Someone posted this occultation of Saturn and I am taking a chance and sharing it on the blog because it’s too cool not to. (An occultation is an event that occurs when one object is hidden by another object that passes between it and the observer.)
I say “take a chance” because I have so many broken Youtube links on my blog, rendering many posts useless as a result. (Word of advice: don’t post Youtube links of songs or movies.) I’m hopeful this one will stay up.
Knowing when to quit is difficult. Fortunately, there is science and math to help us, as this article in plus.maths.org explains:
Knowing when to quit is one of life’s great dilemmas, whether to persist in the face of diminishing rewards, or to quit now in the hope of finding richer rewards further afield. For every gold mine, eventually there comes a point when the amount of gold extracted can no longer justify the cost of keeping the mine open; once that point has been reached, it is time to quit, and start looking for a new mine.
Similarly, for a bird feeding on caterpillars in a bush, there comes a point when the calories gained can no longer justify the energy expended in searching for more caterpillars; once that point has been reached, it is time to quit, and move to another bush. And, for a honeybee, there comes a time when the weight of pollen collected can no longer justify the energy required to carry that pollen; at that point it is time to quit collecting, and fly back to the hive.
Fortunately, there is a mathematical recipe, embodied in the marginal value theorem (developed by the American ecologist Eric Charnov in 1976), which specifies when to quit in order to maximise rewards. More importantly, the marginal value theorem has an enormously wide range of applications, from its origins in optimal foraging theory to how brains process information. In essence, the marginal value theorem provides a general strategy for maximising the bang per buck, irrespective of the nature of the bang and the buck under consideration.
Wait you say: it’s Friday afternoon! You know when to quit (at least for this week). Ok, that works too. But if you need more general guidance, read the article.
Recently the Perimeter Institute held a contest called “Physics Frenzy – Battle of the Equations Championship”. I was sure James Maxwell and his equations were going to win. It turns out he lost (in the final, mind you) to Emmy Noether and her theorem!
Afterwards I wondered if people knew much about her. Besides being arguably the greatest woman mathematician, she was a significant contributor to math and physics in the 20th century. You can read a bio of her here.
Fun aside, the good people at the Perimeter Institute have a series of initiatives centered around Emmy Noether. They also have material where you could learn more about her. Read about them, here.
While people are getting excited about the James Webb Space Telescope now it is in position to take photos, there is still some great work being done with other missions that NASA and ESA have on the go. Case in point, the Hubble telescope. If you click on that link, you can see photos that it recently took of the star Earendel. As they explain:
With this observation, the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has established an extraordinary new benchmark: detecting the light of a star that existed within the first billion years after the Universe’s birth in the Big Bang (at a redshift of 6.2) — the most distant individual star ever seen. This sets up a major target for the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope in its first year.
Meanwhile, closer to home, we have the ESA mission zooming into the Sun with Solar Orbiter and sending back wonderful photos and data along the way. Click the link to get some amazing images of the sun.
It’s all thrilling!
Here are two pieces on physics that really are also about philosophy. First, in the realm of the very small: On quantum theory and reality. Second, in the realm of the very large: On space and time.
Of all the sciences, those having to do with space are the ones I enjoy reading about the most. I got interested in Lagrange points due to the James Webb Telescope. Here’s something on them: Lagrange points.
I thought this was a good reminder to me of any images we get regarding black holes (something I find fascinating): The Images of Black Holes are Not Photos.
COVID has made me think more and more about biology these days. That’s a good thing. It has me reading things like this: Disease moves like ripples on a pond.
One of my fundamental beliefs is that we don’t think with our brains but that we think with our entire bodies. This makes me interested in anything that makes that connection. This is such a piece: Our nervous system is connected to our organs and shapes our thoughts and our memories.
There was some discussion on racism in mathematics over the last while. I think this is a good discussion to have. Here are two pieces on the topic: Racism in our curriculums isn’t limited to history. It’s in math too and Opinion: Is math racist? Wrong question.
I continue to learn math in an amateurish way. I enjoyed these sources of information on it: Guide to Tensors and The Best Math Books and Statistics Books.
(Photo by Roman Mager on Unsplash)
Can a scientific experiment be beautiful? Milena Ivanova makes the case that it can, here: When is a scientific experiment like a beautiful work of art?
