Tag Archives: discovery

Five Tips For Re-Learning How to Walk


It seems that the aimless walk to clear one’s mind has become a rarity. So too the gentle stroll to ponder and think. Purposeless walking, it seems, is a dying art. Indeed many in the West are so pampered for transportation alternatives and (self-)limited in time that walking has become an indulgence — who can afford to walk any more when driving or taking the bus or the train can save so much time (and energy). Moreover, when we do walk, we’re firmly hunched over our smartphones, entranced by cyberspace and its virtual acknowledgments and affirmations, and thoroughly unaware of our surroundings.


Yet keep in mind that many of our revered artists, photographers, authors and philosophers were great walkers. They used the walk to sense and think. In fact, studies find a link between walking and creativity.

So, without further ado I present 5 tips to help you revive an endangered pastime:

#1. Ditch the smartphone and any other mobile device.

#2. Find a treasured place to walk. Stomping to the nearest pub or 7-Eleven does not count.

#3. Pay attention to your surroundings and walk mindfully. Observe the world around you. This goes back to #1.

#4. Take off the headphones, take out the earbuds and leave your soundtrack at home. Listen to the world around you.

#5. Leave the partner, friend and dog (or other walking companion) at home. Walk alone.

From the BBC:

A number of recent books have lauded the connection between walking – just for its own sake – and thinking. But are people losing their love of the purposeless walk?

Walking is a luxury in the West. Very few people, particularly in cities, are obliged to do much of it at all. Cars, bicycles, buses, trams, and trains all beckon.

Instead, walking for any distance is usually a planned leisure activity. Or a health aid. Something to help people lose weight. Or keep their fitness. But there’s something else people get from choosing to walk. A place to think.

Wordsworth was a walker. His work is inextricably bound up with tramping in the Lake District. Drinking in the stark beauty. Getting lost in his thoughts.

Charles Dickens was a walker. He could easily rack up 20 miles, often at night. You can almost smell London’s atmosphere in his prose. Virginia Woolf walked for inspiration. She walked out from her home at Rodmell in the South Downs. She wandered through London’s parks.

Henry David Thoreau, who was both author and naturalist, walked and walked and walked. But even he couldn’t match the feat of someone like Constantin Brancusi, the sculptor who walked much of the way between his home village in Romania and Paris. Or indeed Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose walk from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul at the age of 18 inspired several volumes of travel writing. George Orwell, Thomas De Quincey, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bruce Chatwin, WG Sebald and Vladimir Nabokov are just some of the others who have written about it.

Read the entire article here.

Images courtesy of Google Search: Walking with smartphone. Walking in nature (my preference).

Colonizing the Milky Way 101


The human race is likely to spend many future generations grappling with the aftermaths of its colonial sojourns across the globe. Almost every race and creed over our documented history has actively pursued encroaching upon and displacing others. By our very nature we are territorial animals, and very good ones at that.

Yet despite the untold volumes of suffering, pain and death wrought on those we colonize our small blue planet is not enough for our fantasies and follies. We send our space probes throughout the solar system to test for habitability. We dream of human outposts on the Moon and on Mars. But even our solar system is too minuscule for our expansive, acquisitive ambitions. Why not colonize our entire galaxy? Now we’re talking!

Kim Stanley Robinson, author extraordinaire of numerous speculative and science fiction novels, gives us an idea of what it may take to spread our wings across the Milky Way in a recent article for Scientific American, excerpted here.

It will be many centuries before humans move beyond our solar system. But, before we do so I’d propose that we get our own house in order first. That will be our biggest challenge, not the invention of yet to be imagined technologies.

From Scientific American:

The idea that humans will eventually travel to and inhabit other parts of our galaxy was well expressed by the early Russian rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who wrote, “Earth is humanity’s cradle, but you’re not meant to stay in your cradle forever.” Since then the idea has been a staple of science fiction, and thus become part of a consensus image of humanity’s future. Going to the stars is often regarded as humanity’s destiny, even a measure of its success as a species. But in the century since this vision was proposed, things we have learned about the universe and ourselves combine to suggest that moving out into the galaxy may not be humanity’s destiny after all.

The problem that tends to underlie all the other problems with the idea is the sheer size of the universe, which was not known when people first imagined we would go to the stars. Tau Ceti, one of the closest stars to us at around 12 light-years away, is 100 billion times farther from Earth than our moon. A quantitative difference that large turns into a qualitative difference; we can’t simply send people over such immense distances in a spaceship, because a spaceship is too impoverished an environment to support humans for the time it would take, which is on the order of centuries. Instead of a spaceship, we would have to create some kind of space-traveling ark, big enough to support a community of humans and other plants and animals in a fully recycling ecological system.

On the other hand it would have to be small enough to accelerate to a fairly high speed, to shorten the voyagers’ time of exposure to cosmic radiation, and to breakdowns in the ark. Regarded from some angles bigger is better, but the bigger the ark is, the proportionally more fuel it would have to carry along to slow itself down on reaching its destination; this is a vicious circle that can’t be squared. For that reason and others, smaller is better, but smallness creates problems for resource metabolic flow and ecologic balance. Island biogeography suggests the kinds of problems that would result from this miniaturization, but a space ark’s isolation would be far more complete than that of any island on Earth. The design imperatives for bigness and smallness may cross each other, leaving any viable craft in a non-existent middle.

The biological problems that could result from the radical miniaturization, simplification and isolation of an ark, no matter what size it is, now must include possible impacts on our microbiomes. We are not autonomous units; about eighty percent of the DNA in our bodies is not human DNA, but the DNA of a vast array of smaller creatures. That array of living beings has to function in a dynamic balance for us to be healthy, and the entire complex system co-evolved on this planet’s surface in a particular set of physical influences, including Earth’s gravity, magnetic field, chemical make-up, atmosphere, insolation, and bacterial load. Traveling to the stars means leaving all these influences, and trying to replace them artificially. What the viable parameters are on the replacements would be impossible to be sure of in advance, as the situation is too complex to model. Any starfaring ark would therefore be an experiment, its inhabitants lab animals. The first generation of the humans aboard might have volunteered to be experimental subjects, but their descendants would not have. These generations of descendants would be born into a set of rooms a trillion times smaller than Earth, with no chance of escape.

In this radically diminished enviroment, rules would have to be enforced to keep all aspects of the experiment functioning. Reproduction would not be a matter of free choice, as the population in the ark would have to maintain minimum and maximum numbers. Many jobs would be mandatory to keep the ark functioning, so work too would not be a matter of choices freely made. In the end, sharp constraints would force the social structure in the ark to enforce various norms and behaviors. The situation itself would require the establishment of something like a totalitarian state.

Read the entire article here.

Image: The Milky Way panorama. Courtesy: ESO/S. Brunier – Licensed under Creative Commons.

