Two New Shirts

September 20, 2011 - Tuesday

I guess I've just been in a shirt-designing mood lately. Here are two new shirts, based on these two comics. Don't forget that if you're in the US, use the code SHIPFREEUS to get free shipping on shirt orders over $50.


Science News for the Week, Sep 10-16

September 17, 2011 - Saturday

Time for science news!

• The Senate subcommittee for Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies issued a press release stating that they had produced a draft bill for the fiscal year 2012 appropriations. This is the group that initially sets the budget for NASA, among other science related agencies, so its important to see how they choose to allocate resources. The subcommittee has a budget of $52.7 billion for all the agencies under its jurisdiction for 2012, which is $626 million less than the panel received in 2011, and a whopping $5 billion below the president's 2012 request for those agencies. So it's clear there will be cuts. First, the panel voted to cut the National Science Foundation's budget by 2.4%, or $162 million. Other agencies would get large cuts as well (with the exception of maybe the Joint Polar Satellite System). But most interestingly for astronomy, the subcommittee allocated $530 million for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the successor to the Hubble Telescope, which you remember the House of Representatives wanted to cancel. The problem is that it hasn't been explained where this money would come from. The total NASA budget, which funds JWST, would be $509 million less, so they certainly aren't getting extra money to help. At this point it's probably best just to wait for the details and final decisions before getting too excited.

• Paleontologists have found a 70-million-year-old piece of amber preserving different types of feathers and protofeathers (also see this summary). Some of the feathers are thought to be from birds that lived at that time, and others are from dinosaurs and represent some of the earliest stages of feather evolution. Fossilized feathers have been found before, but those are flattened and have lost their smaller details. In contrast the specimens in amber show their full 3-dimensional structure and more detail. Some of the structures embedded in the amber don't resemble anything seen on any creature living today, so these could be some sort of protofeathers or maybe something we haven't even thought of yet.

• Astronomers announced that they have found what might be the best candidate for a Goldilocks planet yet: a planet 3.6 times as massive as the Earth, circling its star at the right distance for liquid water to exist on its surface - and thus, perhaps, to host life. The planet is merely 36 light-years from us, so basically next door. You can see an illustration and video here. This was one of more than 50 new exoplanets revealed at a news conference Monday, which have been found by the instrument HARPS (you can see more about this announcement here).

• Maybe the biggest news announced today was the discovery of a planet circling two stars locked in a tight binary pairing, just like the famous planet Tatooine from Stars Wars. There was a news conference for the announcement, which had a visual effects supervisor from Industrial Light & Magic on hand to discuss comparisons to Tatooine. Does anybody else think it's suspicious that this announcement was made the same day Star Wars is being release on Blu-ray? Not only is this a very unique system, but because we can study the eclipses between all three of the bodies, we can get unprecedented information about the mass and radius of both stars and the planet.

• With all these amazing discoveries of planets around other stars, one might forget that not so long ago some people used the lack of extrasolar planets as evidence against evolution. In 1992, William Dembski argued that "no planets outside our solar system have been observed, nor is there currently any compelling theory of planetary formation which guarantees that the observable universe is populated with planets" (the latter of which wasn't even true). Well, now there are almost 700 exoplanets and the number seems to be growing everyday. Also check out this great infograph summarizing some of the exoplanet discoveries. Thanks to John Wilkins for pointing out this article on Twitter.


Science News for the Week, Sep 3-9

September 9, 2011 - Friday

Just a couple of quick news notes this week.

• The CRESST experiment announced on Tuesday that it has a signal that could tentatively be interpreted as dark matter. This is now the third experiment to show possible direct detections of dark matter (the others being DAMA and CoGeNT), while there are two experiments which don't see dark matter and seem to rule out these other detections (XENON and CDMS). This paints a very confusing picture. The experiments use different methods of detecting the dark matter, so perhaps the dark matter is interacting differently in each case? Either way, it's exciting to see progress being made on this front.

• The "supernova of a generation" has been continuing to brighten and will be reaching its peak luminosity this weekend. It might be fun to see if any local astronomy clubs are doing special public viewings for the occasion. Also check out this helpful article on how to find and see the supernova yourself.

• Over a year ago, paleoanthropologists discovered a new hominid species that lived on Earth about 2 million years ago. This week the researchers announced their results, with five different papers in the journal Science. You can see a popular summary here (also check out the NY Times report). To make a long story short, this species shows an interesting mix of ape and hominid features including a large pelvis on the female, which is surprising since its brain is not especially large (the usual explanation for the wide pelvis of human females is to accommodate our large cranium). There is some controversy about whether this species really constitutes a direct ancestor to modern humans, but either way there is a lot to learn here. Below is a family tree for comparison. The new species, Australopithecus sediba, sits at around 2 million years ago, somewhere around Homo habilis. You can hear more about this discovery on Science Friday.


