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kottke.org posts about science

Recreating the Asteroids arcade game with a laser

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 22, 2017

Watch as digital artist Seb Lee-Delisle recreates the old school video game Asteroids with a laser. But why use a laser? There’s actually a good explanation for this. In the olden days of arcade video games, the screens on most games were like Pac-Man or Donkey Kong…a typical CRT refreshed the entire screen line-by-line many times a second to form a pixelized scene. But with vector games like Tempest, Star Wars, and Asteroids, the electron beam was manipulated magnetically to draw the ships and rocks and enemies directly…and you get all these cool effects like phosphor trails and brighter objects where the beam lingers. When you play Asteroids on a contemporary computer or gaming system, all those artifacts are lost. But with a laser, you can emulate the original feel of the game much more closely.

You’re not going to want to because it’s 17 minutes long, but you should watch the whole video…it’s super nerdy and the explanations of how the various technologies work is worth your while (unless you’re already a laser expert). I loved the bit near the end where they slowed down the rate of the laser so you could see it drawing the game and then slowly sped it back up again, passing through the transition from seeing the individual movements of the laser to observing an entire seamless scene that our mind has stitched together. In his recent book Wonderland, Steven Johnson talks about this remarkable trick of the mind:

On some basic level, this property of the human eye is a defect. When we watch movies, our eyes are empirically failing to give an accurate report of what is happening in front of them. They are seeing something that isn’t there. Many technological innovations exploit the strengths that evolution has granted us: tools and utensils harness our manual dexterity and opposable thumbs; graphic interfaces draw on our powerful visual memory to navigate information space. But moving pictures take the opposite approach: they succeed precisely because our eyes fail.

This flaw was not inevitable. Human eyesight might have just as easily evolved to perceive a succession of still images as exactly that: the world’s fastest slide show. Or the eye might have just perceived them as a confusing blur. There is no evolutionary reason why the eye should create the illusion of movement at twelve frames per second; the ancestral environment where our visual systems evolved had no film projectors or LCD screens or thaumatropes. Persistence of vision is what Stephen Jay Gould famously called a spandrel — an accidental property that emerged as a consequence of other more direct adaptations. It is interesting to contemplate how the past two centuries would have played out had the human eye not possessed this strange defect. We might be living in a world with jet airplanes, atomic bombs, radio, satellites, and cell phones — but without television and movies. (Computers and computer networks would likely exist, but without some of the animated subtleties of modern graphical interfaces.) Imagine the twentieth century without propaganda films, Hollywood, sitcoms, the televised Nixon-Kennedy debate, the footage of civil rights protesters being fire-hosed, Citizen Kane, the Macintosh, James Dean, Happy Days, and The Sopranos. All those defining experiences exist, in part, because natural selection didn’t find it necessary to perceive still images accurately at rates above twelve frames a second — and because hundreds of inventors, tinkering with the prototypes of cinema over the centuries, were smart enough to take that imperfection and turn it into art.

We Work Remotely

Super cool time lapse video of cell division

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 21, 2017

This is a stunning time lapse video of the cells in a tadpole egg dividing over a period of 33 hours. The filmmaker, Francis Chee, built a custom microscope and lighting system to capture the action.

I can say that it was done with a custom designed microscope based on the “infinity optical design” It is not available by any manufacturer. I built it. I used LEDs and relevant optics to light the egg. They too were custom designed by me. The whole microscope sits on anti-vibration table. I have to say that it doesn’t matter too much what microscope people use to perform this. There are countless other variables involved in performing this tricky shot, such as for example: the ambient temperature during shooting; the time at which the eggs were collected; the handling skills of the operator; the type of water used; lenses; quality of camera etc etc.

Chee says in the comments that he’s perfecting his technique and hopes to capture a complete egg-to-tadpole video in the near future. His other videos are worth a look too, like this mushroom time lapse and this gruesome video of a praying mantis eating a fly alive. (via colossal)

A fictional flight above real Mars

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 15, 2017

Using real images of Mars taken by the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Jan Fröjdman created a 3D-rendered flyover of several areas of the planet’s surface.

In this film I have chosen some locations and processed the images into panning video clips. There is a feeling that you are flying above Mars looking down watching interesting locations on the planet. And there are really great places on Mars! I would love to see images taken by a landscape photographer on Mars, especially from the polar regions. But I’m afraid I won’t see that kind of images during my lifetime.

It has really been time-consuming making these panning clips. In my 3D-process I have manually hand-picked reference points on the anaglyph image pairs. For this film I have chosen more than 33.000 reference points! It took me 3 months of calendar time working with the project every now and then.

Watch this in the highest def you can muster…gorgeous.

The rove beetle’s ability to mimic army ants independently evolved many times

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 13, 2017

Rove Beetle Ant

Rove beetles have evolved the ability to look and smell enough like army ants that they can live amongst them. Until it’s dinner time.

The impostors look and smell like army ants, march with the ants, and even groom the ants. But far from being altruistic nest-mates, these creatures are parasitic beetles, engaged in a game of deception. Through dramatic changes in body shape, behavior, and pheromone chemistry, the beetles gain their hostile hosts’ acceptance, duping the ants so they can feast on the colony brood.

