Oct, 2012

From Science Daily:

Ask adults from the industrialized world what number is halfway between 1 and 9, and most will say 5. But pose the same question to small children, or people living in some traditional societies, and they’re likely to answer 3.

Cognitive scientists theorize that that’s because it’s actually more natural for humans to think logarithmically than linearly.

Link to the rest at Science Daily.

Oct, 2012

Umm al Maa, one of about a dozen salty pools in the Ubari Sand Sea

Isolated grave of a herder who died between 5,000 and 3,000 years ago.

The heavily eroded Akakus Mountains

Dunes in the Murzuq Sand Sea

Waw an Namus volcanic crater

Algae in the hypersaline waters of a lake in the Ubari Sand Sea

Rock art at Wadi Matkandush 5,000 years ago


A Pulsing Desert

The Sahara Desert conjures up images of merciless heat and endless sands, scuttling scorpions, deadly vipers, gritty winds, elusive water—but it wasn’t always like that. The Sahara has a long history of changing climate, when the sands give way to water and humans brave the elements and survive. The Fezzan region in southwest Libya is the beating heart of the Sahara. Though this apparent inferno receives less than an inch of rain a year and holds the world heat record, it actually harbours tiny gem-coloured lakes: the dehydrated reminders of a time when groundwater was much closer to the surface. 200,000 years ago, a lake the size of England spread across the sands, and ancient channels testify the existence of rivers, making the land not only tolerable, but farmable—human communities rose and fell with the water like a pulse. The Sahara Desert might have even been one of the paths our ancestors took on their journey out of Africa. To locate and map these ancient waterways, researchers have used radar images to direct ground crews to study the sites, but the images of the Fezzan region above, however, were taken by photographer George Steinmetz using an ultra-light paraglider.

Sep, 2012

From Scientific American:

A baby born in the U.S. this year is likely to live to blow out 78 birthday candles—a far longer average life span than someone born even in the 1960s. Heart disease is still the biggest killer but it, along with fatal infectious diseases and infant mortality have all fallen to much lower levels in the past half century. Researchers are now hard at work tackling the growing afflictions, such as nervous system diseases and Alzheimer’s, which are far more likely to attack the ever more senescent population.

Check out the Interactive graph at Scientific American

Sep, 2012

From Scientific American:

We might expect that the widespread availability of mobile phones boosts interpersonal connections, by allowing people to stay in touch constantly.  But a recent set of studies by Andrew K. Przybylski and Netta Weinstein of the University of Essex showed that our phones can hurt our close relationships. Amazingly, they found that simply having a phone nearby, without even checking it, can be detrimental to our attempts at interpersonal connection.

Przybylski and Weinstein asked pairs of strangers to discuss a moderately intimate topic (an interesting event that had occurred to them within the last month) for 10 minutes.  The strangers left their own belongings in a waiting area and proceeded to a private booth.  Within the booth, they found two chairs facing each other and, a few feet away, out of their direct line of vision, there was a desk that held a book and one other item.  Unbeknownst to the pair, the key difference in their interactions would be the second item on the desk.  Some pairs engaged in their discussion with a nondescript cell phone nearby, whereas other pairs conversed while a pocket notebook lay nearby.  After they finished the discussion, each of the strangers completed questionnaires about the relationship quality (connectedness) and feelings of closeness they had experienced.  The pairs who chatted in the presence of the cell phone reported lower relationship quality and less closeness.

Przybylski and Weinstein followed up with a new experiment to see, in which contexts, the presence of a cell phone matters the most.  This time, each pair of strangers was assigned a casual topic (their thoughts and feelings about plastic trees) or a meaningful topic (the most important events of the past year) to discuss — again, either with a cell phone or a notebook nearby.  After their 10-minute discussion, the strangers answered questions about relationship quality, their feelings of trust, and the empathy they had felt from their discussion partners.

The presence of the cell phone had no effect on relationship quality, trust, and empathy, but only if the pair discussed the casual topic.  In contrast, there were significant differences if the topic was meaningful. The pairs who conversed with a cell phone in the vicinity reported that their relationship quality was worse.  The pairs also reported feeling less trust and thought that their partners showed less empathy if there was a cell phone present.

Link to the rest at Scientific American

Sep, 2012

It would have indeed been the coolest thing ever if this was an actual quote, but sadly, it isn’t. Bill Nye did not say this.

From user doshka in a thread on Reddit:

This [quote] is from the Daily Current, a satirical “newspaper” like the Onion. It didn’t happen. Links to original, the Google cache, and the Reddit post from yesterday.

Also, here’s a link to a Snopes report stating it is a quote falsely attributed to our beloved Science Guy. [via acranox]

Aug, 2012



will.i.am, NASA team up for first song from Mars

“will.i.am listens to NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Sciences and Exploration Directorate Chief Scientist Jim Garvin talk next to a mock up of the Mars rover Curiosity in Pasadena, Calif. Today at 4PM EDT, NASA will debut a new song by will.i.am.”

Will.i.am … you are hereby forgiven for the auditory misdeeds of the Black Eyed Peas, thanks to your tireless work to support science and expand education.

And because of the robots. You are a robot/science/art hero. Thank you.

Tune in later today (4 PM Eastern) on NASA TV to stream the event, where Mr. Am’s new song will be broadcast from the surface of Mars. It’s amazing that I just got to type those words.

Aug, 2012


The debate about the relative merits of exploring space with humans and robots is as old as the space program itself. Werner Von Braun, a moving force behind the Apollo Program that sent humans to the moon and the architect of the mighty Saturn V rocket, believed passionately in the value of human exploration — especially when it meant beating the hated Soviet Empire. James Van Allen, discoverer of the magnetic fields that bear his name, was equally ardent and vocal about the value of robotic exploration.

There are five arguments that are advanced in any discussion about the utility of space exploration and the roles of humans and robots. Those arguments, in roughly ascending order of advocate support, are the following:

1. Space exploration will eventually allow us to establish a human civilization on another world (e.g., Mars) as a hedge against the type of catastrophe that wiped out the dinosaurs.

2. We explore space and create important new technologies to advance our economy. It is true that, for every dollar we spend on the space program, the U.S. economy receives about $8 of economic benefit. Space exploration can also serve as a stimulus for children to enter the fields of science and engineering.

3. Space exploration in an international context offers a peaceful cooperative venue that is a valuable alternative to nation state hostilities. One can look at the International Space Station and marvel that the former Soviet Union and the U.S. are now active partners. International cooperation is also a way to reduce costs.

4. National prestige requires that the U.S. continue to be a leader in space, and that includes human exploration. History tells us that great civilizations dare not abandon exploration.

5. Exploration of space will provide humanity with an answer to the most fundamental questions: Are we alone? Are there other forms of life beside those on Earth?

It is these last two arguments that are the most compelling to me. It is challenging to make the case that humans are necessary to the type of scientific exploration that may bring evidence of life on another world. There are strong arguments on both sides. Personally, I think humans will be better at unstructured environment exploration than any existing robot for a very long time.

There are those who say that exploration with humans is simply too expensive for the return we receive. However, I cannot imagine any U.S. President announcing that we are abandoning space exploration with humans and leaving it to the Chinese, Russians, Indians, Japanese or any other group. I can imagine the U.S. engaging in much more expansive international cooperation.

Humans will be exploring space. The challenge is to be sure that they accomplish meaningful exploration.

G. Scott Hubbard, professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford University and former director of the NASA Ames Research Center.