In The Astrophysical Journal Letters, astronomer Eric Agol argues that searches for exoplanets should be expanded to include white dwarf stars, because planets orbiting those stars would be easier to spot: white dwarfs are small enough that a transiting planet would eclipse the stellar disc significantly, and the star’s habitable zone would be so close that a habitable planet would transit within 32 hours. I’d be interested to know how white dwarfs, which are supposed to be stars at the end of their lives, could have planets that close; they started out as much bigger stars, and a close-in habitable planet would have had to come from somewhere further out, wouldn’t it? Via 80beats.
My Correct Views on Everything
↳ March 2011
Michael Ignatieff responds to the Conservative attack ads that tried to define him as “just visiting” — and does so in a very classy way.
I’ve been bothered by the Conservatives’ line of argument for some time. Essentially, it says that anyone who moves away does not have the right to participate in politics. You see it at the constituency level: candidate A has lived in this riding all his life, so vote for him rather than the other guy. By that logic, I couldn’t run for elected office locally, because I just got here eight years ago — I’m just visiting. But by the same logic, I couldn’t go back to Winnipeg to run for office where I grew up, because I up and left them 15 years ago. So many people move around the world for economic reasons: these are the people Harm de Blij calls “mobals” in The Power of Place. None of them, according to the Conservatives, are fit for office. (Of course they’re being disingenuous about it: they don’t really believe it, it’s just something to try to whack the Liberals with.)
An introduced population of Burmese pythons, likely descended from escaped pets or escapees from exotic importers, is thriving in the Everglades. An article in the April 2011 issue of Smithsonian magazine profiles researchers who are trying to determine the environmental impact of these snakes, who really shouldn’t be in Florida, by examining their stomach contents. (Which is unpleasant.) They’re focusing on birds; their research, published in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology, found 25 species of birds in the stomachs of 85 pythons, including one endangered species. Via Boing Boing.
In a previous entry I made reference to something called a thagomizer. This is what the spikey bit at the end of a stegosaur’s tail is called. The name comes from a Far Side cartoon (in which a caveman lecturer points to a stegosaur’s tail and calls it the thagomizer, “after the late Thag Simmons”) in 1982. In the 1990s, paleontologists began using it informally to describe collectively the spikes at the end of a stegosaur’s tail, because it was fun, and they had no other term for it. It caught on. (I, for one, will never get tired of using the word.)
Today, Brian Switek writes about what the fossil record says about the use of the thagomizer as a weapon — for example, the existence of a thagomizer-shaped hole in an Allosaurus bone.
After three flybys of the planet in 2008 and 2009, the MESSENGER probe is now in orbit around Mercury. It’s the first spacecraft to do so. This is the first image of Mercury taken from orbit. The large rayed crater is named Debussy (Mercury’s craters are named after significant artists, authors and musicians). More (as usual) from Bad Astronomy and The Planetary Society Blog. Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington.
The news is, of course, all over the place: a juvenile Egyptian Cobra went missing from an off-exhibit enclosure at the Bronx Zoo on Friday, necessitating the closure of the reptile house until it’s recaptured. The zoo’s statement sounds right to me, from what I know about snake escapes.
Via National Geographic Daily News: two new species of Asian pit viper — Crypetlytrops cardamomensis, the Cardamom Mountains Green Pit Viper, and Crypetlytrops rubeus, the Ruby-eyed Green Pit Viper — have been described in an article published in Zootaxa (PDF). Some of the specimens assigned to C. rubeus were previously assigned to the Large-eyed Green Pit Viper, Cryptelytrops (Trimeresurus) macrops, which has also been redescribed in this article. According to the article, the new species are morphologically, genetically, and geographically distinct from other pit vipers (which is more than can be said for some new species). Not only that, from the accompanying photos it’s clear that these are very pretty snakes.
Yesterday’s APOD was this mosaic image of Mars, assembled from 102 images taken by the Viking orbiters in the 1970s and projected onto a sphere — it’s more of a globe than a photo, in other words. It’s centred on Valles Marineris, the thousands-of-kilometres-long canyon that cuts across the face of Mars. See the caption text.
And while I’m on the subject of Mars, don’t miss Phil Plait’s post about a crazy elongated crater found on the planet.
Tycho’s Supernova (SN 1572) was observed in November 1572. More than 400 years later, this is how the supernova remnant looks to the Chandra X-ray Observatory. This image combines X-ray imagery from Chandra with visible-spectrum light (in which the remnant cannot be seen: compare). Via Bad Astronomy and Universe Today. Image credit: NASA/CXC/Rutgers/K.Eriksen et al. (X-ray); DSS (optical).