As you can see in the photo above, the resemblance is strong…the beetle is in the foreground with the larger headed ant behind.

But that’s not even the most amazing part. A recent discovery has shown that rove beetles have evolved this capability at least a dozen separate times, suggesting that certain evolutionary possibilities are more likely than other in the presence of strong environmental factors and traits.

The ant-mimicking beetles all belong to the Staphylinidae, or rove beetles, but don’t mistake them for close relatives: the last common ancestor of the beetles in the study lived 105 million years ago, at about the time that humans split from mice. “What’s exceptional is that this convergent system is evolutionarily ancient,” says Parker. Although most other convergent systems, such as Darwin’s finches, three-spined stickleback, and African lake cichlid fish, are a few million years old at most, this newly discovered example extends back into the Early Cretaceous.

Given this great age, Parker and his co-author Munetoshi Maruyama of the Kyushu University Museum argue that their finding challenges Stephen J. Gould’s hypothesis that if time could be rewound and evolution allowed to replay again, very different forms of life would emerge. “The tape of life has been extremely predictable whenever rove beetles and army ants have come together,” says Parker. “It begs the question: why has evolution followed this path so many times?”

(via @stewartbrand)

The Goddesses of Venus

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 08, 2017

Goddesses Of Venus Map

Last year, Eleanor Lutz made a medieval-style map of Mars. As a follow-up, she’s made a topographical map of Venus. The features on Venus are named for female mythological figures & notable women and Lutz provides a small biography for each one on the map. Among those featured on the map are:

Anne Frank
Selu (Cherokee Corn Goddess)
Kali (Hindu Goddess, Mother of Death)
Virginia Woolf
Sedna (Eskimo Whose Fingers Became Seals and Whales)
Ubastet (Egyptian Cat Goddess)
Beatrix Potter
Edith Piaf

Here are the full lists of the craters, mountains, and coronae on Venus.

John James Audubon’s five mystery birds

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 07, 2017

Audubon mystery bird

Audubon mystery bird

Audubon mystery bird

Over a period of thirteen years beginning in the 1820s, John James Audubon painted 435 different species of American birds.1 When he was finished, the illustrations were compiled into The Birds of America, one of the most celebrated books in American naturalism. Curiously however, five of the birds Audubon painted have never been identified: Townsend’s Finch, Cuvier’s Kinglet, Carbonated Swamp Warbler, Small-headed Flycatcher and Blue Mountain Warbler.

These birds have never been positively identified, and no identical specimens have been confirmed since Audubon painted them. Ornithologists have suggested that they might be color mutations, surviving members of species that soon became extinct, or interspecies hybrids that occurred only once.

The specimen that Audubon used to paint Townsend’s Bunting is now in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, identified as Townsend’s Dickcissel, but no bird exactly like it has been reported, Dr. Olson, an authority on Audubon’s work, noted in an email. Ornithologists suggest that it is either a mutation of the Dickcissel or a hybrid of Dickcissel and Blue Grosbeak, she said.

And that’s not counting the ones he got wrong for other reasons:

And indeed, there are several birds painted and explained in Birds of America that are not, in fact, actual species. Some are immature birds mistaken for adults of a new species (the mighty “Washington’s Eagle” was, in all likelihood, an immature Bald Eagle). Some were female birds that didn’t look anything like their male partners (“Selby’s Flycatcher” was a female Hooded Warbler).

Audubon also painted six species of bird that have since become extinct: Carolina parakeet, passenger pigeon, Labrador duck, great auk, Eskimo curlew, and pinnated grouse. Here’s his portrait of the passenger pigeon:

Audubon Passenger Pigeon

There were an estimated 3 billion passenger pigeons in the world in the early 1800s — about one in every three birds in North America was a passenger pigeon at the time. Their flocks were so large, it took hours and even days for them to pass. Audubon himself observed in 1813:

I dismounted, seated myself on an eminence, and began to mark with my pencil, making a dot for every flock that passed. In a short time finding the task which I had undertaken impracticable, as the birds poured in in countless multitudes, I rose and, counting the dots then put down, found that 163 had been made in twenty-one minutes. I traveled on, and still met more the farther I proceeded. The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse; the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow, and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose… I cannot describe to you the extreme beauty of their aerial evolutions, when a hawk chanced to press upon the rear of the flock. At once, like a torrent, and with a noise like thunder, they rushed into a compact mass, pressing upon each other towards the center. In these almost solid masses, they darted forward in undulating and angular lines, descended and swept close over the earth with inconceivable velocity, mounted perpendicularly so as to resemble a vast column, and, when high, were seen wheeling and twisting within their continued lines, which then resembled the coils of a gigantic serpent… Before sunset I reached Louisville, distant from Hardensburgh fifty-five miles. The Pigeons were still passing in undiminished numbers and continued to do so for three days in succession.

100 years later, they were all dead. Which may have had at least one interesting consequence:

But the sad echo of the loss of passenger pigeons still reverberates today because its extinction probably exacerbated the proliferation of Lyme disease. When the passenger pigeons existed in large numbers, they subsisted primarily on acorns. However, since there are no pigeons to eat acorns, the populations of Eastern deer mice — the main reservoir of Lyme disease — exploded far beyond historic levels as they exploited this unexpected food bonanza.

