Wednesday, November 20, 2013

15 Years of the International Space Station

To celebrate the 15th anniversary of the ISS, NASA published a video featuring highlights from the past 15 years on the space station. They also created a graphic detailing how many meals astronauts have eaten on the space station, how many scientific investigations have been performed, and more. Let's not forget that today is also Edwin Hubble and SETI's birthdays!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Cosmic Queries: Gravity, the Movie!

To answer your questions about the movie Gravity, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Chuck Nice get a little help from 2-time Space Shuttle astronaut Mike Massimino. They explore the scientific inaccuracies in the movie – and how much Gravity got right. Mike gives it 2 thumbs up for the look and feel of being in space, from the spacesuits to the tools he actually used. He discusses how actual NASA astronauts train for emergencies, the time he tore his glove fixing the Hubble telescope, and the real rescue plans for his flights. @Astro_Mike (he was the first human to Tweet from space!) also describes impact of weightlessness on your inner ear and sense of balance, and how your brain adapts after a few days of zero-g. Neil explains why you’re weightless in space in the first place – it’s free fall, not lack of gravity – and describes an experiment you can do at home to prove it and amaze your friends and family.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Bohemian Gravity: A Musical Explanation of String Theory

A Montreal physics student has created an online music video to explain string theory, and Queen guitarist and astrophysicist Brian May has taken note. McGill grad student Tim Blais performs his song "Bohemian Gravity" to the tune of "Bohemian Rhapsody" to explain the complicated theory, which proposes that all fundamental particles in the universe are made of oscillating filaments.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Gravity Represented through Artwork

Shizouka-based designer Kouichi Okamoto of Kyouei Design became inspired by gravity and created the Magnetic Field Record, a mobile artwork that offers a new look at gravity.

The overturned bottle on one side of the contraption is filled with sumi ink, balanced by a large magnet on the other end. Ink slowly drips out, initially slowly and then more closely together, as the mobile contraption rotates. The shift in weight causes the bottle to raise up, shrinking the diameter of the circle.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Hangout with SETI

SETI satellite

SETI Institute researchers Jill Tarter and Franck Marchis (host & moderator) will hangout with Jason Wright, professor of astronomy at Penn State, Matt Povich, professor of astronomy at Cal Poly Pomona and Freeman Dyson, theoretical physicist and mathematician of the Institute for Advance Studies. These scientists will discuss the potential for the WISE telescope to detect extraterrestrial super-civilizations that acquired large a energy supply by building a mega-structure to harvest the energy of their star ("Dyson Sphere") or their entire galaxy. The title of the event is "Searching for Kardashev Type II and III Civilizations with WISE."

This is a public event and will occur Wednesday, September 18th at 11am. This hangout is the first of the SETI Institute's Curiosity Series.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Visual Explanation of DNA

BBC Knowledge Explainer DNA from Territory on Vimeo.

BBC Knowledge and Learning is exploring a wide variety of topics from social history to science in a series of three-minute online Explainer documentaries, and commissioned Territory Studio to produce an animated film on the subject of DNA.
Three minutes is a short time to explore a subject where most doctorates only scratch the surface, so writer Andrew S. Walsh teamed up with molecular biologist Dr. Matthew Adams to distill the script down to the most fundamental elements required to understand not only DNA’s form and function but how our understanding of these discoveries has affected the wider world. While this length may feel restrictive, the team found that this limitation acted as a lens, focusing the piece on the essentials.
The Explainer series is designed to intrigue and inform, encouraging those who discover the documentaries to further explore through links to additional information found on the BBC website.  Lead designer and animator Will Samuel explained the process behind it on Vimeo:

We needed to find a graphic style to communicate the beauty and intricacy of DNA. We wanted to create nostalgia; taking the audience back to the days of textbook diagrams and old science documentaries, such as Carl Sagan's COSMOS and IBM’s POWER OF TEN (1977). Using the double helix circular theme as a core design we focused on form, movement and colour to create a consistent flow to the animation, drawing on references from nature, illustrating how DNA is the core to everything around us.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

How Many Alien Civilizations are there in the Galaxy?