The Treachery of Bacon Shirt

September 8, 2011 - Thursday

Combine equal parts Magritte and bacon and you get my newest shirt, which is based on this recent comic. If you're in the US, use the code SHIPFREEUS to get free shipping on orders over $50. Also, following this comic there seems to be some potential interest in a "math is physics' bitch" shirt. Send me a message if that's something you'd like to see.

Finally, I've had about 400 responses to my poster poll, and the clear winner was Happiness Versus Intelligence. So look forward to this poster being available at some point in the near future.


Flyers and College Newspapers

September 5, 2011 - Monday

Have you ever wanted to put up flyers around your campus or city to spread the word about Calamities of Nature? On the off chance that your answer is yes, here is a flyer you can download for that very thing!

Also, if you're working at a college or university newspaper, don't forget that Calamities of Nature is available for syndication. If you want to talk to me directly about opportunities for appearing in school papers, feel free to e-mail me with your questions.


Science News for the Week, Aug 27-Sep 2

September 3, 2011 - Saturday

For some reason I felt like there wasn't much science news this week. But of course, I started reading, and soon realized there wasn't enough time to list all the interesting stuff!

• There was a nice summary article about free will and the work that neuroscientists and philosophers are doing to understand it (or explain it away as an illusion). The article summarizes some recent versions of classic experiments, which claim to show that our brains make decisions well before we are conscious of making a choice. Even though science has made amazing progress in some fields, it's humbling how much we still don't understand about things that we are continually confronted with, like consciousness.

• For the first time, scientists have sequenced the genome of a non-avian reptile. I was actually surprised to hear this. I guess I figured more stuff had been sequenced. With this information, we'll be able to learn more about how the amniotic egg developed, a major evolutionary step that allowed animals to breed out of water for the first time.

• A discovery was announced that stone axes, estimated to be 1.76 million years old, were found in the same sediment layer as cruder tools. This paints a very interesting picture that as hominin groups were dispersing to Eurasia during our early history, different groups could have had unique tool-making technologies. I am fascinated by the thought of a world millions of years ago, full of all these different types of hominins living at the same time.

• NASA's Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission launches on September 8th, and will arrive at the Moon in three-and-a-half months. The mission consists of twin spacecraft that will map the gravitational field of the Moon. Similar technology has been used to map the Earth's gravitational field, which reveals things like ocean currents because regions with different densities cause stronger or weaker associated gravitational fields. GRAIL will help map the Moon's interior structure, which will tell us about it's formation. This will also teach us about how other rocky planets cooled when they formed.

• Due to the rocket troubles the Russians have been having, there is now discussion that the International Space Station may have to be evacuated. There are six astronauts there right now with two Soyuz capsules that can carry three people each back to Earth. Three astronauts are scheduled to come back in September, and they'll almost certainly have to use a capsule because of the rocket troubles. They cannot wait much longer because the capsules are only certified to last 200 days in orbit. In addition, for all of October and most of November the capsules cannot be used because they would land on Earth during the night, which makes it hard to find them. The space station can still be operated remotely, but less science can be done without a crew there.

• A peculiar star was found that may tell us something about the formation of stars 13 billion years ago. Following the Big Bang, the Universe had a chemical composition consisting of hydrogen, helium and traces of lithium. Almost all other elements were subsequently created in stars and supernovae. A number of very metal-poor stars has been found in the past, which have a low iron abundance but are rich in carbon, nitrogen and oxygen. Theoretically, it is expected that some metals must be present (for astronomers, all elements more massive than helium are referred to as metals, so carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen count as metals) to make a low mass star because the metals help clouds of gas cool and fragment (otherwise you're left with a really massive star, ten to a hundred times that of our Sun). This newly discovered star is strange because it has very little iron, but also very little carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen as well. It is now a problem for theorists to explain how such a star could form. You can here more about this star on Science Friday.

• An academy panel released a report urging greater focus on space junk. There are now over 16,000 pieces of garbage orbiting the Earth with a size greater than 1 centimeter and moving faster than a rifle bullet. The amount of space junk has recently increased dramatically, as you can see from this chart because of China testing anti-satellite weapons on their own satellite and a collision between a defunct Russian satellite and a US communications satellite. The problem is that there are no international rules against MAKING space junk, but once it's there, it's that country's property. So the US can't just go and remove the Chinese space junk without asking. Just to give you an impression of what kind of problem this is, check out this or this other diagram showing the position of all the stuff. It will be interesting to see what is done about this in the future.


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