Science

Correcting Betelgeuse

Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy has written an article about the photo I shared yesterday of Betelgeuse. Against my better judgement, I was taken in by the senselationism of the article and reported it as a picture of the surface of the star. Well, it sort of is, but the truth is much more beautiful than the simplistic description.

Read the article, he is the gold standard of relatable physics journalism.

15 Billion Solar Masses

A few months back I wrote a deep dive on why the discovery of gravitational waves was such a big deal in the field of physics. Effectively, gravitational waves gave us a whole new method for observing the universe, and among other things, allow us to directly observe blackholes rather than simply attempt to infer their existence as we had done previously.

Now another observatory, the Very Long Baseline Array (VBLA), which in a concept similar to LIGO is a group of ten telescopes spread across over 8,000 km from Mauna Kea, Hawaii to St. Croix, Virgin Islands which are all controlled from Socorro, New Mexico. This massive collection of 25m antennas has managed to observe two supermassive black holes orbiting one another.

Betelgeuse, Betelgeuse, Betelgeuse

As the myth goes, if you say Betelgeuse three times in a row you can see it. Well, thanks to ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) we now have the most detailed photo to date of the surface of the star. It's pretty undefined, but this HAL-looking image was taken of an object that is 600 light years away, about 1,800 TRILLION miles away. It's impossible to put a number like that in perspective, but 1 trillion seconds is the same as 31,688 years so 1,800 trillion seconds would be over than 57 million years.

We like photographing Betelgeuse as it's one of the brightest stars we've ever discovered and is about 1400x the size of our Sun. Like bigger engines, bigger stars burn fuel much faster, exponentially so, and thus huge stars lead very short lives. Already 8 million years old, we expect the star to be nearing its end. Whenever the day comes that we see it go supernova, it will be bright enough to be visible with the naked eye even in broad daylight! 

Quick reminder that since it's 600 light years away, it could have already gone supernova when Galileo was first searching the sky and we still wouldn't know about it here on Earth for around another 200 years.

Juno Finally Reveals Jupiter's Poles

NASA's Juno spacecraft, which reached the planet Jupiter in July 2016 after a five-year, 1.7-billion-mile (2.7-billion-kilometer) journey, is exploring our solar system's biggest planet. It's taking advantage of a polar orbit that allows it to swoop down within 3,100 miles (4,990 kilometers) of the immense world's cloud tops. Imagine it this way: If Jupiter were the size of a basketball, Juno would be only about a third of an inch away.

I just can't get enough of all these photos of Jupiter, what beautiful marbling. We've spent all our time looking at the equator of the planet and gazing at the red spot, and it turns out this some of the more mundane part of Jupiter's weather. 

The funniest thing to me is that scientists continue to always say they are surprised at how complex weather systems are on other planets. Maybe after this we'll start to appreciate that any time you have that much matter in such a small space, the result of all that interaction is going to be exceedingly fascinating. 

Galileo's First Textbook

Reddit user lynjensen has unearthed a copy of Galileo's Dialogue Concerning Two New Sciences, his first textbook and one of the first books to address the physical science of the world since Aristotle was tackling the questions several thousand years earlier. It's interesting to see a physics taught as a dialogue, clearly following the structure of the Socratic dialogues.

Like Google Earth, For Mars

Another incredible video of our solar neighbors has been generated through a labor of love.

To fully appreciate the Martian landscape, one needs dimension and movement. In the video you see here, Finnish filmmaker Jan Fröjdman transformed HiRISE imagery into a dynamic, three-dimensional, overhead view of the Red Planet—no glasses required.
For Fröjdman, creating the flyover effect was like assembling a puzzle. He began by colorizing the photographs (HiRISE captures images in grayscale). He then identified distinctive features in each of the anaglyphs—craters, canyons, mountains–and matched them between image pairs. To create the panning 3-D effect, he stitched the images together along his reference points and rendered them as frames in a video. “It was a very slow process,” he says.

After completing the project, he learned there was an easier way.

