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Tags  →  science

The cause of our awful pandemic is also a wonder of Nature (who is neither malignant nor benign, but just is).

Click the image for a seriously deep read. Unlike many scientific articles, however, this one uses humour and some great analogies to help us understand more about what's going on.

The “body” of COVID-19, the article says, is basically a genome enveloped in glycoproteins (proteins with a sugar coating), with a smear of fat and bearing the crown of spikes that inspired the name “coronavirus.”

This genome is a single strand of RNA, which tricks the infected cell into treating it as its own messenger RNA.

When a human cell receives it, it first unpacks the protein "toolkit" that the virus needs to replicate. As the article says: “Making this toolkit is a little like downloading an installer for new software.”

The rest of the genome contains “structural” proteins which the “toolkit” uses in its work. One of these proteins produces a shell of subunits that, among other things, acts as a cloaking device to hide the viruses from our immune system.

There is much more in this article, a flavour of which comes from this section heading:

“A Fish, A Bat, and A Human Walk Into a Seafood Market …”

A slow read, but an entertaining and instructive one - highly recommended.

It has been known for some time that hurricanes need warm-enough surface temperatures in the oceans in order to form. The critical temperature turns out to be 26.5°C or 79.7°F.

Climate change is increasing sea temperatures, and even a few degrees matters.

In 2017 the exceptionally high surface temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico that launched Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria were measured at 32°C or 89.6°F.

There have been many suggestions for cooling surface temperatures enough to prevent hurricanes from forming, but they have all seemed impractical.

Until now.

The Norwegians have long stopped ice forming in their fjords by efficient “bubble curtains” - bubbles of compressed air blown from perforated pipes, bringing relatively warm water from depths to the surface. Their scientists have pointed out that the system could be used for the opposite effect, bringing cooler water from (ideally) 100 meters to 150 meters below the surface to reduce the surface temperatures.

The first site for a real test may be the Yucatán Straits, which connect the Caribbean Sea to the Gulf of Mexico.

Reversing climate change, if it can happen at all, is a long term prospect.

When set against the enormous costs of destructive hurricanes, this idea for an interim solution may prove to be both practical and cost-effective. If you're interested in the idea and its progress, you will find many reports on it if you click the image above.

Liz Bonnin is a great (and beautiful) ambassador for wildlife conservation, the environment, and science.

One way in which she demonstrated this was in BBC3's superb series Mission Galapagos (follow the link if you would like to read my article about it).

Such ambassadors have never been needed more than now.

The image comes from a post about a wildlife conservation event created by wildlife and landscape artist Francesca Sanders (whose work is well worth checking out).

Wylie Overstreet says that he was bored in his Los Angeles apartment and decided to take his telescope out to the sidewalk. The moon was out, and he thought “Why not?”.

Within a few minutes people started walking over and asking what this thing was... and being totally amazed.

The music on this short video, fittingly enough, is Claude Debussy's beautiful “Claire de Lune”.

As Wylie says...

If you like this...

[Wylie's Web Site (well worth visiting)]
[Co-Director Alex Gorosh's Web Site (also well worth visiting)]
[“To Scale: The Solar System” (another video by Wylie Overstreet and Alex Gorosh)]
[Earth Day 2017 - 4K Earth Views From Space]
[The International Dark Sky Association]

* A great star just burnt out *

Stephen Hawking

8th January 1942 – 14th March 2018

I will always associate Stephen Hawking with the truly wonderful opening ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympics, which (like the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics) celebrated many things about the human spirit (sadly, things that the current leadership of the USA obviously cares nothing about).

He opened the Paralympics ceremony (click either image above for my full coverage) with this:

“Ever since the dawn of civilization, people have craved for an understanding of the underlying order of the world: why it is as it is, and why it exists at all.

“But, even if we do find a complete theory of everything, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations, and makes a Universe for him to describe?”

Stephen's indomitable spirit and his supreme intellect, and the wonderful people who supported him, have been rightly celebrated many times (see links at the bottom of this post).

I particularly enjoyed the 55-minute PBS production Stephen Hawking: A Personal Journey, which you can watch by clicking the image below, and the biographical movie The Theory of Everything featuring an astonishing performance by Eddie Redmayne.

In the screenshot above, Stephen is looking at a newspaper page carrying an advert from Channel 4's Meet the Superhumans campaign, which trailed the London Paralympics that were to change the image of disability forever (except in the USA, whose networks carried almost no coverage).

The PBS programme shows Stephen's considerable humour (I particularly liked his exchanges with Jim Carrey), and has many deep insights into his personal life.

The programme ends with Stephen's appearance at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, and with his words there:

“We are all different. There is no such thing as a standard or run-of-the-mill human being, but we share the same human spiri. So let us together celebrate excellence, friendship and respect. Good luck to you all.”

Stephen Hawking pushed back the frontiers of our knowlege about the Universe we live (upsetting more than a few followers of anti-science religions along the way), and towards the end of his life laid the foundations for explorations of the possible existence of the Multiverse (no, he didn't prove that the Multiverse exists, although it might).

His ashes are to be interred near the graves of Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin in Westminster Abbey, a very rare honour. But the way I look at it, great as those groundbreaking scientists were, they should be honored by Stephen's company.

[Stephen Hawking Quotes]
[A Brief History of Time]
[Tributes to Stephen Hawking]

From my web site...

[London 2012: The beautiful games]
[Science vs. Religion]

“The Universe is made of protons, neutrons, electrons and morons”
Animals can't believe the stupidity of people who deny climate change

The USA's current administration (but only a minority of its people and States) is, to put it bluntly, anti-science and anti-truth, possibly for related reasons, as well as anti-environment (for some mix of oil greed, corporate lobbying, stupidity and vindictiveness against anything Obama accomplished). We still have to see whether raging fires, floods and a succession of Category 5 hurricanes will put a dent in all this - but the three links above about the US Administration are very sobering, to put it mildly.

My younger daughter produced the wonderful face-palm montage above, for a different reason, and I thought it was too good not to snaffle. Hurricane Irma is the second Category 5 storm to hit the south-east USA this year, where it regained strength after passing over record-warm seas, and Texas is still suffering flooding with toxic water in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, with other strong hurricanes brewing.

Since extreme weather is not a new thing, the question keeps coming up: “Is our weather getting worse?”

The best answer to that in 2012 was Channel 4's super documentary, which can't be ignored today. I captured it in an article which you can find here, or click my summary image below.
Global warming and climate change - is our weather getting worse?

Some other links from 2017 worth following (may be added to from time to time):

[Hurricanes: A perfect storm of chance and climate change? - a deep and balanced analysis]
[Why the 2°C of warming limit is so important]

...and for much good news on the environment, as well as the bad:

[My Environment & Technology web page]

One of the last remaining trees...
(My screenshots - click either image above for the Wikipedia article on this movie)

(Screenshots above from Rotten Tomatoes - click either image to see more)

If you like French animation (see here on my web site), you may remember the time when Sylvain Chomet's Les Triplettes de Belleville (The Triplets of Belleville, a.k.a. Belleville Rendezvous) gave the world a wake-up call that there was more to great animation than Disney and Miyazaki.

This movie is very different and equally original (and equally Gallic, and equally unsuitable for small children). It's an adventurous eco-fable, set in an alt-reality steampunk world where almost all of the trees in Europe have been burnt for charcoal and the air is severely polluted. It has been summarized accurately as “a sophisticated, riveting adventure about the power of scientific innovation in society”.

Currently free to watch in the UK if you subscribe to Amazon Prime Video, this is a multi-award-winning treat not to be missed.

If life is getting you down...

[Try clicking the entertainment tag. Just a suggestion!]

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles... all-girl team from a low-income area teaches themselves engineering, choosing a one-year project to help homeless people (and reminding us that Trump is not America).

Meanwhile, in rural India...

...some rather wonderful things are happening.

This is one of the five Global Jet Watch observatories (conducting seriously advanced research by Oxford University into black holes), distributed around the world so that one is always in darkness.

The research has an educational spin-off. The India observatory (like most of them) is situated in the grounds of a boarding school. In this case the school was founded by the Indian Government in order to give bright children of rural families (the majority of whom are first-generation literates) a formal education. Before bedtime, the children can operate the telescope for themselves; after bedtime, the research programme takes over operation from Oxford by remote control.

Since both the research and the education programme need a clean and reliable electricity supply, a generous donor funded Operation Solar Farm, a low-tech combination of solar panels and energy storage, plus a conversion of the observatory to run on noise-free DC electricity.

