2008 Year in Science Review

Posted on 31st December 2008 by Ryan Somma in science holidays

Science Etcetera 2008 Tag Cloud

Science Etcetera 2008 Tag Cloud
Via TagCrowd

CNN making the boneheaded decision to dump its science unit, the Origin of Blue Eyes fitting another interesting piece of the human origins puzzle into place, and “Dwarf Planets” becoming “Plutoids” earn an honorable mention for science news in 2008, and the Large Hadron Collider will make next year’s top 10 list, when it starts working properly.

Here are my picks for the best science developments in 2008:

  1. The Svalbard Seed Vault in Longyearbyen, Norway went into deep freeze, preserving the world’s seed collections against any number of threats, from Global Warming to regional environmental damage. The vault is a monument to prescient thinking, an Ark for weathering our current environmental storms.

  2. Svalbard Seed Vault

    Svalbard Seed Vault
  3. Once numbered at less than 100,000, a recent census found 125,000 western lowland gorillas found living in the Republic of Congo. Although still listed as “critically endangered,” the numbers show that conservation efforts do work, and that similar actions must be taken for other primates around the world.
  4. The Interior Department officially listed the polar bear as a threatened species, acknowledging melting sea ice as the culprit, but without taking any position on Global Warming.
  5. The first Photo of an Exoplanet was confirmed from two photographs taken by the Hubble Space telescope in 2004 and 2006, a Jupiter-mass object that orbits the star Fomalhaut every 872 years.

  6. Planet Orbiting the star Fomalhaut Every 872 Years

    Planet Orbiting the star Fomalhaut Every 872 Years
  7. Closer to home an Electron was filmed for the first time, riding on a light wave after being pulled away from an atom.

  8. The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) was signed into law, which bars discriminating against people based on their genetic information concerning health insurance and employment.
  9. The Phoenix Lander proved conclusively the existence of water on Mars, and kept us on the edge of our seats with its electrical problems and issues getting soil samples into its ovens for analysis.

  10. First Images from the Phoenix Mars Lander

    First Images from the Phoenix Mars Lander
  11. Craig Venter’s organization synthesized an entire bacterial genome from scratch, the second of three steps toward JCVI’s goal of creating a fully synthetic organism.
  12. Working models and computer simulations of the Antikythera device revealed the Greeks were using a very sophisticated astronomical calculator, which was also capable of predicting eclipses and the Olympic Games 2,100 years ago.

  13. My personal favorite development for this year was Science Debate 2008, which successfully got the presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain to answer questions about science, and, even more amazingly, brought the scientific community together into its most effective lobby, which is like herding cats.
  14. Science Debate 2008
    Science Debate 2008

Other News Sources Take on the Year in Science:

Happy Winter Solstice!

Posted on 21st December 2008 by Ryan Somma in science holidays

O, wind, if winter comes, can spring be far behind?
~ Percy Bysshe Shelley

Does the economy have you down? The stress of the holidays getting to you? Tired of getting off work at 5pm to find its dark outside and you missed the daylight?

Then cheer up! As of today (in the Northern Hemisphere) at 12:04 UTC (8:04AM EST) the days will grow longer and the nights shorter until the summer solstice, when the trend reverses.

The Winter Solstice

The Winter Solstice

Lots of cultures around the world have celebrations this week, and have been doing so since humans started keeping track of the seasons.

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Happy Birthday Sir Arthur C. Clarke

Posted on 16th December 2008 by Ryan Somma in science holidays

He would be 91 today:

Of all the creatures who had yet walked on Earth, the man-apes were the first to look steadfastly at the Moon. And though he could not remember it, when he was very young Moon-Watcher would sometimes reach out and try to touch that ghostly face rising above the hills.

He had never succeeded, and now he was old enough to understand why. For first, of course, he must find a high enough tree to climb.

Arthur C. Clark, 2001

The National Defense Education Act 50 Years Later

Posted on 3rd December 2008 by Ryan Somma in Enlightenment Warrior,science holidays

2008 marks the 50th anniversary of the National Defense Education act, a direct response to the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite into Earth orbit. The act employed one of the most brilliant strategic responses to an outside military threat ever devised: dramatically improve education for all Americans.

The act’s goal was to bring “American education to levels consistent with the needs of our society,” and contained ten titles designed to improve the nation’s schools. These included prohibiting federal control over curriculum, administration, or personnel; provide $295 million in low-interest loans to college students; $300 million in assistance for science, mathematics, and foreign-language instruction; and $18 million in research into how to use television and radio for educational purposes.