It turns out there is software that does this work. “He did it the hard way,” says McEwen, whose lab uses special terrain-modeling programs to match reference points on stereo images automatically. Not that that detracts from Fröjdman’s homespun version. If anything, it makes his labor of love all the more endearing. “There are so many great scenes on Mars,” he says. “The more work I do, the more I learn that this planet is amazing.”

Google Earth Update

While on the topic of old Google moonshot projects, Google recently updated Google Earth. Absolutely stunning work, its unreal how much this product has improved since it first blew me away 15 years ago. It's one of the first services I can remember which came out which simultaneously awed and creeped me out. 

Unprecedented Growth

The primary driver of global warming, disruptive climate changes and ocean acidification is the ever-increasing amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.
Despite decades of global efforts towards climate policies, clean energy and efficiency, CO2 levels continue to rise and are actually accelerating upwards. For those of us hoping for signs of climate progress, this most critical and basic climate data is bitter news indeed. It shows humanity racing ever more rapidly into a full-blown crisis for both our climate and our oceans.

Not the segment we want to see exponential growth.

Nutritional Research Found Full of Empty Calories

A huge scandal has broke across the Nutrition Industry as one of the most prominent researchers in the field, Brian Wasink is having basically all of his lifetime of research called into question.

You’ve probably come across Wansink’s ideas at some point. He researches how subtle changes in the environment can affect people’s eating behavior, and his findings have made a mark on popular diet wisdom. Perhaps you’ve adopted the tip to use smaller plates to trick yourself into eating less, moved your unhealthy snacks into a hard-to-reach place, or placed your fruit bowlprominently on your kitchen counter. Maybe you’ve scoffed at the “health halo” marketing of a decidedly unhealthy food, or chosen 100-calorie snack packs to control your intake.

Grading on a Curve

Great article by a physics professor breaking down three standards methods of grading students.

My students often ask, “Are you going to grade on a curve?” I suspect they’re really asking, “Will you add points to everyone’s grade?” Grading on the curve doesn’t mean adding points. It means adjusting the grades so the overall results follow a normal distribution. Although I don’t grade on a curve, I’ve always thought it would be fun to do so with simple test. I think students would freak out if they scored 91 out of 100 and earned a C.
On second thought, maybe that isn’t a good idea.

That last line is the only spot on the article where we disagree. I can think of no better way to have students understand the concept of statistics than to have the entire class experience being graded on a curve for an easy test. Obviously, the test shouldn't factor too strongly into their final grade, but putting these concepts into the real world is exactly how you make a long term impression.

What's Swimming On Enceladus?

NASA says in a statement, "Enceladus now appears likely to have all three of the ingredients scientists think life needs: liquid water, a source of energy (like sunlight or chemical energy), and the right chemical ingredients (like carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen). Cassini is not able to detect life, and has found no evidence that Enceladus is inhabited. But if life is there, that means life is probably common throughout the cosmos; if life has not evolved there, it would suggest life is probably more complicated or unlikely than we have thought."

This is beyond exciting news. It's not going to be easy to send a probe that will be able to reliably search for life 750 million miles from earth, but neither is anything else NASA has achieved. It's looking more and more like we will have opportunities to discover extra-terrestrial life in our lifetimes if we choose to put our funding in these areas. 

A Space for Space

I'm not sure if you've ever tried to look through pictures taken by NASA, but since the dawn of the internet it's been an exercise in frustration. The pictures have been dispersed through countless websites, and each has had a different interface, with varying degrees of opaqueness. Long have I dreamed for a single repository with a handy interface. Well once again, NASA has turned my dreams into a reality. I can't imagine how much work it was to organize all this data in such an elegant fashion.

