Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Global Shifts of the World's Cultural Hubs

For millennia, thinkers, artists and business people have been drawn to the big city. These cultural hubs foster the exchange of money and ideas, and people have crossed land and sea to spend their days at the center of civilization. Yet the dominance of any one cultural hub doesn't hold forever, and over the years cities have gone through booms and busts in popularity.

This animation above distills hundreds of years of culture into just five minutes. A team of historians and scientists wanted to map cultural mobility, so they tracked the births and deaths of notable individuals like David, King of Israel, and Leonardo da Vinci, from 600 BC to the present day. Using them as a proxy for skills and ideas, their map reveals intellectual hotspots and tracks how empires rise and crumble

The information comes from Freebase, a Google-owned database of well-known people and places, and other catalogues of notable individuals. The visualization was created by Maximilian Schich (University of Texas at Dallas) and Mauro Martino (IBM).

You can read the research paper in Science or check out Nature's news story for more information.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

To Infinity and Beyond: Why the Moon Landing Couldn't Have Been Faked

There's a steadfast group of people who claim that the U.S. faked the moon landing. Since we've just passed the anniversary of the day Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon for the first time, it seems appropriate to share this video. Created by a filmmaker, this video goes over exactly how the film technology of the time worked, and how it would have been impossible to fake the moon landing using it. Enjoy!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Let Uber and Lift Roll

Picture courtesy of Ad Meskens

Technological innovation sometimes makes laws obsolete. Consider the “Red Flag Laws” of the late 19th century, which required early automobiles traveling on roads to be preceded by a man on foot waving a red flag in order to warn others on horses of the vehicle’s approach. Today, most states require cars traveling on roads to have a human driver at the wheel—a regulation that to our descendants will sound just as preposterous as flag-waving does to us.

The current approach that the Commonwealth of Virginia is now taking against ride-sharing apps Uber and Lyft is to just prohibit the new technology until it can be squared with the law. No outright ban is necessary; the government just mindlessly enforces an obsoleted law until it is changed. 
Last week, Richard D. Holcomb, Commissioner of the Department of Motor Vehicles, sent letters to the companies instructing them to cease and desist all operations in Virginia until they obtain “proper authority.” Such proper authority doesn’t really mean a taxicab permit from the state, since Uber and Lyft are not really taxicab companies. Instead, proper authority will come when the legislature changes the law to accommodate the new technology.
“As you know,” Holcomb wrote to Uber, “DMV is actively studying Virginia’s passenger carrier laws and business models such as Uber. DMV has invited Uber and other stakeholders to participate in this study and will produce a final report before the next legislative session. I strongly suggest that Uber focus its resources on participation in this study rather than continue illegal operations in the meantime.”
Everything which is not permitted is forbidden, seems to be the message, even if the innovation is not only harmless, but actually improves on the rationale for the law.
Taxicab regulations exist to cure the “information asymmetry” between passenger and taxi driver. “A would-be passenger on a curb can’t see (or smell) the cab’s interior, can’t assess the driver’s record or confirm that the driver knows his way around,” he writes. “Typically, no other cabs are immediately available, so customers can’t feasibly walk away if they think it’ll be a bad deal.”
The way to address this market failure has been regulation: license drivers and regulate prices. In contrast, with Uber, Lyft, and other ride-sharing platforms, passengers rate drivers and vice versa, so you know what you’re getting into before you get in the car. Everyone’s incentive is to be on their best behavior because poorly rated players are kicked out. “Uber and its competitor, Lyft, solved the asymmetric information problem plaguing the traditional taxi model and obviated the need for state regulators,” writes Mitchell.
Yet even though anyone who’s ever used these services in Virginia can tell you that Uber and Lyft are quicker, safer, cleaner, and cheaper than taxis, the DMV wants to ban the services until they can develop a study and have the legislature give its consent.
Public officials also have a responsibility to exercise discretion in the public interest. It’s clear that the Virginia legislature did not anticipate the invention of platforms like Uber and Lyft when they designed their motor carrier laws, so it would be perfectly reasonable for the DMV to work with the legislature to clarify the law without first banning the services.
The DMV’s alternative, telling Uber and Lyft that they must cease operating because their services don’t fit into any of the regulatory buckets it manages, is pathetically robotic and a disservice to the people of Virginia.
Because officials often have little incentive to abstain from mindlessly enforcing regulations, we should require them to exercise discretion. For example, Section 10 of the Communications Act of 1996 requires the FCC to “forbear from applying any regulation or any provision of this chapter ... if the Commission determines that enforcement of such regulation or provision is not necessary” to achieve the purpose of the law. This hasn’t worked as well as one would hope, but it’s a start.
Rather than react defensively, regulators should allow for permission-less innovation while they determine if and how they will ultimately proceed. Virginia still has an opportunity to show leadership in the face of technological change. It should let Uber and Lyft roll.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Mystery of DNA Explained

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 (territorystudio.com) to produce an animated film on the subject of DNA.

As Will Samuel, lead designer and animator on the project explains, the approach taken wasn’t just to look into a scientific future. “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.”

