One of the things I absolutely adored as a child is staring at the incredibly intricate and detailed book covers for old hard science fiction novels, and their stunning depictions of what space colonies would look like in the future. Most of them were these massive, vast, spinning feats of engineering that wouldn’t just have their own gravity, but their own entire ecosystems, carefully managed and regulated, complete with plants, trees, atmosphere, farms, everything you can imagine. Granted, it makes sense in the context–if you have a massive space colony that needs to be self-sufficient, this is a great way to do it assuming you have the energy required to power such a colony and technology required to build one.
Still, those colonies haven’t materialized, despite the best predictions of futurists from the 1960s and 70s, although many of them didn’t predict we’d have them by now anyway – most of them looked farther forward to 2050 or so before they estimated humanity would be technologically sophisticated enough to build anything of the like. Until then though, there’s always this project from the folks at the NASA Ames Research Center and Stanford University, under the drive and curation of Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill, who apparently has the same passion for these beautiful pieces of art as I do.
Hit the link below to see more – they really are something special.
Photo by Stephen Edgar, licensed via Creative Commons
Every now and again you stumble on an explainer that walks you through a fundamental question in such great and interesting detail that it’s compelling to read. In this case, it’s all about why we can’t drink seawater – why people have died of thirst at sea, and how harmful it is exactly if you did decide to drink seawater to quench your thirst. There’s a reason why everyone seems to understand that you shouldn’t drink seawater and that it’ll make you sick if you do, but the science behind why is actually quite fascinating.
Ultimately, the end result is that if you’re dehydrated and you know that you’ll die if you don’t get fresh water soon, and you happen to be next to the seaside, don’t give in to the temptation and drink the seawater. What’s the worst that can happen? You’ll die even sooner. Head over to read why:
More news I’ve been sitting on for a while but that’s still incredible is the story of the habitable – by all indication anyway – exo-Earth orbiting a binary star system well over 40 light years away. As noted at Technology Review, it’s not that astronomers are having a difficult time finding habitable exo-Earths: there are definitely plenty out there and we’re finding more and more thanks to the launch of the Kepler probe and its finely tuned eyes.
In fact, so many new candidates have appeared that a lot of people have already moved on to the next thing in the news cycle, completely forgetting that we’re on the brink of discovering planets that aren’t just potentially habitable to life like ours, but that may also have their own forms of life already on them.
In this case, 55 Cancri f, shown above, is in the constellation Cancer and shows signs of being quite comfortable to human life even though it orbits a binary star system. When I was a wee astrophysicist as an undergrad, I learned that binary star systems are entirely more common than you might think (after all, we do tend to make the assumption that our own star system is the norm.)
Here’s what Technology Review had to say:
Today, we can add another strange planet to the list: 55 Cancri f, one of five planets known to orbit an orange dwarf star some 40 light years away in the constellation of Cancer.
Kaspar von Braun at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and a few pals have measured its orbit accurately for the first time. These guys are able to confirm that 55 Cancri f is a genuine candidate to support liquid water.
They say that although this planet’s orbit is much more elliptical than Earth’s, it still spends most of its time (74 per cent) in the habitable zone.
Furthermore, 55 Cancri f is quite like Earth in some ways. Its year is about the same length as ours. And with moderate greenhouse warming, it could support liquid water all year round.
But unlike Earth, its mass is about the same as Neptune’s (although it doesn’t seem to have a large gaseous atmosphere).
That’s incredible: a Neptune-sized planet that could be completely habitable and has two suns? Incredible.
(Photo courtesy of µµ.)
Over at ExtremeTech a few weeks back, I penned a column that I’m actually very proud of – essentially a layman’s guide to what the Higgs Boson is and why it’s important to scientific discovery and physicists everywhere. After all, we’re spending a lot of time looking for it, it’s just as well that someone took the time to explain to people what it is and why it’s important beyond calling it “the God particle,” which in itself has little to no connotation.
I won’t try to recap that post here, I just strongly suggest you head over to take a look, but this video is also an excellent primer, one that I thought was good enough that it should be included in the post itself.
The fine folks at BoingBoing managed to find a link to a 360-degree tour of the flight deck of Space Shuttle Discovery, in all of her glory. The images are fantastic – so much so that you can read the panels and switches and see what controls what aspects of the Space Shuttle. You even get to see the control panel in the back of the shuttle where Astronauts control the robot arm (hint: it’s the panel labeled “Canada”) in the shuttle’s cargo bay, and…an oddly placed Dell laptop.
I don’t even know what that Dell laptop is for. Everything else though – absolutely stunning to look at. Here’s hoping they let us peek into the flight decks of the shuttles when they get to their final resting museums.
One of the beautiful things about Angry Birds is that it’s all about basic mechanics. Parabola, arcs, gravity, force and acceleration. It’s all there. It would make for a great teaching tool if you’d let it be, and one Atlanta teacher has decided to make it one.
After all, you can easily apply some scale to an Angry Birds map, draw a force diagram, and come up with how hard you’d have to fling a bird to get one as far as you fling them in Angry Birds:
“What are the laws of physics in the Angry Birds world?” John Burk, a ninth-grade physics teacher at the private Westminster Schools in Atlanta, put that question to his students and gave them the chance to “be among the first to find the answer.” Burk became interested in using Angry Birds in the classroom last winter, and began blogging about teaching with it. Given that the birds are catapulted into the sky, it was the perfect tool for teaching students the laws of projectile motion. In about 30 minutes, the teens were able to thoroughly understand, as Burk wrote on his blog, “the two big ideas of projectile motion: the horizontal component of motion is constant velocity, while the vertical component is constant acceleration.”
