Friday, November 12, 2010

Lost Sorcery: Medieval Math = Post Apocaplyptic Tech

An interesting article by Robert Lamb over at "How Stuff Works" talks about how mathematics during Medieval times was really a technology out-of-sync with the times. Interesting food for thought. We talk a lot about these concepts in fiction, but its interesting to hear more real-world examples from throughout human history.
In “The Geometry of Paradise” Mark A. Peterson points out that Dante could easily have excelled as a mathematician had he been born into a time when geometry was more fashionable. Instead Dante lived in an age of languishing mathematics between the Hellenistic period and the 17th century.

“Medieval cultures were in the peculiar condition of being un-mathematical cultures in possession of sophisticated mathematics. They possessed it in the sense of having the books, studying them and translating them, and even doing some mathematics, but they had no clear indication where this rich subject had come from or what it would be good for. They did not know, in our terms at least, what it was.” — Peterson
 Oh, and Lamb earns a +1 for including a Jack Vance/Dying Earth reference in the full story!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Shapeshifting Animals: The Mimic Octopus

This is pretty mindblowing--an octopus that can changed it's shape, texture, and shading to mimic up to 15 other aquatic creatures. Truly fascinating! It gets REALLY wicked around 1:20, but you'll want to watch the whole video anyway.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

NASA, DARPA: Colonization is a 1-Way Trip, Sign Up Now!

NASA and DARPA (it's not just a made-up shadow org from Lost!) want you to know that they're ready to colonize space. They're collaborating on a joint venture to develop a 100-year spaceship that would take humanity into the firmament and establish permanent, extra terrestrial human colonies.

From Pop Sci:
"The human space program is now really aimed at settling other worlds,” Worden [a guy at NASA] said, according to a Singularity University blog that covered the event. “Twenty years ago you had to whisper that in dark bars and get fired.” (Worden added that he was fired by President George W. Bush.)

 Rock collecting would be a big hobby on Mars! Image: NASA.
Love that last part. So the real question here is: would the settlers ever get a chance to come home? No.
Next question. Seriously, this means they're shipping your ass off to MARS, some moon to be terraformed, or some inhabitable exoplanet, packing a lunch, and leaving you at the door of the school house. Forever.

They'll totally send you care packages of raw materials, equipment, and Soylent Green though. Hopefully, FedEx has a Red Planet
They would get periodic supply missions, but they would be expected to fend for themselves for water, shelter, nutrients and mineral/chemical processing. They would be expected to develop some kind of homegrown Martian industry, which could ultimately serve as a hub for an expanded colonization program. Plus, leaving some people on another planet would probably ensure that we’d want to go back, to visit them and see what they created.

Such a mission would save money, the authors say, because the prohibitive costs (in dollars and payload) of a manned Mars mission are mostly associated with bringing the astronauts home.
Oh, and that last point is the main reason it's a one-way gig--cost. See, coming back is expensive, and it's easier to cut costs if you just stay put. But you'll be a totally cool SPACE PIONEER. And a HERO to all humanity.

So....not you've got that going for you!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Video of Mysterious Undersea Creature Baffles Scientists

Pink Tentacle posits it might be a Ningen of Japanese urban legend--a blubbery, underwater humanoid! Apparently Ningen live in the icy waters of the Antarctic. This one was sighted southwest of Tokyo in the Sagami Bay.

Lots of weird sealife, but the guest of honor makes its creepy appearance begins after 1:20. Ningen on Wikipedia. 

/props to Boing Boing

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Exoplanet found in habitable zone!

Artist's rendering of Gliese 581-g via Wired
Book your flights now kids, the first Earth-like exoplanet found in a "Goldilocks" or habitable zone has been discovered! Gliese 581-g is just 20 light years from us (that's right around the corner, right?) and is just the right amount of distance from it's parent star to have liquid water--a main ingredient for life here on Earth.
Click to enlarge; image: National Science Foundation
From the BBC:
"Our findings offer a very compelling case for a potentially habitable planet," said Steven Vogt, an astronomer at UCSC.

"The fact that we were able to detect this planet so quickly and so nearby tells us that planets like this must be really common."

Gliese 581g has a mass about three to four times that of Earth. It orbits its sun in 37 days and is thought to be a rocky world. It has enough gravity to possibly have an atmosphere.

The surface temp is estimated to be between  10F/-12C and 24F/-31C (so don't pack your speedo just yet). So think of it more like...
Don't worry, they double as sleeping bags.

Actually, that might not be the case. Seems that the planet is bigger than Earth and closer to it's star so it may not rotate--making it scorching hot on one side, colder than Hoth on the other. But a temperate equatorial zone may exist to sustain life. From Wired:

The new planet is about three times the mass of Earth, which indicates it is probably rocky and has enough surface gravity to sustain a stable atmosphere. It orbits its star once every 36.6 Earth days at a distance of just 13 million miles.

The surface of a planet that close to our sun would be scorching hot. But because the star Gliese 581 is only about 1 percent as bright as the sun, temperatures on the new planet should be much more comfortable. Taking into account the presence of an atmosphere and how much starlight the planet probably reflects, astronomers calculated the average temperature ranges from minus 24 degrees to 10 degrees above zero Fahrenheit.

But the actual temperature range is even wider, says astronomer Steven Vogt of the University of California, Santa Cruz, who designed some of the instruments that helped find the planet. Gravity dictates that such a close-in planet would keep the same side facing the star at all times, the same way the moon always shows the same face to Earth.