That question is a popular one amongst scientists, sci-fi authors, and the casual dreamer alike. The Are We Alone? infographic from the BBC was designed by Information is Beautiful to illustrate the Drake equation. The Drake equation is used to calculate how many potential aliens may exist in the Milky Way Galaxy. This is an equation that American astronomer Frank Drake formulated in the 1960s to calculate the number of detectable extraterrestrial civilizations may exist in the Milky Way Galaxy. What's interesting about this interactive infographic is that it lets the user change the assumptions and recalculate the results.

Monday, August 19, 2013

StarTalk Radio: The Science of Sex

StarTalk Radio trades the cosmic for the orgasmic in “The Science of Sex (Part 1).” Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and comic co-host Kristen Schaal, author of The Sexy Book of Sexy Sex, tread not so lightly into taboo territory with guests Mary Roach, author of Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, famed sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer, and astrophysicist Charles Liu

But it’s still StarTalk, so the focus is on the science, not the lasciviousness, of sex. You’ll learn that females can have nocturnal clitoral erections just like the male equivalent, what the other erectile tissue in the human body is (it’s not the nipples!), and why pharmaceutical research has moved beyond Viagra™ to developing pills for post-menopausal women with flagging sex drives. Dr. Ruth explains how Fifty Shades of Grey changed perceptions of female sexuality, while on a more humorous note, Kristen discusses sex in labs and “the worst STD of all.”

Update: StarTalk Radio "The Science of Sex (Part 2)" is now released as well.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Curiosity's First Year in Two Minutes

The past year, the Mars rover Curiosity has been driving around the surface of Mars, drilling and collecting samples (and every once in awhile drawing inappropriate body parts for fun).

JPL just published a video shortening the past year in Curiosity's journey down to 548 images, taken with the fish-eye lens mounted on the rover's back. It's a great first-person look at Curiosity as it collects its first samples and explores the surface of Mars.

Friday, August 9, 2013

What Pangaea Would Look Like With Today's Political Boundaries

About 300 million years ago, the supercontinent of Pangaea started to break apart into the continents we live on today. An Italian designer—who goes by the name Massino—put Pangaea back together, then added on modern political boundaries. This created the map you see below:

political pangaea
Political Pangaea via Massino

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Nature, to the Exclusion of All Else

While it is dangerous for humans to live in many parts of the world—Chernobyl being a prime example—the animal kingdom has not just survived, but flourished. In the absence of humans, nature has reclaimed itself.

Watch Radioactive Wolves on PBS. See more from Nature.

There is an excellent series by PBS called "Radioactive Wolves" discussing how the animal kingdom has thrived in the exclusion zone. Even with the elevated levels of radiation causing twice the normal rate in birth defects—something that would be unacceptable for a human populace living there—the animals don't seem too disturbed. In fact, the land has become a haven for animals. Beavers, which had been wiped from the area due to the farming demands, have returned and restored one of central Europe's great marshlands.

Naturally, there are evolutionary consequences to living in this area for these animals. In Chernobyl in particular, there is a type of Radiotropic Fungus that eats the radiation. After the Japanese Tsunami, there was a discussion on how the fungus could be utilized in future radioactive disasters. So while living in these areas is less than suitable for humans, attention should definitely be paid to how these animals manage to live, adapt, and thrive.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Old Cell Phones Can Still Call 911

Have you ever wondered how a 911 call works? Even if your cell phone is old and no longer has service, due to a number of factors, you can still dial emergency numbers.

Here in the U.S. there are two primary cellular technology families: 'CDMA': IS-95, cdma2000, EV-DO; 'GSM': GSM, UMTS, HSPA, LTE. These technologies are completely incompatible from an air-interface perspective, as well as the core networks being different. This means your Verizon (CDMA) phone cannot place an emergency call on an AT&T (GSM) network. However, there is the exception that some new phones have chipsets that support both GSM and CDMA technologies. For example, a Verizon Galaxy S3 can communicate with GSM networks, although this was very uncommon not that long ago.

When your phone is in an idle state, it is constantly tracking cells in the area that it might be able to connect to. It can distinguish between cells that are part of its network, and those that are not, and will prefer cells on its home network. If a phone only sees one home network cell, it is likely to track  other cells on other networks, so as to best provide service.