  1. Interesting note: Audubon financed this project through a subscription plan. Each month or two, each subscriber would receive a set of five prints and the proceeds covered the costly printing process and Audubon’s nature travels.

The best medical science images of the year

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 06, 2017

Wellcome Images 2017

Wellcome Images 2017

Wellcome Images 2017

The Wellcome Image Awards 2017 recognize the best images related to healthcare and biomedical science taken during the past year.

The Wellcome Image Awards are Wellcome’s most eye-catching celebration of science, medicine and life. Now in their 20th year, the Awards recognise the creators of informative, striking and technically excellent images that communicate significant aspects of healthcare and biomedical science. Those featured are selected from all of the new images acquired by Wellcome Images during the preceding year. The judges are experts from medical science and science communication.

From top to bottom, there’s Mark R. Smith’s photo of a baby Hawaiian bobtail squid, neural stem cells growing on a synthetic gel photographed by Collin Edington and Iris Lee, and Scott Echols’ image of a pigeon’s blood vessel network. (via digg)

MIT Technology Review’s 10 Breakthrough Technologies of 2017

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 06, 2017

From the MIT Technology Review, the 10 Breakthrough Technologies of 2017:

Reversing Paralysis
Self-Driving Trucks
Paying with Your Face
Practical Quantum Computers
The 360-Degree Selfie
Hot Solar Cells
Gene Therapy 2.0
The Cell Atlas
Botnets of Things
Reinforcement Learning

The piece on Hot Solar Cells caught my eye:

Solar panels cover a growing number of rooftops, but even decades after they were first developed, the slabs of silicon remain bulky, expensive, and inefficient. Fundamental limitations prevent these conventional photovoltaics from absorbing more than a fraction of the energy in sunlight.

But a team of MIT scientists has built a different sort of solar energy device that uses inventive engineering and advances in materials science to capture far more of the sun’s energy. The trick is to first turn sunlight into heat and then convert it back into light, but now focused within the spectrum that solar cells can use. While various researchers have been working for years on so-called solar thermophotovoltaics, the MIT device is the first one to absorb more energy than its photovoltaic cell alone, demonstrating that the approach could dramatically increase efficiency.

A neuroscientist explains a concept at five different levels

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 04, 2017

Wired recently challenged neuroscientist Bobby Kasthuri to explain what a connectome is to people with five different levels of potential understanding: a 5-year-old, a 13-year-old, a college student, a neuroscience grad student, and an expert neuroscientist. His goal: “every person here can leave with understanding it at some level”.

Watching this, I kept thinking of Richard Feynman, who was particularly adept at describing concepts to non-experts without sacrificing truth or even nuance. See him explain fire, rubber bands, how trains go around curves, and magnets.

An appreciation of the Hubble’s Deep Field images

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 03, 2017

More than 20 years ago, the Hubble Space Telescope took a photo of a patch of seemingly dark sky and, lo, it was filled with hundreds and hundreds of galaxies.

Hubble Ultra Deep Field

About ten years after that, they looked even deeper into the night sky and observed thousands of galaxies, each containing hundreds of billions of stars. The video above is an appreciation of these Deep Field images and what they taught us about the Universe.

In 1995, scientists pointed the Hubble Telescope at an area of the sky near the Big Dipper. The location was apparently empty, and the whole endeavour was risky — what, if anything, was going to show up? But what came back was nothing short of spectacular: an image of over 1,500 galaxies glimmering in a tiny sliver of the universe. Alex Hofeldt helps us understand the scale of this image.

What if the Earth were a middle-aged adult and other comparisons

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 28, 2017

Sometimes big distances, long time periods, and large numbers can be difficult to grasp. So it helps to contextualize them with comparisons. When you do so, you realize that a billion is much much more than a million:

But when he linked these numbers to time, it brought things in perspective: 1 million seconds is nearly 12 days, whereas 1 billion seconds is almost 32 years. “Everybody gets it when you say it like that,” he wrote in an email. “If you just said 1 billion is three orders of magnitude greater than 1 million, I don’t think it would make the same impression.”

Tim Urban’s Life Calendar emphasizes the relative shortness of human life and the importance of using your time well by reorganizing a human lifespan into weeks.

Each row of weeks makes up one year. That’s how many weeks it takes to turn a newborn into a 90-year-old.

It kind of feels like our lives are made up of a countless number of weeks. But there they are — fully countable — staring you in the face.

High school chemistry teacher Keith Karraker recently imagined the Earth having the lifespan of a typical human, which is a useful way of thinking about young humanity is in comparison.

Earth’s about half-way through its life. If it were a middle-aged adult of 40, its last mass extinction happened about 7 months ago.

To 40-yr-old Earth, humans have been using tools for a week and a half, and just left Africa 8 hours ago to settle around the globe.

All of human history is the last half hour. It’s been an exhilarating and disastrous half hour. But we figured out some really cool shit.

We figured out quantum, relativity, and DNA. A randomly mutating and replicating molecule built a machine to figure itself out.

Even much older evolutionary changes are surprisingly recent on this scale. Spines debuted just over 4 yrs ago. About when iPhone 5 did.