And so “these children... learn something rather amazing: how energy gathered from our nearest star by day is available each night to help them explore distant stars across our galaxy.”

Many thanks to Oxford Physics Science News for the source article.

Art meets Science: “The Circle of Life”

Clicking the above image will take you (as it took me) into the rather wonderful world of data visualization techniques, where the complexities of life (and of other things, e.g. communication networks) are being revealed in helpful and often beautiful ways.

The image above, BTW, was produced using Martin Krzywinski's open-source CIRCOS software.

Mission Galapagos

Liz Bonnin in the superb BBC 3-part series Galapagos, a beautiful and informative documentary

Mission Galapagos was a high-tech science expedition to examine what the Galapagos Islands can tell us about evolution and the effect of climate change on wildlife.

The islands, located in the Pacific about 1000km west of Ecuador, are not a place for Creationists to think about (doing so would fry their brains).

One of many things we learn is how the islands were formed (and are still being formed), how long this has taken, and why they are so different from each other.

It turns out that the islands sit on the Nazca tectonic plate that acts like a conveyor belt, trundling very slowly eastwards (at around 58km per million years), passing over a magma hot-spot below. This hot-spot constantly generates new volcanos as the plate moves eastwards, which rise above sea level to become new islands. Eventually the volcanic islands leave the hot-spot and cool so that they develop lush vegetation, and finally disappear underwater again (as the plate slides downward beneath the South America Plate) to become submerged mountains.

The Mission Galapagos science team visit one of the most awesome and dangerous dive spots in the world...

...Darwin's Arch, where scuba divers must descend quickly through strong currents to the relative safety of the rocky sea bed (click either image above for photo source)...

...and where hammerhead sharks (globally endangered) congregate in vast numbers for a mating ritual
(photo by Simon J Pierce, click image for photo source)

Among many other animals investigated was the astonishing marine iguana, living above and below water,
which has evolved so that the same animal can shorten its length in hard times
(Click the image for photo source and to read more about the expedition.)

There was much to enjoy in this documentary, whether above ground, underground or underwater. Some people, sadly, may never get to see it. American networks were very reluctant to show the final episode of Sir David Attenborough's Frozen Planet, because it showed "controversial" evidence of the effect of climate change at the Poles. What Bible Belt America and Trump America will make of Mission Galapagos, should they get to see it, is anyone's guess.

It is not only in America that Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) is under threat. There have recently been massive worldwide “Marches for Science”, protesting against “a global political assault on facts”. Anyone who doubts the significance of this is invited to peruse my Trump Diaries.

Liz Bonnin is one of my personal heroes in what is genuinely a fight against the forces of darkness. Her scientific background (she is a biochemist and Wild Animal Biologist, among other things) and her personality make her a very effective ambassador for STEM.

In the UK, as elsewhere, it was realized some time ago that disrespect for STEM would cost the country dear if not reversed. One of the first shots in achieving that was the successful BBC Series Bang Goes The Theory, where I first saw Liz in action.

Now young people (and especially girls) are being actively encouraged to take an interest in STEM.

Sadly, the USA is cursed with an anti-science (and anti-reality) President who seems bent on undermining the US's science and technology base, with untold consequences - but that's another story.

If you like this...

[My environment and technology page]

Different Worlds

The magnificent sight on the left (more about which can be found here) summarizes everything that the space science and engineering community is about, and everything that the insane persons in the White House and the GOP are not.

I once had the immense privilege of meeting the Chief Engineer of the ground segment of the US's Space Program. He is one of the few people who can fully appreciate how the work, knowledge and care of thousands of people in many organizations in different countries leads to what we can see here.

In space, reality can seriously bite you in the ass.

I am waiting hopefully for it to do the same to some people on the planet below.

“Politicized Science”

This is “Politicized Science” according to Trump, i.e. it is Science, i.e. it concerns itself with Reality, to which #45 is seriously allergic. Accordingly he is gutting NOAA's budget.

Thanks to blacksock for this one.

The Shadow in the West

"Daybreak at Rain Forest Lagoon" © by Christoph Wiemann

Please share this, if you will (but click the date/time FIRST in order to get a permalink - thanks!)

If you like this, you might also like...

[A friendly letter to America]

and from my web site:

[The Shadow in the West - the full version]
[My thoughts on science and religion, and why this stuff matters]

What we take for granted...

The Global Positioning System (GPS) seems to be part of our lives now in all kinds of navigation and positioning applications, from the aircraft we fly in (and Tomahawk cruise missiles) to smartphones and domestic Sat Navs.

I first encountered the GPS in my flight simulator, mirroring what was happening at the time in real aviation. One of the joys of the very realistic sim was learning to navigate from charts and radio beacons. GPS and flight computers took some of the fun out of that, while making aviation safer - although the radio beacons are still there and are still essential.

(Not too many years from now, I fear, much the same might be said about self-driving cars... but that's another story.)

Having only recently acquired a modern smartphone, which packs a GPS receiver (and much more) into a mind-bogglingly small space, I became curious to know more about the GPS system.

I hadn't realised, for example, that GPS satellites follow 6 different orbital paths, with several satellites distributed in each path. Each satellite takes about 12 hours to orbit the Earth once, timed so that it passes over nearly the same locations on Earth every day (as you can see if you keep your eye on a particular satellite in the graphic for two revolutions).

The graphic (from Wikipedia) is visual example of a 24 satellite GPS “constellation” in motion with the earth rotating. It shows how the number of satellites in view from a given point on the earth's surface, in this example from Golden, Colorado, changes with time. (As of February 2016 there were 32 satellites, a few of which are not in use, to improve receiver calculations with redundant measurements.)

A GPS receiver has to be able to receive signals from at least 4 satellites in order to function correctly... but why?

And how do the satellites themselves know exactly where they are in space at any given time as they orbit?

The key to the GPS, it turns out, is time - very accurate time taken from atomic clocks. The GPS receiver in my phone doesn't need an atomic clock itself, but it has to know (among other things) how long the signal from each satellite that it can “see” has taken to reach it. Since this signal is moving at the speed of light, a difference of 1 metre is a difference in signal arrival time of a little over 3 billionths of a second (3 nanoseconds).

The GPS satellites know very accurately where they are at all times because they are tracked from the US Air Force's monitoring stations around the world in the GPS's Control Segment, as described here. As part of this process, the Control Segment updates each satellite with knowledge of how it is moving and with fine time corrections - satellites carry atomic clocks that are synchronised with each other and with atomic clocks on the ground. Why and how both of Einstein's theories of relativity (which have opposite effects on time) are taken account of by the GPS is described in this fascinating article - or else try here.

Satellites that are currently having their orbits changed are marked “unhealthy” so as not to be used by GPS receivers.

How a GPS receiver uses the transmissions from 4 satellites to work out its 3‑dimensional position is described here. The reason that it needs 4 satellites instead of 3 has to do with the fact that a GPS receiver's clock is not synchronised to the satellite clocks, for cost and complexity reasons.

And that's not all, folks... (at least, not for me).

I look at my slim smartphone and wonder: how, with its tiny GPS antenna, and certainly without several parabolic dishes, does my phone receive usable signals from satellites that are at least 12,600 miles away (the shortest red lines on the moving graphic above)?

A GPS satellite is powered by solar panels, generating only a few hundred watts, not all of which is available for transmission. Furthermore, the transmitted signal is not, of course, sent straight to my phone... it spreads out over a large area of the Earth, its power diluted enormously, and a tiny, tiny part of that power falls on my little smartphone's GPS antenna. That antenna must be receiving each satellite's signal as the faintest electronic whisper in a sea of electronic noise.

As Arthur C. Clarke famously wrote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Is there also a danger that we become too reliant on the GPS? Following extraordinary political decisions in the USA, the GPS was made fully available for civilian use around the world, with the same precision for civilians as for the military. On the other hand, of course, there are safeguards in the event of hostilities, and occasional disruptions from activity in our sun, particularly Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs). The ability to read maps and navigate for ourselves might be a skill worth preserving...

It's also good to know that real-world pilots still have to be able to navigate using radio beacons, as well as by dead-reckoning (and navigating by the stars when available) over a large ocean.

If you like this...

[What we take for granted... what would a megabyte (gigabyte, terabyte) look like if we could see individual bits?]

The wonders of (and revealed by) the Hubble Space Telescope never cease to amaze me...

