16,435 Days

August 20, 2022

16,435 days ago, Elvis Presley had been dead four days and Groucho Marx for one; Jimmy Carter was into the eighth month of his presidency and serial killer Son of Sam had just been captured. On that day, August 20 1977, Voyager 2 was launched into space.

This morning, 16,435 days later, she is about 18.8 billion kms away from earth, still heading out. She left the Solar System several years ago, heading into the Interstellar Medium, and is still sending us valuable data every day.

Voyager 2 was built in 1976-1977 with tools that we would consider archaic and primitive today, and yet these days we have trouble keeping a toaster alive for more than six months!

It has been a glorious and useful and enhancing project and I hope it has many more thousands of days to chat with us.


February 22, 2022


Welcome to the extreme palindromic day! We won’t see its like again for another 89 years.


Memory Losses May Be A Good Thing

December 4, 2021


A cognitive scientist specializing in human perception has theorized that lapses in memory may actually show that our brains are working optimally given all the constraints that overload and noise inflict on us.

In an interesting essay in The Conversation, Professor Robert Jacobs reports that

“[p]eople often make errors when remembering, reasoning, deciding, planning or acting, especially in situations when information is ambiguous or uncertain … the statistically optimal strategy when performing cognitive tasks is to combine information from data, such as things one has observed or experienced, with general knowledge about how the world typically works. Researchers found that the errors made by optimal strategies – inevitable errors due to ambiguity and uncertainty – resemble the errors people really make, suggesting that people may be performing cognitive tasks as well as they can be performed … If so, then errors are not necessarily indicators of faulty mental processing. In fact, people’s perceptual and cognitive systems may actually be working quite well.”

He notes that

“When you place an item in memory, it’s as if you’re sending a message to your future self. However, this channel has limited capacity, and thus it cannot transmit all details of a message. Consequently, a message retrieved from memory at a later time may not be the same as the message placed into memory at the earlier time … In addition, people tend to remember the general gist of an item placed in memory, while forgetting its fine details. When this occurs, people tend to mentally “fill in” the missing details with the most frequent or commonplace properties. In a sense, the use of commonplace properties when details are missing is a type of heuristic – it is a quick-and-dirty strategy that will often work well but sometimes fail.”

And there, I thought it was just me getting old!

BioArt Competition

December 4, 2021


FASEB’s BioArt competition shares the beauty and wonder of biological research. I really like these:

Supramolecular Confetti: image by Jack Kolberg-Edelbrock
MicroCT Scan of 96 million-year-old Fossil Turtle Shell Surface Texture: image by Heather F. Smith

On The Origin of Origins

November 24, 2021


On the Origin of Species - Wikipedia

First published on this day, 24th November 1859. Rarely has any book had such an effect on human knowledge and understanding.

Happy Fibonacci Day!

November 23, 2021

1123 — the first numbers in the Fibonacci sequence — allows us to celebrate November 23rd as Fibonacci Day. This is in honour of Italian Leonardo Bonacci of Pisa who discussed the sequence in 1202.

The Fibonacci sequence goes as follows: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144 and on to infinity. Each number is the sum of the previous two. They were known in India well before Fibonacci and were called Virahanka numbers.

It might seem just like a simple mathematician’s trick, but the Fibonacci sequence is found throughout nature. For example, the petals on flowers follow the sequence — most flowers have three (like lilies and irises), five (parnassia, rose hips) or eight (cosmea), 13 (some daisies), 21 (chicory), 34, 55 or 89 (asteraceae). Spirals, such as in pine cones or conch shells, are also built up in Fibonacci sequences.

One could spend an entire Fibonacci Day finding more examples, from spiral galaxies to DNA sequences to fractal diagrams.

Blood Moon Eclipse

November 18, 2021


Image: VancouverIsAwesome

Tonight, overnight, we can witness the longest lunar eclipse for almost 600 years.

The eclipse will begin at about 10:47pm Vancouver time tonight, will peak at around 2:00am, and be finished at 3:30am.

Imagination as the Soul of Humanity

November 12, 2021



The Purpose of Free will and Imagination: Philosophy of Coexistence - Anand  Damani

“A collection of neuroscientists, philosophers and linguists is converging on the notion that imagination, far from a kind of mental superfluity, sits at the heart of human cognition. It might be the very attribute at which our minds have evolved to excel, and which gives us such powerfully effective cognitive fluidity for navigating our world.”

