Category Archives: Science

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Fireball Spotted Over New Zealand; Reason Unknown

Eyewitnesses report seeing the trails of a bright meteor over central New Zealand. There have been a large number of reports from the major cities of Wellington and Christchurch.

This is probably one of the brightest among a series of such meteors, part of a meteor shower.
WeatherWatch.co.nz has been receiving a huge number of hits following this event. Eyewitnesses have been sending in photos to the site. We host a couple of them below, both taken from weatherwatch.co.nz gallery

Meteor spotted over New Zealand.
A close-up of the trails of the meteor

The exact reason for the meteor hasn’t been established. There hasn’t been any reports of any meteor actually hitting the earth, and neither has there been any news of panic from the public in general.

Here’s a video of the event:

OPERA Boss Resigns Over Faster-Than-Light Neutrino Results

The man who oversaw the news that has been shaking up the physics community since a few months back has resigned! Prof. Antonio Ereditato, the man who headed the OPERA experiment, when it announced the faster-than-light neutrino speeds result has quit his job. This comes after a series of setbacks for the original results.

The Unfortunate Part of Science

This is the unfortunate part of physics experiment. The claims were outrageous – flying in the face of a hundred years of physics. At worst, people have ridiculed the experiment and at best, they have had a smirk and a chuckle when they spoke about it. Now, the heads have started rolling.

To give full credit to the experimenters in the collaboration, they were extremely cautious about announcing the results. They did make reruns, but found consistent effects. They searched for errors, but couldn’t find any. That errors were pointed out by the OPERA group itself a few days back, shows the integrity that the group actually showed.

Also, the group didn’t jump the gun and, in fact, came to no physical conclusion at all! Prof. Ereditato always emphasised the need for “words of caution”, since the results would have “potentially great impact on physics”. But, apparently, there have been voices of discontent from within the OPERA collaboration.

Reality…

The results have all been debunked now, with the Icarus results being the final nail in the coffin. Icarus couldn’t reproduce the faster-than-light effects.

Sandro Centro, spokesperson for the Icarus collaboration, based in the same Gran Sasso lab as the OPERA collaboration, says:

Now we are 100% sure that the speed of neutrinos is the speed of light.

As long as humans do physics, there will be such incidents. Human thoughts are not just scientific and we all know that. The big bad world exists outside – and science just cannot keep that out, no matter how much it tries.

Stunning Image Of The Milky Way Galaxy Shows A Billion Stars!

Stunning is the word, if you can at all describe it! Vista Data Flow System has just mapped the Milky Way Galaxy and has produced a spectacular image of the galactic disk, showing nearly a billion stars. Such is the detail of each region of the mapped galaxy that it is impossible to grasp even when zoomed in. The entire image has been built up from thousands of individual images taken over a decade. The detailing is amazing and it’s not only for the pleasure of the visual organ – the scientific data is also enormous!

The image of a part of the galaxy. (Courtesy: Mike Read and Nick Cross)

Says Dr. Nick Cross from the University of Edinburgh, one of the people involved in the study

There are about one billion stars in there – this is more than has been in any other image produced by surveys. When it was first produced, I played with it for hours; it’s just stunning.

Even hard-nosed scientists, bombarded year-after-year with raw numerical data, have a little child lurking in their somewhere.

Online play…

The data used in building this image has been taken from UKIDSS/GPS sky survey acquired by the UK Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) in Hawaii and from the Vista telescope in Chile.

A closeup of the galaxy, near the galactic center. Obtained using the online software. (Courtesy: Mike Read and Nick Cross)

Just to help everyone out, there is an online tool, created by Dr Cross and collaborators, which can be used to zoom into smaller and smaller regions of the image. The image itself is a long extended disc of the galaxy and too big to comprehend it at one go!

Do play around with the software. Zoom in and at each level, wait a bit – it takes a few seconds to load fully. It’s well worth the wait! I recommend that you watch it full-screen. Oh, and you might need to bump up the brightness of your monitor a bit.