I took this picture today in Baulk Wood, near Henlow in southern England (a site reclaimed beautifully from what used to be a rubbish tip, and extended as a nature reserve and walking area).

It was sunny when I set out... until I saw this coming. Luckily we're not getting the devastating floods hitting the north of England. Yesterday the Honister Pass rain gauge in the Lake District recorded 341.4mm (13½") of rain - the highest 24-hour rainfall since records began.

In 2012 there was an excellent Channel 4 documentary taking a serious look at the question: Is Our Weather Getting Worse?, which I featured here in January 2013. It might be worth looking at again...

Humpback whale and calf, off the Revillagigedo Islands, Mexico

A really interesting, in-depth article about the study of humpback whale songs, with many opportunities to listen.

The article starts with the discovery by scientists that the strange and eerie sounds were actually songs, and the fact that humpback whales don't just sing songs - they compose with the whales around them, singing a song that evolves over time.

The article describes how acoustic biologist Katy Payne analyzed the sounds... and the results are fascinating.

Thanks again to overthetrail for sharing this on her FB page.

This great hi-def trailer video comes from Fantastic Fungi, The Official Site for Everything Fungi - “for foodies, scientists and explorers”.

Thanks again to my friend overthetrail (Sandy) for this one! (She hasn't posted here much for a while, but click her overthetrail tag to see some really nice stuff that she has sent my way over the years.)

Awesome beauty destroyed about 6,000 years ago - but we can still see it...

A new, sharper image of the iconic Pillars of Creation - structures in the Eagle Nebula that no longer exist (in this image, Hubble is looking about 7,000 years into the past) - taken with Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3

Image source: this Hubble page from NASA

A different and fascinating picture emerges when the structures are seen in near-infrared:

From Astronomy Magazine:

“This NASA Hubble Space Telescope image, taken in near-infrared light, transforms the pillars into eerie, wispy silhouettes, which are seen against a background of myriad stars. The near-infrared light can penetrate much of the gas and dust, revealing stars behind the nebula as well as hidden away inside the pillars. Some of the gas and dust clouds are so dense that even the near-infrared light cannot penetrate them. New stars embedded in the tops of the pillars, however, are apparent as bright sources that are unseen in the visible image.” More...

The story of how the Pillars were destroyed is a fascinating one - see here if you are interested.

If you like this...

[Space Sounds - electromagnetic vibrations in 20-20,000Hz range, translated to audio - eerie!]
[All of my astronomy posts]

This book is a nail-biting masterpiece of ingenuity, perserverance and human spirit - not to mention considerable humour in the face of major adversity.

Short version of the plot: an authentic survival adventure in the spirit of Apollo 13, the main action taking place on a very real Mars.

Longer version: click the image to the right!


(1) This book has been described as “hard sci-fi” but is really “hard engineering”. For me, it captures perfectly the co-operative human qualities and engineering skills that make space exploration very unlike (say) politics in Washington (some thoughts on that here). However, if technical details of what it takes to stay alive in a hostile environment are not your thing, the book may not be for you - but you might want to take a risk with it anyway!

(2) If you have to go to work next morning, don't start reading it the night before...

(Found for me by Karenak, whose help pages anyone new to Categorian should visit - but there is much more to her pages than help!)

PS: I see that Ridley Scott is making a film of this book starring Matt Damon, due for release 25 November 2015.

If you like science fiction...

[The SF section of my books page]

...or the real thing...

[Curiosity Rover lands on Mars, screenshots from NASA TV with my commentary from watching it live]
[Mars Curiosity Rover on Facebook]
[NASA JPL on Facebook]

In this particularly beautiful video, Neil deGrasse Tyson, American astrophysicist, explains what he considers to be the most astounding fact about our universe: that we are all literally made of “star stuff”.

Of course, we are all more than the sum of our parts!

After watching the video I reflected sadly that some religions close their eyes to the true wonders of creation - which reminded me of this (apparently often misunderstood) quote:

If (like me) you wondered what Einstein really meant by this, go here or click the quotation for a good discussion article, or go here for an in-depth Wikipedia article on Einstein's religious views.

If you like this...

[The science of the movie Interstellar [1]]
[The science of the movie Interstellar [2]]

... and FWIW:

[My own thoughts on the conflicts or otherwise between science and religion (from my web site)]
[Magical Loops: wonderful complexity from repeating simple rules many times (from my web site)]

NGC 6302 is reckoned to be one of the 10 most beautiful nebulae in the Universe, a collection that I found on the very fine pages of Toetie, and one which certainly lives up to its name.

From Wikipedia (click for the full article):

From what I read in the article, NGC 6302 is tiny by the standards of the mega-structures out there, but it would still take about 3 years to traverse from one “wing tip” to the other at the unimaginable speed of light.

When I searched around to see what a more realistic speed would be in the near future, it seems that the fastest actual spacecraft currently projected (the Solar Probe Plus, to be launched in 2018) would take about 4,500 years to cover the same distance at its blistering maximum speed of 200 kilometres per second. To reach NGC 6302 from Earth would take the same spacecraft (if it could keep its maximum speed around our Sun all the way) about 4,500,000 years... passing our Moon after only half an hour... and the awesome Hubble Telescope can see structures that are much, much further away. The mind boggles!

If you like this...

[Faster than light? A guide to Starship Enterprise Warp Factors]
[A rather beautiful wallpaper image of Starship Enterprise NX01 on patrol]
[... and you might try clicking the astronomy tag...]

Click the image above to visit this wonderful page.

When you get there, you can drag the globe around with your mouse, or roll the mouse-wheel to make the globe bigger or zoom in to see fine detail.

You can also click the word earth (when you reach the page) and change what you are looking at in lots of interesting ways, including viewing historical or forecast data instead of current data.

Click the word earth again to return to the full view.

I have a desktop stretching across two monitors (easy if your graphics card has a dual head), and I like putting the big earth on the left hand monitor - I could watch it for hours!

If you want to do this, and you have two monitors, right-click the image above and select "open in new window", and just drag the window to the other monitor. (People with two monitors probably know this already, but I thought I would advertise one of the many benefits!)

Thanks to joris3pinter for this great find!

A beautiful and interesting film (well worth the hour to view) shared by my friend Overthetrail - thanks, Sandy!

(Sandy hasn't posted here much for a while, but click her tag to see some really nice stuff that she has sent my way)

“Is Our Weather Getting Worse?”

This great photo (source here) was taken at Great Yarmouth as homes were being evacuated ahead of the UK's December 2013 storm surge (click the picture for many images of the surge and its effects).

England still isn't having enjoyable weather, to put it mildly, and nor (I see on TV) are many other parts of the world.

In 2012 there was an excellent Channel 4 documentary taking a serious look at the question: Is Our Weather Getting Worse?, which I featured here in January 2013. I think it might be worth looking at again...

Electrosynthetic Fruit

“This is a really fascinating website, it shows the connection with food and history (past, present, and future) and it is surprising how these connections work themselves out. Some things are so amazing that you will do what I did, saying "Really?" and "No Kidding?" and things like that.

“I thought you might be interested in this...
   —from Gatorindo

Interesting is not a strong enough word for it... the variety of topics is incredibly rich. I could spend hours and hours on this site.

Thanks, David - for this one and so many others!

Astronomers discovered this young stellar system using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. In this artist's impression, a disk of dusty material leftover from star formation girds two young stars like a hula hoop. As the two stars whirl around each other, they periodically peek out from the disk, making the system appear to "blink" every 93 days. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

[This image as desktop wallpaper]

This artist's concept shows a simulated view from the surface of Jupiter's moon Europa. Europa's potentially rough, icy surface, tinged with reddish areas that scientists hope to learn more about, can be seen in the foreground. The giant planet Jupiter looms over the horizon. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

[This image as desktop wallpaper]

Since 2010, the French photographer Thierry Cohen has been developing images that show us what major cities of the world would be like if there were no light pollution.

More images and details about his technique and philosophy will be found here.

Screenshots from a beautiful NASA video - click any image to play

Thanks to my friend Sandy for this one!

If you like this...

[LUX AETERNA, a beautiful video with music from Cristóbal Vila]

My photo of the immense glass roof of the British Museum, from the stairs leading up to what is now the Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind exhibition (see below).

Not having my camera with me, I took this with my Kindle Fire HD's front-facing webcam, which is really only designed for things like Skype. It was a case of point in several directions, take lots of shots, and hope for the best... We have only seen the sun a few times so far in 2013, so this was a lucky day!