To Another Year

Let me put aside humanity’s destructive failings for a moment, with the onset of a New Year, to celebrate one of our most fundamental positive traits: our need to know — how things work, how and why we’re here, and if we’re alone. We are destined to explore, discover and learn more about ourselves and our surroundings. I hope and trust that 2016 will bring us yet more knowledge (and more really cool images). We are fortunate indeed.


Image: New Horizons scientists false color image of Pluto. Image data collected by the spacecraft’s Ralph/MVIC color camera on July 14, 2015 from a range of 22,000 miles. Courtesy: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI.


Image: Highest-resolution image from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft shows huge blocks of Pluto’s water-ice crust jammed together in the informally named al-Idrisi mountains. The mountains end abruptly at the shoreline of the informally named Sputnik Planum, where the soft, nitrogen-rich ices of the plain form a nearly level surface, broken only by the fine trace work of striking, cellular boundaries. Courtesy: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI.



The Curious Case of the Strange Transit Signal

Something very strange is happening over at KIC 8462852. But, it may not be an alien intelligence.


NASA’s extrasolar, planet-hunting space telescope, found some odd changes in the luminosity of a star — KIC 8462852— located in the constellation of Cygnus, about 1,400 light-years from Earth. In a recent paper submitted to the Royal Astronomical Society, astronomers reported that:

“Over the duration of the Kepler mission, KIC 8462852 was observed to undergo irregularly shaped, aperiodic dips in flux down to below the 20 percent level.”

But despite several years of monitoring, astronomers have yet to come up with a feasible, natural explanation. And, this has conspiracy theorists, alien hunters and SciFi enthusiasts very excited. Could it be a massive alien structure shielding the star, or is there simpler and natural, but less amazing possibility? Occam’s razor could well prevail again, but I certainly hope not in this case.

From Wired:

Last week, astronomers—amateur and pro—got excited about some strange results from the Kepler Space Telescope, the NASA observatory tasked with searching for Earth-like planets. As those planets orbit their own distant suns, periodically blocking light from Kepler’s view, the telescope documents the flickers. But over the last several years, it has picked up a strange pattern of blips from one star in particular, KIC 8462852.

Light from that star dramatically plunges in irregular intervals—not the consistent pattern you’d expect from an orbiting planet. But what could possibly cause such a thing? Gotta be aliens, right? Clearly someone—something—has assembled a megastructure around its sun, like that hollow Celestial head in Guardians of the Galaxy. Or maybe it’s a solar array, collecting energy-giving radiation and preventing light from reaching NASA’s telescope.

This, of course, is almost certainly poppycock. When you’re searching the vast expanse of space, lots of things look like they could be signs of extraterrestrial life. Astronomical observers are constantly looking for tiny glimmers of information in the mess of noise that streams through space toward Earth, and often, things that at first look like signals end up being mirages. This has all happened before; it will all happen again. For example:


In 1967, astronomer Jocelyn Bell was monitoring signals from the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory, trying to analyze the behavior of quasars, energy-spewing regions surrounding supermassive black holes within distant galaxies. What she found, though, was a series of regular pulses, always from the same part of the sky, that she labeled LGM-1: Little Green Men. Soon, though, she found similar signals coming from another part of the sky, and realized that she wasn’t seeing messages from two different alien civilizations: It was radiation from a spinning, magnetized neutron star—the first measured pulsar.

Sparks at Parkes

In 1998, astronomers at the 64-meter Parkes radio telescope in Australia started noticing mysterious radio signals called perytons—unexplained, millisecond-long bursts. The researchers there didn’t immediately cry alien, though; they could tell that the radio signals were terrestrial in origin, because they showed up across the entire spectrum monitored by the telescope. They didn’t know until this year, however, exactly where those emissions came from: a microwave oven on the observatory’s campus, which released a short, powerful radio signal when staffers opened its door in the middle of heating.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Flux time series for KIC 8462852 showing different portions of the 4-year Kepler observations. Courtesy: T. S. Boyajian et al, Planet Hunters X. KIC 8462852 – Where’s the flux?



Passion, Persistence and Pluto

New Horizons Pluto Flyby

Alliterations aside this is a great story of how passion, persistence and persuasiveness can make a real impact. This is especially significant when you look at the triumphant climax to NASA’s unlikely New Horizons mission to Pluto. Over 20 years in the making and fraught with budget cuts and political infighting — NASA is known for its bureaucracy — the mission reached its zenith last week. While thanks go to the many hundreds engineers and scientists involved from its inception, the mission would not have succeeded without the vision and determination of one person — Alan Stern.

In a music track called “Over the Sea” by the 1980s (and 90s) band Information Society there is a sample of Star Trek’s Captain Kirk saying,

“In every revolution there is one man with a vision.”

How appropriate.

