Tag Archives: science

Antikythera mechanism, made from Lego

The Antikythera mechanism is one of those historical marvels (perhaps “mysteries” is a better word) that never fails to grab my attention and imagination whenever I come across an article about it.

Discovered in an ancient shipwreck in 1901, the Antikythera mechanism is an ancient clockwork computer from about 100 BCE.  It was of a complexity that was not seen again for almost 2000 years.  For whatever reason, the skill used to make the device was lost.  In fact, it wasn’t until a high-resolution X-ray study was done in 2006 that the real purpose of the device became clear:  it was a calculator used, among other things, to predict the movements of heavenly bodies and the timing of eclipses.

The level of knowledge about the movement of celestial bodies required for such a mechanism is boggling, but the degree of engineering needed to make the device is doubly so.  How this knowledge was gained and lost is the fodder for a great debate, and the main source of my interest in the topic.

Recently, an engineer recreated the Antikythera mechanism.  Out of Lego! 

Seeing exactly how the thing works makes me marvel at those ancient nerds all that much more.

(via PCWorld)

NASA Sets News Conference on Astrobiology Discovery

Is this the press conference of movies and science fiction novels everywhere?

WASHINGTON — NASA will hold a news conference at 2 p.m. EST on Thursday, Dec. 2, to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life. Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe.

The news conference will be held at the NASA Headquarters auditorium at 300 E St. SW, in Washington. It will be broadcast live on NASA Television and streamed on the agency’s website at http://www.nasa.gov.

Participants are:
–     Mary Voytek, director, Astrobiology Program, NASA Headquarters, Washington
–     Felisa Wolfe-Simon, NASA astrobiology research fellow, U.S. Geological Survey, Menlo Park, Calif.
–     Pamela Conrad, astrobiologist, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.
–     Steven Benner, distinguished fellow, Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution, Gainesville, Fla.
–     James Elser, professor, Arizona State University, Tempe

Media representatives may attend the conference or ask questions by phone or from participating NASA locations. To obtain dial-in information, journalists must send their name, affiliation and telephone number to Steve Cole at stephen.e.cole@nasa.gov or call 202-358-0918 by noon Dec. 2.

For NASA TV streaming video and downlink information, visit:


For more information about NASA astrobiology activities, visit:


– end –

I want to know NOW!

(press release from NASA)

So I guess I need a new reason to hate McDonald’s?

A little while ago, Grant posted about an experiment being conducted by artist Sally Davies. She left a Happy Meal out, and took a picture of it every day. And, somewhat alarmingly, it didn’t decay.

Well, another intrepid soul decided to take it upon himself to conduct a little experiment of his own. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt at Serious Eats figured there was probably an entirely rational (and scientific!) reason for the Happy Meal not turning into a pile of smelly, moldy grossness.

What he decided to do was make his own burgers, and leave all of them out.  Here are the variations he experimented with:

  • Sample 1: A plain McDonald’s hamburger stored on a plate in the open air outside of its wrapper.
  • Sample 2: A plain burger made from home-ground fresh all-natural chuck of the exact dimensions as the McDonald’s burger, on a standard store-bought toasted bun.
  • Sample 3: A plain burger with a home-ground patty, but a McDonald’s bun.
  • Sample 4: A plain burger with a McDonald’s patty on a store-bought bun.*
  • Sample 5: A plain McDonald’s burger stored in its original packaging.
  • Sample 6: A plain McDonald’s burger made without any salt, stored in the open air.
  • Sample 7: A plain McDonald’s Quarter Pounder, stored in the open air.
  • Sample 8: A homemade burger the exact dimension of a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder.
  • Sample 9:A plain McDonald’s Angus Third Pounder, stored in the open air.

He found that the burgers roughly the same size as the Happy Meals did not rot. The larger Quarter Pounder-sized ones, however, did.

Why? Because mold needs moisture to grow. And the tiny burgers just didn’t have any. From Lopez-Alt’s conclusion:

So there we have it! Pretty strong evidence in favor of Theory 3: the burger doesn’t rot because it’s small size and relatively large surface area help it to lose moisture very fast. Without moisture, there’s no mold or bacterial growth. Of course, that the meat is pretty much sterile to begin with due to the high cooking temperature helps things along as well. It’s not really surprising. Humans have known about this phenomenon for thousands of years. After all, how do you think beef jerky is made?

Now don’t get me wrong—I don’t have a dog in this fight either way. I really couldn’t care less whether or not the McDonald’s burger rotted or didn’t. I don’t often eat their burgers, and will continue to not often eat their burgers. My problem is not with McDonald’s. My problem is with bad science.

For all of you McDonald’s haters out there: Don’t worry. There are still plenty of reasons to dislike the company! But for now, I hope you’ll have it my way and put aside your beef with their beef.


Coolest video you’ll see today

Grant and I are avid stove-top popcorn poppers (with peanut oil!) and it is so neat to see what happens every single time. It looks like a flower blooming!