I posted a lot of infrared images taken by WISE, the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, on Prime Focus during its run. The orbiting space telescope has since run out of the coolant required for its infrared detectors and has since been put into its hibernation mode, but there are still plenty of images being released. Take, for example, the above image of Sharpless 284 (Sh 2-284), a nebula in the constellation Monoceros. This is a false-colour image of infrared light, which is invisible to the naked eye: different colours represent different infrared wavelengths. Red is 22 µm and green is 12 µm; these wavelengths mostly represent emissions from dust. Cyan is 4.6 µm and blue is 3.4 µm; these wavelengths mostly represent starlight. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA.
Most astronaut photography is done with Nikon digital SLRs these days, but back in the dark days of film, the camera of choice, especially during the Apollo program, was often a Hasselblad. Hasselblad’s Astronaut Photography Manual (PDF) has been circulating around the Internet recently. The 40-page manual dates to 1984, during the early days of the shuttle program, and covers a lot of photography basics — with the understanding that the photographer is an astronaut, the camera is a Hasselblad and the subject matter is outer fricking space.
Nothing quite like being woken up at 3:30 AM by a fight in the parking lot after the nearby bar closes. About seven people were involved. I don’t think much happened except a lot of shouting before they drove off. When you consider that we’re about 25 metres from the bar that is the source of this and other trouble — add to the list a fight a few months ago that apparently put someone in the hospital — I’m surprised that this doesn’t happen more often. (It was common enough when I lived in Ottawa’s Chinatown.) While it can get pretty rough across the laneway, it never seems to do more than disturb our sleep. The local drunkards must be following some rule about that.
For the third and final part of my look at the short fiction nominees for the 2010 Nebula Awards, we now turn to the novellas, which for award purposes range from 17,500 to 40,000 words in length. They’re long stories you can read in a single sitting. It’s quite possibly my favourite story length, and I know I’m not alone in that view. In fact, I’d already read — and bought in hardcover — two of the nominated stories, and knew I’d have a hard time picking between the two of them. Let’s see how they stand up against the rest of the field.
I know I’m linking to Jerry Lodriguss’s site a lot lately, but I need to make a note of his post on image scale. There’s a lot of discussion in astrophotography about pixel size and focal length (the size of each pixel on an astronomical CCD camera, usually measured in microns, and the focal length of a telescope), in order to arrive at the ideal image scale: the number of pixels per arcsecond of sky (or, conversely, arcseconds per pixel). Astrophotography is complicated.
After the loss of the Butler’s garter snake, I was beginning to worry about some of my other garters, who are getting up there. In particular, Extrovert, the female wandering garter snake and grande dame of the collection, who will be 12 this year. She’s been refusing her meals, which was starting to worry me. (One or two skipped meals is no big deal; after that I start getting a little concerned.) She wasn’t interested in her mouse again tonight, so Jennifer hit the garter snake reset button: she offered earthworms and scented the mouse with worm (i.e., rubbed it in worm slime — nom!). That worked: Extro stuffed her face. The reset button, as I call it, means offering a garter snake something besides mice to reboot its appetite. We’ve done it before, and I expect that it’ll work again here, and she’ll be back on unscented mice in short order.
Another newly released Hubble image, this one of spiral galaxy NGC 5584, 72 million light years away in the constellation Virgo. This visible-light image was captured by the Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 in early 2010. Image credit: NASA, ESA, A. Riess (STScI/JHU), L. Macri (Texas A&M University), and Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA).
I’ve just finished reading Aliette de Bodard’s very interesting Obsidian and Blood series of novels, two of which are out so far: Servant of the Underworld and Harbinger of the Storm. These are murder mystery novels set in 15th-century Tenochtitlan, and honestly that would have been enough, but these are also fantasy novels — this is an Aztec empire where the Aztec religion is real and present, and blood sacrifices are necessary to keep the sun in the sky and ensure the survival of life on earth.
The novels’ unlikely hero is Acatl, the high priest of Mictlantecuhtli, god of the underworld. The murders he is called upon to investigate turn out to be weighted with personal import, political intrigue — which Acatl has no interest in — and the fate of the entire Aztec universe. Spells and sacrifices are the tools of his investigations, and he’s as likely to interview a god as he is a guard — indeed, his interactions with the gods seem almost too casual, too matter-of-fact. Characterization and description are thin here, as you might expect in a crime novel, but the explorations of Aztec cosmology and society, as well as the convoluted plotting and scheming, make these engaging, readable books very much worth your time. (The Kindle versions could have been better formatted, though.) I’m looking forward to more.