The Power of One

Measuring in at between 1 and 2 millimeters, the stentor is a thousand times longer than most bacteria and a billiontimes the volume. On top of that, for a single cell, it’s extremely complex. Hair-like structures called cilia beat around its mouth—more of an opening, really, than like human puckers—sucking in food like algae, even spitting out bits the cell doesn’t care for. Again, a single cell without a brain of its own.
More remarkable still for something without a central nervous system, it can flee predators, but at the same time ignore repetitive yet harmless stimuli. “If you’re living near the train tracks, you don’t get scared when the train goes by,” says Marshall. “And so a stentor, if you bump it again and again at the same intensity it will just learn to ignore it. It’s learning without a brain.” Should a stentor detect a threat, it’ll fire out a cloud of blue pigment, perhaps as a distraction, like an octopus might ink.

Everything about this organism makes it clear we think too simplistically about how cells develop and function. We have assumed that cells are merely simple machines which can perform some basic task when fed a particular input. 

Do Dog's Understand Your Words?

Attention, dog owners! Your pets probably know when you’re praising them — and not just by the tone of your voice. New data suggest that dogs’ brains not only respond to the tone of human speech, but can also distinguish between positive and neutral words. The findings will be published in the 2 September issue of Science1.
The study “provides the first evidence from inside a dog’s brain that there’s processing that depends on the meaning of a word and not just the tone of voice in which it is said”, says Clive Wynne, a behavioural scientist who studies dogs at Arizona State University in Tempe.

There are few things which I remain convinced of in the face of current research, but one of them is that I feel we drastically underestimate the complexity of animal's thought processes and emotions.

Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better

On November 5, 2013, a rocket launched toward Mars. It was India’s first interplanetary mission, Mangalyaan, and a terrific gamble. Only 40 percent of missions sent to Mars by major space organizations — NASA, Russia’s, Japan’s, or China’s — had ever been a success. No space organization had entered Mars’s orbit on its first attempt. What’s more, India’s space organization, ISRO, had very little funding: while NASA’s Mars probe, Maven, cost $651 million, the budget for this mission was $74 million. In comparison, the budget for the movie “The Martian” was $108 million. Oh, and ISRO sent off its rocket only 18 months since work on it began.

This was obviously going to catch my eye. A team of all women working for the Indian Space Organization (ISRO) just successfully placed a satellite into orbit around Mars. Its hard to overstate how astonishing this accomplishment is; how short 18 months are; and how absurd it is to pull this off on less than half of Trump's income for 2005. In fact, if we assume Trump paid a similar amount in taxes the following year, his taxes over 2 years alone could've funded this entire mission. 

While this particular team was completely composed of women, the ISRO as a whole is now staffed by 25% women. Truly an inspirational story for just so many reasons. This is the second time I've posted about India leading the way on progressive social issues. This is the second time haven't seen a single major news network discuss the story.

Signs of Life

Stalks of iron-rich minerals, each a fraction the size of an eyelash, may be evidence of the earliest life-forms to inhabit the newborn planet Earth. The tiny hematite tubes are as much as 4.28 billion years old, according to the scientists announcing the find, and they are stunningly similar to structures produced by microbes living around undersea hydrothermal vents.
Discovered in slices of rock recovered from northern Quebec, the microscopic metallic detritus—plus chemical signatures associated with ancient metabolisms—could push back the date at which life arose on Earth. If verified, these fossils would surpass 3.7-billion-year-old microbial mats found in Greenland as the oldest known traces of life.

It's easy to lose sight of how drastic of a change this is when you're dealing with billions. 580 million years is a long time. To put this in perspective, that's about how long its been since the very first animals started appearing on earth. It took 3.5 billion years to go from single cellular organisms to multicellular. Plants only started making their way onto the land about 700 million years ago.

Bees Tooling Around

For years we've given them names like worker bees, even carpenter bees. Only now do we realize how apt these names truly are.

You can now add bees to the rarefied list of tool-using animals, which already includes primates, crows, octopods, otters, porpoises, and more. A fascinating set of experiments has revealed that bees can be taught to use tools, even though they don't use them in the wild.

Gives a whole new meaning to the birds and the bees. Coming next century, the tools we teach them to use are sex toys.