When a 911 call is placed, it is not the same as dialing 9-1-1. This number is actually never even dialed; instead, a call is initiated that is flagged by the phone as 'emergency,' which is why you can often dial other countries emergency numbers and have them routed. This call must be given ultimate priority, which means other calls should be dropped to keep that call in progress and power must be raised on the base station. However, even this may not be possible.

In the event the call cannot go through on your home network, your phone will attempt to associate to other networks in the area that it can communicate with. Assuming you have roaming off (or your home network does not have a roaming agreement with this network) these networks will tell your phone "you don't have service here" but they will still allow your phone to attempt to talk to the network for exactly this reason, even though you cannot route a call, it will allow you to place an emergency call, and will even kick the other network's subscribers off if that makes routing your call more expedient.

You can even place 911 calls without a SIM in a GSM phone. This process is interesting because without a SIM you don't have an IMSI, but emergency calls are supported.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Google Doodle Honors Rosalind Franklin

On this day in 1920, Rosalind Franklin was born. She helped discover the structure of DNA by taking an X-ray diffraction image of it in 1952. This image became known as Photo 51 and played a critical role in the understanding of DNA. However, in her lifetime, Rosalind Franklin received only cursory recognition of her contributions to the study of DNA, while Francis Crick and James Watson were widely hailed as the scientists that discovered the molecule. The two men, together with Maurice Milkins, later won a Nobel Prize "for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material."

When Watson and Crick published their double-helix model of DNA, they only acknowledged Franklin's work a month later in a footnote. Rosalind Franklin never did much to protest this inadequate acknowledgement. Her biographer, Brenda Maddox, states that it was only 40 years after seeing Franklin's Photo 51 that Watson publicly acknowledged that it was the "key event"in understanding DNA.

Today's Google Doodle celebrates what would have been Rosalind Franklin's 93rd birthday with an image of the double helix, and Ms. Franklin's Photo 51.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Astronomy at Lick Observatory

Image courtesy Thirty Meter Telescope

A New Opportunity for Group Observing at the Lick Observatory

The Friends of Lick Observatory is introducing the "Saturday Stars" program at the Observatory's Main Building on Mt. Hamilton. These events are planned for amateur astronomers and others with a keen interest in astronomy.

Groups of 20 - 30 people will have the opportunity to observe a variety of astronomical objects through both the historic 36” Lick Refractor using its eyepiece and the 40” Nickel Reflector equipped with a CCD direct imaging camera; the camera has a 6.3x6.3-arcminute field of view and B, V, R, and I filters. Groups will be able to request the objects they would like to observe and will have access to that night's digital images from the Nickel Telescope. Participants may also bring their own telescopes to this prime viewing site.

Each event will start just prior to sunset, and the Lick Observatory Gift Shop will be open for the first hour of the night. Observing will commence at 11 degree twilight and end after 4 hours.

These exclusive astronomy events are scheduled for the following Saturday nights this summer: July 20, August 3, August 17, August 31, and September 21. The group rate is $1,000 for up to 30 people.

For more information or to sign up for one of these nights, please contact Paula Towle at or (831) 459-2991. For questions regarding payment, please contact Leah Martin at or (831) 459-5164. For technical questions regarding telescope limits and the CCD camera, please contact Elinor Gates at or (831) 459-5910.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Google Street View Hyperlapse

Google Street View Hyperlapse from Teehan+Lax Labs.

 Teehan+Lax is a digital studio based in Toronto whose Labs staff works on experimental ideas. From their site: "Hyper-lapse photography — a technique combining time-lapse and sweeping camera movements typically focused on a point-of-interest — has been a growing trend on video sites. Creating them requires precision and many hours stitching together photos taken from carefully mapped locations. We aimed at making the process simpler by using Google Street View as an aid, but quickly discovered that it could be used as the source material."

You can do this yourself by going to the hyperlapse site and picking your starting point by dropping the 'A' pin onto Google Maps, and repeating that with your 'B' pin. Now all you have to do is press 'Create' and the Google Street View images are stitched together to create your film! Check it out here.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Naming a Winner

Photo Credit: Dan Dry / Power Creative
Today marks the 139th anniversary of the Kentucky Derby and nineteen horses will run for the roses at Churchill Downs. According to the Kentucky Derby website, as of 3:15 p.m. EDT, six horses had odds of better than 10:1: Revolutionary, Normandy Invasion, Goldencents, Itsmyluckyday, Verrazano, and Orb. Of course, this doesn't mean that it's any one of these six who will win. While it's Orb who's favored to win,* as the Wall Street Journal writes, "the favorite has only managed to win four times in the last 33 years (or 12% of the time, but who's counting)."