From Smithsonian

On July 14 at approximately 8 a.m. Eastern time, a half-ton NASA spacecraft that has been racing across the solar system for nine and a half years will finally catch up with tiny Pluto, at three billion miles from the Sun the most distant object that anyone or anything from Earth has ever visited. Invisible to the naked eye, Pluto wasn’t even discovered until 1930, and has been regarded as our solar system’s oddball ever since, completely different from the rocky planets close to the Sun, Earth included, and equally unlike the outer gas giants. This quirky and mysterious little world will swing into dramatic view as the New Horizons spacecraft makes its closest approach, just 6,000 miles away, and onboard cameras snap thousands of photographs. Other instruments will gauge Pluto’s topography, surface and atmospheric chemistry, temperature, magnetic field and more. New Horizons will also take a hard look at Pluto’s five known moons, including Charon, the largest. It might even find other moons, and maybe a ring or two.
It was barely 20 years ago when scientists first learned that Pluto, far from alone at the edge of the solar system, was just one in a vast swarm of small frozen bodies in wide, wide orbit around the Sun, like a ring of debris left at the outskirts of a construction zone. That insight, among others, has propelled the New Horizons mission. Understand Pluto and how it fits in with those remnant bodies, scientists say, and you can better understand the formation and evolution of the solar system itself.
If all goes well, “encounter day,” as the New Horizons team calls it, will be a cork-popping celebration of tremendous scientific and engineering prowess—it’s no small feat to fling a collection of precision instruments through the frigid void at speeds up to 47,000 miles an hour to rendezvous nearly a decade later with an icy sphere about half as wide as the United States is broad. The day will also be a sweet vindication for the leader of the mission, Alan Stern. A 57-year-old astronomer, aeronautical engineer, would-be astronaut and self-described “rabble-rouser,” Stern has spent the better part of his career fighting to get Pluto the attention he thinks it deserves. He began pushing NASA to approve a Pluto mission nearly a quarter of a century ago, then watched in frustration as the agency gave the green light to one Pluto probe after another, only to later cancel them. “It was incredibly frustrating,” he says, “like watching Lucy yank the football away from Charlie Brown, over and over.” Finally, Stern recruited other scientists and influential senators to join his lobbying effort, and because underdog Pluto has long been a favorite of children, proponents of the mission savvily enlisted kids to write to Congress, urging that funding for the spacecraft be approved.
New Horizons mission control is headquartered at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory near Baltimore, where Stern and several dozen other Plutonians will be installed for weeks around the big July event, but I caught up with Stern late last year in Boulder at the Southwest Research Institute, where he is an associate vice president for research and development. A picture window in his impressive office looks out onto the Rockies, where he often goes to hike and unwind. Trim and athletic at 5-foot-4, he’s also a runner, a sport he pursues with the exactitude of, well, a rocket scientist. He has calculated his stride rate, and says (only half-joking) that he’d be world-class if only his legs were longer. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that he is a polarizing figure in the planetary science community; his single-minded pursuit of Pluto has annoyed some colleagues. So has his passionate defense of Pluto in the years since astronomy officials famously demoted it to a “dwarf planet,” giving it the bum’s rush out of the exclusive solar system club, now limited to the eight biggies.
The timing of that insult, which is how Stern and other jilted Pluto-lovers see it, could not have been more dramatic, coming in August 2006, just months after New Horizons had rocketed into space from Cape Canaveral. What makes Pluto’s demotion even more painfully ironic to Stern is that some of the groundbreaking scientific discoveries that he had predicted greatly strengthened his opponents’ arguments, all while opening the door to a new age of planetary science. In fact, Stern himself used the term “dwarf planet” as early as the 1990s.
The wealthy astronomer Percival Lowell, widely known for insisting there were artificial canals on Mars, first started searching for Pluto at his private observatory in Arizona in 1905. Careful study of planetary orbits had suggested that Neptune was not the only object out there exerting a gravitational tug on Uranus, and Lowell set out to find what he dubbed “Planet X.” He died without success, but a young man named Clyde Tombaugh, who had a passion for astronomy though no college education, arrived at the observatory and picked up the search in 1929. After 7,000 hours staring at some 90 million star images, he caught sight of a new planet on his photographic plates in February 1930. The name Pluto, the Roman god of the underworld, was suggested by an 11-year-old British girl named Venetia Burney, who had been discussing the discovery with her grandfather. The name was unanimously adopted by the Lowell Observatory staff in part because the first two letters are Percival Lowell’s initials.
Pluto’s solitary nature baffled scientists for decades. Shouldn’t there be other, similar objects out beyond Neptune? Why did the solar system appear to run out of material so abruptly? “It seemed just weird that the outer solar system would be so empty, while the inner solar system was filled with planets and asteroids,” recalls David Jewitt, a planetary scientist at UCLA. Throughout the decades various astronomers proposed that there were smaller bodies out there, yet unseen. Comets that periodically sweep in to light up the night sky, they speculated, probably hailed from a belt or disk of debris at the solar system’s outer reaches.
Stern, in a paper published in 1991 in the journal Icarus, argued not only that the belt existed, but also that it contained things as big as Pluto. They were simply too far away, and too dim, to be easily seen. His reasoning: Neptune’s moon Triton is a near-twin of Pluto, and probably orbited the Sun before it was captured by Neptune’s gravity. Uranus has a drastically tilted axis of rotation, probably due to a collision eons ago with a Pluto-size object. That made three Pluto-like objects at least, which suggested to Stern there had to be more. The number of planets in the solar system would someday need to be revised upward, he thought. There were probably hundreds, with the majority, including Pluto, best assigned to a subcategory of “dwarf planets.”
Just a year later, the first object (other than Pluto and Charon) was discovered in that faraway region, called the Kuiper Belt after the Dutch-born astronomer Gerard Kuiper. Found by Jewitt and his colleague, Jane Luu, it’s only about 100 miles across, while Pluto spans 1,430 miles. A decade later, Caltech astronomers Mike Brown and Chad Trujillo discovered an object about half the size of Pluto, large enough to be spherical, which they named Quaoar (pronounced “kwa-war” and named for the creator god in the mythology of the pre-Columbian Tongva people native to the Los Angeles basin). It was followed in quick succession by Haumea, and in 2005, Brown’s group found Eris, about the same size as Pluto and also spherical.
Planetary scientists have spotted many hundreds of smaller Kuiper Belt Objects; there could be as many as ten billion that are a mile across or more. Stern will take a more accurate census of their sizes with the cameras on New Horizons. His simple idea is to map and measure Pluto’s and Charon’s craters, which are signs of collisions with other Kuiper Belt Objects and thus serve as a representative sample. When Pluto is closest to the Sun, frozen surface material evaporates into a temporary atmosphere, some of which escapes into space. This “escape erosion” can erase older craters, so Pluto will provide a recent census. Charon, without this erosion, will offer a record that spans cosmic history. In one leading theory, the original, much denser Kuiper Belt would have formed dozens of planets as big or bigger than Earth, but the orbital changes of Jupiter and Saturn flung most of the building blocks away before that could happen, nipping planet formation in the bud.
By the time New Horizons launched at Cape Canaveral on January 19, 2006, it had become difficult to argue that Pluto was materially different from many of its Kuiper Belt neighbors. Curiously, no strict definition of “planet” existed at the time, so some scientists argued that there should be a size cutoff, to avoid making the list of planets too long. If you called Pluto and the other relatively small bodies something else, you’d be left with a nice tidy eight planets—Mercury through Neptune. In 2000, Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, had famously chosen the latter option, leaving Pluto out of a solar system exhibit.
Then, with New Horizons less than 15 percent of the way to Pluto, members of the International Astronomical Union, responsible for naming and classifying celestial objects, voted at a meeting in Prague to make that arrangement official. Pluto and the others were now to be known as dwarf planets, which, in contrast to Stern’s original meaning, were not planets. They were an entirely different sort of beast. Because he discovered Eris, Caltech’s Brown is sometimes blamed for the demotion. He has said he would have been fine with either outcome, but he did title his 2010 memoir How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming.
“It’s embarrassing,” recalls Stern, who wasn’t in Prague for the vote. “It’s wrong scientifically and it’s wrong pedagogically.” He said the same sort of things publicly at the time, in language that’s unusually blunt in the world of science. Among the dumbest arguments for demoting Pluto and the others, Stern noted, was the idea that having 20 or more planets would be somehow inconvenient. Also ridiculous, he says, is the notion that a dwarf planet isn’t really a planet. “Is a dwarf evergreen not an evergreen?” he asks.
Stern’s barely concealed contempt for what he considers foolishness of the bureaucratic and scientific varieties hasn’t always endeared him to colleagues. One astronomer I asked about Stern replied, “My mother taught me that if you can’t say anything nice about someone, don’t say anything.” Another said, “His last name is ‘Stern.’ That tells you all you need to know.”
DeGrasse Tyson, for his part, offers measured praise: “When it comes to everything from rousing public sentiment in support of astronomy to advocating space science missions to defending Pluto, Alan Stern is always there.”
Stern also inspires less reserved admiration. “Alan is incredibly creative and incredibly energetic,” says Richard Binzel, an MIT planetary scientist who has known Stern since their graduate-school days. “I don’t know where he gets it.”
Read the entire article here.