That means the planet has a blazing-hot daytime side, a frigid nighttime side, and a band of eternal sunrise or sunset where water — and perhaps life — could subsist comfortably. Any life on this exotic world would be confined to this perpetual twilight zone, Vogt says, but there’s room for a lot of diversity.

Great, now let's build us a starfleet and get going!

More from BBC, Wired, Washington Post, MSNBC, NY Times, and LA Times

Friday, July 30, 2010

Triceratops no more: dinosaur actually a different species

Jimmy remembers a better time, before Kota's deceit and inevitable betrayal.
Turns out that staple of grade-school science is just a phase of growth in another dino's life cycle: the torosaurus. Or maybe it's the either way around. Whatever the case, trike and toro are the same beast at different points in their now singular life. Turns out the frill was the shill--the large frill that adorns the rear of the animals' skulls is not a sign that they were two different species, but the frill itself changed as they matured.

The differences in each species (from New Scientist):
Triceratops had three facial horns and a short, thick neck-frill with a saw-toothed edge. Torosaurus also had three horns, though at different angles, and a much longer, thinner, smooth-edged frill with two large holes in it. So it's not surprising that Othniel Marsh, who discovered both in the late 1800s, considered them to be separate species.
So how did the change occur?
This extreme shape-shifting was possible because the bone tissue in the frill and horns stayed immature, spongy and riddled with blood vessels, never fully hardening into solid bone as happens in most animals during early adulthood. The only modern animal known to do anything similar is the cassowary, descended from the dinosaurs, which develops a large spongy crest when its skull is about 80 per cent fully grown.

Shape-shifting continued throughout these dinosaurs' lives, Scannella says. "Even in the most mature specimens that we've examined, there is evidence that the skull was still undergoing dramatic changes at the time of death.

First Pluto's not a planet, now triceratops isn't...a triceratops! Honestly, it's fascinating to think that we've perceived them as two different animals for decades. Sure it all sounds like a "well, duh!" moment, but think about how many animals we see every day that go through similar changes and we never think twice--a butterfly for instance.

Triceratops wasn't the only casualty, as you can tell by the image, old bone-head pachycephalosaurus is another transforming dinobot--er, saur. This new theory could extend to several other species as well.

Hopefully none of the differences in the frills or horns will effect our ability to saddle them with lasers.

Get the full story from New Scientist.
Also at Live Science.

Hat tip to Boing Boing, and the wonderful Maggie Koerth-Baker who's insight and commentary is always spot-on (and fun!).

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Real live Hydra: two-headed, albino snake!

STEP RIGHT UP and feast your eyes on the slithering wonder--a diamond in the rough--an albino aberration with not one but TWO, HUNGRY HEADS! The mighty Hercules himself would feign at the sight of a such a sinister serpent!

Or so the story might go from the Venice Beach freak show proprieter who ponied up a cool $20k for this dual-headed hognose, appropriately called Lenny and Squiggly. It's rarity is enhanced by the genetic crap-shoot that is albinism. Apparently bicephalic animals suffer from many ailments which tend to significantly shorten their lifespans. The snake(s) is/are only 9 months old, but the owner has hopes it will live long and bring him a windfall. From The Examiner:
Like many two-headed snakes, both of their heads are fully functional and independent, though one of them exerts a far greater control over the body. Conjoined animals like Lenny and Squiggly often of difficulty moving due to conflicting orders from the two heads, making survival in the wild all but impossible. Life in captivity fares little better, though several animals have lived their full lifespans.
Not to second guess the founders of Western civilization, but these guys are almost too cute to really be a threat to Mediterranean demigods. Almost (they are snakes after all). Hognoses can be kept as "exotic pets," and it would seem their new owner has hit the mother lode.
Full story..
Also on Boing Boing with video...

Monday, June 28, 2010

Egyptian gods ever present in 40+ tombs with mummies

 Image: Supreme Council of Antiquities / Associated Press via MSNBC

Scenes of Horus, Hathor, Khnum and Amun, decorated as many as 57 ornately carved sarcophagi found, recently unearthed in Egypt. The tombs date back as far as 2750 B.C. and give researchers a glimpse into the religious rites of ancient Egyptians. From MSNBC:
Egypt's archaeology chief, Zahi Hawass, said the mummies dating to the 18th Dynasty are covered in linen decorated with religious texts from the Book of the Dead and scenes featuring ancient Egyptian deities. Abdel Rahman El-Aydi, head of the archaeological mission that made the discovery, said some of the tombs are decorated with religious texts that ancient Egyptians believed would help the deceased to cross through the underworld. El-Aydi said one of the oldest tombs is almost completely intact, with all of its funerary equipment and a wooden sarcophagus containing a mummy wrapped in linen.
...a little more detail from ABC News, plus a gallery of photos from, like the one below. Each article had the total number of tombs between 43 and 57, it wasn't exactly clear why there was a discrepancy (just FYI).

 Image: Supreme Council of Antiquities via Heritage-Key

MSNBC's story...

Friday, June 25, 2010

Massive flash floods in Canada made for Dinopocalypse

Swim little dinos! Swim for your lives! Image: Michael Skrepnick / Royal Tyrrell Museum via MSNBC.

Fact: The Canadian province of Alberta is lousy with dinosaur fossils. Like, so many dino bones that it's embarrassing. This perplexes paleontologists.