There is this thing called charismatic megafauna: using large, well-known and popular animal species as ambassadors to further more general conservation goals. Saving the panda, for example, is easier to sell than preserving biodiversity in its range. One does not expect reptiles and amphibians to make it to the privileged ranks of charismatic megafauna, especially not an ugly giant aquatic salamander with a nasty bite. But the North Carolina Zoo has has gone and done that very thing with the hellbender — also known as the “snot otter” — to promote clean rivers in that state. The Wall Street Journal — of all places — has the story. As you can imagine, marketing something called a snot otter is, well, a challenge, but the zoo is up for it. From the WSJ article:
Despite various PR hurdles — hellbenders are cannibals, for example — the zoo’s nonprofit arm is gamely trying to popularize the creature. In the works is an ambitious marketing campaign that could ultimately involve not just T-shirts and educational posters, but also sock puppets and Christmas ornaments.
Already up and wriggling is the mascot, Snotty, a big-tailed lizard look-alike with brown skin, beady eyes and stubby teeth.
He made his debut —with mixed results — at the New River Celebration in Laurel Springs, N.C., this past summer.
Lots of Herbig-Haro objects can be seen in this image of emission nebula NGC 6729, captured by the ESO’s Very Large Telescope. In this false-colour narrowband image (explained here), hydrogen emissions are coloured orange and sulphur emissions are coloured blue. Via Universe Today. (Image credit: ESO.)
Last week, I looked at the nominees for the 2010 Nebula Award for best short story; this week it’s the turn of the nominees for best novelette. Novelettes run from 7,500 to 17,500 words, which affords a lot more breathing room to the story: this can mean a more thoroughly explored setting, more developed characters, and a more intricate plot. Whereas the short story nominees frequently made their point via a swift jab to the abdomen, followed by a savage thrust upwards, the novelettes get where they’re going by unhurried, albeit direct, means.
Two months ago I mentioned that our 10-year-old Butler’s garter snake was probably not long for this world. She died today. Despite an incredibly large tumour and losing a substantial chunk of her tail during her last shed, she was responsive right up until the end, and ate as recently as last week. At more than 10 years old, she was probably one of the longest-lived members of her species in captivity.
The price of a pair of four-gigabyte sticks of RAM is a lot lower than I thought it was, so Jennifer and I upgraded both computers to eight gigabytes of RAM. (Fun fact: the iMac and the MacBook Pro, both 2009 machines, use the same type of RAM). That’s double the previous memory in the iMac and quadruple that of the MacBook. Overkill? Not really, especially in my case, where my browser usage tended to use up so much memory that I had a hard time running multiple apps. (Aperture and Safari? Fuggedaboutit.) Eight gigs gives a Mac a lot more breathing room: if you give OS X more memory, it will use all of it, but apps run so much more nicely when the system has more to use.
Patrick McKenzie has some perspective on the earthquake and tsunami in Japan — especially on disaster preparedness:
Japan is exceptionally well-prepared to deal with natural disasters: it has spent more on the problem than any other nation, largely as a result of frequently experiencing them. […]
Ogaki has approximately 150,000 people. The city’s disaster preparedness plan lists exactly how many come from English-speaking countries. It is less than two dozen. Why have a maintained list of English translators at the ready? Because Japanese does not have a word for excessive preparation. […]
The overwhelming response of Japanese engineering to the challenge posed by an earthquake larger than any in the last century was to function exactly as designed. Millions of people are alive right now because the system worked and the system worked and the system worked.
Via Elizabeth Bear.
To follow up on the mosaic image of near side of the Moon that was assembled from 1,300 images taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, here’s the mosaic for the Moon’s far side. It’s part of a global mosaic released this month that comprises 15,000 images acquired by the LRO’s wide-angle camera between November 2009 and February 2011. (Image credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University.)
Filmmaker Stephen Van Vuuren is working on an IMAX project called Outside In: it uses still images from the Cassini mission to create an impressive fly-through of the Saturn system — without CGI. This is all the more remarkable when you consider that Cassini’s cameras aren’t all that high resolution by modern standards: 1024×1024 — one megapixel, which is certainly less than IMAX resolution. I can’t quibble with the end result: the full IMAX resolution test (at 0:56 of the clip above) literally choked me up. Via io9 and Universe Today.
Hardly a winter goes by around here without several houses burning to the ground; in that context, the fire that broke out up the street from us this afternoon was apparently (and hopefully!) minor and seems to have been put out quickly by the Shawville-Clarendon Fire Department. You can’t see the house in question in my photo above; the guy there is directing traffic onto Elizabeth Avenue, as the emergency vehicles are completely blocking Centre Street.