Image: New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, CO, celebrates with New Horizons Flight Controllers after they received confirmation from the spacecraft that it had successfully completed the flyby of Pluto, Tuesday, July 14, 2015 in the Mission Operations Center (MOC) of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), Laurel, Maryland. Public domain.

An Eleven Year Marathon

While 11 years is about how long my kids suggest it would take me to run a marathon, this marathon is entirely other-worldly. It’s taken NASA’s Opportunity rover this length of time to cover just over 26 miles. It may seem like an awfully long time to cover that short distance, but think of all the rest stops — for incredible scientific discovery — along the way.

Check out a time-lapse that compresses Opportunity’s incredible martian journey into a mere 8 minutes.


Video courtesy of NASA / JPL.

Earth 2.0: Kepler 452b


On July 23, 2015 NASA announced discovery of Kepler 452b, an Earth-like exoplanet, which they dubbed Earth 2.0. Found following a four-year trawl through data from the Kepler exoplanet-hunting space telescope, Kepler 452b is the closest exoplanet yet in its resemblance to Earth. It revolves around its sun-like home star in 380 days at a distance similar to that between Earth and our sun (93 million miles).

Unfortunately, Kepler 452b is a “mere” 1,400 light years away — so you can forget trying to strike up a real-time conversation with any of its intelligent inhabitants. If it does harbor life I have to hope that any sentient lifeforms have taken better care of their home than we earthlings do of our own. Then again, it may be better that the exoplanet hosts only non-intelligent life!

Here’s NASA’s technical paper.

Check out NASA’s briefing here.

Image: Artist rendition of Kepler 452b. Courtesy of NASA. Public Domain.

Tormented… For Things Remote

Would that our troubled species could put aside its pettiness and look to the stars. We are meant to seek, to explore, to discover, to learn…

If you do nothing else today, watch this video and envision our future. It’s compelling, gorgeous and achievable.


Visit the filmmaker’s website here.

Video: Wanderers, a short film. Courtesy of Erik Wernquist. Words by the Carl Sagan.

MondayMap: Music


If you decide to do only one thing today, do this: visit everynoise, discover new music and have some expansive auditory fun.

Every Noise At Once is the brainchild of Glenn McDonald, a self-described data alchemist. He has sampled and categorized popular music into an astounding 1,264 genres — at current estimates.

You’re probably familiar with glam rock, emo punk, motown, ambient, garage, house, dub step, rap, metal and so on. But are you up on: neo-synthpop, fallen angel, deep orgcore, neurostep, death metal, skweee and cow punk? Well, here’s your chance to find out and expand your senses and your mind.

From the Guardian:

Music used to be easy. Some people liked rock. Some people liked pop. Some people liked jazz, blues or classical. And, basically, that was sort of it. However, musicians are a restless bunch and you can only play Smoke on the Water, Always Crashing in the Same Car or Roast Fish and Cornbread so many times before someone is bound to say: “Hang on a minute, what would happen if we played them all at the same time?” And so it is that new genres are born. Now imagine that happening for at least half a century or so – all over the world – and you reach a point at which, according to the engineer and “data alchemist” Glenn McDonald, there are now 1,264 genres of popular music; all you need to do is go directly to his startlingly cleverEveryNoise.com website and look – well, listen – for yourself.

Every Noise at Once is an ongoing attempt to build an algorithmically generated map of the entire musical genre-space, based on data tracked and analysed by Spotify’s music-intelligence division, The Echo Nest. It is also – in truth – one of the greatest time-eating devices ever created. You thought you had some kind of idea of just how much music is out there? You don’t. I don’t. But McDonald does. So he’s covered those genres – such as death metal, techno or hip-hop, which you’ll have heard of. Others, such as electro trash, indietronica or hard glam you may only have the most passing acquaintance with. Then, rather wonderfully, there are the outliers, those genres that you almost certainly didn’t even know existed – much less ever explored – suomi rock, shimmer psych,fourth world – right there at your fingertips any time you please. But the question is: what lives even further out than the outliers? How odd can it all get? Well, here are 10 genres (we could have nominated about 50) that even mouth-breathing indie record-shop blowhards (full disclosure: I used to be a mouth-breathing indie-record shop blowhard) would be hardpressed to help you find …

Read the entire story and sample some bands here.

Image: Every Noise at Once, screenshot. Courtesy of Glenn McDonald, Every Noise at Once.

Lost Treasures


A small proportion of classic movies remain in circulation and in our memories. Most are quickly forgotten. And some simply go missing. How could an old movie go missing? Well, it’s not very difficult: a temperamental, perfectionist director may demand the original be buried; or a fickle movie studio may wish to hide and remove all traces of last season’s flop; or some old reels, cast in nitrates, may just burn, literally. But, every once in a while an old movie is found in a dusty attic or damp basement. Or as is the case of a more recent find — film reels in a dumpster (if you’re a Brit, that’s a “skip”). Two recent discoveries shed more light on the developing comedic talent of Peter Sellers.

From the Guardian:

In the mid-1950s, Peter Sellers was young and ambitious and still largely unseen. He wanted to break out of his radio ghetto and achieve big-screen success, so he played a bumbling crook in The Ladykillers and a bumbling everyman in a series of comedy shorts for an independent production company called Park Lane Films. The Ladykillers endured and is cherished to this day. The shorts came and then went and were quickly forgotten. To all intents and purposes, they never existed at all.

I’m fascinated by the idea of the films that get lost; that vast, teeming netherworld where the obscure and the unloved rub shoulders, in the dark, with the misplaced and the mythic. Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation estimates that as many as 50% of the American movies made before 1950 are now gone for good, while the British film archive is similarly holed like Swiss cheese. Somewhere out there, languishing in limbo, are missing pictures from directors including Orson Welles, Michael Powell and Alfred Hitchcock. Most of these orphans will surely never be found. Yet sometimes, against the odds, one will abruptly surface.

In his duties as facilities manager at an office block in central London, Robert Farrow would occasionally visit the basement area where the janitors parked their mops, brooms and vacuum cleaners. Nestled amid this equipment was a stack of 21 canisters, which Farrow assumed contained polishing pads for the cleaning machines. Years later, during an office refurbishment, Farrow saw that these canisters had been removed from the basement and dumped outside in a skip. “You don’t expect to find anything valuable in a skip,” Farrow says ruefully. But inside the canisters he found the lost Sellers shorts.