I’m glad she mentioned the Michelson Morley experiment because I think it is a fine example of elegance and beauty. You might not think it, looking at it in the image above. Read the article: you might be convinced after reading that it is.
How cool is this Luciteria web site? Well if you are a geek like me, very cool indeed. Among other things they sell are cubes of each of the elements in the periodic table. As they say:
Cubes of each of the elements are our most popular sellers. And it’s not hard to see why. Precision machined and labeled each one is a self-contained ambassador of the periodic table. From the small cubic centimeter up to the hefty 5cm these cubes practically define the ideal desktop gadget for anyone who loves to nerd out on science. So get one as a conversation starter, a few as a clever means to spell out a name or phrase or go for broke and get as many as possible to make your own “real life” periodic table!
Some of them, like copper above, are pretty harmless and common. Others, like the uranium cube below, not so much.
I think these would be a great gift for anyone into science, or for teachers teaching the elements.
My first thought when I went there was that they would only have a few of the elements, but no, they have pretty much all of them. (With some reasonable exceptions.) Very much worth checking out.
I was a young boy for the first space race in the 1960s and 1970s. After that the pace of space exploration seem to decrease. Recently, though, that pace has picked up, as the Times shows, here: Big Rockets, Massive Asteroids and More Space Highlights for 2022 – The New York Times.
So much happened in 2021, and 2022 seems to be just as busy. We have the James Webb Space Telescope, China building the Tiangong Space Station, NASA’s attempt to deflect an asteroid and much more. If you go to that article, you can subscribe to The Times Space and Astronomy Calendar and keep up to date of everything going on.
Sure billionaires jaunting into space grabs our attention, but there is so much more going on than that, and unlike much in the news, space exploration is fun and exciting to follow. Join the new Space Race!
I have to say, there is lots of cool information in this piece, Antarctica’s fossil rainforest is a warning about climate change – Vox. I especially liked reading about how the scientists did the experiment under difficult conditions.
The only downside is imagining what the rest of the world would be like for the Antarctica to be this warm. It must have been a hellscape.
That article is also a good reminder that Earth can go on even if becomes unlivable for humans. If the Antarctic is to become a tropical paradise, it should not be because of what we have done.
If you think of meteors hitting the Earth, you might be thinking of ones like the Chicxulub impactor that killed off the dinosaurs. Good news: scientists have been tracking meteors of that size and we are safe for at least the next few centuries.
But what about smaller ones, like the one that hit Chelyabinsk and caused significant damage? Those we may not be so safe from. Indeed, if they hit a major city, the destruction could be catastrophic.
That’s why NASA has launched the DART mission. It’s goal is to see if it could stop an asteroid and prevent an asteroid apocalypse. That piece in Scientific American on what is involved is fascinating. It’s not merely a matter of putting a major explosive on an asteroid and blowing it to bits. Go read the article and you’ll see what I mean.
For more on the. Chelyabinsk Meteor, click here.
I’m not a fan of SpaceX’s Starlink technology. It’s ruining space in a number of ways, like this. I thought its one saving grace would be that it at least provides great Internet service. Yet according to this review in The Verge, it doesn’t even do that! Sad. Garbage in the sky, garbage on the ground.
Here’s hoping it gets better. And that someone finds a way to collect all the garbage circling the earth and do something with it.
Despite having telescopes being able to observe it, there’s still much to learn about the Great Red Spot of Jupiter. To do that, NASA sent a space craft to the giant planet to learn more about it. The story of that can be found here: Jupiter’s Great Red Spot Is Surprisingly Deep in Scientific American. It’s one of the many awesome things NASA has on the go in our solar system and beyond.
It’s well known that Mars is going to be difficult for humans to get there. If you are like me, I figured once we got there, then we land just like we land on Earth or the moon. But what if we can’t? This article fom BBC Sky at Night Magazine raises a number of difficulties that arise from dropping things from space onto the Red Planet. Things that seem to be recently considered.
Going to Mars is not going to be a matter of jumping in a big rocket ship and blasting into space. It’s going to take a lot of time to figure everything out, including landing there. Read that piece and see why.
