Science Sunday 06-25-17

Paris Air Show

This year’s International Paris Air Show at Le Bourget Airport finishes today, after one week of spectacular surprises.

Perhaps the standout of many competitors is Aeromobil’s Flying Car.  The Aeromobil has foldable wings when used as a car, and retractable wheels when used as a plane.

With a maximum takeoff mass of 960 kg (about 4300 lbs.), and a wingspan of 8.8 m  (about 29 ft), the Aeromobil has a maximum ground speed of about 100 mph, and a maximum air speed of 224 mph.  Orders are being taken now, for delivery in 2020.  The anticipated price range is a mere 1.35 to 1.68 million dollars.  Here is a nice video of the prototype:


Drone Taxi

Not shown at the Paris Air Show is Airbus’ anticipated entry into the drone taxi aerial sector.  Called the Vahana, and designed by Airbus’ silicon valley outpost A Cubed, The Vahana is expected to ferry its single occupant like a drone at takeoff and landing, but fly like a plane between those two points in the journey.  Wired has a nice article on the Vahana here.


Moth Eyes and Smart Phones

Research has been going on for some time into the structure of moths’ eyes, which do not significantly reflect light at night, thereby protecting the moths from natural predators.  It seems that moths have dimples in their outer eyes’ surfaces, about 100 nanometers wide, that temporarily trap light that would otherwise be reflected.

Now Dr. Shin-Tson and his team from the University of Central Florida have used nanotechnology to develop a thin antireflective film that can be placed over a smartphone screen to reduce  glare by nearly 95% when viewing the phone screen in sunlight.

This film is also scratch resistant and self cleaning, added pluses.

The technology is described in latest issue of the journal Optica.

The video above is a few years old, but shows how scientists have been working on exploiting the secret of moths’ eyes to improve efficiency in solar panels.


Extra Virgin Olive Oil


Recent research indicates that extra virgin olive oil, a key ingredient in the so-called Mediterranean diet, significantly reduces the buildup of amyloid-beta plaques and neurofibrillary tangles in the brains of mice bred to develop Alzheimer’s disease.


Landsat Explorer

Landsat Explorer

Want to explore how your neighborhood, your state, or someplace else in the world has changed over time?  Well now you can, courtesy of Landsat, Amazon Web Services and ESRI.

Click here to go to the new Landsat Explorer app.  It’s like Google Earth, but with Landsat data added.



Science Sunday 06-18-17

How We All Got Here

In roughly the time it takes for light to get from the Sun to the Earth, astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson explains how the Universe evolved from the Big Bang to us safely ensconced here on Earth.  Courtesy of Minute Physics.

Chocolate and A Fib

Chocolate not only tastes good, but you may need to indulge in its pleasures to avoid or reduce the effects of atrial fibrillation.

Tis The Season

The Summer Solstice moment, the beginning of Summer, is nearly upon us, coming early in the morning of June 21st in sunny old England and late in the previous day in toddling Chicago, where I live.

The Summer Solstice is marked by being the day with the most sunshine for us northern hemispherians.  In Chicago, at roughly 42 degrees north latitude, we will enjoy 15 hrs and 14 minutes of Mr. Sunshine.

Londoners by contrast will enjoy 1 hr and 23 minutes more of direct sunshine, because London is nearly 10 latitude degrees farther north than Chicago.

Chicagoans get a “free” additional 68 minutes of indirect lighting (civil twilight) every day of the year, with half of that time in the morning (dawn) and half of it in the evening (dusk).  Londoners receive an astounding additional 95 minutes of indirect lighting, again because they are 10 latitude degrees farther north than Chicago.

It is fun to observe the shadows cast by street sign poles on the “longest day”.  Here is Chicago, the shadow will be a little more than 35 degrees south of east at sunset.

V Sauce Michael above talks at length at issues regarding time and our planet’s motion relative to the Sun in the video above.

To play with your location’s sunrise, sunset, and civil twilight times, visit this delightful site.