It’s a blustery spring day when we gather at a converted water works in Southend-on-Sea to meet the movie orphans. Happily the comedies – Dearth of a Salesman and Insomnia is Good For You – have been brushed up in readiness. They have been treated to a spick-and-span Telecine scan and look none the worse for their years in the basement. Each will now premiere (or perhaps re-premiere) at the Southend film festival, nestled amid the screenings of The Great Beauty and Wadjda and a retrospective showing of Sellers’ 1969 fantasy The Magic Christian. In the meantime, festival director Paul Cotgrove has hailed their reappearance as the equivalent of “finding the Dead Sea Scrolls”.

I think that might be overselling it, although one can understand his excitement. Instead, the films might best be viewed as crucial stepping stones, charting a bright spark’s evolution into a fully fledged film star. At the time they were made, Sellers was a big fish in a small pond, flushed from the success of The Goon Show and half-wondering whether he had already peaked. “By this point he had hardly done anything on screen,” Cotgrove explains. “He was obsessed with breaking away from radio and getting into film. You can see the early styles in these films that he would then use later on.”

To the untrained eye, he looks to be adapting rather well. Dearth of a Salesman and Insomnia is Good For You both run 29 minutes and come framed as spoof information broadcasts, installing Sellers in the role of lowly Herbert Dimwitty. In the first, Dimwitty attempts to strike out as a go-getting entrepreneur, peddling print dresses and dishwashers and regaling his clients with a range of funny accents. “I’m known as the Peter Ustinov of East Acton,” he informs a harried suburban housewife.

Dearth, it must be said, feels a little faded and cosy; its line in comedy too thinly spread. But Insomnia is terrific. Full of spark, bite and invention, the film chivvies Sellers’s sleep-deprived employee through a “good night’s wake”, thrilling to the “tone poem” of nocturnal noises from the street outside and replaying awkward moments from the office until they bloom into full-on waking nightmares. Who cares if Dimwitty is little more than a low-rent archetype, the kind of bumbling sitcom staple that has been embodied by everyone from Tony Hancock to Terry Scott? Sellers keeps the man supple and spiky. It’s a role the actor would later reprise, with a few variations, in the 1962 Kingsley Amis adaptation Only Two Can Play.

But what were these pictures and where did they go? Cotgrove and Farrow’s research can only take us so far. Dearth and Insomnia were probably shot in 1956, or possibly 1957, for Park Lane Films, which then later went bust. They would have played in British cinemas ahead of the feature presentation, folded in among the cartoons and the news, and may even have screened in the US and Canada as well. Records suggest that Sellers was initially contracted to shoot 12 movies in total, but may well have wriggled out of the deal after The Ladykillers was released. Only three have been found: Dearth, Insomnia and the below-par Cold Comfort, which was already in circulation. Conceivably there might be more Sellers shorts out there somewhere, either idling in skips or buried in basements. But there is no way of knowing; it’s akin to proving a negative. Cotgrove and Farrow aren’t even sure who owns the copyright. “If you find something on the street, it’s not yours,” Farrow points out. “You only have guardianship.”

As it is, the Sellers shorts can be safely filed away among other reclaimed items, plucked out of a skip and brought in from the cold. They take their place alongside such works as Carl Dreyer’s silent-screen classic The Passion of Joan of Arc, which turned up (unaccountably) at a Norwegian psychiatric hospital, or the vital lost footage from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, found in Buenos Aires back in 2008. But these happy few are just the tip of the iceberg. Thousands of movies have simply vanished from view.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Still from newly discovered movie Dearth of a Salesman, featuring a young Peter Sellers. Courtesy of Southend Film Festival / Guardian.


Time for the Neutrino

Enough of the Higgs boson, already! It’s time to shine the light on its smaller, swifter cousin, the neutrino.

From the NYT:

HAVE you noticed how the Higgs boson has been hogging the limelight lately? For a measly little invisible item, whose significance cannot be explained without appealing to thorny concepts of quantum field theory, it has done pretty well for itself. The struggling starlets of Hollywood could learn a thing or two about the dark art of self-promotion from this boson.

First, its elusiveness “sparked the greatest hunt in science,” as the subtitle of one popular book put it. Then came all the hoopla over its actual discovery. Or should I say discoveries? Because those clever, well-meaning folks at the CERN laboratory outside Geneva proclaimed their finding of the particle not once but twice. First in 2012, on the Fourth of July no less, they told the world that their supergigantic — and awesomely expensive — atom smasher had found tentative evidence of the Higgs. Eight months later, they made a second announcement, this time with more data in hand, to confirm that they had nabbed the beast for real. Just recently, there was yet more fanfare when two of the grandees who had predicted the particle’s existence back in 1964 shared a Nobel Prize for their insight.

In fact, ever since another Nobel-winning genius, Leon Lederman, branded it the “God particle” some 20 years ago, the Higgs boson has captured the public imagination and dominated the media coverage of physics. Some consider Professor Lederman’s moniker a brilliant P.R. move for physics, while others denounce it as a terrible gaffe that confuses people and cheapens a solemn scientific enterprise. Either way, it has been effective. Nobody ever talks about the fascinating lives of other subatomic particles on “Fox and Friends.”

Sure, the story of Higgs is a compelling one. The jaw-dropping $9 billion price tag of the machine built to chase it is enough to command our attention. Plus, there is the serene, wise man at the center of this epic saga: the octogenarian Peter Higgs, finally vindicated after waiting patiently for decades. Professor Higgs was seen to shed a tear of joy at a news conference announcing the discovery, adding tenderness to the triumphant moment and tugging ever so gently at our heartstrings. For reporters looking for a human-interest angle to this complicated scientific brouhaha, that was pure gold.

But I say enough is enough. It is time to give another particle a chance.

And have I got a terrific candidate for you! It moves in mysterious ways, passing right through wood, walls and even our bodies, with nary a bump. It morphs among three forms, like a cosmic chameleon evading capture. It brings us news from the sun’s scorching heart and from the spectacular death throes of monstrous stars. It could tell us why antimatter is so rare in the universe and illuminate the inner workings of our own planet. Someday, it may even help expose rogue nuclear reactors and secret bomb tests, thus promoting world peace. Most important, we might not be here without it.

WHAT is this magical particle, you ask? It is none other than the ghostly neutrino.

O.K., I admit that I am biased, having just written a book about it. But believe me, no other particle comes close to matching the incredibly colorful and quirky personality of the neutrino, or promises to reveal as much about a mind-boggling array of natural phenomena, both subatomic and cosmic. As one researcher told me, “Whenever anything cool happens in the universe, neutrinos are usually involved.” Besides, John Updike considered it worthy of celebrating in a delightful poem in The New Yorker, and on “The Big Bang Theory,” Sheldon Cooper’s idol Professor Proton chose Gino the Neutrino as his beloved puppet sidekick.