For more on the visualization of large scales, see also Powers of Ten, the leisurely pace of light speed, the size of supermassive black holes, and this comparison of the sizes of things from the Moon to galactic superclusters and beyond:

You want to talk about human insignificance? If Betelgeuse, one of the largest stars shown in the video, were in the Sun’s place, it would nearly reach the orbit of Jupiter, from which light takes 43 minutes (on average) to reach the Earth. (via @stevesilberman)

NASA has found 7 Earth-like planets orbiting a single nearby star

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 22, 2017

Trappist 1

Today NASA announced the discovery of seven planets “that could harbor life” around a dwarf star called Trappist-1.

The planets orbit a dwarf star named Trappist-1, about 40 light years, or about 235 trillion miles, from Earth. That is quite close, and by happy accident, the orientation of the orbits of the seven planets allows them to be studied in great detail.

One or more of the exoplanets - planets around stars other than the sun - in this new system could be at the right temperature to be awash in oceans of water, astronomers said, based on the distance of the planets from the dwarf star.

“This is the first time so many planets of this kind are found around the same star,” said Michael Gillon, an astronomer at the University of Liege in Belgium and the leader of an international team that has been observing Trappist-1.

Here’s the paper published in Nature.

Arrival: future communication, past perspective

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 15, 2017

In his newest video, Evan Puschak talks about Arrival, calling it “a response to bad movies”. Arrival was perhaps my favorite film of 2016, and I agree with him about how well-made this film is. There’s a top-to-bottom attention to craft on display, from how it looks to how it was cast (Amy Adams was the absolute perfect choice for the lead) to the integration of the theme with story to how expertly it was adapted from Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life. The whole thing’s tight as a drum. If you happened to miss it, don’t watch this video (it gives the whole thing away) and go watch it instead…it’s available to rent/buy on Amazon.

Looking back through the archives, I’m realizing I never did a post about Arrival even though I collected some links about it. So, linkdump time!

Wired wrote about how the movie’s alien alphabet was developed.

Stephen Wolfram wrote about his involvement with the science of the film — his son Christopher wrote Mathematica code for some of the on-screen visuals. 1

Science vs Cinema explored how well the movie represented actual science:

Screenwriter Eric Heisserer wrote about how he adapted Chiang’s short story for the screen.

Jordan Brower wrote a perceptive review/analysis that includes links to several other resources about the film.

Update: The director of photography for Arrival was Bradford Young, who shot Selma and is currently working on the Han Solo movie for Disney. Young did an interview with No Film School just before Arrival came out.

I’m from the South, so quilts are a big part of telling our story. Quilting is ancient, but in the South it’s a very particular translation of idea, time, and space. In my own practice as an image maker, I slowly began to be less concerned with precision and more concerned with feeling.

Quiltmakers are rigorous, but they’re a mixed media format. I think filmmaking should be a mixed media format. I’m just really honoring what quiltmakers do, which is tell a story by using varying texture within a specific framework to communicate an idea. For me, with digital technology, lenses do that the best. The chips don’t do it now-digital film stock is basically all captured the same, but the lenses are how you give the image its textural quality.

(thx, raafi)

Update: James Gleick, author of Time Travel, wrote about Arrival and Story of Your Life for The New York Review of Books.

What if the future is as real as the past? Physicists have been suggesting as much since Einstein. It’s all just the space-time continuum. “So in the future, the sister of the past,” thinks young Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses, “I may see myself as I sit here now but by reflection from that which then I shall be.” Twisty! What if you received knowledge of your own tragic future-as a gift, or perhaps a curse? What if your all-too-vivid sensation of free will is merely an illusion? These are the roads down which Chiang’s story leads us. When I first read it, I meant to discuss it in the book I was writing about time travel, but I could never manage that. It’s not a time-travel story in any literal sense. It’s a remarkable work of imagination, original and cerebral, and, I would have thought, unfilmable. I was wrong.

(via @fquist)

  1. Christopher was 15 or 16 when he worked on the film. His LinkedIn profile states that he’s been a programmer for Wolfram (the company) since he was 13 and that in addition to his work on Arrival, he “implemented the primary cryptography functions in Mathematica”.

Winners of the 2017 Underwater Photographer of the Year awards

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 15, 2017

Underwater 2017

Underwater 2017

In Focus is featuring some of the winning shots from the 2017 Underwater Photographer of the Year awards. The top one is Dancing Octopus taken by Gabriel Barathieu and the bottom one is by Qing Lin, who took the photo near Lembeh, Indonesia, which is home to some of the strangest marine life in the world.

If you look at Lin’s photo of the clownfish for more than a second or two — pay attention…this is the nightmarish side to living on the reef that Pixar kept from you in Finding Nemo — you will notice not just three pairs of eyes but six pairs of eyes. In the mouth of each clownfish is a parasitic isopod looking right at the camera. The isopod enters the fish through the gills, attaches itself to the fish’s tongue, feeds on the blood in the tongue until it falls off, and then attaches itself to the tongue stump. And the fish uses the isopod as a replacement tongue! Cool! And gross!