On January 12, 1961 Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his State of the Union address, called the act “a milestone in the history of American education.” Today, President-Elect Barack Obama’s website notes the importance of the act in improving national security, space programs, economic growth, and innovation for the second half of the 20th century.

The 109th Congress in February 2006 introduced the 21st Century National Defense Education Act, but never made it to committee, possibly due to the beuracratic burden some argued it would place on public schools. The 1958 act was also not without controversy, as when 20 colleges and universities refused to accept funds from it in protest of the act’s requirement for loan recipients to take a loyalty oath to the United States, which contradicted the first title.

Despite these controversies, it is the spirit of the act that deserves reflection as we face the threats of terrorism and economic hardship, the idea that all our problems are best fought with a well-informed, highly educated public:

The National Defense Education Act recognizes that education is a national unifying force, and it regards an educated citizenry as the country’s most precious resource. Its ten Titles are designed to motivate the discovery of intelligent and talented young men and women and stimulate them to devote themselves to the sciences, foreign languages, technology, and in general to those intellectual pursuits that will enrich personal life, strengthen resistance to totalitarianism, and enhance the quality of American leadership on the international scene. – Arthur S. Flemming

Google has a timeline of news stories about the act in books, newspapers, and academic journals.

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Taste the Evolution This Thanksgiving

Posted on 27th November 2008 by Ryan Somma in science holidays

YeYeah, that’s right. I’ve figured out a way to science-theme out Thanksgiving. I’ve heard cicadas taste like shrimp, which makes sense as they are arthropods like crabs and lobster. Alligator tastes like fishy chicken, which makes sense as reptiles are the bridge between fish and birds.

Tyrannosaurus rex’s closest living relative is the chicken, so take a moment tonight to savor the flavor in that context.

Turkeys and Other Birds are Dinosaur Descendants

Turkeys and Other Birds are Dinosaur Descendants
Credit: Yo Soy

More evidence for why that turkey you are eating tonight probably tastes a lot like dinosaur can be found here.

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11:11 Powers of Eleven Day (Veterans Day and Kurt Vonnegut’s Birthday)

Posted on 11th November 2008 by Ryan Somma in Ionian Enchantment,science holidays

     We living creatures are the mud that gets to sit up and look around at all the other mud. And then we lay back down again. Lucky us; lucky mud.
     – Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut Memorial

Kurt Vonnegut Memorial
Credit: Vidiot

Eleven is an unbalanced number, a prime number we cannot count to on our hands; yet, there is a fractal-like nature to 11, a number whose first digit represents the second digit to the power of 10. The same holds true for single digit numbers multiplied by 11, such as 22, 33, 44… 99. We use a base-10 number system because we have 10 digits on our hands, a society using base-11 would need one extra digit on one hand. They would be asymmetrical beings.

Kurt Vonnegut
Credit: mike dialect

Such a society, as implausible as it sounds, would fit perfectly in Kurt Vonnegut’s SF universe. In his book Galapagos human survivors of an apocalypse stranded on the island evolve flippers and become aquatic, in Slapstick mutant siblings become super-geniuses through incest (hi ho), in Timequake a temporal hiccup forces everyone to relive the last decade over again exactly as it happened before, in The Sirens of Titan all of human history is the result of alien race’s manipulations to produce a replacement part for a stranded robot, and in Slaughterhouse-Five a WWII soldier becomes unstuck in time, traveling back and forth to points throughout his life, including a point where he is an exhibit in an alien zoo. Vonnegut indisputably wrote science fiction, but took issue with being categorized as such. Still, he praised the genre for bridging the gap between C.P. Snow’s two cultures:

But listen–about the editors and anthologists and publishers who keep the science-fiction field separate and alive: they are uniformly brilliant and sensitive and well-informed. They are among the precious few Americans in whose minds C.P. Snow’s two cultures sweetly intertwine. They publish so much bad stuff because good stuff is hard to find, and because they feel it is their duty to encourage any writer, no matter how frightful, who has guts enough to include technology in the human equation. Good for them. They want buxom images of the new reality.

Born on 11/11/1922 or 19221111, I’d like to suggest “Powers of Eleven Day” to celebrate Kurt Vonnegut’s legacy. This coincides perfectly with the fact that 11/11 is also Veterans Day, as Kurt Vonnegut was a WWII veteran who survived the Bombing of Dresden as a POW, and the fact that Veterans Day takes place on the anniversary of the signing of the Armistice that ended World War I, which occured at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.