Granted, the neutrino does come with some baggage. Remember how it made headlines two years ago for possibly traveling faster than light? Back then, the prospects of time travel and breaking Einstein’s speed limit provided plenty of fodder for rampant speculation and a few bad jokes. In the end, the whole affair turned out to be much ado about a faulty cable. I maintain it is unfair to hold the poor little neutrino responsible for that commotion.

Generally speaking, the neutrino tends to shun the limelight. Actually, it is pathologically shy and hardly ever interacts with other particles. That makes it tough to pin down.

Thankfully, today’s neutrino hunters have a formidable arsenal at their disposal, including newfangled observatories buried deep underground or in the Antarctic ice. Neutrino chasing, once an esoteric sideline, has turned into one of the hottest occupations for the discerning nerd. More eager young ones will surely clamor for entry into the Promised Land now that the magazine Physics World has declared the recent detection of cosmic neutrinos to be the No. 1 physics breakthrough of the year.

Drum roll, please. The neutrino is ready to take center stage. But don’t blink: It zips by at nearly the speed of light.

Read the entire story here.

Ancient Aquifer


Mars Curiosity Rover is at it again. This time it has unearthed (or should it be “unmarsed”) compelling evidence of an ancient lake on the red planet.

From Wired:

The latest discovery of Nasa’s Mars Curiosity rover is evidence of an ancient freshwater lake on Mars that was part of an environment that could potentially have supported simple microbial life.

The lake is located inside the Gale Crater and is thought to have covered an area that is 31 miles long and three miles wide for more than 100,000 years.

According to a paper published yesterday in Science Magazine: “The Curiosity rover discovered fine-grained sedimentary rocks, which are inferred to represent an ancient lake and preserve evidence of an environment that would have been suited to support a Martian biosphere founded on chemolithoautotrophy.”

When analyzing two rock samples from an area known as Yellowknife Bay, researchers discovered smectite clay minerals, the chemical makeup of which showed that they had formed in water. Due to low salinity and the neutral pH, the water the minerals formed in was neither too acidic nor too alkaline for life to have once existed within it.

Chemolithoautotrophs, the form of life the researchers believed may have lived in the lake, can also be found on Earth, usually in caves or in vents on the ocean floor.

“If we put microbes from Earth and put them in this lake on Mars, would they survive? Would they survive and thrive? And the answer is yes,” the Washington Post is reporting John Grotzinger, a Caltech planetary geologist who is the chief scientist of the Curiosity rover mission, as saying at a press conference.

Evidence of water was first discovered in soil samples on Mars in September by Curiosity, which first landed on the Red Planet in August 2012 with the hope of discovering whether it may have once offered a habitable environment. Increasingly, as studies are finding evidence of the planet’s environment interacting at some point with water, researchers are believing that in the past Mars could have been a more Earth-like planet.

Curiosity cannot confirm whether or not these organisms definitely did exist on Mars, only that the environment was once ideal for them to flourish there.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Mars Curiosity Rover. Courtesy of NASA / JPL.

How to Burst the Filter Bubble


As the customer service systems of all online retailers and media companies become ever-more attuned to their shoppers’ and members’ preferences the power of the filter bubble grows ever-greater. And, that’s not a good thing.

The filter bubble ensures that digital consumers see more content that matches their preferences and, by extension, continues to reinforce their opinions and beliefs. Conversely, consumers see less and less content that diverges from historical behavior and calculated preferences, often called “signals”.

And, that’s not a good thing.

What of diverse opinion and diverse views? Without a plurality of views and a rich spectrum of positions creativity loses in its battle with banality and conformity. So how can digital consumers break free of the systems that deliver custom recommendations and filtered content and reduce serendipitous discovery?

From Technology Review:

The term “filter bubble” entered the public domain back in 2011when the internet activist Eli Pariser coined it to refer to the way recommendation engines shield people from certain aspects of the real world.

Pariser used the example of two people who googled the term “BP”. One received links to investment news about BP while the other received links to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, presumably as a result of some recommendation algorithm.

This is an insidious problem. Much social research shows that people prefer to receive information that they agree with instead of information that challenges their beliefs. This problem is compounded when social networks recommend content based on what users already like and on what people similar to them also like.

This the filter bubble—being surrounded only by people you like and content that you agree with.

And the danger is that it can polarise populations creating potentially harmful divisions in society.

Today, Eduardo Graells-Garrido at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona as well as Mounia Lalmas and Daniel Quercia, both at Yahoo Labs, say they’ve hit on a way to burst the filter bubble. Their idea that although people may have opposing views on sensitive topics, they may also share interests in other areas. And they’ve built a recommendation engine that points these kinds of people towards each other based on their own preferences.

The result is that individuals are exposed to a much wider range of opinions, ideas and people than they would otherwise experience. And because this is done using their own interests, they end up being equally satisfied with the results (although not without a period of acclimitisation). “We nudge users to read content from people who may have opposite views, or high view gaps, in those issues, while still being relevant according to their preferences,” say Graells-Garrido and co.

These guys have tested this approach by focusing on the topic of abortion as discussed by people in Chile in August and September this year. Chile has some of the most restrictive anti-abortion laws on the planet–it was legalised here in 1931 and then made illegal again in 1989. With presidential elections in November, a highly polarised debate was raging in the country at that time.

They found over 40,000 Twitter users who had expressed an opinion using the hashtags such as #pro-life and #pro-choice. They trimmed this group by choosing only those who gave their location as Chile and by excluding those who tweeted rarely. That left over 3000 Twitter users.

The team then computed the difference in the views of these users on this and other topics using the regularity with which they used certain other keywords. This allowed them to create a kind of wordcloud for each user that acted like a kind of data portrait.

They then recommended tweets to each person based on similarities between their word clouds and especially when they differed in their views on the topic of abortion.

The results show that people can be more open than expected to ideas that oppose their own. It turns out that users who openly speak about sensitive issues are more open to receive recommendations authored by people with opposing views, say Graells-Garrido and co.

They also say that challenging people with new ideas makes them generally more receptive to change. That has important implications for social media sites. There is good evidence that users can sometimes become so resistant to change than any form of redesign dramatically reduces the popularity of the service. Giving them a greater range of content could change that.

“We conclude that an indirect approach to connecting people with opposing views has great potential,” say Graells-Garrido and co.

It’s certainly a start. But whether it can prevent the herding behaviour in which users sometimes desert social media sites overnight, is debatable. But the overall approach is admirable. Connecting people is important when they share similar interests but arguably even more so when their views clash.

Read the entire article here.

