Eclipse 2017

Using a tree as a pinhole camera, these were taken a bit before the eclipse and fifteen minutes before totality.

Traffic stopped, everyone was out and looking at the sky. Even though the sun was down to a tiny sliver, it was still almost full daylight. Then the light dimmed and it looked like dusk right after sunset. It wasn’t pitch dark but the lights at the gas station across the street suddenly looked a lot brighter.

We got a minute and a half of totality, then a line of sun was visible and we were back to almost full daylight.

2010 Ig Nobel Prizes

I love the Ig Nobel prizes, the Peace and Management prizes are awesome this year!

Engineering Prize

Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse and Agnes Rocha-Gosselin of the Zoological Society of London, UK, and Diane Gendron of Instituto Politecnico Nacional, Baja California Sur, Mexico, for perfecting a method to collect whale snot, using a remote-control helicopter.

Reference: "A Novel Non-Invasive Tool for Disease Surveillance of Free-Ranging Whales and Its Relevance to Conservation Programs," Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse, Agnes Rocha-Gosselin and Diane Gendron, Animal Conservation, vol. 13, no. 2, April 2010

Medicine Prize

Simon Rietveld of the University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and Ilja van Beest of Tilburg University, The Netherlands, for discovering that symptoms of asthma can be treated with a roller-coaster ride.

Reference: "Rollercoaster Asthma: When Positive Emotional Stress Interferes with Dyspnea Perception," Simon Rietveld and Ilja van Beest, Behaviour Research and Therapy, vol. 45, 2006

Transportation Planning Prize

Toshiyuki Nakagaki, Atsushi Tero, Seiji Takagi, Tetsu Saigusa, Kentaro Ito, Kenji Yumiki, Ryo Kobayashi of Japan, and Dan Bebber, Mark Fricker of the UK, for using slime mold to determine the optimal routes for railroad tracks.

Reference: "Rules for Biologically Inspired Adaptive Network Design," Atsushi Tero, Seiji Takagi, Tetsu Saigusa, Kentaro Ito, Dan P. Bebber, Mark D. Fricker, Kenji Yumiki, Ryo Kobayashi, Toshiyuki Nakagaki, Science, Vol. 327. no. 5964, January 22, 2010

Physics Prize

Lianne Parkin, Sheila Williams, and Patricia Priest of the University of Otago, New Zealand, for demonstrating that, on icy footpaths in wintertime, people slip and fall less often if they wear socks on the outside of their shoes.

Reference: "Preventing Winter Falls: A Randomised Controlled Trial of a Novel Intervention," Lianne Parkin, Sheila Williams, and Patricia Priest, New Zealand Medical Journal. vol. 122, no, 1298, July 3, 2009

Peace Prize

Richard Stephens, John Atkins, and Andrew Kingston of Keele University, UK, for confirming the widely held belief that swearing relieves pain.

Reference: "Swearing as a Response to Pain," Richard Stephens, John Atkins, and Andrew Kingston, Neuroreport, vol. 20 , no. 12, 2009

Public Health Prize

Manuel Barbeito, Charles Mathews, and Larry Taylor of the Industrial Health and Safety Office, Fort Detrick, Maryland, USA, for determining by experiment that microbes cling to bearded scientists.

Reference: "Microbiological Laboratory Hazard of Bearded Men," Manuel S. Barbeito, Charles T. Mathews, and Larry A. Taylor, Applied Microbiology, vol. 15, no. 4, July 1967

Economics Prize

The executives and directors of Goldman Sachs, AIG, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, and Magnetar for creating and promoting new ways to invest money — ways that maximize financial gain and minimize financial risk for the world economy, or for a portion thereof.

Chemistry Prize

Eric Adams of MIT, Scott Socolofsky of Texas A&M University, Stephen Masutani of the University of Hawaii, and BP [British Petroleum], for disproving the old belief that oil and water don’t mix.

Reference: "Review of Deep Oil Spill Modeling Activity Supported by the Deep Spill JIP and Offshore Operator’s Committee. Final Report," Eric Adams and Scott Socolofsky, 2005

Management Prize

Alessandro Pluchino, Andrea Rapisarda, and Cesare Garofalo of the University of Catania, Italy, for demonstrating mathematically that organizations would become more efficient if they promoted people at random.

Reference: "The Peter Principle Revisited: A Computational Study," Alessandro Pluchino, Andrea Rapisarda, and Cesare Garofalo, Physica A, vol. 389, no. 3, February 2010

Biology Prize

Libiao Zhang, Min Tan, Guangjian Zhu, Jianping Ye, Tiyu Hong, Shanyi Zhou, and Shuyi Zhang of China, and Gareth Jones of the University of Bristol, UK, for scientifically documenting fellatio in fruit bats.