Hidden Figures

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 14, 2017

I finally got the chance to see Hidden Figures the other day. Recommended. It’s a science/space story in the vein of Apollo 13, but the twin engines of the film are the three excellent lead actresses — Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer & Janelle Monáe — and the persistent portrayal of the systemic biases of segregation and sexism. You watch this movie and think, how much higher could the human race have flown if women and people of color had always had the same opportunities as white men?1 How many Katherine Johnsons never got the chance to develop and use their skills in math, science, or technology because of their skin color or gender? Our society wastes so much energy and human lives telling people what they can’t do rather than empowering them to show everyone what they can do.

Hidden Figures was adopted from Margot Lee Shetterly’s book of the same name. The film takes some dramatic license with the timing of certain events but overall is historically accurate.

The film primarily focuses on John Glenn’s 1962 trip around the globe and does add dramatic flourishes that are, well, Hollywood. However, most of the events in the movie are historically accurate. Johnson’s main job in the lead-up and during the mission was to double-check and reverse engineer the newly-installed IBM 7090s trajectory calculations. As it shows, there were very tense moments during the flight that forced the mission to end earlier than expected. And John Glenn did request that Johnson specifically check and confirm trajectories and entry points that the IBM spat out (albeit, perhaps, not at the exact moment that the movie depicts). As Shetterly wrote in her book and explained in a September NPR interview, Glenn did not completely trust the computer. So, he asked the head engineers to “get the girl to check the numbers… If she says the numbers are good… I’m ready to go.”

You can view Johnson’s published reports on NASA’s site, including her initial technical report from 1960 on the Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position.

  1. I’m using the past tense here, but I am definitely not saying that women and people of color now possess those same opportunities. Take a quick look at the current racial and gender wage gaps in the US and you’ll see that they still do not.

The time crystals concept is now reality

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 07, 2017

Time Crystals

In 2012, physicist Frank Wilczek speculated that it would be possible to make a crystal whose lattice repeats in four dimensions, not just three.

Wilczek thought it might be possible to create a similar crystal-like structure in time, which is treated as a fourth dimension under relativity. Instead of regularly repeating rows of atoms, a time crystal would exhibit regularly repeating motion.

Many physicists were sceptical, arguing that a time crystal whose atoms could loop forever, with no need for extra energy, would be tantamount to a perpetual motion machine — forbidden by the laws of physics.

Now, a team at Berkeley have succeeded in making time crystals, publishing a method that two other teams have already successfully followed.

For Yao’s time crystal, an external force — like the pulse of a laser — flips the magnetic spin of one ion in a crystal, which then flips the spin of the next, and so forth, setting the system into a repeating pattern of periodic motion.

There are two critical factors. First, after the initial driver, it must be a closed system, unable to interact with and lose energy to the environment. Second, interactions between quantum particles are the driving force behind the time crystal’s stability. “It’s an emergent phenomenon,” says Yao. “It requires many particles and many spins to talk to each other and collectively synchronise.”

The leisurely pace of light speed

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 25, 2017

In a 45-minute video called Riding Light, Alphonse Swinehart animates the journey outward from the Sun to Jupiter from the perspective of a photon of light. The video underscores just how slow light is in comparison to the vast distances it has to cover, even within our own solar system. Light takes 8.5 minutes to travel from the Sun to the Earth, almost 45 minutes to Jupiter, more than 4 years to the nearest star, 100,000 years to the center of our galaxy, 2.5 million years to the nearest large galaxy (Andromeda), and 32 billion years to reach the most remote galaxy ever observed.1 The music is by Steve Reich (Music for 18 Musicians), whose music can also seem sort of endless.

If you’re impatient, you can watch this 3-minute version, sped up by 15 times:

  1. This isn’t strictly true. As I understand it, a photon that just left the Sun will never reach that most remote galaxy.

Photos of evolution in action

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 18, 2017

Southern Cassowary

For his new book, Evolution: A Visual Record, photographer Robert Clark has collected dozens of images that show the varying ways in which plants and animals have adapted to their changing surroundings.

Evidence of evolution is everywhere. Through 200 revelatory images, award-winning photographer Robert Clark makes one of the most important foundations of science clear and exciting to everyone. Evolution: A Visual Record transports readers from the near-mystical (human ancestors) to the historic (the famous ‘finches’ Darwin collected on the Galapagos Islands that spurred his theory); the recently understood (the link between dinosaurs and modern birds) to the simply astonishing.

The photo above is of a southern cassowary, a flightless bird that is particularly dinosaur-esque in stature and appearance.

A human-powered paper centrifuge

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 13, 2017

Testing human blood for tropical diseases like malaria can be difficult in some parts of the world. Centrifuges used to separate the blood for testing are expensive and require electricity. Researchers from Stanford have developed an ingenious human-powered centrifuge made of paper and string inspired by a children’s toy invented 5000 years ago (paging Steven Johnson, Steven Johnson to the courtesy desk please).

In a global-health context, commercial centrifuges are expensive, bulky and electricity-powered, and thus constitute a critical bottleneck in the development of decentralized, battery-free point-of-care diagnostic devices. Here, we report an ultralow-cost (20 cents), lightweight (2 g), human-powered paper centrifuge (which we name ‘paperfuge’) designed on the basis of a theoretical model inspired by the fundamental mechanics of an ancient whirligig (or buzzer toy; 3,300 BC). The paperfuge achieves speeds of 125,000 r.p.m. (and equivalent centrifugal forces of 30,000 g), with theoretical limits predicting 1,000,000 r.p.m. We demonstrate that the paperfuge can separate pure plasma from whole blood in less than 1.5 min, and isolate malaria parasites in 15 min.