From the British Museum's Facebook Page:
Here’s a sneak preview of an object being installed. It shows a reindeer engraved on bone and is around 13,000 years old.

We saw this exhibition yesterday... truly wonderful. The careful, intricate work and artistic imagination of people in those times (going back 40,000+ years) is amazing.

Click the picture for a very good review of the Exhibition, which runs until 26 May 2013.

Looking at the achievements of people who lived so long ago, I couldn't help imagining the title of a hypothetical future exhibition, part of which would read "departure of the modern mind". But that's another story.

A celebration of the Curiosity Rover Mission, with beautiful images and music

Thanks to ensemble5 (whose beautiful pages are well worth visiting).

[How far is it to Mars? (nice video animation)]

Science, Religion and Quantum Mechanics

The image above is mine - feel free to share...

It turns out that all the technology that is based on transistors - computers, mobile phones, the Internet, you name it - depends on the strange reality of quantum physics, as does almost everything that we see (and don't see) around us.

I recently read, or rather am having the great pleasure of working through in several passes, most of The Quantum Universe: Everything that Can Happen Does Happen, a book written by Professors Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw. (I say “most of” because the the chapters in the book lead you up to a real worked example in the Appendix, a seriously high mountain which I have yet to attempt!)

In 1927 J.B.S. Haldane famously wrote: “I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

The Universe is truly a queer and wonderful place, and this book clearly explains some of its most queer and wonderful mechanisms. The method of explanation, using familiar clock faces and waves, doesn't eliminate the occasionally frightening mathematics, but conveys brilliantly what is really going on.

(Anyone thinking "I can't do maths", by the way, has never had teachers like these (or Salman Khan, see bottom of this post). I wish they had taught me when I first attempted to learn this stuff!)

Equally fascinating is the authors' explanation of how science reached its current understanding of the theory that predicts so accurately how the Universe behaves, from the chemistry of life (and table salt) to why (since atoms are mostly empty space) we don't fall through the floor, to the life-cycle of stars.

Unusually in a science book, the authors are not afraid to explain the limitations of science, either: scientific knowledge isn't perfect and fixed, but always growing, and here is a great description of how science helps knowledge to grow.

You can read a really good review of the book here. Click the images for more about the authors.

I find it sad that in today's world some religions still cannot accept science, but must imagine an alternative reality (with a bogus science that doesn't constantly test itself critically against evidence, as real science does) that doesn't conflict with their beliefs.

It is also ironic, as well as sad, that people following these religions promote their messages (and do much else) using technology that depends on the science that they don't believe in.

Creationists (or whatever they call themselves) have a perfect right to believe in whatever they want. However I find it horrifying to read about persistent attempts to have Creationism taught in classrooms, and teachers being intimidated for teaching real science.

Disrespect for science is no new thing, and not confined to reality-denying religions. The “mad scientist”, for example, has always been a popular feature of movies and TV shows (even in The Muppets, one of my all-time favourites!). Scientists have not always performed well, and have not always found it easy to communicate clearly with the non-scientific public (a hard but essential job when issues like climate change and health are at stake).

A while back, the UK woke up to the fact that its future prosperity depended on reversing this trend, and many popular science programmes (among other things) have resulted - from the BBC's Bang Goes The Theory to some extraordinarily illuminating programmes featuring Brian Cox.

J.B.S. Haldane, should he be observing from somewhere what is happening in physics today, might not change his suspicion (the inner workings of gravity, for instance, still have much to reveal to science) - but I am sure that he would be “watching developments with great interest”.

If you like this...

[More thoughts on Science and Religion]
[Is our weather getting worse? (major Channel 4 documentary)]
[Some wonders from NASA]
[Some thoughts on Science and Politics]
[One of the greatest FREE learning and teaching resources on the Internet: The Khan Academy]

And here is the weather report for England...

West Yorkshire, March 23rd - 2 days past the Spring Equinox.

A Scandinavian high pressure area, apparently permanently stuck in place, has been feeding biting easterly winds into England for what seems like forever.

The reasons for this are explained here (among many other places).

Yeah, right...

Hats off to guys who have to go out and fix things in this weather

Our nice Kate (the Duchess) out there with the scouts

Looe in Cornwall, where 24 hours of continuous rain caused a landslide of saturated earth, killing the unfortunate woman living in what used to be a house (the other houses in this row have been evacuated)

...and not too much fun being had in Newlyn, normally a pretty place (see paintings here) a little further to the west

If you're interested in this, see my earlier post...

[Is our weather getting worse? (major Channel 4 documentary)]

“What if I took a swim in a typical spent nuclear fuel pool? Would I need to dive to actually experience a fatal amount of radiation? How long could I stay safely at the surface?”

Click the picture, or go here, for a serious answer to this somewhat macabre question, typical of many other hypothetical but interesting questions answered by physicists weekly on this site.

BTW... A source close to home tells me that UK companies are now holding executive events at Chernobyl (which is now a nature reserve). She knows this because she was asked to arrange one!

A truly beautiful video, blending science, nature and spirituality, from Cristóbal Vila
(click any screenshot to play, opens in a separate window)

Thanks, Elegantlady (Roberta)!

If you like this...

["Nature by Numbers", another beautiful video by Cristóbal Vila]

Is our weather getting worse? Channel 4 documentary
Britain has had some extraordinary weather in 2012, varying from severe drought to record levels of rainfall, with flash floods across the country. This excellent Channel 4 documentary (from which my screenshots come) considers if extreme weather is to be expected occasionally, or whether it provides evidence of an increasing climate change problem - not just in Britain, but everywhere.

Judging by how often the documentary is being repeated on UK TV, it's a question that certainly interests people in the UK. If you click on any image, you may still be able to view it online if it interests you as well.

(The rather beautiful instrument seen above, by the way, is a Campbell-Stokes sunshine recorder, invented in 1853 and still in use today.)

This is some of what happened in Britain in 2012:

On January 3rd, severe storms with gusts of over 100 mph battered the coastline of much of the UK from Scotland to the south.

On February 5th, 4" of snow fell across southern England, with hundreds of flights cancelled.

4 weeks later there was a dramatic change in the weather. On March 26th, record-breaking heat baked Scotland, Aberdeen, with temperatures above 27°C (81°F).

Drought affected 35 million people across the country, in the driest Spring for 100 years.

Then, no sooner had the hosepipe ban been issued, when everything changed. On April 3rd snow warnings were issued across the country. In Scotland, temperatures plummeted by 27°C in just 2 days. The snow quickly melted, and on April 18th was replaced by torrential downpours across England and Wales.

By the end of the month the Met Office declared that it was the wettest April in a century, and the heavens remained open through the whole of May. By early summer the whole of Britain was saturated.

On June 22nd, a series of torrential thunderstorms funnelled into West Yorkshire's Hebden Bridge (which floods once every 5 years on average, but nothing like this). A month's worth of rainfall fell in 7 hours.

On July 9th, another cunim cloud, 10 miles high, towered over West Yorkshire. It burst at 1 pm. A month's worth of rain fell in just 3 hours.

And the extreme summer just went on and on. In July, a severe storm in Leicestershire produced hailstones the size of golfballs, and the rainfall continued into August. By the end of the summer, 4,000 homes across Britain had been devastated by floods. Saturated ground meant that even small amounts of rainfall caused flash floods.

On September 25th, a severe storm churned up plankton in the North Sea, swamping the Scottish town of Footdee in a thick layer of strange foam.

On October 11th, this flash flood was triggered in the Devonshire town of Clovelly when 2 weeks worth of rain fell in just 90 minutes.

Flooding doesn't just destroy homes, it takes lives. By far the deadliest place to be is trapped inside a car.

Training for flood survival and car rescue is not for the faint-hearted. Teesside Barrage at Stockton on Tees, a major facility for international "white water" events, is also used as a flood survival training centre. Four huge archimedes screws (each 13 metres or 45½ feet in diameter) lift water to create an artifical flood, pumping tons of water every second into the river. (BTW, there are plans to generate electricity by running these screws in reverse when the course is not being used.)

It only takes seconds for the weight of water to break the instructor's grip and sweep him away (a cubic metre of water weighs a ton). Avoiding lethal debris means keeping pointing downstream and trying to steer around what is coming.

Car rescue training starts inside a car anchored to the concrete bottom.

You need to get out through the window, and onto the roof...

"I'm on the roof, but there's not a lot to hold onto here..."

What has been causing Britain's extreme weather in 2012?

