Cassini, We’re Going to Miss You!

The Cassini spacecraft is about to end its role in one of the most incredible scientific journeys in history. Launched almost twenty years ago on a billion-mile trip to Saturn, Cassini has been sending back astounding images and data ever since. An international collaboration of U.S. and European space agencies, Cassini has probably delivered more surprises to researchers on Earth than any probe before or after—ranging from pictures of the mist-shrouded surface of Titan with its methane lakes and rivers, to the water geysers and hidden ocean of Enceladus, to the stunning beauty and complexity of the rings, to the crazy giant hexagon* on the north pole of Saturn itself.

NASA has produced a breathtaking video summary of Cassini’s journey, which I would embed here if I could find the embed code. But click here, and watch it in full screen. It’ll be the best five minutes you spent today.

Cassini has been a workhorse of stellar quality. But it’s finally running out of fuel—years after the originally planned end date of its mission—and to keep it from accidentally colliding with one of the potentially life-hosting moons, it’s going out in a blaze of glory, burning up tomorrow morning in Saturn’s upper atmosphere. It makes me sad. I wish it could have been kept in a parking orbit somewhere safe, so that some future exploration crew could have docked with it, put placards on it, and turned it into the Saturn branch of the Smithsonian, to be kept in perpetuity. But caution ruled, and rightly so, I guess. We’re looking eagerly for extraterrestrial life, and it wouldn’t do for the field to be littered with bits of Earth life. Plus, she’ll be doing science all the way in as she augers into Saturn, where she’ll melt and burn and vaporize at the end. What a way to go.

I feel kind of weepy, imagining that. But you can watch it live right here, Friday morning at 7-8:30 a.m. EDT.

Here’s a collection of some of Cassini’s greatest hits.

*Which I still maintain is a hex socket for aliens to use in opening up the top of the planet. JPL scientists insist it’s a weather system, and usually I believe them. This time, I’m not so sure.

Boaty McBoatface, Meet Trainy McTrainface

Do Swedish authorities have a better sense of humor than British authorities? Maybe. The British public, in an internet poll, voted to name a new oceanographic research ship Boaty McBoatface (which, for the record, I think is an excellent name for a serious new science platform.) The UK’s Natural Environment Research Council overruled the poll, though, and named the new ship the Royal Research Ship Sir David Attenborough . They didn’t discard the Boaty name, thank Heaven; that name went to the remote submersibles that would be working from the ship. The new Boaty has already gone to work, studying the abyssal currents of the Antarctic, as part of climate warming research.

Meanwhile, in a Swedish poll to name a new train, the spirit of Boaty rose up and won the name of Trainy McTrainface. And the Swedish train authorities said, “You got it!” The new name will go on this handsome train.

 

Some of Us Are Really Smart!

I think we all knew it, deep down inside: Those of us with desks that look like cyclone hits, who swear “too much,” whatever that is, and who stay up way too late and get up late, too… yeah, we’re smarter than you neatnik clock-watching do-gooders. Arwa Mahdawi says so in The Guardian, and why wouldn’t you trust her?

“I’m very intelligent. I’m also extremely creative and have a vocabulary that could be described as voluminous, venerable or very large. But don’t just take my word for it: science says so…” [read more]

Here’s proof of my own smartness. (I neatened it up some.)

And here’s the inevitable kibitzer:

“Aren’t you supposed to be working?”

March for Science, Boston

The Boston branch of the March for Science drew a gratifyingly large and diverse crowd to Boston Common. I decided it was time to get out there and put my feet where my mouth is (not in my mouth; you know what I mean), and I’m glad I did. Here are some pictures to tell the story.

 

 

 

I don’t know who any of these people are, just that they cared enough to come out in support of science, clear thinking, and the welfare of our planet.

Happy Earth Day!

How Can You Not Like Tardigrades?

I have just finished our taxes, and in celebration I am toasting the tardigrade! This hardy little critter can survive the vacuum of space, the cold of near absolute zero, and temperatures up to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. These little extremophiles are tough! All it asks is some moss to suck on. How can you not admire the tardigrade, who is sort of cute, in the same way certain breeds of dogs are cute.

You’ll like this short video about them on Curiosity.com. (I couldn’t find a way to embed it here.)

Are tardigrades the secret to panspermia, the seeding of life through the universe? I wonder.

 

Science Proves Dogs Understand Words the Way Humans Do

MRI scans of dogs brains show them responding not just to a speaker’s tone of voice (right brain function), but to the meanings of spoken words (left brain function). Now, this is cool—if perhaps unsurprising to dog owners. Nice to see it confirmed by a brain scanner, though! And those are some adorable-looking dogs. Read more about it in Science News. (Update: This Washington Post article has more information, including some video of how they did the research.)