(Photo by Mike Kiev on Unsplash )
This article on cells – yes, cells! – navigating mazes is fascinating and worth a read: Seeing around corners: Cells solve mazes and respond at a distance using attractant breakdown
After reading I thought: I need to rethink “intelligence”. Navigating mazes is something that was considered an intelligent act. Indeed one of the early experiments in A.I. was in the 1950s, when Marvin Minsky developed a smart “rat” (see above) to make its way through a maze. (That’s worth reading about as well.)
Seeing the cell navigate the maze, I thought: if the qualities we associate with intelligence are found at a cellular level, then I don’t really understand intelligence at all. It’s as if intelligence has an atomic level. As if intelligence is at all levels of life, not just the more complex levels.
Maybe the concept of intelligence is next to meaningless and needs to be replaced by something better. Read those pieces and think for yourself. After all, you are intelligent. 🙂
While there has been a lot of talk lately about space travel due to the billionaire space race, I want to highlight something people rarely mention but should. It’s that it is the anniversary of Apollo’s First Lunar Rover, Driven 50 Years Ago. The Atlantic has a great story on it, including amazing photos.
It’s crazy to think that not only did we land on the moon, but we brought a car with us to drive on the moon! That’s amazing, to me.
In the film Ad Astra with Brad Pitt, there’s a great chase scene with Lunar Rovers. Nothing quite so exciting like that happened during the Apollo missions, but the fact that we brought a car to the moon is exciting as it is. Plus it is still parked up there! I hope the parking rates aren’t too expensive 🙂
Jeff Bezos blasted into space today with three other people. Everyone, and I mean everyone, has an opinion about it. Even Variety magazine did. (That’s worth a read BTW). So fwiw, here’s 1o things I thought about it:
- It’s good to see more interest in space in general. NASA and other space agencies do plenty in terms of space exploration, but often it is overlooked by people. Suddenly — for better or worse — people are talking about space again.
- It’s good to see money being spent on space travel. NASA has suffered for years with cutbacks. Decades. Here’s to more money being effectively used in space.
- These flights of Branson and Bezos are small steps in terms of space travel. They are miles behind SpaceX even, never mind NASA or other space agencies. As we like to say in business: it’s a good start (implying there is a long way to go).
- Small steps can lead to big steps if they continue to pursue this and pour money into it. That’s a big if. Like any space exploration, it is hard to continue to make people interested in it after it starts to seem repetitive. They might find it much harder to get space tourists to pay a small fortune their 10th or 15th flight. Never mind after the first person dies (and someone will).
- Even if everything goes well, it could still fail in the longer run. The Concorde failed and it was much simpler technology than this stuff. Not everything that is the best and fastest gets to succeed.
- I can’t see the ROI on space travel. Musk and SpaceX can get away with it because they have a client with the money to spend on it (i.e. NASA). Not sure if Bezos can wrestle some of that business away. Then again, perhaps there’s a global market for these services.
- I think there would have been a much more positive reaction if it wasn’t Bezos or Branson leading these endeavours. Give Musk credit: he lets the real astronauts do the work. Plus none of these men are inspiring to most people. They aren’t John Glenn or Neil Armstrong: they are billionaires. Bezos was at least smart enough to Wally Funk with him: that was a good distraction from the other members on his team.
- It will remain to be seen if they can catch up to Musk, or if they are even interested. Musk can act the fool, but he seems driven to push private space exploration to the limits. I can see Branson dropping out soon once some other thing comes along. Bezos is a bit of a mystery to me.
- People are criticizing them for spending money on space rather than here on earth, but Bill Gates spends his fortune on such things and he is criticized mightly for it. It’s a no win in terms of spending your money. They all should pay more taxes. (Although a lot of tax money in the US goes into the military budget. That’s a different but related issue.)
- Here’s to more inspiring people going to space soon, and to more inspiring space travel. Let’s hope this leads to that.
(Image: link from the Variety article)
It’s true! A planet is going to make a fly by. According to Kottke, the minor planet 2014 UN271 is about to visit our solar system. By 2031 it should be about as close to the sun as Saturn is!
I hope we can get some good views of it while it is in the area.
For more on it, see the Kottke article. He also has links to more pieces on it.
(Photo by Guillermo Ferla on Unsplash )
Fermi’s Paradox in a nutshell:
‘We’d estimate that there are 1 billion Earth-like planets and 100,000 intelligent civilizations in our galaxy.’ So there must be aliens. Why haven’t we heard from them?
