Friday, February 29, 2008

A Shout-Out to...

Ja Rule, Tony Robbins, Dinah Shore, Jimmy Dorsey, Pope Paul III and Adolph Blaine Charles David Earl Frederick Gerald Hubert Irvin John Kenneth Lloyd Martin Nero Oliver Paul Quincy Randolph Sherman Thomas Uncas Victor William Xerxes Yancy Zeus Wolfeschlegelsteinhausenber----dorff, Sr.


It only comes once every four years!

(...except on years that are divisible by 100, which are not leap years, unless they are also divisible by 400, in which case, they are leap years*).

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Joel Hodgson, "TV's Frank" Conniff and J. Elvis "Early Servo" Weinstein on TSOYA

Jesse Thorn of The Sound of Young America interviews the MST3K crew who are now embarking upon Cinematic Titanic.

The Sound of Young America: Cinematic Titanic

It's a very interesting interview which, among other topics, covers Joel's unusual career.

Cinematic Titanic's first movie is "The Oozing Skull" (originally released as "Brain of Blood").

MSTies will also enjoy RiffTrax, featuring Mike Nelson and many familiar voices. Their "Matrix" kung fu scene is grand.

The Ebb and Flow of Movies: Box Office Receipts 1986 - 2007

The New York Times has posted a visualization of movie grosses from 1986-2007. The technique they use is called ThemeRiver which was developed in 1999 [PDF].

It's an interesting graphic but I do have some problems with it. The actual numbers behind it are not available in the graphic. The Times could have overcome this problem but didn't.

With this technique, instead of the height being relative to a base line (which would have forced some data elements to eclipse one another) the amounts are represented by visible areas. This means there is no simple way to plot the values on the vertical side of the graph.

The New York Times could have overcome this by making the interactive part show the numbers. Instead, it shows a synopsis of the movie and a link to the Times' summary.

The coloration indicates box office gross over time. But the color breaks are a little odd. A color change which would distinguish the $500 mark would make sense in this case. The lightest color designation is superfluous because it is effectively blotted out by its white outline.

While the grosses are calculated in inflation-adjusted dollars, it appears that the weekly box office is mapped in non-adjusted dollars. Just compare the big hits of the 80's to recent hits and you'll see what I mean. On the techie side, a better scroll bar and a zoom feature would be useful.

My only other complaint is more of a quibble. The smooth continuous curves suggest high resolution data that does not exist. These figures are based on weekly box office -- only four or five horizontal chunks per month. While there is an undeniable grooviness to the interpolated curves, revealing the data in its choppy weekly form might have yielded some interesting facts. But it would probably be much harder to read.

OK, all that having been said, it's a very interesting graphic. The visualization technique is intuitive and invites comparisons among the different elements -- search for "The Full Monty" for interesting example.

ThemeRiver reminds me of a more rigorous version of the Genealogy of Pop/Rock Music graphic discussed in Edward Tufte's Visual Explanations. There a lot of imaging techniques being developed and very few of them get much traction. ThemeRiver might just catch on. Being in the New York Times certainly helps.

via infosthetics, flowingdata and boingboing.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Kimodo Dragons in Kansas Zoo Conceive without Mating

The New York Times reports on female lizards essentially cloning themselves:

Komodos — like many fish, amphibians and reptiles — have lots of reproductive tricks. For example, females can store sperm for a long time, tiding them over when conditions may be poor for reproduction. It’s possible that the Wichita dragon eggs could have been fertilized by the sperm from a male that was on site a long time ago. But DNA analysis of the “miracle embryos” from Britain showed that every bit of their DNA came from the females, and nobody should be surprised if this is also true of the Kansas dragons.

Virgin birth, known to biologists as parthenogenesis (from the Greek, “parthen” meaning virgin or maiden and “genesis,” beginning), has been seen in other species over the years. Some lizards occasionally produce offspring in this way. So do several species of fish, including a female hammerhead shark at the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha that produced offspring without a male last year...

The big question these virgin births raise is this: If some females can get along without males, why does any species have males? The reason is simple. With virgin birth, hatchlings are simply genetic duplicates of the mother. In a world of clones, there would not be enough variation for populations to adapt. Virgin birth, then, is a great stopgap measure to ensure the survival of a species, but works against it in the long haul.
Tip to Afua.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

DU Video Hits 50,000 Views

A couple years ago when YouTube was young, I posted a US Army training video, "Depleted Uranium Hazard Awareness." It has received far more traffic than I expected -- over 50,000 views -- and I am very happy to report that a good chunk of those viewings are from troops in the field.

I found the video at Information Clearinghouse. Because the original file has such a small screen, the video quality is terrible. Fortunately the most valuable information is in the audio track. The video was originally made in the mid-90's but at the time of posting it still sat on the shelf. The video is now available at a number of sites. The YouTube video alone goes out to dozens of links.

In one respect I am pleased that anything I posted drew the attention of 50,000. But more important, I am thrilled that thorough, non-controversial and vital information is reaching the people who need it most.

