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Science

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Galactic Getaways.

“‘It feels like we’re living in the future, or science fiction is coming to life. We thought it would be really cool to explore the characteristics of each planet through the context of travel.'” As Kepler finds its 1,000th exoplanet, NASA celebrates by commissioning nifty vintage travel posters for faraway worlds. Either of the above might be good for a swing-through while folding space to Arrakis.

The Fields Under Lock and Key | In Eclipse.

“Miller, whose parents would rouse him in the wee hours to watch space launches, was awestruck by Launch Complex 19, where the manned Gemini missions took off. It was slowly rusting away, and Miller resolved to photograph it while there was still time. It took two years of haggling before he made his first images of Cape Canaveral…Since then, he has photographed sites nationwide, including Johnson & Kennedy space centers, the Marshall & Stennis Space Flight centers, Langley Research Center and many more.”

In Wired, photographer Roland Miller captures the decaying infrastructure of the early space race. “As launch pads were replaced, retrofitted or decommissioned, Miller was invited inside. By his estimate, 50 percent of the things he’s photographed no longer exist. ‘It’s not in NASA’s mission to conserve these sites,’ he says. ‘With shrinking budgets it’s an impossible thing to do.'”

***

“There’s not only last week’s deadly crash by Virgin Galactic, which hoped to launch widespread space tourism, or the unexpected explosion of a rocket headed toward the International Space Station. The United States also retired the space shuttle fleet in 2011. And…we now spend less on NASA — relative to the wealth of overall economy — than at any point in history.”

In very related news, and in the wake of Interstellar (which, on account of all the reasons I just mentioned, I haven’t seen yet), the Post‘s Zachary Goldfarb briefly surveys our current neglect of the space program. (Here’s what we’ve got planned at the moment.) “As recently as 2012, polling showed that more Americans than ever before thought that we were spending too little.”

The Lander That Could.

“‘Prior to falling silent, the lander was able to transmit all science data gathered during the First Science Sequence,’ lander manager Stephan Ulamec said in a statement. ‘This machine performed magnificently under tough conditions, and we can be fully proud of the incredible scientific success Philae has delivered’…’The data collected by Philae and Rosetta is set to make this mission a game-changer in cometary science,’ said Matt Taylor, ESA’s Rosetta project scientist.”

After traveling 4 billion miles, accomplishing an exhilarating landing on a 84,000-mph moving target, and, after 57 hours of work in an unfortunately dark location, successfully sending a valedictory round of data, the ESA’s history-making Philae probe falls into slumber. “We still hope that at a later stage of the mission, perhaps when we are nearer to the Sun, we might have enough solar illumination to wake up the lander and re-establish communication.” Rest well, little lander — ya did good.

An Infant System.

“[T]he most breathtaking aspects of the image are the rings and gaps in the disk, never imaged before in this much detail. The largest gaps likely contain protoplanets, which form by collecting gas, dust, and small meteoroid fragments, gradually clearing their orbit of that debris. The combination of those gaps and the young age of HL Tauri suggest planets may form more quickly than astronomers think.”

Also in space news, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) captures our best look yet at potential planetary formation around a newborn star, 450 light years away. “The disk surrounding HL Tauri is much bigger than Neptune’s orbit, so any planet in the gaps would at least begin at a larger orbit than the major planets in the Solar System. Additionally, other gaps could be ‘resonances’: orbits where the combined gravity of the star and protoplanets drive matter out, concentrating it in the rings.”

Spectre in the Contraption.

“Since time immemorial, humans have traded stories about ghosts and wraiths — haunting presences that are strongly felt but never seen. Mountaineers often report feeling an unseen presence keeping in step beside them…Blanke was seeing the same phenomenon at work in his patient, but with one critical difference: he could turn it on and off.”

In a nifty experiment involving movement-mimicking robots and a brief time delay, scientists uncover a potential neurological basis for sensing ghostly phenomena. “The mismatched sensory and motor information confused their brains…If those…didn’t match up, my brain would revise its perception of reality to account for the discrepancies. Maybe I’m not inside my body at all, it might think. Maybe I’m over there.”

Goodbye to all that.