So how to pick a winner? Well, often casual betters will pick just based on their favorite name. But what is in naming a Derby runner? Turns out, there's a whole lot of rules attached.

Perhaps an obvious rule is that once a winner, forever a winner. This means that once a horse has run the Kentucky Derby, their name is permanently retired. It doesn't sound good if an owner names his horse after Secretariat, the fastest runner in Derby history, and yet that horse fails to win.

Another rule is that an owner must undergo a phonetics test with the potential name. NPR interviewed Rick Bailey of the Jockey Club registrar in 2005 who discussed why this makes logical sense for the sake of the audience, betters, and potential buyers:

"You don't want two Thoroughbreds out there racing at the same time with very similar-sounding names. You know, as an example, there's a very prominent racehorse from several years back named Easy Goer, spelled E-A-S-Y, as you might imagine, and you wouldn't want to allow the name Eazy, spelled E-A-Z-Y. So I try to be careful to, you know, actually say them out loud before it gets approved, just to avoid that confusion."

Furthermore, there is a limitation of exactly 18 characters for a horse's name, so as to fit on legibly on the racing forms. And if you want to name if after a person, you must get written permission from that person. While this may not come up often, it's still a strict rule that must be observed. Rick Bailey told NPR his favorite anecdote from collecting these permissions:

"One of the best ones that I remember in my 17 years here at the Jockey Club is, several years back, we had a filly named Barbara Bush when Mrs. Bush was still first lady at the time. We received a letter of permission on White House letterhead. So that was pretty exciting."

To listen to the rest of the interview, head over to NPR's The Science of Naming Racehorses.

*Update: To prove he isn't just a statistic, Orb has won the 139th Kentucky Derby!

Monday, April 29, 2013

I Spy: Space Edition

The first mission to the International Space Station, a habitable artificial satellite orbiting four hundred kilometers above the Earth's surface, launched over twelve years ago. Since then, astronauts have taken an astonishing million plus photographs of their home planet. So what happens to all these photos?

Turns out they're all archived on NASA's servers and are available to the public for view. Nathan Bergey combed through that archive and pulled the location for all of those 1,129,177 photos. He's created an incredible visual with this data:

Each dot represents the location of a photo.
 This visualization of the data ends up depicting the basic shapes of the continents, which makes sense as astronauts tended to take pictures of where they were from. Nathan comments that, "Coastlines, islands and cities seem to be popular targets...This makes sense, photos of clouds over an otherwise blank ocean get old after a while."

After creating this visualization, he ended up dividing the dots by mission:

Each color represents a different mission.

 If you're wondering why the purple dots seem to overwhelm the rest of the image, it's because Don Pettit took multiple time lapse sequences—each consisting of hundreds of images—on his mission. His images cause almost uninterrupted orbit lines while the rest of the dots seem to come in randomly. Fun fact: Don Pettit is solely responsible for almost half the images taken in orbit!

If you're interested in more data and what else NASA has to offer, check out, International Space Apps Challenges, and

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Zero Gravity Water Wringing

The Canadian Space Agency published a video this week of Astronaut Chris Hadfield performing a simple science experiment aboard the ISS. Last year, the Canadian Space Agency challenged young Canadians to design an experiment which could be performed by an astronaut using only materials he had at hand. This winning experiment was designed by grade 10 students from Fall River, Nova Scotia. Watch the video to see their experiment on surface tension in space using a wet washcloth. You can read more about the experiment here.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

We Ain't Monkeying Around

"Orang hutan" means "forest man" in one of the many native language of Indonesia, and the remarkable intelligence of our long-armed cousin in the mimicry of human behavior further justifies this title. Gerd Schuster took several stunning photos visually capturing the intelligence of the orangutans for his new book, Thinkers of the Jungle.