Yesterday, CJOB, a news radio station in Winnipeg, reported that Silver Heights Collegiate, my old high school, was being demolished to make way for a condo development. The school closed four years ago, merging with the nearby technical-vocational high school (see previous entry). Built in 1957, it wasn’t that old a building, all things considered, but it seemed kind of old and decrepit when I was there more than 20 years ago. I don’t suppose there was much point in renovating it. Still, condos. Yech.
It’s an age-old question (I even remember it being a Carson-era Tonight Show gag in the mid-eighties): how the hell do you spell Moammar Gadhafi’s name? The Associated Press explains why it goes with “Gadhafi” rather than dozens of other possibilities. “[T]he spelling is complicated by a perfect storm of issues: Arabic letters or sounds that don’t exist in English, differences in pronunciation between formal Arabic and dialects, and differences between transliteration systems.” Via Boing Boing.
“The Fall of Alacan,” a new fantasy novelette by Tobias Buckell, is now up on Subterranean Online. It’s set in the world of The Alchemist and The Executioness, the pair of novellas by Buckell and Paolo Bacigalupi that impressed me so much last November as an audiobook. (We’ve since bought the hardcovers.) I’m delighted that Buckell has given us another look at this world in which the poisonous bramble grows wherever magic is used. In this story, a prequel to the novellas (in which the fall of Alacan to the bramble serves as a warning and a source of refugees), a thief struggles to escape the city while honouring an enemy’s dying request. Go, read. (Announcements: Tobias Buckell, Subterranean Press.)
Discovery touched down today for the last time. (Photo credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls, Creative Commons licence.)
Nominees for the 2010 Nebula Awards were announced on February 22. I thought it might be an interesting exercise to read as many of the short fiction nominees as possible and blog my impressions about them. We’ll start with the short stories, all of which can be read online (though not necessarily after the awards season).
(Don’t complain about spoilers. I don’t care.)
No Dinosaurs in Heaven is a documentary that looks at “the hijacking of science education by religious fundamentalists” in the United States.
The documentary weaves together two strands: an examination of the problem posed by creationists who earn science education degrees only to advocate anti-scientific beliefs in the classroom; and a visually stunning raft trip down the Grand Canyon, led by Dr. Eugenie Scott, that debunks creationist explanations for its formation. These two strands expose the fallacies in the “debate,” manufactured by anti-science forces, that creationism is a valid scientific alternative to evolution.
Data from Cassini’s composite infrared spectrometer of Enceladus’ south polar terrain, which is marked by linear fissures, indicate that the internal heat-generated power is about 15.8 gigawatts, approximately 2.6 times the power output of all the hot springs in the Yellowstone region, or comparable to 20 coal-fueled power stations.
Or 13 DeLorean time machines! (On the principle that all gigawatt values must be compared to the power requirements of Dr. Emmett Brown’s creation.)
Anyway. A previous study predicted that 1.1 gigawatts of heat would be produced by the tidal forces from Enceladus’ 2:1 orbital resonance with Dione, and another 0.3 gigawatts from natural radioactivity. It’s apparently an order of magnitude greater. More heat means a greater likelihood of liquid water under Enceladus’ icy surface, which especially gets astrobiologists all excited.
(Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.)
If you’re just tuning in (or you haven’t been paying close enough attention), you may not know that I’ve been suffering from ankylosing spondylitis for the past 14 years. From 2004 to 2010 I ran a blog called Ankylose This! — I stopped when Blogger discontinued FTP publishing last year. (I was more or less done in any event.) If you don’t mind, I’m going to continue posting about A.S. on this blog instead. Here’s a roundup of some A.S.-related stories I’ve run across this morning.
Spiral galaxy NGC 247, seen here in this image taken by the Wide Field Imager (WFI) on the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at the European Southern Observatory’s La Silla Observatory in Chile, is about a million light years closer than previously thought. ESO release, Universe Today. (Image credit: ESO.)
Jerry Lodriguss discusses photographing the Moon with a Dobsonian telescope. Which you can do, because lunar photography doesn’t require a tracking mount — I mount my camera-plus-telescope combination on a basic alt-azimuth mount like this one. I can’t imagine the resolution you’d get with that much aperture: Jerry’s using four times the aperture — 16 times the light-gathering — that I normally use. (Note that Jerry used afocal photography; I use prime focus. Not that you couldn’t use a prime focus adapter on a Dob.)
