stores and restaurants only give generic names and catch locations for their fish. Ask anyway and tell them why you care, it may prompt them to look into it. An alternative is to buy seafood through online retailers, such as, who feature sustainable species and deliver right to your home.

3. Spread the word. The more people practicing safe seafood the better.

Seafood guides are a free and easy way to help you choose the right seafood. In general, the lists are broken up into three colors:
  •  Green (Best) - abundant, well-managed and caught or farmed in environmentally friendly ways.
  • Yellow (Good/OK) - an alternative to green but there are mixed records on how they are managed, the health of their habitat, or how they are caught or farmed.
  •  Red (Avoid/Worst) - have one or more serious environmental problems such as overfishing, poor management, high bycatch, extensive habitat damage, or come from farms that allow widespread pollution, spread disease, use chemicals, or have a high escape rate.
No matter the country you live in you should be able to find a list that works for you. There are small pocket guides, larger lists, and even easy-to-use online searches. I've listed some great websites below where you can find more information about sustainable seafood and lists to help you choose wisely.

Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch
This is the best website I have found for information, guides, searches, and links.

Environmental Defense Fund's Seafood Selector
This is a great website that includes a lot of information about each of the species on each of the three lists. They also include great, free, downloadable guides.
Blue Ocean Institute's Seafood Page
This website includes a great FAQ page as well as a seafood and sushi guide.

Natural Resources Defense Council's Sustainable Seafood Guide
This guide delves more into the topic of contaminated seafood but includes a shopping guide, recipes, and health alert information.

Marine Stewardship Council
Find out what MSC products are available in your country. Find out about what it takes to get a product certified and even track a fishery.

Marine Conservation Society - FISHONLINE website
This is for you U.K. folks. You can search for a fish, get fish ratings and lists, get information on fishery/production areas and methods, and download seafood guides.

Australian Marine Conservation Society
This one is for the Aussies. They include all the information you could want about your oceans. There are downloadable seafood guides and also an iPhone app!

WWF Sustainable Seafood Consumer Guides
Not in the U.S., the U.K, or Australia? Not a problem. Check out the World Wildlife Fund's list of worldwide seafood guides. The is a link to your country's web page with link to download a seafood guide PDF. While you are there (no matter your country of origin) check out their information on fisheries and sustainable seafood.

End of the Line
This is the world's first major documentary about the effects of overfishing. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year and is now out on DVD. Go to their website to watch the trailer, find or organize a screening, order a DVD, and/or find links for guides.

(image from

Monday, October 17, 2011

The 2011 Ig Nobel Awards

"The Ig Nobel Prizes honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think. The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative — and spur people's interest in science, medicine, and technology."

Since 1991, the annual awards event is held at Harvard University and the winners travel to the ceremony, at their own expense, from several continents, to receive a prize from "group of genuine, genuinely bemused Nobel Laureates, assisted by a large number of assorted Ig personnel, all before a perpetually standing-room only audience." It is a highlight of the scientific community. I know that I always get a big kick out of them. In fact, back in May, I reviewed the paper that won the physiology prize (see Catching the Yawn).

The 21st First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony, held on September 29, 2011, introduced ten new Ig Nobel Prize winners.

Wilkinson, Anna, Natalie Sebanz, Isabella Mand, and Ludwig Huber (2011) No evidence of contagious yawning in the red footed tortoise Geochelone carbonaria. Current Zoology: 57(4), 477-484. (LINK)

Imai, Makoto, Naoki Urushihata, Hideki Tanemura, Yukinobu Tajima, Hideaki Goto, Koichiro Mizoguchi and Junichi Murakami for determining the ideal density of airborne wasabi (pungent horseradish) to awaken sleeping people in case of a fire or other emergency, and for applying this knowledge to invent the wasabi alarm. US patent application 2010/0308995 A1. Filing date: Feb 5, 2009.

Presented jointly to:
Tuk, Mirjam, Debra Trampe, and Luk Warlop (2011) Inhibitory Spillover: Increased Urination Urgency Facilitates Impulse Control in Unrelated Domains. Psychological Science: 22(5), 627-633. (DOI: 10.1177/0956797611404901)
Lewis, Matthew, Peter Snyder and Robert Feldman, Robert Pietrzak, David Darby, and Paul Maruff (2011) The Effect of Acute Increase in Urge to Void on Cognitive Function in Healthy Adults. Neurology and Urodynamics: 30(1), 183-187. (DOI: 10.1002/nau.20963)

Translation: "People make better decisions about some kinds of things — but worse decisions about other kinds of things‚ when they have a strong urge to urinate."

Teigen, Karl Halvor (2008) Is a Sigh 'Just a Sigh'? Sighs as Emotional Signals and Responses to a Difficult Task. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology: 49 (1), 49–57. (DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9450.2007.00599.x)

Translation: "Trying to understand why, in everyday life, people sigh."