My favorite of the photos features a male orangutan, grasping an overhanging branch in his left hand, using a wooden pole in an attempt to spear fish in the local river. The photo was taken in Borneo on the island of Kaja, and the intrepid ape had witnessed local fishermen use the spears on the nearby Gohong River. According to the photographer, the orangutan was unsuccessful in his endeavor but later succeeded by using the same pole to catch fish already trapped in locals' fishing lines.

Monkey Business: An orangutan tries to spear a fish for dinner
Tool use in orangutans was observed by primatologist Birute Galdikas in ex-captive populations as far back as in 1982. In 1994, Carel van Schaik documented the great apes developing tools to pry open and eat fruits covered in needle-like barbs that were normally painful to handle. Schaik continued to observed sophisticated tool manufacture and use in the wild by the orangutans who also adjusted their tools according to the nature of the task at hand. Interestingly, this use of tools also indicates cultural behavior as the tool technique is socially transmitted.

Unfortunately, orangutanswhile being the two exclusively Asian species of extant great apesare endangered and currently only found in the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra. The island of Kaja, where this photo was captured, is unique as it's where apes are re-released after being rescued and rehabilitated.

If you're interested in reading more about the plight of the orangutans, please see this blog post or watch Sir Terry Pratchett's newly released and excellent documentary, Facing Extinction.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Crank Up the Volume

The Physical Discomfort Behind Sound

The unpleasantness of some chalkboard sounds has to do with their frequencies.
The analogy “it’s like nails on a chalkboard” sums up people’s aversion to certain sounds. Personally, I can’t stand the sound of teeth scraping against a fork; the high-pitched noise makes me cringe even just thinking about. So, why do some sounds upset us so much?

Higher processing levels of the auditory system may contribute to the sensation of discomfort due the lack of phase locking (mechanisms that your ears and brain use to localize sounds in space using cues from both ears) and reduced selectivity at high frequencies. There may be evolutionary aspects, since these annoying sounds resemble screaming. If there’s something that’s going to make your evolutionary ancestors bolt, after all, it’s a scream.

However, people tend to be fine with high frequency sounds with constant intensity and low variations in the frequency components. A good example of this is violin harmonics or the piccolo. The sounds that make us go crazy tend to vary a lot, fluctuating between low frequency components and high frequency components (nail sliding down the chalkboard does this). Every person responds differently, so that's an evidence for higher auditory processing contributing to the discomfort.

While it is true that at the cochlear level, 4k range is the most amplified by resonance. But the amplitude of the annoying chalkboard sound is nowhere close to the "feeling threshold" where hair cells can get killed after a short exposure to the sound. So even though the sound is annoying, your eardrums are perfectly safe.

Historically, sound has also been used as a torture method. An article in the Journal of the Society for American Music describes how music was frequently used in interrogations in Iraq and Afghanistan to obtain information in lieu of physical force.

The top picks for this task? Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA;” Christina Aguilera’s “Dirrty;” Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made for Walking;” AC/DC’s “Shoot to Thrill” and Hells Bells;” and Barney the Dinosaur’s “I Love You.”

Monday, April 1, 2013

Wise Up! April Fools' from the Science Community

Pranking people is a grand tradition that dates back to who-knows-when, and science pranks for April 1st are no exception. Since the average reader is perhaps quite liable to believe what they read, scientists are at an advantage on this day. After all, who expects a boring scientist to have a sense of humor?

Below are some of the best April Fools' pranks perpetuated by the science community:
Google's Copernicus Center
1959: Dr. Arthur Hayall—not a real person—from University of the Sierras—not a real place—claimed that the moons of Mars were actually artificial satellites. The rumor ran that the Martians were using the satellites as bases. 

1974: John Gribbin published The Jupiter Effect, which stated that the Grand Alignment of planets meant that Armageddon would arrive on March 10th, 1982. (Spoiler: It didn’t.) 

1976: BBC Radio 2 astronomer Patrick Moore announced that at 9:47 a.m. that day, Pluto would pass directly behind Jupiter and their combined gravitational forces would combine to lessen Earth’s gravity. He helpfully hinted that listeners jump into the air at that time to experience less gravity and increasing their buoyancy. 

1996: Discover Magazine announced the discovery of a “bigon,” a new fundamental particle of matter that appears and disappears in mere millionths of a second, and also happened to be the size of a bowling ball. Everything from sinking soufflés to spontaneous human combustion was blamed on the bigon. 