Fun facts about 11:

Centered Decagonal Numbers

Centered Decagonal Numbers
  • 11 is a Centered Decagonal Number.
  • 11 is the first number which cannot be represented by a human counting his or her eight fingers and two thumbs additively.
  • Eleven is the smallest positive integer requiring three syllables in English, and it is also the largest prime number with a single-morpheme name in English.
  • 11 is the 5th smallest prime number.

  • M-Theory

  • The number of space-time dimensions in M-theory.
  • 11 is the atomic number of sodium.
  • A complete eleventh chord has almost every note of a diatonic scale.
  • The powers of 11 can be extracted from Pascal’s triangle by reading across the rows and interpreting the digits as a place value system.
  • 11 is a Lucas number.

  • Undecagon

  • An eleven-sided polygon is called a hendecagon or undecagon.
  • 11 is the fourth number that stays the same when written upside down.
  • 11 is a Super Catalan Number.
  • 11 in Binary is 1011
  • Binary 11 is 3 in decimal.
  • -11 is a Heegner Number.
  • the 11-cell (or hendecachoron) is a self-dual abstract regular 4-polytope.

  • 11-cell hendecachoron

    11-cell hendecachoron
  • When multiplying 11 against a 1 digit number, replicate the digit so that 9 X 11 = 99.
  • When multiplying 11 against a 2 digit number, add the two digits together and place the result in the middle so that 69 X 11 = 759 or 6(6+9)9 becomes 6(15)9 becomes (6+1)59 becomes 759.
  • In base 10, 11 is the only integer that is not a Nivenmorphic number.
  • The approximate periodicity of a sunspot cycle is 11 years.
  • 11:11 has a lot of meaning in some fruity New Age ideas.
  • From School House Rock The Good Eleven by Bob Dorough:

    Powers of eleven (via quadibloc)
       2                                          121
       3                                         1331
       4                                        14641
       5                                       161051
       6                                      1771561
       7                                     19487171
       8                                    214358881
       9                                   2357947691
      10                                 2 5937424601
      11                                28 5311670611
      12                               313 8428376721
      13                              3452 2712143931
      14                             37974 9833583241
      15                            417724 8169415651
      16                           4594972 9863572161
      17                          50544702 8499293771
      18                         555991731 3492231481
      19                        6115909044 8414546291
      20                      6 7274999493 2560009201
      21                     74 0024994425 8160101211
      22                    814 0274938683 9761113321
      23                   8954 3024325523 7372246531
      24                  98497 3267580761 1094711841
      25                1083470 5943388372 2041830251
      26               11918176 5377272094 2460132761
      27              131099941 9149993036 7061460371
      28             1442099361 0649923403 7676064081
      29           1 5863092971 7149157441 4436704891
      30          17 4494022688 8640731855 8803753801
      31         191 9434249577 5048050414 6841291811
      32        2111 3776745352 5528554561 5254209921
      33       23225 1544198878 0814100176 7796309131
      34      255476 6986187658 8955101944 5759400441
      35     2810243 6848064247 8506121390 3353404851
      36    30912680 5328706726 3567335293 6887453361
      37   340039485 8615773989 9240688230 5761986971
      38  3740434344 4773513889 1647570536 3381856681

    Take a Child Outside Week 2008

    Posted on 24th September 2008 by Ryan Somma in science holidays


    Last year I ran a series of photos and quotes in celebration of Take a Child Outside Week that purely rejoiced in nature. For this year’s event, running from September 24th through the 30th, I’ve chosen quotes emphasizing the importance of nature in education and understanding ourselves:

    Hawaiian Tree Fern

    Hawaiian Tree Fern
    Credit: brewbook

    Sit down before a fact like a little child, and be prepared to give up every preconceived notion. Follow humbly wherever and to whatever abyss Nature leads, or you shall learn nothing.
    – Thomas Henry Huxley

    Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.
    – Albert Einstein



    Credit: justus.thane

    A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest–a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.
    – Albert Einstein

    Human beings are part of nature. Anything they do is natural. It’s impossible for anything in nature to do anything unnatural.
    – Philip Jose Farmer



    Credit: Colin Warren

    There are three principal means of acquiring knowledge. . . observation of nature, reflection, and experimentation. Observation collects facts; reflection combines them; experimentation verifies the result of that combination.
    – Denis Diderot

    Nature does not give to those who will not spend.
    – R. J. Baughan



    Credit: Noel Zia Lee

    Man, being the servant and interpreter of nature, can do and understand so much and so much only as he has observed in fact or in thought of the course of nature: beyond this he neither knows anything nor can do anything.
    – Sir Francis Bacon