At least it did until now. Looks like researchers have found the reason for the massive centrasaur graveyard in Western Canadia--a mega storm comparable to our hurricanes wiped them out in one fell swoop. They lived in what was once a large coastal area, which are now fossil beds. The beasts were roughly cattle-sized and when the storm came in, it brought massive flooding and the poor guys couldn't treat water. As if taking an asteroid the bread basket wasn't bad enough! From MSNBC:

Coastal floodplains such as those seen in modern Bangladesh can cover vast areas, with flooding killing hundreds of thousands of livestock, not to mention the human tragedies that occur. "Because of their size and the scale of the flooding, dinosaurs could not escape the coastal floodwaters and would have been killed in large numbers," Eberth explained. "In contrast, fish, small reptiles, mammals, and birds may have been able to escape such seasonal catastrophes by retreating to quiet water areas, the safety of trees and burrows, or simply by flying away."

So what can we take away from this? Take swimming lessons? Not sure. But the picture is a heartbreaker, isn't it?

The full story...

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Damn Dirty Murdering Apes!

"We'll use banana peels. Make it look like an accident."

Looks like we've been living on the Planet of the Apes all along--chimpanzees are no better than their human cousins when it comes to whacking a competitor for more territory. Actual killing are rare, as researchers counted 21 in decade, but their studies in Ngogo, Kibale National Park in Uganda yielded some fascinating resutls. From MSNBC:
After some of these neighboring competitors were dispatched with, the researchers observed the Ngogo chimpanzees beginning to use a large portion of new territory to the northeast of their previous range. That piece of evidence allowed the researchers to link the murders with a motive – that of gaining new ground. 
Though well-organized, chimps aren't know for their individual bravery...
"Patrollers are quiet and move with stealth," Mitani said. "They pause frequently to scan the environment as they search for other chimpanzees. Attacks are typically made only when patrolling chimpanzees have overwhelming numerical superiority over their adversaries."
If they re-boot PotA they should consider casting James Gandolfini as Cornelius. Just sayin'.

Full story.

Another little known primate fact:
Orangutans are the escape artists of the primate family. Seriously.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Funky fungus puts hair on your chest

Don't blame me--blame the Associated Press for this awful pic, via IO9
Or at least that's what grown ups used to say to me to get me eat things that looked repulsive. I'm not sure why they thought that would work. All I know is there's nothing anyone could say to get me to eat this stuff. It's just about exactly what zombie brains would look like if I had to imagine them without the benefit of this horrifying photo.

According to a new study (or a really disgusting practical joke) the stuff is called "corn smut" (classy!) and contains lots of nutrients for making your bones healthy and your skin young and fresh. Sounds like a pact with the devil you say? Irony is way ahead of you my friends--it's also known as (gulp!) DEVIL'S CORN!

IO9 has the dirt on the fungi. Or something.
In Mexico, the fungus is called huitlacoche, and it's already considered a delicacy. But U.S. farmers, and the U.S. government, have spent millions of dollars to eradicate the blight and develop "smut-resistant strains" of corn.
It also has...
....beta-glucens, a soluble fiber that helps you cut your cholesterol. So it's actually better for you, and could turn out to be more valuable on the market, than the corn it "ruins."
Yeah, don't be surprised if it takes a while to catch on. Like never!
A choice quote from the Steve Don't Eat It! series of posts on The Sneeze:
Don't worry, I checked the ingredients before I tasted it. "Smoker's lung" was not on there. Before I even got the whole can open, I detected a vague aroma of sweet corn, along with what I can only describe as a deep musky funk. Put 'em together and it smells like corn that forgot to wipe.
Wow. Be sure to check out his site for even more repugnant photos and all the gory details. Bon Appetite!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Space Junk Threatens to Smash Us to Bits!

Image: space junk that fell to Earth on a farm in Australia in 2008. Ouch! Via: Sydney Morning Herald
Well judging by what the news has to say, there's plenty of actual space junk to keep me inspired for many more Random Space Finds posts. NASA even set up an office and full-time junk tracker to keep an eye on all that detrius. Wired has an excellent feature story on the pollution of space--at least that space immediately around our planet and the man charged with tracking it all, Donald Kessler. He wrote a paper clinching the argument for keeping one eye on the sky that painted a "nightmare scenario". Here's some choice quotes:
Spent satellites and other space trash would accumulate until crashes became inevitable. Colliding objects would shatter into countless equally dangerous fragments, setting off a chain reaction of additional crashes. “The result would be an exponential increase in the number of objects with time,” he wrote, “creating a belt of debris around the Earth.”

At age 38, Kessler had found his calling. Not that his bosses had encouraged him to look into the issue—”they didn’t like what I was finding,” he recalls. But after the paper came out, NASA set up the Orbital Debris Program Office to study the problem and put Kessler in charge. He spent the rest of his career tracking cosmic crap and forming alliances with counterparts in other nations in an effort to slow its proliferation. His description of a runaway cascade of collisions—which he predicted would happen in 30 to 40 years—became known as the Kessler syndrome.

