Category Archives: Scientifically

Greenpeace and other stuff

I was sort of impressed with Amy Larkin’s “Environmental Debt” presentation at GoogleTalk. I’m saying “sort of”, only because, what she’s saying is not exactly new. She urges companies to switch from short term profit to ‘long term profit and sustainability': her primary example is the Thai flooding of 2011, which affected (and still affects) international and local industries. The main cause of the flooding however, was the massive deforestation that happened in Thailand years ago. Cause and effect, simple. Once again, not exactly new, but worth a watch.

Locally, in SJ/NB, we barely got past the July heat spell which brought an interesting weather phenomenon to New Brunswick: The tornado. Without being too alarmist, I believe NOAA reported that once again the heat records were broken this year (link) and subsequently, global warming is frequently tied to extreme weather events (quote):

According to the U.S. Climate Change Science Program (CCSP, 2008), “most of North America has been experiencing more unusually hot days and nights, fewer unusually cold days and nights and fewer frost days. Heavy downpours have become more frequent and intense. Droughts are becoming more severe in some regions”.

Both TO and SJ have had their share of torrential rains this year, not to mention, the freak rain incidents back in Alberta. Are they all related to global warming? That’s up for the weather statisticians and scientists to tell (quote Canadian underwriter):

“I think as long as our economic policies are they way they are, and we keep putting more carbon dioxide up into the atmosphere, the temperature’s going to continue to rise, so we will see more of these events continue to happen. If you took a poll of a bunch of researchers, I think they would agree.

In Russia

Earlier this month, a meteor exploded (I guess, literally) above the Russian town of Chelyabinsk causing plenty of injuries and damage. Thanks to car cams installed in (many) Russian cars, amazing footage was captured of the meteor’s entrance and explosion in the upper-regions of our atmosphere (video).

Coincidentally, around the same day, an asteroid was supposed to ‘near-miss’ our planet and various space agencies were quick to report that this meteor had nothing to do with that asteroid. However, initial calculations put the size of the meteor in the 17 meter range with an approximate weight of 10K metric tonnes. Just a couple of days ago, astronomers in Columbia traced the meteor to the Apollo asteroids (full Wikipedia analysis).

Obviously, this event has been compared with the Tungunska explosion (wikipedia again) and it has raised awareness of the dangers of extra-orbital objects and apparently, the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (link) has suggested the possibly set up an “action team for near-Earth objects”. Tracking these objects is extremely hard tho: detecting a 17 meter object in space hurling at us with a speed of 18 km/s is nearly impossible.


Four weeksago or so, NASA’s JPL successfully landed the rover “Curiosity” (wikipedia) on Mars. The landing was probably one of the most watched (and celebrated) events on the Internet, witness the many gifs of cheering NASA people (Happy NASA guy and Happy NASA people) and the pop-rock-star treatment of the NASA engineers at Reddit (“We’re engineers and scientists on the Mars rover mission”).

As any major news event that at one time broke the Internets, news and interest in the Curiosity rover is slowly dwindling down. However, great photos and mission details are posted on Curiosity’s main site at NASA (MSL website). My favourite one is the movie about the landing (taken from images from the one of the rover’s cameras), which thanks to the Internet, was then made into a HD 25 fps movie, which you can watch right on Youtube. If you like hi-res images of anything but Mars, go here.

I’ve always been a proponent of unmanned flight as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts years ago. The risk of losing a rover is worth less than the risk of losing people in extremely dangerous environments.

NASA’s MSL project is supposed to last a year. No doubt, the rover will keep trucking for a long time after that.

400 to volunteer?

National Geographic has an article about how readily people are to volunteer for ‘single fare’ missions. According to the National, when Fox News (yeah, we know) reported about future Mars missions, 400 readers signed up for a possible trip. Apparently, everybody qualifies for such a dangerous mission, that is, in their own mind:

“I do VERY well with solitude, I am handy with tools, very good at making things work, have generated my own solar energy, built three houses (with my own hands) and am quite sane and stable”

I wash my hands a couple of times in a day, which would make me a qualified “marsonaut”.

It looks like Fox’s inspiration for their article comes from The Journal of Cosmology, which recently featured a long editorial about a possible mission to Mars (full editorial): the editorial contains a dozen of chapters, discussing the reasons why we should go and, my favourite, how to reproduce on Mars:

Moreover, the human female has evolved the cognitive and intellectual capacity to employ cosmetics, perfumes, colorful clothing, push up bras, high heels, and so on, which draw attention to her breasts and derriere, and which emphasize and exaggerate her sexual availability by mimicking the signs of estrus common in other social primates

No wonder people romanticize a mission to Mars.

From bridge to evolution

A bunch of links, collected from the Internet:

The prime-minister was in Saint John last Friday and gave away a freebie for the people of Saint John: The toll booths on the Saint John Harbour bridge will disappear. I’m not sure how much traffic hits that bridge (and the Harbour bridge authority’s website doesn’t really reveal a lot either), but apparently it has never been self-sustaining. I believe the fare is 50 cents, which when I heard the first time of this toll, I thought was really low.