The video was slowed down to 6200 fps. And the science behind it is neat, too. Modernist Cuisine originally posted the video, saying:

The key to why popcorn pops is its unusual moisture-proof hull. As the kernel is heated beyond the boiling point, the water inside begins to turn into steam and expand. Since the hull will not let steam out, the pressure inside the kernel begins to rise. The hull can handle a pressure of around 135 psi before bursting open. At this point, the pressure inside the kernel is released very rapidly, expanding the starch and proteins into a dense foam that sets quickly.



Is he credulous, deluded, or a real fuit loop?

The Periodic Table of Irrational Nonsense can help you figure out exactly which type of ridiculous nonsense that idiot is spewing.

Click on the image for the full-size, or go to Crispian Jago’s blog, where he has this version, a “sanitized version for schools” (oh, how that makes me shudder) as well as translations into multiple languages and several pieces of merchandise (posters and T-shirts and the like).

(thanks Derek)

Fake science is more entertaining that real science

One of my favourite parts of Calvin and Hobbes was when Calvin’s dad would “explain” something to Calvin in a convoluted, completely wrong way. Remember his reason for why old photos were in black and white? Classic.

Now there’s a blog that gives you pseudo-scientific explanations for everyday experiences in that same, completely wrong, spirit.

Check out Fake Science — and see if you can spot the fake!

I’ve got four more of my favourites, after the jump:

Continue reading Fake science is more entertaining that real science

Why coffee is so awesome, in three parts

Every morning, if you like, you can imagine me, crouched, staring blank-eyed at the drip-drip-drip of coffee being brewed, just like Amy’s photo, above.

Of course, these days, we have an insulated carafe, so we can bring the coffee upstairs and satisfy our internet and caffeine addictions at the same time. But, for me, part of the coffee experience is the sense of anticipation. Actually, because I have kind of a sensitive mouth, and I don’t use any cream, the coffee is generally too hot when it’s first poured, so I have to sit there, fuzzy-headed, while it steams away some of that heat.

Then I can drink it.

It’s strange to remember that, until relatively recently, I didn’t drink coffee in the mornings. For most of my life, still, I didn’t drink it at all. Then I started going out in the evenings, with friends. We had sort of an artistic salon thing, going on, at a 24-hour restaurant. I preferred soft drinks, but coffee was half the price — and free refills, all night long. I soon switched.

Now, strictly because of Amy, I’m a morning coffee drinker. I used to let the shower wake me up, but my morning routine has changed. Coffee has changed me — in some subtle, some important ways.

But hasn’t it changed all of us?

That’s what a great three-part series (1, 2, 3) on Anthropology in Practice is arguing. Says Boing Boing, summing it up:

In 1991, coffee-drinking seemed to be on its way out in the United States. From a peak consumption of 3.2 cups per day per person on average in 1962, coffee consumption was down to measly 1.75 cups. There were good reasons for this: Nobody liked the cheap, nasty sludge generally available and the entire experience reeked of Grandma.

Enter advertising giant Ogilvy and Mather, working for Maxwell House.

Their suggestion: Segment the product by quality, value and personal image—ideas that all ended up leading to the thriving coffee market of today. Just when we thought we were out, they sucked us back in. (Meanwhile, the parallel rise of coffee and decline of tobacco could be a sociology thesis, in and of itself.)

Part One of the series looks at how coffee stormed back to become one of the world’s most vital drinks.

Part Two, structured like a flashback, I guess, tackles the history of the bean and its trade.

Part Three, which I find most interesting, explores coffee’s role in the rise of our “culture of productivity.”

The cultural aspect really intrigued me, and I could have easily read a post four times as long. Consider this, for example, in which coffee is compared and contrasted to alcohol:

Perhaps we can apply [the] term “ritualized inebriation” to coffee consumption as well. We consume coffee as a means of performing the tasks we need to complete in the setting of the workplace. And if we all do it, then it normalizes the behavior and helps us believe that we are achieving optimal levels of productivity.

Coffee and booze. Two sides of my favourite coin.

Grandfather is a tough guy to kill

One of the big arguments against time travel is the ease with which a paradox can arise.  The most commonly used example is the “grandfather paradox” where a time traveller goes back in time, kills his (or her) grandfather, negating their own existence which means the murder could not have happened.

Back to the Future-like slow fades out of existence notwithstanding, this particular paradox illustrates the complexities of time travel.  The post-selected model of time travel, however, forbids these paradoxes outright.

By going back and outlawing any events that would later prove paradoxical in the future, this theory gets rid of the uncomfortable idea that a time traveler could prevent his own existence. “In our version of time travel, paradoxical situations are censored,” Lloyd says.

Recently, scientists developed a series of experiments using photons to test this post-selected model.  Although there was no time traveling involved, the experimenters placed the photons into quantum situations similar to those that might be experienced in time travel.
As the photons got closer and closer to being in self-inconsistent, paradoxical situations, the experiment succeeded with less and less frequency, the team found, hinting that true time travel might work the same way.
What does this mean in regards to the grandfather paradox?  It means strange things would happen:
For instance, a bullet-maker would be inordinately more likely to produce a defective bullet if that very bullet was going to be used later to kill a time traveler’s grandfather, or the gun would misfire, or “some little quantum fluctuation has to whisk the bullet away at the last moment,” Lloyd says. In this version of time travel, the grandfather, he says, is “a tough guy to kill.”
To read the full Wired article, check it out here.