Image: actual map of space junk orbiting our Pig Pen-like planet, via 

Kessler is now in his 70s and he was of course proven frighteningly correct. And just in case you were skeptical about how much space crap is floating around up there:
The operations center moved quickly to double its computer capacity. By early 2010, it was keeping a close eye on 1,000 active satellites, 3,700 inactive satellites and rocket pieces, and another 15,300 objects the size of a fist or larger—a level of awareness that revealed a much higher daily average of 75 possible collisions. And that’s ignoring the danger posed by the estimated half-million smaller pieces of debris the size of a marble or larger. Too small to track from the ground, each of those tiny projectiles is capable of severely damaging a satellite.
There's even a testing range in White Sands, NM that tests how dangerous our leftovers in the black can be:
...technicians operate a cannon that uses gunpowder and pressurized hydrogen to fire plastic slugs at shields and panels. Just like real space junk, the projectiles can approach speeds of 5 miles per second. [Emphasis mine, as if it need it!]
Duck and cover folks!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

50+ Ways to Die in a Cave

Snakes, why is it always snakes? Hey, that's no. 44!
To be precise, it's 52 Ways to Die in a Cave by author James M. Tabor.  Personal favorites:

30. Animals eat rope (easy, just cover the rope in poison!)
29. Chemical contamination of rope (doh!)
32. Hair caught in rappel rack (ow.)
42. Asphyxiation by methane, carbon dioxide, blast fumes, etc. (Death by blast fumes! \m/ )
45. Struck by lightning while in cave stream (really? that can happen?)
27. Rappel into pit without ascent gear (this is a metaphor for a lot of things actually)
18. Rope cut by falling rock (that's just so unfair)

...and #52 (drum roll, please!)....

Stuck in crevice!  (how perfectly banal)

And then there's a disturbingly great amount of ways to die by whatever crappy gear you've brought along that failed to secure/protect you. Great.

Via Boing Boing.

Friday, May 7, 2010

What you should be watching: documentary TV as inspiration

I'm an unabashed lover of science and historical documentaries on TV, be they productions of PBS, the History Channel, Discovery, the Science Channel, etc. There's a lot out there these days to draw inspiration from--even the wacko programs on Ancient Aliens and Nostradamus that are filled with pseudoscience and the weakest of "facts" are still fun "info-tainment". I thought I'd share a list of my favorites along the spectrum of fact, fiction, and things-in-between:

Hard science and world-renown experts...

The Universe (History Channel) 
Chock full of great topics with experts like Neil Degrasse, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History / Rose Space Center in NYC.

Speaking of Dr. Degrasse, he hosts PBS's most venerable, and longest-running science program. Never disappointing and Dr. D is probably one of the most enigmatic hosts since the late Dr. Sagan.

How the Earth Was Made (History Channel)
Another wonderful show focusing on more than geology or volcanology but really a whole slew of Earth sciences (meteorology, oceanography, biology, thermo-dynamics, etc.). My favorite so far has been the recent episode on Iceland (timely!) which described the birth of the island of Surtsey in 1963, off the southern coast. An island the literally "arrived" via volcanic gestation.

Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking (Discovery Channel)
Arguably the smartest man in the (known) universe, Dr. Hawking has made quite a splash in recent episodes of his program about extra-terrestrials and the search for life in the universe. Into the Universe is a fantastic program that gives the topic of cosmology the beauty, grace, and raw intellect it so much deserves.

Planet Earth (Discovery Channel / BBC)
One of my all-time favorite programs. I own the DVD and it's spectacular documentation of the natural world at this time in history is superb. It sets a new standard in TV documentaries not only in cinematography but in scope--covering every continent and type of environment the planet has to offer. From Wikipedia:
To capture all the footage required by the producers, 71 cameramen and women filmed in 204 locations in 62 countries on all seven continents, spending more than 2000 days in the field
If there is any program here you must see, this is the one. A sequel series Life is now airing on Discovery in the US.

Speculative, but still credible...

Life After People (History Channel)
By now you've likely figured that I watch too much History Channel, and while I can't completely deny that, most of these episodes I caught on On-Demand. This program takes current pop-culture's post-apocalyptic fascination and tries to visualize for the viewer what a post-people world would look like months, years, centuries, and millennia after we're long gone. A really intriguing topic with plenty of credible experts in the Earth sciences as well as metallurgists and investigative experts.

Cities of the Underworld (History Channel)
This is another great show that's filled with plenty of factual and historical background on underground hideouts, lairs, tunnels, and more, hosted by actor Dan Wildman. I've put it into "speculative" if only because many of the wonderful stories are often based on a combination of myths and local legends--to be fair though an expert archeologist is always featured. The show was recently discontinued on the History Channel, but I'm certain it will pop up (if it hasn't already) on DVD soon.

Hardly credible, fun as hell...

Ancient Aliens (History Channel)
This show wanders dutiful (and happily, I might add!) into science fiction territory, but it's filled with so many great ideas--and so well constructed that it's impossible not to watch. My only regret is that the network's current audience may take much of this for fact. Frankly, I've gone to bed paranoid a few times already! ;)

Honorable mention...
Sci Fi Science: Physics of the Impossible (Science Channel)
I've only watched an episode or two online since we don't dropped the Science Channel from our subscription package (I still miss it...) but Sci Fi Science has a lot to appreciate in the way of using the hard sciences to explain how science fiction concepts could work. File this under "speculative" if you need to put it on the spectrum. It's hosted by Dr. Michio Kaku one of the world's leading astro-physicists and author of one of my favorite cosmology books, Parallel Worlds: A Journey Through Creation, Higher Dimensions, and the Future of the Cosmos. He's the Science Channel's default host for many of their mainline shows, including a series that previously aired on the topic of his book.