There are edited version of this video that have higher quality images, but are remixed and edited with lefty agitprop. While I'm sympathetic with some of those messages, they ultimately dilute the value of the video.

Moderating the comments for the video has been its own story. Every few months, there will be a wave of comments which try to dismiss the content of the video. Other times, there is the occasional hate speech. (A lot of anti-Arab bigotry and one commenter who wished cancer on the children of service members, calling it "karma." If wishing cancer on someone's children isn't hate speech, I don't know what is.) So I've been applying rules for moderating the comments. They have to be either about DU or the video itself, and no hate speech. I haven't had to delete many comments lately.

For something that took me less than a half-hour, I'm glad it's been put to such good use.

The God Particle

The National Geographic site posts a very funny article about the Large Hadron Collider. While it assumes general familiarity with physics, it uses a goofy sense of humor to illustrate it's points. After a quick overview of 20th century particle physics, the article turns to the search for the Higgs particle:

There's one puzzle piece in particular that physicists hope to pick out of the debris from the LHC's high-energy collisions. Some call it the God particle.

The first thing you learn when you ask scientists about the God particle is that it's bad form to call it that. The particle was named a few years back by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman, who has a knack for turning a phrase. Naturally the moniker took root among journalists, who know a good name for a particle when they hear one (it beats the heck out of the muon or the Z-boson).

The preferred name for the God particle among physicists is the Higgs boson, or the Higgs particle, or simply the Higgs, in honor of the University of Edinburgh physicist Peter Higgs, who proposed its existence more than 40 years ago. Most physicists believe that there must be a Higgs field that pervades all space; the Higgs particle would be the carrier of the field and would interact with other particles, sort of the way a Jedi knight in Star Wars is the carrier of the "force." The Higgs is a crucial part of the standard model of particle physics—but no one's ever found it.

Not your usual National Geographic article, but very well done.

As a side note, the article dismisses the idea that the LHC will make a black hole which will swallow up the Earth. This fear needs the smack-down at every opportunity. Our humble planet is bombarded with particle collisions all the time (in the form of cosmic rays) which dwarf any collisions the LHC will ever produce. Somehow we have endured.

Still, lolscience posted a fun riff off the photo National Geographic used:

The tag line reads:
"Now witness the true power of this fully functional large hadron collider"

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Human Genetic Diversity Map

Scientists from the University of Michigan, Stanford and the National Institute on Aging have created the highest resolution map yet of human genetic diversity. Their findings are published in both Science and Nature.
This story is receiving plenty of popular coverage, including this segment on NPR's Science Friday and Wired:

Their findings support the widely accepted hypothesis that humanity's ancestors traveled from East Africa through Central Asia and then to the rest of the world. More importantly, they point the way towards fine-grained future studies of population variation, allowing people to pinpoint their own ancestral wanderings and scientists to focus on genomic regions that have experienced intensive historical pressure.

Science journalists approached the story from an anthropological angle -- understandably, because that's the takeaway with the broadest appeal -- but when I spoke earlier this week to researchers from the three teams, they were much more excited about the studies' nuts-and-bolts.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

PZ Myers on Skepticast

PZ Myers, blogger for the mighty Pharyngula, is a guest on the podcast The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe. They discuss his recent radio debate with Intelligent Design proponent Geoffrey Simmons.
The radio debate is something to behold. Myers is able to rebut Simmons off the top of his head, while Simmons is unaware of the fossil record he himself mentions and wrote about.  Myers points out that Simmons does not know what he is talking about. Then Myers is warned against making personal attacks.
It is actually not an ad hominem attack to call someone an ignoramus. I am a complete ignoramus when it comes to the sport of cricket. I happen to be ignorant of the sport. It says nothing about my character.
In Simmons' case, his ignorance of biological evidence is a touchier subject because he has placed himself as an authority on the subject -- albiet an authority who emphasizes the role of magic in natural history.

Radiolab is Back

Radiolab, one of my favorite public radio shows, is back with a new batch of shows. The newest is on laughter -- a typically fascinating topic for the show.
Is Laughter just a Human Thing?

Aristotle thinks that laughter is what separates us from the beasts. That a baby does not have a SOUL, until the moment it laughs for the first time. Historian Barry Sanders, author of Sudden Glory, says that according to Aristotle, this moment of "human ensouling" is supposed to happen when a baby is 40 days old. We follow radio producer Amanda Aronczyk as she tests this theory on her newborn baby.

Then we go to Bowling Green State University in Ohio, to tickle rats with psychobiologist Dr. Jaak Panksepp. It's his notion that laughter is found all across the animal kindgom. Boom, Aristotle! Then Dr. Robert Provine, author of Laughter: A Scientific Investigation, shows us chimps who seem to be laughing. Boom Boom!
We also get the giggles with a bit of archival tape from comedians Elaine May and Mike Nichols. And Tyler Stillman, a psychologist at Florida State University, eloquently delineates the awesomeness of laughter.
One of the segments discusses something I'd written off years ago as an urban legend -- an outbreak of contagious laughter in an African village. Well, it actually happened. A few possible causes are explored. The explanation that the reporter thinks is the most plausible (anxieties surrounding abrupt changes following national independence) sounds like at least a strong contributing factor. Very interesting show all around.