Scientists are hoping to use this technique for future studies, for mapping starburst galaxies and regions around compact objects. But no matter what, imagination and amazement shall never be lost!

Copious Amounts Of Carbon Found In A Galaxy Far Far Away!

Something surprising, but not quite revolutionary. A galaxy far far away is giving strong carbon signature from throughout its surface. Using the recently upgraded IRAM (standing for Institute for Radio Astronomy in Millimeter Range) array of radio telescopes, researchers were able to observe the galaxy and the supermassive blackhole at its center.

Astronomers have named the galaxy J1120+0641 and what they are observing now is the state the galaxy was more than 13 billion years ago, just 740 million years after the Big Bang! That’s how far it is from us. During this time, almost the entire Universe was made up of hydrogen or helium.

J1120+0641: Left - Seen in visual. Right - Seen in the submillimeter radio range using IRAM. (Photo Courtesy: IRAM)

Encoded Messages Tell A Fascinating Tale

The copious signals of carbon, given by the spectrum of carbon, and of UV indicate that the galaxy is undergoing – or rather had undergone – a very active carbon-forming phase. The UV is due to the fact that the photon is heating up the dust in the interstellar medium and causing ionization. The sheer amount of carbon is mind-boggling, telling us that a lot of massive stars are burning their way through.

This leads to one conclusion – a lot of star formation must have been going on in this region since the Big Bang, but then that’s pretty strange. Though it doesn’t contradict any of the stellar formation theories known, this is still pretty surprising that we should be seeing so much activity so soon after the Big Bang.

Bram Venemans, of Max-Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, says:

The presence of so much carbon confirms that massive star formation must have occurred in the short period between the Big Bang and the time we are now observing the galaxy.

The researchers owe a debt to the IRAM facility, which has just upgraded its signal processing capabilities, allowing the observers to observe on more number of channels and thus cut out noise. This makes seeing faraway galaxies possible.

Discovery of 3.4 Million Year Old Partial Foot Proves “Lucy” Walked with Cousins

The Cleveland Museum of Natural History announced yesterday the discovery of a 3.4 million year old partial foot from the Woranso-Mille area of the Afar region of Ethiopia. The discovery proves that there was more than one prehuman hominid that roamed the earth at the same time as the infamous “Lucy” or Australopithecus afarensis. Dr. Yohannes Haile-Selassie, curator of physical anthropology at The Cleveland Museum of Natural History, was the lead author and project leader of this magnificent expedition. His analysis will be published in the March 29th edition of the Journal Nature.

Fourth Metatarsal
Fourth Metatarsal from the Partial Foot (Courtesy of Cleveland Museum)

It appears that this particular hominid was a tree dweller judging from the big toe of the foot. While “Lucy’s” toes were pretty much aligned like modern humans, this species had an opposable big toe. This was definitely an unusual find. Co-author and project co-leader Dr. Bruce Latimer of Case Western Reserve University said, “These fossil elements represent bones we’ve never seen before. While the grasping big toe could move from side to side, there was no expansion on top of the joint that would allow for expanded range of movement required for pushing off the ground for upright walking. This individual would have likely had a somewhat awkward gait when on the ground.” Dr. Yohannes Haile-Selassie explains the find in the video embedded below.

(Video Link)

This discovery puts to rest the long standing thought that there was only one prehuman species that existed between 3 and 4 million years ago. Unfortunately, scientists cannot assign a species to this partial foot because an associated skull has yet to be found. Research in the area will continue in hopes that will find a matching skull.

For more information  about the Woranso-Mille Project, visit the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s website at http://www.cmnh.org/site/Index.aspx.

Tennessee Passes “Monkey Bill”; Science At Risk

The amount of stupidity in this is just too high! Tennessee’s “Monkey Bill” has been passed by the Tennessee House of Representatives, although by the thinnest of margins possible – 73 for to 72 against. This has been a crucial and controversial bill for a long time. We had told you about the bill before: here and here.