Ancient Monster Hunters (History Channel)
One of my favorite single-episode docs that traces the origins of the mythological beasts such as the cyclopes, and griffins in antiquity as told through the paleontologists, archeologists, geologists, and biologists who've done the dirty work. The griffin segment is particular fascinating. It airs occasionally, but your best bet is to monster-hunt a copy down.

This is just a sampling of what's out there to gorge your eyeballs on. I'm a big fan of ancient history (particularly Egyptian) as well as paleontology--and there's just too many to name, including many one-off specials--but hopefully this list gets you started. So, what are your favorite documentary programs to pull ideas from for stories, games, or whatever gets your gears turning? 

Let us know in the comments!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Hawking: Alien contact "risky" for humans, death rays hard to duck

Hawking: avoid space aliens
Smartest guy in the known universe and all around inspiration, Stephen Hawking, has a message for everyone wanting to dial up aliens on the galactic party line: don't. On his new Discovery Channel series, Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking, the good professor warns that aliens might really be of the Hollywood variety. From ABC News:
"If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn't turn out well for the Native Americans," he said. "We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn't want to meet."
Read the rest and then find a table to hide under (not that it would help...)

Night vision glasses, cell phone cameras on the way!

Not-so-light-weight night vision...
Well, while scientists are still perfecting personal jet packs and flying cars, they've managed to whip up a few other goodies, namely, night vision in your prescription glasses using a film developed for flat screen TVs. MSNBC is on a roll with technology posts today:
Most night vision devices today use massive amounts of electricity — often several thousand volts, according to So — and heavy, glass lenses that maintain a vacuum to make the night come alive. So's device takes a radically different turn, replacing glass with thin plastic, eliminating the vacuum and using energy-efficient, organic LEDs.
Oh, let's just cut to the cool part already:
In other words, heavy and bulky night vision goggles could be replaced with a thin, lightweight coating weighing less than half a deck of playing cards.

According to the article it should take about a year-and-a-half to apply the new tech to car windshields, lightweight night vision eyeglasses and mobile devices.

Space "Taxis" Make for Cheaper, Less Complicated Flights

Image: Boeing
The future of spaceflight is streamlined, cheap flights with no need for bells and whistles--like say, airlocks. MSNBC analyst James Oberg has a great piece on how private space corporations are aiming for inexpensive vehicles that get astronauts from point a to point b without having to spend a lot of time in orbit or performing other tasks. Since the main mission would be immediately dock with a space station or ship already in orbit, NASA and other agencies are looking at vehicles akin to the Soyuz class capsules or something similar to the Gemini/Mercury programs that the US sent up in the 60s. Oberg puts up a few design suggestions of his own:
  • Electrical power? Batteries are fine — recharge when you reach the station, or if you can’t, land immediately. No solar panels, no fuel cells, nothing complex or exotic.
  • Navigation? Big radar dishes, even complex transponders, are unnecessary, with differential GPS navigation now the baseline for most flying all over the planet.
  • Spacewalking? No need, so no airlock, either. At most, the crew would wear in-cabin pressure suits such as those used on Soyuz missions.
  • Passenger accommodations? Room for each passenger in a foldaway seat, and space to turn around if desired would be more than adequate for the short flight. No exercise equipment would be needed. No DVD library.
  • Hygiene? A maximum of 24 hours of independent flight suggests a minimum toilet (or just Apollo-era plastic bags with sticky openings). Or low-residue pre-launch diets, and diapers.
  • Passenger comforts? None. Forget hot food and a complex galley. Box lunches will do. Forget even windows, except for the pilot’s view forward at docking. There need only be minimal carry-on luggage — a take-aboard allowance that would make today’s commercial airlines seem generous.
  • Bulky docking hardware? These mechanically robust components are often a significant fraction of a spaceship’s weight, but the space station can also now grapple a nearby vehicle and emplace it gently on the desired berthing interface.
Read the full article...
Boeing has it's own design for future capsules (as pictured above)

Friday, April 16, 2010

4,000-Year-Old Euro Mummies Found in... China?!

Image: Liu Yu Sheng via New York Times
A cemetery of 200 mummy's from four millennia ago has been discovered in the Xinjiang of China (north of Tibet)--extremely well preserved thanks to the arid air of the Gobi Desert. The rest of the story is so weird that the NYT does better than I ever could at recounting. From the New York Times:
Their remains, though lying in one of the world’s largest deserts, are buried in upside-down boats. And where tombstones might stand, declaring pious hope for some god’s mercy in the afterlife, their cemetery sports instead a vigorous forest of phallic symbols, signaling an intense interest in the pleasures or utility of procreation.
Of course! How else can you find a cemetery of mummies under a pile of boats? There's more...
The 200 or so mummies have a distinctively Western appearance, and the Uighurs, even though they did not arrive in the region until the 10th century, have cited them to claim that the autonomous region was always theirs. Some of the mummies, including a well-preserved woman known as the Beauty of Loulan, were analyzed by Li Jin, a well-known geneticist at Fudan University, who said in 2007 that their DNA contained markers indicating an East Asian and even South Asian origin.

The mummies in the Small River Cemetery are, so far, the oldest discovered in the Tarim Basin. Carbon tests done at Beijing University show that the oldest part dates to 3,980 years ago. A team of Chinese geneticists has analyzed the mummies’ DNA.
Full story.....