Video: Eli Pariser, beware online “filter bubbles”. Courtesy of Eli Pariser, thefilterbubble.

Bert and Ernie and Friends

The universe is a very strange place, stranger than Washington D.C., stranger than most reality TV shows.

And, it keep getting stranger as astronomers and cosmologists continue to make ever more head-scratching discoveries. The latest, a pair of super-high energy neutrinos, followed by another 28. It seems that these tiny, almost massless, particles are reaching Earth from an unknown source, or sources, of immense power outside of our own galaxy.

The neutrinos were spotted by the IceCube detector, which is buried beneath about a mile of solid ice in an Antarctic glacier.

From i09:

By drilling a 1.5 mile hole deep into an Antarctic glacier, physicists working at the IceCube South Pole Observatory have captured 28 extraterrestrial neutrinos — those mysterious and extremely powerful subatomic particles that can pass straight through solid matter. Welcome to an entirely new age of astronomy.

Back in April of this year, the same team of physicists captured the highest energy neutrinos ever detected. Dubbed Bert and Ernie, the elusive subatomic particles likely originated from beyond our solar system, and possibly even our galaxy.

Neutrinos are extremely tiny and prolific subatomic particles that are born in nuclear reactions, including those that occur inside of stars. And because they’re practically massless (together they contain only a tiny fraction of the mass of a single electron), they can pass through normal matter, which is why they’re dubbed ‘ghost particles.’ Neutrinos are able to do this because they don’t carry an electric charge, so they’re immune to electromagnetic forces that influence charged particles like electrons and protons.

A Billion Times More Powerful

But not all neutrinos are the same. The ones discovered by the IceCube team are about a billion times more energetic than the ones coming out of our sun. A pair of them had energies above an entire petaelectron volt. That’s more than 1,000 times the energy produced by protons smashed at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.

So whatever created them must have been extremely powerful. Like, mindboggingly powerful — probably the remnants of supernova explosions. Indeed, as a recent study has shown, these cosmic explosions are more powerful than we could have ever imagined — to the point where they’re defying known physics.

Other candidates for neutrino production include black holes, pulsars, galactic nuclei — or even the cataclysmic merger of two black holes.

That’s why the discovery of these 28 new neutrinos, and the construction of the IceCube facility, is so important. It’s still a mystery, but these new findings, and the new detection technique, will help.

Back in April, the IceCube project looked for neutrinos above one petaelectronvolt, which is how Bert and Ernie were detected. But the team went back and searched through their data and found 26 neutrinos with slightly lower energies, though still above 30 teraelectronvolts that were detected between May 2010 and May 2012. While it’s possible that some of these less high-energy neutrinos could have been produced by cosmic rays in the Earth’s atmosphere, the researchers say that most of them likely came from space. And in fact, the data was analyzed in such a way as to exclude neutrinos that didn’t come from space and other types of particles that may have tripped off the detector.

The Dawn of a New Field

“This is a landmark discovery — possibly a Nobel Prize in the making,” said Alexander Kusenko, a UCLA astroparticle physicist who was not involved in the IceCube collaboration. Thanks to the remarkable IceCube facility, where neutrinos are captured in holes drilled 1.5 miles down into the Antarctic glacier, astronomers have a completely new way to scope out the cosmos. It’s both literally and figuratively changing the way we see the universe.

“It really is the dawn of a new field,” said Darren Grant, a University of Alberta physicist, and a member of the IceCube team.

Read the entire article here.

The Large Hadron Collider is So Yesterday

CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) smashed countless particles into one another to reveal the Higgs Boson. A great achievement for all concerned. Yet what of the still remaining “big questions” of physics, and how will we find the answers?

From Wired:

The current era of particle physics is over. When scientists at CERN  announced last July that they had found the Higgs boson — which is responsible for giving all other particles their mass — they uncovered the final missing piece in the framework that accounts for the interactions of all known particles and forces, a theory known as the Standard Model.

And that’s a good thing, right? Maybe not.

The prized Higgs particle, physicists assumed, would help steer them toward better theories, ones that fix the problems known to plague the Standard Model. Instead, it has thrown the field  into a confusing situation.

“We’re sitting on a puzzle that is difficult to explain,” said particle physicist Maria Spiropulu of Caltech, who works on one of the LHC’s main Higgs-finding experiments, CMS.

It may sound strange, but physicists were hoping, maybe even expecting, that the Higgs would not turn out to be like they predicted it would be. At the very least, scientists hoped the properties of the Higgs would be different enough from those predicted under the Standard Model that they could show researchers how to build new models. But the Higgs’ mass  proved stubbornly normal, almost exactly in the place the Standard Model said it would be.

To make matters worse, scientists had hoped to find evidence for other strange particles. These could have pointed in the direction of theories beyond the Standard Model, such as the current favorite  supersymmetry, which posits the existence of a heavy doppelganger to all the known subatomic bits like electrons, quarks, and photons.

Instead, they were disappointed by being right. So how do we get out of this mess? More data!

Over the next few years, experimentalists will be churning out new results, which may be able to answer questions about dark matter, the properties of neutrinos, the nature of the Higgs, and perhaps what the next era of physics will look like. Here we take a look at the experiments that you should be paying attention to. These are the ones scientists are the most excited about because they might just form the next cracks in modern physics.

The Large Hadron Collider isn’t smashing protons right now. Instead, engineers are installing upgrades to help it search at even higher energies. The machine may be closed for business until 2015 but the massive amounts of data it has already collected is still wide open. The two main Higgs-searching experiments, ATLAS and CMS, could have plenty of surprises in store.

“We looked for the low-hanging fruit,” said particle physicist David Miller of the University of Chicago, who works on ATLAS. “All that we found was the Higgs, and now we’re going back for the harder stuff.”

What kind of other stuff might be lurking in the data? Nobody knows for sure but the collaborations will spend the next two years combing through the data they collected in 2011 and 2012, when the Higgs was found. Scientists are hoping to see hints of other, more exotic particles, such as those predicted under a theory known as supersymmetry. They will also start to understand the Higgs better.

See, scientists don’t have some sort of red bell that goes “ding” every time their detector finds a Higgs boson. In fact, ATLAS and CMS can’t actually see the Higgs at all. What they look for instead are the different particles that the Higgs decays into. The easiest-to-detect channels include when the Higgs decays to things like a quark and an anti-quark or two photons. What scientists are now trying to find out is exactly what percent of the time it decays to various different particle combinations, which will help them further pin down its properties.

It’s also possible that, with careful analysis, physicists would add up the percentages for each of the different decays and notice that they haven’t quite gotten to 100. There might be just a tiny remainder, indicating that the Higgs is decaying to particles that the detectors can’t see.

“We call that invisible decay,” said particle physicist Maria Spiropulu. The reason that might be exciting is that the Higgs could be turning into something really strange, like a dark matter particle.