Seemingly Harmless

On the face of it, the Bill seems so benign, even pro-science. It encourages teachers to present both sides of the argument, harking back to the very successful slogan adopted by the Creationist Discovery Institute, “Teach the Controversy”. The Bill “protects a teacher from discipline for teaching scientific subjects in an objective manner”. If you look at it carefully, this shields a teacher if he/she teaches creationism as science in biology classes, especially when there are creationist textbooks available in the market. The Bill, however, has been modified from the form it first originated in.

What it really says

The Bill asks you to doubt and measure the “scientific strengths and weaknesses” of topics like “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning”. Why these specific topics have been singled out is another matter, of course. As a humble student of science, I ask, are the other subjects not worthy of being doubted? Or is there some underlying motivation for doubting these specific topics?

The Bill has been passed by the House and now rests with Governor Bill Haslam. He has ten days to pass it, withhold signature, in which case the Bill will become a Law without Governor’s approval, or veto it.

Fears or Reality

Many organisations have been up in arms against this bill. Out of the many such educational institutions, a few are the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Institute for Biological Sciences, the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, the Knoxville News Sentinel, The National Earth Science Teachers Association, the Tennessee Science Teachers Association, and three distinguished Tennessee scientists and members of the National Academy of Sciences.

In 1925, there was conducted the famous “Scopes Trial”, in which a school teacher – John Scopes – was tried and found guilty of teaching evolution in classrooms. This violated an existing law. A huge uproar ensued and ended up reversing the statement of the law. Alluding to this incident, three scientists from Vanderbilt University wrote in a letter saying that the legislators are “doing the unbelievable: attempting to roll the clock back to 1925 by attempting to insert religious beliefs in the teaching of science.”

What Gov. Haslam decides will be crucial. The next few days should be interesting.

Study Shows More Girls Are Born in Adverse Times

Proverbs 17:17 says, “a brother is born for adversity”, but new research suggests that he won’t be born in adversity. Shige Song, a demographer and sociologist at Queens College of the City University of New York published a study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B which found that during a great famine the ratio of boys being born took a sharp drop.

Baby Boy
Baby Boy - Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Studies have shown that some animals alter the sex of their offspring during times of famine but, it has been hard to document that in humans. Song studied birth records of 300,000 Chinese women dating from 1929 to 1982. During the period dating from 1958 to 1961, Mao Zedong, political leader in China, unveiled the “Great Leap Forward” campaign. It was meant to be a means to bringing China from an agrarian society to an industrial society. It was an abysmal failure and created a famine that killed many Chinese people. About a year after the Great Leap Forward began the ratio of boys being born compared to girls took a sharp dive. In 1960 there were 109 boys being born for every 100 girls. By 1963 there were only 104 boys being born for every 100 girls. As famine conditions eased up so did the ratio of boys increase.

Song told Live Science that “investment on male children is a high-risk, high-return game, so you want to do it only if you are in very good situation”. Song compared the situation to non-dominant male lions living in a pride. In this scenario it is not  likely that non-dominant lions would be able to pass on their genes even once in their lifetimes. From an evolutionary standpoint, this lion was a bit of waste. “In good conditions, invest in sons; in poor conditions, invest in daughters,” he said. “The evolutionary argument goes that anybody who can do this survives, anybody who cannot, they go away”, Song stated.

There are still some considerations that need to made before this theory is widely accepted. Some skeptics point that  famine conditions might not be the only factor to consider here. There were a lot of physical and psychological stressors that may need to be considered as well.

James Cameron’s Amazing Journey to the Bottom of the Ocean

Award winning film director, James Cameron, took an incredible voyage to the deepest point on earth, the Mariana Trench’s Challenger Deep. Such a journey hasn’t been taken in 50 years when two men explored the trench for a period of 20 minutes. The dive was a joint effort between Cameron and National Geographic. Below is a brief video describing what Cameron saw and a glimpse of exciting things to come.