1998: Nature reported a “near-complete skeleton of a theropod [T. rex-like] dinosaur in North Dakota”— which was implicitly suggested to have breathed fire—discovered by Randy Sepulchrave of the Museum of the University of Southern North Dakota. Of course there is no University of Southern North Dakota and the skeleton, dubbed Smaugia volans, derived its name from Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Furthermore, Sepulchrave is a famous fictional character who believed he was an owl and died in a dramatic attempt to fly from a high tower. 

1999:  The Red Herring Magazine published an article on how users could, through a technology developed by computer genius Yuri Maldini, send emails telepathically of up to 240 characters. The magazine received numerous letters from intrigued readers. 

2004: Google announced that they were opening their Copernicus Center, which would be a “lunar hosting a research” site. Applicants need not apply if they couldn’t live without “modern conveniences as soy low-fat lattes, The Sopranos and a steady supply of oxygen.” 

2005: The day before April Fools’, NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day contained a teaser announcement “Water on Mars!” The photo ended up depicting a glass of water sitting on a Mars bar, and now the idea that there might actually be water on the red planet doesn’t seem so silly after all. 

2008: The BBC claimed to have discovered a colony of flying penguins and released footage, narrated by Monty Python’s Terry Jones in a David Attenborough-esque manner. (Watch the video here.) 

2012: A mock study titled “On the influence of the Illuminati in astronomical adaptive optics” (pdf warning) described how the nefarious shadow cult is to blame for pretty much everything, including Brittney Spears’ and Lady Gaga’s “astronomical rise to the top.”

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Terry Pratchett: Facing Extinction

Pratchett alongside an endangered red ape
Bestselling author Sir Terry Pratchett, known in particular for his Discworld novels, returns to the jungles of Borneo in the last segment of this trilogy. Eighteen years ago, he encountered orangutans in the wild for the first time and this documentary follows his return to Borneo where he hopes to encounter them again and discover what the future holds for these amazing creatures. The experiences of his first trip caused him to become a trustee of the Orangutan Foundation, a UK charity devoted to protecting both the animals and their habitats.

In this segment, Pratchett and his assistant visit an Indonesian street market that is rumored to sell endangered animals and meet up with Dr. Birute Galdikas, the world expert on orangutans and president of Orangutan Foundation International. The most powerful piece of the documentary is the travel into the jungle to find the intelligent orangutans, in particular Kusasi, described as the “former king of the orangutans.”

The reality of the situation sets in when Pratchett asks a local conservation worker: “Would the people of Borneo care if all the orangutans were wiped out?”

“No,” she responds, “Ninety percent wouldn’t care a bit.”

This documentary is especially emotional for fans of Pratchett’s because in 2007 he was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. Watching him struggle through the perils of the jungle is guaranteed to wrench anyone’s heart.

The hour-long show broadcasted on BBC Two at 21:00 GMT, but can also be found here.

Celestial Sightings

Just about every evening before going to bed, I take a moment to look at the stars. While the weather isn’t always agreeable, when it’s clear there’s always something worth seeing.  Last Sunday, for example, there was the beautiful sight of Jupiter and the neighboring crescent moon closely paired together.

Tomorrow night, be on the lookout for the waning moon (after all, yesterday was the worm moon — the first full moon in March) sandwiched between Spica and Saturn. You will be able to find the moon midway between the star and the planet, which are currently 17° apart.

Spica will be the white star to the moon’s upper right and Saturn will be more creamy-colored down to the moon’s lower left. Because such a full moon would usually wash out anything in its near vicinity, this degree of separation will actually help the casual observer spot the trio. It will be easiest to spot this celestial arrangement in the southeast after 11 p.m.

Spica is the brightest star in the constellation Virgo

Light from the moon, reflected from the sun, takes only 1.25 seconds to reach the earth. The light from Saturn, 830 million miles away, takes about 74 minutes. However, the light from Spica, a 1st magnitude blue giant, takes about 260 years to finally reach our eyes. So be aware that the light you'll see left the brilliant star well before the American Revolution.