If this fascinates you, check out this list of solutions to the Fermi Paradox.
You may not be convinced there is an answer to this problem, but for some, they will be.
(Image of Enrico Fermi from Wikimedia)
This is a fascinating article that illustrates that sleeping is a more complex activity than we know: Sleep Evolved Before Brains. Hydras Are Living Proof. | Quanta Magazine
I’ve always associated sleep with something our brains need to have in order to survive. (Sleep deprivation is one proof of that.) But I have been won over to the idea that sleep is a more fundamental property of living things, brain or no brain.
Read the article: I think you’ll find it fascinating too.
(Photo by Florian Olivo on Unsplash )
This piece on the Milky Way photographer of the year is filled with amazing photos of…well, you can guess. (One of the photos is above).
This is a good piece on the efforts to study Venus. It won’t be easy to do, but it will be rewarding.
Finally, this piece on how black holes are visualized is excellent.
Last week I talked about not learning music being a regret of mine. The other regret I have is not learning physics. I dabble in it, but it’s a struggle.
If you are interested in learning physics, read this piece from my friend Susan. I got to know her because of it: So You Want to Learn Physics… — Susan Fowler. She now has a new version of it at a new site! You can find it here.
Other friends I have who do know physics tell me the thing to learn is Lagrangian mechanics. Here’s a good guide to it: Lagrangian Mechanics For Dummies: An Intuitive Introduction – Profound Physics
Another way to learn physics is via Youtube. This guy has an amazing YouTube channel on Physics: DrPhysicsA – YouTube Worthwhile.
Of course you can also read text books on it. I think Dover Books are among the best for this. For example, this: Classical Mechanics: 2nd Edition: Corben, H.C., Stehle, Philip: 9780486680637: Gateway – Amazon.ca
Still another way is via experimentation. For example: build your own particle detector | symmetry magazine
(Speaking of experimentation, here’s a great piece on how the LIGO Observatory detects gravitational waves)
A problem I have always had with physics is how did physics get to where it got to, and why are certain areas more prominent than others. To better understand that, it’s good to look backwards at how physics was done in previous time. For example, this article on Ole Roemer: Ole Roemer Profile: First to Measure the Speed of Light | AMNH. We all know light has a specific speed but back then some thought light was instantaneous. But Roemer came up with a method to show light had an actual speed and it could be measured. Likewise, here is the great physicist James Maxwell with a book on how scientists developed their idea of what heat is and how it works: Theory of Heat – James Clerk Maxwell – Google Books.
Finally, a good way to learn physics is read good articles on it. Here’s a collection of some:
(Photo by Roman Mager on Unsplash)
This piece (Worst technology failures of 2020) by MIT Technology Review has a list of the bigger technology failures of 2020. Some of them, like Quibi and facial recognition abuses, are well known.
One listed here may be the greatest technology failure of them all, though for many it is not considered a failure at all. That is the unregulated pollution of space with tiny satellites. As the article states:
Since prehistory, humankind has looked upwards for awe and inspiration, to imagine what forces created the world—and which might end it. But now, that cosmic view is being contaminated with the reflections of thousands of inexpensive commercial satellites put aloft by companies like Amazon, OneWeb, and SpaceX, who want to cover the Earth with internet connections. Sixty satellites can swarm out of a single rocket.
To see what I mean, check out this picture from the article:
Telescope views from earth are being marred with the light of all these satellites. This is today’s problem. Tomorrow’s problem is going to be all the other pollution, light or otherwise, which is going to result from the rush to put things in space. Science is getting wrecked by this.
Already astronomers are thinking of putting telescopes on the dark side of the moon to escape such problems. But without regulation, who knows if even this will be successful? To hear Elon Musk yammer on, he’s just going to be throwing who knows what into space. He’s already launched one of his stupid cars into the atmosphere. Hardly the guy you can trust to be responsible when it comes to deciding what should go into space.
Here’s hoping that in the rush to do more and more space development (a good thing) there is also an effort to make sure it is well thought and regulated (also a good thing).
The brain is a complex organ. Even in something as small as a fruit fly (whose brains are mapped in the image above). Yet…
Scientists from Google and the Janelia Research Campus in Virginia have published the largest high-resolution map of brain connectivity in any animal, sharing a 3D model that traces 20 million synapses connecting some 25,000 neurons in the brain of a fruit fly.
