May 16, 2013 10:24 am
It’s been just over four years since NASA’s exoplanet-hunting Kepler satellite switched on and began staring unwaveringly at the same patch of the universe, watching for the subtle dips of light caused by a far-off planet passing in front of its star. Where the ancient Greeks knew of five planets besides our own Kepler gave us thousands. Extrapolations from this tiny patch of sky gave us hints of billions more.
Originally designed to run for three-and-a-half years, Kepler has pushed on. But the satellite’s quest may be at an end. Sad news came out from NASA yesterday that one of the satellite’s reaction wheels, a device that keeps Kepler’s eye steady, has failed. There may still be a way to fix the broken wheel or concoct some other strategy to keep Kepler shooting straight. But without a steady gaze the satellite can no longer carry out its mission.
In the science press, the obituaries are already rolling out. Though many scientific experiments teach us something new about the world, few have been able to so clearly redefine our place in the universe as Kepler. Decades ago, the planets in our solar system were all we knew. Now, we’re practically swimming in them.
Kepler may be down (but not “out”), but that doesn’t mean the discoveries will stop. It will take years to sort through and analyze all the data the mission has already collected. And, follow up research using other satellites on Kepler’s exoplanet “candidates” could still yet unveil the marvels of the universe.
More from Smithsonian.com:
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17 Billion Earth-Size Planets! An Astronomer Reflects on the Possibility of Alien Life
What if All 2,299 Exoplanets Orbited One Star?
May 16, 2013 8:55 am
Those who logged into Facebook recently might have noticed some new faces—emoticons that users can now tack on to their status updates. These emoticons are highly engineered: Facebook teamed up with a Pixar illustrator and a psychologist to make the most emotive emoticons it could.
UC Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner studies how people emotionally interact on social media. Pixar illustrator Matt Jones knows all too well how to manipulate our emotions with little animated characters. Together, they created the set of emoticons that Facebook settled on. Popular Science reports:
They started looking at how compassion research could help Facebook address the kind of interpersonal conflicts the company saw emerge in issue reporting. When people inserted a little more emotion into their messages asking friends to take down photos, Facebook found, the friend was more likely to respond or comply rather than just ignore the message.
So Facebook started thinking about how to add more emotional information to Facebook messaging. “There’s all this communication that happens when you’re talking to someone face-to-face–you can see that they’re nodding and you can see their smile–that is not present when you’re communicating electronically,” Bejar explains. “One of the questions that we asked was, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we had a better emoticon that was informed by science?’”
Of course, Pixar and Facebook aren’t the first ones to think of using emoticons to help people express emotions. That’s what the things were invented for. Mashable has a brief history of emoticons, which traces the murky beginnings of the little faces. A transcript of one of Abraham Lincoln speeches included a winking face, but most agree that was probably just a typo. Mashable writes:
Various reports (that we’ve been unable to verify) suggest that in 1979, an ARPANET user called Kevin MacKenzie, inspired by an unidentified Reader’s Digest article, suggested using punctuation to hint that something was “tongue-in-cheek,” as opposed to out-and-out humorous.
Apparently, MacKenzie thought a hypen and a bracket — -) — would be a suitable symbol: “If I wish to indicate that a particular sentence is meant with tongue-in-cheek, I would write it so: ‘Of course you know I agree with all the current administration’s policies -).’
Last year, the classic yellow smiley face turned 30. It was originally the face of State Mutual Life Assurance Company. ABC News explains:
The “smiley face” designed by Harvey Ball has become a ubiquitous symbol since the Worcester, Mass., designer was hired by the e State Mutual Life Assurance Company to design a morale-boosting symbol for the company. Ball’s design, which was first used on buttons, desk cards and posters, has since become a lasting international symbol.
Today, Facebook has added a bit of science to that yellow smiley. And they tackled some emotions that aren’t usually represented by emoticons, like sympathy and gratefulness. Here’s Popular Science again:
Sympathy, for example, can be hard to really get across in traditional emoticon form. “It’s an under-appreciated emotion in Western culture,” Keltner explains. “We now know what it looks like and sounds like because of science. They created this dynamic emoticon that when you see it, it’s really powerful.”
Using little pictures to convey feeling, rather than words, might elicit more of a personal response from users. Or, at least, that’s what Facebook hopes.
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May 14, 2013 10:45 am
One in three students in the UK wears lucky underwear, according to a new survey by Bic pens. And while you might laugh their habits off, there’s a reason that those rituals might actually work.
At Scientific American, researchers Francesca Gino and Michael Norton explain some of their research on rituals and behavior:
Rituals performed after experiencing losses – from loved ones to lotteries – do alleviate grief, and rituals performed before high-pressure tasks – like singing in public – do in fact reduce anxiety and increase people’s confidence. What’s more, rituals appear to benefit even people who claim not to believe that rituals work. While anthropologists have documented rituals across cultures, this earlier research has been primarily observational. Recently, a series of investigations by psychologists have revealed intriguing new results demonstrating that rituals can have a causal impact on people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
And there are studies to support this. If you give someone a “lucky golf ball,” they golf better. If you tell someone you’ll “cross your fingers for them,” they’ll do the task better. If you help a tennis player mentally train, they’ll play better. People who use rituals to stop smoking or ward off bad luck truly believe they work. And just believing might be enough to at least take the pressure off and make people relax and succeed just a bit more.
