Monday, April 29, 2013

I Spy: Space Edition

The first mission to the International Space Station, a habitable artificial satellite orbiting four hundred kilometers above the Earth's surface, launched over twelve years ago. Since then, astronauts have taken an astonishing million plus photographs of their home planet. So what happens to all these photos?

Turns out they're all archived on NASA's servers and are available to the public for view. Nathan Bergey combed through that archive and pulled the location for all of those 1,129,177 photos. He's created an incredible visual with this data:

Each dot represents the location of a photo.
 This visualization of the data ends up depicting the basic shapes of the continents, which makes sense as astronauts tended to take pictures of where they were from. Nathan comments that, "Coastlines, islands and cities seem to be popular targets...This makes sense, photos of clouds over an otherwise blank ocean get old after a while."

After creating this visualization, he ended up dividing the dots by mission:

Each color represents a different mission.

 If you're wondering why the purple dots seem to overwhelm the rest of the image, it's because Don Pettit took multiple time lapse sequences—each consisting of hundreds of images—on his mission. His images cause almost uninterrupted orbit lines while the rest of the dots seem to come in randomly. Fun fact: Don Pettit is solely responsible for almost half the images taken in orbit!

If you're interested in more data and what else NASA has to offer, check out, International Space Apps Challenges, and

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Zero Gravity Water Wringing

The Canadian Space Agency published a video this week of Astronaut Chris Hadfield performing a simple science experiment aboard the ISS. Last year, the Canadian Space Agency challenged young Canadians to design an experiment which could be performed by an astronaut using only materials he had at hand. This winning experiment was designed by grade 10 students from Fall River, Nova Scotia. Watch the video to see their experiment on surface tension in space using a wet washcloth. You can read more about the experiment here.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

We Ain't Monkeying Around

"Orang hutan" means "forest man" in one of the many native language of Indonesia, and the remarkable intelligence of our long-armed cousin in the mimicry of human behavior further justifies this title. Gerd Schuster took several stunning photos visually capturing the intelligence of the orangutans for his new book, Thinkers of the Jungle.

My favorite of the photos features a male orangutan, grasping an overhanging branch in his left hand, using a wooden pole in an attempt to spear fish in the local river. The photo was taken in Borneo on the island of Kaja, and the intrepid ape had witnessed local fishermen use the spears on the nearby Gohong River. According to the photographer, the orangutan was unsuccessful in his endeavor but later succeeded by using the same pole to catch fish already trapped in locals' fishing lines.

Monkey Business: An orangutan tries to spear a fish for dinner
Tool use in orangutans was observed by primatologist Birute Galdikas in ex-captive populations as far back as in 1982. In 1994, Carel van Schaik documented the great apes developing tools to pry open and eat fruits covered in needle-like barbs that were normally painful to handle. Schaik continued to observed sophisticated tool manufacture and use in the wild by the orangutans who also adjusted their tools according to the nature of the task at hand. Interestingly, this use of tools also indicates cultural behavior as the tool technique is socially transmitted.

Unfortunately, orangutanswhile being the two exclusively Asian species of extant great apesare endangered and currently only found in the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra. The island of Kaja, where this photo was captured, is unique as it's where apes are re-released after being rescued and rehabilitated.

If you're interested in reading more about the plight of the orangutans, please see this blog post or watch Sir Terry Pratchett's newly released and excellent documentary, Facing Extinction.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Crank Up the Volume

The Physical Discomfort Behind Sound

The unpleasantness of some chalkboard sounds has to do with their frequencies.
The analogy “it’s like nails on a chalkboard” sums up people’s aversion to certain sounds. Personally, I can’t stand the sound of teeth scraping against a fork; the high-pitched noise makes me cringe even just thinking about. So, why do some sounds upset us so much?

Higher processing levels of the auditory system may contribute to the sensation of discomfort due the lack of phase locking (mechanisms that your ears and brain use to localize sounds in space using cues from both ears) and reduced selectivity at high frequencies. There may be evolutionary aspects, since these annoying sounds resemble screaming. If there’s something that’s going to make your evolutionary ancestors bolt, after all, it’s a scream.

