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Archive for the ‘Science!’ Category

Ok, Google, now this is cool:) For anyone who has ever wanted to take the long (very long) view, there’s a new tool from Google.*

The Google Earth Engine gives users access to satellite imagery from as far back as 1984, and to build timelapse imagery that capture changes across the years.

Google Earth Engine combines a multi-petabyte catalog of satellite imagery and geospatial datasets with planetary-scale analysis capabilities and makes it available for scientists, researchers, and developers to detect changes, map trends, and quantify differences on the Earth’s surface.

Want to see what a timelapse looks like? Here is a short introductory video:

Want to make your own? No problem. Explore the built-in Timelapse features, integrate ready-to-use datasets on demographics, climate, imagery and more, or use your own code. (Check out the case studies from a variety of organizations focused on climate, health, and science, including this one on malaria risk mapping.)

You can also set up a tour to view more than one location. It’s fun, educational, persuasive, and easy to use. And because it’s Google, all this goodness is freely available. Now that U.S. government data may become less accessible, people and organizations interested in the long view need all the access they can get.


* Sadly, I’m not affiliated with Google, just a fan. Although like MIT and Slate and Scout and ASU (among others), Google would be a terrific sponsor for thoughtful new science fiction, don’t you think?

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While we wait to see if the European Space Agency’s ExoMars mission and its Schiaparelli lander makes it to the Martian surface intact, here is Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium, taking on that most important of questions: are lightsabers physically possible?

Curious? I know I am!

 

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Today’s Thing I Like is nonfiction writing in general, and author Mary Roach in particular. If you aren’t familiar with her work, check out the books linked below or this interview with Seth Shostak at SETICon 2012.

Nonfiction can be a fiction writer’s best friend. At its best, it includes detailed, character-driven explorations of real-life situations and challenges, and can provide the sort of solid foundation a more speculative piece needs to succeed. I’ve mentioned this before, but avoiding abstractitis is key to good writing.

Specifically:

No matter how abstract your topic, how intangible, your first step is to find things you can drop on your foot.
— John Maguire

Nonfiction helps you do that, and Mary Roach is a great example of a quality nonfiction writer.

I have yet to read all of Roach’s books but Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal and Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void were terrific. Her books take a somewhat off-beat topic and delve in, deep. She’s also funny. The level of detail is satisfying and succeeds in painting an engaging portrait of her subject that is also educational. Packing for Mars, for example, is a great way for writers to familiarize themselves with the nitty gritty of space exploration, how we got to where we are now, and how we’ll get to where we’re going.

To note, if you’re interested in popular nonfiction about the intricacies of digestion or Mars exploration, check out Giulia Enders’ excellent Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ, and Steve Squyres’ Roving Mars: Spirit, Opportunity, and the Exploration of the Red Planet.

Read, then write:)

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So I’m in my house one day last year as storm rolled in overhead. Dark clouds rained down, thunderous booms rumbled, and, off in the distance like God’s own strobe, lightning. I’m at my desk asking myself all the usual questions one does in such situations: Which direction is the storm tracking? Who pissed off the powers that be? Was that last strike closer? And that most critical question of the 21st century: will the power stay on long enough for me to meet my project deadline?

A little websploration later, and I discovered a very fun tool: Lightning Maps.

A project from Blitzortung.org, the site uses crowd-sourced data from a community of contributors with strike sensors:

“Blitzortung.org” is a lightning detection network for locating electromagnetic discharges in the atmosphere (lightning discharges) with VLF receivers based on the time of arrival (TOA) and time of group arrival (TOGA) method.

Lightning emits radio waves detectable from thousands of miles, if you have the right sensor. With more than 500 sensors, the network displays data from America, Europe and Oceania.

Think this is extra cool, have some skill with electronics and want to join in? Keep an eye on the Blitzortung forums to see when their next batch of sensors is available for purchase and deployment.

While the site makes it clear that the data are not suited for insurance or protection of life and property, it’s still a fun resource. I recommend it for anyone interested in a dynamic view of one of nature’s most dramatic forces.

Would you like to know more?