Perry, John (1996) How to Procrastinate and Still Get Things Done. Chronicle of Higher Education. (LINK)
Later republished elsewhere under the title "Structured Procrastination."

Translation: "To be a high achiever, always work on something important, using it as a way to avoid doing something that's even more important."

Gwynne, Darryl T. and David C.F. Rentz (1983) Beetles on the Bottle: Male Buprestids Mistake Stubbies for Females (Coleoptera). Journal of the Australian Entomological Society: 22(1), 79-80. (DOI: 10.1111/j.1440-6055.1983.tb01846.x)
(and, by the same authors, because two papers on this topic is way better than just one)
Gwynne, Darryl T. and David C.F. Rentz (1984) Beetles on the Bottle. Antenna: Proceedings (A) of the Royal Entomological Society London: 8(3), 116-117.

Translation: "A certain kind of beetle mates with a certain kind of Australian beer bottle."

Perrin, Philippe, Cyril Perrot, Dominique Deviterne, Bruno Ragaru and Herman Kingma (2000) Dizziness in Discus Throwers is Related to Motion Sickness Generated While Spinning. Acta Oto-laryngologica: 120(3), 390–5. (DOI: 10.1080/000164800750000621)

Translation: "Why discus throwers become dizzy, and why hammer throwers don't."

This one is held jointly by...
Dorothy Martin (U.S.) who predicted the world would end in 1954
Pat Robertson (U.S.) who predicted the world would end in 1982
Elizabeth Clare Prophet (U.S.) who predicted the world would end in 1990
Lee Jang Rim (Korea) who predicted the world would end in 1992
Credonia Mwerinde (Uganda) who predicted the world would end in 1999
Harold Camping of the (U.S.) who predicted the world would end on September 6, 1994 and later predicted that the world will end on October 21, 2011

Translation: "The world [should] be careful when making mathematical assumptions and calculations." Apparently the U.S. in particular.

Arturas Zuokas, the mayor of Vilnius, LITHUANIA, for demonstrating that the problem of illegally parked luxury cars can be solved by running them over with an armored tank.

Translation: I think the VIDEO really speaks for itself.

Senders, John W., et al., (1967) The Attentional Demand of Automobile Driving. Highway Research Record: 195, 15-33. (LINK)

Translation: "A series of safety experiments in which a person drives an automobile on a major highway while a visor repeatedly flaps down over his face, blinding him." Oh yeah and there's a great VIDEO for this one too!

If you have an hour and 45 minutes free and want to watch or listen to the ceremony...

I also highly recommend the Improbable Research Organization's website. They publish the Annals of Improbable Research magazine and are the administers of the Ig Nobel Prizes. All the info and links that you've read today have come from there and you can see the winners from past years.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Faster Than a Speeding Photon

I've been avoiding posting about this story because I'm not sure I'm totally on board with the results. But to say it has caught the news media and Internet on fire would be an understatement. So I've decided to go for it: Let's review the paper about neutrinos going faster than the speed of light.

Physics, especially particle physics, can get really complicated really fast. So, I think, to understand the significance of this finding you have to know some basics about fundamental particles. For that I suggest you go back and read my So Quarky post from back in 2010. Neutrinos are one of these fundamental particles belonging to the class of particles called leptons. They have no charge which means they are not affected by the electromagnetic force; they are only affected by the weak subatomic force. They are able to pass through large amounts of matter without being affected. Since it has mass, although extremely tiny, it is affected by gravity but that is the weakest of the forces. Neutrinos come from several sources. Most of them are left over from the big bang and make up part of the cosmic microwave background while others are produced in stars, beta decay, etc. We can also generate them in physics laboratories by colliding high energy particles into fixed or moving targets.

The speed of light is 299,792,458 meters per second (186,282 miles per hour). According to Albert Einstein's theory of special relativity, the speed of light (c) in a vacuum as a physical constant, a maximum speed at which all energy, matter, and information in the universe can travel. The speed of light is the speed of light no matter the motion of the source or the inertial frame of reference of the observer. It is the ultimate limit, the fastest a particle can move. So what happens when an experiment records a particle going faster than the speed of light?

The Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus (OPERA) lies 1,400 meters underground in the Gran Sasso National Laboratory (LNGS) in Italy. It was designed to "perform the first detection of neutrino oscillations in direct appearance mode in the νμ→ντ channel, the signature being the identification of the τ− lepton created by its charged current (CC) interaction." Um, ok. In addition to this main goal, OPERA is also suited accurately determine neutrino velocity though the measurement of the time of flight and distance from the source. CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research), 730km away, fires a beam of neutrinos through the earth to OPERA, a 2.43-millisecond trip for a photon. A total of 16111 events were collected over three years. They found that, on average, the neutrinos arrived 60 nanoseconds faster than expected if they were traveling at the speed of light.


Now take a couple of logical steps past that. If neutrinos go faster than the speed of light (even a little bit) then are we getting into the realm of tachyons and time travel? Possibly.