A million rpm from paper and string…that’s incredible. (via gizmodo)

“When I talk about climate change, I don’t talk about science”

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 06, 2017

Climate change has shifted from being a scientific issue to a political issue, both because the science is settled1 and because conservatives have embraced climate denialism. As a result, when deep-sea biologist Andrew Thaler talks to people about climate change, he doesn’t talk about science. He talks to people about things like fishing:

Fishermen know that things are changing, that black bass, scup, and butterfish (an important prey species in the tuna fishery) are moving further and further north. Oystermen know that the increasingly high high tides have a negative effect on the recruitment and growth of commercial oysters. More importantly, fishing communities have records and cultural knowledge that go back centuries, and they can see from multi-generational experience that the seasons are less predictable now than in the past and that the changes taking place today are nothing like the more gradual changes of previous generations.

And flooding:

I know fishermen in Guinea living in houses that have stood for hundreds of years. Some of those houses now flood at high tide. Every high tide. They weren’t built at the water’s edge, the water’s edge came to them. I lived in the same house in Beaufort, North Carolina for ten years. When I moved in, we were high and dry. Now our street has a permanent “high water” sign. The farm I just left in coastal Virginia is inundated after heavy rains or strong tidal surges. The front fields, which once held vibrant gardens, now nurture short grass and salty soil.

And other things like farming and faith. People who aren’t scientists and have grown distrustful of them won’t be convinced by science. But they will believe stories that relate to important matters in their lives. (via @EricHolthaus)

  1. Overwhelmingly, science says the Earth’s climate is warming quickly and humans are the cause.

A beautiful aquarium supernova

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 04, 2017

Using mostly old-school visual effects — like ink dispersing in an aquarium and poking holes in napkins (to represent stars) — Thomas Vanz created a pretty compelling representation of a dying star going supernova.

Novae is a movie about an astronomical event that occurs during the last evolutionary stages of a massive star’s life, whose dramatic and catastrophic death is marked by one final titanic explosion called supernova.

By only using an aquarium, ink and water, this film is also an attempt to represent the giant with the small without any computed generated imagery.

As a tribute to Kubrick or Nolan’s filmography, Novae is a cosmic poem that want to introduce the viewer to the nebulae’s infinite beauty.

Vanz documented his process in these two videos, which are almost as entertaining as the finished product.

What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 03, 2017

Each year, Edge has asked a group of scientists, philosophers, musicians, writers, and designers a simple but provocative question and collects the answers on their website. Past questions have included:

What do you think about machines that think? (2015)
What have you changed your mind about? Why? (2008)
What do you believe true even though you cannot prove it? (2005)
What is the most important invention in the past two thousand years? (1999)

This year, the question is: What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?

Of all the scientific terms or concepts that ought to be more widely known to help to clarify and inspire science-minded thinking in the general culture, none are more important than “science” itself.

Many people, even many scientists, have traditionally had a narrow view of science as controlled, replicated experiments performed in the laboratory-and as consisting quintessentially of physics, chemistry, and molecular biology. The essence of science is conveyed by its Latin etymology: scientia, meaning knowledge. The scientific method is simply that body of practices best suited for obtaining reliable knowledge.

Here are some of the responses. Alison Gopnik chose “Life History”:

“Life history” is the term biologists use to describe how organisms change over time-how long an animal lives, how long a childhood it has, how it nurtures its young, how it grows old. Human life history is weird. We have a much longer childhood than any other primate-twice as long as chimps, and that long childhood is related to our exceptional learning abilities. Fossil teeth suggest that this long childhood evolved in tandem with our big brains-we even had a longer childhood than Neanderthals. We also rapidly developed special adaptations to care for those helpless children-“pair-bonding” and “alloparents.” Fathers and unrelated kin help take care of human children, unlike our closest primate relatives.

And we developed another very unusual life history feature-post-menopausal grandmothers. The killer whale is the only other animal we know that outlives its fertility. The human lifespan was expanded at both ends-longer childhood and a longer old age. In fact, anthropologists have argued that those grandmothers were a key to the evolution of learning and culture. They were crucial for the survival of those helpless children and they also could pass on two generations worth of knowledge.

Jessica Flack chose “Coarse-Graining”:

In physics a fine-grained description of a system is a detailed description of its microscopic behavior. A coarse-grained description is one in which some of this fine detail has been smoothed over.

Coarse-graining is at the core of the second law of thermodynamics, which states that the entropy of the universe is increasing. As entropy, or randomness, increases there is a loss of structure. This simply means that some of the information we originally had about the system has become no longer useful for making predictions about the behavior of a system as a whole. To make this more concrete, think about temperature.

Temperature is the average speed of particles in a system. Temperature is a coarse-grained representation of all of the particles’ behavior — the particles in aggregate. When we know the temperature we can use it to predict the system’s future state better than we could if we actually measured the speed of individual particles. This is why coarse-graining is so important — it is incredibly useful. It gives us what is called an effective theory. An effective theory allows us to model the behavior of a system without specifying all of the underlying causes that lead to system state changes.