The Bigger They Are

The deeper they live.  I speak of deep sea gigantism, aka abyssal gigantism, the tendency of sea dwelling invertebrates to grow larger the deeper in the oceans they live.  Examples abound: the giant isopod, the giant amphipod, the Japanese spider crab, the giant oarfish, the deepwater stingray, the seven-arm octopus, and a number of squid species including the colossal squid (up to 14 m in length) and the giant squid (up to 13 m).

No one knows for sure why there is this tendency, but one speculation is that the larger the body, the lower the skin surface to body mass ratio, an important characteristic for creatures living in very cold water and high hydrostatic pressure, where conversation of body heat is a matter of life and death.

A related rule called Bergmann’s rule states that crustaceans tend to be larger the higher in latitude they are observed.  A similar rule applying to humans called Allen’s rule is supported by observation that indigenous people living at higher latitudes have shorter limbs.

For a more general review of the mysteries of the barely explored deep ocean, check out this fascinating video:

Schlieren Imaging

There’s an old type of dimly lit photography (and videography) called shlieren imaging that reveals the subtle differences in densities (and refractive indices) of moving fluids, like hot air ascending from a burning match, or the ejecta from your mouth and nose when you sneeze.  Veritasium’s video above is a great take on this cool optical phenomenon.

Science Sunday 06-11-17


Author Dan Goleman speaks with eloquence about the three kinds of empathy, and how these human qualities, in various admixtures, inform today’s leaders.  As I watched this video, it was hard not to think of the current resident of the White House and the current Speaker of the House, and how they specifically lack emotional empathy.


The Machines Are Taking Over

Call me a Neanderthal, but I refuse to use the self-service checkout lines at big box multibillion dollar chain stores like Home Depot, because these checkout lines are designed to make you do the work normally reserved for human beings, who while low-paid, at least have a job.

Now comes a news story from the BBC about possibly getting rid of pilots on commercial flights. Basically, the aircraft and airline industries want to know if drone technology is advanced enough to be extended to commercial flights, and more importantly, whether the public will accept such a development.

On a much larger and foreboding scale is the question of whether even highly educated people will soon find themselves replaced by machines that can do their jobs better.  Kurzgesagt explores this increasingly likely and dismal future in unrelenting detail:

Are we just frogs in a simmering pot of water?


Antibiotic Resistance and Phages

The medical profession has been in a bit of a tizzy in recent years because the ”age of antibiotics” seems to be coming to an end, with no apparent solution.

Overuse of antibiotics in humans and farm animals has accelerated the evolution of antibiotic resistant bacterial pathogens like MRSA, so-called superbugs.  It is estimated that by the year 2050, if no solution to superbugs is found, 10 million people will die for lack of a viable treatment against the superbugs.

Enter an old-fashioned treatment called phage therapy.  Phages are viruses specifically cultivated to take out antibiotic resistant pathogens without harming the host organism (meaning you).

Phage therapy was considered normal in the early part of the 20th century, but with the advent of antibiotics, it was “forgotten”, at least forgotten by medical professionals in western Europe and the United States.  Fortunately, it was not forgotten by medical professionals in eastern Europe, notably Russia and Georgia.

In the above video, Heather Hendrickson of Massey University, New Zealand, talks about the dangers of antibiotic resistant pathogens, and the great promise of a resurgent phage therapeutic regime.

For some odd reason, phage therapy is not currently allowed in the United States.

You can read about the promise of phage treatment of bacterial infections here and here.


99 Million Year Old Bird

Prepare to be fascinated.  Scientists are reporting that an amber sample found in Burma a few years ago contains an almost perfectly preserved portion of a baby bird that died about 99 million years ago.  Feathers, claws and contemporaneous bugs included.


Oldest Homo Sapiens

For about the last 20 years, scientists have been of the consensus that the human species Homo Sapiens started in East Africa no earlier than 200,000 years ago.  But now Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute – publishing in Nature – makes a convincing claim that humans were around a good 100, 000 years earlier, and residing in a remote region called Jebel Irhoud in Morocco.


Postcards From the Mariana Trench

There’s a panoply of life at the greatest depths of the ocean floor.

Science Sunday 06-03-17

Popular Science Cassini Retrospective


Popular Science has put together an amazing retrospective collection of images from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft.  It’s just one web page, so it will probably blow out your browser’s temporary memory, but check it out anyway.  There are quite a few worthy wallpaper images you can use.  Click on the link above to see this collection.