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 distil 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.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Kentucky Derby Winners

California Chrome Kentucky Derby Winner

In honor of today's Kentucky Derby win by California Chrome, I thought I'd post a breakdown of past Triple Crown winners in the hopes that California Chrome makes his way onto that list.

Triple Crown winners

List of U.S. Triple Crown Winners
1919Sir BartonJohnny LoftusH. Guy BedwellJ. K. L. RossJohn E. Madden
1930Gallant FoxEarl SandeJim FitzsimmonsBelair StudBelair Stud
1935OmahaWillie SaundersJim FitzsimmonsBelair StudBelair Stud
1937War AdmiralCharley KurtsingerGeorge H. ConwaySamuel D. RiddleSamuel D. Riddle
1941WhirlawayEddie ArcaroBen A. JonesCalumet FarmCalumet Farm
1943Count FleetJohnny LongdenDon CameronFannie HertzFannie Hertz
1946AssaultWarren MehrtensMax HirschKing RanchKing Ranch
1948CitationEddie ArcaroHorace A. JonesCalumet FarmCalumet Farm
1973SecretariatRon TurcotteLucien LaurinMeadow StableMeadow Stud
1977Seattle SlewJean CruguetWilliam H. Turner, Jr.Karen L. TaylorBen S. Castleman
1978AffirmedSteve CauthenLaz BarreraHarbor View FarmHarbor View Farm

Failed Triple Crown attempts

The following horses won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness but were beaten in the Belmont:
Good luck, California Chrome! 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Reason for the Earth’s Seasons as Explained From Space

The reason for the Earth’s seasons is succinctly explained using space imagery in this 2011 video from NASA Earth Observatory. As the year goes on, and the Sun’s rays hit the Earth differently based on the planet’s relative position to it, the seasons change. Winter in a hemisphere is essentially a lack of sunlight.
The four images below, starting with the upper left and going clockwise, show the way sunlight hit the Earth on December 21st, 2010, followed by March 20th, 2011, then June 21st, 2011, and finally September 20th, 2011. Each was taken at 6:12AM using the Spinning Enhanced Visible and Infrared Imager (SEVIRI) on EUMETSAT‘s Meteosat-9 meteorological satellite in geosynchronous orbit.

Seasons of Space

Image via NASA/Robert Simmon

Monday, April 7, 2014

Life Cycle of Bees

The Crow Bee dusted in Sunflower pollen. Source: Sam Droege, UCGS.
During the spring, summer, and fall most forager bees work themselves to death.

Foragers are typically weakened by three weeks of "backbreaking" labor. A weak bee will be eaten by predators — wasps love weak bees! — or find themselves unable to continue on a long flight, dying away from the hive. Bees rely on glycogen stores in their fat bodies to provide energy for their flight muscles. This is laid down during their larval and young adult life stages, but not continually added to at a sufficient rate when foraging. As a result, they 'run out of fuel' while foraging and become unable to fly. Death then occurs usually through a secondary medium (predation, hypothermia, starvation, etc.).

Bees which do not fly, such as the queen or overwintering bees, can have lifespans of months or years — and foraging bees, which have become flightless, can be made to fly again for extended periods when artificially provided with glycogen.

Source: Pollinator 
Plenty of bees die inside and around the hive, and caretaker bees will carry them out. However, depending on how hygienic the particular colony is, they may not carry them away from the hive. Plenty of hives have tons of dead bees on the ground around them and are perfectly healthy.

In beekeeping, the term 'Hygienic bees' is used to refer top particular traits of a colony, colonies or lineage, where the bees perform more hygienic actions. This predominantly refers to self-cleaning, in relation to varroa. This often refers to certain stock that has originated in Russia, where bees had earliest exposure to varroa mites, and thus have had the longest to adapt to this parasite and begin to show 'hygienic' behaviors. However, in the most part it is something that has been selected for by bee breeders.

Bee hives on stands are more likely to leave dead bees lying around the outside of the hive but highly hygienic bees will carry the dead further away from the hive. (The primary source of disease transmission has little to do with how far the bees carry away the dead.)

If you want to explore just how truly beautiful bees can be, check out the high resolution images on the National Geographic. There's also a cool article on why honeycombs are hexagons.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Physiological Underpinnings of Political Ideology

"We know that liberals and conservatives are really deeply different on a variety of things," Hibbing explains on the latest episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast (stream above). "It runs from their tastes, to their cognitive patterns—how they think about things, what they pay attention to—to their physical reactions. We can measure their sympathetic nervous systems, which is the fight-or-flight system. And liberals and conservatives tend to respond very differently."

This episode of Inquiring Minds, a podcast hosted by neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas and best-selling author Chris Mooney, also features a discussion of whether we are finally on the verge of curing AIDS, and new research (covered by Grist here) suggesting that great landscape painters, like JMW Turner, were actually able to capture the trace of volcanic eruptions, and other forms of air pollution, in the color of their sunsets.

To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes or RSS

Friday, April 4, 2014

A Sea in Space: Scientists Announce Saturn's Moon has a Watery Ocean

Scientists have confirmed today that Enceladus, one of Saturn's moons, has a watery ocean. The Guardian has an excellent article discussing how "water is not the only factor that makes Enceladus such a promising habitat. The water is in contact with the moon's rocky core, so elements useful for life, such as phosphorus, sulfur and potassium, will leach into the ocean."