Part of the story is this:

The northernmost of 4 jet streams is responsible for delivering weather to Britain, and its position varies according to our seasons. In Spring 2012 the jet stream moved north of the UK, a position it normally takes in mid summer. This early move north brought us unusually high temperatures and drought.

And then in summer, something very different happened. The jet stream switched south, a position it usually takes during winter, bringing cold stormy weather to the British Isles. Even now, the behaviour of the jet stream remains a mystery(*).

*In January 2013, the BBC Weather Report featured a new development which has managed to link Sudden Stratospheric Warming with changes to the jet stream, and has allowed the Met Office to forecast weather events relating to jet stream movement much earlier than was previously possible.

Was 2012 just a freak year, or are these events part of a much bigger picture? Is our weather really changing?

What we saw in 2012 was certainly not a one-off. The past 15 years saw 8 of the warmest years on record, and some of the wettest years on record.

On July 28th 2005, a tornado ripped across Birmingham, spawned by severe thunderstorms, causing £40m of damage in 4 minutes.

Tornados by themselves are not enough to indicate that our weather is changing, but they are part of a series of extreme weather events that have plagued the UK in the last decade.

December 2010 was Britain's coldest ever.

In 2003, UK temperatures hit a record 38°C (100°F). This intense heatwave killed more than 2,000 people.

In fact, extreme weather events have occurred throughout the last century, and much earlier than that...

Over nine hundred years ago, in 1091, a medieval version of Mary-le-Bow Church in London (immortalised in the nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons - a Cockney is traditionally defined as someone born within the sound of Bow Bells) was destroyed by the first recorded tornado in British history, approaching via the site of the modern London Eye and ripping the church tower to shreds - more than 600 homes were destroyed and London Bridge was damaged.

The deadliest natural disaster ever to hit our shores was in 1703, when a destructive hurrican ripped across southern England, killing 8,000 people. It became known as The Great Storm, the first properly documented weather disaster in British history.

We have always had violent and erratic weather events, but have they become more frequent?

Less than 70 years after The Great Storm, the collection of reliable weather data had begun. In 1772 scientists started to record the daily temperature of central England.

The Campbell-Stokes sunshine recorder was invented in 1853, marking the start of systematic weather observations from around the world. As well as using instruments dating from Victorian times, data is now gathered from satellites and weather balloons, and analysed using supercomputers.

Scientists can see that the world has warmed by about three-quarters of a degree in the last 100 years, with an even greater increase of one degree for Britain in the same period. One degree may not sound much, but it's enough to change our weather. As temperatures across the world rise, so does the level of moisture in the atmosphere, with more heat, and more energy in the system.

The atmosphere has 4% more moisture now than it had in the 1970's, and with more moisture, there is much more likelihood of severe weather events.

The increase in world temperature, climate scientists agree, is caused by greenhouse gases.

By drilling nearly a kilometre deep into the Antarctic ice sheet, we can measure levels of carbon dioxide and other gases that were present in our atmosphere over the last 800,000 years. They show that CO2 levels have fluctuated over thousands of years, however it always remained below 300 parts per million. 100 years ago it was 280 parts per million. Today, we are just crossing a threshold of 400 parts per million. Most scientific institutions conclude that man-made CO2, following the industrial revolution, is the culprit for global warming. Most scientists agree that global warming is having a dramatic effect on our weather, leading to more and more severe weather events.

The warmth contains lots of energy, and it's the energy from the warmer ocean and land that is driving our extreme weather.

Scientists at the Met Office have calculated that the chances of 2003-style heatwaves in the UK have approximately doubled. Ironically, we might also get colder, harsher winters in the UK, because of the effect on the Gulf Stream. If melting polar ice causes the Gulf Stream to weaken, then some calculations show that temperatures in Britain in winter might fall by 5 degrees, heading for more like a Scandinavian climate.

These predictions, scientists emphasise, are by no means a certainty - much work still needs to be done.

It isn't just Britain...

When we look at the whole world, we begin to realise that recently extreme weather has touched every corner of the globe...

America's recent weather events are well known, but in Italy in Winter 2012 we saw extreme snowfalls occurring in places that had never seen snow in living memory.

In 2010, the hottest summer on record affected many parts of the world. In Russia alone, 50,000 deaths were directly attributed to the sweltering heat.

In 2011, severe flooding caused havoc across the globe, from Australia to Thailand, and in the same year America's worst tornado season in living memory claimed 500 lives.

In 2012, Superstorm Sandy was fuelled by near record ocean temperatures, something people living on the USA's East Coast will not soon forget.

After watching this sobering documentary, I reflected that it is easy to understimate the effect of a few degrees rise in temperature. It doesn't take much energy to raise (say) a litre of water by a couple of degrees (an average person could generate this much energy on a stationary bike pedalling for around 20 seconds), and it doesn't give up much heat when it cools again. But the world's oceans contain about 1.3 billion cubic kilometers of water, and each cubic kilometer contains a trillion (1,000,000,000,000) litres of water. Even if a tiny fraction of the ocean warms by a few degrees, the energy involved is beyond imagining.

The other thing that struck me is the complexity and importance of the three-dimensional system of currents in the ocean, and how drastic can be the effects of an alteration in their behaviour.

Unfortunately, if decision-making people continue to ignore the science (which seems to happen for political, religious or corporate profit reasons, among others), we won't have to imagine the effects of global warming as the years go by - they will be all too obvious, and it will be too late to do much about them.

If you're interested in this kind of stuff, you might also like...

[The Secret Life of Waves]
[My environment and technology web page]

A Splendor Seldom Seen

From the page:

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has delivered a glorious view of Saturn, taken while the spacecraft was in Saturn's shadow. The cameras were turned toward Saturn and the sun so that the planet and rings are backlit. (The sun is behind the planet, which is shielding the cameras from direct sunlight.) In addition to the visual splendor, this special, very-high-phase viewing geometry lets scientists study ring and atmosphere phenomena not easily seen at a lower phase... More...

Thanks to Fourteenth for this one!

If you like this...

[BBC Audio Slideshow: Splendour of Saturn]

A wonderful interactive star map, with cool music (it's a "Chrome Experiment", and seems to work a little better in Chrome than in Firefox).

Click the image to play... it's definitely worth spending time with!

Thanks to my elder daughter for this one.

If you like this...

[Stellarium, an open-source software planetarium]

Trees on Mars?

A HiRISE image from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter showing trees on Mars... or so it appears!
Click the image for full-size version

(Image from this page - check out the "subimage")

Explanation from the page:

There is a vast region of sand dunes at high northern latitudes on Mars. In the winter, a layer of carbon dioxide ice covers the dunes, and in the spring as the sun warms the ice it evaporates. This is a very active process, and sand dislodged from the crests of the dunes cascades down, forming dark streaks.

Another discovery on the fine pages of batchbatcharak.

If you like this...

[More about HiRISE (High-resolution Image Science Experiment)]
[More examples of carbon dioxide fans from HiRISE]
[Polar Geology on Mars (science theme from the HiRISE site)]
[Awesome desktop wallpaper images from HiRISE]

From the page:

This image was taken by Curiosity’s MAHLI camera, which sits on the end of the rover’s extendable arm. MAHLI snapped 55 pictures from different locations. The different positions overlapped just enough so that the arm couldn’t be seen in the final result.

What can be seen are tire tracks, scoops in the Martian dust that Curiosity made, and the foothills of the 3-mile-high Mount Sharp in the background, which Curiosity will be driving up in the coming years. The rover will be investigating this area for signs of habitability in the Martian past or present. NASA will present new results about the Martian atmosphere at 10 a.m. Pacific/1 p.m. Eastern, which may include analysis of methane on Mars, a possible indicator of geologic or biological activity.

I cut out two relatively tiny images from the high-resolution original in order to show the detail that it contains:

Curiosity’s “eye” at the top with a reflection of Mars and the rover’s arm

Fine detail of the wheel and surface

Click any of the above images if you want to see the original... thanks, Bordertourista!

If you like this...

[My coverage of Curiosity's landing on Mars, taken from live NASA TV]

No, it's not CGI, or a sign of the beginning of the end of the world, or something caused by clandestine radar experiments, or the result of a skydive from space...