That quote effectively introduces a fascinating essay at Aeon.co which discusses the evolutionary value of imagination, noting that

“it enables you to suppose, picture and describe not only things you won’t ever have experienced, but also things you never could experience, because they violate the laws that govern the world. You can probably imagine being the size of an ant, or walking on air, or living on the Moon. “

The author goes on to note that imagination seems to have little use as a tool for survival when compared, say, to tool use or walking upright. But,

“[t]he more we understand about the minds of other animals, and the more we try (and fail) to build machines that can ‘think’ like us, the clearer it becomes that imagination is a candidate for our most valuable and most distinctive attribute … evolutionary psychologists might suppose that there’s some reason behind our ability to imagine the impossible. Since the laws of physics weren’t known to our species when our brains were evolving, should it surprise us that imagination wilfully breaks them? A mind that can conceive of possibilities beyond its own experience can prepare for the unexpected; better to overanticipate than to be surprised.

Imagination gives us an extraordinary freedom:

“In our mind’s eye, we can project ourselves ‘anywhere in imaginary spacetime’ – into medieval France, or Middle Earth, or The Matrix. In that inner theatre, any performance can take place. As Theseus said: ‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains, / Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend / More than cool reason ever comprehends.’”

There is a great deal more in this fascinating article and I recommend it.

The Mechanics of Tripping

May 19, 2021

One of the most popular of my posts recently was about the beautiful visions that a peyote trip can bring. So you may also be interested to learn that a group of scientists have determined how psychedelics such as mescaline and LSD actually work in the brain (or so they theorize).

Singleton and his colleagues set out to test the so-called Rebus model of psychedelics. Standing for “relaxed beliefs under psychedelics”, it frames the brain as a prediction engine. Under the model, the brain takes thoughts and information from the senses and shapes them according to its understanding of the world. This makes the brain highly efficient: armed with prior beliefs, the noise and uncertainty of perception and thought are swiftly hammered into coherent reality.

But the brain works differently on psychedelics. According to Rebus, substances such as LSD weaken the influence of prior beliefs that the brain uses to make sense of the world. In one sense, the drugs rewind the brain’s clock to a time before it learned that walls tend not to move and furniture is rarely threatening.

“You can imagine you might experience altered perceptions,” said Amy Kuceyeski, a senior author on the study at Cornell. “If your prior belief is that walls don’t move and your prior belief melts, then that wall may appear to move…”

The ability of LSD to free up brain activity may explain why psychedelics can help people with depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder. “In depression, people get locked into a way of thinking that is repetitive and ruminative. It’s like tramline thinking,” said Nutt. “Psychedelics disrupt those kinds of processes so people can escape from it.”

First We Take Mars Then The Earth

February 18, 2021

I am a space cadet. I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s during the early days of space travel. I remember Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin, the first landing on the moon, and I have followed the travels of the Voyagers into the void. It has fascinated me for decades. Today I watched live as NASA landed their Perseverance rover on Mars, and saw the first pictures come through a few minutes later. As usual, I felt a strong emotionalism as I considered the brilliance of the human mind.

I am also well aware of the billions upon billions of dollars that have gone into the space program, billions that could have been spent to deal with the serious problems we have here on earth. Those billions of dollars have been expended on training and technology and software and building teams well beyond anything we could have imagined in the days of the Mercury or Gemini projects.

We cannot get that money back but I do believe that if we concentrated our efforts and built sophisticated teams in the same way that NASA has, we could solve many of the earth’s worst problems. I am not a technological determinist; in fact, I would choose to use as little technology as possible (though much would be inevitable). What I am thinking of here is developing teams rather than machines, problem solving brains trained and resourced to cope with the devastating effects of “civilization” on both planets and people.

If we can solve the trillions of problems that beset us on the way to Mars, it must be possible to solve the problems we have here on earth. It just takes the will to do it.

Paint From Dirt

February 10, 2021

A recent edition of Smithsonian magazine had a fascinating article on the collection of different soils in Wyoming and California, and their transformation into pigments.