Thursday, April 15, 2010

What we all feared: jellyfish are immortal

A species of jellyfish, Turritopsis nutricula, may be the world's only known immortal species, according to scientists. Apparently the hydrozoan can vacillate between youth (polyp) and adult stages of growth--prolonging it's unusual, eldritch existence. From
Through this process - called transdifferentiation - the jellyfish is able to return to its polyp state, the first stage of the life of a jellyfish. During transdifferentiation, its cells can become completely transformed. For example, a muscle cell could become a nerve cell - even an egg. The jellyfish then reproduces asexually and breed hundreds of jellyfish that are identical to the original adult. This process can be repeated - again and again, but only as an emergency measure. As Dr Maria Miglietta of the Smithsonian Tropical Marine Institute says, "We are looking at a worldwide silent invasion."
Upside: they're the size of a human pinky fingernail

Read the full story...
Also at TimesOnline

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Two-Story Tall Fungus Fossils Found

Image: Mary Parrish via MSNBC
Researchers say that waaaay back in the Silurian and Devonian periods (350-420 million years remember those from science class, right?) the world's largest fungus grew to around 26 feet tall--about the size of modern telephone poles. The fungus, called Prototaxites, was about the width of a tree trunk. From MSNBC:
"The above-ground structure -- what actually gets preserved as a fossil -- would have been involved in spore dispersal, like a mushroom," he added. "For that purpose, the higher off the ground you can get, the farther spores will travel on the wind."

He and his colleagues first began to suspect Prototaxites was a fungus and not a plant after they analyzed carbon isotopes in its fossils. These remaining carbon atoms can suggest what existing, and once-living, organisms ate. Boyce explained that since plants derive their energy from the sun and its carbon from carbon dioxide in the air, the carbon isotope signatures for plants tend to look the same.
Kinda cool, let's face it, also kinda creepy!
Full article....

Monday, April 12, 2010

Scientists Discover Micro-organisms That Don't Need Oxygen

Image: R. Danovaro et al., BMC Biology
Okay, this is getting nerdy, but it's still cool. (Science is ALWAYS cool!). Researchers have discovered the first micro-organism (animal) that doesn't need oxygen to survive. The organism dubbed Loricifera, was found on the L'Atalante basin in the Mediterranean.From Science American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS):
The creature's cells apparently lack mitochondria, the organelles that use oxygen to power a cell. Instead they are rich in what seem to be hydrogenosomes, organelles that can do a similar job in anaerobic (or oxygen free) environments. The find could help scientists understand what life might have looked like in the earth's early oceans, which also had very little oxygen.
Read the full story...

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

New "Goldilocks" exoplanet discovered

Image: Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias via ScienceNews
The first observable exoplanet, within an "Goldilocks Zone" has been discovered! This is a HUGE discovery as planets within the zone are considered excellent candidates for supporting life due to their not-too-close/not-to-far distance from their parent star. This "just right" distance allows for liquid water to exist on the surface--making for a comfy environment for life to flourish.

The planet, a gas giant roughly the size of Jupiter or Saturn, is designated as COROT-9b, but it's thought that if Jupiter can have moons, then why not COROT? The moons could be habitable, even if the main planet is not.

While other Goldilocks planets have been discovered, COROT is a diamond in the rough because it's much more easily observable from Earth. From ScienceNews:
Although a number of extrasolar planets with moderate temperatures have been discovered, only a planet that passes in front of — or transits — its star can be studied in depth. The starlight that filters through the atmosphere of the planet during each passage reveals the orb’s composition, while the amount of starlight that is blocked outright indicates the planet’s size.

All the other transiting planets seen so far have been “weird — inflated and hot” because they orbit so close to their stars, notes study collaborator Didier Queloz of the Geneva Observatory in Sauverny, Switzerland. Deeg, Queloz, and their colleagues report their findings in the March 18 Nature.
The planet is 1,500 light years away  (in the constellation Serpens), so it will be a while before we get to stop in on the neighbors and say hello!

Read the full article.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

NYT: "Large Hadron Collider Finally Smashing Properly"

Best headline of the week (so far) and best nerd news all around! From the Grey Lady:
Following two false starts due to electrical failures, protons whipped to more than 99 percent of the speed of light and to energy levels of 3.5 trillion electron volts apiece around a 17-mile underground magnetic racetrack outside of Geneva a little after 1 p.m. local time. They crashed together inside apartment-building sized detectors designed to capture every evanescent flash and fragment from microscopic fireballs thought to hold insights into the beginning of the world.

The soundless blooming of proton explosions was accompanied by the hoots and applause of scientists crowded into control rooms at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, which built the collider. The relief spread to bleary gatherings of particle physicists all around the world, who have collectively staked the future of their profession on the idea that the new collider will eventually reveal new secrets of the universe, like the identity of the dark matter that shapes the visible cosmos and the strange particle known as the “Higgs,” which is thought to imbue other particles with mass. Until now, these have been tantalizingly out of reach.
Congrats to the scientists at CERN. Send them a thank you that we may now all enter our own personal pocketverses.

Full New York Times article

Monday, March 29, 2010

Newly discovered species of humans in Siberia

Archeologists publishing in the journal Nature, have discovered the 40,000 year-old pinky bone of what appears to be a new species of human--in Siberia. (Actually, it's southern Siberia, but it's still SIBERIA). A DNA analysis revels that the, uh, owner--was neither directly related to humans or neanderthals of the era, but more likely a distinct offshoot of humans. From USAToday:
Analysis of the pinky bone discovered in a dirt layer about 40,000 years old yielded enough DNA for the gene study. It shows the creature's ancestry diverged from humans and Neanderthals roughly 1 million years ago. Dubbed "x-woman" by the researchers, despite its undetermined gender, the pinky owner may have belonged to an archaic human species such as Homo erectus or Homo heidelbergensis, known only from fossils, or an unknown pre-human species. From the size of the pinky tip, the team estimates its owner was a 5- or 6-year-old child.
Check out the full article or the article at Sharp readers will note that the image found at USAToday is a bit misleading as the pinky belonged to a child and the image is of an already known hominid.