A lifesaving poop transplant

I’ve known since I was a schoolboy that the human digestive system was helped along the way by the teeming masses of bacteria that live inside us, symbiotically breaking down tough-to-digest foodstuffs into molecules we can absorb.

That’s one of the reasons we fart, after all, because of all the waste gas produced by bacteria that are teeming in our guts.

More recently, I’ve also read that some antibiotics can kill this beneficial bacteria, leaving people with temporary digestive problems. There’s some interesting research that suggests your appendix is a place for this good bacteria to “hide out” during times of stress, and to recolonize your gut later.

But what if there’s something wrong with your bacteria, and it can’t recolonize your insides? Or what if there’s plenty there, but it’s just not doing its job?

The solution, at least for one woman, was a poop transplant. Yes, seriously. From her husband. Do not try this at home. The  New York Times takes you through it:

In 2008, Dr. Khoruts, a gastroenterologist at the University of Minnesota, took on a patient suffering from a vicious gut infection of Clostridium difficile. She was crippled by constant diarrhea, which had left her in a wheelchair wearing diapers. Dr. Khoruts treated her with an assortment of antibiotics, but nothing could stop the bacteria. His patient was wasting away, losing 60 pounds over the course of eight months. “She was just dwindling down the drain, and she probably would have died,” Dr. Khoruts said.

Dr. Khoruts decided his patient needed a transplant. But he didn’t give her a piece of someone else’s intestines, or a stomach, or any other organ. Instead, he gave her some of her husband’s bacteria.

Dr. Khoruts mixed a small sample of her husband’s stool with saline solution and delivered it into her colon. Writing in the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology last month, Dr. Khoruts and his colleagues reported that her diarrhea vanished in a day. Her Clostridium difficile infection disappeared as well and has not returned since.

It’s not new, although it’s not common. And the difference this time was that Dr. Khoruts did a before-and-after genetic survey of the bacteria.

The Times article goes into much more detail about human-bacteria symbiosis than I ever knew. Did you know that people born vaginally have different bacterial colonies than people born via C-section? Or that each of your teeth has a unique bacterial signature? That each side of each tooth is unique?

Very cool.

Fairy tale, meet science

I remember, as a child, thinking that the Big Bad Wolf must have had some powerful lung action going on, if he was able to huff, and puff, and blow down houses made of straw and wood.

But perhaps he just had a vortex cannon, like Jem Stansfield does in this clip from the BBC show “Bang Goes The Theory.”

Sure, it’s not entirely true-to-life — none of the “houses” were anchored to the ground, for one thing, and the bricks looked suspiciously unstable to begin with. But you can’t argue with Jem’s excitement.

And that vortex ring looked really cool. I want one.

Oil hemorrhage, the worst-case scenario

Imagine a leaky garden hose. Once you shut off the nozzle, all the leaks in the hose itself spray more, right? Now imagine that the leaky garden hose is actually the underground part of the Deepwater Horizon.

So, the more we try to cap or plug or slow the flow of oil from the gushing wellhead, the more oil might be spraying and spurting into the rocks of the seafloor — but where we can’t see it.

Like a leak in a dam, these oil leaks could erode away underwater portions of the seafloor until — worst-case scenario — the whole thing erupts in oil.

Rather than gushing from one pinprick (the well), imagine the whole oil reservoir billowing out like a popped water balloon.

(I know — too many metaphors.)

Viewed in this light, all of BP’s actions seem to take on more clarity. Rather than getting right at the top-kill and plugging the well, they hesitated — because that would dramatically increase pressure on the underground leaks, and make things infinitely worse.

That’s the worst-case scenario envisioned in a scary comment on the blog The Oil Drum. It’s well-reasoned, and well-sourced, although I am not a geologist.

Gawker also points to a science blogger who thinks the worst-case scenario is worth talking about.

Evidence for methane-based life on Titan

Well, this is exciting — two new scientific papers present evidence that something is consuming hydrogen and acetylene on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons:

While non-biological chemistry offers one possible explanation, some scientists believe these chemical signatures bolster the argument for a primitive, exotic form of life or precursor to life on Titan’s surface. According to one theory put forth by astrobiologists, the signatures fulfill two important conditions necessary for a hypothesized “methane-based life.”

As Titan is somewhere around -180 C, it is too cold for life to use water. Instead, some other, exotic liquid could perhaps be used as the medium for primitive living cells. At -180 C, you’re looking at something like methane or ethane — liquids that have been detected on the surface of Titan as “lakes.”

The image above, in fact, is a NASA/JPL artist’s rendering of one such ethane lake.

The Cassini spacecraft has lots more Titan flybys scheduled, and I am eager to read new developments. What’s really cool is just how different methane-based life may be. But also, it could show that life is pretty common in the universe. I’d like that.