“A soil scientist and a professor at the University of Wyoming, Karen Vaughan sees a lot more soils than the average person, and certainly knows them more intimately. Over many years spent examining them, she has come to appreciate their natural beauty and immense variability. Two years ago, she began channeling that appreciation into a product she could share with the world, turning the soils she loved into watercolor pigments. Now, she and her collaborator, Yamina Pressler, a soil scientist at California Polytechnic University, use soils to make pigments and paintings, bridging the gap between science and art. “

“To the uninitiated, the landscape of Wyoming might seem like a monotonous stretch of tan dirt. But that idea is exactly what Vauhgan is trying to change through her art. By explaining to artists and curious laypeople how the myriad hues in soils come to be and sharing them visually through both her own creative works and those by other artists, she hopes to give people the ability to see soil as more than “just dirt.”

Finally, A New Blue

January 26, 2021

Over the years I have written a few pieces about the colour blue, including the invention of Prussian Blue, and the philosophy behind the colour. Now, we have a brand new blue discovered by accident in Oregon.

image: Oregon State University

It is called YInMn after its ingredients: Yttrium, Indium, and Manganese — “and its luminous, vivid pigment never fades, even if mixed with oil and water.”

“Blue pigments, which date back 6,000 years, have been traditionally toxic and prone to fading. That’s no longer the case with YInMn, which reflects heat and absorbs UV radiation, making it cooler and more durable than pigments like cobalt blue. “The fact that this pigment was synthesized at such high temperatures signaled that this new compound was extremely stable, a property long sought in a blue pigment,” [Mas] Subramanian [the lead chemist] said in a study about the compound.

The new blue was discovered in 2009, was licensed for exterior use in 2016 but has only now been made available for general use.

Young Blue Eyes

January 21, 2021

Did you know that before 6,000 to 10,000 years ago all human beings had brown eyes?  A single gene mutation in a single individual created the change, and so those of us with blue eyes all have that individual as our ancestor, according to a major study by the University of Copenhagen:

“Variation in the colour of the eyes from brown to green can all be explained by the amount of melanin in the iris, but blue-eyed individuals only have a small degree of variation in the amount of melanin in their eyes. “From this we can conclude that all blue-eyed individuals are linked to the same ancestor,” says Professor Eiberg. “They have all inherited the same switch at exactly the same spot in their DNA.” Brown-eyed individuals, by contrast, have considerable individual variation in the area of their DNA that controls melanin production.”

They also note:

“The mutation of brown eyes to blue represents neither a positive nor a negative mutation. It is one of several mutations such as hair colour, baldness, freckles and beauty spots, which neither increases nor reduces a human’s chance of survival. As Professor Eiberg says, “it simply shows that nature is constantly shuffling the human genome, creating a genetic cocktail of human chromosomes and trying out different changes as it does so.”

Happy Fibonacci Day!

November 23, 2020

1123 — the first numbers in the Fibonacci sequence — allows us to celebrate November 23rd as Fibonacci Day. This is in honour of Italian Leonardo Bonacci of Pisa who discussed the sequence in 1202.

The Fibonacci sequence goes as follows: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144 and on to infinity. Each number is the sum of the previous two. They were known in India well before Fibonacci and were called Virahanka numbers.

It might seem just like a simple mathematician’s trick, but the Fibonacci sequence is found throughout nature. For example, the petals on flowers follow the sequence — most flowers have three (like lilies and irises), five (parnassia, rose hips) or eight (cosmea), 13 (some daisies), 21 (chicory), 34, 55 or 89 (asteraceae). Spirals, such as in pine cones or conch shells, are also built up in Fibonacci sequences.

One could spend an entire Fibonacci Day finding more examples, from spiral galaxies to DNA sequences to fractal diagrams.

We’re Getting Cooler

November 16, 2020

It was about two hundred years ago that scientists figured out that the average body temperature for a healthy adult was 98.6F or 37C. We have all been taught that number from kindergarten on and it one of those constants that we all know and on which we base actions in our real life. However, according to an article in Science News:

“A 2017 study among 35,000 adults in the United Kingdom found average body temperature to be lower (97.9°F), and a 2019 study showed that the normal body temperature in Americans (those in Palo Alto, California, anyway) is about 97.5°F.”