Previously: Hobbits Discovered!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Evidence of stone age sailors discovered

Image: Nicholas Thompson and Chad DiGregorio via New York Times
Stone tools dating back to circa 100,000 years (or more) ago have been discovered on the island of Crete, indicating prehistoric sailors visited the island long before the Greeks became Ancient History, according to two new findings. From the New York Times:
Previous artifact discoveries had shown people reaching Cyprus, a few other Greek islands and possibly Sardinia no earlier than 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.The oldest established early marine travel anywhere was the sea-crossing migration of anatomically modern Homo sapiens to Australia, beginning about 60,000 years ago. There is also a suggestive trickle of evidence, notably the skeletons and artifacts on the Indonesian island of Flores, of more ancient hominids making their way by water to new habitats.Even more intriguing, the archaeologists who found the tools on Crete noted that the style of the hand axes suggested that they could be up to 700,000 years old. That may be a stretch, they conceded, but the tools resemble artifacts from the stone technology known as Acheulean, which originated with prehuman populations in Africa.
More than 2,000 artifacts were recovered from the site, so this appears to be a mega find re-writing the history books. And in what qualifies as best sci-fi inspiring quote from the article:
“We were flummoxed,” Dr. Runnels said in an interview. “These things were just not supposed to be there.”
Indeed! But still amazingly cool that these things not only existed, but in huge numbers. Now wouldn't it be cool if they discovered Atlantis and Lemuria! ;)

Read the full story...

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Reptoids of the Los Angeles Undergound!

So here's a plug-n-play RPG adventure if there ever was one. Man claims there's an entire underground city of lizard people living under LA and maps it. Cool, huh? The map above is an artifact from the 1930s and a product geophysicist mining engineer, G. Warren Shufelt. There's your adventure module right there--map and all!, a reptilian alien tracking site (I'm not joking) has reprinted the original 1934 LA Times article that gives an overview of this strange legend:

So firmly does Shufelt and a little staff of assistants believe that a maze of catacombs and priceless golden tablets are to be found beneath downtown Los Angeles that the engineer and his aids have already driven a shaft 250 feet into the ground, the mouth of the shaft being on the old Banning property on North Hill street, overlooking Sunset Boulevard, Spring street and North Broadway.
And so convinced is the engineer of the infallibility of a radio x-ray perfected by him for detecting the presence of minerals and tunnels below the surface of the ground, an apparatus with which he says he has traced a pattern of catacombs and vaults forming the lost city, that he plans to continue sending his shaft downward until he has reached a depth of 1000 feet before discontinuing operations.
It gets better, apparently the lizard people dug the catacombs with chemicals after a great fire that scorched the Earth....5,000 years ago.
Large rooms in the domes of the hills above the city of labyrinths housed 1000 families "in the manner of tall buildings" and imperishable food supplies of the herb variety were stored in the catacombs to provide sustenance for the Lizard folk for great length of time as the next fire swept over the earth.
Cool! Get the round up of links from Boing Boing.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Crystal meteorite has crunchy nougat center harder than diamond

Scientists recently discovered that crystals inside a meteorite that fell to Earth (Finland, actually) in 1971 are actually harder than diamonds. Harder than diamond substances have been created in laboratory settings by combining other substances (boron or nitrogen seem to be en vogue these days). But researchers haven't seen naturally occurring harder-than-diamond material until now. From MSNBC:
A closer look with an array of instruments revealed two totally new kinds of naturally occurring carbon, which are harder than the diamonds formed inside the Earth.
"The discovery was accidental but we were sure that looking in these meteorites would lead to new findings on the carbon system," said Tristan Ferroir of the Universite de Lyon in France.
"The only evidence we have for a higher hardness than diamond is the fact that we polished the rock section with a diamond paste and that our polymorph and polytypes were not polished by this material," said Ferroir. "This why we do think that its hardness is harder than diamond."
And no, there was not a male infant inside the meteorite upon it's descent the Earth. ;)

Full story.
Wow, and I already had crystals on the brain this week! I sense a convergence coming....

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

First evidence of asteroid collision spotted by Hubble

I wouldn't call Harry Stamper just yet, but NASA is reporting that the first photos of an apparent collision between two asteroids have been taken by the Hubble space telescope. Wired has the story:
If it’s confirmed by further observations, it would be the first time that scientists have detected the interplanetary collision between objects in the asteroid belt, though they believe that such occurrences are common.
The complex structure of the debris is what makes astronomers think they may be seeing something new around the sun. The main nucleus of the object, P/2010 A2, is actually located outside its dust halo, something that’s never been seen in a comet-like object before.
“If this interpretation is correct, two small and previously unknown asteroids recently collided, creating a shower of debris that is being swept back into a tail from the collision site by the pressure of sunlight,” Jewitt said.

Monday, January 25, 2010

My new Sci-Fi blog!