However, people tend to be fine with high frequency sounds with constant intensity and low variations in the frequency components. A good example of this is violin harmonics or the piccolo. The sounds that make us go crazy tend to vary a lot, fluctuating between low frequency components and high frequency components (nail sliding down the chalkboard does this). Every person responds differently, so that's an evidence for higher auditory processing contributing to the discomfort.

While it is true that at the cochlear level, 4k range is the most amplified by resonance. But the amplitude of the annoying chalkboard sound is nowhere close to the "feeling threshold" where hair cells can get killed after a short exposure to the sound. So even though the sound is annoying, your eardrums are perfectly safe.

Historically, sound has also been used as a torture method. An article in the Journal of the Society for American Music describes how music was frequently used in interrogations in Iraq and Afghanistan to obtain information in lieu of physical force.

The top picks for this task? Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA;” Christina Aguilera’s “Dirrty;” Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made for Walking;” AC/DC’s “Shoot to Thrill” and Hells Bells;” and Barney the Dinosaur’s “I Love You.”

Monday, April 1, 2013

Wise Up! April Fools' from the Science Community

Pranking people is a grand tradition that dates back to who-knows-when, and science pranks for April 1st are no exception. Since the average reader is perhaps quite liable to believe what they read, scientists are at an advantage on this day. After all, who expects a boring scientist to have a sense of humor?

Below are some of the best April Fools' pranks perpetuated by the science community:
Google's Copernicus Center
1959: Dr. Arthur Hayall—not a real person—from University of the Sierras—not a real place—claimed that the moons of Mars were actually artificial satellites. The rumor ran that the Martians were using the satellites as bases. 

1974: John Gribbin published The Jupiter Effect, which stated that the Grand Alignment of planets meant that Armageddon would arrive on March 10th, 1982. (Spoiler: It didn’t.) 

1976: BBC Radio 2 astronomer Patrick Moore announced that at 9:47 a.m. that day, Pluto would pass directly behind Jupiter and their combined gravitational forces would combine to lessen Earth’s gravity. He helpfully hinted that listeners jump into the air at that time to experience less gravity and increasing their buoyancy. 

1996: Discover Magazine announced the discovery of a “bigon,” a new fundamental particle of matter that appears and disappears in mere millionths of a second, and also happened to be the size of a bowling ball. Everything from sinking soufflés to spontaneous human combustion was blamed on the bigon. 

1998: Nature reported a “near-complete skeleton of a theropod [T. rex-like] dinosaur in North Dakota”— which was implicitly suggested to have breathed fire—discovered by Randy Sepulchrave of the Museum of the University of Southern North Dakota. Of course there is no University of Southern North Dakota and the skeleton, dubbed Smaugia volans, derived its name from Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Furthermore, Sepulchrave is a famous fictional character who believed he was an owl and died in a dramatic attempt to fly from a high tower. 

1999:  The Red Herring Magazine published an article on how users could, through a technology developed by computer genius Yuri Maldini, send emails telepathically of up to 240 characters. The magazine received numerous letters from intrigued readers. 

2004: Google announced that they were opening their Copernicus Center, which would be a “lunar hosting a research” site. Applicants need not apply if they couldn’t live without “modern conveniences as soy low-fat lattes, The Sopranos and a steady supply of oxygen.” 

2005: The day before April Fools’, NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day contained a teaser announcement “Water on Mars!” The photo ended up depicting a glass of water sitting on a Mars bar, and now the idea that there might actually be water on the red planet doesn’t seem so silly after all. 

2008: The BBC claimed to have discovered a colony of flying penguins and released footage, narrated by Monty Python’s Terry Jones in a David Attenborough-esque manner. (Watch the video here.) 

2012: A mock study titled “On the influence of the Illuminati in astronomical adaptive optics” (pdf warning) described how the nefarious shadow cult is to blame for pretty much everything, including Brittney Spears’ and Lady Gaga’s “astronomical rise to the top.”