Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Nature, to the Exclusion of All Else

While it is dangerous for humans to live in many parts of the world—Chernobyl being a prime example—the animal kingdom has not just survived, but flourished. In the absence of humans, nature has reclaimed itself.

Watch Radioactive Wolves on PBS. See more from Nature.

There is an excellent series by PBS called "Radioactive Wolves" discussing how the animal kingdom has thrived in the exclusion zone. Even with the elevated levels of radiation causing twice the normal rate in birth defects—something that would be unacceptable for a human populace living there—the animals don't seem too disturbed. In fact, the land has become a haven for animals. Beavers, which had been wiped from the area due to the farming demands, have returned and restored one of central Europe's great marshlands.

Naturally, there are evolutionary consequences to living in this area for these animals. In Chernobyl in particular, there is a type of Radiotropic Fungus that eats the radiation. After the Japanese Tsunami, there was a discussion on how the fungus could be utilized in future radioactive disasters. So while living in these areas is less than suitable for humans, attention should definitely be paid to how these animals manage to live, adapt, and thrive.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Old Cell Phones Can Still Call 911

Have you ever wondered how a 911 call works? Even if your cell phone is old and no longer has service, due to a number of factors, you can still dial emergency numbers.

Here in the U.S. there are two primary cellular technology families: 'CDMA': IS-95, cdma2000, EV-DO; 'GSM': GSM, UMTS, HSPA, LTE. These technologies are completely incompatible from an air-interface perspective, as well as the core networks being different. This means your Verizon (CDMA) phone cannot place an emergency call on an AT&T (GSM) network. However, there is the exception that some new phones have chipsets that support both GSM and CDMA technologies. For example, a Verizon Galaxy S3 can communicate with GSM networks, although this was very uncommon not that long ago.

When your phone is in an idle state, it is constantly tracking cells in the area that it might be able to connect to. It can distinguish between cells that are part of its network, and those that are not, and will prefer cells on its home network. If a phone only sees one home network cell, it is likely to track  other cells on other networks, so as to best provide service.

When a 911 call is placed, it is not the same as dialing 9-1-1. This number is actually never even dialed; instead, a call is initiated that is flagged by the phone as 'emergency,' which is why you can often dial other countries emergency numbers and have them routed. This call must be given ultimate priority, which means other calls should be dropped to keep that call in progress and power must be raised on the base station. However, even this may not be possible.

In the event the call cannot go through on your home network, your phone will attempt to associate to other networks in the area that it can communicate with. Assuming you have roaming off (or your home network does not have a roaming agreement with this network) these networks will tell your phone "you don't have service here" but they will still allow your phone to attempt to talk to the network for exactly this reason, even though you cannot route a call, it will allow you to place an emergency call, and will even kick the other network's subscribers off if that makes routing your call more expedient.

You can even place 911 calls without a SIM in a GSM phone. This process is interesting because without a SIM you don't have an IMSI, but emergency calls are supported.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Google Doodle Honors Rosalind Franklin

On this day in 1920, Rosalind Franklin was born. She helped discover the structure of DNA by taking an X-ray diffraction image of it in 1952. This image became known as Photo 51 and played a critical role in the understanding of DNA. However, in her lifetime, Rosalind Franklin received only cursory recognition of her contributions to the study of DNA, while Francis Crick and James Watson were widely hailed as the scientists that discovered the molecule. The two men, together with Maurice Milkins, later won a Nobel Prize "for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material."

When Watson and Crick published their double-helix model of DNA, they only acknowledged Franklin's work a month later in a footnote. Rosalind Franklin never did much to protest this inadequate acknowledgement. Her biographer, Brenda Maddox, states that it was only 40 years after seeing Franklin's Photo 51 that Watson publicly acknowledged that it was the "key event"in understanding DNA.

Today's Google Doodle celebrates what would have been Rosalind Franklin's 93rd birthday with an image of the double helix, and Ms. Franklin's Photo 51.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Astronomy at Lick Observatory

Image courtesy Thirty Meter Telescope

A New Opportunity for Group Observing at the Lick Observatory

The Friends of Lick Observatory is introducing the "Saturday Stars" program at the Observatory's Main Building on Mt. Hamilton. These events are planned for amateur astronomers and others with a keen interest in astronomy.

Groups of 20 - 30 people will have the opportunity to observe a variety of astronomical objects through both the historic 36” Lick Refractor using its eyepiece and the 40” Nickel Reflector equipped with a CCD direct imaging camera; the camera has a 6.3x6.3-arcminute field of view and B, V, R, and I filters. Groups will be able to request the objects they would like to observe and will have access to that night's digital images from the Nickel Telescope. Participants may also bring their own telescopes to this prime viewing site.

Each event will start just prior to sunset, and the Lick Observatory Gift Shop will be open for the first hour of the night. Observing will commence at 11 degree twilight and end after 4 hours.

These exclusive astronomy events are scheduled for the following Saturday nights this summer: July 20, August 3, August 17, August 31, and September 21. The group rate is $1,000 for up to 30 people.

For more information or to sign up for one of these nights, please contact Paula Towle at or (831) 459-2991. For questions regarding payment, please contact Leah Martin at or (831) 459-5164. For technical questions regarding telescope limits and the CCD camera, please contact Elinor Gates at or (831) 459-5910.