The model is a milestone in the field of connectomics, which uses detailed imaging techniques to map the physical pathways of the brain. This map, known as a “connectome,” covers roughly one-third of the fruit fly’s brain. To date, only a single organism, the roundworm C. elegans, has had its brain completely mapped in this way.
It’s a fascinating story of both biology and computer science. (It takes a lot of computing power to do this). For more details, see: Google publishes largest ever high-resolution map of brain connectivity – The Verge
I suspect many people will not want to read this article containing great insights on mathematics by Steve Strogatz. That’s a shame, because it is really approachable by anyone of any mathematical ability. It’s especially good for people with limited math skills, because he does a good job of showing the value and benefits to be gained from thinking mathematically. I highly recommend it if you read it.
For example, one thing I found fascinating is his discussion of the Prisoner’s Dilemma by comparing it to religion. You should read it, but in short, it’s been shown that one approach to succeeding in playing several rounds of the Prisoner’s Dilemma is to use a Tit-for-Tat strategy. This is highly effective and is similar to Old Testament Eye-for-an-Eye morality. However that can also go wrong on occasion, leading to long lasting feuds that never get resolved. Then he gets into a discussion of New Testament morality and how that can avoid some of the problems of Old Testament morality. It’s a great discussion, and one of the many great discussions in the article.
Photo by Erol Ahmed on Unsplash
In exciting news, the United States, China and the UAE are all sending missions to explore Mars. It’s not the same as the space race: there have been already a number of visits to Mars. But it’s great that the interest is continuing and we will learn more about the mission as a result.
For more on this, see: ‘We are all Martians!’: space explorers seek to solve the riddle of life on Mars | Mars | The Guardian
Image via the article.
Well, you can determine for yourself whether every story in the world falls into one of these six basic plots:
1. Rags to riches – a steady rise from bad to good fortune
2. Riches to rags – a fall from good to bad, a tragedy
3. Icarus – a rise then a fall in fortune
4. Oedipus – a fall, a rise then a fall again
5. Cinderella – rise, fall, rise
6. Man in a hole – fall, rise
…by reading this piece on how data scientists ran analysis on stories to see if they do: Every story in the world has one of these six basic plots – BBC Culture
It even comes with graphs! 🙂 Here’s Madame Bovary, following plot #2:
Not too long ago I was teaching my son about the periodic table and trying to make some of it relevant to him. Something like this would have helped: This Illustrated Periodic Table Shows How We Regularly Interact With Each Element | Mental Floss
It’s a great way of showing that the dozens of elements listed there are things we interact with regularly.
Check out the link for a more detailed version of the chart. (The above image is just an abridged version).
Susan is famous now (for good reason!), but before she was famous, she wrote this excellent blog post: If Susan Can Learn Physics, So Can You — Susan Fowler.
I came across it because I was trying to learn physics again. (I started off taking physics ages ago but dropped it because, well, long story, but I ended up in Computer Science and Mathematics and went on to have a career at IBM so it worked out.) I followed a lot of Susan’s advice, and while I am not good at physics yet, I highly recommend this to anyone serious about it. (Just stay away from programs that want to weed out most of the class because they want small class sizes.)
(Image via Susan’s blog)
Yes, nuking a hurricane is a bad idea. (duh.) There are better ideas,
but as Vox explains, even those are prone to problems. For example…
In one of the most infamous attempts to slay a hurricane, Nobel laureate Irving Langmuir led a US military experiment in 1947 to seed Hurricane King with ice in hopes of sapping its vigor. The storm at the time was sliding away from the United States and losing strength.
In an excerpt in the Atlantic from his book Caesar’s Last Breath, author Sam Kean explained Langmuir’s idea: Growing ice in the eye of the hurricane would make the eye grow wider and collapse the storm. But Hurricane King didn’t respond as expected. “To everyone’s horror, it then pivoted — taking an impossible 135-degree turn — and began racing into Savannah, Georgia, causing $3 million in damage ($32 million today) and killing one person,” Kean writes.
So yeah, it’s no small thing to stop hurricanes. But given that climate change may make things worse, it could be worth it.