For more on lunar occulations and the best time to see this trio in your area check out details here.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Reddit AMA: Alex Filipenko

Yesterday, Alex Filipenko, a famous astronomer as well as an astrophysics professor at UC Berkeley, did an AMA on Reddit. For those who don't know, an AMA is an "Ask Me Anything" done Q&A style on the social media site. Most of the questions revolved around the future of space exploration and research. Below I have posted some of the more insightful questions with the corresponding responses. You can view the AMA yourself, here.

Q: Where do you think we will be regarding space travel/research in 50 years? 100 years?
A: Hard to say, that far in advance. I hope we will understand dark matter and dark energy. I hope definitive evidence for extraterrestrial life is found by that time. I'm almost certain we will have directly detected gravitational waves. Regarding space travel, maybe within that time, people will land on Mars for the first time.

Q:  How will we understand or detect dark matter/energy? Will this happen in the next 50 years?
A: Physicists are trying to directly detect dark matter in terrestrial labs. I think dark matter will be found this way in the next 20 years and if not, we need to go back to the drawing board! Dark energy will be much more difficult to directly detect, so I'm not sure it will happen in the next 50 years. Without direct detections, a more complete understanding of both dark matter and dark energy will come from from detailed observations of how they affect the universe. Other astrophysicists and I are busy collecting data that are setting ever more precise constraints on the physical nature of dark matter and dark energy.

Q: You mentioned education reform; what kind of reform do you think would help instill an actual love of knowledge in kids today? Do you think that our current system of just memorizing things and taking tests is sufficient? What do you think we can do instigate that change?
A:  Education reform is a very difficult issue. We have to excite kids about math and science at an early age. We might succeed in part by making these subjects more fun (check out, for example). We have to show kids how math and science are relevant to their lives, and how beautiful they are. Of course, some facts must be taught, but the process of science and discovery should be emphasized more.

Q: What do you think of all the exoplanets being discovered?
A: It's totally fantastic! This is truly a "golden age" for research on exoplanets. In the past few years, the Kepler spacecraft has found a few thousand exoplanet candidates, more than 90% of which are probably genuine exoplanets. Studies of the "Doppler wobble" of the stars they orbit, and other observations, are gradually confirming more than more of them. Some are in, or near, the "Goldilocks zone" where liquid water might be found on the surface. Some are roughly the size of Earth. These will be excellent locations to search for life.

Q: What made you decide on astrophysics as a career?
A:  I've always been fascinated by science. From ages 10 through 17, my main interest was chemistry, but as a freshman in high school I was given a small telescope. With it, I "discovered" Saturn the third "star" at which I pointed the telescope! This really jazzed me, and astronomy became a growing interest. In my freshman year of college, at the University of California at Santa Barbara, I took an introductory astronomy course from Professor Stanton J. Peale, and it was truly wonderful. I realized that the physics of the very large is governed by the physics of the very small (atoms and subatomic particles), so by switching to astrophysics I could "have it all." So I changed majors with the intention of becoming an astrophysicist, and I've never regretted the choice.
One final factor in my decision: As a budding young chemist, I played with explosives and had a couple of pretty bad accidents. I realized that I don't have the self-discipline to stay away from dangerous chemicals, so I should switch fields as an act of self-preservation, if nothing else!

Go here to read the rest of his responses, some more serious and some more silly. (Fun aside: Someone also posted a GIF of Filipenko dancing on the Berkeley campus.)

Monday, March 4, 2013

Prolific Photography

10 percent of all photos taken ever, were taken last year.

TIME, Top 10 Photos of 2012

We currently take as many photographs in a single year as photographers did throughout the entirety of the 19th century. This tidbit and the above statistic aren't as unbelievable when you realize how slow photography was in the 1800s. I have been the subject of wet-plate collodion/tintype photographs (the dominant process in the 1800s, invented around the 1850s), and it takes about ten minutes from start to finish to make a single image with the process. Even 20th Century photography was much slower than digital photography is now; one hour photo shops gave you thirty-six prints per roll of film, tops. And that doesn't take into account the time spent out photographing.

Digital cameras and smartphones allow us to make images without any comparable constraint to volume. In an hour, a professional digital photographer can realistically make upwards of a thousand photographs in the field. With wet-plate collodion, including set-up and tear-down time for the portable darkroom, the photographer is lucky to make four.