And physicist Nigel Goldenfeld chose “The Scientific Method” itself:

There’s a saying that there are no cultural relativists at thirty thousand feet. The laws of aerodynamics work regardless of political or social prejudices, and they are indisputably true. Yes, you can discuss to what extent they are an approximation, what are their limits of validity, do they take into account such niceties as quantum entanglement or unified field theory (of course they don’t). But the most basic scientific concept that is clearly and disturbingly missing from today’s social and political discourse is the concept that some questions have correct and clear answers. Such questions can be called “scientific” and their answers represent truth. Scientific questions are not easy to ask. Their answers can be verified by experiment or observation, and they can be used to improve your life, create jobs and technologies, save the planet. You don’t need pollsters or randomized trials to determine if a parachute works. You need an understanding of the facts of aerodynamics and the methodology to do experiments.

There are 200 more contributions from bold-faced names like Richard Dawkins, Hanna Levin, Brian Eno, Kevin Kelly, and Danny Hillis. Have fun!

Discovery of a pre-Columbian “Stonehenge” in Brazil

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 15, 2016

Research on an arrangement of massive granite blocks in the Brazilian Amazon has indicated that they were used as an astronomical observatory about 1000 years ago.

After conducting radiocarbon testing and carrying out measurements during the winter solstice, scholars in the field of archaeoastronomy determined that an indigenous culture arranged the megaliths into an astronomical observatory about 1,000 years ago, or five centuries before the European conquest of the Americas began.

Their findings, along with other archaeological discoveries in Brazil in recent years — including giant land carvings, remains of fortified settlements and even complex road networks — are upending earlier views of archaeologists who argued that the Amazon had been relatively untouched by humans except for small, nomadic tribes.

I still remember reading Charles Mann’s piece in 2002 about the mounting evidence against the idea of a largely wild and pristine pair of continents civilized and tamed by Europeans.

Erickson and Balée belong to a cohort of scholars that has radically challenged conventional notions of what the Western Hemisphere was like before Columbus. When I went to high school, in the 1970s, I was taught that Indians came to the Americas across the Bering Strait about 12,000 years ago, that they lived for the most part in small, isolated groups, and that they had so little impact on their environment that even after millennia of habitation it remained mostly wilderness. My son picked up the same ideas at his schools. One way to summarize the views of people like Erickson and Balée would be to say that in their opinion this picture of Indian life is wrong in almost every aspect. Indians were here far longer than previously thought, these researchers believe, and in much greater numbers. And they were so successful at imposing their will on the landscape that in 1492 Columbus set foot in a hemisphere thoroughly dominated by humankind.

That article turned into 1491, which remains one of my favorite books.

See also Ars Technica’s recent piece Finding North America’s lost medieval city.

LIGO’s gravitational wave data may contradict relativity

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 12, 2016

Earlier this year, the LIGO experiment detected evidence of gravitational waves. Now the evidence shows that those waves may have echoes, which would contradict one of the tentpoles of modern physics, the general theory of relativity.

It was hailed as an elegant confirmation of Einstein’s general theory of relativity — but ironically the discovery of gravitational waves earlier this year could herald the first evidence that the theory breaks down at the edge of black holes. Physicists have analysed the publicly released data from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), and claim to have found “echoes” of the waves that seem to contradict general relativity’s predictions.

The echoes could yet disappear with more data. If they persist, the finding would be extraordinary. Physicists have predicted that Einstein’s hugely successful theory could break down in extreme scenarios, such as at the centre of black holes. The echoes would indicate the even more dramatic possibility that relativity fails at the black hole’s edge, far from its core.

If the echoes go away, then general relativity will have withstood a test of its power — previously, it wasn’t clear that physicists would be able to test their non-standard predictions.

Feathered dinosaur tail trapped in amber

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 09, 2016

Dino Amber

Paleontologist Lida Xing found the feathered tail of a tiny dinosaur trapped in a piece of amber for sale at a market in Myanmar.

As soon as Xing saw it, he knew it wasn’t a plant. It was the delicate, feathered tail of a tiny dinosaur.

“I have studied paleontology for more than 10 years and have been interested in dinosaurs for more than 30 years. But I never expected we could find a dinosaur in amber. This may be the coolest find in my life,” says Xing, a paleontologist at China University of Geosciences in Beijing. “The feathers on the tail are so dense and regular, this is really wonderful.”

Carl Sagan explains the fourth dimension

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 06, 2016

From his seminal TV program Cosmos, Carl Sagan attempts to explain the fourth dimension of spacetime. The story starts with Edwin Abbott’s Flatland, but Sagan being Sagan, his explanation is especially lucid.

The Map of Physics

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 01, 2016

In this video, physicist Dominic Walliman explains how all of the various disciplines of physics are related to each other by arranging them on a giant map. He starts with the three main areas — classical physics, quantum mechanics, and relativity — and then gets into the more specific subjects like optics, electromagnetism, and particle physics before venturing across The Chasm of Ignorance (dun dun DUN!) where things like string theory and dark matter dwell.

Posters of The Map of Physics are available.