(Video Link)

Cameron took the journey in a torpedo shaped sub he helped design called the DeepSea Challenger. In it he descended to unimaginable depths nearly 7 miles deep. He hoped to see new life adapted to life in the deep. What he saw was more like a barren wasteland.  According to National Geographic Cameron said, “The impression to me was it’s very lunar, very isolated. I felt as if, in the space of one day, I’d gone to another planet and come back.”

Cameron hoped to explore the depths for six hours but unfortunately a hydraulic leak, which impeded his view from the sub’s window, cut the trip down to about two hours. The hydraulic leak prevented him from collecting any biological samples but he was able to get a partial sediment core sample. Scientists are hoping the partial samples might reveal some new life previously unknown to man.

Though the trip was cut short, Cameron seemed upbeat about the whole thing. He emphasized that the sub is a “prototype” and that there are things that need to be ironed out. He stated, “The important thing is that we have a vehicle that’s a robust platform—it gets us there safely, the lights work, the cameras work, and hopefully next time the hydraulics will work.”

It is fascinating to see to footage coming back from this trip even if it is a little lifeless. It just shows you how much more of our world there is left to explore. Cameron plans to make more dives in the coming weeks and hopefully will be able to capture 3-D footage from the ocean deep.

If you would like to read more about this expedition visit National Geographic’s website at http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/03/120326-james-cameron-mariana-trench-challenger-deepest-lunar-sub-science/.

NYC Education Board Bans “Dinosaurs” And “Evolution” From Tests

The newest attack on Evolution comes from a very unlikely source – the New York City Department of Education. They have just passed a rule which bars the mention of the words “dinosaurs” and “evolution” in biology tests. This has been done to avoid offending the creationists who hold a lot of administrative power in the state.

"We have fossils, we win!"

Madness and more madness…

Just to remind you of what this means : this is not the Bible belt; this is not Kansas or Texas. New York City is not known for being creationist or anti-evolution. Exactly what offence precise scientific terms can cause is still unknown.
The only faint silver lining in the dark academic clouds: the words can still be used in classrooms for instruction and in school textbooks, just not in state-wide tests.

Part of a Bigger Scheme

This censorship is actually a part of a greater, more shameful, scheme. The NYC State Education Board has drawn up a list of 50 words which shouldn’t be mentioned in the test. These include everything from ‘parapsychology’ (good move) to ‘sex’ (debatable) to ‘rock-and-roll’ (senseless!). A few more words not allowed are ‘cancer’ (the disease, not the sun sign), ‘celebrities’ (are you out of your minds?) and ‘halloween’ (okay, ignore the previous parenthetical question – you obviously are).

The entire deal…

If you’re interested in finding more examples, the entire list is given below:

Abuse (physical, sexual, emotional, or psychological)
Alcohol (beer and liquor), tobacco, or drugs
Birthday celebrations (and birthdays)
Bodily functions
Cancer (and other diseases)
Catastrophes/disasters (tsunamis and hurricanes)
Celebrities
Children dealing with serious issues
Cigarettes (and other smoking paraphernalia)
Computers in the home (acceptable in a school or library setting)
Crime
Death and disease
Divorce
Evolution
Expensive gifts, vacations, and prizes
Gambling involving money
Halloween
Homelessness
Homes with swimming pools
Hunting
Junk food
In-depth discussions of sports that require prior knowledge
Loss of employment
Nuclear weapons
Occult topics (i.e. fortune-telling)
Parapsychology
Politics
Pornography
Poverty
Rap Music
Religion
Religious holidays and festivals (including but not limited to Christmas, Yom Kippur, and Ramadan)
Rock-and-Roll music
Running away
Sex
Slavery
Terrorism
Television and video games (excessive use)
Traumatic material (including material that may be particularly upsetting such as animal shelters)
Vermin (rats and roaches)
Violence
War and bloodshed
Weapons (guns, knives, etc.)
Witchcraft, sorcery, etc.

The madness with school textbooks and, now, state tests continues across various US state education boards. Evolution is still far away from being a very acceptable topic, even though it’s one of the most scientifically established subjects. Prof. Dawkins, your work is still not done!