But the very nature of digital photographs leads to interesting questions about their survivability and persistence in a historical sense. Old-school darkroom photographers often bemoan the lack of accessibility with digital files over time (anybody tried accessing information from a 5.25" floppy recently?), and by virtue of the volume of photographs being made right now, images in general seem less "special" or "worthy." Not to mention that many photographs don't exist in a physical, holdable, experiential, corporeal sense anymore. The internet is slowly changing that as it slowly abstracts the content away from the storage medium: When consumers look at a picture on Instagram, it doesn't really matter to them what Instagram stores it on, as long as they can send it to them. So now the problem becomes, when the electricity goes out, so too vanishes our photography.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Let's Get Wild

Australia has a problem, and this time it’s not the poisonous spiders, venomous snakes, or sharks. Australia’s problem is its grass. Giant African Gamba grass was introduced in the 1930s and has taken over the outback and with Australian’s recent bush fire track rate, this is worrying.

The solution? Elephants. David Bowman of the University of Tasmania has recommended rewilding an elephant population in the outback. “I’m talking about using elephants as a machine or ecological tool to manage [the] grass,” he told the Guardian. Rewilding is a conservation movement, which involves reintroducing species to areas in which they became extinct at some point in recent history.     
Clearly, there are risks as well with this solution. Australia has a background with being overrun by invasive species and it would be difficult to manage the elephants once released. “If we did go down the road of introducing elephants to Australia, we had better develop the technology to clone saber-tooth tigers to eventually control the elephants,” [said Ricky Spencer, senior lecturer with the Native and Pest Animal unit at the University of Western Sydney.]

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Color in the Eye of the Beholder

When you look at a traffic light, what colors can you name? Most people will say that the lights are red, yellow, and green. However, Japanese people often will refer to the light as being blue in color, not green. This has its roots in the history of the Japanese language, as their word ao—until the modern period—covered both green and blue. Ao in Japanese comes from the dye plant, ai, which as a dyestuff covers the whole of the blue-green portion of the spectrum.  Some cultures have what might at first seem to be peculiarly chosen "basic" color names until you learn their associations with the culture's central food sources or dye plants, or precious commodities.

The color name that covers both blue and green in many native languages of the American Southwest is also the name for the stone, turquoise. You can be certain that, in cultures where a staple food is poisonous when green and edible when red, there are separate names for green and red. In our own history, we have a very similar example to the "blue" traffic lights of Japan: "orange" didn't enter English as a color name until the 16th century, after the fruit itself was first brought to England, quite late in the evolution of our color vocabulary, which is why we still refer to "red" hair.

Berlin & Kay—early theorists of the order of evolution of color names—had to, at some point, translate the names their subjects gave to colors into English in order to assign them a place in their evolutionary chart. Often they did this using bilingual subjects, which is of course problematic, since they would already think or operate in two different linguistic color spaces. When they used dictionaries, how had the dictionary writer decided on the English equivalent of the color name?

Finally, most male English speakers can come up with eleven independent color names, but female speakers are far more likely to come up with dozens of color names without straining. Girls are culturally conditioned to be familiar with this terminology from an early age.

 If you want to participate in a color naming experiment, visit, as the folks over there are trying to determine an online color naming model.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Density of the Universe

The density of the universe seems to be about 10-30 grams per cubic centimeter (source). With a proton having a mass of about 1.67 * 10-24 grams, we have about one proton per million cubic centimeters, i.e. one proton per cubic meter. Since electrons are much less massive than protons, this is also approximately equal to about one hydrogen atom per cubic meter.

So if the mass of the universe were spread evenly throughout space, how much could a container fit? A ten-liter container would thus hold about one-hundredth of a hydrogen atom. Not a lot!
Imagine all the mass of the universe was the size of marbles--how far apart would they be? Assuming all matter is divided up into pebbles, and assuming a pebble has a mass of about 4 grams, this means that we would need 4 * 1030 cubic centimeters (4 * 1015 cubic km) of volume for every pebble to get the right matter density for the universe. This is a lot; assuming equally spaced pebbles, this means that the average distance of one pebble to its closest neighbor is about 1.6 * 1010 cm, or 160,000 kilometers. To put this into perspective, if one pebble is the earth, and another the moon, there would only be one pebble sized distance between them.