What's more, the Radiolab's hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich were guests on another fine show, The Sound of Young America.

Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills

Report about changes in children's play from NPR's Morning Edition.

Friday, February 15, 2008

T-Rays for Art's Sake

Remember those terahertz detection devices for seeing through clothes in airports? Well, those T-rays are now going to be deployed to reveal hidden artwork. According to the University of Michigan News Service:

..."T-rays" could let art historians see murals hidden beneath coats of plaster or paint in centuries-old buildings, University of Michigan engineering researchers say.

T-rays, pulses of terahertz radiation, could also illuminate penciled sketches under paintings on canvas without harming the artwork, the researchers say. Current methods of imaging underdrawings can't detect certain art materials such as graphite or sanguine, a red chalk that some of the masters are believed to have used.
If successful, the only naked people will be of the tasteful and arty variety.
Venus with cell phone courtesy of Photobucket, via Pandagon.

A Global Map of Human Impacts to Marine Ecosystems

The National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis has posted an atlas showing humans' impact on the oceans. Their site includes a downloadable file for Google Earth users. Researcher from the project were also featured on Talk of the Nation's Science Friday earlier today. (Embedded audio available.)
Their analysis is published in the February 15, 2008 issue of Science.

The NCEAS site says:

There were 4 steps to creating this composite map.

1. We gathered or created maps (with global coverage) of all types of human activities that directly or indirectly have an impact on the ecological communities in the ocean's ecosystems. In total, we used maps for 17 different activities in categories like fishing, climate change, and pollution. We also gathered maps for 14 distinct marine ecosystems and modeled the distribution of 6 others.

2. To estimate the ecological consequences of these activities, we created an approach to quantify the vulnerability of different marine ecosystems (e.g., mangroves, coral reefs, or seamounts) to each of these activities, published in Conservation Biology, October 2007. For example, fertilizer runoff has been shown to have a large effect on coral reefs but a much smaller one on kelp forests.

3. We then created the cumulative impact map by overlaying the 17 threat maps onto the ecosystems, and using the vulnerability scores to translate the threats into a metric of ecological impact.

4. Finally, using global estimates of the condition of marine ecosystems from previous studies, we were able to ground-truth their impact scores.

Relativistic Baseball

This is a visualization I created to show the effects of dilation at relativistic speeds. This is in preparation for a series I am putting together about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).
This is still in draft phase so any feedback is appreciated. Just click on the "comments" link.

Hope you like it. -- Pat

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Scientific American on the Large Hadron Collider

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is set to go online later this year. Scientific American printed a great series of articles on the LHC in their February 2008 issue. Non-subscribers can access two of the main articles online:

Large Hadron Collider: The Discovery Machine and
The Coming Revolution in Particle Physics

Here's a taste of what to expect from the first article:

[T]he LHC’s basic parameters outdo those of previous colliders in almost every respect. It starts by producing proton beams of far higher energies than ever before. Its nearly 7,000 magnets, chilled by liquid helium to less than two kelvins to make them superconducting, will steer and focus two beams of protons traveling within a millionth of a percent of the speed of light. Each proton will have about 7 TeV of energy—7,000 times as much energy as a proton at rest has embodied in its mass, courtesy of Einstein’s E = mc2. That is about seven times the energy of the reigning record holder, the Tevatron collider at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill. Equally important, the machine is designed to produce beams with 40 times the intensity, or luminosity, of the Tevatron’s beams. When it is fully loaded and at maximum energy, all the circulating particles will carry energy roughly equal to the kinetic energy of about 900 cars traveling at 100 kilometers per hour..."
The picture on the right is of the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS). It is one of the four experiments built into the LHC. The other experiments are ALICE, ATLAS and LHCb.

Carl Sagan Stamps?

Cornell University's Chronicle Online reports, "A movement to immortalize famed Cornell astronomer Carl Sagan with a U.S. postage stamp was launched Feb. 11..."

Carl Sagan is certainly deserving of a stamp. He was a pioneer in expanding the public's understanding of science. Sagan arguably invented a new form of educational television. And as a cultural icon, he put a face to the wonder of science and a passionate humanist ethic. [via]

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Job Opening at Oxford

There is some graffiti in the men's room at Oxford's Department of Zoology. It says, "What's the difference between God and Richard Dawkins?"
The answer: "God is here but everywhere; Dawkins is everywhere but here."

Now it's official. Richard Dawkins is retiring from his position as the Charles Simonyi Professor in the Public Understanding of Science. He has set a very high bar for any future Simonyi Professors. The enormous success of "The God Delusion" and his subsequent international campaign for atheism is unprecedented.

I'm sure Dawkins will remain an active public figure. But his current professorship is now open. If your application to the US Supreme Court didn't pan out, you might try applying for the Charles Simonyi Professorship in the Public Understanding of Science. Here are the submission guidelines.