Thursday September 14, 2006

Goodbye, Xena...

...hail Eris!  (And all hail Dysnomia, too.)

Eris seems like a fitting name for the object that triggered the Great Planet Debate.  Do you think it would be appropriate to start Google-bombing its Wikipedia page with the phrase planet Eris?  Or would that be sowing too much discord?

[Update:  Oh, I just got the joke.  Dysnomia is named after the daughter of Eris, but the Greek word dysnomia means 'lawlessness'.  How much you want to bet that's a Xena reference?]

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Tuesday September 12, 2006

They've Given You a Number...

Former planet Pluto is now minor planet number 134340.  (That's the numbering system used for asteroids, as opposed to periodic comets.)

Lame.

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Wednesday August 23, 2006

Defining Planet

If you've been keeping an eye on any of the wire services (or Language Log), you may have noticed that the members of the International Astronomical Union meeting in Prague have been wrangling, Vatican-style, over the definition of the word planet.  Judging by the periodic puffs of contradictorily-colored smoke the meeting is emitting, it sounds like they may be getting bogged down in the details.  (That's where the Devil is, you know.)  Well, defining words involves language, and language is what linguists study, so that means this is a linguistic problem.  Let's roll up our sleeves and see what all the trouble is.

Continue reading "Defining Planet"

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Tuesday July 25, 2006

Bright with Sinuous Rills

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

...

It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

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Saturday June 10, 2006

Norwegian Meteorite

Check out this report of a large meteorite landing in northern Norway and exploding with the force of an atomic bomb.  Yikes!  Good thing it came down in the middle of nowhere and not over a city.

I found this clause orthographically entertaining:

...Norway's best known astronomer Knut Jørgen Røed Ødegaard told Aftenposten.no.

I think it could be improved, though.  How about:

...Nørway's best knøwn astrønømer Knut Jørgen Røed Ødegaard tøld Aftenpøsten.nø.

Yeah...that's more like it.

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05:28 PM in Linguistics , Science | Comments (1) | Submit: | Links:

Tuesday March 7, 2006

The Foe

In reading about different types of supernovae on Wikipedia, I read about a new-to-me unit of measurement—the foe:

A foe is a unit of energy equal to 1044 joules.

To measure the staggeringly immense amount of energy produced by a supernova, specialists occasionally use a unit of energy known as a foe, an acronym derived from the phrase fifty one ergs, or 1051 ergs. This unit of measure is convenient because a supernova typically releases about one foe of observable energy in a very short period of time (which can be measured in seconds). In comparison, the total output of the Sun over its entire lifespan (billions of years) is about a tenth of a foe.

1051 ergs, huh—better put on some sunscreen.  As long as we're talking about absurdly high energy measurements, also check out the article about the so-called Oh-My-God particle, a cosmic ray particle observed in 1991 with about the same amount of energy as a fastball.  (hat tip for getting me reading about this stuff: today's APOD)

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Wednesday February 22, 2006

Physics Envy

I was watching a recent episode of Nova about the neutrino titled "The Ghost Particle", and at one point I was nearly overcome by a powerful wave of pure physics envy.  In discussing the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, a huge ultraclean spherical acrylic tank of heavy water located two kilometers below the surface of the Earth in a nickel mine in Ontario, Canada, Prof. David Wark said:

When the SNO detector was finished, the exact center of the SNO detector has the lowest level of radiation of any point in the Solar System.

Continue reading "Physics Envy"

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Wednesday February 8, 2006

Flatworms in Action

The Wife just sent me a link to a short article in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled "8 Hot Tips for Wild Romance" that details oddities from the world of animal mating.  It's behind the subscription wall so I can't include a link, but it includes the following tidbit:

It's a battle of the sexes ... Scientists at the University of New South Wales, in Australia, recently discovered a new species of marine flatworm, Imogine lateotentare, that engages in penis fencing, reported The Sydney Morning Herald. Hopped up on oysters, the two-centimeter flatworms, which have both male and female parts, reproduce by stabbing each other with their genitals. The first to penetrate transfers sperm to the de facto female and goes on to joust with other flatworms while the "loser" lays and protects the eggs.

Thanks to the magic of the Internet, I'm able to provide you with the following link (NSFW if any of your co-workers is an invertebrate) to a video of flatworms penis fencing.  (You'll have to sit through a short ad.)  I'm not sure how they can tell that the flatworms are hopped up on oysters, but they're the experts, so I guess I'll take their word for it.

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Thursday January 12, 2006

Distributed Astronomical Microscopy

Over at A Voyage to Arcturus Jay Manifold writes about a project in which volunteers will help process data from NASA's Stardust mission, which is expected to deliver aerogel samples with space dust embedded in them back to Earth shortly.  It sounds interesting, but what I really wanted to highlight was the title of the post, which I thought was excellent: "An Army of Clyde Tombaughs?".  It's perfect—the sort of person who'd get the reference is just the sort of person who'd want to volunteer for the project.  It'd also be a great name for a band.

The post also includes one of my favorite bits of astronomy vocabulary: Blink-Comparator.  I seem to find myself doing blink comparison pretty regularly on computer screens (e.g. Alt+Tabbing back and forth to see how two versions of a document differ), but when I use that term to explain to someone else what I'm doing, I usually get a blank look.  Come on—blink comparison!  It means what it says!

