The Discovery of Asteroids

August 26, 2010

This is an extraordinary video.  It illustrates the discovery of asteroids in our solar system between 1980 and 2010.  The first time an asteroid is discovered it shown in bright white.  It then becomes green or, if it is an earth orbit-crossing asteroid it becomes red. Those asteroids that closely approach the earth are shown in yellow.  The years and the total number of asteroids are shown at the bottom left of the screen.  As the years pass, the number of asteroids discovered increases rapidly.  This is best seen at full screen.

More than 500,000 asteroids have now been found within the solar system, and thousands of them cross our orbit.  The scientists say that the rate of discovery is not slowing down.

In the video you can see the pattern of discovery follows the Earth around its orbit and most discoveries are made in the region directly opposite the Sun.  The orbital elements were created by Ted Bowell and associates at Arecibo. See this webpage for more info.

I got this video from

Weather In The Cold War

August 12, 2010

I am a devotee of linear history: I like to know the order in which things happened, what came first, what came next. Give me the timeline before giving me your explanation or analysis. In an earlier iteration of my blog, I tried to catalog some of these “cultural beginnings” and I have continued this here.

It will come as no surprise therefore that I just love the History of Science Timeline site.

Having been born in 1949, I decided to look at what happened in 1950 and the first thing I noticed was that in 1950 we have the first weather forecast by an electronic computer. The 24-hour forecast took 24 hours to compute. Of more interest to me was the purpose behind the work:

“As a committed opponent of Communism and a key member of the WWII-era national security establishment, [John] von Neumann hoped that weather modeling might lead to weather control, which might be used as a weapon of war. Soviet harvests, for example, might be ruined by a US-induced drought.”

Science for the greater good, eh?

I’m Ready For My Close Up, Mr DeMille!

January 16, 2009

A technological breakthrough that may “revolutionize the way we look at viruses, bacteria, proteins, and other biological elements” hasn’t received the press I think it deserves.   IBM have developed an MRI that is one hundred million times better than today’s standard MRIs.  I can’t even count that high!

By extending MRI to such fine resolution, the scientists have created a microscope that, with further development, may ultimately be powerful enough to unravel the structure and interactions of proteins, paving the way for new advances in personalized healthcare and targeted medicine. This achievement stands to impact the study of materials from proteins to integrated circuits for which a detailed understanding of atomic structure is essential.


In addition to its high resolution, the imaging technique has the further advantages that it is chemically specific, can “see” below surfaces and, unlike electron microscopy, is non-destructive to sensitive biological materials.

Muons For Mayans

September 1, 2008

OK, I’m excited.  Particle physics and archaeology are coming together to investigate Mayan mounds, most of which have not been excavated.  No-one really knows what is inside these impressive structures.  But now, scientists working with muon detectors are coming to help.

The first major experiment of the Maya Muon Group will bridge the disciplines of physics and archeology. The particle detectors and related systems are designed specifically to explore ruins of a Maya pyramid in collaboration with colleagues at the UT Mesoamerican Archaeological Laboratory. The Maya Muon Group will travel to La Milpa in northwest Belize to make discoveries about “Structure 1” – a jungle-covered mound covering an unexplored Maya ruin.

Pointing out that dense materials block more muons, Patel explains that a muon detector can actually detect rooms, spaces, and caves inside what seems to be solid:  A detector next to a Maya pyramid, for example, will see fewer particles coming from the direction of the structure than from other angles: a muon “shadow.” And if a part of that pyramid is less dense than expected – containing an open space for, say, a royal burial – it will have less of a shadow. Count enough muons that have passed through the pyramid over the course of several months, and they will form an image of its internal structure, just like light makes an image on film. Then combine the images from three or four devices and a 3-D reconstruction of the pyramid’s guts will take shape.

Fascinating stuff.  The article at BLDGBLOG goes much further and is well worth the read.

Sleep Is Great

August 2, 2008

I had an interesting and busy day yesterday.  I wrote some, I painted some, I read some, I watched a lot of cricket.   My glorious wife baked some of the finest bread it is possible to eat, and we generally had good food the whole day through.  I thoroughly enjoyed all those activities — but the best thing of all was the nap I took in the afternoon.

My better half  likes to snooze on the couch, life going on around her.  And I somehow manage to snooze on the bus most mornings and evenings.  But a real nap is a serious business for me.  It is a take-off-all-your-clothes-get-into-bed-and-under-the-covers-with-the-blinds-drawn affair.  Given the right conditions, I don’t expect to be awake longer than a few seconds after my head hits the pillow, and it is hard to have a decent nap in under two hours.  Yesterday, I slept from about 2:30 until 5.  Wonderful.

It is gratifying, therefore, to find that modern scientific research is beginning to understand and appreciate the value of sleep.  It is good to know that sleep helps to strengthen memories, that the brain gets a chance to sort and file, and that sleep can help you think through problems.

Over just the past few years, a number of studies have demonstrated the sophistication of the memory processing that happens during slumber. In fact, it appears that as we sleep, the brain might even be dissecting our memories and retaining only the most salient details … During sleep, the brain reactivates patterns of neural activity that it performed during the day, thus strengthening the memories by long-term potentiation … Adding to the excitement, recent discoveries show that sleep also facilitates the active analysis of new memories, enabling the brain to solve problems and infer new information … It is now clear that sleep can consolidate memories by enhancing and stabilizing them and by finding patterns within studied material even when we do not know that patterns might be there.

But even more gratifying is to find a piece like Jenny Diski’s Diary:

[S]leeping, for all its inherent dangers and waste, is and always has been my activity of choice. Inexpert though I am in all other fields, I am a connoisseur of sleep … Sleep, while it is happening, is nothing to the sleeper. To an observer all kinds of things are happening to the sleeper while she sleeps … Watch sleeping people smile, or mutter, fidget, laugh and shriek. So the observer knows about it, watching you; you do not. Later, you can remember or feel, but the only actual experience of sleep is not-knowing. And not knowing thrills me.

Germs ‘R’ Us

June 7, 2008

There isn’t as much of each of us as we thought. The latest research suggests that each of us contains ten times as many bacteria as human cells — we are, in fact, just a small minority of our own bodies!

Changes in these microbial communities may be responsible for digestive disorders, skin diseases, gum disease and even obesity. Despite their vital imporance in human health and disease, these communities residing within us remain largely unstudied …

Martin Blaser of New York University has been working to identify the various bacteria that live on the human skin and help to form a protective barrier on the outside. Before he started his research it was estimated that fewer than 100 different species of bacteria lived on the skin … Blaser now estimates the number of different bacteria species living on the skin could approach 500 …

Due to their overwhelming numbers, the fact that their byproducts can be found in most human fluids, and the evidence of their potential role in health and disease, it is quite possible that mapping and understanding the human microbiome may be as important or more important to understanding human health than mapping and understanding the human genome.

So remember, wherever you are and whatever you are doing, you are never alone.

The World Atlas of Language Structures

April 30, 2008

I have mentioned before that languages are an important interest of mine. Now we have an extraordinary linguistic resource online — the World Atlas of Language Structures.

The database covers more than 2,500 languages by up to 140+ structural and familial criteria. The content is displayed in text and maps serving as a rich body of data visualizations. We are lucky to have such work made available to us, and I greatly appreciate the effort.


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