But wait...don't throw Einstein's theories out the window and don't start building that time machine just yet.

The big question now is whether these scientists have actually discovered particles going faster than the speed of light or if there is some type of error in their experiment that is making the velocity look artificially short. After all, this is an extremely sensitive measurement. We're talking unreacting particles that are lighter than an electron and time measured in nanoseconds. Right now there are all sorts of responses being talked about an published on this topic.

The consequences of these results would be huge, and one of the things I like about this experiment is the way in which it was presented. They didn't just announce "We've broken the speed of light!" The authors put the information out there -- here are our results -- asking scientists to independently confirm or deny these results and/or offer up explanations as to why these results were obtained.

What do you think?

Here is the prepublished paper:
Adam, T. et al. (2011) Measurement of the neutrino velocity with the OPERA detector in the CNGS beam. High Energy Physics - Experiment ( arXiv:1109.4897v1)

I also recommend reading through a few of these articles as they offer some great views from other physicists:
Science Magazine: Neutrinos Travel Faster Than Light, According to One Experiment
Nature News: Particles Break Light-Speed Limit
The Guardian: Faster Than Light Particles Found, Claim Scientists
Scientific American: Faster-Than-Light Neutrinos? Physics Luminaries Voice Doubts
The New York Times: Tiny Neutrinos May Have Broken Cosmic Light Speed
Wired Science: Can Neutrinos Move Faster Than Light?
New Scientist: Faster-Than-Light Neutrinos? New Answers Flood In

(image from

Monday, October 3, 2011

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Tales from the Road: St. John, USVI

The discovery of St. John is the same as that of St. Thomas which is not all that surprising considering that they are right next to each other. Christopher Columbus is credited for discovering it in 1493 but the island had been visited and inhabited by indigenous peoples long before that, as evidenced by the petroplyphs found on the island. Early European settlers established sugar plantations worked mostly by African slaves. In the late 1600's the British and the Danes disputed over ownership of the island. On March 25, 1718 Danish planters from St. Thomas raised their flag over the first permanent settlement on the island at Estate Carolina in Coral Bay. The British continued to overtake the Danes on St. John until 1762 when they relinquished their claims to keep up good relations. Sugar, and also cotton, became the major industries with 109 plantations that covered almost the entire island. The adoption of a harsh slave code, the arrival of an elite group of African tribal rulers who preferred death to life as slaves, and a harsh summer of natural disasters lead to the Slave Revolt of 1733 when the island's slaves rose up and took control of the island. They held the island for seven months before the Danes enlisted the help of the French Marines to put down the revolt. The Danes built a prison, known as the Battery, in Cruz Bay intended to improve the treatment of slaves by making justice a government issue rather than leaving it to individual planters. They abolished slavery in 1848, prompted by a revolt on St. Croix. After this the main economy was mostly small scale subsistence farming, a hard life that cost the island much of its population. St. John was purchased along with St. Thomas to become part of the U.S. Virgin Islands. One of the things St. John is best known for is its large National Park which started as 5000 acres donated to the Federal Government by Laurence Rockefeller in 1956.

The Virgin Islands National Park includes 7200 acres of land and 5600 acres of underwater lands. It encompasses over half the island of St. John and almost all of Hassel Island. All together it is one of the most undisturbed and comprehensive Caribbean landscapes. There are several significant historical sites including archaeological sites that date as early as 840 BC. The large span of the park means that it covers a variety of ecosystems and forest types from dry to moist forests, salt ponds, beaches, mangroves, seagrass beds, coral reefs, and algal plains. Much of the vegetation on the island is second generation growth as the original vegetation was clear-cut to make way for sugar cane production. Some native species of tyre palm remain, but much of today's growth consists of introduced The animal species on St. John are abundant with 140 species of birds, 302 species of fish, 7 species of amphibians, 22 species of mammals, and many species of insects. The National Park's marine areas are also quite diverse with hundreds of species of fish and beautiful coral reefs  that are open to visitors.

Traveled up to Trunk Bay and the Underwater Snorkling Trail which is part of the Virgin Islands National Park.
Along the way was some beautiful scenery.
We would be driving along and then the trees would part to show beautiful views!
Most of the drive through the Park was surrounded by lush vegetation.
After a morning of snorkling, back in Cruz Bay we found the only ice cream place. Yum.
Part of Cruz Bay.
St. John as we leave on the ferry to St. Thomas.
Unfortunately all of my underwater pictures while snorkling Trunk Bay came out in a horrible blue-green washed color. Photoshop and I will be endeavoring to correct the color but the prospect looks dim. Bummer.

Some websites to find out more about the history of St. John:
St. John Historical Society
VInow's St. John History Page
The Beach's St. John History Page

And I really recommend looking around the National Park Service's Virgin Islands National Park website. It includes some great natural science information as well as links to other great websites, field guides, and animal and plant checklists.

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