Previously, Europa — another of Saturn's moons — was considered the place that was most likely for mankind to find life on. Europa also has a liquid ocean but it also has an oxygen atmosphere. On the other hand on Enceladus we now have contact from the rocky core. So what's the ocean on Europa in contact with, if not a rocky core?

 Europa and Enceladus

Europa has a drastically different structure than Enceladus. If you compare the densities:
  • Europa: 3.01 g/cm³ 
  • Enceladus: 1.61 g/cm³ 
In general, the further from Sun you go, the sparser the material gets. Mercury is the closest to the Sun and has a large metallic core, Mars is already much less dense than Earth, and the trend continues in the outer Solar system. (Jupiter has a similar trend inside its moon system, where Io and Europa are denser than Ganymede and Callisto). This is because more volatile material was pushed to the outside regions of Solar system during formation, leaving denser materials closer to the Sun.

Jupiter probably had a similar effect on its moons, as it probably generated a lot of heat through gravitational contraction and accretion during the early stages of formation. This means that while Europa has a similar structure to Earth's Moon and Mars, with a rocky crust and mantle and a small metallic core (compared to Earth). Enceladus was formed from material with much less heavier materials and much more ices (water, ammonia, methane - which are in general more abundant in space than rocks or metals). This means that it has, in theory, an icy, not rocky crust and mantle, and a rocky core, with only traces of metals.

What this study shows is that at least a part of its icy mantle is molten, similar to how Earth's asthenosphere (upper mantle) is ductile - partially molten.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Meteorite Almost Hits Norwegian Skydiver

When a meteoroid enters the Earth’s atmosphere, it slows down and ionizes molecules around it; it is this blazing track across the sky that is called a meteor. When the light disappears, the meteorite enters the stage called "dark flight"; it then no longer travels at an angle, but falls straight down.

“It has never happened before that a meteorite has been filmed during dark flight; this is the first time in world history,” said Amundsen. That fact means that the meteorite, which Amundsen says would normally be worth a few hundred thousand kroner, is actually far more valuable than its weight would suggest.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Gravitational Waves Cause By Cosmic Inflation

Stanford professor, Andrei Linde, is surprised with the news regarding today's potential major scientific breakthrough.

It was announced today that the BICEP2 cosmic microwave background telescope at the South Pole has detected the first evidence of gravitational waves caused by cosmic inflation. This is one of the biggest discoveries in physics and cosmology in decades, providing direct information on the state of the universe when it was only 10-34 seconds old, and the energy scales near the Planck energy, as well as confirmation of the existence of gravitational waves.

For more information, you can read this semi-technical explanation from Sean Carroll before the details were announced, as well as this technical FAQ from BICEP2.

Monday, February 3, 2014

What Speed Do You Read?

ereader test
Source: Staples

A good book is hard to put down. But if you’re enjoying it on an eReader you eventually have to break and recharge. How many pages can you get through before your battery runs out? How fast can you read classics like The Lord of the Rings or War and Peace? Check your reading speed on this fun interactive infographic and compare it to the national average. Taken this test before? Change the snippet by clicking on the cog at the top of the eReader.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Earth's Changing Weather

credit: Cameron Baccario

An interactive visualization of global weather conditions forecast by supercomputers and updated every three hours. Click on it to interact with the map.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Understanding the Chain Fountain

Over 2.5 million viewers, including many physicists, have been astonished by Steve Mould's videos of a chain flowing along its own length from a pot to the floor below. Apparently defying gravity, the chain rises above the pot as a fountain before falling down. Proceedings A has published a paper which explains why this fountain occurs by considering the forces bringing successive links into motion. In this podcast, authors Mark Warner and John Biggins explain what is going on in an easy to understand and straightforward manner.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Worlds: The Kepler Planet Candidates

Worlds: The Kepler Planet Candidates from Alex Parker on Vimeo.

This animation shows the 2299 high-quality (multiple transits), non-circumbinary transiting planet candidates found by NASA's Kepler mission so far. These candidates were detected around 1770 unique stars, but are animated in orbit around a single star. They are drawn to scale with accurate radii (in r / r* ), orbital periods, and orbital distances (in d / r*). They range in size from 1/3 to 84 times the radius of Earth. Colors represent an estimate of equilibrium temperature, ranging from 4,586 C at the hottest to -110 C at the coldest — red indicates warmest, and blue/indigo indicates coldest candidates.

When the system is animated edge-on, it is clear that there is no time during which the sample of stars the Kepler spacecraft is observing does not contain a planet transiting a star. In fact, on average there are dozens of transits occurring amongst the Kepler sample at any given instant.

The Kepler observatory has detected a multitude of planet candidates orbiting distant stars. The current list contains 2321 planet candidates, though some of these have already been flagged as likely false-positives or contamination from binary stars. This animation does not contain circumbinary planets or planet candidates where only a single transit has been observed, which is why "only" 2299 are shown.

Check out the current list of planet candidates and find more information on the Kepler mission on their website.