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  • feedwordpress 08:01:42 on 2018/10/15 Permalink
    Tags: , death of the universe, , Jesse L. Greenstein, quasar, Science, , , university, vacuum, vacuum decay   

    “And so the Universe ended”*… 



    Conceptual illustration of the Higgs Field that physicists believe permeates the Universe, and that could theoretically bring about its end.


    Every once in a while, physicists come up with a new way to destroy the Universe. There’s the Big Rip (a rending of spacetime), the Heat Death (expansion to a cold and empty Universe), and the Big Crunch (the reversal of cosmic expansion). My favourite, though, has always been vacuum decay. It’s a quick, clean and efficient way of wiping out the Universe…

    Learn more about a possibility that really sucks: “Vacuum decay: the ultimate catastrophe.”

    * Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe


    As we we abhor a vacuum even more than nature does, we might send closely-observed birthday greetings to Jesse Leonard Greenstein; he was born on this date in 1909.  An astronomer who ran Cal Tech’s storied program for decades, he co-discovered (with Maarten Schmidt) the quasar.  While other astronomers had previously observed the bright bodies, Greenstein and Schmidt were the first to to interpret the red shift of quasars and correctly identify them as compact, very distant– and thus very old– objects.  Later, working with Louis Henyey, Greenstein designed and built a new spectrograph and wide-view camera to improve astronomical observations,

    greenstein source


  • feedwordpress 08:01:25 on 2018/10/13 Permalink
    Tags: Copernican Revolution, , Greenwich, , , , , Prime Meridian, Science, , Universal Meridian   

    “If you think this Universe is bad, you should see some of the others”*… 



    FIRST OF FOUR?: The first Copernican revolution moved the Earth out of the center of the solar system. The second recognized that there are many planets in our galaxy, and the third that there are many galaxies in the observable universe. Proving that our universe is one among many would represent a fourth Copernican revolution.


    A challenge for 21st-century physics is to answer two questions. First, are there many “big bangs” rather than just one? Second—and this is even more interesting—if there are many, are they all governed by the same physics?

    If we’re in a multiverse, it would imply a fourth and grandest Copernican revolution; we’ve had the Copernican revolution itself, then the realization that there are billions of planetary systems in our galaxy; then that there are billions of galaxies in our observable universe. But now that’s not all. The entire panorama that astronomers can observe could be a tiny part of the aftermath of “our” big bang, which is itself just one bang among a perhaps infinite ensemble.

    At first sight, the concept of parallel universes might seem too arcane to have any practical impact. But it may (in one of its variants) actually offer the prospect of an entirely new kind of computer: the quantum computer, which can transcend the limits of even the fastest digital processor by, in effect, sharing the computational burden among a near infinity of parallel universes…

    Cambridge physicist and Astronomer Royal Martin Rees suspects that our universe is one island in an archipelago: “The Fourth Copernican Revolution.”

    * Philip K. Dick


    As we find our place, we might recall that it was on this date in 1884 that 41 delegates from 25 nations, meeting in Washington, DC for the International Meridian Conference, adopted Greenwich as the universal meridian.  They also established that all longitude would be calculated both east and west from this meridian up to 180°.

    PrimeMeridianThm source


  • feedwordpress 05:01:04 on 2018/10/10 Permalink
    Tags: , , Humane Society, , , , premature burial, Richard Blackmore, Science,   

    “The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague”*… 




    In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, people worried about the difficulty in measuring the line between life and death. Fearful that loved ones would be buried alive, people attached strings and bells to a finger of a person who appeared dead, so that they could detect any movement and commence or continue resuscitation.

    There were also societies dedicated to the resuscitation of people who appeared to be dead, for example, the Institution of the Humane Society of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (Humane Society) founded in 1788 and modeled after the Royal Humane Society of London founded in 1774. The Humane Society’s main purpose was to revive those apparently dead. In Boston and along the coastline, their concern lay first and foremost with the drowned. The London Society’s founders claimed that it had been successful in reviving 790 out of 1300 people “apparently dead from drowning.” The men who brought the Institution to Massachusetts hoped to replicate this effort, restoring loved ones to their friends and family members…

    Early attempts to find the line between life and death: “Who is dead?

    * Edgar Allan Poe, “The Premature Burial”


    As we take our pulses, we might spare a thought for Sir Richard Blackmore; he died on this date in 1729.  A physician of note, he argued that observation and the physician’s experience should take precedence over any Aristotelian ideals or hypothetical laws, and he rejected Galen’s humour theory. He wrote on plague, smallpox, and consumption.

