Category Archives: SCIENCE!

Roger Ebert will snatch you out your car and beat you down in front of your girl

For reasons known only to himself, Ben Stein, former Nixon speechwriter, made a movie called eXpelled, which argues in favor of Intelligent Design. (And may we hope it will improve the IDers’ opinion of we atheists to note the Christ-like generosity I’ve displayed in using the word “argue” in that last sentence?) The proponents of Intelligent Design claim that it’s science all the way down to believe there’s no way life could arise in the universe without some anthropomorphic sentience behind it, and that ID totally has nothing to do with any religion like for instance lets just say Christianity. That unimpeachable lack of religiosity notwithstanding, eXpelled was distributed in a scripturally-resonant manner, in that it came and went from theaters like a thief in the night. If you asked me why Roger Ebert never reviewed eXpelled, that would be my guess as to the reason. Ben Stein is a professional conservative with a movie to promote, though, so if you ask him why Roger Ebert never reviewed it, he might say it’s because Ebert’s in the tank for Big Evolution. In fact, tonight via Pandagon I saw that he apparently did say something like that.

Stein must have confused Roger Ebert for a Democratic Senator or something, rather than a movie reviewer – a man whose job it is, among other things, to publicly declare awful movies to be awful, and explain why he thinks so. And of course, not only does Ebert do this job, not only has he done it for decades, but he is very, very successful at it. Maybe the most successful of anyone, ever. Why Ben Stein didn’t know better than to pick this fight, I couldn’t say, but god bless him that he did, so I could get to read Ebert pwning him so hard his trilobite ancestors probably felt it.


Clouds and their discontents

On the Proceedings of the Athanasius Kircher Society, I found a post about hole punch clouds, which took me to this perfectly wonderful site: The Cloud Appreciation Society. The very existence of a Cloud Appreciation Society website makes me happy and full of love for humanity. Then from this image of a tornado, there’s a link to video of that tornado. And then from there are links to many, many other videos of tornadoes on that site.

So that’s your post for today. Clouds, doing beautiful, amazing, terrifying things, sometimes all at once.

Beyond (way beyond) lithium ion

Eric and I were discussing renewable energy at Christmas dinner, and how the challenge isn’t generation, it’s storage. I described hearing about pumped hydro storage, which was a new idea to the table (I’ve only run across it once myself, in, I think, a comment thread at Matt Yglesias‘ blog). So I googled it up, and found the above link, via this article about a proposed artificial island used for that purpose. So there you go.

And my mind’s blown for the day

Comet Holmes Bigger Than The Sun

Formerly, the Sun was the largest object in the Solar System. Now, comet 17P/Holmes holds that distinction.

Spectacular outbursting comet 17P/Holmes exploded in size and brightness on October 24. It continues to expand and is now the largest single object in the Solar system, being bigger than the Sun (see Figure). The diameter of the tenuous dust atmosphere of the comet was measured at 1.4 million kilometers (0.9 million miles) on 2007 November 9 by Rachel Stevenson, Jan Kleyna and Pedro Lacerda of the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy. They used observations from a wide-field camera on the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT), one of the few professional instruments still capable of capturing the whole comet in one image.

That’s a big comet. [<— To be read in a Winston Zeddemore voice]

(via Making Light)


Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings links to an article about a cat who lies down, apparently without fail, next to people in the dementia ward of a nursing home, when they’re about to die.

Twenty-five minutes later, the door finally opens, and out walks a nurse’s aide carrying dirty linens. “Hello, Oscar,” she says. “Are you going inside?” Oscar lets her pass, then makes his way into the room, where there are two people. Lying in a corner bed and facing the wall, Mrs. T. is asleep in a fetal position. Her body is thin and wasted from the breast cancer that has been eating away at her organs. She is mildly jaundiced and has not spoken in several days. Sitting next to her is her daughter, who glances up from her novel to warmly greet the visitor. “Hello, Oscar. How are you today?”

Oscar takes no notice of the woman and leaps up onto the bed. He surveys Mrs. T. She is clearly in the terminal phase of illness, and her breathing is labored. Oscar’s examination is interrupted by a nurse, who walks in to ask the daughter whether Mrs. T. is uncomfortable and needs more morphine. The daughter shakes her head, and the nurse retreats. Oscar returns to his work. He sniffs the air, gives Mrs. T. one final look, then jumps off the bed and quickly leaves the room. Not today.

Making his way back up the hallway, Oscar arrives at Room 313. The door is open, and he proceeds inside. Mrs. K. is resting peacefully in her bed, her breathing steady but shallow. She is surrounded by photographs of her grandchildren and one from her wedding day. Despite these keepsakes, she is alone. Oscar jumps onto her bed and again sniffs the air. He pauses to consider the situation, and then turns around twice before curling up beside Mrs. K.

One hour passes. Oscar waits. A nurse walks into the room to check on her patient. She pauses to note Oscar’s presence. Concerned, she hurriedly leaves the room and returns to her desk. She grabs Mrs. K.’s chart off the medical-records rack and begins to make phone calls.

Within a half hour the family starts to arrive. Chairs are brought into the room, where the relatives begin their vigil. The priest is called to deliver last rites. And still, Oscar has not budged, instead purring and gently nuzzling Mrs. K. A young grandson asks his mother, “What is the cat doing here?” The mother, fighting back tears, tells him, “He is here to help Grandma get to heaven.” Thirty minutes later, Mrs. K. takes her last earthly breath. With this, Oscar sits up, looks around, then departs the room so quietly that the grieving family barely notices.