The white dot next to the arrow is Earth.

Icarus Redux

NASA just announced that it will be sending a probe to the Sun to study the Sun’s corona and its solar wind, among other things.

The probe is named after University of Chicago professor Eugene Parker, who first hypothesized the existence of a supersonic solar wind emanating from our star.

The probe will launch in July of 2018 and will fly to within 6.2 million kilometers of the Sun.  That’s about 96% of the way from the Earth to the Sun, so the probe will have to withstand very high temperatures and immense solar radiation.

Minority Report

The BBC reports that Dr. Doris Tsao has shown that a mere 200 neurons in a monkey’s brain completely specify the image seen and remembered by the monkey.

Dr. Tsao was able to take the excitation pattern of the 200 neurons and recreate with remarkable accuracy the image that the monkey actually saw.

In principle, this means that at least for visual memories, it might soon be possible to “read” a person’s mind and accurately recreate the visual image the person is seeing in her mind.  Police could use this technique to produce significantly more faithful “sketches” of an eyewitness’ visual account of a reported criminal.

A New Ripple From Outer Space

Scientists at Caltech have just announced that a third gravitational wave (or space-time ripple) has been detected.  The wave detected is due to two black holes merging after circling each other.  The combined mass of the two black holes was estimated to be 49 solar masses (49 times the current mass of the Sun).

The two LIGO observatories have localized this latest collision to a spot 3 billion light years away, meaning the event detected in January, 2017, actually occurred 3 billion years ago.  Talk about ancient history!

The previous two instances of gravitational wave detection were also black hole mergers, the first having a combined mass of 62 solar masses, and the second having a combined mass of 21 solar masses.

For a primer on gravitational waves and why they are so important, check out this video:

Godel’s Incompleteness Theorems

As is often the case, I stumbled upon a series of Numberphile2 videos about a fellow named Godel who basically showed that there are some truths (statements known incontrovertibly to be true) that cannot be proven within the axiomatic boundaries of mathematics.

The above video (which is the third of three videos) deals with the suggestion that maybe theology can invoke Godel’s theorems to “save itself” from the ongoing assault of science on various religious assertions.





Science Sunday 05-27-17

Juno Polar View

NASA has just released images from Juno, its current Jupiter mission, as it passed from pole to pole over the gas giant.  The above image, which looks like a spectacular modern art painting, is a view of Jupiter’s south pole, from a distance of 7800 mi.

Business Insider has put together a wonderful montage of these images as the spacecraft passes between Jupiter’s north and south poles.

If you would prefer to fly along with Juno on this latest “perijove” pass by the planet, here is a video released by NASA in the last few days:


Sayonara Blue Whale

With Donald “Nutjob” Trump about to pull the plug on US participation in the 2015 Paris Climate Accord because Macron didn’t shake his hand first, I thought it might be appropriate to talk about the Blue Whale, the largest animal ever to exist on the Earth.

As much as 100 feet in length, the Blue Whale can weigh up to 200 US tons, and exclusively consumes roughly 4 million krill per day.  A krill is a crustacean, a shrimp-like creature.

Not so long ago, the estimated worldwide population of Blue Whales was 300,000.  Today the estimated population is only about 9,000 of these magnificent creatures.

BBC News recently reported that scientists now think they know how it is the Blue Whales got to be so big.  One reason given was climate change occurring some 30 million years ago, when the northern hemisphere was largely covered in ice.  The krill congregated near coastal runoffs, and the whales had to travel large distances to find the krill.  When they did, it was advantageous to them to eat as many krill as possible in one feeding.

The above go-pro video, while long, is terribly moving, as Louie Psihoyos (of the Oceanic Preservation Society) and crew “race extinction” to get close up underwater video of the Blue Whale, while it is still with us.  The video includes exquisite cameos of Hans Hass and Jane Goodall.


Cannabidiol, Epilepsy Cure?

Orrin Devinsky of New York University’s Langone Medical Center has just published a landmark study on the effects of the marijuana derivative cannabidiol on seizure frequency for children suffering from Dravet’s syndrome, a particularly virulent and deadly form of epilepsy.  Seizure frequency was reduced by a stunning 39% for children taking cannabidiol.