Brian Switek places that recent study suggesting that there were too many Tyrannosaurus in the fossil record for it to have been an apex predator in the context of an 18-year debate about Tyrannosaurus’ scavenging ways. “That Tyrannosaurus was an opportunistic carnivore that both hunted and scavenged isn’t news. Paleontologists have been saying this in response to Horner’s ‘obligate scavenging’ hypothesis for years, and Holtz specifically drew comparisons to predators like spotted hyenas. [Which primarily hunt, but also scavenge. —JC] What is noteworthy is that Horner appears to have softened his original hypothesis to the point where I was surprised that Holtz’s paper was not cited as a more direct source of support for Tyrannosaurus as an opportunistic feeder.”
Previously: Too Many Tyrannosauruses.
My online income has been going down since its peak in 2007, and lately it’s been getting worse. Amazon affiliate revenues have been relatively stable, but Google AdSense revenues have basically collapsed. To get a sense of what I mean, here is a comparison of my AdSense revenues for January for the last six years.
Tonight we discovered, in addition to the expected freshly shed skin, a total of five infertile eggs in the Aesculapian Snake’s cage. This was a bit of a surprise: we knew that she was a she, but it’s the first time she’s pulled this stunt since I bought her in the summer of 2002. Snakes can and do lay infertile eggs without having mated (albeit infrequently, at least in my experience). Even so, March is an odd month of the year to be doing it. She’s no worse the wear for it: from what we can tell, she’s passed all the eggs and there’s no risk of egg-binding. Not alarming, just interesting.
Much online consternation about the Tolkien Estate threatening legal action to halt sales of a self-published novel by Steve Hillard. Mirkwood: A Novel About J. R. R. Tolkien stars Tolkien himself as “a man haunted by the very myths he rewove into his famous works. […] In 1970, Professor Tolkien makes a little-known visit to America — and sets in motion the stirring of dark and ancient powers embodied in a cache of ancient documents. Destinies are altered, legends become real, and two heroines must race for their lives in vastly different worlds.”
Booktryst has the story of Julius Schiller’s Coelum Stellatum Christianum (1627), a celestial atlas which renamed the constellations in favour of Christian themes. The Zodiac signs were replaced by the Apostles; constellations in the northern hemisphere took on names from the New Testament; those in the southern hemisphere, the Old Testament. It didn’t exactly catch on. Schiller only gets a brief mention in Nick Kanas’s history of celestial cartography, Star Maps. A digital reproduction of Schiller’s atlas is available from the Linda Hall Library. Via MapHist.
Noting for future reference: Ten Terrific Resources for Writing Space-Based Hard Science Fiction, a guest post on the SFWA website by Mike Brotherton. Some of them I’m already familiar with; I already have one of the books. One resource I might add to the list is Celestia, the open-source space simulator application: because you can position your point of view anywhere in the universe, I’ve used it to figure out what the nearest stars are to a given star system, which is useful for building a spacefaring civilization, and what the constellations look like from that system, which is handy if you have an astronomer among your characters.
Churnalism is a new website launched by the UK’s Media Standards Trust: it’s a search engine in which you paste in text from a press release, which it then compares to its database of news articles — the idea being to show just how much news is actually generated by press release. This isn’t really news, at least not to me: I’ve long known that press releases sometimes end up being published more or less verbatim — why do you think they’re written the way they are? This is especially true, I think, for community papers, who have to fill column-inches with a skeleton crew.
But, as the Guardian’s Paul Lewis points out, not only are major news organizations publishing press releases word-for-word as news, they’re not always bothering to verify that they’re accurate — a number of fake, planted stories ended up being covered. His colleague Dan Sabbagh writes that what Churnalism should explose “is the journalism of the margins: the news items that might once have just made the in-brief columns, lifted and unchecked from a press release or from another news source. Except now, that sort of instant, ‘filler’ journalism has drifted a little closer to the mainstream.”
See today’s xkcd on herpetology. It’s actually worse than Randall realizes: some herpetologists consider the concept of “reptiles” to be paraphyletic, and split them into three classes instead of one: crocodilians (class Eusuchia); lizards, snakes, tuataras and amphisbaenians (class Reptilia); and turtles (class Chelonia). It certainly can be argued that crocodiles are more closely related to birds than to other reptiles, what with their gizzards and four-chambered hearts, and if non-avian dinosaurs and pterosaurs were still around, we’d probably have a hard time calling reptiles “reptiles.”
In this image released yesterday, the Cassini probe looks past the southern pole of Saturn’s moon Rhea, with Saturn’s rings and another moon, Dione, in the background. Rhea is 1,528 km across and 61,000 km away from Cassini in this image; Dione is 1,123 km across and 924,000 km away. Dione is on the other side of the rings. Via @CassiniSaturn. (Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.)