Picture by ENIKŐ KUBINYI

 

 

Optimism Makes Us More Adaptable, Says Carver

smiley-frowny-face-smNo, that’s not me I quoted in the title. But Prevention magazine, in an article titled, 9 Traits Optimists Have In Common, quotes extensively from noted University of Miami psychologist Charles S. Carver, who says that optimists, compared to pessimists, tend to be:

  • More resilient
  • Less likely to quit
  • Quicker to forgive
  • Less stressed

and five other more or lesses than. Yay! (I tend to be pretty optimistic. Although I can’t vouch for the “sounder sleepers” item; I don’t sleep soundly at all. But I think a lot of the other traits quoted in the article fit.)

And now maybe I should read the linked article, 7 Reasons You’re Tired All The Time. (I wonder if optimists are more tolerant of listicles. Hm. Nah.)

Charles S. Carver, by the way, is my big brother. Ironically, I think he’d probably call himself a pessimist, but that may just be my view as the younger sib.

Do the Funky Conch Hop

posted in: nature, science | 0

A conch is a kind of snail, right? And snails don’t jump; they ooze, right? Well, not always, it turns out. Here, from Science News, is a story about the motion of Gibberulus gibberulus gibbosus, aka hunchbacked conch.

To quote: “The sea snails save their jumping for conch emergencies, such as when they detect dissolved body odor from the deadly cone snail Conus marmoreus. Cone snails glide rather than jump. But if a cone snail gets close enough, it harpoons the conch with a long, venom-delivering proboscis that is as agile as an elephant’s trunk. Then it reels in the paralyzed conch like a fish on the line. Such threats favor epic jumping in spite of the conch circulatory system…” [more]

Watch this conch jump. (It’s small in the screen, so click in the lower right corner to maximize.)

Braided Clouds, from Space

This NASA image caught my eye on The Atlantic’s website. (Click the link if this embed code doesn’t work. Ah, nope, it doesn’t. Click the link.) Cloud vortices off Heard Island, south Indian Ocean, from NASA’s Aqua satellite.

Cloud vortices off Heard Island, south Indian Ocean. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard NASA’s Aqua satellite captured this true-color image of sea ice off Heard Island on Nov 2, 2015 at 5:02 AM EST (09:20 UTC). A cloud vortex- the circular pattern seen here- is produced by the flow of air in the atmosphere. Heard Island (visible in the lower right portion of the image) is located in the Indian Ocean, about two-thirds of the way from Madagascar to Antarctica. The island is uninhabited by humans, although it is home to many birds and seals. Heard Island is rugged and mountainous, and is mostly covered with ice. It is also home to an active volcano, Mawson Peak. The island has been a territory of Australia since 1947. Credit: NASA/Goddard/Jeff Schmaltz/MODIS Land Rapid Response Team #nasagoddard
A photo posted by NASA Goddard (@nasagoddard) on

The Cat’s Still Alive (and Dead)! — Schrödinger Sessions

Not really Schrödinger’s cat, but she is in a box.

I’ve just come back from an incredible weekend at the Schrödinger Sessions: Science for Science Fiction, at the Joint Quantum Institute at the University of Maryland, near Washington, D.C. The JQI staff hosted just over a dozen SF writers, and for several days stuffed our heads full of information about quantum physics. It was head-exploding. But in a good way!

Here are some of the things we learned from Chad Orzel, Steve Rolston, Chris Monroe, and others:

  • How to become quantum (which only works if you are very small, much smaller even than I was when I was at my low weight).
  • How (if you can master the first step) you can be in two places at one time—and also how to collapse that state so that you’re just in one.
  • How to trap a single charged atom (ion) in a vacuum trap and cool it to just a whisker above Absolute Zero. (And we leaned over and didn’t touch! equipment that does just that.)
  • How to quantum-entangle two or more particles in the above-mentioned apparatus. (Okay, I still don’t really understand how to do that.)
  • How to make light disappear with two polarized filters, and reappear with the addition of a third. (I sort of understand that.)
  • That sometimes the answer to the question “Why?” is “Just shut up and calculate.”
  • That probability is not a definition of a thing, but a statement of our knowledge of a system.
  • That probability is not a definition of knowledge after all, but of our ignorance about a system.
  • That there are two rules of quantum mechanics:
  1. Quantum objects are waves, and can be in states of superposition (more than one position at a time).
  2. Rule #1 holds as long as you don’t look!

Professor James Gates (familiar from countless PBS documentaries) told us why he doesn’t buy the extra dimensions suggested by most string theorists.
Professor Raman Sundrum (of the Randall-Sundrum Model) told us why he does, and furthermore why it’s possible we’re living in a holographic universe.

I learned that quantum physicists say “I don’t know” a lot.

There was tons more, presented by a bunch of professors. I hope I can remember it. Or most of it. Or some of it.

Part of it, in fact, plays right into what I’m trying to do in The Reefs of Time. So I really hope I can remember that part.

Maybe I’ll buy the book by Chad Orzel, one of the workshop leaders, How to Teach [Quantum] Physics to Your Dog.

Down in there is a glowing cluster of verra verra cold ytterbium atoms.    
 
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