    But he is best remembered for his passion, poetry.  A supporter of the Glorious Revolution, he wrote Prince Arthur, an Heroick Poem in X Books, a celebration of William III.  Later he authored Blackmore produced The Nature of Man, a physiological/theological poem on climate and character (featuring the English climate as the best), and Creation: A Philosophical Poem.

    While he was praised in his time by John Dennis, Joseph Addison, and, later, Samuel Johnson, history’s verdict has been written by his detractors– main among them Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, and John Dryden– all of whom found Blackmore’s poetry “grandeloquent,” “stupid,” and “leaden.”

    (Readers can judge for themselves at the Internet Archive’s collection of his work.)

    440px-Richard_Blackmore source


  • feedwordpress 08:01:03 on 2018/10/02 Permalink
    Tags: camel, , , , Ig Nobel, , Science,   

    “Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose”*… 



    Akira Horiuchi, winner of this year’s Ig Nobel for medical education, demonstrates his self-colonoscopy technique during this year’s award ceremony


    From workplace voodoo dolls and self-inflicted colonoscopies to cannibalistic diets and using roller coasters to pass kidney stones, here are the winners of this year’s Ig Nobel Prizes.

    It’s that time of year again, when some of the strangest science gets its turn to shine. To be clear, the Ig Nobel Prizes aren’t meant to diminish or demean scientific work, nor do they recognize dubious or bad science. Rather, it’s an opportunity to highlight some of the weirder work that gets done in research labs around the world, or scientific work that, quite frankly, is fucking hilarious. The tagline from the group behind the Ig Nobel Prize, Improbable Research, says it best: “Research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK.”…

    More on the ceremony at “Solo Colonoscopies, Cannibal Calories, and More 2018 Ig Nobel Prize Winners.”  See the complete, official run-down of laureates and their work at “The 2018 Ig Nobel Prize Winners.”

    * Zora Neale Hurston


    As we pursue knowledge, we might recall that t was on this date in 1721 that The Boston Globe announced the arrival of the first camel to the United States: “Just arrived from Africa, a very large Camel being above Seven Foot high, and Twelve Foot long, and is the first of its Kind ever brought into America to be seen at the bottom of Cold Lane where daily Attendance is given.”

    The first commercial importation of a number of camels into the U.S. was made in 1856  for military purposes (in the desert West), following an appropriation of $30,000 made by Congress in 1855.

    camel source


  • feedwordpress 08:01:51 on 2018/09/28 Permalink
    Tags: astrobiology, , , , meteor, meteorite, Murchison, risk, Science,   

    “The blazing meteor, when it descends to earth, is only a stone”*… 




    The odds of being hit by a meteorite are extremely low. You’re far more likely to die in a car crash or a fire than you are to die from a meteorite strike. It’s also more likely that you’ll be killed by lightning or a tornado – both of which are extremely rare. However, there’s bad news too – you have a higher chance of being hit by a meteorite than you do of winning the lottery…

    Oh, and avoid the United States (and India)!  See why at: “What Are Your Chances of Being Hit by a Meteorite?

    * Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


    As we duck and cover, we might recall that it was on this date in 1969 that a large meteorite fell near Murchison in Victoria, Australia.  Both because it was an observed fall (its bright fireball was seen by many) and because it proved to be rich in organic compounds (an abundance of amino acids), it has been one of the most-studied meteorites.

    220px-Murchison_crop source


  • feedwordpress 08:01:05 on 2018/09/23 Permalink
    Tags: computer vision, corners, , , , Science, thyphoid fever, Thyphoid Mary, typhus, , vision   

    “There is one thing which gives radiance to everything. It is the idea of something around the corner”*… 


    around corners


    While vacationing on the coast of Spain in 2012, the computer vision scientist Antonio Torralba noticed stray shadows on the wall of his hotel room that didn’t seem to have been cast by anything. Torralba eventually realized that the discolored patches of wall weren’t shadows at all, but rather a faint, upside-down image of the patio outside his window. The window was acting as a pinhole camera — the simplest kind of camera, in which light rays pass through a small opening and form an inverted image on the other side. The resulting image was barely perceptible on the light-drenched wall. But it struck Torralba that the world is suffused with visual information that our eyes fail to see.

    “These images are hidden to us,” he said, “but they are all around us, all the time.”

    The experience alerted him and his colleague, Bill Freeman, both professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to the ubiquity of “accidental cameras,” as they call them: windows, corners, houseplants and other common objects that create subtle images of their surroundings. These images, as much as 1,000 times dimmer than everything else, are typically invisible to the naked eye. “We figured out ways to pull out those images and make them visible,” Freeman explained.