From the page:

A fallstreak hole, also known as a hole punch cloud, punch hole cloud, skypunch, canal cloud or cloud hole, is a large circular or elliptical gap, that can appear in cirrocumulus or altocumulus clouds. Such holes are formed when the water temperature in the clouds is below freezing but the water has not frozen yet due to the lack of ice nucleation particles (see supercooled water). When ice crystals do form it will set off a domino effect, due to the Bergeron process, causing the water droplets around the crystals to evaporate: this leaves a large, often circular, hole in the cloud... More...

Thanks to Cyrion for this one... and click her tag at the top of this post if you want to see more of her great finds featured on these pages.

You're on Mars... take a look around!

Thanks to Fourteenth (whose pages are well worth visiting) for sharing this one.

If you like this...

[More from Mars...]

I have just watched the successful touchdown of the Mars Curiosity Rover, streamed live on NASA TV... here are some of my screenshots from this truly historic event (click any image to get to the site where I watched).

When this sequence starts, it is too late for control signals to get from Earth to Mars in time to influence anything, so everything is happening automatically at the Mars end.

JPL are getting signals about 15 minutes behind actual events, even with signals travelling at the speed of light, relayed from Odyssey, the Mars orbiter, which is circling Mars.

(There is nothing accidental about the timing - the Lander's touchdown needs to happen when one of the orbiters is in line of sight.)

At some point in this sequence, telemetry changes to tones and "heartbeats". The heartbeats confirm everthing is proceeding as expected.

(Nostalgia - I once programmed a thing called a "watchdog timer" which generated an electronic heartbeat so long as the equipment was working succesfully... in a slightly more modest application!)

This is live computer simulation, showing the team what the computer calculates should be happening at this moment

Reporting that Mars is pulling Curiosity in... speeding up to 5.1 km/sec, as expected



This is no longer simulation - this is a computer presentation of actual telemetry data coming in!

In the next sequence, we hear that tones report start of guided entry 12 to 13 earth Gs deceleration... signal from Odyssey received... then data... Mach 2.4, flying almost like a plane... heartbeat tones again... parachute expected Mach 1.7...

Parachute deploy! Ground radar active... 82 m/s... Just a few km away...

We hear that Sky Crane has started (see my previous post)... then touchdown confirmed!

Heads up... first images coming down... the first one is a low res thumbnail of the Lander's wheel

...then a higher res thumbnail...

A new image on the left, showing the shadow cast by Curiosity on the surface of Mars

...and now we can see the dust particles that are partially obscuring the view, dust in the Martian air that was blown by the descent engines (dust on the Moon settled immediately in hard vacuum)

I am blown away too... The landing was at Pacific Daylight Time 10:32PM on Sunday 5th August 2012 (Monday in England) - a time to remember

At this point most viewers are probably losing interest as the team starts systematically checking through a zillion pieces of telemetry data, and it's all about Ohms and Volts and what each reading means... but for me, this is still exciting

My mind truly boggles at this achievement - so many things that so many people had to do, and so many bits of different technology made by so many people, that all had to work perfectly - and did.

Last words from this part of the broadcast: "Let the science begin."

(See my previous post for more about the Curiosity Mission.)

If you like this...

[Curiosity's Facebook Page]
[NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory Website]
[Did putting man on the Moon really cost America anything?]
[All of my posts about space exploration]

With the London Olympics going on, it would be easy to miss seeing a truly amazing team achievement that is due to happen (if it is successful) on Monday, 6th August at 6:51 AM British Summer time, 5 hours earlier (Eastern) or 8 hours earlier on Sunday evening (Pacific) if you are in the USA.

It's the most ambitious landing on Mars yet - a huge Mars explorer that will be landed using a "sky crane".

The video is an animation by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and provides a very realistic view of what will happen on Mars (hopefully) after that amazing landing, as well as the landing itself. If you want to travel around on Mars, watching this video is the closest that most of us will come!

I can't find any programme listings for the landing on my TV channels, but I'll definitely be up early on Monday to follow it live on this site.

(I was! See my next post above.)

A particularly good animation of Conway's Game of Life

John Conway's "Game of Life" is an exploration of how complexity evolves in nature. It is a game you can play at home, using any board with squares (a chess board is too small, a Go board is better). You lay down any pattern of stones or pieces on the board, and then apply some very simple rules to determine what the next pattern looks like.

If you have the patience to repeat this exercise through many patterns, applying the same rules from one pattern to the next (or better, use a computer) then you will see some strange and wonderful things (as illustrated in this video).

The "Game of Life" is an example of a whole family of investigations into how Nature works, in particular the fascinating study of Cellular Automata. These show how even very simple rules, repeated many times, can lead to very complex (and sometimes very beautiful) results.

Cellular Automata crop up in a very interesting SF trilogy by Robert J. Sawyer (who wrote Flashforward), about the evolution of intelligence in the World Wide Web - if you are interested, I reviewed the books (which start with "Wake") here.

The "Game of Life" is described here on my web site.

A shot of one of the many thermal pools in Yellowstone National Park © by Danielle Goldstein (available as desktop wallpaper)

"The Sagan Series is a collection of tribute vidoes dedicated to the late, great Carl Sagan. Breath-taking cinematography and a mesmerising soundtrack lends a powerful scenery to Sagan's narration from his hit TV series, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage."

Thanks for this one, Elegantlady (Roberta)!

"Cerebral Cortex"

"Retina I"

Greg Dunn, the artist, writes:

I enjoy Asian art. I particularly love minimalist scroll and screen painting from the Edo period in Japan. I am also a fan of neuroscience. Therefore, it was a fine day when two of my passions came together upon the realization that the elegant forms of neurons (the cells that comprise your brain) can be painted expressively in the Asian sumi-e style. Neurons may be tiny in scale, but they possess the same beauty seen in traditional forms of the medium (trees, flowers, and animals).

I admire the Japanese, Chinese, and Korean masters because of their confidence in simplicity. I try to emulate this idea.

When I’m not doing this I’m working on a doctorate in neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania, to which I give a thumbs up.

Thanks, CookItaly!

[Greg Dunn's Web Site]

One of a great series of science videos with voices of famous presenters transformed to music

Found on the wonderful pages of ensemble5.

One of many wondrous images to be found on the pages of an2net

Click the image for the excellent information always provided with each Astronomy Picture of the Day

Free association...

[Starry Starry Night, by Vincent Van Gogh]

Evolution of the gas density in the high resolution resimulation of clustor 001
(Watch the movie here, and more simulation movies here)

The Bolshoi simulation (says the page) is the most accurate cosmological simulation of the evolution of the large-scale structure of the universe yet made (“bolshoi” is the Russian word for “great” or “grand”).

Thanks to Samaryantha for this one.

"Torus knot fun" by zipper

I couldn't resist snaffling this from ToeTagJaneDoe (Sofie)'s fine pages (now on Categorian).

It took a while to track down the original, but I eventually discovered it on this very fine mathematical art page, which is worth visiting in its own right.

A great page for all kinds of mathematical art.

In this fascinating programme from the BBC, documentary-maker David Malone explores the secrets of ocean waves. He finds that waves are not made of water - waves are energy in motion, travelling long distances, but away from shore the water that passes the energy usually just moves in small circles...

We can watch waves endlessly (although not often in such beautiful ways as this), without appreciating their true nature. The sound of waves, for instance, doesn't come from water, but from millions of vibrating bubbles...

...and there are waves not just on the surface between water and air, but between layers of water...

...the most complex (and the most important) of which are oceanic Rossby waves, which can take months or years to cross an ocean and have many effects on our climate, including being the reason why the British Isles aren't locked in ice (more on their importance here, in far more detail than was possible in the programme)

Waves do not just happen in water - they underlie so many other processes of life and nature, taking forms that we often don't see or recognize...

... and by the end of this extraordinary programme we can see David Malone's mother, at the very end of her life cycle, as (among many other things) a very complex and beautiful wave.

This excellent and thought-provoking film has been shown several times on UK TV. If it comes your way and you haven't seen it, it's definitely worth catching.

If you like this...

[A fascinating video, "Nature by Numbers"]

(Original post: March 21st, 2011)

From the page:

On March 19th, a full Moon of rare size and beauty will rise in the east at sunset. It's a super "perigee moon"--the biggest in almost 20 years.

"The last full Moon so big and close to Earth occurred in March of 1993," says Geoff Chester of the US Naval Observatory in Washington DC. "I'd say it's worth a look."

Full Moons vary in size because of the oval shape of the Moon's orbit. It is an ellipse with one side (perigee) about 50,000 km closer to Earth than the other (apogee): diagram. Nearby perigee moons are about 14% bigger and 30% brighter than lesser moons that occur on the apogee side of the Moon's orbit... More...