Evolution at work: ivory poaching and tuskless elephants

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 29, 2016

Tuskless Elephants

Poachers in Africa in search of the biggest ivory tusks have altered the gene pool of African elephants in the process.

In Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, 90 per cent of elephants were slaughtered between 1977 and 1992, during the country’s civil war. Dr Poole said that because poachers disproportionately targeted tusked animals, almost half the females over 35 years of age have no tusks, and although poaching is now under control and the population is recovering well, they are passing the tuskless gene down to their daughters: 30 per cent of female elephants born since the end of the war also do not have tusks.

“Females who are tuskless are more likely to produce tuskless offspring,” she said.

(via mr)

Five Steps to Tyranny

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 23, 2016

In 2000, the BBC broadcast an hour-long documentary called Five Steps to Tyranny, a look at how ordinary people can do monstrous things in the presence of authority.

Horrific things happen in the world we live in. We would like to believe only evil people carry out atrocities. But tyrannies are created by ordinary people, like you and me.

[Colonel Bob Stewart:] “I’d never been to the former Yugoslavia before in my life, so what actually struck me about the country was how beautiful it was, how nice people were, and yet how ghastly they could behave.”

The five steps are:

  1. “us” and “them” (prejudice and the formation of a dominant group)
  2. obey orders (the tendency to follow orders, especially from those with authority)
  3. do “them” harm (obeying an authority who commands actions against our conscience)
  4. “stand up” or “stand by” (standing by as harm occurs)
  5. exterminate (the elimination of the “other”)

To illustrate each step, the program uses social psychology experiments and explorations like Jane Elliott’s blue eyes/brown eyes exercise on discrimination, the Stanford prison experiment conducted by Philip Zimbardo (who offers commentary throughout the program), and experiments by Stanley Milgram on obedience, including his famous shock experiment, in which a participant (the “teacher”) is directed to shock a “learner” for giving incorrect answers.

The teacher is told to administer an electric shock every time the learner makes a mistake, increasing the level of shock each time. There were 30 switches on the shock generator marked from 15 volts (slight shock) to 450 (danger — severe shock).

The “learners” were in on the experiment and weren’t actually shocked but were told to react as if they were. The results?

65% (two-thirds) of participants (i.e. teachers) continued to the highest level of 450 volts. All the participants continued to 300 volts.

The program also shows how real-life tyrannies have developed in places like Rwanda, Burma, and Bosnia. From a review of the show in The Guardian:

But there is no doubt about the programme’s bottom line: tyrannies happen because ordinary people are surprisingly willing to do tyranny’s dirty work.

Programmes like this can show such things with great vividness — and there is news footage from Bosnia, or from Rwanda, or from Burma to back it up with terrible clarity. It isn’t clear why the majority is so often compliant, but the implication is that democracy should always be grateful to the protesters, the members of the awkward squad, the people who challenge authority.

But don’t take it for granted that the awkward squad must be a force for good: in Germany, in the 1920s, Hitler was an outsider, a protester, a member of the awkward squad. When he came to power in 1932, he found that German medical professors and biologists had already installed a racial ideology for him, one which had already theorised about the elimination of sick or disabled German children, and the rejection of Jewish professionals as agents of pollution.

Zimbardo himself offers this final word in the program:

For me the bottom line message is that we could be led to do evil deeds. And what that means is to become sensitive to the conditions under which ordinary people can do these evil deeds — what we have been demonstrating throughout this program — and to take a position of resisting tyranny at the very first signs of its existence.

NASA’s analysis of seemingly impossible engine: it works

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 21, 2016

EM Drive NASA

NASA has published their highly anticipated and peer-reviewed analysis of the EM Drive and they’ve concluded the engine works despite appearing to violate Newton’s third law of motion.

In case you’ve missed the hype, the EM Drive, or Electromagnetic Drive, is a propulsion system first proposed by British inventor Roger Shawyer back in 1999.

Instead of using heavy, inefficient rocket fuel, it bounces microwaves back and forth inside a cone-shaped metal cavity to generate thrust.

According to Shawyer’s calculations, the EM Drive could be so efficient that it could power us to Mars in just 70 days.

But, there’s a not-small problem with the system. It defies Newton’s third law, which states that everything must have an equal and opposite reaction.

According to the law, for a system to produce thrust, it has to push something out the other way. The EM Drive doesn’t do this.

Yet in test after test it continues to work. Last year, NASA’s Eagleworks Laboratory team got their hands on an EM Drive to try to figure out once and for all what was going on.

There’s a lot of skepticism around this project, but NASA’s review is definitely a boost to the EM Drive’s credibility.

Update: Just to reiterate, even with this latest paper, there is still skepticism about the EM Drive.

In the end, we can’t conclude that this is a null result, nor can we excitedly say that it works. The sad truth is that this paper is not much better than the researchers’ last one, and it doesn’t actually have enough detail to let us fully evaluate the data. Nor does the paper have enough data to allow a conclusion in the absence of a model. And despite mention of a model in the paper, any model that exists is very well hidden.

Also a clue that the science isn’t quite there on this one yet: very few mainstream science outlets covered this. When the NY Times picks this up and gets prominent physicists on the record about the thruster’s promise, that’s when you’ll know something’s up. Until then, remain skeptical. (via @paudo)