    The pair discovered just how much visual information is hiding in plain sight. In their first paper, Freeman and Torralba showed that the changing light on the wall of a room, filmed with nothing fancier than an iPhone, can be processed to reveal the scene outside the window. Last fall, they and their collaborators reported that they can spot someone moving on the other side of a corner by filming the ground near the corner. This summer, they demonstrated that they can film a houseplant and then reconstruct a three-dimensional image of the rest of the room from the disparate shadows cast by the plant’s leaves. Or they can turn the leaves into a “visual microphone,” magnifying their vibrations to listen to what’s being said…

    Computer vision researchers have uncovered a world of visual signals hiding in our midst, including subtle motions that betray what’s being said and faint images of what’s around a corner: “The New Science of Seeing Around Corners.”

    * G. K. Chesterton


    As we crane our necks, we might send infectious birthday greetings to Mary Mallon; she was born on this date in 1869.  Better known by the nickname given her by the press, “Typhoid Mary,” she was the first person in the United States identified (in 1915) as an asymptomatic carrier of the pathogen associated with typhoid fever… before which, she inadvertently spread typhus for years while working as a cook in the New York area.  From 1915 to 1938, when she died of s stroke, she was quarantined on North Brother Island (in the East River, between Riker’s Island and the Bronx).


  • feedwordpress 08:01:55 on 2018/09/20 Permalink
    Tags: , , Jeremy Baumberg, , Paul Erdos, Science, ,   

    “To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete”*… 



    There is remarkably little reflection taking place about the state of science today, despite significant challenges, rooted in globalization, the digitization of knowledge, and the growing number of scientists.

    At first glance, all of these seem to be positive trends. Globalization connects scientists worldwide, enabling them to avoid duplication and facilitating the development of universal standards and best practices. The creation of digital databases allows for systematic mining of scientific output and offers a broader foundation for new investigations. And the rising number of scientists means that more science is being conducted, accelerating progress.

    But these trends are Janus-faced…

    Jeremy Baumberg argues that we live in an age of hyper-competitive, trend-driven, and herd-like approach to scientific research: “What Is Threatening Science?

    * Buckminster Fuller


    As we rethink research, we might spare a thought for Paul Erdős; he died on this date in 1996.  One of the most prolific mathematicians of the 20th century (he published around 1,500 mathematical papers during his lifetime, a figure that remains unsurpassed), he is remembered both for his “social practice” of mathematics (he engaged more than 500 collaborators) and for his eccentric lifestyle (he spent his waking hours virtually entirely on math; he would typically show up at a colleague’s doorstep and announce “my brain is open”, staying long enough to collaborate on a few papers before moving on a few days later).

    Erdős’s prolific output with co-authors prompted the creation of the Erdős number, the number of steps in the shortest path between a mathematician and Erdős in terms of co-authorships.  Low numbers are a badge of pride– and a usual marker of accomplishment: as of 2016, all Fields Medalists have a finite Erdős number, with values that range between 2 and 6, and a median of 3.  Physics Nobelists Einstein and Sheldon Glashow have an Erdős number of 2.   Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron can be considered to have an Erdős number of 1 because they both autographed the same baseball (for number theorist Carl Pomerance).  Natalie Portman’s undergraduate collaboration with a Harvard professor earned her an Erdős number of 5; Danica McKellar (“Winnie Cooper” in The Wonder Years) has an Erdős number of 4, for a mathematics paper coauthored while an undergraduate at UCLA.



  • feedwordpress 08:01:09 on 2018/09/19 Permalink
    Tags: , eugenics, fish, , ichthyology, Jane Stanford, Royal D. Suttkus Fish Collection, Science, Stanford University, Tulane University,   

    “Now I can look at you in peace; I don’t eat you any more.”… 



    Hidden in a bend of the Mississippi River just south of New Orleans, 29 concrete bunkers lie on a grid of dirt and grass roads. Some hold remnants from the past—40-year-old gas masks and biohazard signs still hang on a wall. Most of them have been abandoned for decades. But inside two of those bunkers, 15 million fish eyes stare at the walls through the glass of their jars. This is the Royal D. Suttkus Fish Collection, the largest collection of preserved fish in the world, and almost no one knows it exists…

    More of the story– and explore the collection– at “A Pair of WWII Bunkers in New Orleans Contains 7 Million Fish.”

    * Franz Kafka (commenting on his then new-found vegetarianism)


    As we ponder preservation, we might spare a thought for David Starr Jordan; he died on this date in 1931.  The leading ichthyologist of his time, he was also an educator and advocate for science.  He became the youngest President of Indiana University, then founding President of Stanford; he was an expert witness at the Scopes Trial, testifying for the efficacy of the theory of evolution.