Reference: "Fellatio by Fruit Bats Prolongs Copulation Time," Min Tan, Gareth Jones, Guangjian Zhu, Jianping Ye, Tiyu Hong, Shanyi Zhou, Shuyi Zhang and Libiao Zhang, PLoS ONE, vol. 4, no. 10, e7595

Heels really ARE bad for you

Discovery News: High heels cause long-term damage.

In a study published last month in the Journal of Experimental Biology, scientists in the United Kingdom found that women who wore high heels five times a week for two years had calf muscles that were 13 percent shorter and Achilles tendons that were substantially stiffer and thicker than those of women who wore flat shoes. The distance the high-heel wearers could flex their feet up and down was also drastically reduced.

Ouch. I wear heels maybe once a week and it takes me a day to get back to normal. At home I’m usually barefoot, we run a shoe-free house.

In the meantime, researchers are narrowing in on what makes for a perfect shoe. In a study published earlier this year in the journal Arthritis Care & Research, rheumatologist Naija Shakoor of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago and colleagues found that walking barefoot or wearing flat, flexible shoes were best for knee joints. In the study, flip-flops and basic sneakers put lower loads on the knees than did clogs or running shoes with added stability. She also recommends arch support.

My office is on a "jeans casual" week, so shoes are sneakers, my chocolate brown Converse All Stars with the baby pink laces, and a beloved pair of velcro strap Tevas, just about perfect for me. Karate is all barefoot, there’s a sign asking you to take off shoes before going on the mats.

Google is rewiring your brain

Wired Magazine: Author Nicholas Carr: The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains. Read the whole article.

We know that the human brain is highly plastic; neurons and synapses change as circumstances change. When we adapt to a new cultural phenomenon, including the use of a new medium, we end up with a different brain, says Michael Merzenich, a pioneer of the field of neuroplasticity. That means our online habits continue to reverberate in the workings of our brain cells even when we’re not at a computer. We’re exercising the neural circuits devoted to skimming and multitasking while ignoring those used for reading and thinking deeply.

Last year, researchers at Stanford found signs that this shift may already be well under way. They gave a battery of cognitive tests to a group of heavy media multitaskers as well as a group of relatively light ones. They discovered that the heavy multitaskers were much more easily distracted, had significantly less control over their working memory, and were generally much less able to concentrate on a task. Intensive multitaskers are "suckers for irrelevancy," says Clifford Nass, one professor who did the research. "Everything distracts them." Merzenich offers an even bleaker assessment: As we multitask online, we are "training our brains to pay attention to the crap."

This is a subject I’ve been following for a while. In September 2008, I wrote an essay The Brain and the Internet, revisiting a blog post from 2005 on Asperger’s Syndrome.

If our minds turn into magpies, constantly distracted by the next shiny thing, the skills required for deep focus become lost. We need that kind of mind focus to do complicated things, yet we’re training it out of ourselves. How do you cure cancer when you’re distracted by Twitter and Facebook and oh look! A squirrel!

I think we need to train our brains to focus again, and stop attempting to multitask. We need time offline and undistracted to learn stuff and absorb it. We need to practice learning new and complicated things, like languages, or lace knitting, or wood-turning, or bread baking, or how to grill the perfect lamb steak (Hubby figured that one out this weekend, and it was fabulous!). We need times with all the distractions turned off: no music, no internet, no people, no pets.

Newton and the Apple

BBC News: Newton’s apple story goes online.

The original version of the story of Sir Isaac Newton and the falling apple has been made available online. Newton recounted the story that inspired his theory of gravitation to scholar William Stukeley. It then appeared in Stukeley’s 1752 biography, Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life. The UK’s Royal Society converted the fragile manuscript into an electronic book, which anybody with internet access will now be able to read.

There’s a few other historical manuscripts on that page worth seeing. You need to download an app, or use Silverlight to see them.

Kakapo given NZ Government job

The Telegraph: Parrot that tried to mate with Mark Carwardine is given a government role.

The New Zealand prime minster has given the country’s most famous parrot a job in his government, it has emerged. An endangered kakapo parrot, named Sirocco, which rose to fame last year after it attempted to mate with the head of Mark Carwardine, the wildlife presenter, during the BBC’s ‘Last Chance to See’ series, has been appointed by John Key as the world’s first "spokesbird for conservation". Footage of the incident attracted more than half a million hits on the video-sharing website, YouTube.

Mr Key claimed that the notorious and rare bird will be the ideal ambassador for conservation.