[Extra credit for astonomy geeks:  Name the artist who painted the picture of a red giant that Jay uses for a banner image.  Extra-extra credit:  What star is it?]

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Tuesday October 4, 2005

Mad Scientists Win Nobel

This year's Nobel Prize for Medicine has been awarded to Barry Marshall and Robin Warren for their discovery of the bacterium that's responsible for most peptic ulcers.  There, that sounds nice and polite, doesn't it?  The real story is nastier and much more entertaining.

Continue reading "Mad Scientists Win Nobel"

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Tuesday September 27, 2005

When Squid Attack!

Or should that be "squids"?  In any case, check it out.  That's some angry-looking calamari.

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Sunday September 18, 2005

Annoyingly Inaccurate

If you've ever spent any time with science geeks of any stripe, you've heard them complain about the inaccuracy of most science journalism.  Articles about science in the popular press seem nearly always to have been written by people who haven't taken a basic physics, chemistry, astronomy, or biology class, and so they're chock full of howlers.  This isn't limited to print journalism, of course.  I've been watching the TV show How It's Made, which describes the manufacture of familiar items, and a recently-broadcast segment on small airplanes contained three errors in quick succession.

Continue reading "Annoyingly Inaccurate"

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Saturday August 13, 2005

A Door, Dilating

From the what-will-they-think-of-next department: an automatic door, made up of a set of independent horizontal slats, that estimates the shape of the person in front of it and opens up a person-shaped hole for them to pass through.  Video here; the company's web site here.  Now that we've got dilating doors, can deliquescing doors be far behind?  (via Gizmodo)

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Tuesday August 2, 2005

The Song of Saturn

I wrote a couple of posts while back about the sounds of space, which included some links to interesting and beautiful audio samples generated from various astronomical signals.  NASA has recently put up another amazing example of this genre: the sound of Saturn's auroral discharges.  Give it a listen, it's worth the download.  (via Incoming Signals)

Continue reading "The Song of Saturn"

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Friday July 29, 2005

Planet 10?

Although the circumstances (which involve somebody hacking into an website and threatening to release the data prematurely) sound uncharacteristically dramatic, astonomers at CalTech announced today that they've discovered an object in the outer solar system that's maybe 1.5 times the diameter of Pluto.  They're temporarily calling it 2003 UB313, but a name has apparently already been submitted to the IAU.  (I vote for "Persephone", even if there already is a main belt asteroid by that name.)  You can read the Wikipedia article about 2003 UB313 here, which is pretty brief at the moment, though its growth ought to be an interesting case study in rapid wiki-evolution.  (Also check out these two articles about astonomical naming conventions.)

Continue reading "Planet 10?"

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Tuesday April 26, 2005

Winds of Mars

This is too cool.  I'm amazed that an atmosphere only 1% as dense as Earth's can kick up such a dense cloud of dust, even with the low gravity, but there it goes spinning by!  (hat tip: APOD)

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Sunday April 17, 2005

Dogs and Cats Living Together

Happy but slightly disturbing news from Hawaii: a calf has been born to Kekaimalu, the world's only known "wholphin", or whale-dolphin mix.  The calf is therefore three-quarters Atlantic bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) and one quarter false killer whale (Pseudorca crassidens).  No news yet on whether they plan to coin another new word for this particular fractional mixture—may I suggest "dolph-wholphin"?

Continue reading "Dogs and Cats Living Together"

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Tuesday November 30, 2004

It's Not Moving

OK, this optical illusion is just creepy.

[Update: explanation.]

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Thursday October 21, 2004

MAGIC Telescope

Check out this picture of the MAGIC Telescope (yes, that's really its name) in the Canary Islands. Addendum to the caption:

...Or so you were led to believe, my young Jedi. Now, witness the firepower of this fully armed and operational battle station!

Continue reading "MAGIC Telescope"

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Sunday September 26, 2004

A Hole in the Sky

Wow, go take look at this!

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Thursday July 15, 2004

More Heavenly Sounds

It occurred to me after my post on the sound of Cassini passing through the rings of Saturn that there are other examples of synthesized sounds from celestial objects.

Continue reading "More Heavenly Sounds"

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Wednesday July 14, 2004

Listening to Saturn

As the Cassini probe passed through the rings of Saturn two weeks ago, it was struck by tens of thousands of tiny dust particles. The spacecraft was rotated so that its large dish antenna faced forward to act as a shield. One of Cassini's instruments recorded each impact, and the folks at JPL have put together an animation of the ring crossing with the simulated sound of the dust hitting the antenna. Cool!

Continue reading "Listening to Saturn"

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Sunday July 4, 2004

A New World

In case you missed it in the news: Cassini has taken pictures of the surface of Saturn's moon Titan. The best previous pictures looked like this—just the orange cloud tops. Cassini's new pictures, taken in the near infrared, look through the clouds and reveal surface features. Beautiful!

Continue reading "A New World"

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Sunday February 15, 2004

Going For a Drive on Mars

Haven't visited the JPL web site recently? If not, you've missed some impressive achievements by the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. In addition to sending back some cool 3D pictures, the rovers have finally started roving. I can only imagine how excited the geologists (areologists?) are—having all the instruments on the rover means that, unlike on previous Mars missions, they can study more than just the landing site. This mobility is based on some pretty impressive technology which the JPL web site describes in some detail.

Continue reading "Going For a Drive on Mars"

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