There’s even an argument that rituals are what bond us together, what make us human and what keep culture and society intact. Nature reports:
Rituals are a human universal — “the glue that holds social groups together”, explains Harvey Whitehouse, who leads the team of anthropologists, psychologists, historians, economists and archaeologists from 12 universities in the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada. Rituals can vary enormously, from the recitation of prayers in church, to the sometimes violent and humiliating initiations of US college fraternity pledges, to the bleeding of a young man’s penis with bamboo razors and pig incisors in purity rituals among the Ilahita Arapesh of New Guinea. But beneath that diversity, Whitehouse believes, rituals are always about building community — which arguably makes them central to understanding how civilization itself began.
Whitehouse is trying to catalogue the world’s rituals. Here he is talking on the Nature Podcast about the project:
Scientists are still trying to understand which rituals we cling to, why, and what they might be doing to us. But for now, be proud of your lucky underwear.
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May 13, 2013 2:15 pm
Why do we LOL? Is ROFLing an innate piece of human behavior? Does our tendency to LMAO say something about us—something that separates us from the non-kekekeing species who share our planet?
For Scienceline, William Herkewitz explores the evolutionary history of laughter, a story that shows us that maybe we’re not quite so unique as we’d like to think. It’s not just that we laugh at funny things. The roots of this behavior, scientists think, go back much further and actually play an important purpose.
Herkewitz finds that various theories abound, but that the current “best guess” says that humans laugh to tell other humans not to get too fussed over something that could otherwise be regarded as scary or dangerous.
If you’re an ancestral human, says Ramachandran, and you come across what you think is a dangerous snake but actually turns out to be a stick, you’re relieved and you laugh. “By laughing, you’re communicating: ‘All is OK,’” says Ramachandran.
Ramachandran believes the “false alarm” signaling purpose of laugher explains its loud sound and explosive quality. If you want to signal something to a larger social group, they better hear it. His theory also helps explain the contagiousness of laughter — a curious quality exploited by the laugh tracks of TV sitcoms. Strangely enough, hearing the sound of laughter, on its own, is enough to elicit more laughter in others. “A signal is much more valuable if it amplifies and spreads like wildfire in the group,” says Ramachandran.
People also laugh to show pleasure, to bond with other members of the group. And in this regard, humans’ laughter isn’t special.
Our laughter, the Tommy gun staccato sound of “ha-ha-ha,” is unique in the animal kingdom. Beyond scientific anomalies like Mister Ed or Babe the pig, if you visit your local zoo you’ll be hard-pressed to find any animals making a sound you’d confuse with human laughter. But do humans, in the vast gallery of life, laugh alone? Ask Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist and veterinarian at the University of Washington, and he’ll tell you no. Panksepp studies laughter where you might least expect it, in lab rats.
“In the mid 1990’s we found [rats] have a sound — a high-pitched chirp — that they made most often during play,” says Panksepp. “It crossed my mind it might be an ancestral form of laughter.” And Panksepp, eager to investigate, dove hands-first into his theory. He tickled his rats.
What he found lead to two decades of research. “They’re just like little children when you tickle them,” says Panksepp. “They ‘love’ it.”
Dogs, too, laugh in their own way. As do primates. The work is a reminder that for all that humans are, and all the things we do, there’s actually very little that makes us special.
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May 10, 2013 1:49 pm
Have you ever noticed that almost every barn you have ever seen is red? There’s a reason for that, and it has to do with the chemistry of dying stars. Seriously.
Yonatan Zunger is a Google employee who decided to explain this phenomenon on Google+ recently. The simple answer to why barns are painted red is because red paint is cheap. The cheapest paint there is, in fact. But the reason it’s so cheap? Well, that’s the interesting part.
Red ochre—Fe2O3—is a simple compound of iron and oxygen that absorbs yellow, green and blue light and appears red. It’s what makes red paint red. It’s really cheap because it’s really plentiful. And it’s really plentiful because of nuclear fusion in dying stars. Zunger explains:
The only thing holding the star up was the energy of the fusion reactions, so as power levels go down, the star starts to shrink. And as it shrinks, the pressure goes up, and the temperature goes up, until suddenly it hits a temperature where a new reaction can get started. These new reactions give it a big burst of energy, but start to form heavier elements still, and so the cycle gradually repeats, with the star reacting further and further up the periodic table, producing more and more heavy elements as it goes. Until it hits 56. At that point, the reactions simply stop producing energy at all; the star shuts down and collapses without stopping.
As soon as the star hits the 56 nucleon (total number of protons and neutrons in the nucleus) cutoff, it falls apart. It doesn’t make anything heavier than 56. What does this have to do with red paint? Because the star stops at 56, it winds up making a ton of things with 56 neucleons. It makes more 56 nucleon containing things than anything else (aside from the super light stuff in the star that is too light to fuse).
The element that has 56 protons and neutrons in its nucleus in its stable state? Iron. The stuff that makes red paint.
And that, Zunger explains, is how the death of a star determines what color barns are painted.
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