Various commenters at ObWi gave their theories about how Oscar senses impending death. Maybe smell; maybe some sort of electrical sense like sharks have. I support the “smell” theory myself, for no other reason that that it seems more right to me.

In the comment thread, someone contested the view that cats might have developed the ability to sense death as part of their evolution as predators by arguing that cats are hunters, not scavengers. I don’t know if that’s such a huge difference, though; I would think that any carnivore who knows when its prey is going to die anyway, and can wait it out, would have an advantage over a carnivore who spends calories chasing down its prey whether it needs to or not.

Primates generously share experience of living in industrialized society

Scientists Put Shrimp on a Treadmill

The shrimp treadmill, invented and built by Scholnick, allows researchers to measure the activity of an exercising shrimp for a set period of time at known speed and oxygen levels.

“As far as I know this is the first time that shrimp have been exercised on a treadmill and it was amazing to see how well they performed,” Scholnick told LiveScience. “Healthy shrimp ran and swam at treadmill speeds of up to 20 meters per minute [66 feet per minute] for hours with little indication of fatigue.”

No fatigue now, sure, but wait ’til they buy a house and have kids.

(via Boing Boing)


Scientists Determine the Nature of Black Hole Jets

Most quasars have jets. A quasar is bright galaxy core fueled by a supermassive black hole containing the mass of millions to billions of suns confined within a region about the size of our solar system. The particle jets, usually in opposing pairs, shoot off perpendicularly from the flat disk of gas that swirls around the black hole.

Sambruna’s team, comprising researchers at Goddard and the Merate Observatory, Merate, Italy, studied a type of quasar called a blazar. Blazars are quasars with their particle jets aimed in our direction, as if we are staring down the barrel of the gun.

If I were mean, I’d throw goatse in right here for a visual punchline, and get all of you who read this at work fired.

(via Ellis)

Intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious WHOOPS SORRY FALSE ALARM

From Slashdot:

Ten years later, most scientists believe that everything in the meteorite can be explained by non-biological processes. “We certainly have not convinced the community, and that’s been a little bit disappointing,” said David McKay, a scientist behind the ‘life on Mars’ paper. Unfortunately, David McKay’s own brother is one of his critics. “He [David] got a little testy about the results we were getting,” said Gordon McKay. “What we have shown is that it is possible to form these things inorganically.”

Dammit! Still waiting.

Seeing as how the Boston Pops played tonight and all…

When I were a lad, my mom had a boxed set of the Boston Pops doing — wait for it — popular songs. Among them was one of her favorites (a family favorite, really), “Mah-Nah-Mah-Nah.” Family consensus regarded the Boston Pops version as a cover tune, though. Everyone knows that if “Mah-Nah-Mah-Nah” is to be sung, it is to be sung by muppets.

Now, through the magic of YouTube, which is really the greatest thing to hit the Internets since Google, here’s the original muppet version from Sesame Street:

Seriously: huge open-mouthed OMG smile, doing the chairbound “I can’t believe how fucking wonderful this is” dance.

(via Slacktivist)

UPDATE: Holy crap.

A headline from the sort of world I want to live in

Boing Boing: Bacteria eats chocolate and shits electricity

I imagine vats of these little bastards, metabolizing away underneath the local Shell station:

Microbiologist Lynne Mackaskie and her colleagues at the University of Birmingham in the UK have powered a fuel cell by feeding sugar-loving bacteria chocolate-factory waste. “We wanted to see if we tipped chocolate into one end, could we get electricity out at the other?” she says.

The team fed Escherichia coli bacteria diluted caramel and nougat waste. The bacteria consumed the sugar and produced hydrogen, which they make with the enzyme hydrogenase, and organic acids. The researchers then used this hydrogen to power a fuel cell, which generated enough electricity to drive a small fan (Biochemical Society Transactions, vol 33, p 76).

Shiva is a virus

Bird flu’s coming, and we live in a banana republic.  The government’s taking a market-based approach to preparation (“People will help each other out!  It’ll be like a country-wide Amish barn-raising of disaster relief!  You’ll be happy about bird flu before it’s all over!  Government help?  I guess we’ll probably arrest some looters or something, at some point.”)

So you’re on your own, basically, to weather the grim meathook future.  Thus, please find linked a recipe for Tamiflu, courtesy of Make Magazine.

(via Majikthise)

“The enemy is so close I can taste him!”

Via Majikthise:

Researchers at the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition envision their work giving Army Rangers 360-degree unobstructed vision at night and allowing Navy SEALs to sense sonar in their heads while maintaining normal vision underwater — turning sci-fi into reality.

The device, known as “Brain Port,” was pioneered more than 30 years ago by Dr. Paul Bach-y-Rita, a University of Wisconsin neuroscientist. Bach-y-Rita began routing images from a camera through electrodes taped to people’s backs and later discovered the tongue was a superior transmitter.

A narrow strip of red plastic connects the Brain Port to the tongue where 144 microelectrodes transmit information through nerve fibers to the brain. Instead of holding and looking at compasses and bluky-hand-held sonar devices, the divers can processes the information through their tongues, said Dr. Anil Raj, the project’s lead scientist.

In testing, blind people found doorways, noticed people walking in front of them and caught balls. A version of the device, expected to be commercially marketed soon, has restored balance to those whose vestibular systems in the inner ear were destroyed by antibiotics.

Talk about routing around damage. It lets blind people catch a ball? That sounds like proof-of-concept right there.

Also, if they make it wireless, the potential for visual puns on the word “bluetooth” is obvious.