    We cannot command nature except by obeying her.
    – Sir Francis Bacon



    Helianthus annuus
    Credit: Esdras Calderan

    God could cause us considerable embarrassment by revealing all the secrets of nature to us: we should not know what to do for sheer apathy and boredom.
    – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

    To the dull mind all nature is leaden. To the illumined mind the whole world sparkles with light.
    – Ralph Waldo Emerson



    Credit: cobalt123

    Science is a mechanism, a way of trying to improve your knowledge of nature. It’s a system for testing your thoughts against the universe, and seeing whether they match.
    – Isaac Asimov

    It can’t be Nature, for it is not sense.
    – Charles Churchill

    Nature never says one thing, Wisdom another.
    – Juvenal



    Credit: AriCee

    Fortunately science, like that nature to which it belongs, is neither limited by time nor by space. It belongs to the world, and is of no country and no age. The more we know, the more we feel our ignorance; the more we feel how much remains unknown.
    – Humphrey Davy

    Man masters nature not by force, but by understanding.
    – Jacob Brownowski

    One Web Day 2008

    Posted on 22nd September 2008 by Ryan Somma in science holidays

    If I were to travel back in time 25 years and tell all the science fiction writers alive back then that the world of the future included an expansive network of computers circumscribing the globe, I probably wouldn’t be telling them anything all that surprising.

    If I told them that people would have access to digital encyclopedias of knowledge that would dwarf their bookcases of Britannica volumes, these same authors would shrug their shoulders, of course.

    But what if I were to add that this same online encyclopedia was the emergent result of a collaborative effort of amateur volunteers who spend their free time anonymously adding content to it, and that the encyclopedia was just as accurate as the Encyclopedia Britannica?

    Those science fiction authors would laugh me out of the room.

    The future is wild. Happy One-Web Day. : )

    Happy Summer Solstice! Yay! (Northern Solstice)

    Posted on 20th June 2008 by Ryan Somma in science holidays - Tags:

    Today, June 20th at 23:59 (one minute to midnight UTC (18:59 EST)), the sun will shine at its highest northern latitude for the year, appearing directly overhead for anyone standing at latitude 23.44° north, also known as the tropic of Cancer.

    Summer Solstice

    Summer Solstice
    Credit: GI

    This is the longest day of the year, and from here on out the days will get shorter until the Winter Solstice. So go outside and enjoy the season. Fall is closer than you think!

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    Yuri’s Night World Dance Party in Second Life 2008

    Posted on 14th April 2008 by Ryan Somma in Geeking Out,science holidays


    Extropia Dance Party

    In David Brin’s science fiction book Kiln People, people make copies of themselves to aide with multi-tasking. Something we’d all like the power to do at times. Time isn’t money, it’s much more precious.



    Saturday night, unable to physically travel a hundred-plus miles to hang out at one of the parties celebrating space flight, I decided to go virtual and attend a party in Second Life hosted by Extropia a community of Transhumanists–an international intellectual and cultural movement that seeks to use science and technology to ameliorate human suffering and shortcomings.

    Extropia Dance Party

    Extropia Dance Party

    However, I was also very busy that night. So while I was at the party, I set my avatar to dance automatically, while I caught up on some writing. It was awesome! I got to dance with hot cyborg ladies in one window, while keeping up on research in the next.

    Extropia Dance Party

    Extropia Dance Party

    I had a great time, and just like real life parties, I don’t remember much of it. Unlike real life parties, I didn’t get behind on my homework.

    Extropia Dance Party

    Extropia Dance Party

    Also unlike real life parties, I’m an excellent dancer in virtual reality… after downloading the appropriate dance moves that is. : )

    More photos here.

    Previous Post on This

    Science Drawings Clarify Science

    Monument to Yuri Gagarin
    in Moscow

    Courtesy Wikipedia

    Outer space is eternal and extends indefinitely far out. There is enough room for everyone there.” – Yuri Gagarin

    Can’t make one of the parties tonight? Go virtual and attend COLAB’s Yuri’s Night party in Second Life. It begins 11AM PDT and runs until 11PM PDT, with live virtual music performances scheduled all throughout the day. I’ll be wearing my virtual Yuri t-shirt, if I can find it.

    Extropia in Second Life also has events planned all day. David Brin will be giving a speech at 1PM PDT.

    This Saturday Night! Be there! BE THERE!! BE THERE!!!

    Yuri's Night

    Head out to Yuri’s Night World Space Party, a series of parties being held across the world to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Human Space Flight, and Yuri Gagarin

    Find a party in your area, attend, and then tell me about how cool it was… since there aren’t any parties within 150 miles of where I live.