Another group of scientists who have spent almost two decades studying the Tsimane, an indigenous population of forager-horticulturists in the Bolivian Amazon found a cooling over a short period of time:

“In the 16 years since [Michael] Gurven, co-director of the Tsimane Health and Life History Project, and fellow researchers have been studying the population, they have observed a rapid decline in average body temperature — 0.09°F per year, such that today Tsimane body temperatures are roughly 97.7°F.”

There is no definitive reason yet understood for these changes. However, some researchers believe that a fall in the number of infections due to modern hygiene is one possibility. Another is that air conditioning in the summer and heating in the winter has reduced the body’s need to compensate for external temperatures.

I just think it is cool we are getting cooler!

Small World 2020

October 14, 2020

Nikon’s annual Small World photomicrography competition is back. The winner this year is of a zebrafish:

Photographers: Drs Castranova, Weinstein & Samasa

I also liked this image of a freshwater snail’s tongue:

Photographer: Igor Swanowicz

The Size of Particles

October 11, 2020

I have a lot of trouble breathing when the air is full of wildfire smoke, and so I have an interest in the size of particulates. Luckily, along comes Visual Capitalist with this excellent image of relative sizes:

Select image for a larger view. These are some tiny little buggers!

Time, Again

September 3, 2020

On a couple of occasions before (here and here), I have discussed ideas for why time seems to go so fast when one gets older.

Now, we have another suggestion.  This is a review of Joseph Mazur’s The Clock Mirage: Our Myth of Measured Time. The crux of Mazur’s argument seems to be:

life in general does seem to speed up as you age. But particular moments can slow or even still the flow. The passing of a partner or a parent or, God forbid, a child will put the brakes on time no matter how old you are.

That’s because, Mazur argues, these are — with luck — one-off events and the longer you’ve been around, the fewer one-offs come your way. Your first fall, your first car, your first kiss — these are, as Mazur says, “landmarks” on your life. But the older you get, the rarer such landmarks are. Life becomes more mundane, more samey. The days seem to roll into one another, simply because there’s very little to demarcate them from one another.”

But there also seem to be physical — as opposed to mental — processes at work:

psychologists have shown that the accuracy of second-counting — one little second, two little seconds, etc — decreases with age. Over a three-minute period, younger people can count down the seconds almost perfectly. Older people, on the other hand, can be out by as much as forty seconds — meaning that if they counted seconds for an hour they’d think the task done with around the 47-minute mark. It sounds paradoxical, but it’s that slowing of the older person’s body clock that leads to their faster counting — and their feeling that the rest of the world is speeding up.”

I still prefer my own missing memories analysis, but the whole subject is fascinating. If only I had more time to study it ….


Demolishing Without A Permit

May 19, 2020

Back in the very early 1970s, in Manchester, my then-girlfriend had a brother-in-law who made a living stealing lead from the roofs of parish churches. Well, it made him a living before he slipped off one particular parish roof and died on the pavement below.  I hadn’t thought of him for a while, but he came to mind this morning.

The entrance to our underground parking is a wooden structure that has seen far better days. The roof is made of tin, covered some twenty-odd years ago, by tar paper or something similar, and it is in terrible shape.  I look out onto it every day through my home-office window. Some commotion made me look out today, and there were two large crows picking at something, squabbling.


I thought that they had a small bird that they were tearing apart. But looking more closely, I saw that they were actually fighting over bits of loose tar paper. The bigger one flew away with a full mouth load of stuff. The other stayed around and started pulling small sheets of the tar paper off the roof.

I can only guess they use them as nesting materials.

Memories Are Made Of This

May 9, 2020

I was wandering about how quickly the year is passing; it will be June already in a week or so. That got me thinking about how time seems to speed up as we age, that the days seem more fleeting than they did when I was a kid, or even a young man. And that little reverie kick-started a theory of why the passage of time should seem different at different ages.

Let us first suppose that the neural mechanism for working out how long ago an event of a known date seems to have taken place involves flipping through a catalogue of our memories and making a calculation based somehow on the amount — or “bulkiness” — of the memory pile.

Let us next suppose that one suffers from the occasional short term memory loss — a standard condition of getting older it seems — such that a wide range of time is simply not memorialized.

Thus, when the mind flips through the memory for a particular period, the file seems less “bulky” (because of the missing memories) and the time between then and now will appear to have gone past quicker.

That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it!