August 26, 2008
Check out this deft rap about life on other planets by Jonathan Chase, a.k.a. Oort Kuiper (yes, that Oort and that Kuiper). The delivery is subdued and literate, like Massive Attack-era Tricky, and the video incorporates clips from Cosmos, the classic PBS series narrated by Carl Sagan. Bonus points for cribbing footage from SETI and working in a cameo by Gregor Mendel.
The bar on science rap has been raised. Once a novelty act confined to late-night grad-school potlucks, where just finding something to rhyme with “plate tectonics” was a triumph; now you get spot-on lyrics backed by leaping basslines and 1950s samples.
Other recent triumphs of the genre include the cogent Large Hadron Rap (405,000 hits in less than a month) and the salt-soaked Cruise, Cruise Baby. Say what you want about the LHR’s backup dancers (I was under the impression that experimental physics required nanosecond-accurate timing) – but I learned more about the setup, mechanics, and ambition of the Large Hadron Collider from this rap than from everything I’ve read on the subject previously put together.
Hat tip: Knight Science Journalism Tracker [though Tracker, please note that's a British accent]
June 19, 2008
It’s called astrobiology: the idea that life emerged somewhere in the cold reaches of space, and only made it to Earth belatedly, after stowing away on a meteorite or comet. It sounds far-fetched, but astronomers have a growing body of evidence that supports the idea. They added another piece this week, in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.***
And after all, say the astrobiologists, life had to originate somewhere. Reassuringly, their leading proposals involve scenarios considerably more humble than standard Hollywood images of luminous humanoids arriving in gleaming steel cylinders.
In this week’s finding, scientists isolated from an Australian meteorite two molecules called uracil and xanthine, each of which consists of 12-15 atoms of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen. (The carbon in the samples differed in makeup from what’s found on Earth, indicating the find wasn’t the result of contamination once the meteorite landed.)
The find suggests that somewhere out in space conditions are right for such complicated molecules to form spontaneously. Even more exciting, uracil and xanthine are precursors of two pivotal molecules in living organisms, RNA and DNA. The way astrobiologists interpret this, life may not have zapped into existence in a single, unique flash in some earthbound primordial soup after all (which was the way I learned it in school).
Rather, the building blocks may form, en masse, in cold interstellar factories, and then perhaps travel the cosmos on the backs of comets, waiting for a crash landing. Like little starter kits.
(Image: Bill Saxton, National Radio Astronomy Observatory/National Science Foundation)
June 2, 2008
One catch in trying to cover the wide world of science with just two Gist posts weekly is that follow-ups can take a while. So if you’ve been worrying yourself sick over the fate of the pandas of Wolong or the terrifying 7-minute ordeal of the Phoenix Mars Lander, here’s an update.
The pandas, it turned out, were not quite as well off as they appeared to be in the first few days after the tragic Chengdu earthquake. Two pandas were injured and six went missing, in addition to nearly 100 people that were killed or injured in and around the Wolong research center. The Chinese government had to ship in more than two tons of emergency panda rations, including bamboo, apples, soybeans and eggs.
At the same time, eight two-year-old pandas were removed from Wolong and taken to Beijing, where they will be mascots for the upcoming Summer Olympics. The Associated Press has a short video of the pandas’ arrival in Beijing, complete with charming bamboo munching. Meanwhile, the Wolong center struggles to recover after landslides demolished several buildings. Luckily, all the pandas are alive and accounted for, if somewhat unnerved by the ordeal. The Xinhua newspaper reports that some are benefiting from “psychological counseling.” We’re still sending warm wishes to the pandas – and humans – of Sichuan.
The news coming from the north pole of Mars is decidedly more upbeat. This particular Gist-er spent a critical seven minutes of Memorial Day weekend watching the landing on NASA TV (anyone else? anyone?). The footage consisted mostly of people in blue polo shirts standing around a control room, listening to a countdown delivered by an Austrian-accented announcer. But it was still somehow gripping, if only because something like a remote-control landing on another planet could possibly sound so routine.
After touchdown, the news came fast and furious. In a masterstroke, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter snapped a shot of Phoenix on its way down, parachute open. We landed on a broad, frost-heaved plain that was suitably red. A minor hitch in radio link on the second day merely reminded us (was it a stray cosmic ray, perhaps?) of how delicate these space operations are. On the third day, out came the robotic arm. It was minus 111 degrees Fahrenheit out there.