You’ve probably heard that the TSA (the American organization that is responsible for the safety at airports) has changed safety rules, by enforcing pat-downs and using backspatter X-Ray machines (wikipedia). The use of those X-Ray machines is (still) controversial because of privacy concerns (MSNBC article with a proud ms. Hallowell showing off, well, her gun so to say. The lady’s photo is also used in ACLU’s campaign against this device). Anyway, Metafilter had a posting about the TSA apparently going amuck out of revenge against a traveller who dared to ask for an alternative screening of her breast milk because she’s afraid that X-rays might be harmful. Regardless if it’s harmful or not, what is exactly the point of X-Raying breast milk? And, yeah, what does the president think of this?

With Winter right around the corner and the snow already on the ground, please take a moment to read the drawbacks of our species’ evolution (link to Smithsonian) into standing hominids: backaches, hernias (that is a wikipedia link) and yeah, a 50-50 chance of choking because:

Simultaneously, our upright posture put the trachea and esophagus in a near-vertical orientation. Together these changes leave falling food or water about a 50-50 chance of falling in the “wrong tube.” As a consequence, in those moments in which the epiglottis does not have time to cover the trachea, we choke. We might be said to choke on our success. Monkeys suffer the same fate only rarely, but then again they can’t sing or dance.

So if you were watching Bristol Palin on ‘Dancing with the stars’ and you enjoy watching hominids dance: the combination of dancing and eating can be fairly dangerous.


Last Friday, Benoit Mandelbrot died, which was widely published around on the Internet. Generally adored by nerds, Mandelbrot, while respected, was a fairly controversial figure in the mathematics world.

Mandelbrot doesn’t spend months or years proving what he has observed,” for which he “has received quite a bit of criticism. … But if we talk about impact inside mathematics, and applications in the sciences, he is one of the most important figures of the last 50 years.

I dare to say that Mandelbrots formulas took off with the introduction of the 8-bit colour homecomputers (earlier on xsamplex in 2004) and all these fractal generating programs. On our MSX2, I think it took at least a week to generate a simple Mandelbroth (320 x 250 with 256 colours). Even with earlier versions of Fractint on 286 AT machines, it would take days: today’s processing power does this in less than a second.

Whenever I think of Benoit Mandelbrot, I think about how fast computers have progressed in those years.

10/24/2010: Jonathan Coulton’s ‘Mandelbrot song’.

Heathrow, sucks and then III

My Heathrow sucks. No, really. favourite peeve is a rant about Heathrow, London’s premier airport with those long line-ups, confusing pedways and oh-so helpful security guards (earlier on xsamplex). And irritating survey people who question you why you didn’t buy that backpack even after you punted that the British pound is a bit overpriced. So what else is there to bemoan about?


On the bright side, if the British Tories win the next elections, they promise to scrap the plan, which will keep Heathrow in the top 10 of most hated airports in the world.

01/28/09: It’s going to be a third runway.

A bang.

Via New Scientist:A Big bang researchers have worked on a (computer) model that suggests that our universe could have emerged from another collapsing universe. The researchers based their model on a theory called the Loop Quantum Cosmology, which was (originally) proposed in 2003. At the end of the article, there’s a funny quote about how these physicist came up on LQC:

“From a physicist’s point of view, it is fully justified. Mathematicians perhaps would not be amused.”

I hear that if you give mathematicians a couple of beers, you can convince them that the Earth is only 5,000 years old. I’m not joking: please try it on your local math teacher!

This is important news: there’s finally empirical evidence that our galaxy, the proud Milky Way, has a white creamy coconut center and a soft crunchy chocolate crust, that melts in the mouth, not in your hands. Or as astronomers would say, a black hole in its center. I may have mentioned this a couple of years ago, but this black hole story is actually old news, I mean astronomers were already convinced that our galaxy had a black hole in its center. Obviously, it took many years to collect the evidence for this. Additionally, witness the smartness of the Slashdot crowd:

When i heard that there were black holes in other galaxies, i was fine with that, since they are so far away. But now i hear there is one in OUR galaxy? That’s kinda scary, since its so close to us!

Oh: this Hubble telescope that they launched in the 80s, yes? It still seems to be hitting the news: this time, astronomers managed to find CO2 in the atmosphere of a planet circling around a star, what, 65 million light-years away.

And hanging around the Discovery site: Did you know that 2008 will get one extra second? I remember this happened years ago too, which is exactly the reason why I tend to be at work 2 seconds later than normal. Who else can I blame for this?

Update 1: Weird The Onion picture about science.

Update 2: Related: Astronomers dissect a black hole with. What?