I took this picture from outside our back door, just after moonrise on the 19th - the real thing was quite impressive (this is the best I can do with my small camera). Thanks to Catcaley for the article share!

From the page:

"On September 22, 2010, with the departure of the Expedition 23 crew, Colonel Douglas H. Wheelock assumed command of the International Space Station and the Expedition 25 crew. He is also known as @Astro_Wheels on twitter, where he has been tweeting space photos to his followers since he arrived at the space station."

One of many of his photos to be found here:

"Aurora Borealis"

In the distance on this beautiful night over Europe the Strait of Dover is pretty clear as is Paris, the City of Lights. A little fog over the western part of England and London. It is incredible to see the lights of the cities and small towns against the backdrop of deep space. I am going to miss this view of our wonderful world...

Thanks to dragonisrider for this one!

"Stellarium is a free open source planetarium for your computer. It shows a realistic sky in 3D, just like what you see with the naked eye, binoculars or a telescope. It is being used in planetarium projectors. Just set your coordinates and go...."

Stellarium's rich set of features are worth studying in some depth - you can download the User Guide from the home page, but there is also a Quickstart Guide that you may find useful.

There were two versions of the program in the package that I downloaded for Windows. I had problems with one of them - the one that worked for me was Stellarium (no OpenGL 2) - more about OpenGL here.

(Original post: September 25th, 2010)

This comes from a new post on my other blog.

Click the image for some of my thoughts on humanism, and why I think that this stuff really matters.

From space, the aurora is a crown of light that circles each of Earth's poles. The IMAGE satellite captured this view of the aurora australis (southern lights) on September 11, 2005, four days after a record-setting solar flare sent plasma - an ionized gas of protons and electrons - flying towards the Earth. The ring of light that the solar storm generated over Antarctica glows green in the ultraviolet part of the spectrum, shown in this image. The IMAGE observations of the aurora are overlaid onto NASA's satellite-based Blue Marble image. From the Earth's surface, the ring would appear as a curtain of light shimmering across the night sky...

One of so many beautiful and interesting things to be found on the pages of Field-Daisy.

From the page:

In "Nature by Numbers," filmmaker Cristóbal Vila presents a series of animations illustrating various mathematic principles, beginning with a breathtaking animation of the Fibonacci sequence. Then it moves on to the Golden and Angle Ratios, the Delaunay Triangulation and Voronoi Tessellations. This would be math-class gold, and it's awfully sweet even if math class is years behind you.

If you are fascinated by this brilliant animation (which I found on Ian's pages), here is a quick guide to finding out more (should you need or want it):

The Fibonacci Sequence is formed by starting with 0,1 and adding the two numbers together to get a new number (giving 0,1,1). If you keep doing this using the last 2 numbers in the sequence then you get 0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21... Fibonacci thought up this sequence (in the year 1202) as described in Fibonacci's Rabbits, which is well worth reading, as is all the other information that you will find there.

Two numbers "a" and "b" are said to be in the Golden Ratio if the ratio of "a" to "b" is the same as the ratio of "a+b" to "a". You can't write this ratio exactly as a decimal number, but it is approximately 1.618.

The Golden Ratio, referred to as phi (greek letter), is approximated ever more closely by the ratio of any two successive numbers in the Fibonacci Sequence, as the sequence is taken further and further. From the sequence above you can see that 13/8 is an approximation of the ratio, but 21/13 is a better approximation (and so it goes on).

Spookily, you can start a sequence with any two numbers, e.g. (235,1) and extend it using the same rules as for the Fibonacci Sequence, and the ratio between the last two numbers will still get closer and closer to the Golden Ratio as the sequence extends. In other words, it is the rules, rather than the starting numbers, that matter.

The Golden Section is a line segment divided according to the Golden Ratio.

The Golden Angle is what you get if you divide a circle's circumference according to the Golden Section, draw two lines from the centre of the circle to where the circumference is split, and take the smaller angle between those two lines. It is about 137.5 degrees. You will see it appearing in the animation.

I can't tell you much about Delaunay Triangulations and Voronoi Tessellations (not having met them before), except that they are reflected in the way in which Nature packs things together. This amazing video has certainly inspired me to try to find out more.

If you like this...

[A great post on the Fibonacci series from laydgray]
[... and you might like the mind-stretchers tag at the top of this post]

(Original post: July 14th, 2010)

Extracts from the page:

This is the extraordinary place where we all live - the Universe.

The picture is the first full-sky image from Europe's Planck telescope which was sent into space last year to survey the "oldest light" in the cosmos - dating from only 380,000 years after the Big Bang.

It shows what is visible beyond the Earth to instruments that are sensitive to light at very long wavelengths - much longer than what we can sense with our eyes.

Dominating the foreground are large segments of our Milky Way Galaxy.

The bright horizontal line running the full length of the image is the galaxy's main disc - the plane in which the Sun and the Earth also reside.

This is where most stars in the Milky Way form today; but because this picture records only light at long wavelengths (microwaves to the very far infrared), what we actually see are not stars at all.

Rather, what we see is the stuff that goes into making stars - lots of dust and gas.

Of particular note are the huge streamers of cold dust that reach thousands of light-years above and below the galactic plane.

As beautiful as the Milky Way appears, its emission must be removed if scientists are to get an even better view of its mottled backdrop, coloured here in magenta and yellow.

This is the famous cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation, and a key target of the Planck mission.

The CMB is the "first light". It is the light that was finally allowed to move out across space once a post-Big-Bang Universe had cooled sufficiently to permit the formation of hydrogen atoms.

Read the full article here.

From my web site:

[Some thoughts on Science vs. Religion]

I recently watched a local news programme about a small girl with diabetes, whose life has been saved at least once by her "Bio-Detection" dog. The dog's nose is sensitive enough to detect the onset of a coma before it occurs, and the dog is trained to alert the girl and her family.

The ability of dogs to detect certain forms of cancer is also known, but the full extent of their capabilities is still being researched.

Charities supporting this work, Cancer Dogs and Hypoalert Dogs, have combined forces and you can now follow their activities here on Facebook.

This seems to me like a cause well worth supporting.

"The Flower", the Mona Lisa of aerogel pictures, dramatically demonstrates the superinsulating properties of silica aerogel by insulating a delicate, moist flower from the raging heat of a Bunsen burner (image credit Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory)

From the page:

What, you may ask, is aerogel? Aerogels are the world's lightest solid materials, composed of up to 99.98% air by volume. Aerogels are a diverse class of amazing materials with properties unlike anything else. Transparent superinsulating silica aerogels exhibit the lowest thermal conductivity of any solid known. Ultrahigh surface area carbon aerogels power today's fast-charging supercapacitors. And ultrastrong, bendable x-aerogels are the lowest-density structural materials ever developed...

Here you will find an encyclopedic reference about aerogels, how-to guides for making aerogels and building a do-it-yourself supercritical dryer, the world's most comprehensive aerogel image gallery, a podcast with the world's leading aerogel scientists, and more.

Aerogel's not just for NASA anymore. Welcome to open-source nanotech.

I came across this fascinating material in the BBC series The Culture Show, in an episode dedicated to the relationship between science and art. It featured the Materials Library at King's College, London (on the river near Aldwych), which I hope one day to visit.

From the King's College web page:

Deep in the bowels of King's College London there is a space that is home to a collection of some of the most extraordinary materials on Earth... These materials are gathered together not only for scientific interest, but for their ability to fire the imagination and advance conceptualisation. Our hypothesis is that not only do technical details enhance aesthetic experience but that in generating physical encounters with matter, one provides an often forgotten way into this technical knowledge.

The library is a physical archive of more than 800 materials and is growing every month. We specialise in new and advanced prototype materials collected from research labs all round the world... The ideal of the library is to provide an intellectual and sensual intersection between the arts and sciences. We are not trying to create a comprehensive materials collection, instead we are trying to create a thinking space for the Materials Research Group.

Randy Cassingham adds a great deal of value to this extraordinary video, which is why I am directing you to his site first.
From Randy's blog:

I'm really taken with a video released on YouTube last week. It's an Auto-Tune, which is the name given to soundtracks that use the audio plug-in of the same name. Auto-Tune was designed to correct the pitch of vocals, but clever music creators realized they could use it to make spoken word recordings musical. This is a fantastic example of the genre.