Check out how lightning works and the science of detection.

I prefer the beauty and simplicity of Lightning Maps but there are a number of alternatives. Visit Blitzortung.org for real-time and historical maps, or any of the alternative lightning maps at the World Wide Lightning Location Network (WWLLN), the European Cooperation for Lightning Detection (EUCLID), and of course, NASA.

Next time a big storm comes through I plan to cuddle up with a bowl of popcorn and ooh-ahh over the latest lightning strikes… at least until the power goes out:)

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Today I’m applauding my mother, who wants to build a pollinator garden. What a fantastic idea, and one supported by the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge, Honey Nut Cheerios (for obvious reasons), and many others.

She’s interested in planting a series of native plant species that will flower from early to late growing season and support bees and other pollinators like butterflies and hummingbirds. And it doesn’t have to be a large-scale project to make a difference.

I’ve talked about bees here before but the point deserves emphasis: we need them. Which is why this week I’m lauding the pest control company Ortho for removing neonics, the neonicotinoid-based pesticides linked to wide-scale bee deaths, from their outdoor products. Here’s hoping other companies follow suit soon with this and other bee-friendly strategies, before this Whole Foods nightmare becomes a terrible coffee, chocolate and fruit-free nightmare. Coffee, people!

https://www.instagram.com/p/BEI1JFTqNfU/

Dandelions are pretty (and if you don’t agree there are more targeted ways to get rid of them), weeding is good exercise, and seventy-five percent of US fruits, nuts and vegetables are pollinated by bees. And killing off millions of enthusiastic workers doing their jobs for free seems awfully self-defeating.

Why care about pollinators? Personally, I like bees, and I like food. I like to imagine a future filled with more possibilities, not less.

I also care because we’re more dependent on nature than we like to think. Because a future of limited food and little variety is a recipe for human and natural disaster (also? bland!). And because I don’t want to spend my declining years describing the rich red taste of ripe strawberries to children who have no idea what I’m talking about.

View this post on Instagram

🐛 #NationalGardenMonth #milkweed #monarchs

A post shared by Pollinator Partnership (@pollinatorpartnership) on

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“Okay, this is the wisdom. First, time spent on reconnaissanse is never wasted. Second, almost anything can be improved with the addition of bacon. And finally, there is no problem on Earth that can’t be ameliorated by a hot bath and a cup of tea.”
― Jasper Fforde

I love Jasper Fforde‘s work, and some days a good book filled with witty humor and amusing characters are exactly what one needs to perk up. But if the week’s been rough and a book (or bacon or a bath or tea) don’t work, here’s advice from someone who should know, Dr. Mike Evans.

Dr. Evans is a physician and scientist who also puts together terrific animated explainers on health topics for the rest of us. The one I’ll bring to your attention today, dear readers, is perhaps perfect for a Wednesday:

 

Now, my week is going ok. Or at least not bad. I’m getting things done (although not as much as I’d like) and I’m thinking hard about ongoing projects (why are they still “ongoing”? get to it, Johnson!) and charting out goals and cooking up ideas and recipes. (In fact, I’m so embroiled that I had a hard time settling on one topic to write about. Maybe tomorrow you’ll get that essay on The Great British Baking Show or the migratory mating habits of the Feathered Frangolian Flowers of Planet P;)

Still. Sometimes you just have a bad week. For those of us who spend a lot of time working in our heads, in particular, a little external perspective can come in handy.

Once you’re back on track, Dr. Evans also has another great video useful even in weeks where things are going swimmingly:

 

Because health reasons!

And if none of that works, well, there’s always cake:)

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FirstSnow

This is the first real snowfall of the season and it’s still coming down. Yesterday I could pretend that winter was a thing that happened to other people but, alas, no longer!

I say alas but I’m actually coming around on the subject of winter. I ran across an article at Fast Company featuring Kari Leibowitz, a Stanford Ph.D. student who asked a fundamental question: Why don’t people in far northern Norway, a place where the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon between late November and late January, have more seasonal depression? So she went up there and asked.

The answer might surprise you. I know it surprised me, and got me thinking about winter from a different perspective.