Planet 9

US astronomers have made the first photo of an exoplanet that makes it rounds around the star Formalhaut. It took a couple of years (and a lot of patience) to actually confirm the planet though. Additionally, another team of astronomers made a picture of 2 planets orbiting a star called HR8799 (Washington Post report). Generally, it seems. it was a good week for astronomy.

New Scientist had an article about a theory that the Earth might be in the center of a void: at the heart of the discussion is the 1998 discovery that some galaxies seem to have been racing away from us instead of slowing down. This discovery is currently explained by introducing ‘dark energy’, the energy that tends to accelerate the rate of expansion of the universe. The new theory proposes that our universe (the Milky Way) is surrounded by a ‘bubble’ that causes photons to lose energy but gaining energy while leaving this bubble.

I also read that India has succesfully landed a probe on the moon. For the next couple of weeks, the probe (‘Chandrayaan 1′), will measure the composition of the moon’s thin atmosphere.


You can get out of your bunkers now: I hear that the first test run at the LHC was a smashing success. The actual smashing happens later this year, so you may want to keep an eye on any black holes originating from Europe. If you’re into big explosions and that (I’m looking at you Dr. Horrible), maybe you should consider a career in Quantum Physics.

This leaves me wondering about the current (and future) state of science in the US: the LHC was built and mostly funded by European countries. The lab has attracted over 1000 US scientists, who according to previous linked Globe and Mail article, ‘feel strongly that the United States is no longer a place to practise massive-scale experiments’. You may wonder if this has to do with the last 8 years of the Bush administration, where science didn’t seem to be of importance. That is, unless you count the president’s vision for ‘the moon and Mars’ as a scientific milestone.

Update 1: Some 500 kms south, another physics experiment seems to have stalled (via Three Quarks)

Update 2: BBC documentary ‘The Big Bang’.


Via Aetiology, I found out that the Marburg virus was discovered in a Dutch woman: According to Dutch reports, Friday (or Thursday night) she didn’t survive (Dutch language alert, see also WHO report about the individual case). That same article at reports that around 100 people that were in close contact with her have been put under medical observation, which I presume means that they probably regularly have to contact their family doctor about their physical condition.

The Marburg virus hit Europe before in 1967 when 30 or some people became infected with the virus: the primary infections were lab workers who did experiments on monkeys, which were imported from Africa. Technically, the virus is part of the filovirusses group, which also includes the Ebola virus.

Talking about Ebola: Just this week a report came in that researchers may have found the virus’ ‘Achilles heel’:

“The structure of the glycoprotein shows us the very few sites on its surface that are not cloaked by carbohydrate,” Ollmann Saphire explains. “These [sites] are the chink in the armor, or the Achilles’ heel, that we can target antibodies against.

“We now have a much better handle on how in the world this virus gets into cells,” Ollmann Saphire says. “We also have new maps we can use to develop strategies to fight against it.”

The article reads like a report from a war-zone, but then, this kind of research is like a nuclear arms race.

Same old. Same old.

This week, the New England Journal of Medicine reported about a small success in the fight against (skin) cancer: An Oregon man diagnosed with skin cancer, was injected with a couple of billion of cloned T-cells of his own and saw his cancer go into complete remission.

Via Slashdot (thread), it appears the old adagio holds true: Bad boys get all the girls. I also hear that thrill-seeking male humans have a shorter lifespan, or, eventually shut themselves out of the mating process because of a lack of other useful skills needed in societies driven by the sciences. This is old news: your mom (and dad) warned you to stay clear from people like these. Also: what about bad girls?

The best part is last: CNN has a whole bunch of sections dedicated to ‘busy moms and parenting’. The one article that attracted my eye was the one about mothers with twins, which reads as a proof that humans have lost the ability to provide and care for twins. Hey: In general, twins can perfectly take care of themselves, particularly when they’ve figured out how to communicate with each other.

Missing: 2 Milky Way arms.

I found thisWhere are we at? map of the Milky Way (warning HUGE [5000×5000]) via Reddit (thread). The picture comes from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, and (ofcourse), comes with a brief press release about the actual point of the map: Two of Milky Way’s arms have gone missing! And you thought the announcement that mrs. Clinton was going to suspend her campaign was important news. Uh, no. Maybe.

Apparently, the researchers at Caltech are talking about the fact that previous models and maps suggested that the Milky Way had 4 arms:

“For years, people created maps of the whole galaxy based on studying just one section of it, or using only one method,” said Benjamin. “Unfortunately, when the models from various groups were compared, they didn’t always agree. It’s a bit like studying an elephant blind-folded.”

If you’re curious where we are at, click the image above. If you like spoilers, or, worst, in case you get kidnapped by a bunch of Space Invaders who look slightly similar to Mork from Ork: Our small sun is located near an arm called the Orion Arm, or Orion Spur, which is located between the Sagittarius and Perseus arms.

Update 1: These kinds of maps remind me a bit of the earliest ones of our planet.

Update 2: Oh dear, you may want to have this webpage ready (constellations, constellations!) on your iPod Touch in case you really get abducted by Mork.