In Devinsky’s words:

“Cannabidiol should not be viewed as a panacea for epilepsy, but for patients with especially severe forms who have not responded to numerous medications, these results provide hope that we may soon have another treatment option,” says lead investigator Orrin Devinsky, MD, professor of neurology, neurosurgery, and psychiatry and director of the Comprehensive Epilepsy Center at NYU Langone Medical Center. “We still need more research, but this new trial provides more evidence than we have ever had of cannabidiol’s effectiveness as a medication for treatment-resistant epilepsy.”

I have been following the saga of the seemingly endless medical benefits of taking cannabidiol for some time.  While cannabidiol (which is a marijuana derivative with no psychoactive effect on humans) can be purchased in all 50 states by mail order as a food supplement, the FDA has cracked down on any cannabidiol purveyor making any medical claims regarding the compound.

With this study, there is some concern that the FDA will license cannabidiol to be used exclusively as a drug for Dravet’s syndrome, making it impossible for regular folks to buy it as a food supplement.


Chelyabinsk, a Close Call

NOVA had a wonderful program on this last week about the meteor that struck Chelyabinsk, Siberia, in 2013.

The meteor, estimated to have a mass of between 7,000 and 10,000 tons, was said to have the destructive impact of 30 Hiroshima atomic bombs.

Although the meteor, travelling at 30 km/sec, broke up in Earth’s atmosphere, it caused extensive damage to Chelyabinsk, a city of over a million people, sending over 1,000 people to the hospital, and breaking windows in roughly 300 buildings.

You can click on the picture above to access the whole show for free. To see a montage of videos from Chelyabinsk residents, click here.


Think You’re Smart?

A quasi-amusing synopsis of “signs” you are a genius, courtesy of Mind Warehouse.

Science Sunday 05-21-17

Ovarian Bioprosthetics

Many young girls, some prepubescent, undergo cancer treatments that lead to sterility. The tragedy is that while their lives are saved, they cannot themselves have children later in life.

Some of these cancer victims have their eggs harvested before the onset of the inevitable chemo, but that doesn’t help them to carry offspring to term, as their reproductive organs are destroyed, a devastating consequence of their necessary medical interventions.

Now it seems that scientists at Northwestern University, in conjunction with Lurie Children’s Hospital, are working to reverse this outcome.

Dr. Monica Laronda — working with Drs. Teresa Woodruff and Ramille Shah, and using “3-D printing of an extracellular matrix” — has successfully implanted an “ovarian bioprosthesis” in infertile female mice, allowing those mice to have (and to nurse) their own offspring.

You can read more about this exciting medical development here.


It’s always “fun” to tackle the subject of light, also known as electromagnetic radiation.  For an aspect of nature so close to our totality of experience, it is surprisingly mysterious in nature.

Is light a wave phenomenon or a stream of particles, or both?  Various light phenomena support one model over the other, and vice-versa, but clearly the two models seem incompatible.  Nevertheless, this split nature of light is our current best understanding of it.

I was surprised to find from the above Kurgesagt video that the wavelengths of light we see (400 to 700 nanometers) probably were “naturally selected” for us, because those wavelengths are the only ones that travel more or less unimpeded in water (or sea water).


Flammable Ice

Remember back in the 1970s when every few years there was talk that the world was running out of oil reserves and soon there would be a massive economic dislocation resulting from severe shortages of gasoline?

The fallback was that there would always be coal for home heating and the like, with coal by comparison having seemingly unlimited reserves.  There was also natural gas, which was then (and continues to be) comparatively abundant.

The question in those days was how were we going to keep driving our eight cylinder low mileage “car boats” without cheap gas?

[There was no serious talk at that time about global warming and renewable energy sources.]

It turns out that in the 1960s, a new source of natural gas (methane hydrates) was discovered in Russia.  Colloquially known as “flammable ice”, crystals of methane trapped in water ice form under high pressure and low temperature over a long period of time.  Under the right conditions, these crystals release their highly flammable gas contents.