“If half the animals died in London zoo next week it would be front page news,’ said Prof. Ken Norris, ZSL’s director of science. ‘But that is happening in the great outdoors. This damage is not inevitable but a consequence of the way we choose to live.'”

A sobering analysis by WWF and the Zoological Society of London finds that Earth has lost half(!) its wildlife over the past four decades (Those g*dd*mned parrotfish notwithstanding, of course.) “Creatures across land, rivers and the seas are being decimated as humans kill them for food in unsustainable numbers, while polluting or destroying their habitats…Today’s average global rate of consumption would need 1.5 planet Earths to sustain it. But four planets would be required to sustain US levels of consumption, or 2.5 Earths to match UK consumption levels.”

In related news, PriceWaterhouse runs the accelerating numbers on climate change and predicts a catastrophe within only twenty years, including “food security threats, coastal inundation, extreme weather events, ecosystem shifts, and widespread species extinction…at current rates, we’re headed towards 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit of warming by the end of the century—twice the agreed upon rate…G20 nations, for example, will need to cut their annual energy-related emissions by one-third by 2030, and by just over half by 2050.”

And here, the National Snow and Ice Data Center graphs the melting of the Arctic over the past 35 years. “The frigid dissolution, which the NSIDC calls ‘one of the most visible indicators of our changing climate,’ is worrying news as the ice plays a big role in reflecting solar radiation away from the planet. With less of it covering the ocean, the Northern Hemisphere will likely heat up quicker, hastening our arrival to the days of dangerously high sea levels.” And if — at this exceedingly late date — you don’t want to believe the science, ask the walruses.

It’s not like this all is a secret. We just saw the largest climate change march in history take place in New York. But you wouldn’t know about the threat we face from watching the news, who’ve (erroneously) decided that the real existential danger to life on this planet are ISIS (wrong) and Ebola (closer, still wrong.) Wolf Blitzer et al, you’re digging in the wrong place.

Also, the Cheese is a Trap.

“The researchers had mice run through a maze to get a reward of chocolate milk. The animals could figure out the location of the reward either through sensory cues such as rough or smooth floors, which corresponds to declarative learning. Or, they could discover the reward was always linked to either a left or right turn, which corresponds to procedural learning. The investigators discovered the mice with the human form of FOXP2 learned profoundly faster than regular mice when both declarative and procedural forms of learning were involved.”

Scared and smarter: In an experiment right out of the The Secret of NIMH, researchers discover that mice learn faster after being given a gene linked to human speech. ‘What surprised me most was that the humanized gene actually improved the animal’s behavior rather than messing up the system.'” Remember…Dubya did try to warn us.

Immeasurable Heaven.

“Discounting cosmic expansion, their map shows flow lines down which galaxies creep under the effect of gravity in their local region…Based on this, the team defines the edge of a supercluster as the boundary at which these flow lines diverge. On one side of the line, galaxies flow towards one gravitational centre; beyond it, they flow towards another. ‘It’s like water dividing at a watershed, where it flows either to the left or right of a height of land,’ says Tully.”

Using an algorithm based on the velocity of redshifting galaxies, a team of University of Hawaii astronomers identify our galaxy’s place in the newly-identified Laniakea supercluster. (Laniakea being Hawaiian for “Immeasurable Heaven.”) Adds Slate‘s Phil Plait: “Laniakea is about 500 million light years across, a staggering size, and contains the mass of 100 quadrillion Suns — 100 million billion times the mass of our star.”

The Sun Has Come to Earth.

“The new figures for carbon dioxide were particularly surprising, showing the biggest year-over-year increase since detailed records were first compiled in the 1980s, Tarasova said in an interview. The jump of nearly three parts per million over 2012 levels was twice as large as the average increase in carbon levels in recent decades.”

We’re getting warmer: While the world focuses on deleting spam from U2, a new report finds carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere accelerating ever faster. “‘The changes we’re seeing are really drastic,’ Tarasova said. ‘We are seeing the growth rate rising exponentially’…’It means we’re probably getting to the point where we’re looking at the ‘safe zone’ in the rearview mirror, even as we’re stepping on the gas.'”

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