Free Shipping on Shirts This Weekend

October 28, 2011 - Friday

This weekend, on October 29th and 30th, free standard US shipping is available for all shirt orders. Just use the coupon code WITCHINGHOUR when checking out. International orders can use this code for a savings on shipping of up to $9.50. Also, I've added a new discounts page so that you can always keep up to date with any savings that are available. Thanks for your support!


Update Schedule, Weird Coincidences, and Other Tidbits

October 8, 2011 - Saturday

I have a few odds and ends to discuss, so here it goes.

• In the coming months I have a lot of stuff to take care of with work and family. So instead of my regular update schedule, I'm just going to post new comics when I have the time. Hopefully this will allow me to meet my other responsibilities without having to totally shut down this comic. If you're the kind of person who doesn't like checking back and not seeing an update, don't forget you can sign up on the Facebook page, RSS feed, or for email updates, so that you'll never miss a new comic. Thank you for your understanding and your continued support.

• Similarly, I won't have time to do my weekly science news updates, which is too bad, because I got a lot of good feedback about them. Instead, I might just post interesting science news from time to time. Also, if you hear about some exciting new science results, feel free to post them to the Facebook page. Maybe we can get some fun discussions going.

• Funny story about Friday's graph comic. I actually started working on it about a month ago in anticipation of the anniversary. But sometime after that, I forgot all about it. Then a few days ago I drew another comic about the Afghan War anniversary. Just as I finished this second comic Thursday night, I happened to notice a file on my computer with the name "tenyearslater," and I then remembered the first comic that I had never finished. In the end, I decided to finish and then post the first comic, but that means I'm now stuck with another comic that I'm probably never going to post. Nice one, huh?

• Finally, my wife pointed out a strange fact to me. On March 24, 2008 I posted this comic, and 12 days later Charlton Heston died. On June 22, 2009 I posted this comic, and 3 days later Michael Jackson died. Finally, on Wednesday I posted this comic, and that same day Steve Jobs died. Obviously this is just a coincidence, but you have to admit it's pretty weird!


Science News for the Week, Sep 24-30

September 30, 2011 - Friday

Science news time!

• After over 26 years of operation, the Tevatron in Chicago will be preforming its final proton-antiproton collision today. The Tevatron is most famous for its discovery of the top quark. Looking over the timeline of important events in the Tevatron's history, probably the most striking thing is that after all these years, the Tevatron never really discovered anything that wasn't expected. This really says something about the amazing success of the Standard Model. The end of the Tevatron also marks the final demise of high energy particle experiments in the United States. If humans ever detect the Higgs boson or Supersymmetry, it will be done exclusively in Europe with the LHC. I appreciate that there were many money and management problems with the SSC, but it's somewhat disappointing that the supposedly most powerful country in the world can't find the resources to lead research on the fundamental constituents of the Universe. This turn of events is interesting to consider as it appears something similar may occur in the US for astrophysical satellites as well.

• The dominance of Eurasian cultures in our modern world is an interesting mystery. Historically, some have argued essentially racist explanations, such as intellectual, moral or inherent genetic superiority. In the last couple decades, scientists have suggested that the east-west orientation of Eurasia helped spread ancient culture and technological innovations such as agriculture and writing more rapidly than occurred in the oppositely oriented Americas and Africa. Biologist and ecologist Jared Diamond perhaps most famously made this case in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Gun, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. There was a recent report that new genetic evidence strongly supports this idea. Basically scientists find that there are larger genetic differences among human populations running north to south than east to west within continents. This opens up an interesting area of study on how ecology and geography influence our genetic and cultural differences.

• Einstein's Theory of General relativity, which tells us how matter and energy warp space and time, is our current best theory for how gravity works. But there are other competing theories of gravity, some of which also hope to avoid the existence dark matter or dark energy. In a paper that was released today, astrophysicists showed that we can test between these different theories of gravity by studying galaxy clusters, gravitationally bound groups of hundreds to thousands of galaxies. The basic idea is that light will be red-shifted less when climbing from the outskirts of the cluster than the center of the cluster, and this difference depends on which theory of gravity is correct. This is a very small effect, but by combining almost 8000 galaxy clusters, it can be tested. The scientists report that the data is consistent with General Relativity and other theories of gravity are disfavored. Excitingly, this result also argues that dark matter and dark energy are real things, which can't be explained away as us not understanding how gravity works.


Science News for the Week, Sep 17-23

September 24, 2011 - Saturday

Unfortunately, I don't have time to do an in-depth writeup this week. But there's plenty of interesting news, so I've listed some of my favorites below. Also, I won't be posting a comic on Monday. But there'll definitely be a new update by Wednesday.

• In Italy, six scientists and a public official are on trial for manslaughter for not warning the public aggressively enough of an impending earthquake that killed more than 300 people. It sounds like it should be an Onion article, right?

• The first genome of an Australian Aborigine has been sequenced. The Aborigines are direct descendants of the first modern humans to leave Africa, so there is potentially a lot we can learn about our ancestry from this work.

• The news that has been all over the Internet is a measurement of the speed of neutrinos, which seems to indicate that they can go faster than light. You can also read the paper detailing the results. I don't have time to go into too much depth, so I'll just say this is a pretty extraordinary claim. It's probably worth waiting for other experiments to confirm this result before getting too excited. Also, we have measurements from a supernova in 1987 that neutrinos and light move at the same speed. But this experiment in question did look at much higher energy neutrinos, so maybe that's something to consider as well.

• Finally, scientists have used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging to reconstruct people's visual experiences. How this works is that someone watches a bunch of YouTube videos while their visual cortex is being monitored. A computer can then learn what kinds of brain activity corresponds to different videos. The subject then watches a new YouTube clip, and the computer sifts through a huge database of videos and constructs an image of what the person was most likely watching. You can see an example below. Incredible!


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.


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