Found under the permafrost over land, and under the sea floor in the oceans, scientists are now struggling to see if that trapped methane can be released in a safe, profitable and environmentally acceptable way.  It seems China may recently have made significant progress in determining such an extraction process.

To put all this in perspective, one cubic meter of flammable ice contains about 160 cubic meters of methane.  For countries without oil reserves (like Japan and India), exploiting this source of natural gas is highly desirable.

You can read more about flammable ice here.

The Kama Sutra of Dragon Flies

If you ever been told by your significant other “not tonight, I have a headache”, be thankful.  At least you’re not being told “I’m dead to you” as some female dragonflies do when they don’t want to mate with an aggressive male.

Boredom Is Not Boring

Michael from VSauce investigates why we get bored and whether we should be concerned about it.

Science Sunday 05-14-17

Baby Big Bird

After 25 years of cloak and dagger intrigue regarding the whereabouts and nature of a fossilized “baby dinosaur in the egg” known colloquially as “Baby Louie”, the dino has been identified as a new species of oviraptorosaur called beibeilongsinensis.

While small in its sarcophagal shell, feather-covered Louie would have grown up to be a metric ton, 1000 kg in mass or 2000 lbs in weight, a prehistoric version of our beloved Big Bird.

You Smell!

A recent study by John McGann of Rutgers University asserts that the human sense of smell is on a par with other mammals, including rodents and dogs.

We have been conditioned to think poorly of our noses, says McGann, because of research done in the 19th century, which doesn’t hold up to extensive modern experimentation.

An earlier estimate that humans can only distinguish between about 10,000 scents should be replaced by 1 trillion scents, eight orders of magnitude larger, says McGann.

You can read more about McGann’s study here.

Maybe if we were closer to the ground, we would do some more sniffing around:

In related work, researchers at the University of Chicago have determined that losing your sense of smell is a precursor to a more imminent death.  After testing a large number of people to see if they could distinguish the scents of rose, leather, fish, orange and peppermint, and rating the participants as good, medium and poor sniffers, they found that of these folks who had died 5 years after testing, those with the weakest sniffing abilities were 400% more like to die than those with the best sniffing abilities:

You can read more about this fascinating study here.  I’m off to buy some oranges!

The Metric System

Back in the 1970s, there was much talk about the Unite States going metric.  In particular, there was an oil embargo going on, and for a very short time, gas was sold in liters.

The reason this occurred is that OPEC caused per gallon pricing to exceed one dollar, and the mechanical pumps at that time couldn’t charge prices over a dollar.  Some stations went with per half gallon pricing, and some went with per liter pricing.

Americans couldn’t (or wouldn’t) do the math, and were incensed that the gas stations might be cheating them, and so in pretty quick order, all the mechanical pumps were retrofitted to charge up to $9.99 per gallon.

At about the same time, pop (or perhaps you say soda) started selling by the liter and two liter, and today, we are quite used to this metric volume measure, at least for our sugary supplements.

Originally, the metric unit of mass, the kilogram, was defined as 1000 cubic centimeters (or 1000 milliliters) of pure water at 4 degrees Celsius, but consequent to the Metric Convention of 1875, the kilogram standard has been based on a solid platinum-iridium cylinder stored in Paris, two copies of which are stored here in the United States at NIST (our weights and measure lab).

Recently, the youtube channel Veritasium visited NIST to see these metric kilogram standard copies.  I was surprised to find out that the US is actually on the metric standard, and all the US-English units we use are defined in terms of their metric equivalents.

FYI, if you in the future choose to drive a car in Europe, you will have to buy gas by the liter, so remember that one liter is about one US quart.  Take the per liter price, multiply by four, and convert that four liter Euro price to US dollars to find out how much you are really paying per US gallon for gas.

Right now in France the price is surprisingly low, at $5.79 per US gallon.

BTW, Brexit enthusiasts, beer in England is still sold by the Imperial pint, which is about 1/6th larger by volume than the US pint.  Explains a lot about UK soccer hooligans!

Sponge Bob Clown Pants

I always liked topology, that area of mathematics which challenges you to see whether you can deform the shape of one shape into another, without using tearing or gluing operations along the way.

Mathematician Kelsey Houston-Edwards of PBS Infinite Series explores this fascinating subject.