Honestly, if Angry Birds were available as a teaching tool when I was in high school, or even when I was an undergrad studying Physics, it would have been wonderful. Thankfully a new generation of potential physicists will have the opportunity to learn at the side of a bright, red, angry bird.
I stumbled onto this thanks to my colleague Jenny, who posted it for Geek.com, and sure enough, it’s as beautiful as she describes. The video is actually a time-lapse shot over the course of a year by astrophotographer Daniel Lopez on the island of Tenerife.
Tenerife is far enough away from major cities and light pollution that at night you can see the band of the Milky Way in the sky, along with a wealth of stars in the sky that many North Americans have never seen in their lives. It also doesn’t hurt that the island is well over 2,000 meters above sea level, making it a great place to do some astronomy if you have an observatory, telescope, or even a good camera. And a good camera is definitely what Lopez has.
Both videos were shot in Teide National Park in Tenerife, the largest and most populous of the seven Canary Islands where Lopez lives. The video is the first in a series from Lopez in which he’ll try to capture the beauty of each island. Tenerife is a World Heritage Site and is home to the third largest volcano in the world, El Teide.
Someday I’ll get a chance to visit. In the interim, I’ll settle for the video. Hit play, full-screen, and watch:
According to friends I know in Japan, this handy little app also has a mobile phone counterpart that goes off if there’s been seismic activity detected. It’s pretty remarkable when you think about the absolute dearth of similar early warning systems in the United States — the kind that have the capacity or capability to alert lots of people to a common threat without them all watching television or being above ground or in earshot of a warning siren.
Still, the video is a stunning trip back to the earthquake that rocked the country earlier in the year. It’s amazing, and it’s amazing to see the depth to which the Japanese monitor the situation before, during, and after. There’s even a timer to let him know that the earthquake is about to hit, so he should get clear.
This is also what popped up on my iPhone about 2 seconds after I noticed the shaking… Notice how it started off slow– but when I saw the warning, I broke for door and ran into the parking lot across the street, right before the REAL shaking started…
What a lot of people don’t know is that all gas meters have radio transponders in them in addition to mercury switches. In a normal situation, the motion will trigger the gas meter to cut the flow– but in this situation, the gas provider, Tokyo Gas, sent a signal to all the mains to go into emergency shutdown– probably preventing a major gas explosion. The system did work; I had to manually reset my gas meter at my house in Yokohama later that night.
One of the things I adore about fun and quirky little “see what the future will be like” technology expos and specials are the ones that take you into what the future home will look like. In this case, up in Redmond, Washington, Microsoft maintains their own vision of what a futuristic home with Microsoft’s embedded technology would look like.
Now granted, a home like this would be impossibly expensive and heaven forbid most of this technology is commercially available yet, but slowly but surely it’s becoming a reality. Don’t mistake the “slowly” part there though – most people don’t have the money or the desire to invest in this much tech in their homes. That said, that’s okay! This is an expo home anyway, a display of what’s possible should the market demand it.
The home of the future will talk to you, help you decide what to wear, and tell you whether you have the ingredients to make your favorite dish tonight. In a way, it thinks for itself, but it’s no real AI – so no worries it’ll go ahead and take Skynet live.
Check out a video tour of the home at the BBC:
Kelley Blue Book just released its list of top 10 Green Cars for 2011, and while most of the vehicles you would expect to make the list are on it – including the 2011 Toyota Prius (shown above) and the previously mentioned Nissan Leaf, there are a ton of other vehicles that made the list that you might not initially expect considering some of them are traditional gas-burning vehicles and not hybrids at all.
The goal of the study was to present a variety of fuel-efficient and environmentally conscious vehicles that consumers can think about when they head to the dealership that won’t lighten their pockets terribly much considering the cost of gasoline, but will also keep the air clean and the environment healthy for future generations to enjoy. One thing KBB editors noted was that once again – as always – high gasoline prices actually get people thinking about hybrid vehicles and energy efficient cars. The same is true now, according to the editors:
In addition, Kelley Blue Book Market Intelligence today announces the latest March 2011 survey data detailing consumer sentiment and opinions on gas prices, showing that gas prices are increasingly influencing car shoppers’ vehicle purchase considerations. The number of survey respondents reporting that gas prices have changed their mind about the vehicles they are considering increased 5 percentage points from 30 percent in February 2011 to 35 percent in March 2011. Further, the amount of respondents who identified better fuel economy as the primary reason they are looking to purchase a new vehicle also has been on the rise over the past three months, increasing from 6 percent in January 2011 to 15 percent in March 2011. In addition, 85 percent of car shoppers in March 2011 indicated that they feel gas prices will be higher in the next 30 days, up 11 percentage points from February 2011. On average, consumers taking the March 2011 survey said that a vehicle would need to get at least 26.2 highway miles-per-gallon in order for them to consider it for their next vehicle purchase.
Keeping consumer sentiment about gas prices in mind as the kbb.com editors chose their annual Green Car list for 2011, they were immediately struck by the much wider range of vehicles they had the privilege of considering this year when compared to years past. These days not only are there more hybrids than ever before, there also are more high-efficiency gasoline-powered vehicles on the road.
I have to acknowledge this – when I see vehicle companies marketing cars that get a whopping 20-25 miles per gallon, I have to scratch my head: my 7-year old sedan gets 25 mpg, and I think that’s pretty awful – I, for one, am hoping to have options in the 30s when I head out to buy my next vehicle.
Still, to the point – as mentioned, you’ll find the Toyota Prius in the list, you’ll also find the Chevrolet Volt, and the Nissan Leaf, of course. You may be surprised, however, to find winners like the 2012 Ford Focus and the 2011 Hyundai Elantra in the list as well – both of which are generally lauded as being great vehicles, but they’re not hybrids or electric cars. The moral of the story? You have options when shopping for a green vehicle.