“Why would we?”

They see winter as an opportunity, not just to take part in the snowy sports I generally don’t do, but to enjoy the indoor and outdoor beauty of the season. It’s strikingly pretty in the land of practically eternal sunset, but they also focus on what I think of as all the good bits of cold weather. Warm fires, hot chocolate, a good book, good company, cozy blankets. In fact:

Norwegians also have a word, koselig, that means a sense of coziness. It’s like the best parts of Christmas, without all the stress. People light candles, light fires, drink warm beverages, and sit under fuzzy blankets.

That sounds pretty good to me. So sure, winter is coming. Welcome!*
—–
* My Canadian overlords are happy to report that my brainwashing appears to be complete;)

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Between regular life and my super exciting NaNoWriMo experiment, my schedule has been a bit busy of late. (Hence the relative quiet here.) So I thought I’d start your week off right, with some free fiction.

Today’s selection is a new collection of shorts produced by none other than Microsoft, which is venturing into the fiction futurism business. What’s it all about?

Future Visions: Original Science Fiction Stories Inspired by Microsoft is an anthology of short stories written by some of today’s greatest science fiction authors. These visionary stories explore prediction science, quantum computing, real-time translation, machine learning, and much more. The contributing authors were inspired by inside access to leading-edge work, including in-person visits to Microsoft’s research labs, to craft new works that predict the near-future of technology and examine its complex relationship to our core humanity.

How will the technologies the company is exploring affect our world? They’ve brought together a pretty great group of authors and artists to speculate on that very topic. Contributors include Elizabeth Bear, Greg Bear, David Brin, Nancy Kress, Ann Leckie, Jack McDevitt, Seanan McGuire, Robert J. Sawyer, Blue Delliquanti and Michele Rosenthal, and Joey Camacho.

This link takes you to a Microsoft news page with jumps to Amazon and other download sites where you can get the e-book file for free free free.

Enjoy!

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I don’t know about you but certain events pull me out of myself, away from the everyday minutia that anchor most of us to our little corners of the planet and remind me that we’re really just tiny dots on a spinning lump circling an isolated (if lively) corner of the Milky Way.

Eclipses are like that for me.

And lo, a total lunar eclipse is happening on Sunday night. Also, supermoon! That’s right, it won’t be just any eclipse, but one in which the moon’s orbit brings it about as close to the Earth as it comes, around 220,000 miles at perigee (rather than its more typical distance of 240,000 miles). And as this article in Slate describes it:

During this total lunar eclipse, the moon will appear about 14 percent larger and 30 percent brighter than Earthlings are used to seeing it… The last supermoon eclipse was in 1982, and it won’t happen again until 2033.

So, fellow Earthlings, get thee outside around 10:47pm EST Sunday evening and enjoy the dramatic sight of a harvest supermoon tinged red with Earth-shadow. Or, you know, watch it live-streamed on the Slooh Community Observatory network or see NASA TV’s coverage of the event from 8:00pm on. Your choice, just don’t forget the popcorn:)

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Wait, what?

Yep, that’s the takeaway from a recent Bloomberg article about humans with (very, very) rare genetic mutations:

These Superhumans Are Real and Their DNA Could Be Worth Billions

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the focus of the article is on drug companies exploiting such mutations to develop new blockbuster products, but let’s just take a second to look at the bottom line:

Rare mutations > affect a tiny percent of the human population = superpowers.
/enough said

Yes, it’s Unbreakable all over again, only this time for real. If there’s a way to convert such mutations into useful (rather than simply profitable) innovations, great. Without (hopefully) the evil mastermind willing to sacrifice innocent lives in the search for outliers.

Are there challenges to life as a “superhero”? Of course, the most obvious being the dramatic downsides for those with dangerous mutations like insensitivity to pain, but I have to say: I find this hopeful.

Why? Because it’s a reminder that there is no one “normal” and that the continuum of human evolution isn’t done with us yet, not by a long shot.

That the range of human experience is deep and varied, and that there is room in our world for everyone.

And that the impossible can, under extraordinary circumstances, become possible.

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