Quite a lot! And it took quite a lot to figure it out! Did you know part of the mission of the space suit is just to filter out body odor? Or that the spacesuit of one astronaut can be used to help another astronaut with a failing suit? There’s lots of interesting facts about spacesuits, here: Apollo’s PLSS And The Science Of Keeping Humans Alive In Space | Hackaday
If you think all mindfulness is the same, then read this: Different Types Of Meditation Change Different Areas Of The Brain, Study Finds.
a new study from the Max Planck Institute finds that three different types of meditation training are linked to changes in corresponding brain regions. The results, published in Science Advances, have a lot of relevance to schools, businesses and, of course, the general public.
Mindfulness can be helpful for many reasons. But how you pursue it can yield different results. Something to keep in…mind.
When it comes to Einstein, what comes to mind? This?
How about this?
Yep, his hobby was making a better fridge. Read about it here: Einstein’s Little-Known Passion Project? A Refrigerator | WIRED.
It’s odd but fun to read.
An interesting critique of it here: Why falsificationism is false
If you want to understand the challenge of dealing with climate change, then read this: Climate change and the 75% problem | Bill Gates.
There are things you can do in your own day to day to reduce your contribution to climate change. But in the bigger picture, much larger changes have to happen. And soon. You can contribute there too, by supporting politicians and companies and other organizations that are working to make big positive changes.
You can’t do it alone, but every thing you do move us in the right direction. We are cutting out coal. We are getting energy efficient. We are eating more of the right things. Many many things are being done that help, and much more can be done to improve things. Keep up the good work, and work hard to avoid complacency and despair.
I see that leftists are calling for radical measures to fight climate change. I have a few issues with this:
- You have to be careful for what you wish for. When they talk about radical measures, they are likely thinking that the line of what is radical is where they get to draw it. I don’t think this is true. To me, radical is things like geoengineering. Or nuclear proliferation. Leftists should not assume they get to draw the line as to what radical is. And leftists should not be surprised if they don’t like what they ask for.
- Some of this seems to be a way to score points against centrists and rightists. It may be true that centrists and rightists have bad solutions. They are not bad solutions because they are associated with anyone of a certain political stripe. They are bad because they may not be enough.
Everyone involved with dealing with climate change should
- work very hard to promote new and better ideas and solutions for climate change
- be as persuasive as possible, especially for those more moderate than themselves
- be very humble when it comes to thinking you know what is right
Obviously this is not the easy a thing to solve by any stretch, and the tradeoffs are significant. Worse still, the solutions involve humans and all their flaws as well as science and technology still in development.
I personally believe it is too late already and that:
- there is going to be global devastation with many coastal cities being destroyed over the next 20 years, despite any advances in policies or technology.
- there is going to be such severe weather in the next two decades that global warming and climate change will be the main political topic affecting everything, and there will be a surge in advances in response to this.
- there will be feedback in terms of population decreases, new technologies, new policies, and planetary unknowns. This feedback will result in climate change stabilizing.
- there will be positive gains to be had from global warming and climate change but that they will not be known for sometime.
Thanks for reading this. Feel free to disagree. Just not on twitter, or I will block you.
This is one of those things that popped up via Pocket, yesterday: The Paradox of Karl Popper – Scientific American Blog Network
It’s odd, because the interview is old, and Popper has been dead for sometime. Odd or not, it is still a worthwhile interview of the philosopher. The interviewer seems to capture the spirit and the essential ideas of the man in the three hours he spoke with him.
Worthwhile for anyone interested in philosophy or science.
… here: Stephen Hawking Is Still Underrated – The Atlantic.
I like this piece because it takes you into his science and what makes his work great without having you be an expert in the field yourself. You might still struggle with it, but it is a worthwhile struggle.
Rest in peace, Stephen Hawking. You may be gone, but the work you did lives on and will lead to more great work being done by other scientists that come after you.
You might think I am joking but I am not.
Take a look at the photo above. This is a scan of a living man’s brain: the black part is fluid, while the part around the black part is his remaining brain. Essentially 90% of his brain has been displaced by the fluid. And yet he was considered a functioning person, despite only have 10% of a brain mass most people have.
The story behind the scan and the questions that it raises is in this article: A civil servant missing most of his brain challenges our most basic theories of consciousness.
Fascinating. Perhaps in a few years / centuries we will understand how the brain works. For now we are mostly clueless, much like you are while you wait for your coffee to kick in. 🙂