It's not just fantastic because it's a clever use of Auto-Tune; I've seen that and it's fun, but it's not amazing. But in this video, John Boswell not only put some spoken word to music with compelling visuals, but he also managed to distill the essence of what Carl Sagan was saying with his groundbreaking 1980 13-hour TV series, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. (It also features a brief interlude of words from physicist Stephen Hawking.)


I know not everyone will like the Auto-Tune effect, and it starts out a bit weird, but it's only three and a half minutes, so stick with it: it's worth it. I recommend you play it twice: once to watch it, and then again while reading along with the lyrics, which are below...

If you like Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking, or even if you have never heard of them, don't miss this one.

From the page:

It is one of the most dramatic images ever to emerge from Mars.

In fact, this extraordinary photograph is so clear that even the sand dunes at the base of the half-mile wide canyon are visible.

Experts even believe that they can see the tracks of a Mars lander on the left-hand corner of the Victoria Crater.

This image of the Victoria Crater in the Meridiani Planum region of Mars was taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

The reduced image above does no justice to the original. Check out the original hi res images from NASA/JPL, and visit the HiRISE link if you would like to see some more truly awesome stuff.

Thanks to dayseye for this one - one of many beautiful and fascinating things to be found on her pages.

If you like this...

[Slide show of Saturn - commentary on images from the Cassini spacecraft]

Just two of many extraordinary images taken from the Cassini spacecraft. I have added a red arrow to the first image to point to a tiny speck - our own planet Earth.

It's mind-boggling to think that these images were transmitted successfully to several infinitely more tiny dishes on that tiny speck, taking up to 90 minutes at the speed of light to get there, and that we (tinier still) are somewhere on that tiny speck looking at them... and that some of us, working together, were capable of this great achievement.

In this really interesting slide show, Carl Murray, a member of the Cassini Imaging Team from Queen Mary College London, takes us on a tour of Saturn, its arcs and moons - including Titan, which appears to have geological features similar to Earth's.

[More on the Cassini mission]
[Some more of my space exploration favourites]

A literally wonderful web site for the Cassini Equinox Mission to explore the Saturn system, from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

This image of the complete Mandelbrot Set was created by Wolfgang Beyer with the program Ultra Fractal 3 - click the picture for higher resolution pictures and further details.

Did you ever wonder what is really behind this wonderful image?

If so, here is a thought experiment. It's tedious, but it leads somewhere truly wonderful. All you need (in your imagination) is an ordinary pencil, some coloured pencils, a pin, a very large piece of paper, something to draw a circle with, and something to measure with.

Go carefully now...

Draw a circle on the paper, large but leaving plenty of room outside it. Mark a light pencil dot anywhere inside the circle. Make a pin hole at the same place as the pencil dot.

Now make a second pin hole. You work out where to place it using a particular, very simple formula, based on where the pencil dot is and where the previous pin hole was (the same position, in this case). More about the actual formula later.

Keep doing this, placing more pin holes, whose positions are each calculated from where the original pencil dot is and where the previous pin hole was.

After a while, one of two things will happen. Either it will become obvious that all the pin holes are falling inside the circle, or one of the pin holes will fall outside the circle and thereafter all later pin holes will head right off the paper.

If the first thing happens, go back to the pencil dot and mark it in deep black. If the second thing happens, mark the pencil dot in some colour, the colour depending on how many pin holes it took to go off the paper.

Now start all over again with another pencil dot placed somewhere else, more pin holes, then colouring the pencil dot as before.

If you did all of this again and again until all your coloured pencil dots joined up, and your paper was big enough (of course your patience would run out and you would use a computer instead), you would see something like the image at the top of this post.

If you expand the view of the "valley" between the biggest blob and the next-biggest blob, you would see this:

By the time you have zoomed in another seven times you would see this in a tiny part of the original image:

And you can go on and on, deeper and deeper, uncovering still more wonders. I understand that some people, watching the computer program revealing the details, enter a kind of altered state of mind, and it isn't hard to see why.

When I struggled to find out what Mandelbrot's simple repeated formula actually meant and how it behaved, and where that wonderful complexity was coming from, there seemed to be two kinds of explanation. One kind was full of fearsome looking mathematical equations. The other kind avoided the maths but missed out on what was really happening.

So I tried to find a simple way of explaining it (for my own benefit) which didn't ignore the maths, but which didn't need someone to be a mathematician in order to understand it.

I don't know if I succeeded, but my best shot at it (should you be interested) is here.

You might have fun reading it - I had fun writing it, anyway!

Possibly the most untapped source of energy saving is the heat pump (familiar to most people in the form of an air conditioner or a refrigerator, but it applies to heating as well as to cooling).

Many people don't realize that it can be cheaper to move heat than to generate it. Even "cold" water (by which I mean water we wouldn't necessarily want to swim in!) contains heat that can be moved (by refrigerating a river, say, in the case of a conveniently situated concert hall - the river becomes slightly colder and the concert hall becomes hotter).

The popularity of this concept has been steadily growing for domestic housing, as well as for large commercial buildings.

You can do a neat experiment at home to demonstrate one of the main methods of moving heat, used in a conventional refrigerator or air conditioner. Just blow on the back of your hand with your mouth wide open. It doesn't matter how hard you blow, the air will feel warm - yes? Now blow on the back of your hand through pursed lips. It doesn't matter how gently you blow, the air will feel (and is) cooler. That's refrigeration (well, adiabatic cooling to be precise) in action.

(I invented that simple experiment to explain one reason why aircraft piston engines need "carb heat".)

There are now many domestic heating systems that refrigerate the ground (or water in the ground), moving heat from the ground into your house. If the conditions are right, it is cheaper to do this than to generate the heat.

If you're interested, see here.

BTW: I was prompted into writing this by a nice message from oilhand99, who is interested in this kind of thing. Thanks, Ben!

[Many applications of heat pump technology - save money and help the environment!]

and if you like this kind of thing...

[Solid state refrigeration (for small applications at present, e.g. water chillers and electronic components)]
[My environment page]


The Antennae Galaxies NGC 4038-4039

From the (literally) wonderful Hubble Telescope Site

I wrote this when I was studying physics at university, somewhere around 1967, as I was beginning to appreciate what a truly awesome place the universe that we live in is, and how great were the minds that could comprehend even the shallow end of it:

To a Physicist

Have you ever heard the clang
Of a tiny particle, swollen by its speed
A trillionth of a trillionth of a grain of sand
Come round its last lap, and with frightful energy
Deal a reverberating sledge-hammer blow
Smashing the lock of Nature's secrets?

Have you ever suffered vertigo
From viewing octaves of infinity on either side
Where Space of an exactly calculable radius
Laughs emptily into never-ending distance?
Or to the inverse powers turn, and feel your soul
Plummet in the chasms of the infinitely small?

Or have you ever felt the unit pulse
That beats beneath the mightiest structures of the Universe
And on discovering (scarcely with surprise) the laws
That state what you are
not allowed to know
Do you not scoot back to the nursery,
Ignore the blasts outside, and tinker happily with 'science' --
Thankful for childhood?

If you like this kind of thing...

[Nikon Universcale (interactive illustration of the scale of the universe)]
["Powers of Ten" (1977 documentary film)]

This rather beautiful image is free desktop wallpaper available from The Light Works.

I used this image to illustrate one of the pages in the Mind Stretchers section of my web site, and I am posting it here because of this very nice message sent to me by my friend ajihad (Vasav):

"Loved to read every single tiny bit on your page. Especially your thought experiment to explain the Analemma and the unique manner in which you have explained complex numbers. Since nobody taught me how to understand the Mandelbrot set I was working pretty much on my own but throughout my search I didn't find any article such as yours which tries to explain it in layman terms. I am going to add a link to your page, for my readers who wish to know more. You have done some amazing work."

Thanks, Vasav!

The North American and Pelican Nebulae in Cygnus

This great site is the work of Davide De Martin. Since 2005 Davide has collaborated with the ESA/Hubble at ESO as a consultant working as an image processor. Davide writes:

"I produce color images of the most beautiful and uncommon celestial objects using the modern techniques of photographic digital enhancement. I mainly use the data and the black&white photographs captured by astronomers with the instruments installed at Mount Palomar or other Observatories.

"This work allowed me to discover the wonderful celestial objects hidden in exceptional images that lay unseen in archives, sometimes from decades.

"The night-sky is full of jewels that wait only to be admired. This website will show you some of these as you never have seen before."

This site was sent to me my friend ajihad (Vasav) - thanks, Vasav!