The fossilized Scandinavian parrots are still dead (arguably).
(Image: Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Texas A&M University)
May 23, 2008
It’s not exactly Indiana Jones, but with Seven Minutes of Terror, NASA has rolled out the blockbuster treatment for its new Mars mission, the Phoenix Mars Lander — headed for a dust-up on the Red Planet’s north pole around Sunday suppertime.
The video’s title refers to how long NASA engineers will have to bite their fingernails while their $450 million spacecraft decelerates from its 12,000 mph cruising speed to a dead stop. The ship’s hull will reach some 900 degrees as it plows through the upper Martian atmosphere. At 8 miles above terra (mars-a?) firma, a round, yellow-and-red parachute will stream out and slow the craft to about 250 mph.
But that’s still pretty fast. And so, like Indy jumping off a truck and straight onto a horse, at less than a minute before impact, the lander will jettison its parachute and let loose with its array of 12 thrusters. With any luck, Phoenix’s computer pilot will keep the jets pointed at the ground, slowing the craft to 5 mph.
One way or another, it’ll come to a stop. The nail-biter part will be whether anything gets broken. All this is clearly explained in “Seven Minutes” by the engineers themselves. Although be warned: you do have to endure that frenetic visual style — shaky cameras, incessant, 3-second cuts — that directors must think makes science cooler, if not any easier to understand.
You do have to admire NASA’s routine approach to the audacious. Any work plan where one of the middle steps is “Likely blackout period as hot plasma surrounds spacecraft” gets my support. They estimate it will all be over by 7:53:52 p.m. Eastern time. (That’s plus or minus 46 seconds.)
The robotic ship will lie low for 20 minutes as the dust settles. After that, out come the solar panels, and then a tentative robot arm to dig in the polar Martian soil. Over the next three months, Phoenix will analyze the soil for water and the rudiments of life, digging down about an inch every two weeks. But the worst part, presumably, will be the first 15 minutes after touchdown. That’s how long it takes an “All Clear” radio signal to travel the 250 million miles back to Earth. A long time for an engineer to hold her breath.
(An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the date of the landing event. The landing is scheduled for Sunday, May 25th.)
March 4, 2008
Tragically, and even despite a phone call reminder from a friend, I forgot to look at the lunar eclipse on February 20 (and won’t get another chance to see one until December 2010). When later perusing this great collection of eclipse photos, I was surprised to see that it glowed red.
During a lunar eclipse, the Earth lies directly between the Moon and the Sun, thus blocking the Sun’s rays from directly hitting the Moon. Some light does hit the Moon, but only after getting refracted through the Earth’s atmosphere. The atmosphere is filled with low levels of volcanic dust. The less dust in the atmosphere, the brighter the Moon looks during an eclipse. Since few large volcanoes have erupted in the last decade, our recent eclipses have all been fairly luminous.
Richard Keen at the University of Colorado, Boulder thinks that these recent low levels of volcanic dust have contributed to global warming—as much as 0.2 degrees Celsius. This theory is extremely controversial, as pointed out in a news article posted today on NewScientist.com.
Most climate scientists, including authors of the mammoth IPCC report, say that the 0.6-degree Celsius rise in Earth’s temperature over the last 50 years is due almost entirely to greenhouse gases released by humans. In fact, if you look back over the last 40 years, volcanic dust levels have actually been higher than the 20 years before that, Susan Solomon of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told New Scientist.
Wired blogger John Borland doesn’t put too much stock in Keen’s results:
There’s almost no question that this is going to stir up the climate-change deniers. So, before people get too excited, and claim that all this global warming is happening because we’re just going through a period of low volcanic activity– read the IPCC reports.
I’m less concerned about how the climate change deniers will use Keen’s data. Even if he’s right (and he may be right—the volcanic dust levels have been extremely low since 1995, allowing in lots of extra sunshine that could be heating the oceans, etc.), there’d still be 0.4 degrees of warming to account for. And the human use of fossil fuels would still be the most likely culprit.
(Flickr, by Savannah Grandfather)