Tag Archives: science

Sunday Sagan 5, Blues for a Red Planet

Our fifth installment of the Cosmos series, Blues for a Red Planet is all about Mars.  Like Carl did in the last episode for Venus, he discusses humanity’s fascination with the bright red planet that appears in our night sky.  H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds helped spark this ‘Mars Madness’ around the turn of the century, along with the observations of Shiapperelli

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Sunday Sagan 4, Heaven and Hell

I missed a week last week for no good reason, but here is episode 4 of Cosmos, Heaven and Hell.  Carl explores the hells on earth that can come from the heavens in the form of comet and meteor impacts on earth.  He speculates on the cause of the Tunguska event in 1908, investigates the history of comet sightings and examines the impacts on our nearest celestial neighbor, the moon.  This episode ends with Venus, with its hellish pressures, temperatures and sulfuric acid rain, our visits to the planet, and what Venus has to say about the greenhouse effect here on earth.  Enjoy!

 

 

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Sunday Sagan 3, Harmony of the Worlds

For thousands of years, stargazers around the world wondered why there were a handful of lights in the sky that did not follow the motions of all the other lights.  Ptolemy in the 2nd century AD came up with the most accurate explanation involving these planets (Greek for wanderers) along with the sun and moon orbiting around the earth, with something called an epicycle to explain why some of the lights sometimes seemed to go backwards in the sky relative to the fixed stars.  When the Christian church became the state religion of the Roman empire, this idea, called geocentrism, became widely known and locked into dogma.  It wasn’t until the wars of the Reformation that the idea that the Earth along with all the other planets instead orbited around the sun.  This idea, written about by a Polish Catholic cleric called Copernicus in Latin, proposed that the planets all followed circular orbits.  Copernicus wisely chose to not have his work published until shortly before his death, as questioning dogma was could get you a visit from the inquisition.

But this heliocentric model was actually a less accurate model for the motions of the planets than the existing Ptolemaic geocentric model.  It took a protestant monk named Kepler to come up with the solution to this confusion, determining that the planets did orbit the sun, but on elliptical orbits, not circular orbits.  And this is what is actually the case.  This episode of Cosmos tells Kepler’s story.  Enjoy!

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Sunday Sagan, Episode 2 : One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue

Damn, these just give me the chills.  Here is the second episode of Cosmos, discussing life in the universe. From the Heiki crab of Japan to the trilobites, from DNA to Miller and Urey, One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue covers the basics of what makes life on earth and wonders what life may be like if it exists elsewhere.

Enjoy!

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Sunday Sagan Part 1: Shores of the Cosmic Ocean

I’m going to start posting Youtube versions of the science series Cosmos, by Carl Sagan, once a week on Sundays.  I have this series on DVD, and I’ve watched the entire thing any number of times.  I even have the book that covers the entire series.  Even after all the times I’ve watched it, Cosmos still gives me that tingly feeling, that feeling of connectedness and immensity that I get when I contemplate the deep mysteries of the universe.  The poetry with which Carl narrates, the music that swells and fades in the background, the imagery and scenery disprove the perception that science is cold and distant.  This is what inspires me, and keeps me driving onwards to learn more about this wonderful, enormous, complicated and elegant cosmos around us.

This episode is the introduction to the series, beginning with a brief prologue by Carl’s widow, Ann Druyan.  The series was originally produced back in 1980.  Carl and Ann had updated the series in the 90s to reflect some of advances that had been made in the intervening decade.  In addition, a new version of Cosmos is being produced, featuring Neil deGrasse Tyson that is slated to be released in 2013/2014.  I am eagerly looking forward to this revamp, and I hope the do justice to Carl’s memory.

I’ll put up a new episode of the series each Sunday until I complete the whole series of 13 hour-long parts.  I realize that that’s a long time for anyone to sit and watch a video on their computer, but if you have the time to spare, hopefully Carl can suck you in with his soothing voice.  Enjoy!

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You too can do science!

With almost every household having a computer these days, the sheer amount of unused computing power is awesome.  By just using a few thousand or tens of thousands of PCs, you can run more calculations than one of the huge (and hugely expensive) super computers.  And some scientists have figured this out, and more importantly, how to use this unused computing power.

It’s called distributed computing, and the idea is to basically take some problem from physics of chemistry or biology that is calculation intensive, break it up into lots of little chunks, and then send those chunks to willing participants.  The participants then load a bit of software that acts like a screen saver when the computer is not busy doing anything else.  This software then uses your computer to run these problems until they’re done, and then the participants send the results back to the scientists. 

The first example I’ve heard of that did this was Seti at home.  This program used PCs to sort through tons and tons of noise collected by radio telescopes looking for signals from alien civilizations.  Check out that link for more info.   

Well, I started looking around, and there are lots of other ways you can use your computer to help do real science.  One really cool one is called Galaxy Zoo.  This one is more interactive.  When you sign up, you get a bunch of photographs of galaxies from the Hubble Space Telescope.  You’re job is to go through the bunch you have and classify them by shape.  Its pretty cool knowing that yours can be the first human eyes to ever see some of these galaxies.  The interesting ones then got forwarded to real astronomers to take a closer look at.  There are a bunch of similar sites looking for planets, or finding craters on the moon too over at the Zooniverse

A really cool one that I still need to check ous is FoldIt.  This one is actually a game!  Now I’m not a biology major, so maybe some of you can verify I have this right, but in this game you fold proteins.  See, your genetic code, written in four letters in your DNA gets copied and printed out as a long sequence of amino acids.  When these amino acids are connected together in long chains, they form proteins.  But then to work, these proteins have to fold up into intricate shapes to perform their important functions in your cells.  The problem is, there are a ridiculous number of these proteins floating around in our cells.  And each one folds in its own specific way.   To really understand how these proteins do what they do, we need a way to accurately map how a protein will fold form a simple string of amino acids into the proteins.  It turns out that no one has written a computer program that can do this automatically.  But some geniuses found out that by making a game out of it (with achievements and everything!) they can get humans to solve these puzzles.  It’s puzzle solving, and I know some of you out there love your puzzle games.  Anyway, this kind of data is useful in fighting all kinds of disease, so if you have a bit of spare time, check it out

I found a few more of these types of distributed computing efforts here and here.   I think it’s a pretty nifty idea, and its fun to actually be able to help do real science!

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Mythbusters are back!

Tonight is the season premier of one of my most favorite shows on TV.  XKCD says it so well:

Oh, and Richard Feynman is one of my hero’s too. Mythbusters does a great job of following the evidence.  The hosts can make a hypothesis about how an experiment will turn out, but they’re always very honest when they are shown to be wrong.  And that I think is what’s so great about this show.  And the guns and explosions.  And robots.  And this awesome speech by Adam Savage, one of the hosts.  Showing them some love.

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