The incident they’re referring to is immortalised on YouTube as Shagged by a rare parrot. The kakapo is a chubby green flightless nocturnal parrot that is horribly endangered. In 1993 there were only 51 known kakapo, now they’re up to 124, with 33 chicks transferred to sanctuary islands in southern New Zealand to hopefully boost the species further.

Top 10 physics stories of 2009

New Scientist’s Top 10 Physics stories of 2009

The pizza slice article is fantastic! The gambling article is another gem, you can use maths and statistics to gamble but your return will likely not match your outlay, the house still wins.

Methane produced on Mars

Imperial College, London: Life on Mars theory boosted by new methane study

Scientists have ruled out the possibility that methane is delivered to Mars by meteorites, raising fresh hopes that the gas might be generated by life on the red planet, in research published tomorrow (Wednesday 9 December 2009) in Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

Methane has a short lifetime of just a few hundred years on Mars because it is constantly being depleted by a chemical reaction in the planet’s atmosphere, caused by sunlight. Scientists analysing data from telescopic observations and unmanned space missions have discovered that methane on Mars is being constantly replenished by an unknown source and they are keen to uncover how the levels of methane are being topped up.

Scientists at Imperial College estimate 10kg of methane a year is a result of meteorites. To maintain atmospheric levels, you need 100 to 300 tonnes a year. 10kg is 0.01 tonnes, so the rest has to come from somewhere else. Whatever is producing the methane is making a lot of it on a regular basis.

The BBC also wrote an article on this: Mars methane ‘not from meteors’.

RIP Dorking’s white squirrel

BBC News: Squirrel’s accident ‘ends magic’

Residents of a Surrey town have set up a shrine and an online tribute page after a "celebrity" albino squirrel was run over. The squirrel had lived in St Martin’s churchyard off Dorking High Street for five years and was a favourite with local children and wildlife lovers. More than 220 people have joined a Facebook page in the animal’s memory since its demise last week. A makeshift shrine has sprung up and residents hope to put up a plaque.

We used to live in Guildford in Surrey and visited Dorking every so often. We never saw a white squirrel though.

There are some pictures of other white squirrels in Surrey on the BBC website. The odds against a pure white squirrel are one in 100,000, but Surrey has several of them. So much cuter than the dog-eating Russian black squirrels!

The LHC and particle physics

BBC News: Particle beams injected into LHC.

Engineers working on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) have successfully injected beams of particles into two sections of the vast machine. An LHC spokesperson said this was the first time particle beams had been inside the LHC since it was shut down late in September 2008. Scientists working on the giant particle accelerator described the success as "a milestone". They plan to circulate a beam around the 27km-long tunnel in November.

The Large Hadron Collider is using protons and lead ions at a paltry 450 billion electron volts, or 0.45 TeV (tera electron volts), the goal is to get the beams up to 7TeV in 2011, which will mean two beams colliding at a total energy of 14TeV.

A hadron is a class of particles made from multiple quarks. There are two types of hadrons, mesons, which are made of one quark and one antiquark, and baryons, which are made of three quarks. You are made up of baryons, because the two most common baryons are the proton and the neutron, which make up atoms, which group into molecules, which group into people and other useful stuff, like cheese, and lizards, and CD players.

Quarks never travel alone, they always form hadrons. Even when you smash the hadron, you won’t knock a solo quark off it, though if you’re lucky you might jumble the quarks up into new, short-lived particles. Quarks come in six types known as flavours which has nothing to do with taste, for the same reason electrons have a property called "spin" that has nothing to do with physical rotation, and quarks possess a property known as "colour" that has nothing to do with how they look. Just go with the madness. The six flavours are:

  • up
  • down
  • top (also knows as "truth")
  • bottom (also known as "beauty")
  • strange
  • charm

Protons and neutrons are made from up and down quarks, making them the most common. The last quark to be found was the top quark, and it’s massive compared to the others. But the strange quark is the one people are worried about. In theory there’s an infinitesimal chance the LHC could create "strangelets" made from up, down, and strange quarks. They’d be unstable (which means the strange part would go in a tiny fraction of a second), but if they touched a piece of normal matter, it might convert to strange matter. Chain reaction, our planet turns into a blob of strange goo and we all die. In practise, if this was going to happen, it probably would have done so at RHIC, the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven in New Jersey, which has been running since 2000 and happily smashing protons, and ions of deuterium, gold, and copper together.

As an aside, we may be running low on helium. Amarillo, Texas is the helium capital of the world, holding the world’s largest reserves, and those reserves are running low. Helium is essential for many superconducting experiments, and the LHC and RHIC depend on it.