I've got a few irons in the fire, and one of them is Exonauts! my new blog about developing ideas for sci-fi RPGs and writing. Exonauts are explorers and adventurers cavorting to/from/around/on exoplanets--it's as simple as that. Instead of creating a campaign based on a single world, I thought it might be cool to do one from a an adventuring perspective where any world could be one of many destinations. So how would these exonauts be equipped, what would they find, where would they go? That's what the new blog is all about....

Have a look for yourself.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Diamonds on Uranus the Size of Icebergs!

 Photos: NASA
And Neptune too! Scientists now speculate that Uranus (yes, I'm just going to keep saying "Uranus") has oceans of liquid diamond that may also have solid "icebergs" of diamond floating on the surface. Apparently diamond is quite common in the solar system (really?) but the boiling point hasn't been previously measured. You might not think that Uranus is hot (Ha! Been waiting for that one!) but boiling--and by extension melting or vaporizing a material--also takes intense pressure. Which, as it turns out, Uranus has lots of pressure. (Must be those old jeans!).

Anyway, Discovery Networks explains how the scientists were able to replicate the science in a lab:
When the pressure dropped to about 11 million times the atmospheric pressure at sea level on Earth and the temperature dropped to about 50,000 degrees solid chunks of diamond began to appear. The pressure kept dropping, but the temperature of the diamond remained the same, with more and more chunks of diamond forming.

 Then the diamond did something unexpected. The chunks of diamond didn't sink. They floated. Microscopic diamond ice burgs floating in a tiny sea of liquid diamond. The diamond was behaving like water.
With most materials, the solid state is more dense than the liquid state. Water is an exception to that rule; when water freezes, the resulting ice is actually less dense than the surrounding water, which is why the ice floats and fish can survive a Minnesota winter.
So there you go, a concise explanation for diamond oceans and ice fishing in Minnesota all in one tidy package.


Meanwhile, on Neptune....

Hey! Uranus ain't the only one with diamonds! 

Yeah, yeah, whatever...

UPDATE! Scientists say they're launching a probe in the near future:

Seriously, I better stop because I could do this all day.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Mystery Object Hurtling Towards Earth TODAY!

Photo: E. Guido and G. Sostero / AFAM / CARA via MSNBC
Scientists have identified and object that will pass the Earth (but won't hit it) sometime today. In a somewhat disconcerting twist, they don't know what it is. It's going to fwoosh by, missing us by only 80k miles (that's a third of the distance from here to the moon just FYI). Calm yourselves people! We can get through this. See, it's only  about 10 meters wide, which turns out to be a good thing because (from MSNBC):
.....the "asteroid," or whatever it is, gives us a new standard: A 10-meter-wide (33-foot-wide) asteroid can be detected two days before it potentially hits Earth.
That's supposed to be COMFORTING? 
What makes this near-Earth object, or NEO, special is that it has an orbital period of almost exactly one year. This fact has led some scientists to speculate that 2010 AL30 could be an artificial object and not an asteroid.
So it's space junk? But couldn't it still cause some damage?
It is worth noting that even if 2010 AL30 did hit Earth, it would most likely explode high in the atmosphere (with the energy of a small nuclear bomb), posing little danger to anyone on the ground. Impacts of this size happen every year.
Well that makes me feel better! Unless it's artificial and not made by humans.....

Read more about about this impending doom from above interesting space anomaly.

UPDATE: Wired posted an update (it is an asteroid) and some new images, including an animation of the fly by.

Monday, January 11, 2010

GIANT Crystal Caves of Naica

All photos: National Geographic
Been meaning to post this one for a looooong time--and thanks to Eiglophian Press for jogging my memory! These are absolutely amazing and REAL! National Geographic did a story in 2008 and ran a TV special on Mexico's Cueva de los Cristales (Cave of the Crystals). The cave boasts some enormous crystal structures (among the largest ever discovered). The cavern is part of the Naica mine deep under the Chihuahuan Desert. It's like something out of a Jules Verne novel, but REAL! But don't take my word for it, from National Geographic:
Hidden deep beneath the surface of the Earth is one of the greatest natural marvels on the planet: a giant crystal cave with crystals up to 36 feet long and weighing 55 tons. But this scorching cavern could kill humans after just 15 minutes of exposure.

Nat Geo put together an entire web story (in their usual, superb fashion) with video as a companion to the TV special  that does this more justice than I ever could! Take a look...

Seriously, this is just about the coolest discovery I've ever heard of.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Lava Tube Awaits Lunar Colonization

Photo: ISAS/JAXA/Junichi Haruyama et al. via Popular Science
Or something like that. Actually that headline is waaaay better than "Moon hole might be suitable for colony" which was CNN's attempt at 4th grade humor.

It looks like JAXA (Japanese for NASA) has identified a lava tube that's 213 feet wide and 260 feet deep which could potentially shield lunar colonists from the dangers of intense radiation. If you've made it this far without devolving into complete "Uranus" joke humor, then congrats, because this is actually pretty cool news. From CNN:
"Lunar lava tubes are a potentially important location for a future lunar base, whether for local exploration and development, or as an outpost to serve exploration beyond the Moon," writes the team, led by Junichi Haruyama, a senior researcher with the Japanese space agency JAXA.
"Any intact lava tube could serve as a shelter from the severe environment of the lunar surface, with its meteorite impacts, high-energy UV radiation and energetic particles, and extreme diurnal temperature variations."
Lava tubes have previously been discovered on the moon, but the scientists say the new hole is notable because of its lava shield and because it does not appear to be prone to collapse.

The full story...

Popular Science also has a nice article.