Friday, August 17, 2007

A real shooting star

This image from Nasa is amazing. It shows Mira, a star in the constellation Cetus. Turns out that Mira is a giant red star, and has been periodically shedding it's atmosphere as it moves along the main sequence to becoming a white dwarf, a path that our Sun will eventually take. What's cool about this though is that Mira has and extremely high speed relative to the interstellar medium - about 130 kilometers per second (about 80 miles per second). In the Interstellar medium is gas and dust, basically a thin fog floating among the stars. As Mira moves through this fog, the gas it is shedding blown backwards, leaving a long tail behind it, and resulting in the image you see below:

Now, you can't see this in visible light, but the these images were taken in the ultraviolet, which means the gas is emitting UV radiation. The images were taken by the Galaxy Explorer (GalEx) mission. You can see the differences in the image below (top is UV, bottom is visible, where Mira looks like a regular star.

This is why astronomy is so cool!

I hope they're not using Windows.

Researchers at Oxford University have concluded, given a couple of reasonable assumptions, that we're all just a simulation. Philosopher Nick Bostrom has worked out the numbers, and it's pretty conclusive.

Dr. Bostrom assumes that technological advances could produce a computer with more processing power than all the brains in the world, and that advanced humans, or “posthumans,” could run “ancestor simulations” of their evolutionary history by creating virtual worlds inhabited by virtual people with fully developed virtual nervous systems.

Some computer experts have projected, based on trends in processing power, that we will have such a computer by the middle of this century, but it doesn’t matter for Dr. Bostrom’s argument whether it takes 50 years or 5 million years. If civilization survived long enough to reach that stage, and if the posthumans were to run lots of simulations for research purposes or entertainment, then the number of virtual ancestors they created would be vastly greater than the number of real ancestors.

There would be no way for any of these ancestors to know for sure whether they were virtual or real, because the sights and feelings they’d experience would be indistinguishable. But since there would be so many more virtual ancestors, any individual could figure that the odds made it nearly certain that he or she was living in a virtual world.

So, it turns out that there may be a God - it's just that he's a nerd playing Second Life v20, a thousand years from now. Who knew?

Friday, August 10, 2007

You can't take the sky from me...

.....There's no place I can be,
Since I found Serenity.
There's a new Collector's Edition of Serenity coming out next week. If you're not familiar with Serenity, or the too-soon canceled Firefly that preceded it, now's your chance to get in on the action (and, who knows - maybe there's a chance for a sequel?)


Life, but not as we know it...

Life will find a way. That's the message from a new study in the New Journal of Physics that posits lifelike structures may form from inorganic substances in space. An international team has discovered that under the right conditions, particles of inorganic dust can become organized into helical structures. These structures can then interact with each other in ways that are usually associated with organic compounds and life itself.

Computer models were created to predict the behaviors of inorganic molecules in a plasma,
a state of matter common in space where electrons are torn from atoms leaving behind charged particles. As the plasma becomes polarized as the charges separate, the molecules self-organize into corkscrew structures. These structures are also charged, and attract one another. But there's more:

...they also undergo changes that are normally associated with biological molecules, such as DNA and proteins, say the researchers. They can, for instance, divide, or bifurcate, to form two copies of the original structure. These new structures can also interact to induce changes in their neighbours and they can even evolve into yet more structures as less stable ones break down, leaving behind only the fittest structures in the plasma.
According to V.N. Tsytovich of the General Physics Institute, Russian Academy of Science in Moscow, working with colleagues in Germany and Australia:
"These complex, self-organized plasma structures exhibit all the necessary properties to qualify them as candidates for inorganic living matter," says Tsytovich, "they are autonomous, they reproduce and they evolve".
Finding life that evolved in a completely different way from life here on earth would be a huge step forward, and further refutes the arguments of creationists. It opens doors to contemplating myriad forms of life in the universe, in many different environments, and makes the discovery of life more probable outside of a narrow range of conditions on earth-like planets. Stay tuned!

This is sad....

The Yangtze River Dolphin may be extinct, according to Samuel Turvey, a conservation biologist at the Zoological Society of London, who took part in the latest, intensive six week search of the freshwater dolphin's native range in the Yangtze River in China that failed to find any evidence for the baiji for the first time:

He said the dolphin's demise -- which resulted from overfishing, pollution and lack of intervention -- might serve as a cautionary tale and should spur governments and scientists to act to save other species verging on extinction.

"Ours is the first scientific study which didn't find any," he said in a telephone interview. "Even if there are a few left we can't find them and we can't do anything to stop their extinction."
This is the first major cetacean species to go extinct directly at human hands, despite significant publicity over the years. Tellingly, the fate of Lindsay Lohan has gotten more play in the media over the last couple of weeks than the poor baiji.

Friday, August 3, 2007

A is for Atheist

So, The Richard Dawkins Foundation for All That Is Good And Right In The World Reason and Science has come up with the Out Campaign to allow

individuals to let others know they are not alone. It can also be a nice way of opening a conversation and help to demolish the negative stereotypes of atheists. Let the world know that we are not about to go away and that we are not going to allow those that would condemn us to push us into the shadows.
The Symbol of the Out campaign is the "Scarlet Letter" A that you see reproduced on the right of this blog. There's also T-shirts that you can buy that allow you to express your atheism in public.

Understandably, there has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth this week in the atheist community, because getting a bunch of us together to agree on anything is, as people have so ably pointed out, much like herding cats. For differing viewpoints, see Pharyngula and The Island of Doubt. The main problem seems to be that "coming out" as atheist has many of the same issues that coming out as gay had for many years - the potential to jeopardize careers, families and friends. Also, atheists are not a uniform demographic - the only thing we have in common is that we actually think. Dawkins tries to address the controversy in his post here.

The bottom line is if you're comfortable with your atheism and want to help to raise the profile of atheism in your community go for it, but there are understandably those who fear retribution. No-one is saying you have to join in - it's your choice, as it should be.

Einstein's Fish

Here's something to do while you're whiling away those long hours at work. It's called Einstein's Fish, and it's a puzzle.

This brainteaser, reportedly written by Einstein is difficult and Einstein said that 98% of the people in the world could not figure it out. Which percentage are you in?

There are five houses in a row in different colors. In each house lives a person with a different nationality. The five owners drink a different drink, smoke a different brand of cigar and keep a different pet, one of which is a Walleye Pike.

The question is-- who owns the fish?

Go to this page for more details on the multinational street of drinkers, and, ultimately, the answer. I am proud to say I worked it out, but I did need a pencil and paper and silence for ten minutes :-)

Thursday, August 2, 2007

More GalaxyZoo!

The folks at Galaxy Zoo (see my previous post) sent out an update today on their progress so far:

To date, unbelievably, 80,000 of you have viewed and classified more than 10 million images of galaxies. Our initial target of having each galaxy (there are
a million in our initial sample from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey) viewed once is more than done, but we still need your help. Our NEW target is to have each and every galaxy classified by 20 separate users.
Obviously, with more people looking at a galaxy, the better statistics they get on the classification. It won't be too long, I think, before they achieve their goal. In the meantime, here are a couple more cool images of galaxies I've been assigned to analyze in the last few weeks:

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

BBC Horizon - War on Science

For some reason, this video made it to the front page of Digg today, even though it's over a year old. Still, it's an excellent overview of the "debate" between Evolution and Intelligent Design, including all your favorite good guys like Richard Dawkins and David Attenborough. Horizon begins by going into detail about Intelligent Design, before demolishing the arguments pretty thoroughly. I found the full video on Google Video.

I'm not sure anything this in depth or well done would make it onto TV here in the US.