    His career was not unblemished however: he helped cover up the murder of Jane Stanford, and argued in favor of eugenics.

    220px-Portrait_of_David_Starr_Jordan source



  • feedwordpress 08:01:21 on 2018/09/10 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , Niles Eldridge, , punctuated equlibrium, , Science, Stephen J. Gould,   

    “We sometimes think, and even like to think, that the two greatest exertions that have influenced mankind, religion and science, have always been historical enemies”*… 



    Methodist Camp Meeting, early 19th century. Source: Library of Congress

    The contrast between the cold logic of science and the emotionality of religion is a seemingly unshakable binary today. But back in the early nineteenth century, people saw things very differently. Historian Jeffrey A. Mullins examines the religious revivals of the Second Great Awakening in the 1830s.

    At that time, Mullins writes, Americans did not see science and religion as opposites. Instead, they were “two aspects of the same universal truth.” And that truth was not based in pure logic. Emotions were a key to human behavior, and controlling and channeling emotions was a job for scientifically- and morally-grounded experts.

    This perspective led to a wealth of reformist interventions, from Sunday schools to penitentiaries to graham crackers. Preachers who led religious revivals around the country in the 1830s saw the need for a highly engineered emotional experience…

    During the Second Great Awakening of 1830, science and religion were seen as “two aspects of the same universal truth”: “When Science and Religion Were Connected.”

    * “We sometimes think, and even like to think, that the two greatest exertions that have influenced mankind, religion and science, have always been historical enemies, intriguing us in opposite directions. But this effort at special identity is loudly false. It is not religion but the church and science that were hostile to each other. And it was rivalry, not contravention. Both were religious. They were two giants fuming at each other over the same ground. Both proclaimed to be the only way to divine revelation” — Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind


    As we puzzle over perspective, we might send dynamically-evolved birthday greetings to Stephen Jay Gould; he was born on this date in 1941.  One of the most influential and widely read writers of popular science in his generation (e.g., Ever Since Darwin, The Panda’s Thumb), Gould was a highly-respected academic paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science.  With Niles Eldridge, he developed the theory of “punctuated equilibrium,” an explanation of evolution that suggests (in contrast with the gradualism that was prevalent until then) that most evolution is marked by long periods of evolutionary stability, which are interrupted– “punctuated”– by rare instances of branching evolution (c.f., the Burgess Shale).

    Scientists have power by virtue of the respect commanded by the discipline… We live with poets and politicians, preachers and philosophers. All have their ways of knowing, and all are valid in their proper domain. The world is too complex and interesting for one way to hold all the answers.

    Stephen Jay Gould, Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History



  • feedwordpress 08:01:45 on 2018/09/07 Permalink
    Tags: , Comte de Buffon, Georges-Louis Leclerc, , Ireland, , , Science, snakes, St. Patrick,   

    “Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents”*… 



    During St. Patrick’s Day, most revelers won’t remember the patron saint of Ireland for his role as a snake killer. But legend holds that the Christian missionary rid the slithering reptiles from Ireland‘s shores as he converted its peoples from paganism during the fifth century A.D.

    St. Patrick supposedly chased the snakes into the sea after they began attacking him during a 40-day fast he undertook on top of a hill. An unlikely tale, perhaps—yet Ireland is unusual for its absence of native snakes. It’s one of only a handful of places worldwide—including New Zealand, Iceland, Greenland, and Antarctica—where Indiana Jones and other snake-averse humans can visit without fear.

    But St. Patrick had nothing to do with Ireland’s snake-free status, scientists say….

    Find out what actually happened to those snakes at : “Snakeless in Ireland: Blame Ice Age, Not St. Patrick.”

    [image above: source]

    * Luke 10:12


    As we just say no to serpents, we might send chronically-correct birthday greetings to Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon; he was born on this date in 1707.  A naturalist, mathematician, cosmologist, and encyclopédiste, Buffon formulated a crude theory of evolution, and was the first to suggest that the earth might be older than suggested by the Bible: in 1778 he proposed that the Earth was hot at its creation and, judging from the rate of its cooling, calculated its age to be 75,000 years, with life emerging some 40,000 years ago.

    In 1739 Buffon was appointed keeper of the Jardin du Roi, a post he occupied until his death. There he worked on the comprehensive work on natural history for which he is remembered, Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière. He began in 1749, and it dominated the rest of his life.  It would eventually run to 44 volumes, covering quadrupeds, birds, reptiles and minerals.  As Max Ernst remarked, “truly, Buffon was the father of all thought in natural history in the second half of the 18th century.”



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