We know from cosmological observations that dark matter has mass and, because the Higgs gives rise to mass, it probably has to somehow interact with dark matter. So the LHC data could tell scientists just how strong the connection is between the Higgs and dark matter. If found, these invisible decays could open up a whole new world of exploration.

“It’s fashionable to call it the ‘dark matter portal’ right now,” said Spiropulu.

NOVA and T2K
Neutrinos are oddballs in the Standard Model. They are tiny, nearly massless, and barely like interacting with any other members of the subatomic zoo. Historically, they have been the subject of  many surprising results and the future will probably reveal them to be even stranger. Physicists are currently trying to figure out some of their properties, which remain open questions.

“A very nice feature of these open questions is we know they all have answers that are accessible in the next round of experiments,” said physicist Maury Goodman of Argonne National Laboratory.

The US-based NOvA experiment will hopefully pin down some neutrino characteristics, in particular their masses. There are three types of neutrinos: electron, muon, and tau. We know that they have a very tiny mass — at least 10 billion times smaller than an electron — but we don’t know exactly what it is nor which of the three different types is heaviest or lightest.

NOvA will attempt to figure out this mass hierarchy by shooting a beam of neutrinos from Fermilab near Chicago 810 kilometers away to a detector in Ash River, Minnesota. A similar experiment in Japan called T2K is also sending neutrinos across 295 kilometers. As they pass through the Earth, neutrinos oscillate between their three different types. By comparing how the neutrinos look when they are first shot out versus how they appear at the distant detector, NOvA and T2K will be able to determine their properties with high precision.

T2K has been running for a couple years while NOvA is expected to begin taking data in 2014 and will run six years. Scientists hope that they will help answer some of the last remaining questions about neutrinos.

Read the entire article here.

Image: A simulation of the decay of a Higgs boson in a linear collider detector. Courtesy of Norman Graf / CERN.

Google Hacks

Some cool shortcuts to make the most of Google search.

From the Telegraph:

1. Calculator

Google’s calculator function is far more powerful than most people realise. As well as doing basic maths (5+6 or 3*2) it can do logarithmic calculations, and it knows constants (like e and pi), as well as functions like Cos and Sin. Google can also translate numbers into binary code – try typing ’12*3 in binary’.

2. Site search

By using the ‘site:’ keyword, you can make Google only return results from one site. So for example, you could search for “site:telegraph.co.uk manchester united” and only get stories on Manchester United from the Telegraph website.

3. Conversions

Currency conversions and unit conversions can be found by using the syntax: <amount> <unit1> in <unit2>. So for example, you could type ‘1 GBP in USD’, ’20 C in F’ or ’15 inches in cm’ and get an instant answer.

4. Time zones

Search for ‘time in <place>’ and you will get the local time for that place, as well as the time zone it is in.

5. Translations

A quick way to translate foreign words is to type ‘translate <word> to <language>’. So for example, ‘translate pomme to english’ returns the result apple, and ‘translate pomme to spanish’ returns the result ‘manzana’.

6. Search for a specific file type

If you know you are looking for a PDF or a Word file, you can search for specific file types by typing ‘<search term> filetype:pdf’ or ‘<search term> filetype:doc’

7. Check flight status

If you type in a flight number, the top result is the details of the flight and its status. So, for example, typing in BA 335 reveals that British Airways flight 335 departs Paris at 15.45 today and arrives at Heathrow Terminal 5 at 15.48 local time.

8. Search for local film showings

Search for film showings in your area by typing ‘films’ or ‘movies’ followed by your postcode. In the UK, this only narrows it down to your town or city. In the US this is more accurate, as results are displayed according to zip-code.

9. Weather forecasts

Type the name of a city followed by ‘forecast’, and Google will tell you the weather today, including levels of precipitation, humidity and wind, as well as the forecast for the next week, based on data from The Weather Channel.

10. Exclude search terms

When you’re enter a search term that has a second meaning, or a close association with something else, it can be difficult to find the results you want. Exclude irrelevant results using the ‘-‘ sign. So for searches for ‘apple’ where the word ‘iPhone’ is not used, enter ‘apple -iPhone’.

Read the entire article below here.

Image courtesy of Google.

Water in Them Thar Hills

Curiosity, the latest rover to explore Mars, has found lots of water in the martian soil. Now, it doesn’t run freely, but is chemically bound to other substances. Yet the large volume of H2O bodes well for future human exploration (and settlement).

From the Guardian:

Water has been discovered in the fine-grained soil on the surface of Mars, which could be a useful resource for future human missions to the red planet, according to measurements made by Nasa’s Curiosity rover.

Each cubic foot of Martian soil contains around two pints of liquid water, though the molecules are not freely accessible, but rather bound to other minerals in the soil.

The Curiosity rover has been on Mars since August 2012, landing in an area near the equator of the planet known as Gale Crater. Its target is to circle and climb Mount Sharp, which lies at the centre of the crater, a five-kilometre-high mountain of layered rock that will help scientists unravel the history of the planet.

On Thursday Nasa scientists published a series of five papers in the journal Science, which detail the experiments carried out by the various scientific instruments aboard Curiosity in its first four months on the martian surface. Though highlights from the year-long mission have been released at conferences and Nasa press conferences, these are the first set of formal, peer-reviewed results from the Curiosity mission.

“We tend to think of Mars as this dry place – to find water fairly easy to get out of the soil at the surface was exciting to me,” said Laurie Leshin, dean of science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and lead author on the Science paper which confirmed the existence of water in the soil. “If you took about a cubic foot of the dirt and heated it up, you’d get a couple of pints of water out of that – a couple of water bottles’ worth that you would take to the gym.”

About 2% of the soil, by weight, was water. Curiosity made the measurement by scooping up a sample of the Martian dirt under its wheels, sieving it and dropping tiny samples into an oven in its belly, an instrument called Sample Analysis at Mars. “We heat [the soil] up to 835C and drive off all the volatiles and measure them,” said Leshin. “We have a very sensitive way to sniff those and we can detect the water and other things that are released.”

Aside from water, the heated soil released sulphur dioxide, carbon dioxide and oxygen as the various minerals within it were decomposed as they warmed up.

One of Curiosity’s main missions is to look for signs of habitability on Mars, places where life might once have existed. “The rocks and minerals are a record of the processes that have occurred and [Curiosity is] trying to figure out those environments that were around and to see if they were habitable,” said Peter Grindrod, a planetary scientist at University College London who was not involved in the analyses of Curiosity data.

Flowing water is once thought to have been abundant on the surface of Mars, but it has now all but disappeared. The only direct sources of water found so far have been as ice at the poles of the planet.

Read the entire article here.

Image: NASA’s Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars. Courtesy: Nasa/Getty Images